Last week I ended my article in my ACT 3 Weekly series on Understanding the Bible by asking if the Bible alone is all that we need for healthy Christian thought and practice? Is this what sola scriptura, the popular slogan of the Protestant Reformation, actually means? I suggested that the Bible alone was not equal to sola scriptura, not if the idea behind the slogan is rightly understood.
I believe we must always begin our Christian education with Scripture. (Many come to faith with little or no knowledge of the Bible itself while others come by reading the Bible for themselves. The Holy Spirit is not limited!) In the Scripture we have the witness of apostles and prophets, which is the solid foundation of the Christian church. I believe everything that we teach and practice, at least in terms of faith and ethics, should have reference to, and retain highest regard for, the Bible. But the Bible does not provide us with everything that we need as Christians. If this was true we would not need the Holy Spirit, except perhaps as a kind of “stamp” of blessing upon our carefully honed exegetical study. Let me explain why this is not true by appeal to an important narrative within the New Testament itself.
The Council at Jerusalem
In Acts 15 we have an extensive account of the first internal conflict in the early church. This conflict grew out of the controversy we read about in Galatians 1:1-10. Paul was exercised that through this conflict “another gospel” was being preached. This was no minor deal about “secondary taboos” or doctrinal non-essentials.
For several centuries migrant Jews, living as aliens in Greek-speaking lands, had been attracting numerous pagans to the Jewish Scriptures and the practice of their monotheistic faith. These people had to be integrated into the Jewish Bible and its specific teaching. This teaching included faith in the One God, circumcision, the importance of Jewish dress and respect for even the elementary taboos of the holiness codes, etc. Clearly, a significant number of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did not see entry into the church any differently. Certain Pharisees categorically expressed their opposition to including these non-Jews without a clear Old Testament understanding of faith and practice. James was more nuanced but ended up saying the same thing in the end (cf. Act 15:5). For these Jewish Christians faith was incorporation into the people of God and the people of God must be identified with Israel. But Paul’s mission work had created a new element. Christian communities in Greek areas were predominantly non-Jewish. Paul had given no pre-conditions for baptism except for repentance toward God and faith in Christ. For Paul the church consisted of all the baptized regardless of their Jewish or non-Jewish past or present practice. The manner in which this conflict was resolved provides some amazing things for us to consider when it comes to understanding how we should actually use, and understand, the Bible. I normally do not quote a long text in these articles but here I do. I urge you to read this text. Try to read these words carefully, as if you had never read them before. Keep in mind, I am asking one question: “Does the Bible alone provide all that is necessary for the faith and practice of Christians?”
1 Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. 3 The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.
5 Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.”
6 The apostles and elders met to consider this question. 7 After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. 8 God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. 9 He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. 10 Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? 11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”
12 The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. 13 When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. 14 Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. 15 The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
6 “‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17 that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord,
even all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things‘—
18 things known from long ago.
19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. 20 Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. 21 For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”
22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:
The apostles and elders, your brothers,
To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:
24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.
30 So the men were sent off and went down to Antioch, where they gathered the church together and delivered the letter. 31 The people read it and were glad for its encouraging message. 32 Judas and Silas, who themselves were prophets, said much to encourage and strengthen the believers.
Please note these expressions in the story. “The apostles and elders, with the whole church (verse 22) . . . It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (verse 28). This conclusion is critical to my point.
Here is my point. The Spirit of God is active in the life of the church and always has been, especially since Pentecost. The “voice” of God cannot be reduced to the exegesis of the Bible alone. Here we see that apostles and elders, with the whole church, made a major decision that “seemed good according to the clear word of Scripture.” Wrong! Read the text again. The text says: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (verse 28).
Here is what we read in the narrative. The Holy Spirit led the leaders and the people to enter a “dialogue” with Scripture (verses 16-18 is a very creative use of Amos 9:11-12 if you go back and read Amos 9 in its context). Then they made a decision that was not clearly found in the Scripture itself. (The decision was consistent with the central story line of the New Testament but they did not seem to completely comprehend that at the moment.) If you argue that they could do this because these leaders were apostles then I submit that you have not read the narrative carefully. This was not a fiat decision made by the apostles but a community process. If you read this idea into the narrative then you have chosen to read a pre-conceived theological opinion into the story.
The Spirit was clearly needed and it was the Spirit who pushed the people of God in a direction that went beyond any clear word found in the text of the Bible. The cultural and theological context here demanded wisdom and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was not bound by the literal word of the Bible. This does not mean that we can believe anything we like or do whatever we please but it reveals that an appeal to the “text alone” is not the whole ballgame when it comes to Christian theology and rightly understanding the Bible.