Are the Scriptures Authoritative?

God in bible

biblicalI want to challenge the idea that the scriptures are the final authority on matters of practice and faith. (So in this post I will mainly be referring to people who believe that.)

What’s your basis for truth?

Most christians will probably say “the bible!” (although what they really mean is their interpretation of the bible).

But why do you trust the scriptures in the first place? Because someone told you you should. But why did they? Because someone told them they should. We can trace this tradition all the way back to a limited group of “elite” early church fathers. So you value their opinion regarding their choice of scriptures and use those scriptures to determine your theology.

Ironically, however, the early church believers chose the writings that aligned well with the theology they already held. They didn’t, like is commonly done today, go to the scriptures to determine their theology. It was the complete opposite. (I’ve written about this in greater detail here.) Furthermore, as scribes made copies of the scriptures they changed what was written to match up with their own theology (see Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart Ehrman).

Most christians consider belief in a divinely authoritative bible a necessary belief to be considered an “insider.” But no biblical author claims that the scriptures are the source of truth, only Jesus, and the church as its pillar. It is not even included in any way in the creeds of the early church. The early church did, however, often refer to the scriptures. This tells us that the scriptures had value to the early church, but it wasn’t authoritative (until a few people said it was hundreds of years later).

The term “the scriptures” sounds very “holy”; in out time it definitely carries the connotation of embodying truth and being authoritative. In the Greek, however, it just means “writings.” So when 2 Peter 3:16 calls Paul’s epistles “other scriptures” it just means “other writings,” which doesn’t necessarily refer to sacred texts but writings that are read publicly in church gatherings. (The Jews did not consider all of their writings in their “scriptures” to be of equal value. In particular, they considered everything other than the Torah to be merely commentary on and subject to the Torah.)

GodInTheBoxThe scriptures have a lot to say about authority, but not once is authority ascribed to the scriptures themselves. Rather, it is consistently ascribed to Jesus.

Perhaps we can speak of Paul’s letters as being authoritative, but only in reference to the people to whom they were written; it was the “word of God” for those churches at those times. Paul didn’t claim authority over churches in which he hadn’t been the original sharer of the Gospel. There is no compelling reason to think that what God said through Paul to churches at that time was meant for all churches throughout the ages. God spoke to specific people in a specific situations, which is something he still does.

Therefore, we can learn from Paul’s writings, but they don’t have authority over us like they did for his original recipients. Yes, we can learn from what God did in the past, but God does different things in different situations at different times. The same is true today – God speaking through someone by the Holy Spirit is the word of God for the people it is intended for (while not neglecting to test the word by Holy Spirit).

The idea that the scriptures are the only authority stems from the mindset of the Reformation in which there was a major reaction against any kind of human authority in the church when it came to doctrine. Protestants wanted something more stable than fickle human beings, so they chose the scriptures.

When someone decides their basis for truth (for example, a combination of the scriptures, history, experience, and current community), it will merely be their opinion rather than something that can be argued to apply to all people. In other words, it will be a personal belief. Contrary to the hopes of Protestants in the Reformation, it is impossible to remove all subjectivity and have a common, fully objective basis for truth. Truth is a person (according to the scriptures, at least), and a person is experienced, which is necessarily subjective.

There’s a reason why Jesus (and not the scriptures) is called the “Word of God” in the scriptures; he (and not the scriptures) is the greatest revelation of who God is. When we instead deem the scriptures to be the “Word of God” (or even the “word of God”) we turn the scriptures into a puzzle-book of secret gnostic wisdom or a book of true answers to dogmatic and ethical questions. But that is backwards.

Bibles do not reveal truth about God; God reveals truth in bibles.

I find it funny when people claim that “anything God says will line up with the scriptures.” I used to say that all the time (and wholeheartedly believed it, too!), but I have become intellectually honest enough with myself to the point where I can ask, says who? The scriptures themselves don’t say that; therefore by the claim’s own logic God did not say that because it actually says to test things by Holy Spirit, not by “the Holy Bible.” This is merely a tradition of man that artificially limits what God can say (although only in people’s minds). The method for discerning truth that is demonstrated and taught throughout the New Testament is not to check if it says so in the scriptures, but communication with Holy Spirit and the handing down of the tradition of the apostles (of which adding canonical writings or sacred texts is not a part).

truth everywhereUltimately, bibles cannot escape subjectivity and be used in an “absolute” way as a basis for truth. You can choose to make the scriptures authoritative for yourself if you want to, and that’s fine. But to say that God has made it so for all humanity will forever remain an assumption.

*****

Also see:

What is the Bible?: Authority (by Rob Bell)
http://robbellcom.tumblr.com/post/70613417528/what-is-the-bible-part-28-authority

What is the basis of your faith? (by Andre Rabe)
http://hearhim.net/wordpress/2013/11/15/what-is-the-basis-of-your-faith/

The Jesus Lens: Can we question the New Testament?
http://www.therebelgod.com/2014/01/the-jesus-lens-can-we-question-new.html#comment-form

The Origins and Canonicity of the Scriptures

actually

Were the scriptures really handed to humanity by God on a silver platter as a divine book to help us get our theology straight? Considering the way most christians describe bibles as the “word of God,” infallible, inspired, authoritative, etc., as well as the way they spend enormous amounts of time meticulously studying them, you might have been led to think so, although that may have only been so on a subconscious level.

Yet history seems to tell us otherwise.

In this post I explore the origin and canonization of the scriptures and what they can tell us about what the scriptures are (especially what they are not) for us today.

Disclaimer/Clarification

Let me state at the outset some things I am not saying.

Throw away your bibles.

Don’t read the scriptures.

The scriptures have nothing to teach us.

God doesn’t care about the scriptures.

The scriptures are no different than any other book.

With that said, I may be questioning some commonly-held beliefs about the scriptures. So get ready to be challenged, and perhaps surprised, by the information I present and its implications.

*****

Belief in any doctrine related to sacred texts is not included in any of the earliest creeds

The creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, were summaries of the most fundamental beliefs of the early church. In essence, they communicated what the believers of that time considered to be essential. They included beliefs about the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, their natures and relationships with each other, the life, death, resurrection, descent, and ascension of Jesus, the Church, eternal life, etc.

Interestingly, however, not a single one of the early creeds (or if I am simply unaware of some, certainly not the major creeds) contain any reference to sacred writings, let alone to the collection of writings that are now referred to as the scriptures. What this tells us is that, regardless of whatever significance they may have attached to the scriptures, the early church did not consider a certain view of the scriptures to be indispensable.

Some might say that this is irrelevant because the New Testament canon had not yet been formed. That no mention of sacred writings is made in the early creeds is true, however, of creeds written after the canonization of the scriptures at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) as well (for example, the Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) and the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.)). Further, the early church did have the Old Testament. If it was as important as it is made out to be today (the so-called “word of God”), why didn’t the early church at least include a statement of the importance of the Old Testament in the creeds? Probably because it really wasn’t that important, at least in the way people nowadays often consider it to be important.

Thus, beliefs about sacred writings, such as inspiration, infallibility, or authority (if they even existed at all) were not essential to the early church.

That the canonization of the scriptures was a God-inspired event has to be assumed

Neither God nor the scriptures ever claimed that the Council of Nicaea would be THE council to decide the authoritative writings. Thus it is not necessarily true that God superintend the council or its decisions.

If you would like to assume that God did indeed superintend the councils and its decisions, that’s fine. But recognize that it is also fine to reject such an assumption. Indeed, everyone chooses which councils and which decisions of which councils to accept as authoritative for themselves, and, concerning this topic, there is great variety among believers. I have written about this in detail here.

Some might object that the matters concerning the scriptures were a collective decision, not the opinions of individuals. But since when has majority vote been a reliable guide for the church? Never, really. There are plenty of points in history where the majority of believers believed doctrines that are now commonly considered to be heretical.

Some might also appeal to the biblical canon being a long-held tradition. But acceptance by many over a long period of time doesn’t validate anything; there are plenty of mistaken doctrines and beliefs that were and still are like that. It’s merely an appeal to the majority opinion and the duration of that opinion across history. If people had always faithfully adhered to such ways of thinking, slavery would still be a worldwide reality.

The canonization of the scriptures is a tradition of man, and to take it to be anything more than that is a personal choice. If you believe God intended the councils, their decisions, and the whole event of canonization to take place, that’s fine. But please be intellectually honest enough to say that that is an assumption that you hold to, and it makes sense and is okay for other people to not hold that same assumption.

There have always been different groups of believers with different canons

At the most basic level, there is variation as to which books are considered to be a part of the biblical canon. You can check out a number of different canons among different christian traditions here and here.

Yet that is not all.

It is also uncertain whether certain parts of books should be included. For example, Mark 16:9-20 is believed by some to be a later addition to the original gospel written by Mark and thus believe it should be excluded from the canon, while others believe it was part of the original and should thus be included.

There is also the question of which manuscripts should be translated. For example, the Eastern church (the Greek and Russian Orthodox) believes that the Septuagint is the inspired version of the Old Testament, unlike Protestants who consider the Hebrew version to be inspired.

There has always been diversity, even in Judaism before and during Jesus’ time on earth, as to how the scriptures were inspired, what constituted the canon, what was considered authoritative, and methods of interpretation. Should we really think that it should be any different now?

The canon was created not to determine what writings people should exegete truth from but to combat heresy

Contrary to what is commonly stated in ignorance, the Council of Nicaea did not focus on the New Testament canon.

Creating a canon was the idea of the heretic Marcion. He was the first christian in recorded history to propose and delineate a uniquely christian canon (c. 140 A.D.). Other christians created different canons to combat heresies that Marcion was promoting. But the battle against Marcionism within christianity ended long ago. This calls into question the necessity and purposefulness of the current biblical canon.

The purpose demonstrated by the early church for canonization was to choose writings that promoted what they considered to be good theology and, in addition, to counter what they considered to be heresy. Yet the canon is nowadays used in the opposite way; instead of deriving a canon from good theology, theology is derived from a canon.

This is a chicken and egg problem – which comes first, a canon or theology? I won’t attempt to answer this question here.

I will mention, however, that theology has undergone significant developments since the times of the early church. Is it too much of stretch, then, to suggest that we, following in their footsteps, can choose a canon that suits our own theological paradigms?

The people who chose what writings would be canonized did not necessarily choose them with the intention of giving them the status that is nowadays commonly attributed to the scriptures

The early church fathers did choose and accept books, but as what? As writings that are infallible, inspired, and authoritative? Hardly.

As was mentioned in the previous section, the purpose of selecting certain writings was first and foremost to promote good doctrine and combat heresy. This can be done without ascribing lofty characteristics such as infallibility, inspiration, and authority to them.

Further, there’s a difference between “authoritatively truthful” and “not heretical.” Was the canonization a divinization of a few writings for all subsequent times, or a rejection of the others that were promoting heresy at that particular time in history? Perhaps it was neither. It could have only meant, “these are the books we will use for public reading in our gatherings.” It could have only meant, “these are the books that are not blatantly heretical.”

It certainly wasn’t, however, to choose writings from which everybody from that point on would look to to exegete truth and figure out what to believe.

I don’t know enough to say be able to confidently say exactly what the early church fathers were declaring in choosing the texts that they did, but it does seem clear what they were not claiming, which, ironically, is what indeed is claimed in our time.

The canon of scripture was never universally set in stone

I have commonly heard an argument in favor of the canonization of the scriptures that goes something like the following:

“The church councils did not choose a canon. Church leaders simply acknowledged what the church had already come to accept.”

In that case, if the general church populace ever comes to think differently, leaders should acknowledge that. In other words, the canonization status of scriptures is not, and indeed never is, set in stone.

The canon of scripture was decided by majority vote, a method which has historically been demonstrated to be unreliable

The majority vote of the early church councils acts as christianity’s “democratic pope.”

But the opinion of the majority is not and never has been a reliable guide to truth. Jesus and the early christians held minority opinions during their times, and there are plenty of examples throughout history in which the “majority of the church” believed heretical doctrines.

Some will be quick to say that what was expressed was not the majority opinion but a consensus. I debunk this idea here.

Even if it was consensus, the consensus of the church is always changing. Thus, we could have a different consensus than what they had back in the day. Why should we think that their consensus is more reliable?

Full dogmatic articulations of the canons of christian traditions were not made until the 1500s or later

It was not always believed that defining a canon was necessary. Some early church fathers were practically unconcerned about canonicity and made use of open canons. The eastern churches in particular generally had weaker feelings compared to those in the west about the necessity of making sharp delineations regarding a canon.

This is even more significant than that different believers had and still have different canons, as mentioned above, because it calls into question whether the idea of even creating a canon is necessary or even something God wills.

Until the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had never officially drawn the boundaries of the biblical canon. Doing so had not been considered necessary because the authority of the scriptures was not considered to be much higher than that of tradition, papal bulls, and ecumenical councils.

It was not until the Protestant Reformers began to insist upon the supreme authority of scripture alone (the doctrine of sola scriptura) that it became necessary to establish a definitive canon. So was the establishment of such a definitive canon really necessary? Only if one holds to the doctrine of sola scriptura, a man-made doctrine of the 16th century.

There are books included in the biblical canon that, based on modern scholarship and information that the early church did not possess, would not be included in the canon of scripture according to the criteria set forth by the early church fathers. On the other hand, there exist writings that, although are not included in the biblical canon, would be included according to the criteria

Many point to the following four “criteria for canonicity” to justify the selection of the books that have been included in the New Testament.

  1. Apostolic origin – attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal acceptance – acknowledged by all major christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
  3. Liturgical use – read publicly when early christian communities gathered for their weekly worship services.
  4. Consistent message – contains a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted christian writings.

Yet it is sometimes difficult to apply these criteria to all of the books in the accepted canon, and one can point to writings that are outside current canons that would fulfill these requirements.

For example, Hebrews was only accepted after Paul was adopted as the author (in order to fulfill the criteria for “apostolic origin”). Modern scholarship, however, largely agrees that Paul is not the author of Hebrews. Thus, its apostolic origin is put into question and thus does not necessarily fulfill the criteria for canonicity. Should we therefore remove Hebrews from the canon?

On the other hand, if we found another authentic letter written by Paul, could we in our right minds exclude it from the canon? It cannot pass all the tests of canonicity (because it would have had to be known by the early church fathers to fulfill the criteria for “universal acceptance” and “liturgical use”), but that is only because it wasn’t known about when the canon was formed. Is the ignorance of the early church really a good enough reason to reject such a letter?

In fact, such a letter (although there is disagreement as to its authenticity) actually exists: the epistle to the Laodiceans. It bears striking similarities to the epistle to the Philippians, and it is mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). You can read it here. (There may be other writings we have now that are of apostolic origin that I am not aware of.)

Putting the issue of fulfilling these criteria aside, how do we even know that these are the “right” criteria? They are, after all, criteria chosen by human beings, not divinely pointed out by God.

Further, how do we know that these criteria weren’t chosen after the books were chosen? Through such a scheme, people could effectively choose which books they wanted to stay in, and make enough criteria to keep any other book out. This would have probably seemed like an acceptable thing to do to the early church fathers since their motivation for canonization was the promotion of what they considered to be good doctrine anyways.

Most people who support the legitimate canonicity of the scriptures have never even read any apocryphal books – they simply believe what they do because that’s what they’ve always been told. If you are one of those people, I would encourage you to expand your reading horizon.

Specifying a canon places an artificial limit on what (we believe) God can and will do

Declaring a canon is basically saying, “God no longer divinely inspires christian writers” (it at least puts a limit on the degree to which God can inspire people). God never said that, not even in the scriptures. Saying that the “canon is closed” is primarily not a claim about sacred writings but a claim about God himself – what he can and can’t do. It is putting him in a box that says “he can’t give authoritative revelation to anyone anymore like he used to.”

It also places a limit on church authority. If another council of church leaders was formed from all around the world and chose a different canon, why shouldn’t that become authoritative? Why is it assumed that the older and the closer to the time of Christ (for writings as well as people), the better? The 12 apostles didn’t have great theology as we know of at least one case where Paul had to correct them on a basic yet significant issue (the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation), and Paul got his revelation directly from Jesus. Are we “less led” by Holy Spirit than the people back then? I don’t think so. They did not have anything that we do not, and our relationship with God is in no way inferior.

Objection: You just need to have more faith in the workings of God in bringing about the scriptures in history

I bring up this objection because someone actually said it to me.

It’s not that I don’t have faith that God could do that; it’s just that I don’t have any compelling reason to believe that he indeed did. On the contrary, I have reasons to believe that the bible isn’t God-ordained. For example, it and its interpretations are the greatest source of division in the body of Christ today and throughout history.

Here’s another one I hear a lot.

But the Bible is the book that has had the hugest impact on the world throughout history.

That’s like saying, “I drove this car and it went 100km/hr; therefore it must be the fastest car on the planet!” This is silly because every car in the world needs to be tested before anyone can make that kind of claim.

Sure, perhaps the scriptures have had the greatest impact out of all known books. But that doesn’t prove that it is God-ordained. What about a canon that includes all the books of the Bible minus the book of Hebrews plus the letter to the Laodiceans? What if that canon has a greater impact? Well, we don’t know, and we can’t know. We would have to test that out over 1000+ years.

In fact, the argument is circular. If the largest religious group at some point in history claims that a certain book is divinely chosen and perpetuates that idea as correct doctrine (which is exactly what happened), of course that book is going to have the greatest impact! But the argument was that because the scriptures had a great impact, surely they must be divinely chosen (while the truth is that the church chose them).

Conclusion

I hope to have made it clear that the canonicity of the scriptures is not a simple matter that is easily settled by merely referencing the Council of Nicaea, as is commonly done today.

I encourage you to think about these things, talk about it with Jesus, and decide for yourself what you believe.

Were the Early Church Councils Authoritative?

council-of-chalcedon

I read Wikipedia’s article on ecumenical councils (gatherings of church leaders and theological experts purposed to discuss and settle matters of doctrine and practice) because I had recently began questioning whether, as it is commonly taught, the decisions of these councils really were an expression of universal agreement within the church that was meant to be authoritative throughout all subsequent generations.

My suspicions were confirmed.

In this post I will organize and summarize the article and make some observations.

Matters Discussed at the Councils

The first recorded council, the Council of Jerusalem (around 50 A.D.), is actually recorded in the scriptures in Acts 15, and councils have been held ever since.

Some of the things discussed were various things related to the Trinity, the nature of the deity and humanity of Jesus, whether the virgin Mary gave birth to God or only to the Christ, whether particular individuals/doctrines should be declared heretics/heresies, deciding successors for positions of leadership, what documents should be included in the biblical canon, how to exercise church discipline, how to deal with icons (images of Jesus, apostles, etc.), describing the authority held by ecclesiastical leaders, transubstantiation (the idea that when you take communion the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus), attempts to reunite different denominations, and church reform.

Here I’ll be focusing on the earlier councils since many people consider them to be authoritative for us today.

Participation was Limited

Bishops belonging to what became known as the Church of the East participated in none of the councils later than the second, and further noteworthy schisms led to non-participation by other members of what had previously been considered a single christian church. Later ecumenical councils thus included bishops of only parts of the church as previously constituted and were rejected or ignored by christians not belonging to those parts.

What this tells us is that the councils cannot really be considered to be “universal” in the sense that they expressed the consensual opinion of the entire church at that time. Only people from certain regions or groups took part, and thus the councils failed to include representatives from all bodies of believers.

council-of-nicaeaI’m not aware of the details on how the councils made decisions, but they did involve voting and thus it seems to me that it did not express a genuine consensus but merely the majority opinion at that particular point in time. And history shows that the majority opinion never really was a reliable guide to good doctrine.

Besides, why should the ecclesiastical leaders and theological experts have the privilege of making such weighty decisions? What about the “commoners”? Did they have inferior relationships with God or less of an ability to think through the issues that emerged? (Did they even get to choose their “representatives” (if that’s what the ecclesiastical leaders and theological experts were at all)?) Personally, I’m curious as to what they thought. Unfortunately, we do not have writings of commoners with us today (if they even wrote anything; I doubt they were even able to write at all).

The Councils were Not Free of Political Motivations

Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed.

Around the time when the councils that are often considered to be the most important took place (300 to 800 A.D.), theology wasn’t merely a matter of doctrine but had significant political ramifications as well, especially after the christian religion was given a privileged position by the emperor Constantine in 313 A.D.

Councils were primarily held because of theological controversy. When significant disagreements emerged, councils were called for to settle them. Thus, conclusively settling such issues was not necessarily (and most likely was not, at least for the emperor) motivated by a desire to do “good theology” but rather to come to a superficial “agreement” to evaporate the controversy and bring “unity” to the empire. Determining dogma by which all people were required to adhere to ensured a certain level of peace within nations and kept doctrinal controversies under control.

Thus, the first seven ecumenical councils (the major ones) as well as several others were convoked by “christian” emperors (I write “christian” because although they touted the christian religion, it is highly questionable whether they actually lived in relationship with God). They also enforced the decisions of those councils within the state church of the Roman Empire. On the other end, church fathers wielded their connections with political authorities to increase their influence over the councils’ decision making.

Variation in Acceptance of Councils

The following is an overview of major denominations and the councils they accept as authoritative. I provide this list to show that there is no general agreement on which councils should be accepted as authoritative.

  • The Church of the East only accepts the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople.
  • Oriental Orthodoxy only accepts Nicaea I, Constantinople I and Ephesus I.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church accepts the first seven ecumenical councils, with the Council in Trullo considered a continuation of the sixth.
  • The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the seven councils in the early centuries of the church as well as fourteen councils in later times called or confirmed by the Pope (and thus that there can still be more ecumenical councils to come).
  • Anglicans believe the councils may have erred and are only authoritative if their declarations can be said to be taken out of the scriptures (so they generally accept the first seven or first four).
  • Some Protestants accept the teachings of the first seven (and occasionally four) councils but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.
  • Other Protestants claim that conformity to the decisions of the councils is purely voluntary and that they are to be considered binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures; they assert that after the New Testament the doors of revelation were closed and councils can only give advice or guidance but have no authority.
  • Nontrinitarian churches do not recognize ecumenical councils, viewing them as misguided human attempts to establish doctrine, and as attempts to define dogmas by debate rather than by revelation.

The Roman Catholic Church as well as most Eastern Orthodox theologians hold the doctrine that the ecumenical councils were infallible in the decisions they made, and thus the whole church must adhere to them (although, as mentioned above, they disagree as to which councils were infallible). Yet this doctrine does not claim that every aspect of every ecumenical council is infallible (in other words, they choose which parts are authoritative). On the other hand, Lutherans only accept the first four, most High Church Anglicans accept all seven as persuasive but not infallible, and most Protestants restrict infallibility to the Christological statements of the first seven councils (that Jesus is fully God and fully man, etc.).

Council-Of-NiceaDo you see what is going on? Basically, everyone considered the councils to be authoritative/ecumenical up to the point where they disagreed with their decision. LoL! People pick and choose which councils and, furthermore, which decisions of each council they will accept as authoritative by selecting criteria for what should and should not be accepted. But this choice of criteria is purely subjective. For example, the Roman Catholic Church considers recognition of a council by the Pope to be essential, the Eastern Orthodox views approval by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as being roughly equivalent to that of other patriarchs, and some Protestants say councils are never authoritative no matter what. And, really, the criteria is irrelevant, because it is possible to create criteria that effectively eliminates the councils you want to disqualify and retains the councils you want to qualify.

So in the end this is theological gymnastics in which people claim that what they agree with is authoritative. What it really comes down to is people saying, in essence, “what I believe is right and therefore authoritative.”

The Concept of Church Councils

As shown in the list above, there is even disagreement as to whether establishing doctrine for the entire christian faith through ecumenical councils is a legitimate practice. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox all accept the authority of ecumenical councils in principle, but it is rejected by many Protestants.

Holding councils to determine doctrine is not necessarily of God (but not necessarily anti-God either). It certainly isn’t biblical. Sure, even in the scriptures the apostles held one such meeting, but they never say that what they decide will stand true throughout all subsequent generations. Furthermore, the council the apostles held wasn’t to determine beliefs but church practice. The scriptures simply do not give any instruction telling us to hold councils to determine doctrine. It wasn’t God but people who decided to hold that council.

The concept of an ecumenical council establishing doctrine for the entire Christian faith has to be assumed as legitimate. Moreover, even if such a practice is legitimate, that a specific council and the decisions it came to was superintended by God (the council counting as a legitimate ecumenical council) also has to be assumed.

The church did not have concrete structures of authority like the empires in which it resided. What if the councils were born out of a desire to copy the institutional organizations and systems of law around them more than they were following God’s lead?

Did God even want the theological questions that emerged to be resolved? Maybe he’s okay with continuing exploration of questions. Does God really care that we have concrete answers to such questions that most people nowadays wouldn’t even think to ask? Maybe he’s content for us to be left in the realm of mystery. Does God desire that we set forth certain doctrines as requirements for people to be considered believers? Maybe he’s not concerned about making such distinctions.

This is not to say that the councils were meaningless; they just weren’t divine (unless you would like to assume they were). They have value but not ultimate authority (unless you would like to assume they do). We can learn from them but we are not bound by them (unless you would like to assume that we are).

Conclusion

A popular rule by Vincent of Lérins states, “all possible care must be taken to hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Okay. So who are the “all”? Believers. Who are believers? People who claim to hold to a certain set of beliefs (hence the term “believers”). Which beliefs qualify people as believers? Those beliefs that are “essential.” Which beliefs are essential? Those beliefs that have been “believed everywhere, always, by all.” It is circular. (Similar arguments could be made for the “everywhere” and “always” aspects of the quote as well.)

There really is no objective way of determining what is correct doctrine and what is not.

How, then, should we approach the issues discussed at the ecumenical councils if they are not authoritative for us?

The councils are not without value, but neither are they pillars of truth. We should thus feel free to question the doctrines that were discussed at them. Agreement with those doctrines should not be used as a litmus test as to whether someone is a “legitimate believer” (whatever that means lol).

Sola Scriptura or Sola Jesus?

Ring on Bible

You may have never heard of the term “sola scriptura,” but I bet you are familiar with the concept.

It’s the idea that the scriptures contain all knowledge necessary for salvation and is the only final authority in matters of faith and practice. Consequently, sola scriptura demands that only  doctrines that are found directly within the scriptures or indirectly by using valid deductive reasoning from them are to be admitted or confessed. Sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it demands that all other authorities are subordinate to and are to be corrected by the scriptures (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

This doctrine first made its appearance during the 16th century in the Reformation, in which Martin Luther initiated a reaction against the ignorance of the Catholic Church regarding some significant issues relating to the scriptures. One such issue was the Catholic doctrine of ex cathedra. This is the doctrine that states that the Pope can choose to “define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church” (First Vatican Council). In other words, if the Pope says something is true, then it must be accepted as true. A similar idea was probably at work on a practical level as well; only those who were “qualified” could interpret the scriptures. Thus, the declaration of ultimate truth rested within their power of those who were ordained by the ecclesiastical authorities such as bishops.

Seeing the corruption within the religious institutions of their time, the Protestants (those who protested against the practices of the Catholic Church) swung to the other side of the pendulum and decided to place absolute authority within the scriptures and the scriptures alone. The key implication of this move was that interpretations of the scriptures were not given the same authority as the scriptures themselves, no matter who the interpreter was. Hence, the ecclesiastical authority came to be viewed as subject to correction by the scriptures.

This idea was taken further when people began to hold that not only is the bible the Word of God but every part of it too in and of itself, irrespective of context, setting the stage for the idea that individual verses lifted out of the scriptures are true in their own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or practice (“proof texting”). This practice was started around 1600 by Protestant scholastics who took the teachings of the Reformers and systematized them according to the rules of Aristotelian logic (i.e. they relied on Greek philosophy).

Although claiming, as the Catholic church had done, that an “ecclesiastical authority” could declare truth for everyone was silly, claiming that a book could do the same was just as ridiculous. Think about it. A book cannot tell you what is true because it cannot interpret itself for you. Regardless of whether interpretation is done for one’s self or for others, the reader themselves must necessarily do the interpreting. Further, bibles cannot exercise authority over people; they are lifeless books (by the way, if my calling bibles “lifeless” made you think of Hebrews 4:12, it might benefit you to know that it’s talking about Jesus, not bibles).

Selecting a group of individuals or a collection of writings to tell us what is true can never be made an absolutely objective endeavor. We cannot escape subjectivity.

To put it plainly, sola scriptura is a man-made doctrine of the 16th century that was created in reaction to bad church politics. This doesn’t conclusively demonstrate that it’s wrong. But that this idea wasn’t believed for the first 1500 years after Jesus’ time on earth should cause you to seriously question its validity.

Further, although many people claim sola scriptura as a foundational doctrine, it is certainly not universally held among believers and is even rejected by entire believing institutions (for example, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches equally uphold the value of the tradition that was started by the apostles).

So I would like to propose another option: sola Jesus. (I don’t mean the solus Christus of the Reformation.)

What I basically mean by that is that everything that people have claimed that the ecclesiastical authorities or the scriptures are (as they pertain to truth and authority), Jesus and Jesus alone is.

Such a concept is unpopular because, unlike physical people and books we can feel, hear, and see, Jesus is not always objectively tangible. If we say Jesus gets the final word on everything, the application of authority necessarily works subjectively because people hear and interpret what Jesus communicates to us differently.

That’s fine by me.

The Catholic Church has its pope with his ex cathedra, and Protestants have their bibles with its sola scriptura. Both systems ultimately replace the person of Jesus with something else as the final authority. I accept the man Jesus as the subjective basis for truth, and indeed as Truth itself.

Some might say that this is all fine in theory but that it cannot work practically. What could having Jesus as the ultimate authority possibly look like?

In response I would first point out that lacking experience and a conception of how it could work doesn’t invalidate it. Second, sola scriptura (or having ecclesiastical authorities for that matter) is just as “impractical” because it is just as subjective as having a person as the ultimate standard.

I understand that there is for many a significant fear of deception when it comes to being “led by the Spirit.” There are plenty of cults out there that began because somebody “got a revelation.” Yet I can say with honesty that I have no fear of the like because I trust Jesus’ ability to correct me more than I fear my potential to be led astray. Cults are obvious as such because they cease to be centered on Jesus and accordingly cease to look like Jesus.

Please notice that I did not say and understand that I have no intention of saying, “let’s throw out the scriptures!” There may be other things that people think I am saying that I did not explicitly assert. Please refrain from jumping to conclusions about what I believe about the scriptures based on this blog post because that is something that I have not expounded on here. If that’s something you would like to know, I’d love to talk with you about it. Just let me know 🙂

God, the Freedom Freak

control

I made a nice list of phrases related to God, control, and freedom that you don’t have to agree with anymore, why you don’t have to, and better alternatives to each.

*****

You have heard it said, “God made you just the way you are.” But I say, God recreated us as new creations, just the way Jesus is.

If you mean he made you as his beloved child, then yes. But if you are referring to things like disease and depression (anything negative), then no. This only pertains to your true identity in Christ as a new creation and nothing that is part of the fall. God doesn’t make you sick or depressed. He heals you.

*****

You have heard it said, “God has a plan for your life.” But I say, Jesus is God’s only plan for your life.

This phrase is based on some verses in Jeremiah 29. Keep in mind, Jeremiah was not prophesying to you. God was speaking through him to the Israelites concerning the specific circumstances they were in at the time, namely of a coming destruction.

Jeremiah wasn’t saying God had every detail of their lives laid out (as if God has already determined it), nor is he saying God has things he wants us to do down to every detail (as if God wills something specific for every situation in our lives – i.e. he doesn’t care if you wear your blue or black socks).

This doesn’t mean God is uninvolved in our lives and just watches as things happen, not caring how it all goes down. Far from it! His desire is to live in relationship with us, with the most intimate interaction. But that is only possible when we are free. It wouldn’t be much of a relationship if we merely did everything the other told us to do.

*****

You have heard it said, “You need to give God control of your life.” But I say, Holy Spirit has empowered you with self-control.

Guess what? God doesn’t want control over you. And even if you give it, God will reject it.

How pointless would it be if God had only created us so that we would come to a point where all we did was constantly ask God what to do and then do that? If he wanted robots, he could have made those. Instead, he made us in his own image – free and desiring.

(Note: sometimes God doesn’t tell us what to do when we ask him because he wants us to choose, not him.)

God never wanted puppets; he desires children. Although children do go to their daddies for wisdom, they don’t ask what to do for every decision they make. We were not created to suppress our wills and desires but to realize union with our creator, willing and desiring with him.

Yes, at times God does tell us what to do. And we would be plain stupid to not do what tells us to because we know that he has our greatest joy in mind. But these times are only to help us in our maturing process. God is building us up to be able to handle increasingly more freedom with unlimited options (and sometimes his suggestions are things we haven’t even considered yet, opening our eyes to more possibilities). But ultimately, God’s will is that we will.

It was typically the case that God would say ‘No, I don’t have a will for you; I want to know what you want to do.’ So you were put here to will and to make a difference. It’s not always the case that we should want to know what God wants us to do, but often that God wants to know what we want to do. In fact we were put here so that God could trust us and give us what we want to do. – J. P. Moreland

*****

You have heard it said, “Everything happens for a reason.” But I say, God may not have wanted everything that has happened to have happened, but he knows how to bring about good despite it.

Sure, everything that happens does have a reason for happening. But sometimes the reason is that we’re stupid and we make bad decisions. Like it says in Provers 19:3, “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” Bad stuff happens and people blame God. Or bad stuff happens, people attribute it to God, but are quick to add something like “don’t worry, God has a good reason for this and it will bring him glory.”

Just because something happens doesn’t mean God made it happen or that he even wanted it to happen. Romans 8:28 is sometimes twisted to mean that in all the apparently bad things that happen to us in life, there is always good in them. For example, there is good in earthquakes, tsunamis, sicknesses, deaths, etc. Somehow, God is glorified. But it doesn’t say that. God doesn’t work evil to bring good (e.g. make us sick to teach us a lesson), but God works despite the evil, which he is and always was adamantly against.

This doesn’t mean God is not involved in the world and its activities. It just means he only does good things. And I don’t mean that in a “God works in mysterious ways” way (a popular excuse for a lot of evil in this world that we have been empowered to deal with).

*****

You have heard it said, “God is in control.” But I say, God has all authority in heaven and on earth, and he has delegated it to us, his children.

God is not a control freak who exercises meticulous governance because he is worried about giving people freedom to make significant choices. God could control everything if he wanted to, but he doesn’t.

Say you had the power to control everyone that you came into contact with. Would you use that power? I wouldn’t. That would give me the most boring esixtence on earth because it is void of love, which can only be born between free beings.

God does, however, have all authority.

Our world is like a home. The parents (Trinity) have full authority, but that doesn’t mean they control everything that happens within the household. Their kids are still free to do whatever. The parents do give healthy limits to what the kids are allowed to do (because lots of things have negative natural consequences), but even with those prescribed limits the kids can still choose to ignore them. For example, a parent might tell a child, “don’t touch the stove!” when it is burning (likewise, God told Adam and Eve, “don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – it’ll kill you!”, but they were still able to and did). The limits given are for their benefit, so it would be foolish to ignore them.

People are free to choose to do whatever they want.

Some might ask that if God is not in control, then how can we completely trust God’s sovereignty? But if God’s so-called “sovereignty” includes things like the holocaust, natural disasters, and disease, it’s not a very trustworthy sovereignty to start with. You don’t need a theologian to tell you that these things are evil and that there is no good in them. Jesus himself stopped a stoning, a storm, and healed every single person who came to him because all these things were not aligned with his will.

In conclusion, God is a freedom freak who insists on our being free to make our own choices despite the possibility of our making grave mistakes. What a Dad!

*****

Also see:

Is God Sovereign?
http://escapetoreality.org/2013/01/04/is-god-sovereign/