Scripture and the Church

I recently wrote a few rough notes for an evangelical about why there is no conflict between following the Church and following the scriptures. These are only in a very rough form, but I would be interested to know whether people think it would be worth developing into a fuller pamphlet pro propaganda fide (‘for the furtherment of the Faith’). What could I treat better? How could I make it more likely to catch the attention of evangelicals and make them think?

If you like, I could give you a prĂ©cis on one point: why we don’t see any conflict between following scripture and following the teaching of the Church.

The first point to understand is the concordance of the teaching of the New Testament with the teaching of the early Church. For example, Christ commissioned all the apostles to teach. But not all of them wrote letters that were later recognised as divinely inspired. Indeed, John says at the end of his gospel that Christ did many more things than he had written down. And in Revelations John is given a scroll to eat–symbolically showing that he was to preach by mouth, not only to write down. The apostles would have preached and taught Christ’s life and deeds, and not necessarily only the things in scripture. (Scripture no-where tells us that it contains everything the apostles taught).

Indeed, there is no sense in the NT itself of any conflict between the writers’ inspired writings and their ordinary teachings. The prologue to Luke says that it relates what ‘those who were from the first eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed on to us’. ‘Handed on’ here is ‘paredosan’, from the verb ‘paradidomi’; the exact Latin etymological equivalent is ‘trado’. The abstract noun from the same root, ‘paradosis’, ‘traditio’, tradition / a handing-down, also appears in the scriptures. Jesus condemns the ‘paradosis’ of the Pharisees, but other parts of scripture commend the ‘paradosis’ of the Christian community, e.g. 2 Thess 2:15. Paul presupposes a continuity between his teaching in his epistles, and the teaching of the Christian community hitherto.

(This, by the way, raises the issue of why the Catholic Church doesn’t like some translations of the Bible, but prefers others. People like Wycliffe tended misleadingly to translate the same word, ‘paradosis’, as ‘tradition’ when it carried a negative sense, and ‘ordinance’ when it carried a good sense. This isn’t fair to scripture: it is trying to force scripture to say the conclusions you want it to say. With a similar mentality, Luther wanted to delete Revelation and several of the epistles because he didn’t find that they fitted well with his reading of Paul: and those parts of the NT are actually missing in some 17th century Lutheran bibles).

So, then, It is evident that the writers of the NT epistles taught the same doctrine by mouth, and indeed in non-canonical letters, as they did in their inspired letters. Paul didn’t suddenly pick up his pen and write to the Romans and Corinthians with a faith different from that which he had always taught. That would have been so strange and remarkable that we would know about it. Of course, the epistles are divinely inspired, and so are particularly perfect and authoritative expressions of faith, but they don’t clash with the authors’ other teaching.

And of course, this makes sense. All of us, however we understand the word ‘Church’, believe that the apostles belong to the Church, that community of which Christ said ‘the gates of hell will not prevail against her’. The Holy Spirit not only inspired Scripture, but dwells in the Church, leading her in all truth. So it makes sense that the very early Church (again, however we understand ‘Church’) should have taught the same doctrine as the scriptures. After all, the really early Church didn’t have the benefit of the New Testament in the first place! St Stephen, for example, evidently died before it was written, because his death is recorded in Acts; yet we have every reason to think that he was saved!

But here you might raise several objections. First, perhaps you might say that the ‘Church’, which ought to be translated ‘assembly’, is not an institutional, visible community, but the community of all believers. The apostles, you might say, had a temporary authority until the scriptures were complete. Secondly, you might cite 2 Tim 3:16-17, the main basis of the protestant doctrine of scripture, to show that scripture is all we need.

Let’s take the question about the nature of the Church first, because it throws up a point relevant to the second objection too. As I say, some people argue that the word ‘Church’ is a false translation of the Greek ‘ecclesia’. Such people argue that the ‘ecclesia’ is not really an organised, visible body, but is the community of all true believers, in keeping with the original meaning of ‘ecclesia’, ‘assembly’. But this argument makes no sense. One cannot bind scripture to the ordinary, pre-existing senses of words, otherwise it would not be able to describe any new realities. The ‘ecclesia’ of Christians was one such new reality–it is not like any ‘assembly’, any ‘ecclesia’ that had gone before. Other new realities included, for example, justification: clearly, when Paul talks about people becoming ‘dikaios’, literally ‘just’, then he is talking about a justice quite unlike any justice known hitherto.

So then, how do we understand NT words alright, if we can’t just depend on the ordinary, secular senses of the words in the Greek of the day? Well, the only way to know the nature of the Christian ‘ecclesia’, or of Christian righteousness, dikaiosune, is to led to it by the Holy Spirit. That raises the question, where do I look for a true, spiritual reading of the bible?

After all, all Christians learn from bible teachers and commentaries that they trust. No-one actually reads scripture in a bubble. So the question is, which teachers should I trust to provide spiritually-inspired exegesis? Do I have to pick one of 20,000 mutually conflicting Protestant denominations?

Certainly not. God made it simple for us. He commissioned the apostles and their successors to teach us. (Remember Acts shows the apostles appointing a replacement for Judas: the apostolic ministry is ongoing). A little reason shows that the ‘Church’ cannot mean ‘the collection of all true believers’. For if that we so then Christ’s claim that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church, would be tautologous: he would just be saying that those who will go to heaven, will go to heaven. Why would he say something so redundant?

Instead, he really meant a Church. The Catholic faith is a tangible faith, in keeping with the whole ethos of the incarnation: there is a real, ongoing community that is the body of Christ. Christ entrusted its earthly governance to Peter. (Some say that ‘You are Peter, and on this rock’ is a pun, because the Greek ‘Peter’ and the Greek ‘rock’ use slightly different forms. They say that therefore the rock is not Peter, but Christ himself. But this is a conjecture at best, not at all a natural reading. And Aramaic, in which our Lord would have spoken the original words recorded in the Gospel, does not have such a subtlety. It is much more plausible that the Greek contains two forms in order to differentiate it from ‘You are Peter, and on this Peter I will build my Church’–i.e. to make it clear that Peter is the *rock*). One can also consider the end of John, where John gets to Jesus’ empty tomb first, but waits for Peter and lets him go in first. And then after the resurrection Christ singles out Peter, asking him three times whether he loves him, and commissioning him to look after his flock.

So then, when we look and see the apostles exercising a doctrinal authority at, say, Acts 15, that was no temporary authority, but a permanent one. Remember in Acts that they lay hands on a successor for Judas: the apostolic ministry was to last for all of this last age.

Now for 2 Tim. This passage in no way proves sola scriptura. Firstly, the opening words, ‘pasa graphe’, mean ‘every scripture considered individually’, not ‘all scripture considered as a whole’–that would be ‘pasa he graphe’. So it is not setting out a doctrine whereby scripture, as a perfect whole, teaches everything: is is simply saying that all scriptures are useful (‘ophelimos’). Furthermore, when we translate the second verse, we tended to say in English that scripture makes people ‘perfect’. But the Greek is more like ‘fully kitted out’: it is the verb one uses of furnishing a chariot. So there is no idea in there of ‘as good as you can possibly be’; it is more like ‘fully equipped’. Thirdly, when Paul was writing to Timothy, most of the NT had not yet been written, so he couldn’t possibly have been telling Timothy that what later became the Bible was all he needed–the Bible wasn’t even available yet! Lastly, look at the verses immediately beforehand. “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”. I.e., one of the reasons Paul cites to encourage Timothy to stand firm in the faith, is that he learned it from authoritative teachers. Again, then, 2 Tim validates the idea that the Church, thanks to the working of the Holy Spirit in her, has teaching authority.

Lastly: just suppose that scripture were all we had. We would agree that it is a perfect whole; that one could not take anything away from scripture without losing something important. But then, if scripture were all we had, God would have failed us–for the end of Mark’s gospel is missing! Hence it cannot possibly be that God gave us only scripture, a perfect whole, of which nothing could be lost without damage–because then he would be allowing the Christian community to be stuck without part of her only source of doctrine. And he surely wouldn’t do such a thing.

This, of course, does not guarantee the holiness of all her members–far from it. But it does guarantee that she can’t, as a whole, teach false doctrine–that is the guarantee that the gates of hell will not prevail against her.