In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture,
not the Scripture by the Church.
I recently read a quote from a father of the church, Irenaeus, which started me thinking about ideas like the inerrancy of Scripture and the relationship between the Scripture and the Church. Inerrancy and the way in which Scripture is authoritative are really two different subjects but I think they are strongly related, especially for Protestants. I believe in inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and I also believe something pretty close to "Sola Scriptura" in how I think Scripture relates to the church. It was not always so and I've done some thinking about it lately so here are some of my thoughts...
Non-Protestants like to argue that the real authority comes from the Church itself, that is the episcopacy, in the form of authoritative interpretations of Scripture, and also in assent to accepted Tradition. In this view, the Church comes before the Scripture. The Church comes before the Scripture in the sense that it wrote the Scriptures and chose which books would be included or excluded from the Canon.
There was a time when, because of arguments like the ones above, I considered converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. But lately I've thought a lot about the issue and the question that I think must be answered is whether Scripture formed the Church. I think it is a matter of priority, that is, what came first - the authority of church leadership or the authority of words regarded as Scripture?
There is no question that leaders in the early church chose which books would be included in the Canon of Scripture. I believe that the Holy Spirit guided these men to give us the authentic books, the true "Apostle's Teaching" which we have today in the New Testament. Of course there is a lot to the story of the canonization of the books of the New Testament and most of what I've learned about what happened in those early days has only served to strengthen my faith that these words are indeed true.
When it comes to the question of priority I think it is certainly within reason to hold the view which must be held by a Protestant Christian. This is the view where Scripture has the priority. This is the view where Scripture forms the Church. The strongest objection to this is that there were centuries of church history where the gospel was exploding into the Roman world and other places when there was no Bible as we know it. If there was no Bible then, and the church existed and thrived, then Protestants must be wrong about things like "Sola Scriptura" and perhaps even Scriptural inerrancy.
But it must be affirmed that while the early Christians were not walking around with their pocket New Testaments, that the gospels, the letters of Paul and the other books of the New Testament were circulating around the early churches. And even if you take it back to the earliest time, the time right after Pentecost, we see the Apostles themselves teaching, and the church devoting itself to the "Apostle's Teaching." If it can be affirmed that the "Apostle's Teaching" is analogous to Scripture and that this teaching which was written down and later circulated amongst the churches was seen as authoritative and formative then I think that it is not difficult to argue for a Protestant view of Scripture forming the Church, which is an aspect of "Sola Scriptura."
What really got me thinking about all of this lately was a quote from the church father, Irenaeus. Irenaeus, who was a missionary in the area that is now modern-day France, lived in the latter part of the 2nd century and is regarded as a saint both by Rome and the Eastern Orthodox. Irenaeus was the disciple of Polycarp who was, in turn, most likely the disciple of John, the disciple of Jesus. To put it another way, Irenaeus was trained by a man who was trained by a man who was the beloved disciple of our Lord. Irenaeus' words should hold some weight for us. The quote deals with the nature of Scripture and I think it gives evidence that a very high view of Scripture was well accepted in the early church:
"We should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the Scriptures are indeed perfect, since they were spoken by the Word of God and His Spirit; but we, inasmuch as we are inferior to, and later in existence than, the Word of God and His Spirit, are on that very account destitute of the knowledge of His mysteries." Irenaeus in Against Heresies ch. 28, sect. 2
It is perilous using Irenaeus to argue for the most common Protestant view of the Bible and church government because Irenaeus also argued strongly for the authority of bishops. In fact, Catholic apologists use Irenaeus to argue for the papacy. But I think the words of Irenaeus could argue for an evangelical Anglican view of the church. Where Scripture is the prime authority, where the inerrancy of Scripture is affirmed, and where the episcopal structure is regarded as an essential part of the Christian Church.