This article has been inspired by the conflict that exists within Christianity mainly due to the interpretation of the bible (the genuine cases). First of all it is important for us to understand the place of the bible in Christianity before we can properly apply it to Christian spirituality. This article seeks to use the dealings of God with his people Israel, the dealings of Jesus and the apostles with the early Christians, the bible itself and common sense to try to establish the place of the bible in Christianity. I hope this article will help you strengthen your Christian roots.
God, as I know him in the scriptures (Old and New Testament), has never given the authority of guidance of his people to any book.
Before we go any further, let me make this very clear to my dear reader: I believe that the Bible is the word of God; that every word in the Bible is the living word of God filled with power for those who live by it. Yet I also know that the word of God is not the Bible. What I mean is that the Bible does not contain all the words of God. In other words, the word of God is bigger than the Bible. John 1:1-4 says, “In the beginning was the Word: the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being, not one thing came into being except through him. What has come into being in him was life, life that was the light of men.” This means that before the Bible came into existence, the word of God already existed, so how can we try to squeeze the word of God into the Bible?
Also, Matthew 24:35 says, “Sky and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
So, how can we try to squeeze the word of God into a time period between when the writing of the Old Testament started and when the writing of the New Testament ended? In short, we should see the Bible as part of the word of God, not the totality of the word of God. It is the wrong view of the Bible as the totality of the word of God that has created and fuelled so much of the confusion in christendom. Also, it causes people to rely on the Bible rather than the word of God, which is bigger than the Bible. By relying solely on the Bible, they reject any word of God that is not in the Bible.
So how has God governed his people
God has always governed his people by using other human beings. He appoints these people and empowers them to lead his people. All of God’s people are expected to listen to and obey the chosen leaders. These leaders include prophets, kings, judges, etc. It is through these leaders that all that is written in the scriptures came to us. What was needed to believe, accept and follow these leaders was to accept that they were duly appointed by God into their various offices.
How did God instruct and rule His people in Old Testament times?
One may argue that the Israelites followed the scriptures (Old Testament). Yes indeed, they did, but how did they get the scriptures? God did not drop it from heaven. He appointed people and spoke through them. They later recorded these things. In fact, it is important to note that most of these were actually written later, even after the people through whom God had spoken had died. At least the earliest writings of the Old Testament were not written at the time they were given to the people of Israel. Initially the word was being passed on verbally. In fact, the Old Testament is the tradition of the Israelites which had been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. It was only recorded when people learned to write. Therefore, God appointed leaders; spoke his word to them; they in turn transmitted his word to his people; the people lived the word and later (in most cases) recorded it. This is how God worked among the Israelites, not write a book and ask them to distribute it so that everybody would read.
God always spoke his mind through people and not a book. Even if the people have a book for reference, the book still needs to be interpreted. This is again done by people chosen by God, e.g. Ezra reads the book of the law. Read Nehemiah 8:1-8.
Note in verse 7 that the people had to be taught the law.
Also note in verse 3 that all the people who were listening could understand and yet the law had to be taught them. This means that not everyone can simply take the word of God, read it and correctly interpret it. In fact, Peter gave this warning about the writings of Paul, “Think of our Lord's patience as your opportunity to be saved; our brother Paul, who is so dear to us, told you this when he wrote to you with the wisdom that he was given. He makes this point too in his letters as a whole wherever he touches on these things. In all his letters there are of course some passages which are hard to understand, and these are the ones that uneducated and unbalanced people distort, in the same way as they distort the rest of scripture -to their own destruction.” - 2 Peter 3:15-16.
An example here would do a great job. A lady recently left the Catholic Church, and when I sat with her, she said things that made me laugh. One example will suffice. She quoted Isaiah 3:16-26, which reads, “Moreover the LORD saith, Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet: Therefore the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will discover their secret parts. In that day the Lord will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments about their feet, and their cauls, and their round tires like the moon, the chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers, the bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings, the rings, and nose jewels, the changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the wimples, and the crisping pins, the glasses, and the fine linen, and the hoods, and the vails. And it shall come to pass, that instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; and instead of a girdle a rent; and instead of well set hair baldness; and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth; and burning instead of beauty. Thy men shall fall by the sword, and thy mighty in the war. And her gates shall lament and mourn; and she being desolate shall sit upon the ground.” – KJV (she quoted from the KJV)
According to her, the above verses show that a Christian woman is not supposed to wear earrings, bracelets, anklets and the like. It’s actually a shame because I know that she wears headbands and uses glasses (mirrors).
Dear reader, if you have even a moderate understanding of English grammar, you will see that her interpretation is outright ridiculous, especially when you read the whole chapter.
Re-examine yourself; you could just be in her shoe. Let’s heed Peter's warning!
In short, whenever the people of Israel wanted to know what the mind/will of God was, what they should do in relation to God, they did not rely on a book but on the people God had appointed to guide them on such matters. Even when they had to rely on a book they relied on the people God had chosen to interpret the book for them.
This is why they were able to accept changes when they were made by God. You didn’t know God changed his law? Alright let’s take one reference.
God gives new instruction
Compare Exodus 34:1-7 with Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:1-4
Exodus 34:1-7 – “Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones and come up to me on the mountain, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready at dawn; at dawn come up Mount Sinai and wait for me there at the top of the mountain. No one may come up with you, no one may be seen anywhere on the mountain; the flocks and herds may not even graze in front of this mountain.’ So he cut two tablets of stone like the first and, with the two tablets of stone in his hands, Moses went up Mount Sinai in the early morning as Yahweh had ordered. And Yahweh descended in a cloud and stood with him there and pronounced the name Yahweh. Then Yahweh passed before him and called out, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in faithful love and constancy, maintaining his faithful love to thousands, forgiving fault, crime and sin, yet letting nothing go unchecked, and punishing the parent's fault in the children and in the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation!’”
Jeremiah 31:29-30 – “In those days people will no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten unripe grapes; the children's teeth are set on edge.’ But each will die for his own guilt. Everyone who eats unripe grapes will have his own teeth set on edge.”
Ezekiel 18:1-4 – “The word of Yahweh was addressed to me as follows, ‘Why do you keep repeating this proverb in the land of Israel: The parents have eaten unripe grapes; and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live -- declares the Lord Yahweh -- you will have no further cause to repeat this proverb in Israel. Look, all life belongs to me; the father’s life and the son’s life, both alike belong to me. The one who has sinned is the one to die.”
Specifically, compare Exodus 34:7 with Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18:2-4
How did God instruct and rule His people during the time of Jesus and the apostles?
Now let’s explore the New Testament (NT) too. We find a similar pattern in the NT. Jesus came preaching and extensively quoting the OT, but on many points and occasions, He opposed the OT practice. Let’s take an example.
Jesus gives new instruction
Compare Exodus 21:23-25 with Matthew 5:38-42
Exodus 21:23-25 – “If further harm is done, however, you will award life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stroke for stroke.”
Matthew 5:38-42 – “You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if someone wishes to go to law with you to get your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone requires you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks you, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away.”
Specifically, compare Exodus 21:23-25 with Matthew 5:38-39
You accept all these changes because you believe in a person, not a book. You believe that Jesus is speaking on behalf of God, and so even if he changes anything, it is the will of God and so must be accepted. The Jews who could not accept this fact could not tolerate Jesus, to talk of accepting him.
You might say Jesus was God, which by the way you believe because of the witness of people not a book, because the book cannot witness for itself. What about the apostles who did the same thing. Let’s take some examples.
The apostles give new instructions
1. Compare Genesis 17:10-13 and Acts 15:1-2, 19-20
Genesis 17:10-13 – “This is my covenant which you must keep between myself and you, and your descendants after you: every one of your males must be circumcised. You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you. As soon as he is eight days old, every one of your males, generation after generation, must be circumcised, including slaves born within the household or bought from a foreigner not of your descent. Whether born within the household or bought, they must be circumcised. My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity.”
Acts 15:1-2, 19-20 – “Then some men came down from Judaea and taught the brothers, ‘Unless you have yourselves circumcised in the tradition of Moses you cannot be saved.’ This led to disagreement, and after Paul and Barnabas had had a long argument with these men it was decided that Paul and Barnabas and others of the church should go up to Jerusalem and discuss the question with the apostles and elders.
‘My verdict is, then, that instead of making things more difficult for gentiles who turn to God, we should send them a letter telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from illicit marriages, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.’”
Specifically, compare Genesis 17:13 with Acts 15:1, 19-20
2. Compare John 12:1-6; John 8:3:11; Luke 19:1-9; Luke 22:54-62; etc with 1 Corinthians 5: 9-13. Compare all times that Jesus showed compassion to the sinner, associated and even ate with them, with the instruction St. Paul gave to the Corinthians. Would you declare St. Paul wrong? He clearly contradicted Jesus.
1 Corinthians 5: 9-13 – “In my letter, I wrote to you that you should have nothing to do with people living immoral lives. I was not including everybody in this present world who is sexually immoral, or everybody who is greedy, or dishonest or worships false gods -- that would mean you would have to cut yourselves off completely from the world. In fact what I meant was that you were not to have anything to do with anyone going by the name of brother who is sexually immoral, or is greedy, or worships false gods, or is a slanderer or a drunkard or dishonest; never even have a meal with anybody of that kind. It is no concern of mine to judge outsiders. It is for you to judge those who are inside, is it not? But outsiders are for God to judge. You must banish this evil-doer from among you.”
Specifically, take note of 1 Corinthians 5:11.
Jesus knew that Judas Iscariot was a thief; he kept their money bag and stole from it, and yet Jesus allowed him to follow them for all the time that He was on earth. Yet here is Paul telling the Corinthians not to associate with any believer who is a thief! Can you tell me that Paul was wrong? What this teaches us is that God inspired and instructed His messengers to instruct His people according to what will help the people at that moment, and not according what is recorded in a book. So the Holy Spirit leads dynamically and not according to any set of rules in a book. He does this through duly appointed leaders who have been put by God Himself in charge of such matters, not anybody at all.
All the above should be enough proof that God has always instructed, directed and led his people using other human beings, not a book.
Who is the authority?
But let’s go further. The apostles proved abundantly that they considered themselves to be the authorities and not a book. Even though they extensively quoted the OT, they many at times like Jesus, made decisions without consulting the OT, and sometimes even against. Let’s take for instance the first council (in Jerusalem). Act 15:1-35. Let’s analyze the events in this passage.
There was an argument about whether gentile believers needed to be circumcised before they could be saved. Let’s see how the apostles handled this issue. Let’s keep in mind that the commandment of circumcision is right in the OT which the apostles (especially Paul) quoted extensively from - Genesis 17:9-14. It is based on this covenant and the fact that Jesus was a Jew that those people insisted that the gentiles must also be circumcised. However, we find that the apostles did not refer to the OT to make their decision. What did they refer to? Themselves (relying on the Holy Spirit, of course). Now I want you to accuse the apostles of giving unbiblical teaching. Paul devoted the whole of his letter to the Galatians on this matter.
There are two other things in the passage I want you to note.
First, Paul, even though he considered himself an apostle, an apostle who worked more than the rest, in his own words (1 Corinthians 15:10), recognized the authority of the ones appointed by Jesus himself and that was why he took the matter back to Jerusalem to be determined by them. And so after the whole discussion, they had to emphasize their authority by not only writing a letter but also appointing people to go along with Paul, Barnabas and the letter. Problems in Christianity has risen because people who cannot even claim authority anywhere near that of Paul have decided that they cannot listen to and obey the genuine authority put in place by God, but have chosen to be their own authority.
Second, Acts 15:24 reads. “We hear that some people coming from here, but acting without any authority from ourselves, have disturbed you with their demands and have unsettled your minds” The implication of this verse is that the apostles expected that anyone who went out to preach should be instructed and sent out by them, thus exercising their authority. Those who were not instructed and sent out but went out on their own accord and started to preach were the ones causing the confusion. It is true in our time too. This is the result when people decide to bypass legitimate authority and elect themselves as their own authority and begin to enter territory they have not been authorized to enter.
It is abundantly clear that God’s final authority on earth here has always been the human authority that he has put in place on earth here, and not a book. The book is normally then a record of what God has revealed and instructed through this authority and which the people had lived. The Bible then is the record of the faith experience of some people. They experience, live and then record. The experience and living come before the recording, and the experience varies according to the will of God and not according to a set of rules in a book. Even when a book is to be referred to, this authority is the one to interpret and implement it. The Bible, therefore, is a record of the teachings of God’s chosen leaders over several generations. How can anyone argue that the Bible has authority over the chosen leaders of God’s people? This is what the church had practiced until the revolt of Martin Luther and co in 1517 (of course baring minor rebellions, which was no stranger even to the apostles). If Martin Luther and his friends had understood this text, they would never have caused such scandal in Christianity. I believe Luther and co had genuine complaints but they went about it the wrong way. Read further for more on this.
How did we get the New Testament?
Now, let’s learn more about who is the final authority by examining how the NT was written and compiled and then trying to understand its purpose.
The apostles did not write a textbook for reference. If that were the case they would probably have come together in a council and written or authorized someone to write, which they would then declare as the final authority for all generations of Christians. This they did not do. Also note that all the books of the NT were not written at the same time. They were also written to different communities. Also, not all communities had all the letters. So, some useful questions would be
(1) When those communities did not yet have those letters, what was their source of reference?
(2) Those communities which did not have some of the letters, what was their source of instruction on the matters contained in those letters?
(3) What about the fact that the Bible could not be made widely available until the invention of the printing press in the 16th century?
(4) What about the fact that even after the Bible had been widely available, most people were still illiterate and therefore could not read the Bible themselves? Even today, there are still many people who are illiterate and cannot read the Bible.
(5) Why do we have pastors and teachers in our churches today who teach the word of God?
It is very clear that the means of instruction by the apostles was not the letters they were writing. They were rather going about passing on what they had received from the Lord Jesus Christ himself and the Holy Spirit. Wherever they went, they taught and appointed elders who in turn were tasked with the responsibility of passing on and guiding others in passing on what they had received from the apostles (Read Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5). This is what the Catholic Church has practiced ever since. In fact, Paul has made it clear that he wrote his letters because he desired to visit or instruct the community but was unable to do so. Or he simply wrote to remind the community about some of the things that he had taught them earlier, since he had been away from them for a long time. Read Romans 1:11-13; Romans 15:22-33; 1 Corinthians 4:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:34; 2 Corinthians 2:1-3; Philippians 2:24; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18; 1 Timothy 3:14-15. It therefore means that if Paul had the opportunity to be with the people at that moment, he would not write. Then where would we get these records for reference?
Meanwhile all these letters were scattered among various communities and we did not have the NT the way we have it today. In fact, the canon of the NT was only declared in 397 AD. Until then, what was the complete source of instruction for the Christians of all those years?
It is abundantly clear that the apostles did not write the books of the NT with the intention of producing a reference book which is the final authority. They only wrote to specific communities when the need arose. Instead, they taught, instructed and appointed elders based on the authority given them by Jesus. By writing, they did not take away this authority from their successors. It is ignorance of this fact that has caused many Christians to rebel against the legitimate authority.
Let us also examine the following passages of scripture: Acts 15:1-26; Galatians; Romans 6:17; 1 Corinthians 11:23; 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; Ephesians 4:14; 1 Thessalonians 4:8; 1 Timothy 1:3; 1 Timothy 4:6; 1 Timothy 4:13; 1 Timothy 6:3; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; Titus 1:9-11; etc. The above passages teach us at least four lessons: 1) that the early Christians recognized true teaching and false teaching; 2) they did not allow people to go out and teach anything at all they believed; 3) the apostles handed down their teachings and expected everyone to go by them; 4) they had the teaching office, so it was not expected that everyone should be his/her own teacher.
With such evidence, how could the apostles have been practicing “Sola Scriptura” or “the Bible is the final authority”.
What if the leaders are wrong?
At this point the question you may be asking is, “Even if the leaders are wrong and are misleading the people of God, should we still follow them?” I believe that even if the leaders are wrong,