An Analysis of the Historic Creeds of the Reformed Faith on Scripture
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and training in righteousness that the man of God may be perfectly equipped for every good work…” 2 Tim 3:16-17
The doctrine of Scripture has been under virulent attack for the past 150 years. As the demise of theological liberalism vividly demonstrates, once a church loses confidence that the Bible is the literal word of God, the gospel and saving faith are quickly lost as well. Today, those who would flee from the authority of God’s Word deny that historic Christianity requires the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. Instead, they are aggressive in trying to undermine the sufficiency of Scriptures (through modern pop psychology); its necessity (by replacing it with science and technology); its authority (by casting doubts on its authorship), and its clarity (by proposing that the Bible has been edited and changed so many times no one but the experts really understands what it originally said). The reason of course is that if you deny the credibility of the Bible, then men are free to make up their own ethics, morals and rules according to what seems “good to their own eyes.”
This is an age-old problem, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden when Adam chose to sin against God’s Word. The serpent enticed Eve into sin by challenging the integrity of God’s Word. Though he may have become a little more sophisticated in his attack since then, his objective remains the same; the best way to destroy faith is to attack the authority of God’s Word.
Today, we have many “evangelical” Christians who insist there are errors in the Bible’s treatment of history, science, etc. They maintain that the Bible is “infallible” when it touches on matters of faith and doctrine but not “inerrant” when it touches on other matters. In fact, it is common in even evangelical seminaries to suggest that the modern debate over the inerrancy of Scripture is a result of nineteenth century heresies of certain right wing, Presbyterian theologians at places like old Princeton. The implications for Christian faith are enormous. If the Bible makes mistakes in the things you can check out (such as history, science, culture), then how can you trust it in the areas you cannot check out (such as the Deity of Christ, the resurrection, etc.)?
Similarly, if the Bible has mistakes in matters of fact, then perhaps it also has mistakes in matter of doctrine. Thus many “evangelical” feminists maintain that the Apostle Paul’s explicit statements regarding the role of women were not really inspired, but simply a mistake resulting from his cultural prejudices. Interesting to note that several of the popular “evangelical” feminists of the seventies have now come out of the closet announced their lesbianism and totally abandoned the historic Christian faith.
Since the doctrine of Scripture is a basic presupposition of the Christian faith, when we err here, every other aspect of the faith is endangered. One of the greatest contributions of the Great Reformation was freeing men from slavery to the Roman Church by returning the faith to its Biblical origins. Thus, we need to know something of how the doctrine of Scripture was understood from the earliest days of the Reformation in the Reformed creeds authored in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
An acorn has within itself all the genetic potential of a full-grown oak. Given the right conditions; fertile soil, sunlight and water, the acorn will naturally grow and develop, setting out strong roots and vibrant branches. So also, did the doctrine of Scripture grow and develop as the implications of Reformed theology were worked out over time. The Reformers did not discover new truths concerning Scripture; they merely provided the rich soil of a humble heart, the warm sunshine of open expectation and the refreshing washing of the Holy Spirit’s illumination. The same acorn under different conditions will develop slightly different forms of the same tree. In the same way, the historical situation facing each Reformed Confession subtly affected how the kernel of truth was expressed..
The earliest Reformed confession that deals with the doctrine of Scripture is the Scots of 1560. Penned in four days by the “Six Johns”; (i.e. Winram, Spottiswoode, Willock, Douglas, Row and Knox), the need was urgent since Scotland was going through Reformation but still had a Catholic Queen. The confession was quickly ratified by parliament with little opposition (Douglas 891). Though John Knox had been involved in a number of similar works on the continent, the Scots’ Confession is in some ways a polemical tract concerned more with stating the main points of Calvinism and refuting the heresies of Romanism than developing precise theological formulations. Accordingly, its treatment on Scripture is fairly brief and succinct. Scripture is dealt with in articles 18 and 19 where it is stated “…we beleeve and confesse the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make the man of God perfite…” The intent was to refute the Romanist idea that Mother Church has authority over the Scriptures. The Scots’ Confession calls this idea to be “…blasphemous against God and injurious to the trew Kirk…”
Yet within the brief treatment given by the Scott’s Confession can be found the kernel of the whole doctrine of Scripture. Its authority is maintained, divine authorship understood and the right of each believer to have personal access to interpreting and applying it rightly. “For we dare non receive or admit any interpretation quhilk repugnes to ony principall point of our faith, or to on other plaine text of Scripture or zit unto the rule of charitie.”
Guido de Bres authored the Belgic Confession (primarily) in 1561, as the Netherlands was about to begin their war of independence against Spanish rule. Originally written in French it was quickly translated into Dutch and German and remains one of the three standards used in the Dutch Reformed Church. Again, undoubtedly because of the historical situation, it draws heavily on the 1559 Gallic Confession written by Calvin for the Huguenot churches (Douglas 117).
Scripture is one of the first doctrines treated (article 3) and since de Bres could depend upon the reflections of others in less urgent situations, its development is far more complete. The doctrine of Scripture is introduced in article II concerning the means by which God is known. While acknowledging the importance of God’s self-disclosure through creation, His holy and divine Word is necessary for us to know “His glory and our salvation.”
The inspiration of the Scriptures is stated in that the Word of God was delivered by “holy men… moved by the Holy Spirit…” who were commanded to commit His revealed Word in writing. “Pour cette cause, nous appelons tels ecrits; Ecritures saintes et divines” (Schaff 385). The historical situation is again evident in the repudiation of the Roman church’s insistence of ultimate authority. Scripture is to be believed, not because the Church approves of it, but rather because of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts (Schaff 386). Scripture thus is self attesting and carries the evidence for its divine origin in itself.
The doctrine of the necessity of Scripture is hinted at in the statement that the canonical books of the Bible are received for the regulation, foundation and confirmation of our faith. Interestingly enough, the Belgic Confession makes an explicit claim for the inerrancy of Scripture when it says, “believing without any doubt, all things contained in them…” (Schaff 386). This is an important answer to those who claim that the insistence on inerrancy is a nineteenth century aberration of the Princeton theology of Hodge, Warfield and Machen.
The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is also explicitly stated here. The Scriptures “fully contain the will of God and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein” (Schaff 388).
By the time of the Second Helvitic Confession of 1566, the doctrine of Scripture is presented in a far richer, fuller way. Henrich Bullinger penned the confession on the request of Friedrich III (Douglas 459). The first Helvitic Confession of 1536 was thought to be too much a compromise with the Lutherans. Bullinger had been working on a lengthy statement of his own beliefs when the Elector Palatine (publisher of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563) turned to him for help. He needed a confession to aid him against charges of encouraging religious dissension. Bullinger’s personal statement with slight modifications received a warm reception and quickly established a new standard (Douglas 459).
However, its origins as a personal statement of faith had implications in how it developed various doctrines. Theological precision is really not the main objective and thus though it contains a flowering of truth, it lacks a complete development. Much is implicit that could have been made explicit.
The Confession begins with Scripture as the very first chapter. The authority of Scripture is implied in that it is the “true Word of God” and has “sufficient authority of themselves.” Again, the Word of God is seen to be self attesting, not needing the testimony of men, councils or churches to establish their divine origins or authority (Schaff 831). Scripture is complete, nothing is to be added or subtracted.<p>
The doctrine of the necessity of Scripture is implicit without being so stated; “from these Scriptures are to be taken true wisdom and godliness, the reformation and government of churches; as also instruction in all duties of piety.” While it is the Holy Spirit who illumines and can do so without external ministry, even so God’s normal way of instructing men is through the preaching of the Scriptures.<p>
Personal interpretation is ruled out (after all, this canard was a recurring charge levied by Rome and needed to be refuted) and Scripture is stated to be its own best interpreter (Schaff 833). First mention here is made of understanding the original languages and of respectful dissent of the church Fathers when their teaching can be shown to depart from Scripture. Human tradition is rejected and the authority of Scripture stated in that “in controversies of religion or matters of faith, we can not admit any other judge that God Himself, pronouncing by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed or what to be avoided.”
The full flowering of the acorn is the Westminster Confession of 1643-46. The Westminster Divines had over a century of theological wisdom to draw on as well as the practical need of stating clearly and precisely true Reformed doctrine in the light of the dangers posed by a growing Arminianism (and an imminent civil war with Charles I). The Confession remains as the best expression of classical Reformed theology.
In regards to the doctrine of Scripture, as is to be expected, the Confession most fully develops the kernels of contained in the earlier works. It begins with the necessity of Scripture (I.i.). Though acknowledging the reality of revelation of God in nature, creation and providence, the Confession concludes that they are insufficient to give knowledge of God and His will necessary unto salvation. In article vi of chapter one, Scripture is considered necessary for the whole counsel of God concerning His glory, man’s salvation, faith and life.
Those things that are not specifically stated in Scripture can be deduced from it (though nothing is to be added). This is a new insight, not clearly articulated in previous Confessions. As well, the Confession recognizes that though absolutely true, the Scriptures are not exhaustively true; i.e., that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, government of the church etc., which are not specifically addressed and must be ordered according to general rules, rather than specific precept (vi.).
The authority of Scripture depends not upon the testimony of man or church but wholly upon God. Therefore it must be received because it is the Word of God. Though not neglecting the force of human argumentation for its divine character, the Westminster divines are careful to state that persuasion comes “from the inward work of the Spirit bearing witness by and with the Spirit in our hearts” (v.).
The Confession also introduces the doctrine of perspicuity; i.e., that though not all things in Scripture are easy to apprehend, all things necessary for salvation are clearly stated so that even the unlearned may attain a sufficient understanding. This takes the Bible out of the exclusive hands of the theologian/teacher/pastor and encourages lay reading and study. This is explicitly confirmed by paragraph viii which states: “…all the people of God, who have a right unto and interest in the Scriptures and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar [i.e., common] language of every nation unto which they may come…”
Finally, the Westminster Confession again echoes the fundamental principle of interpretation that Scripture is its own best interpreter (ix.). Scripture can only be understood by the illumination of the Holy Spirit (vi.) for it is the Holy Spirit Himself who speaks through the written word (x.).<p>
Though the Westminster Confession is a full grown Oak tree, solid and steady, a sure anchor in perilous times, it never claims for itself to be the final statement of Biblical truth. It developed during a specific historical situation when certain doctrines were in jeopardy and needed careful definition. Some may consider it necessary, that without losing any of the truths of the Confession, to continue to develop those truths to counter the errors of our day (e.g. the inerrancy question, feminism, evolution etc.). However, sadly, we would be hard put to find a twentieth century assembly equivalence of the Westminster Divines. Their work will have to stand for a while yet. The branches are not so bowed, or the leaves so bare that we cannot still find shelter for a good time yet.
Douglas, J. D. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974
Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom. London, 1877