Because the Bible is God’s word, the church must submit to the Bible as to God himself. The church does not stand over Scripture; Scripture stands over the church. However, the Bible does not exist independently of the church. The Bible was not dropped out of the sky. The books of the Bible were written by the church, canonized by the church, and continue to be translated, distributed, and interpreted by the church. Without the church, you wouldn’t have a Bible to read. “The Church is a witness and a keeper of holy Writ” (39 Articles of Religion, XX), and this should be reflected in our attitude towards the Church when interpreting and applying the Bible.
The Church Wrote the Bible
It’s true that God wrote the Bible. The Bible has a divine author. But it also has human authors, men of the church like Paul and Peter. God wrote the Bible through the church—through church leaders such as apostles and prophets. God “gave the apostles, the prophets” (Eph. 4:11), and built the church “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20). The Apostle Paul wrote, “stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thess. 2:15). The Bible is the written tradition of churchmen. It is the highest form of Tradition, the only inerrant Tradition that exists, but it is Church Tradition nonetheless. It is truth handed down or “traditioned” to us by the Church.
The Bible is the highest form of Tradition, the only inerrant Tradition that exists, but it is Church Tradition nonetheless.
The Church Determined Which Books Comprise the Bible
God inspired many books. But which books are inspired? Which books belong in the canon—the Bible’s table of contents, so to speak? Under the providential guidance of God, this too was determined by the Church. Church fathers from Tertullian to Jerome to Augustine discussed criteria by which books could be recognized as inspired and thus canonical. The criteria for canonicity was closely related to the Church. Books were thought to be canonical if they were read and accepted by the whole church, and if they tended towards the edification of the church. Church leaders, and the whole church, thus had a hand in canonization.
The Church Judges Between Manuscripts to Determine the Original
God wrote the Bible through the church, and the books that God wrote were identified by the church through the process of canonization. But what do these books actually say? We don’t have the original document of any book of the Bible. Instead, we have thousands of partial or full manuscripts, and these manuscripts do not always agree. While the differences do not call into question any major Christian doctrine, it is the church that pours over these manuscripts to reconstruct what the original said. We rely on members of the body of Christ who are specially gifted by the Holy Spirit for the great work of textual criticism.
The Church Translates and Distributes the Bible
At this point, there’s still a problem for most of us: we don’t speak Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek—the original languages of the Bible. When we kneel beside our bed or sit at the kitchen table to do our daily devotions, who do we have to thank for translating the Bible into our language? The Church! Gifted church members have invested thousands of hours into making the Bible available in your language. Christian publishing houses have printed the Bible so that you can buy an affordable copy and hold it in your hand. Without the church, you wouldn’t have a Bible to open.
Without the church, you wouldn’t have a Bible to read.
The Church Interprets the Bible
Finally, the church interprets the Bible and has handed down a consensus of interpretation across the centuries. While we may not be conscious of it, we all approach the Bible with countless assumptions that we’ve received from the church. For example, most Bible readers have a basic understanding of the doctrines of the Trinity and the hypostatic union, which are expounded in the great Christian Creeds. These doctrinal formulations help us to make sense of difficult data in the text. It took the Church centuries to achieve this level of conceptual clarity. This is as God intended it. He gave “shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11) to model biblical interpretation for the church by “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). When Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to “guide you [plural] into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13), it was a promise given to his apostles and, by extension, the whole church with its teaching ministry, not to any one individual in isolation from the church.
Why It Matters
Our attitude towards the Bible should reflect that the Bible is the church’s book. It’s ignorant at best and arrogant at worst to take a collection of books that were written, canonized, translated, and printed by the Church, carry it into a corner, and disregard the church when interpreting and applying it. It’s also dangerous to go off into a corner and read the Bible in isolation from the church and its teaching. Throughout church history, it’s been heretics and schismatics who were known for a “me and my Bible” and “no Creed but the Bible” attitude.
The church is the proper context in which the Bible is read and interpreted.
The church is the proper context in which the Bible is read and interpreted. Bible readers should join a Bible-believing, Creed-confessing church—a community of Bible readers that is overseen by qualified pastor-teachers who faithfully model biblical interpretation in conversation with the church past and present. Time spent in personal Bible study should include consultation of the church’s Creeds, Confessions, and commentaries. The conclusions that we draw from personal Bible study should be held loosely and weighed in light of the interpretive consensus of the church.
We as Protestants and evangelicals today need to become more familiar with our own tradition. The Protestant Reformers were not biblicists in the sense of being “Bible only” people. They confessed the Creeds, used them as the basis for their Confessions, and constantly appealed to the “authority” of the church fathers. They argued that Protestants, not Roman Catholics, actually had the weight of Church Tradition on their side. For the Reformers, sola Scriptura meant that the Bible was the only final authority in matters of faith and practice, not that it was the only authority or even source for theology (see “A Protestant View of the Church and Tradition in the Augsburg Confession,” where I argue that the Reformers were not trying to get back to Scripture instead of Tradition; they were trying to recover the true Tradition: the Church’s consensus of faith and practice, from which Roman Catholicism had departed”).
Finally, none of this means that the church stands over Scripture. Scriptures correct us, we don’t correct Scripture. As Article XX states, “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.” Protestantism at its best submits to the absolute authority of the Bible without forgetting that the Bible is the church’s book.