Recently, I read a theological book in which the author argues that, contrary to popular belief, we simply cannot use the Bible as an authority on how we do church. That the true Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot possibly be contained in this book. And that we are all leading ourselves astray by thinking, essentially, that the Bible is anything but a good story.
His basis for making this claim is simple: the earliest church, the first-century church that most of us strive to replicate in this modern world, didn't have the Bible. Therefore, the Bible was never the foundation of the church at all. And if it was not the foundation of the earliest church, it should not be the foundation of the modern church.
On the surface, this looks like a valid argument. Logical, at least. And somewhat historically accurate.
It is true that the early church did not have the New Testament as we have it today, all in one piece. But the letters of the New Testament were letters written to the early church, and so, they had the letters. And the Gospels were accounts written to preserve the experience of the apostles as they traveled with Jesus around this world. Written or oral at the time, the early church had the testimony of the Gospels. The history of Acts was unfolding right before them; it probably wasn't written at the time and passed around, but everyone knew the stories of the apostles as they proclaimed the early church because, well, the early church probably remembered fondly being proclaimed! And certainly, everyone in the region heard the story of the great persecutor, Saul, who became the incredible evangelist, Paul.
So on the one hand, yes. The early church did not have the New Testament in the way we have it, and it was not the basis of their church. But on the other hand, no. The early church was writing the New Testament, living it in real time, and it was the story of their church.
The argument that this author wants to make is, to me, akin to saying that we cannot, as Americans, take seriously the constitution of the United States of America, or even the Declaration of Independence, simply because the earliest settlers of this land did not have them. It would be more than a hundred years after stumbling over Plymouth Rock that the colonists would first write these things, and therefore, these documents are not actually the foundation of America at all.
Do you see how absurd that is? Just because something wasn't written down beforehand doesn't mean it wasn't the real story of what was going on. It doesn't mean the tenets in these founding documents were not the attitude, the reality, and the foundation of early America. It was a story being lived out, and then later, written and declared and preserved so that we, future generations of Americans, would know how it was done.
Quite frankly, I like it better that way. What it says is, we wrestled with this. We lived it. We worked it out, and here's what we came up with that works best as we see it.
That's what we get when we read the Bible. It's the foundation of the early church not as it was declared or proclaimed or somehow orchestrated, but as the early Christians wrestled with this new idea and figured it out. It's the story not of how the church was, but of how it came to be. On what foundations it set itself. On the struggles along the way. On the questions that arose and how they were addressed.
In this sense, absolutely if we want to be like the early church, we must take the Scriptures as a strong foundation. For they tell us how they did it. They are God's Word to us about how He established His church, and that's how He continues to establish His church. It is, for us, the preserved testimony of the apostles, who walked with Christ Himself. Were it not for the written word, we'd have no record with this authority of what Christ was actually like. It is, for us, the very teaching of the apostles as they fulfilled the Great Commission.
The author of this particular book argued that we would be better off closing our Bibles in favor of the skilled teachers God has given us, those He has appointed to preach the Good News. But are there greater teachers than the eleven? Is there one more appointed than Paul? The Bible is our authority, yes, but let us not forget, either, that these are our teachers.
It's a fine line, of course. We can become too obsessed with the Word and misplace the authority by trusting more in the Bible than in its revelations. We can become more enamored by the words of Paul than by the heart of him. And this is dangerous.
But to say that the Bible should not be the guiding document of the modern church is, well, kind of hilarious. Because it is the Bible that records for us how church is done. Without it, we'd be figuring it out all over again, every day, in every generation, trying to come up with a way to fellowship, to teach, to learn, to praise, to worship, to pray, to gather. The Bible reveals how we do it, how this thing called the church was first worked out. How it came to be.
And in that very unique way that the Bible does it, it also, by the inclusion of the Old Testament, the prophecies, the promises, and the New Testament Gospels, tells us why.