Does the Bible belong to the church or does the church belong to the Bible? We tend to lose track of the profound influences that formed the world in which we live and shaped the way we do the things. Christians are so accustomed today to having access to the Bible we fail to realize that this access was hard won. The Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura altered the course of the church, and arguably the course of western civilization. It is still contested to this day.
It is unfair to accuse the medieval church of hiding the Scriptures from the people. Prior to the invention of the printing press, a full collection of the books of the Bible was an enormous investment. Only the most-resourced churches could afford a Bible and it had to be guarded. But the best leaders worked hard to push as much content from the Word of God to the people as they could through sermons, catechisms, schooling and often by distributing topical collections of key verses for memorization. Still, something new emerged when believers gained their own copy of the text.
When the Augustinian monk Martin Luther became disaffected with the grueling demands of personal salvation through the means of grace as he understood them, his abbot sent him off to study the Scriptures themselves. Luther began to find threads of meaning lost between the Greek New Testament and the Latin Vulgate. Not meaningless considerations, but deep misunderstandings of the text promoted confusion in the church over how one is saved through Christ. His earnest desire to correct misunderstanding and free the Gospel from inaccurate accretions launched a revolution and split the church. But personal salvation by grace through faith in the singular atoning work of Jesus Christ was once again clearly articulated. The key was that the Bible had the authority to correct the church.
Famously, Luther declared at the Diet of Worms in 1521, “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Authorities countered that the Bible is the church’s book, the product and possession of the Church, and that its interpretation belonged to the ecclesial structures and authorities in office, the bishops, cardinals and the Pope. The Bible is our book, they said. But if the church must be corrected, to what authority can we appeal? Is the church of higher authority than the Word? Luther continued, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”
The authority and inspiration of Scripture continued to rise in the course of the Reformation. When challenged with logistical concerns like the difficulty of printing and distributing the Bible, reformers overcame the hurdles. When charged that the people were too illiterate and simple to understand the Bible, reformers pressed for universal education and translation into colloquial languages. Luther’s German New Testament in 1522 offered the Erasmus Greek text in the vernacular German. The Tyndale Bible followed in 1525 bringing the New Testament to English. Each congregation and believer soon had their own text by which to measure the doctrine they heard proclaimed against the holy Word of God. Early Protestants adopted the slogan Verbum Domini manet in aeternum from 1 Peter 1:25: “The Word of the Lord endures forever.” They wore the letters VDMA embroidered on their robes and shirts. They carved the letters into wood and stone. Church leaders may mislead us, church councils could just get it wrong, but the Word of the Lord will endure and set us free again.
Again and again the temptation arises among the authorities and powers of the contemporary church to proclaim again: “This book is our book and we will tell you what it means.” The church returns to its medieval posture, declaring that the plain meaning is not the true meaning, the prior interpretation is not the current interpretation, the Bible cannot possibly be applied without the intervention of the sophisticates and experts…they treat the Word of God as if it is the church’s Bible. But a church removed from the authority of the Bible is no church at all.
Later, the Westminster Confession declared, “Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments…all which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.” Continuing, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” The Bible is not the church’s book; the church belongs to the Word of God. Reflecting that pivotal stand taken by Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms, Westminster explains that synods and councils will gather occasionally “for the better government and further edification” of the community of faith, but never forget that “all synods and councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred.” The church once reformed must stand prepared to be reformed, corrected over and again in accordance with the Word of God.
Synods and councils may err. Some may even claim authority higher than or alternative to the clear dictates of Holy Scripture. The authority of the Word of God endures forever to correct error and keep the Gospel free. As I train elders I teach them the inheritance of the Reformation—the church is the Bible’s church. I tell our elders that their primary responsibility is to come with their own Bible open on their own lap, to listen to my preaching, to listen to the teaching of others, to read the statements made, to scan the annual stewardship brochure, and to approach every argument of faith and practice constantly asking one question: Does it accord with the Word of God? The Bible in the hands of the individual believer has authority to correct even popes and kings. This is the principle that frees the church from error and keeps our course toward Jesus.
The Reverend Dr. Timothy McConnell is Lead Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (ECO), Colorado Springs, CO.