You can Trust the Bible by John R.W. Stott 1991
SO FAR WE HAVE ENGAGED in a Trinitarian study. We have seen that God is the author, Christ both the principal subject and the authenticating witness, and the Holy Spirit the agent of the great process of revelation. We come now to the church.
What do you think of the church? Your answer will probably depend on whether you are thinking about the ideal or the reality. In the ideal the church is the most marvelous new creation of God. It is the new community of Jesus, enjoying a multiracial, multinational and multicultural harmony which is unique in history and in contemporary society. The church is
even the “new humanity,” the vanguard of a redeemed and renewed human race. It is a people who spend their earthly lives, as they will also spend eternity, in the loving service of God and of others. What a noble and beautiful ideal! In reality, however, the church is us (if you will pardon the bad grammar) — a disheveled rabble of sinful, fallible, bickering, squabbling, stupid, shallow Christians, who constantly fall short of God’s idea and often fail even to approximate to it.
What is the reason for this gulf between the ideal and the reality? Why is the church in such a perilous condition throughout the world today — weak, fragmented and making so little impact on the world for Christ? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I believe the overwhelming reason is what Amos called “a famine … of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11), or in plain modern language, a neglect of the Bible. The multiple unfaithfulness of the church is due to its overriding unfaithfulness to the self-revelation of God in Scripture. The late Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was right when he wrote in his book Preaching and Preachers (1971) that “the decadent eras and periods of the Church’s history have always been those in which preaching has declined.” In other words, the church remains sick and feeble whenever it refuses the healing medicine and wholesome nourishment of the Word of God.
We are now going to consider two texts, both of which use an architectural metaphor. In Ephesians 2:20 the church, which has just been defined as God’s “household” or family (v. 19), is further described as “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” That is, the teaching of the biblical authors is the foundation on which the church is built, as Jesus Christ is the cornerstone which holds it together. In 1 Timothy 3:15 the metaphor is reversed. Having again referred to the church as “the household of God,” Paul now goes on to call it “the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
You will observe that in the first text the truth is the foundation, and the church is the building it supports, while in the second text the church is the foundation and the truth is the building which it supports.
“Well, there you are,” I hear somebody saying, “I told you so. The Bible is full of contradictions.” Really? Wait a moment. Both these verses come from the pen of the same man, the apostle Paul. Let us give him credit for a little logical consistency. It has always been dangerous to use metaphors and similes. We have to inquire at what point the analogy is being made in order to understand what the author is intending to say through the figure of speech that he is using. When we apply this principle to our two texts, we find, as we would expect, that they are beautifully complementary.
You ask how at one and the same time the truth can be the foundation of the church and the church the foundation of the truth? Well, let me suggest the answer. What Paul is affirming in Ephesians 2:20 is that
the church depends upon the truth for its existence. It rests upon the teaching of the apostles and prophets, and without their teaching, now recorded in Scripture, the church could neither exist nor survive, let alone flourish. But according to 1 Timothy 3:15 the truth depends on the church for its defense and propagation. The church is called to serve the truth by holding it firm against attack and by holding it high before the eyes of the world. Thus the church needs the Bible because it is built on it. And the church serves the Bible by holding it fast and making it known. These are the two complementary truths that we are going to investigate further.
The Church Needs the Bible
The church’s dependence on the Bible is manifold. Let me give you a number of examples.
1. The Bible created the church. Put thus baldly, this statement could be misleading. It could even be dismissed as inaccurate. For it is true that the Old Testament church as the people of God existed for centuries before the Bible was complete. Furthermore, the New Testament church also existed for a long time before the New Testament canon was finalized, and longer still before the first Bible was printed for publications. Moreover, you may rightly say, the first-century church “shaped” the New Testament in the sense that the Christian community shared in determining in what form the words and works of Jesus would be preserved for posterity. The church was thus the milieu
within which the Bible came to be written and treasured. I agree with all these qualifications. Nevertheless, I repeat, the Bible may be said to have created the church. Or, more accurately, the Word of God, which is now written in the Bible, created the church. For how did the Christian church come into being? Answer: By the preaching of the apostles, who spoke not in the name of the church, but in the name of Christ.
On the Day of Pentecost Peter added his apostolic testimony to the prophetic witness of the Old Testament, he proclaimed Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the Holy Spirit confirmed his words with power, and the believing people of God became the Spirit-filled body of Christ. God himself performed this creative work by his Spirit through his Word. Moreover he continued to honor the preaching of the apostles in the same way. On his famous missionary journeys Paul also bore witness to Christ, arguing that the testimony of the apostolic eyewitnesses was in full harmony with the Old Testament Scriptures. Many listened, repented, believed and were baptized, so that churches were planted all over the Roman Empire. How? By the Word of God.
God’s Word (the combined witness of prophets and apostles), proclaimed in the power of the Spirit, created the church. It still does. The church is built on that foundation. And when the canon of the New Testament came to be determined, the church did not confer authority on these documents, but simply acknowledged the authority they already possessed.
Why? Because they were “apostolic” and contained the teaching of the Lord’s apostles. For these reasons, we may truthfully say that the Bible, that is, the Word of God now written in the Bible, created and creates the church.
2. The Bible sustains the church. The Creator always sustains what he has created, and since he has brought the church into being, he keeps it in being. Moreover, having created it by his Word, he sustains and nourishes it by his Word. If it is true, as Jesus said quoting Deuteronomy (Matthew 4:4; compare Deuteronomy 8:3), that human beings live “not by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” it is also true of churches. They cannot flourish without it. The church needs constantly to hear God’s Word. Hence the central place of preaching in public worship. Preaching is not an intrusion into it, but rather indispensable to it. For the worship of God is always a response to the Word of God. That is why, for example, in all the worship services of the Church of England, there is an oscillation between Word and worship. First God speaks his Word in Scripture sentence, readings and exposition, and then the people respond in confession, creed, praise and prayer. The Christian congregation grows into maturity in Jesus Christ only as they hear, receive, believe, absorb and obey the Word of God.
3. The Bible directs the church. The Christian community is a pilgrim people on its way to an eternal home. It is traveling through territory that is barren,
pathless, hostile and dark. It needs guidance for the way, and God has provided it. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). I agree, of course, that what is called the hermeneutical task, that is, the task of interpreting the Scriptures, is difficult. Scripture does not give us slick answers to complex twentieth-century problems. We have to wrestle with the text, with both its meaning and its application, and do so in prayer, study and fellowship with each other. Nevertheless, the principles we need to guide us are there in the Bible — theological and ethical principles — and together we can discover through the illumination of the Holy Spirit how to apply them to our lives in the contemporary world.
4. The Bible reforms the church. In every century, including our own, I am sorry to say, the church has deviated to some degree from God’s truth and from his ethical standards. As Max Warren the former missionary statesman, wrote in his book I Believe in the Great Commission, church history is “a bitter-sweet story” in which the most outstanding fact is the infinite patience of God with his people. If then the church is constantly deviant, how can it be reformed? Only by the Word of God. The greatest church renewal there has ever been in the history of the world was the sixteenth-century Reformation, and it was due, more than anything else, to a recovery of the Bible.
5. The Bible unites the church. Every Christian conscience should be troubled by the disunity of the church. I hope we have not grown accustomed to it or
begun to acquiesce in it. The visible unity of the church, although we may not all agree with one another what precise form it should take, is surely a proper goal of Christian endeavor.
What then is the basic reason for our continuing disunity? It is the lack of an agreed authority. So long as churches follow their own traditions and speculations, the universal church will continue to splinter. For example, the Anglican Church, to which I belong is at fault in this matter. In its negotiations for unity or reunion, it insists on what it calls the “historic episcopate” as a non-negotiable item, and not only so, but often on a particular “catholic” interpretation of the episcopate known as the “apostolic succession.” Now all of us believe in episkope, the New Testament word for the pastoral oversight of the church. And a good historical, pastoral and practical case can be made for an episcopal form of government as being conducive to the well-being of the church. But it certainly cannot be made indispensable, for the simple reason that it is not required in Scripture. It can be defended as being consistent with biblical teaching and pastoral care. But that is another matter. In so far as the Church of England insists on the historic episcopate as non-negotiable, it is hindering the unity of the church. Once churches confess the supreme authority of Scripture, however, and its sole sufficiency for salvation, and are determined to judge their traditions by its teaching, then at once the way is opened for them to find unity in truth. The Bible unites the church when the church submits to it.
6. The Bible revives the church. We long for revival, for that special, unusual, supernatural visitation by God, as a result of which the whole community becomes aware of his living and holy presence. Sinners are convicted, penitents converted, backsliders restored, enemies reconciled, believers transformed, and dead churches revivified. But how does revival happen? Only, it is true, by a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit of God. But what means does the Holy Spirit use? He uses his Word. The Word of God is “the sword of the Spirit” which he wields in his work in the world (Ephesians 6:17; compare Hebrews 4:12). Never separate the Spirit of God from the Word of God, for when the Holy Spirit uses this weapon in his sovereign power, he pricks the conscience, cuts out cancerous growths from the body of Christ and puts the devil to flight. It is the Bible that revives the church.
Are you convinced? I hope so. The church needs the Bible. The church depends on the Bible. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. The Bible is indispensable to the church’s life, growth, nature, direction, reformation, unity and renewal. The church cannot exist without the Bible.
This leads to the second and complementary truth: If the church needs the Bible, the Bible also needs the church. If the church depends on the Bible, the Bible also depends on the church. For the church is called to serve the Bible by guarding and spreading its message.
The Church Serves the Bible
Although God spoke his Word through prophets and apostles, it had to be received and written down. Today it still needs to be translated, printed, published, distributed, preached, defended, broadcast, televised and dramatized. In these and other ways the church is serving the Bible, guarding it and making it known.
This explains why Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” The two Greek words he used are instructive. The first is stylos, which undoubtedly means a pillar or column. The meaning of the other word (hedraioma) is not so certain, and has been variously translated into English as “ground” (KJV), “bulwark” (RSV), “buttress” (NEB) and “foundation” (NIV). It comes from the adjective hedraios which means “firm, steady, stable,” even “immovable” (it was used of mountains). So the noun hedraioma could be used of any kind of support or stabilizer. When applied to a building, therefore, it could refer either to its foundation or to a buttress, since the purpose of both is to keep the building stable.
Now let us put these two ideas together. The church is both the foundation or buttress of the truth on the one hand, and the pillar of the truth on the other. Foundations and buttresses hold a building firm; pillars hold it high, thrusting it aloft for people to see. This suggests respectively the apologetic task and the evangelistic task of the church. For, as the foundation or buttress of the truth, the church must hold it firm and defend it against heretics so that the truth remains
steadfast and immovable. But, as the pillar of the truth, the church must hold it high, making it visible to the world so that people may see it and believe. So the Bible needs the church to protect it and to propagate it.
I am glad that the twentieth article of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles describes the church as “a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ.” There is an urgent need for both these responsibilities. On the one hand, heresy is gaining ground in the church. There are false teachers who deny the infinite, loving personality of Almighty God and others who deny the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as the authority of the Bible. These heretics seem to be increasing, and are spreading their pernicious ideas by books and sermons, on radio and television. So the truth needs buttresses — Christian scholars who will give their lives to what Paul called “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Philippians 1:7). Is God calling some younger theologian who is reading these words to be a buttress of the truth in the church, to hold it firm, to defend it against heresy and misunderstanding? What a vocation! The church must guard and demonstrate the truth.
At the same time the church is called to preach the gospel throughout the world. there are some three billion people in the world who have never really heard of Jesus, and there are many more who, having heard of him, have never believed in him. “How are they to hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). The church needs pioneer evangelists who will
develop new forms of mission in order to penetrate closed areas, especially the Islamic, the Marxist and the secular worlds. For the church is the pillar of the truth. We’ve got to hold it high and make it known so that people may see it in its beauty and adequacy, and embrace it for themselves.
The church needs the Bible and the Bible needs the church. Those are the complementary truths which Paul’s two statements express. The church could not survive without the the Bible to sustain it, and the Bible could hardly survive without the church to guard and spread it. Each needs the other. The Bible and church are twins, inseparable Siamese twins. Once we have got hold of that, we are ready for a threefold exhortation.
First, I exhort Christian pastors (including myself) to take our preaching more seriously. Our calling is to study and expound the Word of God and relate it to the modern world. The health of every congregation depends more than anything else on the quality of its preaching ministry. This may surprise you. I know, of course, that church members can grow into maturity in Christ in spite of their pastors, and even when their pastors are bad or neglectful. For they can pray and read the Scriptures both by themselves and in fellowship groups, and nowadays good books and cassettes are available as a valuable supplementary means of instruction. Nevertheless, the New Testament indicates
that God’s purpose is to commit the care of his people to pastors, who are so to proclaim Christ to them out of the Scriptures, in the glory of his person and work, that their worship, faith and obedience are drawn out from them. That is why I dare to say that, more often than not, the pew is a reflection of the pulpit, and that the pew does not normally rise higher than the pulpit. So then, my fellow pastors, let us determine afresh to give ourselves to this priority task!
Second, I exhort Christian people not only to study the Bible themselves in their homes and in their fellowship groups, but to demand (it is not too strong a word) faithful, biblical preaching from their pastors. Let me put it like this: the ministry you get is the ministry you deserve, and the ministry you deserve is the ministry you demand. Lay people have much more power in the churches than they commonly realize. They join a church where the Bible is hardly ever preached, and give in to it, acquiesce in it, do nothing about it! There may be times when you need to have the courage to reprove your pastors because you perceive that they are not being diligent in their study and faithful in their exposition. But don’t give us only your reproof; give us your encouragement and your prayers. Set your pastors free from the distracting burden of administration. Pastoral oversight should also be shared by the lay leaders of the congregation. Every generation needs to relearn the lesson of Acts 6, where the apostles refused to be deflected from the teaching role to which Christ had called them. They delegated
certain social and administrative tasks in order to devote themselves “to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:1-6). It is the lay leaders of the congregation who can ensure that the same priority is recognized today.
Third, I want to exhort Christian parents. Teach the Bible to your children. Don’t surrender this parental responsibility to the school or even to the church; do it yourself, so that your children, like Timothy, come to know the Holy Scriptures from childhood (2 Timothy 3:15). If you do this, then the next generation of church leaders that arise will grasp, as the present generation does not seem to, the indispensable place of the Bible in the church.
So let us enthrone the Bible in the home and in the church, not because we worship it but because God speaks through it. Then, as we hear his voice again, the church will be renewed, reformed and revived, and it will become what God has always intended it to be — a bright light shining in the prevailing darkness.