There is one rule for the Christian life. That rule is Holy Scripture. Scripture alone is the standard for the faith and practice of the people of God. The Psalmist expresses this in Psalm 119:105, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Our Belgic Confession of Faith, in Article VII, the title of which article is “The Sufficiency Of The Holy Scriptures To Be The Only Rule Of Faith,” states:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein . . . . Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule . . . .
The sole authority of the Scriptures was a fundamental principle of the Protestant Reformation. Through the Reformation the sole authority of Scripture over the faith and life of the church was asserted.
The authority of Scripture was maintained by the Reformers, first of all, over against the Roman Catholic Church. Rome denied the sole authority of Scripture, and taught instead two sources of authority in the church: Scripture and tradition. For Rome, not only did the Word of Christ written (Scripture) have authority, but also the Word of Christ unwritten (tradition). These unwritten traditions, Rome teaches, are the teachings of Christ that He gave orally to His apostles, and which the apostles in turn have handed down to the church through the popes and bishops. The Council of Trent anathematized all those who did not receive and venerate church tradition as of equal authority with the Old and New Testament.
What is sometimes overlooked is that the Reformers’ position on the sole authority of the Bible was a position that they took not only over against the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Besides Rome there were also the mystics and the Anabaptists, the movement sometimes referred to as the “Radical Reformation,” which also denied the exclusive authority of Holy Scripture.
Like their spiritual descendants today, these recognized the Bible as only one authority and guide for the Christian life. Alongside of and above the Bible they exalted experience and feeling. Their motto was: “Away with the letter that killeth, in favor of the Spirit that giveth life.”
To these spiritualists Luther responded (remember now that Scripture portrays the Holy Spirit as a dove): “Unless you cite Scripture, I do not care if you have swallowed the Holy Spirit, feathers and all.” For Luther the Word and the Spirit belonged together in an inseparable union. The Anabaptists and mystics wanted the Spirit without
the Word. Luther’s position was that the Holy Spirit never works independent of or apart from the Word. Christians ought not to hanker after new signs and special revelations and experiences. The Spirit’s function is to evoke from the Word of God what is already there.
Over against both Rome and the mystics, the Reformers’ position was Sola Scriptura, “Only the Scriptures.”
The truth of the sole authority of Scripture rests upon the other fundamental truths concerning Holy Scripture. First of all, only if the Bible is the Word of God, can it “also be the standard for our faith and life. Only if the Bible is the Word of God does it have the RIGHT to be the authority for our faith and life. The authority of Scripture is the authority of God Himself, the only real authority that there is in the world. The authority of the Bible presupposes very clearly the infallible, Divine inspiration of the Bible. This is the seriousness today of the attack on the inspiration of Scripture, as well as the practical result of this attack, that the authority of Scripture is set aside. It is no longer the standard, then, for the faith and life of the people of God. And why should it be if it’s not the Word of God!
In the second place, the authority of Scripture rests on the truth of the completeness of Scripture. Scripture can be the authority for our faith and life because all that we need to know for our faith and life is contained in Holy Scripture. The Reformers maintained the sufficiency of Scripture. All that is necessary for the believer to know, both as regards doctrine and morals, is contained in Holy Scripture. According to II Timothy 3:17, the Scriptures are all that are necessary “that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” There simply is no need for anything alongside of and in addition to Holy Scripture.
In the third place, the authority of Scripture presupposes the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. By the perspicuity of Scripture we mean that Scripture is clear and can be understood by the individual believer. Rome maintains that the Scriptures are not easily understood, deep, dark, and mysterious. No individual believer can understand the Bible, but only the priests, bishops, councils, and ultimately an infallible pope. Over against Rome, the Reformers taught the perspicuity of Scripture. Paul reminds Timothy in II Timothy 3:15 that already as a child he had known and understood the Holy Scriptures. The perspicuity of Scripture stands closely connected to its authority, for only if the people of God can understand the Bible can it serve as the rule for their faith and life.
In many ways the authority of the Bible is set aside and challenged today. Certainly Rome’s position regarding the Bible’s authority has not changed. Rome continues to deny the sole authority of Scripture and proudly to exalt herself, her traditions, and her pope above the authority of the Word of God.
The sin of which Rome is guilty, is characteristic also of the sects and cults. In fact this is one of the outstanding features of the cults, that they exalt some other authority alongside of the authority of Holy Scripture. Whether that’s the Book of Mormon, The Koran, the writings of a Charles Taze Russell or an Ellen G. White, or The Divine Principle makes no difference, these sects deny the authority of the Bible.
The whole Pentecostal movement is a fundamental denial of the sole authority of the Word of God. The Pentecostal exaltation of feeling and experience above the revealed Word make these, and not the Word itself, the authority for the Christian life. The inroads that this movement has made in Reformed and Presbyterian churches is an indication of just how far these churches have departed from their Reformation heritage.
More and more in the churches today there is the denial of Scripture’s authority by the elevation of the so-called discoveries of science, the teachings of modern humanistic philosophy, and the theories of modern psychology and psychiatry above the clear teaching of the Bible. The results have been devastating: creation has been thrown out the window; sin becomes merely sickness or the remnants of man’s animal ancestry; man’s mind and man’s ingenuity are heralded as being able to overcome every obstacle and solve every problem, if only man will think positively (no real need of the grace of God).
Society at large puts extreme pressure on the churches today to discard the authority of the Bible. The tragedy is that the churches in many instances have caved in to this pressure. Worldliness is rampant. More and more it comes to it that not the authority of the Word of God, but the will of the majority of the people will dictate the faith and life of the members of the church. And since the majority of the people want dancing, there will now be dancing; since the majority of the people want women in office, there will be women in office; since the majority regard homosexuality as a legitimate alternative life-style, there will be homosexuals in the church.
Although the authority of Holy Scripture is denied in various ways, when it comes down to it there are only two choices as regards this matter of authority. Either the authority of God will be the rule for our faith and life, or the authority and will of man. These are the two alternatives. Every instance of denying the authority of the Word of God is only another instance of promoting the authority of man, whether that be man’s writings, man’s traditions, man’s feelings, man’s discoveries, or man’s philosophies.
If the Bible is to be the authority for our faith and life, we must know the Bible. Only as we know the Bible will we be able to turn to the Bible as the standard for what we believe and how we live. This is our great struggle! Our great struggle, thank God, is not with papal tradition or the temptation to allow The Book of Mormon a place of authority in our lives alongside of the Bible. But the great struggle for all of us is the struggle against our own apathy and indifference toward the Word of God and the study of that Word of God. From one point of view that loss of the Word in the Middle Ages can be traced to the people themselves, their own apathy and indifference. In fact the loss of the Word can rightly be viewed as God’s judgment on that apathy. In his Table Talks, Luther says this:
Truly, I am less afraid of the pope and his tyrants, than I am of our own ingratitude towards the Word of God; ‘tis this will place the pope in his saddle again. But, first, I hope the day of judgment will come.
Do we read the Word of God? Do we study and discuss the Word of God in our families and in the societies of the church? Do we eagerly hear and believingly receive the instruction of the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s Day? These things are of the utmost importance if Scripture is to be the authority in our lives.
We echo Luther’s sentiments expressed in another place:
No greater mischief can happen to a Christian people, than to have God’s Word taken from them, or falsified, so that they no longer have it pure and clear. God grant that we and our descendants be not witnesses of such a calamity.
Written by: Prof. Ronald L. Cammenga | Issue 5