The inconspicuous room at the end of a lightly travelled thoroughfare in Jerusalem bustled as the gathered throng waited for James the Just to deliver his decision. Just about 20 years had passed since the tragic execution and then astonishing resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and now the leaders of the burgeoning movement had gathered to resolve its first significant controversy. Must the Gentile followers of Jesus submit to circumcision? (Acts 15) Both sides of the dispute had made their case with conviction, and among the anxious assembly sat Judah, a devout Jewish follower of Jesus. The room went silent when the Apostles entered, and James stood to speak. He rehearsed the points made by Peter and Paul before quoting from the prophet Amos, and then concluding, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God…” As the words of James fell upon his ears, Judah sprung to his feet full of holy zeal like his forefather Phinehas, and his words burst from his mouth. “You are not directed by the Holy Spirit, James! It is blasphemous to claim that the Spirit of the God of Abraham and Moses has directed you to contradict the testimony of our most sacred scriptures!” (Genesis 17:7, 13; Isaiah 52:1) And beginning with Genesis Judah recounted the glorious commands and promises connected to the sign of circumcision in the Law and Prophets. When James tried to remind him that it was to the Apostles that Jesus had given authority over his church, Judah declared, “You have departed from the Way of God and so you have departed from the Way of Jesus. True authority derives only from the written revelation of God! Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Sacred Scripture I cannot accept your ruling. My conscience is captive to the Word of God!” And with that final verbal blast, Judah led his disciples out of the assembly to establish the Church of Jesus the Messiah on the written Word of God, the only firm foundation.
Though the incident above is hypothetical, it raises some critical questions that Christians must confront when thinking about the question of authority in the church. For instance, if such a protest had taken place, would the congregation established by Judah apart from the authority of the Apostles have been a genuine “church” exercising the authority to “bind and loose” and to administer the sacraments? What is the pattern of church authority that the New Testament suggests? Did each Christian have the freedom and responsibility to interpret sacred scripture for himself as the sole authority for faith and practice?
With minimal reflection the last question is the easiest to answer. Since the New Testament had not been written and the Jewish canon to which the earliest Christians often referred was still open, there was no fixed collection of texts whereby to govern the Church. Furthermore, most people in the first century and for the next 1500 years were illiterate, and books in general were so costly (roughly a year’s wages for one Bible) that the individualistic, “Bible-centered” Christianity that we know was an impossibility. And anyone inclined to affirm the legitimacy of Judah’s protest and the “church” he established will have to contend with the Apostolic curse pronounced on him by St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians. (Galatians 1:9)
Nonetheless, Jesus does seem to have made some provision for the governance of his Church prior to his departure. In Jesus’ day the Pharisees claimed the authority to “bind and loose” among the Jews, by which they meant the divinely derived prerogative to pronounce an anathema or revoke it or to forbid or permit a practice. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “This power and authority, vested in the rabbinical body of each age or in the Sanhedrin, received its ratification or final sanction from the celestial court of justice.” Speaking and living from within rabbinical Judaism, Jesus first conferred on Peter equivalent authority saying, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19) Isaiah 22:22 uses the same imagery of keys to describe the ascendancy of a new king in Jerusalem. To confer the “the keys” and the power to “bind and loose” is to grant them authority. This authority was extended to the other disciples a bit later. (Matthew 18:18)
After his ascension, the ministry of Jesus was carried on by the Apostles through whom the Spirit fell on believers, and they rendered binding decisions on faith and practice as James did at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). The Apostolic authority is palpable and explicit in the writings of Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude who applied the gospel to the situations faced by the churches of their day. In these letters the Apostles referred to teachings and traditions other than the written instruction, and commanded the churches to heed their message and pass it on to others (1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Thessalonians 2:15). They exercised the authority not only to govern but to teach and interpret the scripture.
Was it the will of Jesus and the Apostles that the authority vested in them should expire with them or did they intend this arrangement to continue? The most logical way to answer this question is to consult the writings and practice of those men who knew the Apostles. Fortunately, we have access to a fairly extensive body of literature from the earliest post apostolic Church which affords a glimpse into its governance and worship. Without exception these texts from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and others direct the Christians under their care to obey the bishops as the successors of the Apostles and as vested with the same authority. In his letter to the Corinthian Church around 96 AD, Clement, the bishop of Rome and disciple of St. Paul, reminded the Corinthian rebels of where their leaders derived their authority: “The apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus the Christ was sent from God. Thus Christ is from God and the apostles from Christ. In both instances the orderly procedure depends on God’s will…[The apostles] preached in country and city, and appointed their first converts, after testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers. Nor was this any novelty…” Consonant with this is Ignatius’ repeated exhortation in his letters to obey the bishop as the Lord himself. To the Smyrnaeans the likely disciple of the Apostle John wrote in the early 2nd century, “You should all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ did the Father. Follow, too, the presbytery as you would the apostles…Nobody must do anything that has to do with the Church without the bishop’s approval.” The universal commitment to apostolic succession persisted even into the 4th century when Eusebius of Caesarea frequently interrupted the narrative of the history of the Church to trace the line of each bishop back to the Apostles.
Jesus established the pattern, the biblical account of the first century Church exemplifies the pattern, and the evidence strongly suggests that the Apostles instructed their successors to continue it. In light of this, the church would need an authoritative pronouncement from Jesus or the Apostles, presumably in scripture, that the original model of ecclesiastical authority was to be supplanted by Sola Scriptura once the canon had been defined. However, none is found. Nor is there a Council that authoritatively declared the Scripture alone to be the only binding authority for the Church and every individual believer.
If I have accurately represented the history of the Church with respect to the issue of authority, then the adoption of sola scriptura is an almost unprecedented act of hubris. But then again, maybe I am missing something.