Interpreting Scripture With the Church
“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter” (v. 6).- Acts 15:1–35
Today we return to our study of the doctrines recovered in the Protestant Reformation. We are focusing on the doctrine of sola Scriptura and those aspects related to it, and as we have seen, sola Scriptura tells us that Scripture is the only infallible authority for the church, but not that it is the only authority. There is a place for other authorities over us in the church that are under the authority of God’s speaking in His Word.
Protestant leaders did not reject authorities such as councils and creeds altogether; all that they did was set aside those authorities and conciliar teachings that did not find their origin in God’s inscripturated Word. They retained the use of ecumenical creeds such as the Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon. They continued to read the early church fathers and even many medieval Christian thinkers in order to learn from their insights into Scripture.
Moreover, they held councils of their own and wrote new creeds and confessions. In doing so, Protestants followed the longstanding tradition of the church: gathering in council in order to settle disputes and address heresy. This practice went back to the Apostolic era, as we see in today’s passage. When there was a controversy regarding whether to require circumcision for Gentiles to be admitted to the church, the Apostles and elders of the church met at a first-century council in Jerusalem to discuss the matter. After a time of deliberation, the council decided that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised in order to be Christians, and the conciliar decision was sent to the churches via letter (Acts 15:1–35).
The presence of Apostles at the Jerusalem Council gives it an authority that no later council can possess. What is notable, however, is that a decision of such significance was not settled upon by one Apostle, even though it could have been via divine revelation. Instead, the church as a whole considered the matter. This is instructive. If even the Apostles believed they should read and interpret Scripture in concert with the entire church, how can we do otherwise? We are not to be Lone Ranger Christians who go off by ourselves with our Bibles to figure out what God said, although personal Bible study is certainly a good thing. No, we read God’s Word with the church, looking to one another and to appointed teachers and ministers to help us interpret Scripture correctly. We need God’s people to help us know God’s Word.
Many of the greatest errors in church history arose when an individual was unwilling to read Scripture with the rest of the church. We cannot be unchurched Christians or Christians who are unwilling to submit to one another in the local body of Christ. If we are not seeking to read Scripture with the church and to learn from others both past and present, we will surely make many errors in understanding God’s Word.
Passages for Further Study
1 Timothy 4:14