As Christians, we are people of the Book. Without being embarrassed or having our egos shattered, we own up to the fact that we believe the Bible is the Word of God, “our only infallible rule of faith and practice.” One of the phrases of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura-by Scripture alone-, has become a clarion call for evangelical and reformed Christians. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, containing the historic sixty-six books of the canon, form the basis of our belief in the Triune God. (We wrote about this in the last three issues of EfM.)
Another phrase that is a part of our heritage is “the sufficiency of Scripture.” This is significant because if our faith and practice are not based on the authority of God’s Word, we are left either with rationalism, sensory-experientialism, or solipsism, or we can believe whatever we want to believe.
The Westminster Confession of Faith makes one of the clearest statements on Scripture that one could find. It declares the Scripture’s authority, clarity, sufficiency and necessity for faith and practice. The WCF echoes the testimony of Scripture itself that the authors of the Bible were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. While He did not dictate every word, He worked in and through them so that while they wrote from their particular circumstance and moment in history with their own styles, they wrote the truth that God wanted us to know.
The WCF also states that the Scriptures, though inspired in their original languages, are to be translated into the “vulgar” or common language of the people, indicating that all people should be free to read the Word of God. Therefore, the Scripture is written in such a manner that it clearly communicates the grand metanarrative of redemption.
The WCF’s statement on Scripture reflects the thoughts of John Calvin. “If true religion is to shine on us we must grasp the necessity of beginning with teaching from above and that it is impossible for anyone to gain an atom of sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture.” As we reflect on the statements of Calvin and the WCF, we remember what the Reformation was all about. Though the first wave centered on salvation and the second on the sovereignty of God, both waves attempted to call the church back to the authority of the Bible. At that time, authority had been posited in the Roman Catholic Church and only the church could interpret the Scripture. Until it was translated into the languages of the people, only the priest could read the Word. People believed what the church told them, though the church did not always tell them what the Scripture actually taught, especially about salvation.We could say that the church and its tradition had become the authority upon which faith and understanding were to rest. Tradition was elevated to the place of authority in the life of the church.
Here is what we need to understand! As reformed and evangelical Christians, we also have our own tradition, which is important as long as it is kept in its place and does not usurp or misinterpret Scripture’s authority. Luther, Calvin, and company came to believe that the church was committing both errors, hence they “protested.”Having said that, we must also say that there is a right and wrong way to use the two phrases. Concerning Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone, the WCF makes two important points. 1. “The only infallible interpreter of Scripture is Scripture,” not man individually or collectively. It is God’s Spirit working through his Word that determines the meaning of Scripture; hence Sola Scriptura and the Holy Spirit. 2. The WCF also underscores the words of 2 Peter 1:20 that “no Scripture is of private interpretation or comes from someone’s own interpretation.“ While the Holy Spirit is the Word’s final Interpreter, He usually works in the context of the church and the church’s tradition, past and present.
One thing that fed New England’s quick turn to liberalism in the early 1800s was the New Light Movement, which taught that only the Bible was needed. Its proponents maintained that we do not need creeds or confessions; nor do we need the church in order to understand the Bible. From that position, many people began interpreting the Scriptures personally and privately. According to historian Mark Noll, liberalism, along with many cults, developed during that time.
It is in the context of the church, its creeds and confessions, even its traditions, that we come to understand the truth of God’s Word. Therefore, we must not take “Sola Scriptura” to the extreme of the New Lighters and others who developed their own cults using the Bible. We study Scripture in the context of God’s covenant community, which holds us accountable to proper interpretation.
The second phrase that we must not misunderstand is “the sufficiency of Scripture.” Some take this essential truth of our faith to the extreme and say that all we need is the Bible. True, Scripture is sufficient in all that God intends it to be. It is our only infallible rule of faith and life. But the Scripture does not teach us everything that we need to know. God teaches us about Himself and many other things through what we call His general revelation and particularly through common grace. (See the review of He Shines In All That’s Fair in this issue.)
For example, John Frame suggests three types of questions that must be discussed in making ethical decisions. “1. What is your problem? What kind of situation have you gotten into? 2. What does God’s Word say about it? 3. Are you the sort of person who in this situation is capable of doing what Scripture tells you to do? Hence three foci: the situation, the Word, the person,” (Medical Ethics, page 4).The Scripture is not sufficient to teach us all that we need to know regarding things like science, mathematics, economics, human behavior, etc. What the Bible teaches in those areas is true. Yet, as the WCF indicates, for example, there are some things that can be gleaned from our circumstances that can help us in our worship and government of the church, as long as they are consistent with Scripture.
Why is it necessary to say this? Some people, believing they are promoting the sufficiency of Scripture, attempt to proof-text everything from the Bible, though it cannot and should not be done. Some within the Christian community often misuse, misinterpret, and abuse Scripture by attempting to provide a proof-text for everything while wanting to discard anything for which one cannot be found. I remember the frustrations that I felt when we were putting together the PCA’s Book of Church Order. As committee chairmen, we were to provide proof-texts to the BOCO similar to the footnotes in the WCF. We could not footnote from Scripture every detail of the BOCO and such was unnecessary. I was glad when the Assembly finally dismissed our committee.
The Scripture alone must be our authority and rule for faith and practice. We must not add to nor subtract from it. Yet, we must not use it in a manner that God never intended. To do so brings the same false conclusions as does deliberate tampering with the Word. The Scripture gives us the framework for understanding life, its circumstances, and God’s revealed will. However, it does not bypass the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, individually or collectively, in processing that truth.
So, in case you’re asked, do not hesitate to affirm your belief in the sufficiency and authority of Scripture. Just be careful not to make the Scripture into more than God intended it to be by forcing it to say things that it does not really say. But by all means use it as your grid for understanding truth whether from general or special revelation.