Sola Scriptura: John 5:39-40

Sola Scriptura

In bringing this series of studies on the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) to a close, we are considering two major challenges to this principle, found in the New Testament itself. The first, which we examined in the previous study, was rooted in the idea of a continuing Apostolic Tradition—that is, one which did not come to an end in the first-century, to be replaced completely by a written record of the Tradition, in the New Testament Scriptures.

The second is even more significant (and serious)—namely, the role of the Spirit as the primary source of guidance and authority for believers. In a later study, I will explore the phenomenon of Spiritualism in the Protestant Reformation, as there were certain Reformers (part of the so-called ‘Radical Reformation’) who took this idea of the primacy of the Spirit quite seriously, and may well have affirmed a principle of Solus Spiritus, rather than Sola Scriptura—emphasizing the authoritative guidance of the Spirit over that of the Scriptures. The early Spiritualist Reformer Hans Denck expresses the matter quite clearly in this regard:

“I hold the Scriptures dear above all of man’s treasures, but not as high as the Word of God which is living, strong, eternal and free of all elements of this world, inasmuch as it is God Himself, it is Spirit and not letter, written without pen or paper so that it can never be erased. Consequently, salvation is not bound to Scripture, even though Scripture may be conducive to salvation.” (from his Recantation [1528], translation by Edward J. Furcha & Ford Lewis Battles)


It may be questioned whether, or to what extent, the New Testament supports the Spiritualist position; this will be discussed during an upcoming series (“Spiritualism and the New Testament”), as well as in a special study (forthcoming) in this Reformation Fridays feature. For now, I wish to focus on three passages which allow for establishing the Spirit, rather than Scripture (or the Apostolic Tradition as presented in the Scriptures), as the primary source of guidance and authority for believers in Christ. The idea rests upon several points that are intrinsic (and central) to the early Christian view of the Holy Spirit, especially as presented in the Johannine and Pauline writings. These may be summarized as follows:

    • The Holy Spirit is the manifestation of presence and power of God Himself, which comes upon his people (believers) in a new and abiding way, in the New Age of the New Covenant. It is the exalted Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, who communicates the Spirit, from his position at God’s right hand.
    • The Holy Spirit also came to be identified with the person of Jesus Christ himself (the resurrected and exalted Jesus). Through the presence of the Spirit, believers are united with the person of Christ; in this regard, the Holy Spirit can be referred to, almost interchangeably, as the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ (or Spirit of Jesus). This Christological focus is prominent in Paul’s letters, and, even more so, in the Johannine Gospel and First Letter.
    • God communicates to believers through the Spirit, and empowers them/us for the Christian ministry and mission; moreover, as the manifest presence of Jesus himself, the Spirit continues the work of Jesus in and among his disciples. This is an especially important emphasis in the Johannine writings.

If believers are united with Christ (and God the Father) through the Spirit, and are being directly empowered and guided by the Spirit, one may well ask: why rely so completely on the witness of the Scriptures, or on the Apostolic Tradition, rather than the indwelling witness of the Spirit?

I begin this study with a famous verse from the Gospel of John than contrasts the authority of Scripture (the Old Testament Scriptures) with the authority of the person of Jesus.

John 5:39-40

“You search the Writings [i.e. Scriptures], (in) that [i.e. because] you consider (yourselves) to hold Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] in them, and those are the (writing)s witnessing about me, and (yet) you do not wish to come toward me, (so) that you might hold Life” (vv. 39-40)

The Greek of the verse is secure—in particular, the first word (e)rauna=te), a form of the verb e)reuna/w, “seek, search” (in the sense of “search out”, “search for”, “search after”). There is ambiguity, however, in that the form e)rauna=te can be read as either (a) an indicative (“you [do] search”) or (b) an imperative (“you [must] search”, “search!”). Many commentators have understood it as the latter (an imperative), and those who cite the verse out of context invariably read it this way: i.e., “Search the Scriptures…”. Protestants have been especially prone toward referring to the verse (out of context) this way, as a kind of proof-text demonstrating the view held by Jesus on the authority of Scripture (and supporting the Sola Scriptura principle). When quoted outside of its context in chapter 5, the verse gives the impression of being an exhortation by Jesus, to his disciples, on the importance of studying Scripture.

While this is a noble and true sentiment, it would appear to be off the mark in terms of what Jesus is actually saying in this passage. In order to gain a proper understanding, it is necessary, as always, to look carefully at the place of the verse in the passage as a whole.

Chapter 5 is an extended discourse—one of the great discourses of Jesus that make up the core of Gospel (especially the ministry period spanning chapters 3 through 10). There is a major discourse in each of chapters 3-6, each of which is based upon a central historical tradition—in chs. 3 and 4 it is an encounter episode (Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman), while in chs. 5 and 6 a miracle story is involved, similar to ones we see narrated in the Synoptic Gospels. The miracle story in chapter 5 functions as part of the narrative introduction (vv. 1-16), which may be divided as follows:

    • Narrative setting (vv. 1-3)
    • Healing miracle by Jesus (vv. 5-9b)
    • Reaction to the miracle (vv. 9b-16)

Central to this narrative, though introduced only in v. 9b, is the fact that this healing occurred on a Sabbath. In terms of the Gospel Tradition, this marks the episode as a “Sabbath Controversy” scene, similar to a number of such scenes in the Synoptic Gospels—note especially the block of episodes in Mark 2:1-3:6 par, all involving negative reaction to Jesus’ ministry (and/or debate with him) by religious authorities—that is, the experts on Scripture, the Law (Torah) and related matters of religion, typically identified as those among the Pharisees (i.e. “Scribes and Pharisees”). In Mk 3:1-6 (par Matt 12:9-14; Lk 6:6-11) the Sabbath controversy is centered on a healing miracle, as in Jn 5:1-16, though in some ways in the miracle narrated in Mk 2:1-12 is closer to John’s account. Luke records two other Sabbath miracle scenes (13:10-17; 14:1-6), which are similar in tone and structure.

In all of these “Sabbath Controversy” episodes there is a negative (even hostile) reaction to Jesus. This is implied already in v. 10, but is not made explicit until the end of the narrative in v. 16: “And through [i.e. because of] this, the Yehudeans {Jews} pursued [i.e. persecuted] Yeshua, (in) that [i.e. because] he did these (thing)s on a Shabbat (day)”. This is the setting for all that follows in verses 17-47, which means that Jesus is not addressing his disciples, but his opponents. In all of the Synoptic Sabbath controversies, the negative reaction comes from religious authorities (“Scribes and Pharisees”, etc). While this is not stated specifically in chapter 5, it may be assumed fairly from the overall context; and it is more or less confirmed by the close points of similarity between chap. 5 and the episode in chap. 9, where the opponents of Jesus are identified as Pharisees (vv. 13-16, 40).

The negative reaction to Jesus (by his opponents) sets the stage for the central saying of the discourse (5:17): “My Father works (even) until now—and I also (do this) work!”. It draws upon the ancient Sabbath theme of God’s work and life-giving power in creation. Jesus identifies his own working of healing miracles—i.e. giving (new) life to those suffering from illness and disease—with this same creative power exercised by the Father. The implications of this were not lost on Jesus’ opponents—indeed, it only increased their hostile reaction, according to the statement by the Gospel writer in verse 18. A lengthy exposition by Jesus follows in vv. 19-47 covering the remainder of the chapter. This exposition has two main divisions:

    • Verses 19-29: Jesus (the Son) does the work of the Father, exemplified by the ability to raise the dead (the ultimate work of giving new life). This section also may be divided into two parts:
      (1) Resurrection (i.e. new life) in the present for believers—”realized” eschatology (vv. 19-24)
      (2) Resurrection at the end time for those who believe—traditional (future) eschatology (vv. 25-29)
    • Verses 30-47: Testimony that Jesus comes from the Father and does the Father’s work

It is the second division that supplies the immediate context for verse 39. The interpretive key lies in the opening verses (30-32), in which Jesus expounds the principle that a person who gives witness about himself cannot be considered reliable (v. 31). On this point, see, Deut 19:15, where the testimony of more than one witness, in a legal/judicial setting, is necessary to secure valid evidence (Num 35:30; Deut 17:6; Matt 18:16, etc). Jesus makes precisely this point later on in the Gospel (8:14-18). Verse 32 is vital for an interpretation of what follows:

“There is another [a&llo$] th(at is) witnessing about me, and I have seen that the witness which he witnesses about me is true.”

The Greek word a&llo$, “(someone) different, another”, is in an emphatic position at the start of the verse. Who is this “other”? There are two possibilities:

    1. It simply means “another” in the general sense—i.e. someone different from Jesus, or
    2. It refers primarily (and fundamentally) to God the Father as the one who gives witness about Jesus

The initial context of vv. 30-32 suggests #1, but the overall context of the passage makes it likely that #2 is intended—i.e., God the Father is the ultimate source of this testimony. Actually, there are four different witnesses, or sources of testimony, referenced by Jesus in this section:

    • John the Baptist (vv. 33-35)
    • Jesus himself—specifically the works (miracles) which he does (v. 36)
    • God the Father—his Word (vv. 37-38)
    • The Scriptures (vv. 39-40)

Each of these is connected in important ways; note the chain of relation:

    • John the Baptist
      • Jesus himself (greater than John)—does the Father’s work
        • The Father who sent Jesus—His Word abiding in believers
          • (His Word) manifest in the Scriptures

The Scriptures come at a climactic point in this chain of testimony. Verses 39-40 also serve as a transition into the declaration of judgment against Jesus’ opponents in vv. 41-47. Clearly, verse 39 is not an exhortation to study the Scriptures, but rather a strong rebuke against those who fail to accept Jesus. The reference to the Scriptures, in this regard, is especially significant if, as the context suggests, Jesus is addressing the supposed experts (Scribes/Pharisees) in Scripture and the Law. Almost certainly, the initial word of verse 39 (e)rauna=te) should be read as an indicative, as in my translation above:

“You search the Writings [i.e. Scriptures], (in) that [i.e. because] you consider (yourselves) to hold Life of the Age [i.e. eternal life] in them…”

The force of the contrast (and rebuke) is largely lost if e)rauna=te is read as an imperative. Indeed, the context would seem to demand the indicative:

    • “You (do) search [e)rauna=te] the Scriptures…(which witness about me)
    • and (yet) you do not wish [qe/lete] to come toward me”

The idea that a person might gain (eternal) life from the Scriptures (and a study of them) was not uncommon in Judaism, especially in the Rabbinic tradition, with its strong emphasis on a detailed study of the Torah. Consider the following statements from the Rabbinic collection “Sayings of the Fathers” (Pirqe Abot):

“He who has acquired the words of the Law has acquired for himself the life of the world to come” (2:8)
“Great is the Law for it gives to those who practice it life in this world and the world to come” (6:7)
(Translation by R. E. Brown in The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 29, p. 225)

Paul declares virtually the opposite in Gal 3:21b:

“For if (the) Law was given being able to make alive [i.e. give life], (then indeed) justice/righteousness would (have) been out of [i.e. from] the Law”

Note also Romans 7:10: “and it was found with/in me (that) the (commandment) laid on me (which was to be) unto life, this (turned out to be) unto death”.

The Scriptures are not the source or means of Life; this is only found in the person of Jesus—the Son who makes God the Father known to us. He possesses the Father’s Life in himself (Jn 5:26), and gives that same Life to those who trust in him (the Elect/Believers). Yet the Scriptures bear witness to Jesus, and to his identity as the Son sent by the Father. One might conceivably apply Jesus’ rebuke toward Protestant Christians who have, at times, perhaps been guilty of placing too much emphasis on the Scriptures (the Bible), and too little on the person of Christ, and his presence in and among us through the Spirit.

Even so, while the superiority of Jesus’ presence (in the Spirit) may be affirmed in relation to the Old Testament Scriptures, what about the place of the Apostolic Tradition, and the canonical form of that Tradition as enshrined in the New Testament Scriptures? Does the guidance of the indwelling Spirit take precedence over the Tradition, or is the Tradition (the New Testament record of it) to be regarded as primary? I wish to explore two passages—one from Paul’s letters, and the other from the Johannine writings (1 John)—which may be adduced as supporting the primacy of the indwelling Spirit as a source of religious authority. This I will do in next Friday’s study.


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