The Authority of Scripture
The Pharisees were marked by their high view of Scripture. Certainly, when we compare them to the Sadducees—the other main Jewish sect featured in the Gospels—the Pharisees strike us as the conservatives, as the Sadducees look like the liberals. “For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all” (Acts 23:8). Yet it was not as if the Pharisees simply upheld Scripture while the Sadducees turned away. Where the Sadducees took away from Scripture, the Pharisees added to it. For the Pharisees were, most emphatically, a people of tradition. They held that on Mount Sinai, God had given Moses more than the Law: he had given a body of traditions that had subsequently been passed down through the generations orally. These traditions, preserved in written form in the Mishnah (and supplemented by its commentary, the Gemara) make up the Talmud. This was treated by the Pharisees as having an authority effectively equal to Scripture. Thus, the same Rabbinic Targums that spoke of God busying himself by day with the study of the Scriptures described him as busying himself by night with that of the Mishnah.1 We should therefore not be surprised when we read of how “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, ‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’” (Matt. 15:1–2).
While, then, the Pharisees affirmed the trustworthiness of Scripture, they did not in practice trust it as the supremely authoritative word of God. Thus, Jesus could answer them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3). Presumably, the true answer could only be that they had to modify the commandment of God by tradition to make possible their attempt to justify themselves. But more on that later. For all their zealous reverence of Scripture, they accorded it no governing authority. In practice, their traditions—and their traditions’ interpretation of Scripture—ruled.
The Pharisees are not alone in this. The English Reformer Hugh Latimer once described the eclipsing of God’s word by human traditions as a great aim of Satan’s work throughout the history of the church. Picturing the devil as the most diligent preacher in all England, he explained, “His office is to hinder religion, to maintain superstition, to set up idolatry. . . . Where the devil is resident, and hath his plough going, there away with books, and up with candles . . . up with man’s traditions and his laws, down with God’s traditions and his most holy word.”2
Sometimes it can be reasonably obvious when human opinions trump Scripture. It is evident when a preacher merely uses the Bible as a jumping-off point for a diatribe on his own views or cultural observations. Or when the authority of his ideas rest upon only his own wisdom or some private revelation he has received. Or when the loud “amens” of his congregation seem to steer the direction of his sermon. Then, perhaps, we get the uncomfortable sense that Scripture is being used for some other agenda but is not definitive.
Yet rarely is that obvious if we agree with him. For the real power of traditions lies in their ability to create cultures, and while the quirks of other cultures seem blindingly—often amusingly— obvious to us, our own culture strikes us as plain common sense. A “culture” seems like something only other people have. Our traditions and assumptions are part of the very air we breathe, their very familiarity attesting to their rightness. And being so palpably, unquestionably right, our culture becomes laden with theological weight. Those who are not like us are immediately suspect.
It is easy for evangelical tribes to feel a self-satisfied glow of innocence here. We, after all, are plain, Bible Christians. Of course others fall down here, we think, but suspicion of extrabiblical traditions is something that runs deep in our blood. Is not our wariness of tradition precisely something that sets us apart as evangelicals? Many are mistrustful of theology for just this reason: they want a “purely” biblical message. Yet evangelicalism’s (unevangelical) “no creed but the Bible” biblicism itself creates traditions.3 We can seek a “straight,” “natural” reading of the text, and quite deliberately read the Bible away from the “corrupting” voices of theologians and commentators, and yet be blissfully unaware of how compromised our interpretation of Scripture is. Thus unchallenged, our fallen, theologically immature, culturally shaped reading acquires all the authority of Scripture itself. Deaf to the cloud of witnesses in the church down the centuries, the pastor’s eccentric interpretation becomes unassailably authoritative. He becomes ever more powerful because of his evident anointing, while his church becomes ever more untethered to anything but his proof-texted views. In such biblicism, the interpreter—not Scripture—becomes sovereign.
The pages of church history are littered with heretics who boasted of their devotion to Scripture yet failed to spot how their biblical language concealed unbiblical thinking. Take the fourth-century Arians and the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Socinians as examples. Reading their arguments is like being hit by an avalanche of Bible verses, giving the impression that Scripture drove their reasoning. Look more carefully, though, and it becomes clear that Scripture was used only to support conclusions reached by what, to them, seemed “reasonable.” The Socinians recommended as a principle of exegesis that we reject “every interpretation which is repugnant to right reason, or involves a contradiction.”4 That principle meant that one God cannot be three persons. On the basis of this “right reason”—not Scripture—they rejected belief in the Trinity. They used Scripture to make their case, but it was “right reason”—not Scripture—that got them there.
In just the same way, evangelicals can conceal their rationalism, their experientialism, or their pragmatism with biblical language and so fool themselves that they are being truly biblical. What matters most to them can be what they feel, what they have been brought up with, or what seems reasonable. Scripture can be used only to confirm what they have come to believe on other grounds.
Evangelicals can conceal their rationalism, their experientialism, or their pragmatism with biblical language and so fool themselves that they are being truly biblical.
How Traditions Help Tribes
By definition, the Pharisees were not like other men. Their very name seems to be derived from a word meaning “the separated ones.” They were a “party” or “sect” (Acts 15:5; 26:5), intensely proud of the legacy and traditions that set them apart. They had Abraham as their father (John 8:33, 39, 53) and barricades of tradition to preserve and proclaim their distinct identity. It was their traditions that quarantined them and made them the faction they were.
Tribalism is the inevitable consequence of allowing tradition— or anything else—parity with the word of God. As soon as we adopt any rallying banner other than the gospel, we sacrifice evangelical unity. Such elevation of tradition rebuilds the old dividing walls of tribal hostility broken down at the cross (Eph. 2:14–16), promoting blocs of uniformity instead of unity. Each silo subtly develops its own particular slang, peculiar dialect, shibboleths, and buzzwords. Its members learn the “in” patter and dress code, talking and walking in specific ways that ape the inner ring of their party leaders. They become, as C. S. Lewis put it, like the country bumpkin, full of “the cocksure conviction of an ignorant adolescent that his own village (which is the only one he knows) is the hub of the universe and does everything in the Only Right Way.”5 Out of sheer ignorance as much as anything else, the inhabitants of other villages seem increasingly alien and wrong. Out of sight and understanding, they grow horns.
The process then becomes self-reinforcing as each tribe fails to see how it is conflating the gospel with its own tradition. With their appeal limited to people of the same culture, they find they cannot connect with the other side of town, let alone another continent. And on it goes: the more comfortable the uniformity, the more familiar the culture, the more Scripture is forced to take a back seat. Customs, personalities and peccadilloes can rule. No longer supreme and so no longer challenging, the Bible can be commandeered as proof of the rightness of the culture. The more that happens, the more human leaders will shape and control their fiefdoms while others scramble to achieve their acceptance.
Tribalization, therefore, has an oddly distorting effect, leading subscribers to swallow camels while straining at cultural gnats. The village mentality makes mediocre leaders appear Herculean in ability and significance. Small ponds acquire big fish. Thus, swollen in significance, it is hard for them not to exert an undue influence and for their every view to assume an overexalted authority. They can even eclipse Christ in the eyes of acolytes who fear them as much as—or even more than—God. But therein is a recipe for insecurity, for when defined by leadership or culture more than Christ, tribes need their boundary markers more than ever. They become entrenched and necessarily opposed to other groups who must be wrong.
Hope and Glory
At the very end of John Bunyan’s *Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian looks back from the Celestial City and sees a man called Ignorance approaching the gate. Ignorance
began to knock, supposing that entrance should have been quickly administered to him; but he was asked by the men that looked over the top of the gate, ‘Whence came you, and what would you have?’ He answered, ‘I have eat and drank in the presence of the King, and he has taught in our streets.’ Then they asked him for his certificate, that they might go in and show it to the King; so he fumbled in his bosom for one, and found none.6
Since there was nothing to be found “in his bosom,” two angels are commanded to “go out and take Ignorance, and bind him hand and foot, and have him away.”7 With this, Christian learns the parting lesson of the book: “I saw that there was a way to hell, even from the gates of heaven.”8 It is a sobering warning for all who think of themselves as Bible-loving Christians. For Scripture is like the gate of heaven to us, opening divine glories. Yet we can knock at the text every day and remain hollow hearted, with nothing in our bosom.
- Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green, 1887), 15.
- Hugh Latimer, “Sermon of the Plough,” in Sermons of Hugh Latimer (Cambridge: The University Press, 1844), 70–71.
- To clarify, sola Scriptura is not the same as the view that we should have “no creed but the Bible.” It asserts that Scripture alone is supreme in its authority. We should listen to other voices and authorities, such as the creeds of the church. Sola Scriptura simply affirms that every other authority must bow to Scripture, not the other way around. For more on this, see Michael Reeves, Gospel People: A Call for Evangelical Integrity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 30–35.
- The Racovian Catechism, trans. Thomas Rees (London: Longman, Hurst, 1818), 18.
- C. S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), 138.
- John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Penguin, 1965), 141.
- Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 141.
- Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, 142.
This article is adapted from Evangelical Pharisees: The Gospel as Cure for the Church’s Hypocrisy by Michael Reeves.
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