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.
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).
Is our hope in superior fire power?
The Washington Post re-ran a piece by John Piper, titled Should Christians Arm Themselves? that presents a counterargument to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent comments that Liberty University students should carry guns. Falwell’s comments came in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, attributed to Islamic terrorism. Piper’s argument is that it is not consistent with the teaching of the New Testament that Christians face inevitable persecution with armed resistance. His position is a careful presentation of the biblical evidence to the contrary. He makes several points that are unassailable. A brief excerpt provides a mildly sardonic example of where Falwell’s logic would lead:
I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with concealed weapons will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s in our pocket.
Piper goes on as well to ask the question where all discussions of christian pacifism lead:
A natural instinct is to boil the issue down to the question, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?”
He provides a 7 point answer to this question, and is forthright enough to say, I do not know what I would do before this situation presents itself with all its innumerable variations of factors. And I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me.
Piper’s logic and reasoning hews very closely to a book I read several years ago, Choosing Against War: A Christian View, by John D. Roth. Roth is a professor at Goshen College in Indiana. Goshen is a Mennonite school, and Roth presents a position consistent with historical anabaptism. Roth, too, said he didn’t know what he would do at the moment in a hypothetical situation of his wife or family being threatened. Roth is a thoroughgoing pacifist, and would thus refuse all military service. I don’t get the impression from Piper’s article that he holds to that view. And this is why I use the term “domestic pacifism.” If we exclude service in the military, and limit armed resistance to ordinary citizens carrying guns, then I think the Christian case against Falwell’s stance and for domestic pacifism is air-tight.
For a Christian, the worst that can happen is not death, but rather entering into a Christless eternity. If I have the power to take the life of another, and to send them to such an end, do I want to exercise that power? Can I assert with confidence that God would want me to take the life of another in this way? Though I didn’t always hold this view, I have to come to see that domestic pacifism is the most faithful to the New Testament, and in my view, the one most consistent with Christian witness.
Relevance may be just another word for compromise.
A recent piece by Allen Guelzo titled The Illusion of Respectability calls attention to the uneasy relationship that christian academics have with higher education. Guelzo is specifically addressing those who choose a career in academia and who will be faced with what he calls the “lust for respectability.” Is there discrimination against christians in higher ed? Most certainly. That fact will lead many to compromise and Guelzo’s plea is to recognize anew their calling as stewards, as servants, as those who need to embrace their standing as pilgrims. If academic ostracism is the result so be it. I don’t at all disagree with this, and indeed, even those whose careers are not in academia can find application here.
What I found most interesting about Guelzo’s piece is where he quotes Roger Olson, as to what he has seen change about evangelical christianity during his lifetime. “Evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. … All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.”
This indictment used to be particularly appropriate for youth ministry, where the overriding emphasis was on relevance. But it is doubtless true for all of the church now, and where the lust for respectability that Guelzo laments is, it seems, causing christians to ask not, “is it true?”, but rather, “does it work?” We want outcomes, results. In Jeremiah 25, the prophet tells the people, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” In other words, Jeremiah got no results, it didn’t work. He had nothing to show as far as impacting the culture. But the message was true, and this was the gauge by which he was measured. This is the essence of what both Guelzo and Olson call believers back to. It begins and ends with scripture, with making it our study, our focus, and our guide. Apart from a deep knowledge of the Bible and the Savior, relevance is quite frankly, irrelevant.