While God revealed the plan of salvation to Israel and the early church, the Holy Spirit moved holy men to write the message he wanted to give to future generations. Today we do not have apostles and prophets living among us, and Christ has ascended back to heaven. Yet we still have their teaching recorded in the God-breathed Scriptures. Therefore, the Holy Bible is the only infallible rule of faith for the Christian church.
This principle, known by the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura (‘Scripture Alone’), is a landmark of fundamental importance because it determines the faith and character of the church of God.
Scripture is the rule, or the guide, that teaches us what we should believe and how we are meant to live to please God. The Bible teaches us who God is, and who we are. It exposes sin as our basic problem and shows us the way of salvation by faith in Christ. God’s laws and commandments guide us on our earthly pilgrimage and his wonderful promises encourage us to persevere along the way until we meet our Lord. ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105).
The Bible is the infallible rule because it cannot err or teach anything false since it was given by inspiration from God; it is the Word which came forth from his mouth. The Bible is wholly reliable because its Author, the faithful and all-wise God, can neither make mistakes nor lie.
The Bible is the only rule because it is sufficient to show us the way of salvation and to teach us how to lead a godly and righteous life pleasing to God. The Bible itself teaches that in our time there is nothing but Scripture that is to be regarded as the inspired Word of God. Tradition is not inspired, and the church is not infallible. Christ considered Scripture as the inerrant and authoritative Word of God, but he refused to recognize tradition as a supplementary source of revelation; he also showed that religious teachers can err.
There is no other data necessary for salvation that is missing from Scripture or which we need to unearth from another source. The Holy Scriptures ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’ (2 Tim 3:15-17). The Scriptures give us the knowledge necessary to experience salvation – they are ‘able to make you wise for salvation’. The Bible is also useful for doctrine and guidance in the Christian life. Whoever is led by the Scriptures is described as ‘complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work’. The Bible is therefore enough to show God's children how to be saved and to live for his glory.
The Bible does not include all that Jesus did and taught. However the issue is not whether we have all possible information about Christ; after all, tradition does not give us exhaustive knowledge either – if it gives us any reliable information at all! The question at hand is whether what we have written in Scripture is sufficient to know God’s revealed truth. To quench my thirst I do not need all the water in the world; it is enough for me to drink a glass or two. God did not give us exhaustive knowledge in Scripture; he gave us enough to satisfy our souls. The apostle John illustrates this principle in the conclusion of his gospel. He freely acknowledges that he left many things unrecorded, yet he assures us that enough was written to reach his intended purpose (John 20:30, 31).
Also, Sola Scriptura does not imply that the Bible will always be understood rightly, or that we should expect automatic and full doctrinal unity among Christians. Christ spoke clearly and yet he was still misunderstood even by his own disciples. Scripture, likewise, is intelligible enough, but because of our spiritual laziness, ignorance and prejudice (arising from our finite abilities and sinful disposition), we have to recognize the fact that even among genuine Christians many false ideas are held and propagated. The fault is ours, not the Bible’s.
The Teaching Church
What is the relation between the Bible and church leaders? Is there a need for teachers since we have the Bible? Yes, definitely. The Lord commissions pastors and teachers, his special gifts to the church, to preach, teach and explain the Word (Eph 4:11ff). The Lord has invested them with authority. ‘These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority’ (Titus 2:15).
In the New Testament, we do not find a ‘church’ made up of autonomous, self-sufficient and individualistic Christians who do not see the need of teachers because they have the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Whoever isolates himself from the rest of the church, past and present, or does not submit to the teaching elders of the local church, is acting in a foolish and unbiblical manner.
The teachers’ authority is derived from and is inferior to the absolute authority of the Word of God. The Bible is infallible; they are not. Genuine Christian teachers are first to admit that they are liable to err. ‘My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things’ (James 3:1, 2). Their task is to faithfully teach the Word, without taking away anything from its teaching or adding any ideas of human origin. They step outside the limits of their authority as soon as they go beyond the teaching of the Word of God.
Christians are never called to blindly submit to any leader or group of leaders who claim to have absolute authority. The Bible tells ordinary Christians to test all things and to keep fast to that which is good (1 Thess 5:21). We do well to emulate the disciples at Berea. They received the word preached to them; they also searched the Scriptures daily to confirm what they heard (Acts 17:11). That is the proper balance: a genuine respect for Christian teachers while holding the Scriptures as the highest authority by all, teachers and students alike.
Evangelical Christians look at tradition with suspicion, undoubtedly because they are aware of the disastrous effect of human tradition on the gospel message. Yet the concept of ‘tradition’ as such is perfectly acceptable. Tradition simply means teachings and practices transmitted by example, verbal and written means. The Bible uses the word ‘tradition’ to describe both false teachings (Mark 7:9; Col 2:8; 1 Pt 1:18) and divine truth (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6).
Tradition is indispensable for the church. It is the way we share our faith (through sermons, books, personal witness and other means) with one another and the rest of the world. The church cannot grow and pass its precious heritage without tradition. The Christian faith is defended and is kept alive from one generation to another by the teaching of faithful men, who adhere strictly to the apostolic message (2 Tim 2:2).
Now, of course, traditions may be true or false; they may have their origin in God or in the human mind. Therefore we do not believe in all traditions, because not all teaching originates from the Word of God. Some traditions are merely human teaching, unessential at best, destructive at worst – as church history testifies!
God spoke to his people Israel by Moses and the prophets. The succeeding generations had the Law and the prophets in Scripture; no additional divine teachings were meant to be delivered to the people by tradition. We know this for a fact because Christ sharply rebuked the Jewish leaders who added the teachings of tradition to the Written Word (Mark 7:1-13). When tradition is added to the Scriptures, God’s Word is made of ‘no effect’ and the religion that springs from such admixture is vain!
This radical error of the Jews has been and is being repeated in the church. Tradition is a powerful force; let us use it legitimately. We should beware of changing the message of the Bible by the addition of human doctrines, irrespective of their antiquity or the sanction of respected teachers. Rather we should check and correct our traditions by the ultimate standard, the written and inspired Word of God, and be willing to reform ourselves accordingly.
For the Christian church, the way forward is back to the Bible.
Gospel e-Letter - February 2019