The Bible and the Church

“You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (vv. 19–20).

- Ephesians 2:19–22

One of the most important debates during the Protestant Reformation concerned the doctrine of revelation. Medieval Roman Catholicism taught that the canon of Scripture — the collection of books that make up the Holy Bible — derives its authority from the Catholic Church. In other words, Rome believed then (and today) that Scripture is Scripture because the Catholic Church says so, ultimately placing the church above Scripture in its authority.

The Protestant Reformers rejected this view of canon as foreign both to the teaching of Scripture and the historical process by which the sixty-six books of the old and New Testament were collected into one canon. It is the teaching and events recorded in sacred Scripture that birthed the Christian church, so the Bible stands over church tradition. Furthermore, the process of receiving the canon in the first centuries of the church testifies that the earliest church understood the written Word of God to have authority over the church of God. In the discussions between church fathers about the canon’s extent, leaders did not speak of “declaring” certain books to be inspired of the Holy Spirit; rather, they used the Latin word recipimus or “we receive.” The former way of speaking is more active, as if the church itself finally determines which writings belong in the canon and which do not. But in using “we receive,” the church spoke passively — God had spoken and the church was simply to recognize His voice, not to will certain writings into the canon by at.

That the early church recognized the final authority of Scripture in its discussions about the extent of the canon is also seen in the importance they placed on apostolic authorship (such as the letters of Paul) or apostolic endorsement (such as Mark, which summarizes the preaching of Peter). Other writings like the Shepherd of Hermas, while useful for edification and written by a faithful Christian, were finally excluded because they had no direct link to an apostle. The church allowed no writing that it knew had a direct apostolic link to fall by the wayside, knowing its foundation to be the apostolic and prophetic word, and to lose part of this would be to miss the authoritative voice of God.

Coram Deo

The temptation to put the church’s authority over the authority of Scripture can even be found among Protestants. Liberal denominations may elevate the findings of study committees on sexuality and other issues over what the Bible teaches. Fundamentalists may elevate church rules against drinking or dancing above Scripture’s teaching. Some of us may treat church confessions as if they were of greater authority than the Word. Let us strive to give Scripture its due.

Passages for Further Study

Isaiah 66:1–2
2 Thessalonians 2:15

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.