You’ve got to feel for the Judaizers. If you’ve read the New Testament, you’ve bumped into them; they stirred up the controversy that led to the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem. St. Paul inveighed against them in the book of Galatians. They were the original sola Scriptura Christians, insisting that the Bible alone (which at that time consisted of the books of the Old Testament) should be our guide, along the lines of the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them…. (Westminster Confession).
In case the events of Acts 15 are a little hazy in your memory, they went like this:
Some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and some others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.
Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with the Judaizers, who were insisting that wannabe Christians enter into the Mosaic Covenant through circumcision. Before coming down too hard on the Judaizers, we should note that they did this with the best of intentions. Read through the Old Testament and see what it has to say about circumcision. In Genesis 17 God established His covenant with Abraham with these instructions:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Both the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money must be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.’
In accordance with this, the book of Leviticus instructs that “On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised.” Jesus Himself was circumcised, and He affirmed that “Moses gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers)” (Jn 7:22). There is no Biblical mention of Jesus ever instructing his disciples to forgo circumcising their sons. The Judaizers quite rightly insisted that the Old Testament portrays circumcision as an absolute necessity. When they argued with Sts. Paul and Barnabas, the Judaizers had Scripture on their side!
Yet the Council of Jerusalem, with no Scriptural attestation to the correctness of its judgment, ruled against them. Instead of marshaling Bible verses to prove his case, St. Peter merely gives a personal testimony of what God has been doing in His Church. Peter then formulates his doctrinal judgment concerning how all, Jews and Gentiles alike, are saved under the New Covenant:
After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, testified to them giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Nary a Bible quote in the whole defense! Paul and Barnabas then second Peter’s testimony, recounting the “signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” With the entire weight of the Old Testament witness on their side, the Judaizers must have been appalled. But… but… THE BIBLE SAYS!!!
So St. James pipes up, commenting on St. Peter’s doctrinal pronouncement, and thanks be to God, he wants to quote from Scripture:
With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, so that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My Name,’ says the Lord, Who makes these things known from long ago.
What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?? No discussion of Genesis 17? No mention of Leviticus 3? Judges 14:3 or 15:18? 1 Samuel 14:6? Isaiah 52:1? Ezekiel 28:10? St. James quotes from a mish-mash of the prophets Jeremiah, Amos and Isaiah – totally off-topic, by the way – before laying out his pastoral initiative as the head of the church in Jerusalem:
Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.
To put it plainly, if Jesus had instructed His followers to rely on the Bible alone, the memo somehow missed the Council of Jerusalem. The Council came to its decision that circumcision was not necessary under the New Covenant without relying on Scripture. As if to reinforce this point, the apostles and elders at the meeting composed a letter to Gentile believers explaining to them, not what the Bible teaches on this topic, but what they, by the authority vested in them as the leadership of the Church established by Jesus Christ, had decided on this issue:
We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.
And so that settled things, right? Well, no, it didn’t. The Judaizers kept right on judaizing. We find St. Paul penning his epistle to the Galatians in an effort to keep their influence at bay, and he brings up the issue of circumcision in his letters to the Romans, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, the Philippians and the Colossians. The Judaizers just wouldn’t let it die….
“Scripture PLAINLY states…” the Judaizers thundered. Who did these apostles think they were, to discontinue the requirement for circumcision with no Scriptural back-up and no direct command from Jesus?
The apostles didn’t just “think,” they KNEW who they were. They were the leadership of the Church that Jesus had established. They had the authority to make these decisions. As they phrased it, not “The Bible says,” but “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us!”
And most modern-day Bible-alone Christians would have no trouble with that. You see, they explain, the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life had not yet been given to us when the Judaizers were butting heads with the apostles! That’s why God inspired the apostles and their disciples to write the books of the New Testament. Once those were written, however, God discontinued the role of the authoritative Church because it was no longer necessary! Sola Scriptura proponents will tell you that the apostles had the authority to make decisions with seemingly no reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. But they also kept busy writing down everything the Spirit was telling them, because they knew that when they went to be with the Lord, their authority would die with them! When the apostles died, in other words, they were succeeded not by men, but by their own writings! It is now the writings of the apostles and the prophets, i.e., the Scriptures, which have the authority to command Christians.
There are, of course, a few problems with that theory, foremost among them being the words of Jesus Himself. Blogger George Sipe at Convert Journal is writing a fun series called “Not in Scripture.” He hasn’t gotten to Matthew 18:15-17 yet, so I’m taking the liberty:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, take it to the Bible; and if he refuses to listen even to the Bible, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Ahem. Of course the passage in question actually reads, “take it to the Church, and if he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” And significantly, the very next verse echoes Jesus’ promise to Simon, whom he renames Peter, in Matthew 16:
Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.
This is the apostolic authority to bind and loose (Jesus references the rabbinical authority to bind in Mt 23:4 – obviously not merely the authority to excommunicate). So unless Bible-alone Christians want to claim that these instructions to “take it to the Church” in verses 15-17 were only meant to remain in effect while the apostles were alive and able to render authoritative judgments, they’re going to have to deal with verse 18 as well, and that entails admitting that apostolic authority has been handed down even to our day – Catholics would say specifically to the successors to those apostles who form the leadership of the Catholic Church. The Catholic claim of the validity of apostolic succession traces back to the first century, as seen in the epistle St. Clement wrote to the church in Corinth:
The apostles preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe…. Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those [ministers] already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry.
And so there is a Church which acts with authority, a Church which can bind and loose. Sadly, though, there are those others even today who go out from that Church without her authorization and disturb believers, troubling their minds by what they say – Christians who will not defer to the teaching authority of the Church Jesus established, and who instead go out proclaiming their own understanding of Scripture, leading people astray. These are our modern-day Judaizers. Circumcision doesn’t interest them; the New Testament passages proclaiming baptism as the new circumcision have cleared that issue up to their satisfaction. Yet there are other verses and other issues; it is upon them that they take their stand.
There are Oneness Pentecostals, descended from the charismatic Azuza Street revival, who reject the doctrine of the Trinity formally promulgated by the Holy Catholic Church in 325 A.D., because they can’t find it taught in so many words in their Bible. As the United Pentecostal Church International phrases it:
The UPCI is a Bible-based church. We’re Bible-based in that we seek to base all of our beliefs and our lifestyle on explicit passages of the Bible or on biblical principles. Based on Scripture, we believe the following . . . the Bible does not teach that there are three distinct centers of consciousness in the Godhead or that Jesus is one of three divine persons.
As a conservative Protestant blogger admits concerning Oneness Pentecostalism, “It is a disturbing fact that the most vigorous form of anti-trinitarianism currently on the market is to be found within the sphere of conservative evangelicalism.” A disturbing fact, indeed, but small wonder – Oneness Pentecostals simply take the doctrine of sola Scriptura to its legitimate conclusion, while the writers of that conservative Protestant blog unconsciously rely upon the authority of the successors to the apostles (who decided definitively in council that God is a Trinity of Persons), all the while believing that they get their doctrine “from the Bible alone.”
There are well-known Bible teachers like the late Dr. Walter Martin, who wandered off into a heresy condemned by Church councils long ago, incarnational Sonship – denying the eternal Sonship of Jesus Christ. According to Dr. Martin:
The Scripture nowhere calls Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God, and He is never called Son at all prior to the incarnation, except in prophetic passages in the Old Testament. The term “Son” itself is a functional term, as is the term “Father” and has no meaning apart from time. . . . Many heresies have seized upon the confusion created by the illogical “eternal Sonship” or “eternal generation” theory of Roman Catholic theology, unfortunately carried over to some aspects of Protestant theology.
Ignoring the teaching of the Church on this issue (the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. declared in no uncertain terms that Jesus was “born of the Father before all ages”), Martin swam out alone into the deep waters of Bible-only confusion, and lost sight of the coastline. As the Evangelical theologian John Walvoord wrote, “The consensus of the great theologians of the church and the great church councils is to the effect that Christ has been a Son from eternity; and the theory that He became a Son by incarnation is inadequate to account for the usage of the term….” He is right about that, and it is upon these “great church councils” and their decisions which conservative Protestants like Walvoord rely when arguing against heresies like Incarnational Sonship. Although Walvoord goes on to say, “The scriptural view of the Sonship of Christ, as recognized in many of the great creeds of the church, is that Christ was always the Son of God,” Walvoord is actually reading back into Scripture what the great Church Councils taught him to believe, for indeed Scripture does not teach unambiguously on the issue of Jesus’ Eternal vs. Incarnational Sonship. The successors to the apostles, when faced with Scriptural ambiguity on this issue, were guided by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 1:14) in their discernment, and then wielded the authority vested in them to declare the doctrine of the Eternal Sonship to be the correct understanding of Jesus’ relationship to the Father. They were following in the footsteps of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem. Yet a sola Scriptura Protestant simply cannot admit that it is the judgment of Church Councils upon which he relies, nor can he admit that Dr. Martin made a compelling case from Scripture that Incarnational Sonship might be doctrinally correct. The belief that those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them must be defended come what may, yet it collapses when well-respected conservative Protestant Bible teachers like Walvoord hold doctrinal positions diametrically opposed to the positions taken by well-respected conservative Protestant Bible teachers like Martin. Trapped by his errant theology, Dr. Walvoord is forced to maintain that Scripture is perspicuous (though it obviously is not) and that all of his beliefs come straight from those perspicuous Scriptures.
Catholics are NOT asked to choose between the Church and the Bible. But when there are “difficulties,” verses which appear to contradict each other, various perspectives on important theological concepts, we are asked to choose the Church’s understanding of those verses. The idea that the individual believer can pick up a Bible and discern subtle but vital theological distinctions all by his lonesome has been proved false over and over again throughout the past 500 years of the sola Scriptura experiment. The Church asks us to interpret the Bible through the “apostolic lens” that she uses, understanding verses not according to our own lights but according to the understanding bestowed upon the apostles by Jesus, the understanding passed down and faithfully guarded by the Church “with the help of the Holy Spirit.”
“Scripture PLAINLY states…” the Judaizers thunder.
“Take it to the Church,” Jesus replies.
On the memorial of the Martyrs of September
Deo omnis gloria!