We believe in the Holy Scriptures.
The most divisive theological arguments in our times are over the purpose and authority of the Bible. Several of our historic Protestant denominations have actually divided over the issues. At the heart of the controversies is the struggle over authority.
The reason arguments about the Bible are so serious, especially to Protestants, is because we are unsure where to go when we disagree fundamentally about the Holy Scriptures.
In other words, the arguments reveal a central question about the Church, namely: What is our ultimate spiritual authority? Who, or what, settles our inevitable disagreements? What is our final court of spiritual appeal? Is it our individual conscience? Is it a pope or a bishop? Is it a general assembly of believers? Is it reason, science, or tradition? Is it a creed? Scripture?
Where does the buck stop in Christian life?
The issue is not new, of course. It was a central topic of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Church taught that Christ gave the Bishop of Rome ultimate authority over all local churches and Christian believers. The idea here is that Jesus gave the Apostle Peter earthly supremacy over the Church and that Peter’s successors in Rome have received and exercised that same authority. Protestants, even those who agreed that there was a succession of bishops, did not believe the Bishop of Rome had that sort of preeminence.
The Eastern Orthodox communities believed that final authority rested in the hands of holy tradition, mainly expressed through the decisions of the seven major Church Councils and the ongoing spiritual life of the Church through time and space. Doctrine and practice evolves, but within certain “orthodox” boundaries.
Some Charismatic bodies have seemed to say that final authority is in the hands of contemporary prophets and apostles.
Some denominations have assumed that a majority vote among duly constituted leaders determines the direction the churches within its jurisdiction ought to follow. In contrast to all of these views on church authority, Christ Church most closely agrees with the Protestant reformers insisted that the Bible, the received canon of Holy Scripture, is the Church’s highest authority.
There are a few difficulties with this view, to be sure. For one thing, it begs the question about who compiled and authorized the writings to be included in the canon in the first place. The only possible answer is the Church. However, if the Church was the agency through which the Scriptures were given and then recognized, shouldn’t the Church still have the responsibility to interpret those writings?
It is not spiritually or intellectually honest to dismiss such questions. If the Church had never splintered into many factions with such dissenting opinions, it would make all the sense in the world to view the Church in this light—as the arbitrator and guardian of the Bible. Unfortunately, even if we insist that the Church holds this power to interpret Scripture, we often feel at a loss to define the visible body or the reasonable process that feels legitimate to enough of us to accept its conclusions. So, weighty in theory, this argument usually ends at a romantic cul–de–sac.
We all do agree that the Lord directed His apostles to write Scripture. The next question is whether that power was uniquely reserved to them. If so, then the only thing left for the successors of the apostles to do, at least when it comes to Holy Scripture, was to officially recognize the apostles’ writings.
If we are right about this, then once the scriptural canon was established, the canon itself became the voice of Jesus and His apostles to the Church. In that case, we are not free to improvise, rewrite, or ignore that established witness.
We feel that the early church leaders formally established the scriptural canon because the writings contained in it had already been accepted and revered by Christian churches since the days of the apostles. Some churches used non–canonical writings, such as the Shepherd of Hermas during some early days of the church. However, such writings were not accepted as widely or enthusiastically as the Gospel of Matthew, for example.
Furthermore, the Church established the canon of Scripture before fragmenting into the innumerable denominations that we have today. For all these reasons, Christ Church defines the Christian Bible as the collection of writings we call the Old and New Testaments. We believe that this collection of inspired writings stands in authority above the Church. Pastors and other church leaders must exercise interpretive judgment in reading and teaching the Scripture but must do so within the boundaries of the common core beliefs we often call mere Christianity.
By giving such a high place to the Holy Scriptures, we confess the Holy Spirit’s authorship through human beings and His guidance of the process that gave us the canon of Scripture we have received. The human authors of the text were sometimes unaware they were writing to God’s people in all times and places. However, the Holy Spirit spoke through them in such a way that the specific issues they meant to address have proven to have universal applicability to the whole household of faith, for all times.
For us then, the Bible is to the Church something like the Constitution is to the United States. The Constitution is the foundation of American law, has developed the nature of its national life, and has molded its democratic experience. Americans settle their disputes on the basis of how they interpret the Constitution. Constitutional experts study it and apply its lessons to everyday life, and courts have a legitimate authority to settle our disputes in the light of what it says. However, one lone individual can challenge the findings of a court if he or she can demonstrate in what way the court has erred in its interpretation.
The prophet Nathan challenged King David when David had transgressed the Law of God, and Nathan held the king accountable (2 Samuel 12). In the same spirit, a Christian believer has the freedom to challenge Christian traditions or beliefs if that person can demonstrate that the Bible does not support the traditions or beliefs in question. Christ Church seeks to remain always open to such biblical challenges because we view the Holy Bible as our source and authority in matters of Christian faith and practice.
We do not disrespect the authority of church leaders, and we honor historical tradition. When there is a conflict, however, such things must always submit to Scripture.