While God revealed the plan of salvation to Israel and the
early church, the Holy Spirit moved holy men to write the message he wanted to
give to future generations. Today we do not have apostles and prophets living
among us, and Christ has ascended back to heaven. Yet we still have their
teaching recorded in the God-breathed Scriptures. Therefore, the Holy
Bible is the only infallible rule of faith for the Christian church.
This principle, known by the Latin phrase Sola Scriptura
(‘Scripture Alone’), is a landmark of fundamental importance because it
determines the faith and character of the church of God.
Scripture is the rule, or the guide, that teaches us
what we should believe and how we are meant to live to please God. The Bible
teaches us who God is, and who we are. It exposes sin as our basic problem, and
shows us the way of salvation by faith in Christ. God’s laws and commandments
guide us on our earthly pilgrimage and his wonderful promises encourage us to
persevere along the way until we meet our Lord. ‘Your word is a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105).
The Bible is the infallible rule because it cannot err
or teach anything false, since it was given by inspiration from God; it is the
Word which came forth from his mouth. The Bible is wholly reliable because its
Author, the faithful and all-wise God, can neither make mistakes nor lie.
The Bible is the only rule because it is sufficient to
show us the way of salvation, and to teach us how to lead a godly and righteous
life pleasing to God. The Bible itself teaches that in our time there is nothing
but Scripture that is to be regarded as the inspired Word of God. Tradition is
not inspired, and the church is not infallible. Christ considered Scripture as
the inerrant and authoritative Word of God, but he refused to recognize
tradition as a supplementary source of revelation; he also showed that religious
teachers can err.
There is no other data necessary for salvation that is
missing from Scripture or which we need to unearth from another source. The Holy
Scriptures ‘are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which
is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is
profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in
righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for
every good work’ (2 Tim 3:15-17). The Scriptures give us the knowledge necessary
to experience salvation – they are ‘able to make you wise for salvation’. The
Bible is also useful for doctrine and guidance in the Christian life. Whoever is
led by the Scriptures is described as ‘complete, thoroughly equipped for every
good work’. The Bible is therefore enough to show God's children how to be saved
and to live for his glory.
The Bible does not include all that Jesus did and taught.
However the issue is not whether we have all possible information about
Christ; after all tradition does not give us exhaustive knowledge either – if it
gives us any reliable information at all! The question at hand is whether what
we have written in Scripture is sufficient to know God’s revealed truth. To
quench my thirst I do not need all the water in the world; it is enough for me
to drink a glass or two. God did not give us exhaustive knowledge in Scripture;
he gave us enough to satisfy our souls. The apostle John illustrates this
principle in the conclusion of his gospel. He freely acknowledges that he left
many things unrecorded, yet he assures us that enough was written to reach his
intended purpose (John 20:30, 31).
Also Sola Scriptura does not imply that the Bible will
always be understood rightly, or that we should expect automatic and full
doctrinal unity among Christians. Christ spoke clearly and yet he was still
misunderstood even by his own disciples. Scripture, likewise, is intelligible
enough, but because of our spiritual laziness, ignorance and prejudice (arising
from our finite abilities and sinful disposition), we have to recognize the fact
that even among genuine Christians many false ideas are held and propagated. The
fault is ours, not the Bible’s.
The Teaching Church
What is the relation between the Bible and church leaders? Is
there a need for teachers since we have the Bible? Yes, definitely. The Lord
commissions pastors and teachers, his special gifts to the church, to preach,
teach and explain the Word (Eph 4:11ff). The Lord has invested them with
authority. ‘These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority’
In the New Testament we do not find a ‘church’ made up of
autonomous, self-sufficient and individualistic Christians who do not see the
need of teachers because they have the Bible and the Holy Spirit. Whoever
isolates himself from the rest of the church, past and present, or does not
submit to the teaching elders of the local church, is acting in a foolish and
The teachers’ authority is derived from and is inferior to
the absolute authority of the Word of God. The Bible is infallible; they are
not. Genuine Christian teachers are first to admit that they are liable to err.
‘My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive
a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many things’ (James 3:1, 2). Their
task is to faithfully teach the Word, without taking away anything from its
teaching, or adding any ideas of human origin. They step outside the limits of
their authority as soon as they go beyond the teaching of the Word of God.
Christians are never called to blindly submit to any leader
or group of leaders who claim to have absolute authority. The Bible tells
ordinary Christians to test all things and to keep fast to that which is good (1
Thess 5:21). We do well to emulate the disciples at Berea. They received the
word preached to them; they also searched the Scriptures daily to confirm what
they heard (Acts 17:11). That is the proper balance: genuine respect for
Christian teachers while holding the Scriptures as the highest authority by all,
teachers and students alike.
Evangelical Christians look at tradition with suspicion,
undoubtedly because they are aware of the disastrous effect of human tradition
on the gospel message. Yet the concept of ‘tradition’ as such is perfectly
acceptable. Tradition simply means teachings and practices transmitted by
example, verbal and written means. The Bible uses the word ‘tradition’ to
describe both false teachings (Mark 7:9; Col 2:8; 1 Pt 1:18) and divine truth (2
Thess 2:15; 3:6).
Tradition is indispensable for the church. It is the way we
share our faith (through sermons, books, personal witness and other means) with
one another and the rest of the world. The church cannot grow and pass its
precious heritage without tradition. The Christian faith is defended and is kept
alive from one generation to another by the teaching of faithful men, who adhere
strictly to the apostolic message (2 Tim 2:2).
Now of course, traditions may be true or false; they may have
their origin in God or in the human mind. Therefore we do not believe in all
traditions, because not all teaching originates from the Word of God. Some
traditions are merely human teaching, unessential at best, destructive at worst
– as church history testifies!
God spoke to his people Israel by Moses and the prophets. The
succeeding generations had the Law and the prophets in Scripture; no
additional divine teachings were meant to be delivered to the people by
tradition. We know this for a fact because Christ sharply rebuked the Jewish
leaders who added the teachings of tradition to the Written Word (Mark 7:1-13).
When tradition is added to the Scriptures, God’s Word is made of ‘no
effect’ and the religion that springs from such admixture is vain!
This radical error of the Jews has been and is being repeated
in the church. Tradition is a powerful force; let us use it legitimately. We
should beware of changing the message of the Bible by the addition of human
doctrines, irrespective of their antiquity or the sanction of respected
teachers. Rather we should check and correct our traditions by the ultimate
standard, the written and inspired Word of God, and be willing to reform
For the Christian church, the way forward is back to the