Previous article in this series: November 15, 2013, p. 80.
“Though the Stake Were Staring Us in the Face”
A papal legate arrived in the city [of Prague], in the spring of 1412. He brought the sacred pallium—a vestment sent by the pope as a token of authority—to Archbishop Albik, the successor of Zbynek. He was also, to publish the bull of the pope against Ladislas. He suspected that Hus might oppose the measure. Yet it was highly important for the success of the sale of indulgences, the practical plan to raise funds for the crusade, that the great preacher should not do so. Hus was, therefore, brought before the legate.
“Will you obey the apostolic mandates?” asked the legate.
Hus did not hesitate. “I am ready with all my heart to obey the apostolical mandates.”
“Do you see?” said the gratified legate to those standing by. “The master is quite ready to obey the apostolical mandates.”
“My lord,” replied Hus, “understand me well. I said I am ready with all my heart to obey the apostolical mandates. But I call apostolical mandates the doctrines of the apostles of Christ [as set forth in Holy Scripture]; and so far as the papal mandates agree with these, so far will I obey them most willingly. But if I see anything in them at variance with these, I shall not obey, even though the stake were staring me in the face.”
It was plain that Hus was not disposed to pass the matter over in silence. He would take his full share in a discussion that was to agitate the kingdom. In consequence, we must consider him as occupying a new position, one that was more difficult than any he had occupied before. He was to come into direct conflict with the pope. He was to question papal authority, refute papal logic, expose papal baseness and iniquity. In his past efforts he had not had occasion to oppose the pope personally. He had recognized him as the head of the Church, appealed to him, addressed him in respectful language and shown him due reverence. Such a position was no longer possible. He had entered more deeply into the whole subject of the authority of the pope. As a reformer by nature and by the call of the Holy Spirit, as a public and influential man, he felt impelled to resist the evil tendencies of the priestly rule system wherever they appeared. His soul revolted at the sale of indulgences. His duty to Christ and the Church required that he should express his abhorrence.
He knew the risk. He knew that he was staking his life on the venture…. In these circumstances, so different from any in which he had previously been placed, his courage was to be put more severely to the test. Should he speak or keep silence? In this emergency that thus arose, Hus did not falter. He did not tremble to speak his conviction. With him obedience to Christ stood first in importance. The limit of obedience to all authority was to be determined by this rule. The bull required what was directly opposed to the law [or, Word] of Christ. He could not obey the bull. He could not break his rule—to obey God rather than man.1
“…even though the stake were staring me in the face.” So strongly was John Hus convinced of the authority, the ultimate and sole authority of Scripture—a hundred years before the Reformation took place. In many respects he led the way; he was a reformer before his time. He pointed the way, a way that the others, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Knox, would follow. Long before the Reformation took place, Hus called attention to the outstanding difference between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church. The difference, the great difference, was the difference concerning the authority in and over the church. That authority was not the authority of the pope. Rather it was the authority of Holy Scripture. Scripture was over all, and all—including the pope—were called boldly to confess and humbly to submit to Scripture’s supreme authority. Pre-Reformers and Reformers alike regarded Scripture as the supreme authority in the church, so that they insisted on obeying Scripture “though the stake were staring them in the face.” They were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice of their lives—think about it—because they knew Scripture to be the Word of God, the divinely inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. Submitting to the authority of Scripture, they were submitting to the authority of God, since Scripture is the very Word of God. That was their conviction. That conviction brought about the Reformation.
The Bible and the Bible alone is the only infallible authority in the church. Sometimes this is referred to as the formal principle of the Reformation and is distinguished from the material principle of the Reformation, the truth of justification by faith alone. Sola Scriptura, Scripture alone, and Sola Fide, faith alone, stood in the closest possible relationship to each other. Justification (salvation) by faith alone, because this was the teaching of Scripture—and Scripture is the only and ultimate authority in the church. Because the church had departed from the authority of Scripture, false doctrines and wrong practices had crept into the church. Genuine church reformation required that the church should be re-formed according to the infallible rule of sacred Scripture. Once again the church was brought to honor the supreme authority of the Word of God in the life of the church.
In our last article, you will recall, we began to consider what the Bible says about the Bible, the self-authenticating nature of Scripture. It is the Bible’s teaching about itself that it is the infallibly inspired and inerrant Word of God. The Bible teaches about itself that it is God’s Word in the words of men. As the Word of God, the Bible is the supreme authority in the life of every believer and of the church. Nothing need be believed that is not supported by Holy Scripture, and nothing that is taught in Holy Scripture may be ignored or rejected. Scripture is the authority over faith (what we believe) and morals (how we live). Scripture’s authority is the authority of God Himself—divine authority. Augustine said long ago: “What Scripture says, God says.”
This is the Bible’s testimony about itself. This is what the Bible says about the Bible. Scripture teaches about itself that it is the infallibly inspired and inerrant Word of God. It is significant that Scripture makes this claim concerning itself. It might have disavowed divine authorship, as do some of the apocryphal books. Or the Bible might have said nothing concerning its inspiration, neither claiming nor disavowing divine authorship. But instead, Scripture insists that it is the very Word of God. This is what the Reformers had in mind when they referred to the self-authenticating nature of Scripture.
In our last article, we took special note of Jesus’ word in John 10:35 that “the Scripture cannot be broken.” This is what the Bible says about itself, that it cannot be broken. It is not possible to break Scripture because Scripture is the Word of God. Not only may it not be broken; not only are men forbidden to break the Scriptures, but in actual fact, they cannot break the Scriptures. They cannot break the Scriptures because the Scriptures are the Word of God. As the Word of God, Scripture’s authority is binding on all men. That authority cannot be broken or set aside. Because Scripture is the holy and perfect Word of God that cannot be broken, all men everywhere are called to submit to the authority of the Scriptures.
In this article and the next, I want to consider with you the teaching of the apostle Paul in. In this verse, the apostle refers to the Old Testament Scriptures as “the oracles of God.” That is what the Bible is and what the Bible says about itself. That Scripture is “the oracles of God” is a very significant and instructive expression. That the Bible is “the oracles of God” aptly expresses the fundamental truth regarding Scripture, that it is the very Word of God. This is what the Bible says about the Bible, that it is “the oracles of God.”2
The Oracles of God
By “the oracles of God,” the apostle is referring in Romans 3:2 to the sacred Scriptures, the written Word of God.3 Paul makes this plain in two ways in what follows.
First, he says in verse 4, “God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written….” He appeals to that which is “written,” that is, that which is written in the Holy Scriptures. What is written in the Holy Scriptures is “the oracles of God.” That by “the oracles of God,” the apostle is referring to Scripture is evident, secondly, from the fact that, throughout what follows, Paul quotes again and again from the Old Testament Scriptures. He quotes from the Old Testament Scriptures to support his teaching concerning the natural depravity of every member of the human race. Just as Jesus did not appeal to His divine Sonship but to Holy Scripture in order to establish the truth of what He taught, so Paul does not appeal to his apostolic office to support what he has been teaching but rather to the clear teaching of Holy Scripture.
By “the oracles of God,” the apostle is referring to the Old Testament Scriptures, first of all. He has in mind the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament Bible. These thirty-nine books were recognized as the Old Testament canon. By the time that the apostle wrote the Epistle to the Romans, the Old Testament was complete. The canon of the Old Testament was fixed. Significantly neither Jesus nor the apostle Paul was forced to defend the canonicity of any of the books of the Old Testament. There was complete agreement regarding what books belonged to and what books did not belong to the Old Testament canon. These books and these books alone were recognized by the Old Testament people of God, as well as by Jesus and His apostles. Concerning the Old Testament Scriptures, the apostle says that they are the oracles of God.
By implication, what the apostle says about the Old Testament Scriptures applies also to the New Testament Scriptures. No less than the books of the Old Testament, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are included in the canon of Scripture. They are the books—like the Book of Romans—that were written by the apostles or by their close associates. They are the books that bear the marks of sacred Scripture. And they are the books that the Holy Spirit led the church from the time of the apostles onward to recognize as belonging to the New Testament. The Scriptures as a whole, therefore, including both the Old and the New Testaments, are the oracles of God.
What does the apostle mean when he says that the
Scriptures are the oracles of God? The word “oracle” refers to a divine utterance, a word or message directly from the mouth of God. That was the meaning of the word in the Greek world in which the apostle Paul lived. Among the ancient Greeks, an oracle was considered to be the direct mouthpiece of the gods. The oracle was the spokesman of the gods. Men consulted the oracles so that they might know directly what the will of the gods was. Among the ancient Greeks the most famous oracles were the oracle of the Greek god Apollo at Delphi, and the oracle of the god Zeus at Dodona.
The apostle, now, takes that word “oracle” and applies it to Holy Scripture. Scripture is the oracle of God. This is what the Bible is: “the oracles of God.” What this means and what the apostle intends to teach by this description of Scripture is that Scripture is the Word of God, the very Word of God. If Scripture is the oracles of God, Scripture is the Word of God. This is the tremendous truth that he teaches! The words of Scripture are not simply words about God, words concerning God. The words of Scripture are not merely words that witness to God. But the words of Scripture are the very words of God, the oracles of God.
This is true of the Scriptures as a whole and of the Scriptures in all its parts. Scripture is entirely the oracles of God. Clearly this is the apostle’s teaching. This belongs to the significance of the plural: “oracles of God.” All of Scripture, the Scriptures all together, are the oracles of God. Scripture is only the oracles of God.
To teach that Scripture is partly the Word of God and partly the word of man, to teach that Scripture is the Word of God inasmuch as God’s Word can be found in Scripture—much like the proverbial needle in the haystack—is to deny that Scripture is the oracles of God. This is what men are teaching today. This is the view of Scripture that is accepted by many professing Christians today. But this view flatly contradicts the apostle’s teaching in Romans 3:2.
Next time, the Lord willing, we will consider the significance and the implications of the truth that the Bible is “the oracles of God.”
1 William Nathaniel Schwarze, John Hus, The Martyr of Bohemia (New York: Fleming, 1915), 64-66.
2 The Greek word translated as “oracles” is closely related to the Greek word that means “word.” Thus “the oracles of God” refer literally to the words of God.
3 There are three other places in the New Testament where the expression “oracles of God” occurs. The other passages are:, , and . In every instance the expression “oracles of God” refers to the sacred Scriptures, the written Word of God.