Friday, March 6, 2009

Scripture Generates the Church

In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture,
not the Scripture by the Church.
-John Wesley

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.


David Goran said...

Matt, great post. Your strength in patristics is my acknowledged weakness and your post has definitely helped to increase my understanding in a dispute that is utterly pertinent in Eastern Europe.

Aaron said...

Are you telling me you had this blog the whole time and never told me about it? I hope you weren't trying to keep it private, because it's too late now. I thought it was interesting that you find ground for the authority of Scripture from the church; that is, a church father. Do you see what I mean? You get the authority of scripture from the authority of a church father. Just a thought :) Alright, I've gotta study...

Matt Perkins said...

Aaron - yeah, I've tried to keep it on the D.L. - only you and Jon know about it as far as I know.

David - glad you found it interesting.

Ed said...

Hmmm... I'm not sure I agree with your statement about the "real authority" in non-Protestant churches (plural) coming from the episcopacy. Obviously this is the case for the papists, but I'm not sure you can say it is true of the Orthodox.

Like with our take on apostolic succession, there's probably an element of tension there. For instance, unlike Anglicans and Romanists, we do not believe that apostolic succession occurs or has any meaning among (schismatic) heretics. If one is to be a bishop in apostolic succession, one must hold the right faith in the right community. If a bishop perverts his faith and is expelled from the community, his episcopal office no longer has any meaning. He is, as it were, a fish out of (baptismal) water.

But as for our bishops' role as successors of the apostles, it is true that they issue definitive, authoritative teaching for us. Nevertheless, it is the (often neglected) duty of every Christian to know the faith well and to be able to defend himself even from his bishop's heresy, if need be. Many, many Christian bishops have become heretics over the years, and the laity have sometimes even dramatically held their ground against them, overturning their heresy by the power of the Spirit.

So you see that ultimately it is the Faith itself which is authoritative among us. This may not fit easily into some neat Western "quadrillateral" or whatnot, but it is the faith of the Church, upheld in miraculous constancy generation to generation which is the Rock of our authority. Nevertheless, we look to the present bishops, the liturgy, the literary legacy of the fathers, and the jewel of the apostolic deposit itself for our authority as well. To start forming Western epistemological heirarchies with these things is not to understand the Orthodox mind. All of these things are authoritative and mutually reinforcing, and while you could take the doctrine of a small group of present bishops or some random idiocy of an ancient father or a few scattered Scriptural passages and pervert them to form something which is not the Christian faith, it has been the miraculous experience of the Church throughout time that there dwells among us one faith, one mind, the mind which was in Christ Jesus, which ties these things together.

Does all that actually make sense, or am I just speaking more idiocy?

Much Love in Christ,

(P.S. Good talking to you the other night, man)

Iohannes said...

Wow, I just came across that line from St Irenaeus when checking a reference in Fr Behr's translation of On the Apostolic Preaching. Like you, I am sympathetic the the reading of Irenaeus that is more or less friendly to classically protestant Anglicanism. Several months ago I posted some materials about Irenaeus on scripture, tradition, and canon at the Conscious Faith blog. Please have a look if you are interested.

Matt Perkins said...

thanks Iohannes