On Scripture and the Bereans

In my previous post I argued that the Church has a divine teaching authority, which means she has the authority to declare which doctrines are true and which are false. One of the objections I’ve encountered in discussions about this comes from the account of the Bereans in Acts 17. The Bereans, the objection goes, were praised for not simply submitting to Paul’s teachings but for checking those teachings against Scripture before accepting them. If the Bereans were praised for doing this with an Apostle, how much more ought we to do this with the Church? Therefore, we shouldn’t just accept the Church’s teachings – we should always check them against the Bible.

The context of Acts 17, as well as of Paul’s broader ministry, however, shows that this objection is unfounded. At the beginning of Acts 17, Paul has paid a visit to the Jewish synagogue in Thessalonica. Scripture tells us,

And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ” [Ac.17:2,3 all quotes from the ESV].

Paul's journey through ancient Greece. Courtesy Lambert Planet

Paul’s journey through ancient Greece.
Courtesy Lambert Planet

Paul opens the Scriptures and demonstrates to the Thessalonians how those Scriptures proclaim Christ. This was his main method for ministering to the Jews, as we can see from other examples in Acts (Acts 13, for example, gives a detailed look at how Paul went about “explaining and proving” Christ from the Old Testament). Some of Paul’s hearers were persuaded [v.4], but the Thessalonian Jews were not, and made their disagreement known with a city-wide temper tantrum [v.5]. In response, Paul and Silas leave under cover of night and travel to Berea. They do just what they did in Thessalonica and they pay a visit to the synagogue [v.10]. But the response of the Berean Jews was very different from the jealous Jews of Thessalonica. We read,

Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so [Ac.17:11].

The Holy Spirit praises the Berean Jews, informing us that they “were more noble than those in Thessalonica.” But what exactly are they being praised for? Are they being praised for not merely accepting Paul’s gospel but for double-checking Scripture before accepting it? The nobility of the Bereans is contrasted here with the ignobility of the Thessalonians. So if the nobility of the Bereans lay in double-checking Paul’s teachings before accepting them, then the ignobility of the Thessalonians lay in accepting Paul’s teachings without double-checking them. But as we’ve seen, this isn’t what happened in Thessalonica. It wasn’t that they accepted Paul’s teachings without first seeing if Scripture supported them; it was that they didn’t accept Paul’s teachings at all. Their response to Paul’s ministry was one of sorely undignified unbelief.

The nobility of the Berean Jews, rather, was due to their “receiving the word in all eagerness.” They responded in faith to Paul’s message, and in that lay the remarkable contrast between them and the Thessalonian Jews. Luke’s comment about the Bereans examining the Scriptures is a description of their eagerness. Paul rode into town telling the Jews, “Look in the Scriptures and see the Christ they proclaim!” The Berean Jews, responding in eager faith to Paul’s message, had done exactly that. It wasn’t that Paul proclaimed the gospel and the Bereans responded by withholding acceptance until they’d double-checked Scripture. It was that Paul told them to open the Scriptures and encounter the Christ who dwells there. Paul’s ministry to the Jews was an announcement of the true meaning of the Scriptures God had entrusted to them.

But there is one detail in the passage that could be the basis of an objection. That’s the word “if”. Scripture doesn’t say that the Bereans examined Scripture “to see that these things were so,” which would better support my argument; rather it says, “to see if these things were so.” This suggests that the Bereans really were withholding acceptance of Paul’s gospel until they were satisfied that his message was biblical. Let’s assume, then, that this is true, and that this was part of the reason Scripture commends them. If this is true, what would have happened if they’d disagreed with Paul? If the double-checking of Scripture is the praiseworthy thing, wouldn’t it be praiseworthy regardless of the outcome? Would they at least be commendably mistaken?

This isn’t merely a hypothetical question. When Paul arrives in Rome at the end of Acts, he ministers to the Jews just as he had in Thessalonica and Berea:

From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets. And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved [Ac.28:23,24].

Again, there are two responses to Paul’s attempt to persuade the Jews from Scripture. Some believe, and some don’t. But unlike the Thessalonian Jews, these disbelieving Roman Jews don’t cause a riot. They listen attentively to Paul, follow his scriptural arguments, and at the end simply aren’t convinced. It’s all quite civil and respectful. Does Paul consider them noble for at the very least examining the Scriptures with him to see if his gospel was true? Here’s what Paul says to them:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

“‘Go to this people, and say,
“You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen” [28:25-28].

Simply examining the Scriptures and making a judgment about what they taught was not in itself a praiseworthy thing. Paul does not commend the Roman Jews for examining Scripture with him and forming their own judgment. Rather, he condemns them for not seeing what he said was there. That’s the key point in all of this: Paul was announcing to the Jews the truth about Scripture, and the only praiseworthy response was to receive that truth in faith. Anything other than eager acceptance was worthy of condemnation. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians,

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers [1Th.2:13].

How blessed are the feet of those who bring good news! Apostle Paul in the catacombs, 5th c.

How blessed are the feet of those who bring good news!
Apostle Paul in the catacombs, 5th c.

Paul wasn’t bringing just another interpretation of the Scriptures. Rather, what he brought was the Word of God. Paul wasn’t leaving it up to his audiences to decide whether or not his message was scriptural. Again, he was announcing to them that his message was the truth of Scripture. If the Bereans had examined Scripture and rejected Paul’s teaching, as some of the Roman Jews had, as the Judaizers in Galatia had, and indeed as the Pharisees and Sadducees had rejected Christ Himself, they would have been rejecting God’s Word.

The history of the Church, too, furnishes us with many practical examples as to why the “Berean objection” is based on a misunderstanding of Scripture. As a relatively recent example, back in the 1860’s a young Christian man named Charles Taze Russell went through a crisis of faith. He emerged from that crisis convicted even more deeply that Scripture alone was divine and authoritative. As a result, he and his father started a Bible study group with their educated friends for the purpose of testing long-held Christian doctrines against the authority of Scripture. They concluded that doctrines such as the Trinity, the immortality of the soul, and eternal hellfire for the damned simply were not supported by the scriptural evidence, and rejected them. Russell managed to attract a following, a following that eventually became the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unlike a group like the Mormons, whose beginnings lay with the visions of Joseph Smith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ beginnings lay in the study of Scripture.

Does Acts 17, then, commend the Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to believe teachings that they’ve judged to be unscriptural? Is that the lesson to be learned from the Bereans? And if that’s not the case for the JW’s, then why is it the case for the Reformers? What’s ultimately the difference between what Russell did and what Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli did?

Contrary to this, the Catholic Church claims that Paul and the Apostles passed on their teaching authority to their successors in the Church. As I argued in my last post, Christ intended from the very beginning for His authority to go with His Church [Mt.28:18-20]. This means that just like Paul she has the authority to announce the truth of the gospel to all men. Under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit, the Church, just as Paul did, opens the Scriptures and invites all mankind to encounter the Christ revealed therein. She does this every single day in every corner of the world. But it’s not an invitation to make up your own mind about these things, any more than Paul invited his audiences to make up their own minds about his gospel. It’s an invitation to embrace with eagerness the one faith that has been once for all delivered to the saints.

The lesson of the Bereans, and of all the other hearers of Paul’s gospel we read of in Acts, is that there are only two possible responses to this invitation: belief or unbelief. There is no third option of “Scripture-based disagreement,” for Paul teaches in Acts 28 that this is only another form of unbelief. It isn’t for us to be skeptical of the Church until her teachings satisfy our own analysis of Scripture. That was the way of the Roman Jews who were unconvinced by Paul, the way of the Arians later with the divinity of Christ, and the way of the Charles Taze Russells of modern times. History is replete, from Scripture onwards, with teachers who fashioned the material of Scripture into doctrines that suited their own understanding, and on that basis declared the Church’s teachings false. The most influential heretics have been influential for exactly that reason, which is why the Church Fathers taught that Scripture could not be understood properly apart from the Church.

The Apostles deposited the faith in the Church, and the Church in turn proclaims that faith to the world. The lesson of the Bereans is to respond in faith when the truth of the Scriptures is announced to us. Their example is not one of skepticism, but of eagerly embracing the gospel taught to us by the one who has the mind of Christ [1Co.2:16], the one who is His fullness [Ep.1:22-23], and the one to whom Christ promised His authoritative presence always, to the end of the age: the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.