We’ve seen that the rule of faith and practice for those Christians living during the time of the apostles was not sola scriptura.
For them authority resided in the inspired Scripture, the oral teaching of the apostles, and the Church’s leadership as it met in council to settle disputed matters (Acts 15).
Now, someone might respond, “Well, duh! Of course Christians weren’t ‘Bible only’ Christians during the time in which inspired apostles still walked the Earth and divine revelation was still being given. Sola scriptura is something that would apply only after the apostles had passed on to their reward. The question that needs to be asked is not “What was the practice of believers living during the time of the apostles?” but rather “What should the practice of believers be now that there are no longer those who can speak with apostolic authority and meet in council to render decisions that come with apostolic authority?”
So let’s ask the question that logically comes next to mind: from the data of the New Testament, what do Jesus and the apostles lead us to believe would be the rule of faith and practice for believers after the apostolic age, once revelation was no longer being given?
Are there direct statements in the New Testament writings to the effect that, with the death of the apostles, Christianity would become “Bible only” Christianity? Can we discover hints in the letters of Paul or Peter or John or the others that the apostles understood that once they had departed the scene, authority for individual Christians and for the Church would reside in “Scripture alone”? Do we see the apostles preparing their churches for such a fundamental change in how Christian doctrine would be determined and disputes settled?
At this point I want to offer a series of observations on the apostles and their writings. These are not presented as proofs but as windows into the thinking of the New Testament authors, as evidence of a mindset that for the life of me does not fit with the notion that the apostles had it in their apostolic heads that when they had passed from earthly existence, for Christ’s followers Scripture would become the “sole and sufficient infallible rule of faith and practice.”
Here’s my first observation:
1. The apostles didn’t act like men who were preparing their disciples for sola scriptura.
Imagine you’re an apostle traveling through modern-day Turkey evangelizing, teaching, establishing communities of believers, and ordaining leadership in those communities. And imagine you believe that when you die what you have written will become the sole, infallible doctrinal and moral authority for the churches you’ve founded and the Christians you’ve instructed.
Don’t you think you’d want to write down everything you wanted your spiritual children to know and believe, as opposed to relying on them to simply remember what you’d said?
Well, of the twelve apostles who after the Resurrection and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost went out to spread the word, so far as we know, only three wrote anything: Peter, Matthew, and John.
Now, what this tells me is that essentially Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas the son of James, and Matthias (selected to replace Judas Iscariot) were perfectly content to spend their entire lives establishing churches and teaching them the doctrines of their most holy faith without ever feeling the need to write down what they were teaching.
Strange, at the very least.
But more than strange, I think. It’s clear that the apostles were conscious of possessing divine authority to speak for Christ. And so the question comes to mind: what were they thinking in terms of the future preservation of their teaching?
Which leads to a second observation:
2. Even those apostles who did produce inspired writings we have in our New Testament didn’t write in a way that makes me think they had the eventual onset of sola scriptura in their minds.
For instance, in 1 Corinthians 15:29, Paul refers to baptisms for the dead without explaining what he means. Apparently his readers understood what he was talking about, so he didn’t feel the need to explain himself. Doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind that Christians in the future might want to know what he meant.
Another example: in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Paul refers to the “man of sin” who is to be revealed and “who will take his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.” Important stuff! What’s Paul talking about? Multiple millions of dollars have been made by authors speculating on the identity of this “man of sin” and the circumstances of his being revealed.
Well, Paul begins to speak of him, but then, instead of explaining exactly who and what he’s referring to—you know, for the benefit of future readers?—he says, “Do you not remember that when I was with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time” (emphasis added).
Well, gee, thanks, Paul! So you don’t need to explain what you’re talking about, because the Christians in Thessalonica already know! You told them when you were with them. Great! But what if it turns out that I was born, say, 1,900 years later in Southern California? How am I supposed to know what you told the Thessalonian believers in the middle of the first century A.D.?
Of course, what Paul is doing here is quite natural. When he wrote letters to the various churches he had founded or visited, for the most part he was writing to people with whom he had already spent a good deal of time (three years in Ephesus, a couple years in Corinth). In other words, he knows his readers are familiar with his teaching and therefore quite naturally doesn’t feel the need to spell everything out in this letters to them—or even to necessarily complete every thought he begins to express.
He can presuppose that his readers know what he’s talking about and will be able to fill in the blanks on their own.
Now, this applies to nearly all of the New Testament epistles. They’re what we call “occasional documents” written to specific churches to address specific issues and problems. They weren’t written to summarize Christian doctrine and, except here and there, they don’t summarize Christian doctrine.
And yet, if the apostles were thinking that sola scriptura would very soon become the rule of faith and practice for the Christian communities, you’d think they would have been eager to do just that: write down clear summaries of Christian doctrine.
There’s no hint that they sensed the need.
In fact, we find the reverse with the Apostle John. In the three very short letters we have from John (one five pages in length and two more one page each in length) we find him twice expressing an actual preference for speaking face to face over writing!
Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink, but I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 12).
This is a beautiful expression of John’s tender affection for his spiritual children. But I find it incomprehensible—if John was thinking that very soon his children would have as a rule of faith and practice only the instruction he’d given them in writing.
In short, in the simple fact that most of the apostles didn’t bother to write, and then in the manner in which those who did write chose to write, I do not see evidence of a mindset that comes anywhere close to:
“Listen, fellow apostles, we need to prepare our churches. So long as we’re alive, the churches have us. And when serious theological issues arise, we can meet in council as we did in Jerusalem. We can resolve the dispute and issue a decree saying, ‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…’ [see Acts 15:28], and the churches can receive our ruling as authoritative and binding. But as soon as we’re out of the picture, everything’s going to change. There’s no longer going to be an authoritative, living voice for the Church. When Christians disagree, they’re going to have to fight it out among themselves, looking to Scripture alone. With this in mind, we need to make sure to spell everything out as clearly as possible in writing!
There’s not a hint in the New Testament that the apostles had any such mindset.
3. In fact, in the one case in which an apostle actually talks about the preservation of his teaching beyond his death, he talks about it in a way that leads me to conclude he was not at all thinking like someone operating on the assumption of sola scriptura.
Truth is, he was thinking like a Catholic.
I’m referring to Paul and his letters to Timothy, but we’re going to have to take this point up in our next installment.