The Reformation Legacy of Little Berea
It was a late night at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting, almost twenty years ago. The day’s formal schedule was done, and a couple dozen young, impressionable seminarians gathered chairs around a few veteran scholars to pepper them with questions.
Among the handful of established professors, two in particular shone as the brightest lights in the room. Hands down, these two had published the most books, and had the most recognizable names beyond academic circles. When these two spoke, the room listened most intently.
By the end of the evening, however, a striking difference had emerged between the two lights. As they contributed answers to question after question, one defaulted, quite conspicuously, to quoting Westminster, and little Scripture. The other shared very little, if any, Westminster — but text after text from the Bible. I suspect it went unnoticed, at first, but eventually the pattern became pronounced. More than a handful of us had taken notice by the end.
On that night, the two Reformed lights ended up with mostly the same answers to our battery of questions, but the way they arrived at those answers exposed different instincts. One defaulted to Westminster; the other, to Scripture. It left a lasting impression on me. I knew which one I wanted to imitate. And while I couldn’t find any passage in Westminster commending the first approach, my mind did immediately run to one passage in Scripture, among others, that commends the second.
Born (Again) in a Small Town
In Acts 17, having been chased from Thessalonica by an angry, envious mob, Paul and Silas come to a small town called Berea. They start with the synagogue, as was their practice. Luke then marks a contrast with these Bereans:
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (Acts 17:11–12)
Clearly, Luke is not just reporting. He is commending. “Oh, for all hearers of Christian preaching,” he would say, “to follow in the steps of these small-town nobles!” Luke highlights two particular aspects of what made this response “more noble.”
Like Hungry Children
First, he says they “received the word with all eagerness.”
Paul and Silas came to Berea to herald 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 openness, even readiness, to receive — to take the gospel of Jesus Christ as objective and given and unalterable and, with open hands, receive it.
And Luke doesn’t leave us guessing as to how they received it. He says “with all eagerness.” This word, from God himself in Christ, was not received with hostility, or with apathy. However much Luke commends this synagogue in Berea for an objective, level-headed examining of Scripture, let us not presume that “receiving the word” implies doing so dispassionately or with coolness. They received it eagerly. As Ajith Fernando comments, “Their nobility lay in their willingness to acknowledge their need, resulting in an eagerness to hear from God and to receive what they heard. . . . Like hungry children in need of food, they sought God’s Word” (Acts, 469).
Like Careful Prosecutors
Second, then, Luke also reports what form this eager reception took: “examining the Scriptures daily.”
Doubtless, first-century Jews did not have Christian creeds and confessions to consult, but they could have been greatly tempted to turn to a host of secondary sources: whether the Mishnah, or oral law, or the Jewish common sense and assumptions they were raised in, or the growing corpus of Second Temple literature. Like us, they had plenty of other seemingly noble sources to turn to other than the Scriptures themselves. They could have defaulted elsewhere to check the validity of Paul’s message, but by God’s grace, these Jews turned precisely to 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 synagogues, “he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ’” (Acts 17:2–3). Paul pointed them in the right direction. He set up his listeners to check his message in Scripture by first reasoning with them from Scripture.
“They wanted to know the truth and the true God, and neither apathy nor gullibility would benefit the pursuit.”
So, following Paul’s lead, these noble Bereans examined the Scriptures for themselves. Eagerness and examination were not at odds; Luke commends both their heartfelt concern and their deliberate care. Noble indeed, they wanted to know the true God and his truth, and neither apathy nor gullibility would benefit the pursuit. And pursuit it was. This was no mere moment or flash in the pan. They endured in their careful search. They made eager reception, with scriptural examination, a daily practice.
In our own day, we too know the temptation of defaulting to voices other than Scripture to tell us what Scripture says. We have access to a stunning (and growing!) wealth of secondary literature, old and new. And best among it all are our creeds and confessions. They are precious — to be cherished far above the latest title off the press. Too few modern Christians appreciate the wisdom and value of the ancient creeds and faithful confessions like Westminster and others in its wake. And particularly those of us who gladly profess ourselves to be “Reformed” and unashamed sympathizers with the Reformation and its legacy.
“Do we daily, with eagerness, examine the Scriptures for ourselves?”
However, as those who rally to sola Scriptura — Scripture alone as our supreme and final authority — we do well to regularly check our practice with those noble readers in Berea. Do we daily, with eagerness, examine the Scriptures for ourselves?
Our best creeds, if we’ll let them, will remind us precisely of this, and encourage us to make a practice of this, even as useful as confessions can be when checking our work.
Keep Searching the Scriptures
For instance, the first section of the Desiring God Affirmation of Faith, though recognizing that “limited abilities, traditional biases, personal sin, and cultural assumptions often obscure biblical texts,” commends “humble and careful effort to find in the language of Scripture” itself what God has to say to us through his prophets and apostles (1.4).
It’s a warning worthy of sounding at not only the outset but the conclusion. The fifteenth and final section reprises the confession,
We do not claim infallibility for this affirmation and are open to refinement and correction from Scripture. Yet we do hold firmly 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 take place, it may be that we will learn from each other, and the boundaries will be adjusted, even possibly folding formerly disagreeing groups into closer fellowship. (15.4)
For now, we see much in the Scriptures dimly, not yet as we will (1 Corinthians 13:12). Young and old, we’re all to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord, as given in his word (2 Peter 3:18). How tragic would it be, then, in self-identifying as “Reformed,” to keep Scripture at arm’s length in our admiration for those who so memorably championed Scripture, whether Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Westminster, or the Second London Confession.
So too, cutting the other way, as those genuinely eager to “receive the word” and “examine the Scriptures daily,” we do well to beware of letting sola Scriptura be a cloak for our own personal interpretations. Remembering those noble saints in Berea can renew in us the resolve to hold looser to human opinions and assumptions, especially our own. It’s a subtle but real and well-worn danger: we can fly the banner of “sola Scriptura” as a guise for rejecting the time-tested wisdom of creeds and confessions in service of our own personal instincts and interpretations.
Default to God’s Own Words
Those who teach faithfully and fruitfully in the church in the coming generation, as in the past, will be eager to herald scriptural truth, and they also will be eager to keep learning and growing themselves. No pastor or Christian leader has arrived, and the best know it well. Good pastors and teachers are ready to stand for what they know Scripture to teach, and yet are humbly willing to grow, and be shown to be wrong from Scripture.
However much we cherish and rehearse and draw wisdom from time-tested creeds and confessions, we learn to default to Scripture itself. We relish the very words of God even more. Not just in theory. In daily practice. In eager daily examination.