Authority is found in God’s Word, not in the Church
Heiko Oberman summarized one aspect of Luther’s view of Scripture as follows: “The Church is the creation of the Word, but the Word can never be the creation of the Church.” This 500th anniversary month of the Reformation is a good time to revisit the truth this presents. One nexus of the Reformation difference is one of authority. For the evangelical, authority is in the Scriptures, and for the Roman Catholic or Orthodox, it is found in the Church. Here, too, one must be clear about the definition of the church. For the evangelical, the church is an organism, a living body composed of all the born-again souls redeemed by the Lord Jesus. There is no earthly headquarters, no earthly head. For the sacramental traditions, the church is an organization, a hierarchy. The bishops, archbishops, and cardinals that comprise the hierarchy are for these traditions, “the Church.” This is why the phrase is sometimes used, “As the Church teaches, and has always taught…” Believers who are grounded in Scripture don’t use such a phrase, knowing that the church doesn’t teach anything – Scripture teaches us.
How do you know what the Scriptures are?
One sometimes hears the claim that “you would not know what the Scriptures are if the Church didn’t tell you.” This sounds like a plausible claim on the surface, but it’s false. It represents a particular way of looking at authority, and is, in fact, a denial of the intrinsic power and God-breathed nature of Scripture. It is both spiritually false, and historically inaccurate. What we now call the Old Testament, Paul called “the sacred writings” in 2 Tim. 3:15, and he ascribed to them a power, as inspired by God himself. The authority of these books was, therefore, a given at the time of the apostles. Authority is not the same as canonicity, and the latter is an exercise that recognizes the former. The view that says the Church must tell us what books are Scripture is a denial of the inherent authority of these God-breathed writings. The same is true of the New Testament writings. There were many extant writings at the time of the apostles, but the 27 books we have as the New Testament are the only ones preserved as canonical. Why? These books showed themselves to be divinely inspired, to be the product of the apostles or their delegates. In short, the books of the Bible are self-authenticating and needed no external approval. The councils that later pronounced on the books of Scripture did nothing but recognize what already prevailed. These books are the words of God Himself. The sacramental traditions claim to agree with this, but in practice, they deny it. As Michael Kruger has written,
The only option left to the Catholic model is to declare that the church’s authority is self-authenticating and needs no external authority to validate it. Or, more bluntly put, we ought to believe in the infallibility of the Roman Catholic Church because it says so. The Catholic Church, then, finds itself in the awkward place of having chided the Reformers for having a self-authenticating authority (sola scriptura), when all the while it has engaged in that very same activity by setting itself up as a self-authenticating authority (sola ecclesia). On the Catholic model, the Scripture’s own claims should not be received on their own authority, but apparently, the church’s own claims should be received on their own authority. The Roman Catholic Church, functionally speaking, is committed to sola ecclesia.
The church – all of those redeemed by God – has a role in the canon. That role is to recognize and submit to the Word of God. The locus of authority can never be the church itself. She is the bride of Christ, subject to his word. She does not form the word or pronounce judgment on the word. Indeed, Luther’s words simply echo what Peter wrote: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23).