The Ultimate Authority: Scripture or the Church?

How has God revealed Himself to us? In what ways do we receive revelation? Is there any new revelation? Is the written word sufficient? Is it beneficial to add something to what has been revealed in the written word?

One of the great doctrines emphasized during the Reformation was the sufficiency of scripture, also known as sola scriptura. This doctrine can be summed up as the following: Scripture alone is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. All truth that is necessary for salvation is taught implicitly or explicitly in the written scripture. 

Sola scripture is not the rejection of the use of creeds or doctrine statements. It is not saying that we can know everything for life from the Bible either, such as the formula for gravitational force. Rather, sola scripture affirms that the Bible is the only God-breathed revelation.

So then, if we hold to sola scripture, then how do we know what books should be in the Bible? Do we need an infallible table of contents? No. Do we need a group of people to decide what is and is not in the Bible? No. The sixty-six books became part of the canon not by the declaration of man, but were a part of the canon by the very stroke of the pen, as the Holy Spirit guided the author (2 Peter 1:19-21). The fact that God has revealed to us the canon, and not man, is why we can confidently say that we can know what is scripture and what is not scripture. 

To this very point, and to prove this statement, we could ask the question: How did a Jewish man, 50 years before Christ came into this world, know that 1 Chronicles and Isaiah were scripture? They did not have a magisterium to tell them what was and was not scripture. So how did they end up with the books that were to be regarded as authoritative, which were the very books of the Bible that Jesus held them accountable to know and obey?

We can confidently say that an omnipotent sovereign God will reveal to His children what is scripture. And that the sixty-six books that we have today are the only God-breathed revelation that is authoritative, and therefore is the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.

This leads us to the main concern, which is determining what is the ultimate authority. Is the ultimate authority scripture? Or is the ultimate authority the church? Either Scripture interprets Scripture. Or the Church interprets Scripture. Either you live by sola scripture or sola ecclesia. It is either one or the other, and cannot be both. A final authority must appeal to itself in the end, otherwise it would not be a final authority.

Now, what does scripture say on this matter? Does scripture contain the words “sola scripture” or “scripture alone”? No, it does not contain those words, and to hold this doctrine to that standard would be ignorant on the fact that there are concepts taught in the Bible where those very words are not mentioned. 

Scripture does give us patterns that show what the early church believed about the written word:

“that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4)

Luke was concerned that a record would be written to describe the things that were taught. We can confidently say that what is written matches what was spoken.

“but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31)

John was concerned that a record would be written to know what to believe for eternal life. We can confidently say that what is written is enough to know the salvation that is offered through Jesus Christ alone.

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Paul was concerned with what was being taught, and directing the church to the God-breathed source. We can confidently say that what is written is sufficient to make the man of God complete. And if the scripture can make the man of God complete, then there is no need for anything more.

This year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformation. On the day of October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, for the purpose on invoking a discussion on the topic of indulgences. He was in fact looking for a reformation, and that the church at the time would come back to scripture as the final rule of faith and practice. But as we know from the days to follow, that did not happen. 

In April of 1546, the Roman Catholic Church declared during the sixth session of the Council of Trent, in Canon 9: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”

This declaration still stands today, which has in fact anathematized the gospel. If salvation is contingent on the works of sinful man in any degree, rather than completely on the finished work of Jesus Christ, there is no hope, and there is in fact no good news. But thanks be to our God that salvation does not come from our own works, but rather by faith alone in Christ alone.

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

(Romans 3:28)