THE BIBLE does much more than answer our questions about life, death, and the future. The Bible is the most practical book in the world. Its counsel is timeless, and those who carefully follow it will lead successful and happy lives. (Psalm 1:1-3.) Genuine Christians have always accepted the Bible, “not as the word of men, but, just as it truthfully is, as the word of God.” (1 Thess. 2:13) A brief historical review will highlight the contrast between those who truly respect God’s Word and those who do not.
A THORNY ISSUE IS SETTLED
During the 13 years that followed the anointing of the first uncircumcised Gentile, Cornelius, an issue arose that threatened the unity of the Christian congregation. Growing numbers of Gentiles were embracing the Christian faith. The question was, Should the men be circumcised according to the Jewish custom before presenting themselves for baptism? That was not an easy question for a Jew to answer. Jews who observed the Law would not even enter a Gentile’s home, let alone fellowship with one. Jewish Christians were already severely persecuted for abandoning their former religion. If they went so far as to welcome uncircumcised Gentiles into their midst, it would only widen the rift between practicing Jews and the Christians and expose the latter to further reproach.—Gal. 2:11-14.
In 49 C.E., the apostles and older men in Jerusalem, themselves circumcised Jews, “assembled together” to see about this affair. (Acts 15:6) What followed was, not a mind-numbing theological debate over dry technicalities, but a lively doctrinal discussion. Strong opinions were expressed on both sides of the issue. Would personal preferences or prejudices rule the day? Would the responsible older men postpone the decision until the religious climate in Israel improved for them? Or would some sort of compromise be worked out, with advocates on each side modifying their position until a consensus of sorts was reached?
Compromise and lobbying are common at church councils today. However, at that meeting in Jerusalem, there was no compromise; nor did any lobbying for votes take place. What is more, a unanimous decision was reached. How could that be? As strongly as each participant felt about his point of view, all present respected God’s Word, and those holy writings held the key to resolving the issue.— Psalm 119:97-101
After this I will come back, and will rebuild the house of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its [very] ruins, and I will set it up again, So that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles upon whom My name has been invoked
‘But wait,’ someone may object, ‘that text does not say that it was unnecessary for Gentile believers to be circumcised.’ That is true; however, Jewish Christians would have got the point. They did not consider circumcised Gentiles as ‘people of the nations’ but as brothers. (Ex. 12:48, 49) For example, according to the Bible, Many of the Gentiles were circumcised, and became Jews. Esther 8:17 reads:
And in every province and in every city, wherever the king’s command and his decree came, the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a holiday. And many from among the peoples of the land [submitted themselves to Jewish rite and] became Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them
Thus, when the Scriptures foretold that those remaining of the house of Israel (Jews and circumcised Jewish proselytes) together with “people of all the nations” (uncircumcised Gentiles) would become one people for God’s name, the message was clear. Circumcision was not required of Gentiles who wanted to become Christians.
God’s Word and his spirit led those sincere Christians to a unanimous accord. (Acts 15:25) Even though the decision would likely expose Jewish Christians to more persecution, faithful ones lent their full support to the Bible-based decision.—Acts 16:4, 5.
A MARKED CONTRAST
The apostle Paul foretold that after the death of the apostles, the Christian faith would be contaminated by false teachings. (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7.) Among those who would not put up with “sound and wholesome instruction” were some in responsible positions. (2 Tim. 4:3) Paul warned elders in his day:
Even from among your own selves men will come to the front who, by saying perverse (distorted and corrupt) things, will endeavor to draw away the disciples after them [to their own party]. (Acts 20:30)
The New Encyclopedia Britannica describes one major factor that led to twisted reasoning:
Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to feel the need to express their faith in its terms, both for their own intellectual satisfaction and in order to convert educated pagans.
An important doctrine that was given a pagan twist had to do with the identity of Jesus Christ. The Bible calls him the Son of God; the lovers of Greek philosophy insisted that he is God.
The question was debated at a number of church councils. The issue could have been settled quite easily had the delegates given appropriate weight to the Scriptures, but most did not. In fact, the majority had made up their minds even before they arrived at the councils, and they left more deeply entrenched than ever in their positions. The canons and declarations that resulted from these meetings hardly even referred to the Scriptures.
Why were the Scriptures not more thoroughly considered?
Scholar Charles Freeman answers that those who believed that Jesus is God found it difficult to refute the many sayings of Jesus that suggested he was subordinate to God the Father.
As a result, church tradition and opinions of later authorities were substituted for the Gospels. To this day, many of the clergy elevate the uninspired sayings of so-called Church Fathers to a plane higher than the Word of God! If you have ever discussed the Trinity doctrine with a seminarian, you have likely noticed that.
A notable feature of the debates at those councils was the interference of the Roman emperors. In this regard, Professor Richard E. Rubenstein wrote respecting the Council of Nicaea:
Constantine had favored and enriched [the bishops] beyond their wildest dreams. In less than a year, the new emperor had returned or rebuilt virtually all their churches, given them back the jobs and honors taken from them . . . He had accorded Christian clergymen privileges formerly granted to pagan priests.
As a result, “Constantine was in a position strongly to influence—perhaps even to dictate—the course of events at Nicaea.” Charles Freeman confirmed:
The precedent had now been set that the emperor might intervene not only to strengthen the Church but to influence doctrine.—James 4:4.
While church dignitaries found it difficult to determine the exact identity of Jesus Christ, many of the common people had no such problem. Since they were not interested in lining their purses with the emperor’s gold or in furthering their careers in the church hierarchy, they were able to view matters more objectively, in the light of the Scriptures. And by all accounts, they did.
A theologian of the period, Gregory of Nyssa, made this derisive comment regarding the common people:
Clothes dealers, money changers, and grocers are all theologians. If you inquire about the value of your money, some philosopher explains wherein the Son differs from the Father. If you ask the price of bread, your answer is the Father is greater than the Son. If you should want to know whether the bath is ready, you get the pronouncement that the Son was created out of nothing.
Yes, unlike the members of the hierarchy, many of the common people were supporting their conclusions by using God’s Word. Gregory and his associates would have done well to listen to them!
“WHEAT” AND “WEEDS” GROW TOGETHER
In a parable, Jesus indicated that from the first century onward, there would always be some genuine anointed Christians on the earth. He compared them to “wheat” growing among weeds. (Matt. 13:30) Of course, we cannot say for certain which individuals or groups belonged to the anointed wheat class, but we can confirm that there have always been some who have courageously defended God’s Word and exposed the church’s unscriptural teachings. Let us consider a few examples.
Archbishop Agobard of Lyons, France (779-840 C.E.), spoke out against image worship, churches dedicated to saints, and the church’s unscriptural liturgies and practices. One of his contemporaries, Bishop Claudius, also rejected church tradition and objected to prayers to saints and the veneration of relics. In the 11th century, Archdeacon Berengarius of Tours, France, was excommunicated for rejecting the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation. Moreover, he held that the Bible is superior to church tradition.
The 12th century saw the arrival of two lovers of Bible truth, Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne. Peter resigned from the priesthood because he could p. 8not reconcile with the Scriptures the Catholic teachings of infant baptism, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, and worship of the cross. In 1140, Peter paid for his beliefs with his life. Henry, a monk, spoke out against corrupt practices in the church as well as the unscriptural aspects of church liturgy. He was arrested in 1148 and spent the rest of his life in prison.
About the time that Peter of Bruys was burned alive for daring to criticize the church, a person was born who would later have a powerful influence on the spread of Bible truth. His last name was Valdès, or Waldo. Unlike Peter of Bruys and Henry of Lausanne, he was a layman, but he valued God’s Word so much that he divested himself of his material goods and arranged for portions of the Bible to be translated into a language commonly spoken in southeastern France. Some were so thrilled to hear the Bible’s message in their own tongue that they too gave up their belongings and devoted their lives to sharing Bible truth with others. The church found this deeply disturbing.
In 1184 these zealous men and women, later called the Waldenses, were excommunicated by the pope and banished from their homes by the bishop. This action actually served to spread the Bible’s message to other areas. Eventually, the followers of Waldo, Peter of Bruys, and Henry of Lausanne as well as other dissenters could be found in many parts of Europe. Other champions of Bible truth rose up in the centuries that followed: John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384), William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536), Henry Grew (1781-1862), and George Storrs (1796-1879).
“THE WORD OF GOD IS NOT BOUND”
Try as they might, enemies of Bible truth have been unable to prevent its spread.
But the Word of God is not chained or imprisoned, says 2 Timothy 2:9.
In 1870 a group of sincere Bible students began searching for the truth. Their method of study? Someone would raise a question. They would discuss it. They would look up all related scriptures on the point, and then, when they were satisfied with the harmony of these texts, they would finally state their conclusion and make a record of it. Does it not reassure you to know that like the apostles and older men of the first century, those faithful men, our “spiritual ancestors” of the late 1800’s, were determined to align their beliefs solidly with God’s Word?