Protestants of Chapters and Verses: The Legacy of the Little Berea Reformation

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It was late at night at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society nearly twenty years ago. The formal schedule for the day was over, and a few dozen impressionable young seminarians gathered chairs around a few seasoned scholars to season them with questions.

Of the handful of established teachers, two in particular shone as the brightest lights in the room. By far, these two had published the most books and had the most recognizable names beyond academic circles. When these two people spoke, the room listened very carefully.

By the end of the evening, however, a striking difference had appeared between the two lights. As they answered question after question, one of them conspicuously refrained from quoting Westminster and few scriptures. The other shared very little, if any, Westminster – but text after text of the Bible. I suspect it went unnoticed, at first, but eventually the pattern became pronounced. More than a handful of us noticed by the end.

That night, the two reformed lights found themselves with mostly the same answers to our battery of questions, but how they arrived at those answers revealed different instincts. One by default in Westminster; the other, to Scripture. It left a lasting impression on me. I knew which one I wanted to imitate. And even though I found no passage in Westminster recommending the first approach, my mind immediately went to one passage of Scripture, among others, which recommends the second.

Born (again) in a small town

In Acts 17, after being driven from Thessalonica by an angry and envious mob, Paul and Silas arrive in a small town called Berea. They begin with the synagogue, as was their custom. Luke then marks a contrast with these Bereans:

Now these Jews were more noble than those of Thessalonica; they received the word eagerly, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. So many of them believed, along with quite a few high-ranking Greek women as well as men. (Acts 17:11-12)

Obviously, Luke isn’t just reporting. He congratulates. “Oh, for all the listeners of Christian preaching,” he would say, “to follow in the footsteps of those small-town nobles!” Luke highlights two particular aspects of what made this response “more noble.”

Like starving children

First, he says that they “received the word eagerly.”

Paul and Silas came to Berea to announce a message, a word, not their own, but from God, through Christ. They came to give what they themselves had not created but received. The noble Berean response began with the opening, even the preparation, receive — take the gospel of Jesus Christ as the goal, given and unalterable, and with open hands receive it.

And Luke keeps us guessing as to How? ‘Or’ What they received it. He says “with all alacrity.” This word, from God himself in Christ, was received neither with hostility nor with apathy. While Luke commends this synagogue in Berea for an objective and balanced examination of Scripture, let’s not assume that “receiving the word” involves doing it dispassionately or cold-bloodedly. They received it strongly. As Ajith Fernando comments, “Their nobility lay in their willingness to recognize their need, which translated into a willingness to hear God and receive what they heard. . . . Like starving children in need of food, they sought the Word of God” (Acts469).

Like careful prosecutors

Second, then, Luke also reports what form this enthusiastic reception took: “the daily examination of the Scriptures”.

Undoubtedly, the Jews of the first century had no Christian creeds and denominations to consult, but they might have been strongly tempted to turn to a host of secondary sources: whether it be the Mishnah, or the Oral Law, or Jewish common sense and the assumptions in which they were brought up, or the growing body of Second Temple literature. Like us, they had many other seemingly noble sources to turn to. other than the scriptures themselves. They could have failed elsewhere to verify the validity of Paul’s message, but by God’s grace these Jews turned to precisely where they needed to turn: God’s own word, not human formulations.

Paul had started them in the right direction by his own practice. When he came to preach in the synagogues, “he reasoned with them writings, explaining and proving that Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus whom I preach to you is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2-3). Paul pointed them in the right direction. He installed his listeners to verify his message in scripture reasoning with them first of scripture.

“They wanted to know the truth and the true God, and neither apathy nor gullibility would benefit the pursuit.”

So, following the example of Paul, these noble Bereans examined the scriptures for themselves. Ardor and exam did not disagree; Luke salutes both their sincere concern and their deliberate care. Noble indeed, they wanted to know the true God and his truth, and neither apathy nor credulity would benefit the pursuit. And pursuit it was. It wasn’t just a moment or a flash in the pan. They persevered in their painstaking research. They gave an enthusiastic welcome, with a scriptural examination, a Daily practice.

Reform Warning

Today we too know the temptation to rely on voices other than scripture to tell us what scripture says. We have access to an amazing (and growing!) wealth of secondary literature, old and new. And best of all are our beliefs and denominations. They are treasured – to be cherished far above the last title that came off the press. Too few modern Christians appreciate the wisdom and value of ancient creeds and faithful denominations like Westminster and others in its wake. And especially those of us who readily declare ourselves “Reformed” and shameless sympathizers with the Reformation and its legacy.

“Are we diligently examining the scriptures for ourselves daily?

However, like those who join Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone being our supreme and final authority — we would do well to verify our practice regularly with these noble readers of Berea. Do we diligently examine the scriptures for ourselves daily?

Our best beliefs, if we let them, will remind us of this precisely and encourage us to practice it, however helpful confessions may be in checking our work.

Keep Searching the Scriptures

For example, the first section of the Desire for God affirmation of faith, while acknowledging that “limited abilities, traditional prejudices, personal sin, and cultural assumptions often obscure biblical texts”, recommends “humble and careful effort to find in the language of scripturehimself what God has to tell us through his prophets and his apostles (1.4).

It is a worthy warning to sound not only at the beginning but also at the conclusion. The fifteenth and last section resumes the confession,

We do not claim infallibility for this assertion and are open to refinement and correction of Scripture. Yet we hold fast to these truths as we see them and call on others to search the scriptures to see if these things are so. As conversation and debate unfolds, we may learn from each other and boundaries may be adjusted, or even previously disagreeing groups may come together. (15.4)

For now, we see many things in the scriptures vaguely, not yet as we will see (1 Corinthians 13:12). Young and old, we’re all at growing up in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, according to his word (2 Peter 3:18). How tragic, then, to identify as “Reformed,” to hold Scripture at bay in our admiration for those who so memorably defended Scripture, whether Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Westminster or the Second London Confession. .

Likewise, cutting in the other direction, as people sincerely desirous of “receiving the word” and “examining the scriptures daily”, we would do well to beware of letting Sola Scriptura to be a cloak for our own personal interpretations. Remembering these noble saints of Berea can renew in us the resolve to cling more closely to human opinions and assumptions, especially our own. It’s a subtle but real and well-known danger: we can hold up the banner of “sola Scriptura” as a pretext to reject the tried wisdom of creeds and denominations in the service of our own personal instincts and interpretations.

Failure to God’s Own Words

Those who teach faithfully and fruitfully in the church in the generation to come, as in the past, will be eager to proclaim scriptural truth, and they will also be eager to continue to learn and grow themselves. No pastor or Christian leader has arrived, and the best know it well. Good pastors and teachers are willing to stand up for what they know how to teach in the scriptures, yet they are humbly willing to grow and be wrong about the scriptures.

Even as we cherish, repeat, and draw wisdom from time-tested beliefs and confessions, we learn to default to the scriptures themselves. We savor even more the very words of God. Not just in theory. In daily practice. In the passionate daily review.

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