Understanding Extra-Biblical Theology Writings in Light of Scripture

Written on: May 1, 2023

Article by: Paul Birston

God has given us one inspired book, the Bible, containing everything He chose to reveal in writing of Himself, His eternal purposes and His will for our lives in time and eternity.

Over the past ca. 1,925 years, however, people have written countless thousands of non-inspired documents and books of practice and theology (“the study of God”) which millions of people take as authoritative alongside, or even over, the Bible.

There exist in the world today thousands of denominations defining themselves by extra-Biblical creeds, confessions and statements. How did all this extra-, or un-Biblical material come to be? Why does this matter? What’s the point of trying to understand it? What do we do now?

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God’s Foundation

God guarantees us that His one inspired book contains everything we need for knowing Him and doing His will. His Word teaches everything we need for:

* Salvation

* Worship

* Leadership

* Life

* Godliness

His Word is a seed, “the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). His Word is all-sufficient to accomplish what He inspired it to do (Isaiah 55:8–11; 2 Timothy 3:14–17).

The work of knowing God and proclaiming the gospel are common works of the entire body of Christ of which every Christian has a vital role as a priest in His “royal priesthood” representing God to people and people to God (1 Peter 2:9–10; Ephesians 4; Titus 3).

God clearly defines positions of leadership (Ephesians 4; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). Theologian is not a Biblical office. Rather, God affirms the finality of His Word and commands us from the Torah to Revelation, beginning to end, not to add to or to take away from it. God does not command us to write theology, creeds, confessions or canons of church law for governing His body. Christ is the One head of His one body which He guides by His inspired Word.

All extra-Biblical theology writings by definition are reductionist or additive because they are less than all of Scripture on one hand, and additive and excessive on the other. As an example of the latter, the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain approximately 557,702 words. Church Dogmatics by Karl Barth is estimated to contain 6,000,000 words.

How Did We Get Here? 1,925 Years of Theology Writing and Church* History

Four letters in five words provide a “big picture” overview of both the authority for truth and the phases of church* history and theologising that people have built their faith upon over the past nearly two millennia:

* Scripture

* Tradition

* Reason

* Experience/Emotion

Scripture is clearly the one authority for communicating and knowing eternal truth that God has given His people. He speaks His eternal truth into time to accomplish His purposes and His final judgments of the eternal destinies of all people. God and His Word are eternal and not subject to change.

Tradition began to become authoritative alongside or over the Bible very early in the history of Christendom. Documented extra-Biblical theology writings giving a foundation for traditions departing from Scriptural teaching began to emerge late in the first century. They continue in great volume to this day and likely will until Jesus returns. Major world religions all demonstrate this inclination of people to add endlessly to their holy books.

Tradition began early to affect many aspects of the faith “once for all delivered to the holy ones” (Jude 3): salvation, worship, leadership and life. Tradition changed the time and mode of baptism, formalised liturgies adding elements of Old Testament worship, exalted individual “bishops” above God’s wisdom for plurality in elderships, and created un-Christlike divisions of clergy and laity (people). These innovations largely emerged and developed through unauthorised theology writings that became rules of practice.

Reason became a dominant criterion of truth in the Enlightenment. Reason reacted against authoritative tradition and what rationalists saw as unreasonable aspects of Scripture, notably miracles in their opinion.

Experience and emotion as authorities of truth reacted against the overbearing structures of tradition and the perceived effects of coldness and deadness that reason had had upon religion. The emphasis on the experience of God and the quest for parallel emotional confirmations emerged from pietism on Continental Europe and spread to modern evangelicalism through the Methodists (Wesleys) in England and on to the American colonies. Results include the “sinners prayer” as the means of receiving salvation. It is not found in Scripture. One might properly ask, if this was God’s will, would not Peter have said so when asked on the Day of Pentecost how one should respond to gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection in lieu of the answer that he did give in Acts 2:38?

Some try to reconcile all four criteria by postulating that Scripture is a foundation upon which valid traditions can be built that are reasonable and lead to positive emotional experience (e.g. the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” derived from the theological reflections of John Wesley).

As an example of the effects of these four views of authority, see “Immersion (Baptism) and Scriptural Authority through 2,000 Years” at https://app.box.com/s/9n5dfbauxanyfkah34i2n0krrn8pomji https://app.box.com/s/9n5dfbauxanyfkah34i2n0krrn8pomji

The Process and Types of Extra-Biblical/Un-Biblical Theology Writings

Extra-Biblical theology writings began early to emerge simultaneously from charismatic leaders and their followers and those attempting to refute them and to defend orthodoxy. The history of some of these documents, such as the Didache (Teaching) of the Twelve Apostles and The Apostles Creed is vague.

As an example of theological speculation, the Apostles Creed asserts that Christ descended to hell. Only one person spoke directly of hell in Scripture: Jesus (11 of 12 times in the New Testament in Matthew (7 times), Mark (3) and Luke (1). James mentioned hell once relative to the tongue being set on fire by it (James 3:6). Neither Jesus nor James say anything about Jesus descending to hell.

Some documents have clear historical origins such as 1 Clement (“Bishop” of Rome) to Corinth, dated to the mid AD 90’s. By the mid-second century and onwards, authorship and dating become much more certain.

As a clear example of the process of theology writing, monotheism and the eternal existence and divinity of Jesus became major issues in the third and fourth century. The First Council of Nicea in 325 attempted to solve this problem with a creed. Interestingly, the creed did not stop the issue then or subsequently. It persisted through the centuries and is still alive in the 21st century in universalism and unitarianism and major Christian cults.

A result of this first council, however, was the ongoing convening of councils through the centuries to formulate authoritative dogma. The latest councils were Vatican I and II. We should note that doctrine is extremely important to God (Titus 1). Dogma, on the other hand, is a set of tenets held by a particular group that may or may not be in accordance with Scripture. If it is in accord, then extra-Biblical writing is not necessary, nor is it desirable if it is not in accord. The enterprise of councils is justified by those who hold them on the false assumption that the Holy Spirit continues to reveal “truth” not found in Scripture.

Through and since the Reformation, lengthy confessions, such as the Westminster Confession, have become authoritative for many denominations who claim to follow Scripture alone” (sola Scriptura). These, following Luther’s lead, tend also to believe salvation is by “faith alone” (sola fide). Profoundly this phrase is found only once in the Greek New Testament where James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (2:24).

Creeds, councils, confessions. Extra-Biblical theology writing has become a massive industry. Here are just some examples of the genres: Bible book theologies (many for each of the 66 books), Biblical author theologies (e.g. of Moses, Paul, Peter, John, etc.), combinations of Bible books (e.g. Luke-Acts), Old Testament, New Testament, historical, systematic, dogmatic, philosophical, humanist, natural, liberation, feminist, gender (gay, etc.), denominational (catholic, evangelical, reformed/calvinist, etc.). Systematic theologies, also appearing early in confessions and independent books contain topical studies of: God the Father (Paterology, Partiology), Jesus Christ (Christology), God’s Holy Spirit (Pneumatology), Men and Women (Anthropology), Sin (Hamartiology), Salvation (Soteriology), Church (Ecclesiology) and the Last Days (Eschatology). We could also mention the Scholastics whose major works attempted to answer theological questions using a combination of Scripture and philosophy.

Where has all this brought us? We live in a world today where major denominations and their streams of theological writing are making exclusive claims that not only contradict each other, they contradict Scripture on countless points.

Why Does This Matter?

We must know God’s will for our salvation, worship, leadership, life and godliness. We must know and do what pleases Him. Our souls depend on it. The souls of close to eight billion people on earth depend on it.

Our first and last source of knowledge of God and His will is His Word. We must read it through as often as possible, meditate on it, hear it, and share it with one another regularly. We must examine everything by its light (Psalm 119:160; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1–6). As we do will find that rather than turning to extra-Biblical theology writings to understand Scripture, we will be surprised and rewarded to find that the deeper we go into God’s Word the more clearly we can see where streams of extra-Biblical theology writing have departed from it. If only the authors of the Nicean Creed would have read and meditated long and hard on John 1, Colossians 1 and Hebrews 1 they would have had no need for a creed.

To begin and sustain conversations with others and hope to communicate the gospel to them effectively we must understand them: their worldviews, their culture, their beliefs.

Waterloo, Ontario

*Footnote: Regarding the impact of extra-Biblical theology writings, even “Church” itself is not a Bible word. “Church” is an Old English-Dutch-German-Medieval Greek version of a completely different Greek word, kuriokon when combined with doma means “lord’s house” used for buildings which were places of worship from the 4th century on and sometimes, unfortunately, of His people. The unbiblical word “church” makes most people think of a building or a bad experience of being burned by religion or the parade of abuse laid out in the media today. The Bible word is ekklesia which means “assembly” which is very close to the meaning for synagogue which comes from the verb “gather together.” The total assembly of Christ is made up of all His individual local autonomous assemblies on earth and “the festal gathering and assembly (ekklesia) of the Firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:)