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Does the Church Have Authority over the Scriptures?

Martin Bucer admits that it is true, in some sense, that the church came before the scriptures. It is true that the church was established before the canon of the New Testament was closed. This does not mean, he insists, that the church had (or continues to have) the authority to make or change God’s word. Bucer does not, however, merely argue that the church should accept God’s word on blind trust. On the contrary, he says that the church must test the scriptures to make sure they are authentic and not forgeries. So, the church does maintain an authority with regard to the scriptures, but one of protection rather than creation. Bucer explains by way of various analogies, that it is a desire for loyalty, rather than an attempt at subterfuge, that drives the church to established the authenticity of the scriptures:

A city whose life is governed by the decrees of the prince has to determine aright whether laws or edicts published in his name have really been issued by him, or are forgeries; but would this justify your saying that the city possesses legal power over its prince’s laws or confers on them their authority or authenticates them? It is one thing to recognise gold, another thing to make it. Penelope recognised Odysseus, but in order to give him, when recognised, not orders but obedience. Likewise the commands of princes are certainly not accepted by their subjects unless it is established that in fact they are their princes’ commands, and to this end they are first investigated with great care. But no one in his right mind claims that on this account the subjects have power over these commands or can change them. Indeed, it is for the very reason that they have no rights over them but are themselves entirely under their authority that they are so keen to discover whether they are actually what they are given out to be, their purpose being of course to avoid transgressing their prince’s commands by accepting the orders of others.1

  1. D.F. Wright trans. and ed., Common Places of Martin Bucer, (Appleford, England: The Sutton Courtney Press, 1972), 187.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.

2 replies on “Does the Church Have Authority over the Scriptures?”

So maybe the next question would be “What means are legitimate for determining which decrees are from God and which are not?”

And, of course, none of this has anything to say about a major feature of modern skepticism, namely, how the church chooses to filter the scriptures, and defend those filtrations against the depredations of regular schmoes who, because they have a public education, can read, e.g., defending a repackaged “Family Man” Christ against a plain reading of the scriptures that shows him to be a guy who despised family.

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