The Bible and Church History

By Paul Harrison

Every Sunday we all attend various church services during which Holy Scriptures are opened and presented to us for God’s glory and our benefit. Sunday after Sunday, year after year and century after century this has been the case.In fact, this practice is attested to by a second-century church attender named Justin.

We know him as Justin Martyr, for about the year 165, because of his faith in Christ, he was scourged and beheaded. About 15 years before his martyrdom, Justin wrote a letter defending true Christian faith to the Roman Emperor. In this letter he described the church services of his day.

He wrote: “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (First Apology, ANF 1:186).

Now I ask you: Why is it that a book should hold such a place of reverence among so many people over so many years? The answer is that this book, the Bible, has been recognized to be a special book, unlike any other. It has been recognized as a message from God.

Amazing Unity

The Bible is special in its unity, its oneness. Now this is an interesting assertion, for the Bible is a compilation of 66 segments diversity. Its first five sections were penned by Moses around 1450 BC. Its final section was written by the apostle John, probably around AD 90.

Many Writers

This makes the Bible a document composed over the course of approximately a millennium and a half. Over the centuries some 40 individuals contributed to the collection. Some writers were schooled in the world’s great educational institutions, some were humble shepherds. Some held positions in the royal palace, and some were fishermen, considered “unlearned.”

Farmers, businessmen, soldiers, kings, a physician, a rabbi—all these and more contributed to what we call the Bible. This document truly was given to us over “many times and various ways” as Hebrews 1:1 puts it. So you see that when the Bible is referred to as a unified whole, this is a bold assertion.

One Doctrine

But a unified whole it is. It teaches one triune God, one way to Heaven, one standard of holiness, one body of Christ. It is many books and yet one book. Recall that the Books of Moses were dubbed “the Law.” Remember that when Jesus gathered the multitudes, He taught them “the word.” And this unity has been consistently recognized by the church.

After the various segments of scripture were collected, the fourth century church father Jerome referred to them as “the divine library.” And eventually, the plural term biblia, books, came to be viewed as a singular, the Bible, the book.

The great scholar B. F. Westcott noted in 1885 that it is amazing that “annals and prophecies and letters, thus (apparently) casual in their origin, should combine into a whole marvelously complete and symmetrical in its spiritual teaching . . . “ (p.5).

But I most like the way J. Gresham Machen, the renowned Presbyterian theologian referred to the Bible’s unity and harmony.

He wrote: “l am tempted to think of the writers of these 66 books as though they were a great orchestra, not composed of poor mechanical strummers but of true musicians, carefully chosen, carefully trained, individual, different, yet contributing by their very differences to the unity of some glorious symphony under a great Director’s wand. In that marvelous harmony of Holy Scripture even the least considered parts of the Bible have their place. None could be lacking without offending the great Musician’s ear” (The Christian Faith, p. 53).

Enduring Relevance

The Bible also displays an enduring practicality. It is important to note this for we might admit to the unity of the scriptures, but think of them as merely addressing unimportant, irrelevant themes. Or we might think of it as being of value in the olden days, but no longer relevant to today.

The church over the centuries, however, has recognized the enduring, practical relevance of the Bible. Generation after generation the Bible addresses the important issues of life.

The scriptures have something for everyone. They provide complexities for deep theological investigations and simple truth that children can grasp. Augustine said it this way: The scriptures are deep enough for an elephant to swim in and shallow enough for a lamb to wade.

Salvation Message

The scriptures have shown themselves relevant in that they provide the message that leads to salvation. Paul told young Timothy that the scriptures are “able to make you wise unto salvation.”

Every person who has ever been converted has been saved through the message of the Bible. Chapter and verse may not have been cited, but it is only the truth of the scriptures that saves sinners. As has been stated: “The only Jesus we know is the Jesus clothed in words of scripture.”

Origen of Alexandria who lived from 185-254 spoke of the scripture’s converting power: “As in the case of the fishes that fall into the net, some are found in one part of the net and some in another part, and each at the part at which it was caught, so in the case of those who have come into the net of the Scriptures you would find some caught in the prophetic net; for example, of Isaiah, . . . or of Jeremiah or of Daniel; and others in the net of the law, and others in the gospel net, and some in the apostolic net; for when one is first captured by the Word or seems to be captured, he is taken from some part of the whole net” (ANF 9:420).

Strength for Difficulties

The Bible has shown itself relevant in that it provides strength to endure the difficulties of life. In Constantinople in the fifth century, when a theological fuss sprang up, the sentence of banishment was passed upon Chrysostom, that city’s bishop and preacher. It was agreed to by the Empress Eudoxia, who was the power behind the throne.

The great preacher was forcibly escorted from the city to a waiting boat which took him away. He wrote to a friend of this occasion and revealed what it was that sustained and encouraged him:

“When I was driven from the city, I felt no anxiety, but said to myself: If the empress wishes to banish me, let her do so; ‘the earth is the Lord’s.’ If she wants to have me sawn asunder, I have Isaiah for an example. If she wants me to be drowned in the ocean, I think of Jonah. If I am to be thrown into the fire, the three men in the furnace suffered the same.

lf cast before wild beasts, I remember Daniel in the lion’s den. If she wants me to be stoned, I have before me Stephen, the first martyr. If she demands my head, let her do so; John the Baptist shines before me. Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked shall I leave this world.”

Behavior Guide

The Bible is relevant in that it offers guidance on appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Is it OK to go to movies and if so, which ones? Is it OK to listen to rock music? And the list goes on and changes with the changing times. These questions are to be answered, not by our family or denominational tradition, but by scripture.

But how can scripture answer such questions when movies didn’t even exist in Bible days? We’ve probably all bumped into the argument that goes like this: “But smoking isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bible.”

I was amused to find in a document written around the year 200, a reference to this “it’s not mentioned in scripture” argument. Tertullian, a kind of second-century ultra-fundamentalist, wrote a Latin piece titled De Spectaculiswhich translates into English as About the Shows. It addressed the question of Christians attending the plays, circuses and gladiatorial combats.

Tertullian wrote:

“. . . the faith of some . . . demands direct authority from scripture for giving up the shows, and holds out that the matter is a doubtful one, because such abstinence is not clearly and in words imposed upon God’s servants. Well, we never find it expressed with the same precision, ‘Thou shalt not enter circus or theatre, thou shalt not look on combat or show;’ as it is plainly laid down, ‘Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery or fraud.’

But we find that that first word of David bears on this very sort of thing: ‘Blessed,’ he says, ‘is the man who has not gone into the assembly of the impious, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of scorners,”‘ (ANF 3:80-81).

Life Principles

The church has also found that the Bible is relevant for life in general. It teaches us how to live: How to date, how to marry and how to conduct a marriage. How to earn money, how to spend money and how to give money. How to be friendly, how to make friends and how to keep friends.

The Bible addresses the whole of life with principles which work. The founding fathers of our land knew this, and that’s one of the reasons they established thoroughly Christian institutions such as Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth.

Remember, John Harvard was a minister. Remember, Jonathan Edwards, America’s greatest theologian, was an early student at Yale and later president of Princeton. Remember, upon the seal of Dartmouth are the words “Vox Clamantis in Deserto,” “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Our founding fathers knew that the Bible teaches every generation how to live.

Absolute Reliability

The Christian church has honored the Bible because of its unity, its practicality or relevance to life, and because of its reliability. The church over the centuries has recognized that the Bible is “God-breathed,” to use Paul’s term. To honor the Bible is to honor the God of the Bible. Conversely, to dishonor the Bible is to dishonor God.

In the last couple of centuries, it has become common for the reliability of the scriptures to be assailed.  “The scripture-writers,” some say, “were trapped in their respective ages. They were ill-informed, living in prescientific days. Their errors are therefore to be excused, and we are to dig through and behind their deficiencies and find the ethical kernels of truth which they espoused.”

Such thinking may have become popular in some circles, but it represents a radical departure from Christian teaching over the centuries. Listen to these testimonies of trust in the scriptures:

Confidence in Scripture

Clement of Rome, writing to Christians in Corinth at the close of the first century urged them to “Look carefully into the scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”

Polycarp, the disciple of the Apostle John and second-century martyr, wrote a letter around AD 150 to the church at Philippi. In this letter he made several statements revealing his attitude toward the scriptures. “For neither I, nor any other such one, can come up to the wisdom of the blessed and glorified Paul.”

He charged these Philippian Christians: “Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.”

Again he writes: “For I trust that ye are well versed in the Sacred Scriptures.”

Theophilus, the sixth bishop of Antioch, wrote the following around 170: “But men of God carrying in them a holy spirit and becoming Prophets, being inspired and made wise by God, became God-taught, and holy, and righteous” (ANF 2:97).

Also about the year 170 Athenagoras, in his A Plea for the Christianswritten to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, asserted that the pagan poets and philosophers, sought “each one by his own soul, to try whether he could find out and apprehend the truth. . . . But we have . . . Prophets, men . . . guided by the Spirit of God.”

Athenagoras maintained that God “moved the mouths of the prophets like musical instruments.” Continuing his musical analogy, a favorite of his, he explained that the prophets were “lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit,” and they “uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute player breathes into a flute” (ANF 2: 132-33).

Beyond the Struggles

From this consistent, steadfast belief in the scriptures which the Fathers maintained, we are not to conclude that they were without their struggles. Augustine illustrates this point. He lived from 354-430 and was perhaps the greatest post-biblical thinker Christianity has known. Yet he wrestled with apparent inconsistencies in the scriptures.

But listen to the conclusion to which years of study led him: “l have learned to yield such respect and honor only to the canonical books of scripture; of these do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it” (quoted in The Proceedings of the Conference on Biblical Inerrancy: 1987, p. 33).

Now don’t think that I’m merely selecting quotations which prove my point and avoiding those which don’t. In surveying church history one struggles to find those within the church who speak disparagingly of the scriptures. Those who from an alleged Christian position reject the inspiration of the Bible are the new kids on the block. That point is well made by Kirsop Lake, noted Harvard professor.

Fundamental Facts

Lake is no friend to conservative theology, but listen to his admission:

“lt is a mistake often made by educated persons who happen to have but little knowledge of historical theology to suppose that fundamentalism is a new and strange form of thought. It is nothing of the kind; it is a partial and uneducated survival of a theology which was once universally held by all Christians. How many were there, for instance, in Christian churches in the 18th century who doubted the infallible inspiration of all scripture? A few perhaps, but very few.

No, the fundamentalist may be wrong; I think that he is. But it is we who have departed from the tradition not he, and I am sorry for the fate of anyone who tries to argue with a fundamentalist on the basis of authority. The Bible and the corpus theologicumof the Church is on the fundamentalist side” (quoted in Conf. On Bib. Inerrancy, pp. 33-34).

Mark Noll put it succinctly: “Most Christians in most churches since the founding of Christianity have believed in the inerrancy of the Bible” (in Conf. On Bib. Inerrancy, p. 9).

And I should add that an emphasis upon the reliability of the scripture is critical for the Christian enterprise. To undermine God’s Word is to undermine His work.

Listen to Mark Noll once again: “lt simply is beyond dispute that denominations or other Christian institutions which have denied the full truthfulness of the Bible also have become less concerned about spreading the gospel to the lost, have wavered on the application of God’s law to contemporary life, and have temporized on the nature of God, the nature of Christ, and the nature of salvation” (Conf. On Bib. Inerrancy,p.22).

As Christians we must be careful to honor God through our honoring of His Word. We must teach others to do the same. We must not allow anything to supplant the authority of God’s Word. We must not make it our goal to preserve our tradition nor to engender loyalty to our tradition, for to do so is to undermine the foundation upon which we seek to build.

We must rather allow the unified, relevant and reliable message of the Bible to sit in judgment upon our tradition. We must do as the theologians who attended the Council of Nicea in 325 did. As they wrestled with difficult issues, “a copy of the Gospels was placed at the front of the room as a symbol that God speaking through the written Word was to be the final arbiter” (Volz, Faith and Practice, p. 23).

Article adapted from Contact magazine, March 1999.