Those of you who were pastors know from experience your need to steel yourself — to baton down the hatches and get the women and children below — whenever certain parishioners begin a question with these seemingly innocent words. The following is such an experience, taken from my novel How Firm a Foundation.
The scene takes place at the monthly board meeting of First Congregational Church. The recently hired Reverend Stephen LaPointe has just conveyed his plans for the upcoming new members classes, when he is interrupted by a concerned board member.
He started to sit down, but a voice stopped him midway.
“Pastor, may I ask something?” Larry Howe said. “I’m reluctant to do so in front of this peanut gallery, but something’s been bugging me ever since we joined this church.”
Fighting through guffaws all around, Larry quipped, holding up his arms in the form of a cross, “All right, all right, back off.”
The board quieted down, anxious to hear what sticky conundrum Larry might pose this time.
“As you know, my wife and I used to be Roman Catholics, and thank God we’re here now.” Larry gave a demonstrative sigh of relief, which he knew everyone would understand. “Ever since our conversion, Sue and I have become avid Bible readers. We’re not Bible scholars by any means, so don’t get me wrong, but let’s just say I’ve read the Bible more in the last ten years than in the entire first thirty years of my life. Now, one of the main tenets that separates us Protestants from Catholics is that we believe that the Bible alone is the sole foundation for our faith, correct?”
“Yes,” Stephen responded, hoping this would pass quickly. “Most Protestants hold to sola Scriptura, though there is great diversity as to how this is understood and applied. You also realize that many Congregationalists no longer believe this. Nevertheless, that is at least what we believe here at Respite.”
“Fine. So if I get this straight, this inspired book,” Larry said, raising the leather Revised Standard Bible that always accompanied him to church, “is the sole foundation for all that we must believe and practice, especially for our salvation?”
“Yes, that’s true.” Uncertain where this was leading, Stephen nevertheless anticipated nothing he could not answer.
“Then two things that, as I said, have been bothering me. First, if the Bible is the sole foundation for our faith, then where does the Bible say this specifically? I mean, for something this important and foundational, you’d think it would be stated clearly?”
Invariably, Stephen had to explain this to every new members’ class, so he knew immediately where to turn. “This is most clearly affirmed in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17. Here, pass me your Bible, I forgot mine tonight.”
This brought the expected sniggers.
“ ‘All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching,’ ” Stephen read, “ ‘for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Recalling what he had learned from his old theology professor, Stephen added, “An alternate way to translate the Greek term, given here as ‘profitable,’ is ‘sufficient.’ All Scripture is therefore inspired and sufficient for teaching, et cetera.
“There are other verses that solidify our belief in the Bible’s sufficiency, especially where Jesus quotes the Old Testament as authoritative, and where New Testament authors discourage believers from relying on the traditions of men. In Hebrews 4:12, for example. ‘For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword,’ ” Stephen read, gesticulating with the Bible to emphasize that it was this book to which the author was referring. “From this and other passages, we conclude that the Bible is God’s gift to His people, who under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are led into all truth.”
“Then you would say, therefore,” Larry responded, “that the Bible is the pillar and bulwark of the truth?”
“Yes, that is a good way to put it,” Stephen said, pleased with the clarity of this ardent church member.
“Then, why does the Bible itself claim something different?” Larry asked with a sly smile. “Please explain 1 Timothy 3:15.”
Stephen paged back, curious about Larry’s reference. Stephen had read through the entire New Testament many times, so he was anticipating no surprises. Like most Evangelical pastors, he had memorized the most significant verses and had a basic mental image of the rest, but this particular text did not ring a bell.
Locating the page in Larry’s Bible, he thumbed down to the reference, finding that Larry had underlined this text. A question mark with an exclamation point had been added in the margin. Stephen scanned the verse silently, but it wasn’t until he began reading it aloud that the significance of Larry’s question struck him.
Stephen’s pace slowed as he pronounced each word more cautiously and pensively. Once finished, he sat silently, marveling that he had failed to notice this passage before. In his own Bible, he had underlined the preceding passages about the duties of bishops and
deacons, and the subsequent passage containing one of the oldest Christian creeds. But Stephen was dumbfounded.
Why have I never seen this before? And how do I explain it to Larry and the board?
And Larry and the board waited, bewildered by Stephen’s awkward silence.
Across the white undulating churchyard, Sara, also, sat in silence. Adrian had finished his story. She certainly had heard of such problems cleaving marriages before, but never, as they say, from the horse’s mouth. Now she understood, though, how and why it could be so devastating, especially for couples so united by their faith in Jesus Christ.
“Adrian, I don’t know what to say or advise. You really do need to speak with Stephen. He’ll know what you should do. How are your parents taking this?”
“Oh, I haven’t spoken a word about this to anyone,” Adrian responded, “but they’ll probably be even more disturbed than I am.”
“I’m sorry that Stephen hasn’t been able to fit you in, but I’m sure he will as soon as I tell him what you’ve told me. That’s all right, isn’t it?”
“Yes, please do. It will make things easier if I know that he is aware of our problem.”
With this, Adrian rose to leave. “Thank you, Sara, for allowing me the time to talk. You’ve really helped.”
“Oh, I don’t know what I’ve done other than listen. Please before you go, can we have a word of prayer?”
It would have been customary in their shared Evangelical tradition to hold hands, and though Sara now felt closer to Adrian through the baring of his heart, she nevertheless clasped her hands piously before her and led them in a simple prayer for God’s wisdom and mercy. “And may the Holy Spirit break through the confusion that has so distracted and captured Ginny’s mind and heart, so that she might return to the faith she has loved so dearly.”
Sara brought Adrian his coat, bid him good-bye with an appropriately reserved handshake, and waited on the porch in the evening cold until Adrian had driven out of sight.
She then returned to the living room with a fresh cup of coffee. Stoking the fire, she wondered not only what Adrian should do, but what she would do if anything this bizarre ever happened to her.
Stephen gathered his thoughts.
“The problem with interpreting texts like this, especially when we compare a verse from one New Testament book with that from another, is that it’s impossible to understand fully what these first-century writers meant by their terms — especially now, nearly two thousand years later. When Paul wrote here that ‘the church of the living God’ is ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth,’ he had no inkling what the word church would come to mean over the centuries. He surely could not have predicted how church leaders would wrestle with one another for control of the expanding Church, or how the Roman Emperor Constantine would eventually settle the whole mess by declaring Christianity the official religion of the Roman people and the bishop of Rome the head of the Church. Paul could not have anticipated that this term would one day be used to describe the corrupt hierarchy of popes, bishops, and priests. Nor could he have foreseen the Reformation that God would initiate to correct this. Finally, Paul with his limited vision of the world could never have imagined the thousands of Christian groups that now call themselves churches.
“Paul certainly must have meant what we believe today,” Stephen continued, though a voice from within prodded, But who do you mean by ‘we’?
“The Church is not physical structures or hierarchies of bishops, or even some collective list of members’ names from all the world’s churches. No, the Church is the invisible body of believers encircling the globe — past, present, and future — in whom the Holy Spirit dwells by grace through faith, and therefore where God’s Word and God’s truth are rightly interpreted, taught, and believed.”
Satisfied that he had temporarily dodged this bullet, Stephen scanned the faces of his board for signs of concurrence. He had given them essentially his pat summary of the New Testament authors’ understanding of the term church — he only hoped it sat better with the board than it was sitting in his own conscience. The majority nodded with smiles of support, except Larry.
“But Pastor,” he asked, “how can a worldwide, invisible, and unorganized assortment of believers be a pillar and foundation of truth? I have friends in other churches who love Jesus and His Word, yet believe differently than I do. Which of us is speaking for this invisible Church?”
Stephen studied the man’s rough face. Larry managed his family-owned logging company, and his complexion and demeanor had been hewn by many long days outside in the New Hampshire winters.
“The things that are essential, we are to agree on; it’s the nonessentials that divide us,” Stephen replied with force.
“So you’re saying that issues like how or when a person is baptized, or whether the Lord’s Supper is truly the body and blood of Jesus or just a powerless symbol, or whether abortion is murder, or whether salvation can be lost or is eternally secure, or whether one adheres to the traditional creeds — all of these are nonessentials?”
Stephen felt like one of the Pharisees Jesus had reasoned into a corner, because regardless of whether he said “yes” or “no,” he would invite the ire of any number of board members. Thanks, Larry, he grumbled inwardly, I really needed this tonight. And besides, this question sounded vaguely familiar.
“What we are called to consider true are those things that have been believed quasi-unanimously by all Christians, at all times and in all places,” again quoting an answer his old theology professor had once given to a similar question. “The unfortunate conflict between Christian believers stems from ignorance, pride, sin, or the denial of how the Spirit has led Christians from the beginning. We are Congregationalists because we believe that we are preserving the freedoms as expressed by Paul and the other New Testament writers.”
Larry was poised with a response, but Stephen continued quickly: “Larry, it’s getting late, and besides, I don’t think I can completely satisfy your question tonight. If you’d like, we can continue this another time.”
“Thank you, Pastor. That would be helpful,” Larry said reluctantly.
Stephen rose and offered him back his Bible, but for what seemed like an eternity they played tug of war as Stephen held on, anxious to read that verse again. Confused, Larry released his grip. Embarrassed, Stephen did the same, and the Bible fell loudly to the floor.
“I’m sorry, Larry,” Stephen said, bending meekly to retrieve it. He then gave it freely to its owner. Evading the ensuing awkwardness, Stephen turned his attention back to George, “That’s really all I’ve got for tonight. If you have questions about the resources on the table, please let me know.”
Stephen sat down relieved, but that verse continued to disturb him.
Anxious to refocus the board’s attention, George stood and announced, “Let’s move on to the last sticky wicket of our agenda: are we as a church going to take part in this year’s ecumenical Good Friday service, scheduled to take place at St. Anne’s Catholic Parish?”
As the board debated the ecumenical issue, Stephen remained unengaged. In the end, the ecumenists won out, stressing that any relationships established with the members of St. Anne’s Parish would only lead to movement towards Respite Congregational, and not the other way around.
It was pushing nine thirty when Stephen opened the kitchen door.
Not bad when compared with previous promises, he thought.
Driving up, he had noticed that the lights upstairs were off, so he presumed the boys were at least trying to get to sleep. The only light in the house came from the bluish flicker of the television in the living room. He assumed that Sara was probably lost in her movie, and possibly oblivious to his late arrival.
“Hello, anybody home?” he quipped softly from the kitchen. He went to the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of cold white wine. Walking into the living room, Stephen broke the ice with a meaningless, “Quiet night?”
They kissed softly as he took his seat beside her on the couch. Sara, already dressed for bed, was snuggled beneath several blankets and a pillow, lost in the classic Grant-Kerr love affair. They kissed again, and setting his wineglass down and kicking off his shoes, he crawled in next to her.
“You won’t believe my evening,” she said. “Adrian McBride stopped over.”
“Adrian stopped by?” Stephen said, surprised. “That’s nice. I presume he was here to see me,” he said mischievously.
“Of course, you ninny.”
“Then why does he so desperately need to see me? Or did you solve his problem for him?”
“Yes he does, no I didn’t, and I think you’re going to have your hands full when you two get together.”
It was the moment in the movie when the two lovers make their pact to meet again in a year on the top of the Empire State Building, so Sara’s focus became diverted. “But I’ll tell you about it later. How was your meeting?” she said, watching the television images kiss.
“Oh, nothing out of the ordinary,” Stephen lied. He was intent on an undistracted evening with Sara. So little time, so many distractions. Lord Jesus, he prayed mentally, may this evening be an intimate, quiet night to remember.
The roadside diner was crowded with truckers. The only available booth was an uncleared one in the smoking section, but Stephen took it anyway. He still had another seventy miles to drive, but he could ignore the nagging curiosity no longer.
“What’ll you have?” asked an aging, don’t-mess-with-me waitress. She cleared the table, wiping it clean with a sopping rag.
He waited for her to finish.
“What do you want?” she demanded again, in a voice that invited the stares of several truckers. Stephen noticed immediately that their sympathies were not with him.
He raised his hands in bewilderment.
With a look of incredulity to a burly customer in the next booth, she pointed to a small crumpled menu behind the usual collection of condiments.
After a quick scan of the options, Stephen said, “A black coffee and a number six, eggs over easy.”
She turned away towards the kitchen, with no sign of acknowledgment.
But no matter. Stopping for breakfast was only an excuse. Ever since the board meeting, Stephen had been frantic to reexamine the Scriptures and the answers he had given to Larry’s questions — which Larry and he both knew were unsatisfactory.
At 4 a.m. he had awakened and left Sara sleeping on the couch. After a quick shower and then dressing in his usual midweek suit, he bid Sara good-bye with a light kiss to her one visible cheek, and drove southeast toward the out-of-the-way mountain town of Bluerock.
“You did say black?” the waitress said, as she placed a coffee and a greasy number six before him.
“Yes,” but she was already gone.
The overcooked eggs, limp bacon, and cold toast looked only marginally palatable, so after a few token bites, he pushed the plate aside. From his briefcase, he removed his Greek-English New Testament. Even if it took all morning, he was determined to get to the bottom of those verses in First Timothy, for he recognized the underlying significance in Larry’s question.
First he pleaded for the Spirit’s guidance, then reread the verses that until last night he had failed to see: “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you so that, if I am delayed, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
Free from the scrutiny of Larry and the board, Stephen noted, first, that Paul had written this letter as a precautionary measure. Paul was planning to visit with Timothy, but in the event that his plans might fall through, he had penned this letter to pass along instructions on how people ought to behave as Christians.
In other words, Paul’s preferred means of teaching Timothy was face-to-face.
Stephen sipped the black, keep-you-awake-all-night coffee and silently thanked the Holy Spirit for the delay nearly two thousand years ago that had forced Paul to write this letter. Otherwise, the world might never have seen these instructions.
Reflecting further, Stephen envisioned the imprisoned apostle sitting hunched over a wooden table under the dim glow of an oil lamp. He was writing with a sharpened feather quill on a yellow roll of papyrus. This picture then faded into an image of Paul sitting more casually across a table from young Timothy. The two friends were laughing and sharing chalices of wine — for wasn’t this Paul’s advice near the end of this same letter? As Stephen considered this, he thought, Wouldn’t Paul have said a whole lot more to Timothy face-to-face than he was able to write on that small papyrus? Did Paul summarize everything that was necessary in this short letter, or was this merely a quick introduction to the more detailed list of things he wanted to deliver in person?
Stephen turned to Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy and reread the verse that he had assumed would answer Larry’s challenge.
All Scripture, Stephen thought. All Scripture? When Timothy received this letter, what would he have understood Paul to mean by this? Would he have considered Paul’s letter itself as “Scripture,” or only a casual, yet important letter from his father in the faith? What would Timothy and Paul have considered Scripture?
“Anything else?” the waitress asked, removing his unfinished breakfast and slapping down the bill.
“Some more coffee, please.”
“Hey, this ain’t a library,” she said, filling his cup to a positive meniscus.
Stephen started to respond, but again, she was gone.
When Paul wrote this, he thought, returning to the text, the New Testament as we know it had not been collected. In fact, we’re not even sure whether the Gospels had been written yet. Therefore, the only thing Paul could have referred to as Scripture was the Old Testament — which of course at the time wouldn’t have been called that, but “the Law and the Prophets.”
And also, he continued, we know from the way the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament that they used the Greek translation, called the Septuagint. So the term “Scripture” here must literally mean the Greek Old Testament.
He glanced down the page to the footnotes. A chain reference pointed to another of Paul’s letters. He casually flipped back to 2 Thessalonians 2:15. He leaned back to stretch as he began reading, his mind focused on his previous thoughts, until what he read shot him forward in the booth: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”
He read this again, and then again. As he did, the two mental pictures of Paul writing and of Paul teaching Timothy face-to-face melded into a composite that represented in his mind how the Christian faith was passed on from Jesus to apostle to local preacher to the people: by word of mouth and by writing.
Stephen mulled this over, thinking about all three verses at once, and envisioned their interrelationship: the faith of these early Christians was built on the foundation of the Old Testament Scriptures — the Law and the Prophets. But what was written in them needed to be applied to their new situation in Christ — the ancient prophetic references to the coming Messiah needed to be explained so that they could be understood in reference to Jesus. This was what Jesus had explained to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and what then was passed on through the apostle’s teachings, both orally and in writing.
Stephen paused as he sensed his thoughts reaching a conclusion. And if Paul asserts that more was communicated in his sermons and public teaching than he was able to record in his few, short New Testament letters, then, therefore, how can it be accurate to conclude that only what is in Scripture is essential? Paul said that we should hold to the traditions taught orally as well as in writing.
This word, which he as a Congregationalist rarely used, jumped out at him. Paul was telling these early Christians to hold to traditions taught not only in his letters but also orally.
With apprehension, Stephen followed another chain reference, 1 Corinthians 11:2: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”
“Traditions again,” he muttered, “that he ‘delivered.’ ” I’ve always presumed that this referred to the written records of Jesus’ deeds and words. But why?
Frantically he followed another reference in the same letter, 4:17, “Therefore I sent to you Timothy … to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church.”
Teach them everywhere in every church. Again, Stephen thought, Paul’s normal way of communicating Christian truth. And in this instance, he sent Timothy instead of a letter.
Another reference came to mind, and this time he knew the verse by memory, 2 Timothy 2:2, “What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
From Jesus to Paul to Timothy to faithful men to others. All through oral teaching without any mandate to write it down or to “look it up in the Bible.”
Stephen finished his coffee as his mind raced ahead into what for him was uncharted territory. He turned back to the text in Second Timothy that he had always used to defend sola Scriptura, and began reading the verses that immediately preceded it: “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it …”
For Timothy this, therefore, meant from Paul, or his parents, or others, Stephen thought, not from some as yet uncollected New Testament letters or gospels.
“… and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings …”
… which had to be the Old Testament Scriptures. But had he actually read these? Possibly not. He was acquainted with these primarily through public readings, probably in the local synagogue and church gatherings. In every way, therefore, he was dependent upon oral teaching.
“… which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
But the Old Testament is not that clear about how one is saved through faith in Jesus Christ — one needs the New Testament to fully understand this. So if Timothy and the other early Christians didn’t have a written New Testament yet, how could they know how to interpret the Old Testament correctly and adequately to lead them to Jesus?
As Stephen asked himself these questions, he casually flipped back to the initial text in First Timothy: “… the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
Startled, Stephen broke from his reflection. Hovering over him was a man wearing a soiled apron over a white tee shirt rolled up at the sleeves.
“Take your reading elsewhere. This ain’t first period study hall. I’ve got regular customers waiting to be seated.”
“I’m sorry. I was just reading while I finished my coffee.”
“Well, finish it in your car.”
The man stood aside as Stephen collected his things, threw down a five to cover the bill and tip, and left.
Once by his aging Fairmont, Stephen glanced back through the diner window in time to see the man laughing with several of the customers, mimicking Stephen’s studiousness.
Anger rose within Stephen, but realizing that any retaliation to their ridicule was pointless, he merely turned away and threw his briefcase onto the backseat. As he headed off toward Jamesfield, his mind returned to where his reflections had left off.
The Church … the pillar … the bulwark … the truth.
Stephen envisioned Timothy attempting to convince pagan neighbors to believe in Jesus. If they answered back, “Why should we believe this lunacy,” then what could Timothy have said? If he had said “Because the Scriptures say so,” he could only have meant the Old Testament, and we know from the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts that just reading the Old Testament wasn’t enough. Timothy would have had to convince them through the witness of those who had seen Jesus alive after His death on the Cross. But where was this to be found?
The Church … the pillar … the bulwark … the truth.