I’ve got people screaming at me from all sides.
Some want these blog posts to be shorter. Make it simple and sweet! Others love the more detailed presentation but hate waiting so long for the completion of an idea — and absolutely detest following an argument dished out in pieces over the course of weeks.
I feel like a man tortured in the treadmills, trapped to tasteless wines. I understand — I really do — but I have no solution except to press on creating enemies on both the right hand and the left.
Otherwise, we’ve seen that the rule of faith and practice of those Christians living during the time of the apostles was not sola scriptura. In this lesson we want to ask the next logical question that comes to mind:
From the data of the New Testament, what do Jesus and the apostles lead us to believe would be the Christian’s rule of faith and practice once they were no longer on earth, after the apostolic age, once revelation was no longer being given?
Are there any direct statements to the effect that with the death of the apostles Christianity will become “Bible only” Christianity? Can we discover hints in the New Testament writings that the apostles understood that once they had departed the scene, authority would reside in Scripture alone? Do we see the apostles preparing their churches for such a fundamental change in how Christian doctrine would be determined and disputes settled?
What do we actually see in the inspired writings of Paul and Peter and John and the others?
I’m going to proceed at this point (sally forth, as they say) to offer a series of observations on the apostles and their writings. These are not presented as proofs, but rather windows into the thinking of the apostles. I see them as evidences of a mindset that for the life of me does not fit with the notion that the apostles had it in their apostolic heads that when they had passed from earthly history Scripture would become for Christ’s followers the sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.
Here’s my first observation.
Imagine you’re an apostle traveling through modern day Turkey evangelizing, teaching, establishing communities of believers, ordaining leadership in the churches. And imagine you believe that when you die what you have written as a chosen spokesman for Christ will become the sole infallible authority for the churches you’ve founded and the Christians you had taught.
Don’t you think you’d want to write down everything you’d taught and wanted your spiritual children to know and believe, as opposed to relying on them to simply remember what you’d said?
Well, of the twelve apostles who after the resurrection and coming of the Spirit at Pentecost went out to spread the Word, only three ever wrote anything: Peter, Matthew and John.
Now, what this tells me is that essentially Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the son of James and Matthias (selected to replace Judas Iscariot) were for whatever reasons happy and content to spend their entire lives establishing churches and teaching them the doctrines of their most holy faith — without ever feeling the need to write down what they were teaching.
Strange, at the very least.
But more than strange, I think. It’s clear that the apostles were conscious of possessing the Spirit-given authority to speak for Christ. As St. Paul tells us, the apostles were the foundation stones upon which the New Covenant temple of God was being built. And so the question comes to mind: what were they thinking about the future preservation of their teaching?
Which leads to a second observation.
2. Even those apostles who did write, don’t write in a way that makes me think they had the eventual advent of sola scriptura in their minds.
They don’t write like men who are thinking that the churches of the future will be Bible churches and the Christians will be Bible Christians.
For instance, in 1 Cor. 15:29, Paul refers to baptisms for the dead without explaining what he means. Apparently his readers understood what we was talking about and so he didn’t feel the need to explain. Doesn’t cross his mind that Christians in the future might want to know what he meant.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul refers to the “man of sin” who is to be revealed. Important stuff. Multiple millions of dollars have been made by Christian authors speculating on the identity of this “man of sin.” Well, Paul begins to speak of him, but then, instead of explaining what he’s talking about for the benefit of future readers, he says, “I don’t need to say more at this point. You remember what I told you when I was with you.”
Well, gee — thanks, Paul! But what if I don’t happen to live in the city of Thessalonica in the middle decades of the 1st century? What if instead I live in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor and I don’t run into people who live hundreds of miles away in Greece? Or what if I’m someone who is born, lives and becomes a Christian later on — like maybe in the year of our Lord 1976 in the city of Riverside, California?
Again, it doesn’t cross Paul’s mind that future Christians might want to know what he was talking about.
And of course, what the apostle is doing here is quite natural. When Paul wrote letters to the various churches he had founded or visited, for the most part he was writing to people he had already spent a good deal of time with (three years in Ephesus, a couple years in Corinth). In other words, he knows his readers are familiar with his teaching and because of this he quite naturally doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out with precision in this letters, or even to necessarily complete every thought he begins to express. He can presuppose that his readers know what he’s talking about and will be able to fill in the blanks on their own.
Now, this applies to most all of the New Testament epistles. They’re what we call “occasional documents” written to specific churches to address specific issues and problems. They weren’t written to summarize Christian doctrine and except here and there, they don’t summarize Christian doctrine.
And yet, if the apostles were thinking that sola scriptura would very soon become the rule of faith and practice for the Christian communities, you’d think they would have been eager to do just that: write down clear summaries of Christian doctrine.
There’s no hint that they sensed the need.
In fact, we find nearly the reverse of this with the Apostle John. In the three very short letters we have from John (one five pages in length and two more each one page in length) we find him twice expressing an actual preference for speaking face to face over writing!
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12, 3 John 13; emphasis mine).
Of course this is a beautiful expression of John’s tender affection for his spiritual children. But it’s incomprehensible — if John was thinking that very soon his children would have as a rule of faith and practice only the instruction he’d given them in writing.
To summarize, in (1) the fact that the majority of the apostles left no writings at all. In (2) the manner in which those who did write chose to write, I do not see evidence of a mindset that comes even close to:
“Hey, guys, we need to prepare our churches. So long as we apostles are alive, the churches have us. And when serious theological issues arise we can meet in council as we did in Jerusalem, we can resolve the dispute and issue a decree saying, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ and the churches can receive our ruling with gladness. But as soon as we’re out of the picture, everything’s going to change. There’s no longer going to be an authoritative living voice for the Church. When Christians disagree, they’re going to have to fight it out looking to Scripture alone. We need to spell everything out as clearly as possible and in writing!”
There’s not a hint in the NT that the apostles possessed any such mindset.
3. In fact, in the one case in which an apostle actually talks about the preservation of his teaching beyond his death, he talks about it in a way that leads me to conclude he wasn’t even in the same conceptual world as Protestantism.
I’m thinking about St. Paul and his letters to Timothy.
Second Timothy appears to have been Paul’s farewell epistle to his spiritual son and successor in his ministry. In chapter 4 he speaks of his near departure from this world (“For I am already on the point of being sacrificed, the time of my departure has come”) but before that he gives Timothy these instructions. I’m quoting here from 2 Timothy 1:13,14:
Follow the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are Christ Jesus; guard the truth that has been entrusted to you by the Holy Spirit who dwells in you.
The very issue here is the preservation of Paul’s teaching. And notice not a word is spoken about “writing.” Instead Paul talks about a “pattern of sound words” that Timothy has “heard” from him. Timothy is to “guard” this truth that has been entrusted to him “by the Holy Spirit” who dwells in him.
And then a few words later.
You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:1,2).
Again, the focus is on what Timothy has “heard.” He’s to guard what he’s “heard,” and not first of all by writing it down but “by the Holy Spirit.” And then he’s to “entrust” what he has heard from Paul and guarded by the Spirit to faithful men who presumably will do the same — guard the truth entrusted to them, preserve it by the Holy Spirit who dwells in them, and entrust it to other faithful men who will in turn entrust it still to others. And…
Once more the question comes to mind: Why isn’t Paul acting like someone who believes that after his departure from this world Timothy and everyone else will be practicing sola scriptura?
Why isn’t he saying to Timothy, “Take these letters I’ve written, get down to the Office Depot and have a million copies made, pronto! Or better yet, let me sit down and write a clear and systematic summary of exactly what we believe and teach about every important issue relating to faith and practice.”
There’s no evidence that Paul was thinking in such terms. Not a hint.
Instead, Paul seems to believe that the “substance” of his teaching will be preserved by the Holy Spirit through the apostolic succession, and this is what he’s thinking about as the time of his departure nears.
Now, Paul’s way of thinking here is not without context. In fact, it fits a pattern of thinking that is really at the heart of the New Covenant promise of the Spirit.
For instance, I’m sure Paul had noticed that when God the Father wanted to speak his most authoritative and eloquent Word, he spoke that Word by sending his Son, endowed with the Spirit, to teach by word and example. The Book of Hebrews begins,
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… who is the radiance of his glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:1-3).
I’m sure Paul had noticed as well that when the Son of God wanted to ensure that his teaching would continue in the world after He had ascended to the Father, he didn’t sit down and write a book.
Instead, He did exactly what His Father had done.
He chose men (this time twelve), taught them, gave them his authority and promised that His Spirit would indwell them. And then he sent them out saying, “He who hears you, hears me. He who’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven. He who’s sins you retain, they are retained” and so forth.
And this is what they did. The apostles went out and they taught and established churches and trained the believers and ordained leadership for them. And yes, when there were particular needs to be addressed, they wrote letters to address them. And we have what they wrote, and their writings are inspired. But there’s no evidence that they conceived of writing as their primary work.
And so, within this context of thought, as Paul prepares to leave this world and wants to ensure that his teaching will continue after he’s gone, quite naturally he doesn’t think first about writing. He doesn’t think as one would naturally think who had sola scriptura in mind.
Instead, what he thinks about is teaching Timothy everything he wants him to know, laying hands on Timothy, praying for Timothy, investing Timothy with his own authority and sending Timothy forth to guard by the Spirit the truth and pass it on to other faithful men.
In short, in the way the apostle’s acted and thought, I don’t find a morsel of a tidbit of a hint that would lead me to think they were preparing their spiritual children for the onset of “Bible only” Christianity.
Now, I have much more to say on this (and in this case unlike St. John I definitely want to use pen and ink — at least the modern equivalent!) but I think this is enough to chew on for a few days and I can’t take the thought of being put into the stocks for having written “too much.”
So we’ll pick up here in our next lesson.