“Now when they had traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.”
–Acts 17:1–3 (NASB)
What is most striking about this passage is that the Apostle Paul, the man who had the risen Lord appear to him and commission him as an apostolic missionary, reasons with the Jews from the Scriptures. What this tells the modern reader is, in short, that any theological conclusion we reach must come from the Scriptures.
For those within the various Christian traditions who still hold a high view of the Bible, this lesson is well-understood and embraced. What may not be understood as clearly, though, is Luke’s intended meaning of “from the Scriptures.” Everyone within my own theological tradition agrees that the Bible is the authoritative rule for all matters of faith and practice; but the Bible is sixty-six books, written in three different languages by more than forty authors over a period of more than a thousand years. All of which means that the Bible lends itself to various methods of interpretation.
So, the question I want to pose is this. When Luke says that Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures,” does he mean that Paul took information contained in Scripture and extrapolated from it, thus reaching conclusions that are not specifically written in Scripture but that have Scripture as their foundation, or does he mean that Paul reasoned with them to accept what God specifically says in Scripture? Luke does not feel the need to provide an answer to that question, but it is one that we must ask ourselves as we formulate our own theological beliefs.
The issue of baptism is a good example of what I am talking about. God does not specifically say anywhere in Scripture that infants of believers should be baptized. Yet, pedobaptists will argue that God says other things that, when put together, lead to the conclusion from the Scriptures that infants of believers should be baptized. Is that what Luke has in mind when he says, “from the Scriptures”?
Matthew Henry believes it is. He says in his commentary on Acts, “The preaching of the gospel should be both scriptural preaching and rational; such Paul’s was, for he reasoned out of the scriptures: we must take the scriptures for our foundation, our oracle, and touchstone, and then reason out of them and upon them.” In other words, we have the duty to take the information contained in Scripture and make rational arguments and conclusions based upon that information.
Though he would agree with Henry on the issue of Baptism, Calvin offers a much narrower definition of “from the Scriptures” in his commentary on Acts, saying, “The proofs of faith are to be sought only from the mouth of God. When we discuss human affairs, human arguments have their place; but in the doctrine of faith, only God’s authority must reign, and we must rely on it.” I admit that it is somewhat unfair to pit Henry and Calvin against each other as they would almost certainly agree on this issue if they were to sit at a table together and discuss it. Nevertheless, Calvin’s words highlight the fact that there is a difference between the authoritative words spoken by the mouth of God (and written in the Bible) and human arguments. It is one thing to reach theological conclusions based upon the inspired words of God, but is it another thing to reach theological conclusions based upon human reasoning that begins with the inspired words of God?
As I said earlier, Luke does not feel the need to answer this question. Yet, we must answer the question for ourselves if we are to trust the theological conclusions we reach. Christians have answered the question in different ways throughout history, so I will not say that one answer is right while another is wrong. Rather, my aim is merely to encourage all Christians to determine for themselves what they mean by “from the Scriptures.”
John Calvin, Acts, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995), Ac 17:2.
Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), Ac 17:2.