Doctrine & the
Authority of the Bible
Definition of Terms:
The ideas of Scriptural authority and infallibility predate Christianity and find their roots in ancient Judaism. Scripture has thus always been held in the highest regard within both Judaism and Christianity. Its use and place within the context of Christianity, however, is complex and depends largely upon the understanding and interpretation of three things; it’s divine inspiration, it’s infallibility, and its role as an authority when used in determining doctrine. All Christians generally believe that Scripture is divinely inspired and contains God’s message to humanity. Because the Bible is divinely inspired, it is also regarded as being infallible, or free from error. The nature of the Bible’s divine inspiration and, consequentially, its infallibility is a topic of great theological debate and a matter of interpretation. Different religious traditions and scholars hold varying views on the matter. Some believe that the Bible is completely without error or contradiction in its original manuscripts, while others view it as a sacred text that may contain some human elements, such as cultural context or literary devices. The belief in the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible has led to the view that the Bible is key to the development of doctrine and it has become an essential aspect of many religious practices and doctrines. The Bible’s true and intended role in the development of doctrine is debated amongst modern scholars. Many Protestant scholars claim it to be the sole rule of faith. The phrase “sole rule of faith” is the belief that the Bible alone (as opposed to the Bible along with Sacred Tradition and the teaching Magisterium) should be used to determine matters of faith and doctrine and that unless it is explicitly stated in the Bible then it cannot be held as doctrine.
This approach has numerous problems, a few of which are;
1: It is not Biblical. Scripture itself does not make the claim that it alone is the rule of faith. Rather, it points to the Church to resolve theological differences (Matt 18:15-17, Acts 15). In 2 Tim 3:16, Paul says that “all Scripture is God breathed” (Notice that he says “all” and not “only”), but gives no hint as to what Scripture consists of other than saying “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures” (3:15), implying that he’s referring to the Old Testament.
2: It is self-refuting. The Bible does not list what books belong in the Bible. Without this knowledge it is impossible to determine which books are divinely inspired unless one believes that the Church itself is an authority guided by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in order to determine the essential doctrine of the Canon of the Bible, one must consult Tradition and Church Authority.
3: It ignores how and why the Bible developed. It was never the Bible’s intended purpose to resolve all matters of doctrine. There was no cohesive effort between the various authors to explain all the essential doctrines of the Church. When the New Testament was written, the authors did so to address specific concerns for their intended audiences. Their audiences were already Christian and had already received instruction in orthodoxy.
4: It is insufficient to determine all essential doctrines. Scripture never lists what is absolutely essential for Christians to believe. There are many things that the Bible never addresses and is completely silent on. The father of Sola Scriptura, Martin Luther, believed the doctrines of the Real Presence and the necessity of Baptism to be essential doctrines; a position denied by many modern Protestants.
5: It does not state explicitly some of the doctrines that are considered essential by many modern Christians. Some doctrines can only be reasoned implicitly from Scripture and were only explicitly defined centuries after the books of the Bible were written. Examples of this include the Divinity of Christ and the Trinity. The Bible implicitly indicates that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, but Christ’s divine nature was only formally defined centuries later at the Council of Nicaea in 325 in reaction to the Arian heresy. How explicit the Bible needs to be on a teaching before it is declared a doctrine is completely subjective.
6: The Bible alone cannot correct errors in the reader’s interpretation. We all approach the Bible with our own preconceived notions. Modern psychology has shown that confirmation bias is something that every human being struggles with. We take what we have been taught -often by those who first introduced us to the Bible- and then interpret what we read through the lens of our instruction. This becomes painfully evident by the fact that there are now over 40,000 different Protestant denominations all claiming their beliefs are based upon the teachings of the Bible. Before the advent of Sola Scriptura, only a handful of lasting heresies or schisms existed. Many of the divisions amongst Protestants on matters like the rapture, infant baptism, the real presence, and the definition of ‘true faith’ boil down to interpretation. The Bible offers no authority on which interpretation is the correct interpretation, but warns that there is an incorrect interpretation (2 Cor. 3:4-6, 2 Pet 1:20; 2 Pet 3:15-16).
7: The Bible alone can not account for discrepancies in translations, contradictions between verses, and errors found within the Bible. An interpretive authority is required to explain and harmonize these issues. Without an authority to definitively interpret and reconcile these issues, then all explanations given become nothing more than speculation, opinion, or conjecture. This is a common reason given by many former Christians for becoming atheist.
8: It is not the provision that Christ made for handing on the faith to future generations. Christ never mentioned a Bible nor commanded His Apostles to write anything down. When making provisions for handing on the faith, Christ instituted the Church (Matt 10:40, Matt16:18-19, Matt 18:17, 1 Cor 11:2, 2 Thess 2:15, 1 Tim 3:15, 2 Tim 2:2, 2 Peter 1:20). Christ tells His disciples to “go into all nations” and “teach them everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-30), but the Bible confirms that not everything Jesus said is contained within the Bible. (Jn 21:25; Acts 20:35.)
9: It is a man-made tradition. Protestants often quote Matt. 15:2–6; Mark 7:8–13; Col. 2:8, where corrupt traditions of men are condemned for “nullifying the word of God.” Catholics agree with this, but disagree on what constitutes a “tradition of men.” Sola Scriptura is a perfect example of a “tradition of men”, having been invented by Martin Luther 1,500 years after Christ, not being found anywhere in Scripture, and nullifying God’s Word by not keeping Tradition.
10: It is not historical. The Early Church did not teach that the Bible was the sole rule of faith. While the early Church held Scripture in the highest regard, they did not understand it to be the sole rule of faith. The Church Fathers are unanimous throughout the ancient world that it was the Church and its bishops and Councils that determined the rule of faith. Even the canon of the Bible itself was not defined until the Councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage in the fourth century.
Figures such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage and others paint a very vivid picture of how the early Church determined doctrine. This role of the Church when defining doctrine is often misunderstood by its critics as an arbitrary process of introducing “new” doctrine as though there is ongoing “revelation” by the Holy Spirit. This misunderstanding leads many to make the assertion that the moment when the Church formally defines a doctrine is also the moment when the doctrine was “first introduced” in history. The truth is that the role of the Church is to protect revealed truth as it was first given to the Apostles by Christ. It is not possible, nor necessary, for the Church to predict every question or erroneous teaching that may arise throughout the course of history. Rather, Christ gave the Church the ability to deal with questions on matters of the faith by giving the Church the authority to “bind and loose.” Historically, the Church has most commonly applied this authority in reaction to heretical movements. The Church’s response to heresy entails clarifying and further defining the original deposit of faith as it has been understood throughout history since it was first handed down by the Apostles. The Bible is an indispensable aid in this regard and doctrine must never contradict Scripture as it has been traditionally interpreted. Upon clarifying the proper teaching as handed down by the Apostles, the Church then declares this clarification to be doctrine in order to deter any further misunderstanding or erroneous teaching on the subject.
History has shown that the development of doctrine occurs in all religions, denominations, and theological traditions. As theologians ponder their religion, they often develop a deeper understanding and thus offer more well structured explanations of their beliefs. The development of doctrine is a necessary and logical process in the life of the Church. The growth of doctrines in their richness and complexity represents the Church’s own growth in maturity and understanding. This growth in understanding often leads theologians to introduce new words in order to describe the ideas that they are trying to convey. Examples of these words include: “Trinity”, “Incarnation”, “Rapture”, “Hypostatic Union” (The union of Christ’s Human & Divine natures within one person), “Homoousios” (The shared essence of the Father & Son), “Christianity”, “Purgatory”, “Bible”, and “Biblical Canon”. None of these words are found in Scripture, but Christians have used them to convey ideas. However, as one outgrows the teachings that are found explicitly in Scripture, one must be careful not to introduce corruption into the message of the Gospel.
All Christians agree that it is essential to hold the correct doctrines (i.e. teachings) handed down by Christ and his Apostles, but disagree on what those doctrines are and which ones are essential. Nearly all denominations claim that their teachings are rooted in the Bible, yet -due to disagreements of interpretation on the meanings of certain key verses- numerous conflicting teachings exist between denominations. The past two centuries alone has seen the creation of nearly 40,000 denominations. Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his famous work “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine”, identified seven “notes” that would characterize authentic doctrinal developments, but would be lacking in doctrinal corruptions. By looking at the historical origins of doctrines and testing them for these “notes”, it becomes possible to determine what are true Doctrinal Developments and what are Doctrinal Corruptions.
The Historical Development of Doctine:
Acts Chapter 15
1 Corinthians 11:2
“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”
1 Thessalonians 2:13
“When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God”
2 Thessalonians 2:15
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”
2 Thessalonians 3:6
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.”
2 Timothy 2:2
“What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
Acts of the Apostles 8:30-31
“So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”
1 Timothy 3:15
“if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
2 Peter 1:20
“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”
3 John 13-14
“I have much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink; instead I hope to see you soon, and we will talk together face to face.”
The Gospel of Matthew 18:17
“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
The Gospel of John 21:25
“But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
Church Father Quotes:
St. Papias of Hierapolis
“Papias, who is now mentioned by us, affirms that he received the sayings of the apostles from those who accompanied them, and he, moreover, asserts that he heard in person Aristion and the presbyter John. Accordingly, he mentions them frequently by name, and in his writings gives their traditions… There are other passages of his in which he relates some miraculous deeds, stating that he acquired the knowledge of them from tradition” (fragment in Eusebius, Church History 3:39 [A.D. 312]).
Eusebius of Caesarea
“At that time [A.D. 150] there flourished in the Church Hegesippus, whom we know from what has gone before, and Dionysius, bishop of Corinth, and another bishop, Pinytus of Crete, and besides these, Philip, and Apollinarius, and Melito, and Musanus, and Modestus, and, finally, Irenaeus. From them has come down to us in writing, the sound and orthodox faith received from tradition” (Church History 4:21).
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
“As I said before, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although she is disseminated throughout the whole world, yet guarded it, as if she occupied but one house. She likewise believes these things just as if she had but one soul and one and the same heart; and harmoniously she proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down, as if she possessed but one mouth. For, while the languages of the world are diverse, nevertheless, the authority of the tradition is one and the same” (Against Heresies 1:10:2 [A.D. 189]).
“That is why it is surely necessary to avoid them [heretics], while cherishing with the utmost diligence the things pertaining to the Church, and to lay hold of the tradition of truth. . . . What if the apostles had not in fact left writings to us? Would it not be necessary to follow the order of tradition, which was handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches?” (ibid., 3:4:1).
“It is possible, then, for everyone in every church, who may wish to know the truth, to contemplate the tradition of the apostles which has been made known throughout the whole world. And we are in a position to enumerate those who were instituted bishops by the apostles and their successors to our own times—men who neither knew nor taught anything like these heretics rave about.
“But since it would be too long to enumerate in such a volume as this the successions of all the churches, we shall confound all those who, in whatever manner, whether through self-satisfaction or vainglory, or through blindness and wicked opinion, assemble other than where it is proper, by pointing out here the successions of the bishops of the greatest and most ancient church known to all, founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul, that church which has the tradition and the faith which comes down to us after having been announced to men by the apostles.
“With this church, because of its superior origin, all churches must agree—that is, all the faithful in the whole world—and it is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition” (ibid., 3:3:1–2).
St. Clement of Alexandria
“Well, they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from loss the blessed tradition” (Miscellanies 1:1 [A.D. 208]).
Origen of Alexandria
“Although there are many who believe that they themselves hold to the teachings of Christ, there are yet some among them who think differently from their predecessors. The teaching of the Church has indeed been handed down through an order of succession from the apostles and remains in the churches even to the present time. That alone is to be believed as the truth which is in no way at variance with ecclesiastical and apostolic tradition” (The Fundamental Doctrines 1:2 [A.D. 225]).
St. Cyprian of Carthage
“[T]he Church is one, and as she is one, cannot be both within and without. For if she is with Novatian, she was not with [Pope] Cornelius. But if she was with Cornelius, who succeeded the bishop Fabian by lawful ordination, and whom, beside the honor of the priesthood the Lord glorified also with martyrdom, Novatian is not in the Church; nor can he be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way” (Letters 75:3 [A.D. 253]).
St. Athanasius of Alexandria
“Again we write, again keeping to the apostolic traditions, we remind each other when we come together for prayer; and keeping the feast in common, with one mouth we truly give thanks to the Lord” (Festal Letters 2:7 [A.D. 330]).
“But you are blessed, who by faith are in the Church, dwell upon the foundations of the faith, and have full satisfaction, even the highest degree of faith which remains among you unshaken. For it has come down to you from apostolic tradition, and frequently accursed envy has wished to unsettle it, but has not been able” (ibid., 29).
St. Basil “the Great” of Caesarea
“Of the dogmas and messages preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety, both are of the same force. No one will contradict any of these, no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce [Christian] message to a mere term” (The Holy Spirit 27:66 [A.D. 375]).
St. Epiphanius of Salamis
“It is needful also to make use of tradition, for not everything can be gotten from sacred Scripture. The holy apostles handed down some things in the scriptures, other things in tradition” (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 61:6 [A.D. 375]).
St. Augustine of Hippo
“[T]he custom [of not rebaptizing converts] . . . may be supposed to have had its origin in apostolic tradition, just as there are many things which are observed by the whole Church, and therefore are fairly held to have been enjoined by the apostles, which yet are not mentioned in their writings” (On Baptism, Against the Donatists 5:23 [A.D. 400]).
“But the admonition that he [Cyprian] gives us, ‘that we should go back to the fountain, that is, to apostolic tradition, and thence turn the channel of truth to our times,’ is most excellent, and should be followed without hesitation” (ibid., 5:26).
“Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichæus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichæus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;— Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichæus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?” -Augustine of Hippo, Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, Chapter 5
“But in regard to those observances which we carefully attend and which the whole world keeps, and which derive not from Scripture but from Tradition, we are given to understand that they are recommended and ordained to be kept, either by the apostles themselves or by plenary [ecumenical] councils, the authority of which is quite vital in the Church” (Letter to Januarius [A.D. 400]).
St. John Chrysostom
“[Paul commands,] ‘Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you have been taught, whether by word or by our letter’ [2 Thess. 2:15]. From this it is clear that they did not hand down everything by letter, but there is much also that was not written. Like that which was written, the unwritten too is worthy of belief. So let us regard the tradition of the Church also as worthy of belief. Is it a tradition? Seek no further” (Homilies on Second Thessalonians [A.D. 402]).
St. Vincent of Lerins
“With great zeal and closest attention, therefore, I frequently inquired of many men, eminent for their holiness and doctrine, how I might, in a concise and, so to speak, general and ordinary way, distinguish the truth of the Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical depravity.
“I received almost always the same answer from all of them—that if I or anyone else wanted to expose the frauds and escape the snares of the heretics who rise up, and to remain intact and in sound faith, it would be necessary, with the help of the Lord, to fortify that faith in a twofold manner: first, of course, by the authority of divine law [Scripture] and then by the tradition of the Catholic Church.
“Here, perhaps, someone may ask: ‘If the canon of the scriptures be perfect and in itself more than suffices for everything, why is it necessary that the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation be joined to it?’ Because, quite plainly, sacred Scripture, by reason of its own depth, is not accepted by everyone as having one and the same meaning. . . .
“Thus, because of so many distortions of such various errors, it is highly necessary that the line of prophetic and apostolic interpretation be directed in accord with the norm of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning” (The Notebooks [A.D. 434]).
Pope St. Agatho
“[T]he holy Church of God . . . has been established upon the firm rock of this Church of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, which by his grace and guardianship remains free from all error, [and possesses that faith that] the whole number of rulers and priests, of the clergy and of the people, unanimously should confess and preach with us as the true declaration of the apostolic tradition, in order to please God and to save their own souls” (Letter read at fourth session of III Constantinople [A.D. 680]).
Dr. James Allen Hewett, Pastor, PhD, University of Manchester
“This tense . . . occurs rarely in the [Greek New Testament], but the student will do well to be familiar with it. Consider Matthew 16:19 (two examples) and 18:18 (two examples): “Whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound [estai dedemenon] in heaven and whatever you loose on the earth will have been loosed [estai lelumenon] in heaven.” The construction declares that a completed heavenly action and its continuing results will come to exist on earth upon the completion of a future earthly event.” –New Testament Greek: A Beginning and Intermediate Grammar, 152
J. N. D. Kelly (1909-1997, A Protestant and an early Church historian)
“[W]here in practice was [the] apostolic testimony or tradition to be found? . . . The most obvious answer was that the apostles had committed it orally to the Church, where it had been handed down from generation to generation. . . . Unlike the alleged secret tradition of the Gnostics, it was entirely public and open, having been entrusted by the apostles to their successors, and by these in turn to those who followed them, and was visible in the Church for all who cared to look for it” (Early Christian Doctrines, 37).
For the early Fathers, “the identity of the oral tradition with the original revelation is guaranteed by the unbroken succession of bishops in the great sees going back lineally to the apostles. . . . [A]n additional safeguard is supplied by the Holy Spirit, for the message committed was to the Church, and the Church is the home of the Spirit. Indeed, the Church’s bishops are . . . Spirit-endowed men who have been vouchsafed ‘an infallible charism of truth’” (ibid.).