Of Interpreting the Holy Scripture; and of Fathers, Councils, and Traditions (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 2, b)

Previous article in this series: November 15, 2015, p. 84.


And in the same order also we place the decrees and canons of councils. Wherefore we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of council; much less by received customs, or by the large number of those who share the same opinion, or by the prescription of a long time. Who is the judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God. Certainly Jeremiah and other prophets vehemently condemned the assemblies of priests which were set up against the law of God; and diligently admonished us that we should not listen to the father, or tread in their path who, walking in their own inventions, swerved from the law of God.

This chapter of the SHC concerns the proper method of interpreting the Holy Scriptures. Granted that the Bible is the infallibly inspired Word of God—God’s Word in the words of men—how is the Bible to be interpreted? That interpretation of Scripture is to be regarded as “orthodox and genuine” that is “gleaned from the Scriptures themselves,” according to the opening paragraph of this second chapter. The second paragraph raised the question of the weight to be given to the interpretations of Scripture by the holy fathers. The interpretations of the fathers are to be received “as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to, the Scriptures.”

Two important matters remain to be considered in connection with the proper interpretation of Scripture. The first matter of importance concerns the judgments of ecclesiastical councils in relation to the teaching of Scripture. And the second matter concerns the place of church tradition in its relation to the proper interpretation of Scripture.

On the one hand, the SHC does not discredit the important place of ecclesiastical councils in the life of the church. Church councils have served a necessary, beneficial, and God-honoring role in the history of the church. Think of the church councils that decided the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in the history of the church. Think of the early Reformed synods throughout Europe that shaped the Reformed churches and clearly distinguished the Reformed faith both from the Roman Catholic Church and from the Anabaptists, synods and councils that adopted church orders, organized worship, and regulated the life of the churches. One need only to think of the vital role that the Synod of Dordt played in resolving the Arminian controversy—vindicating the truth and condemning error. In the history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, classes and synods have resolved disputes, serious doctrinal controversies, vindicated appellants and their claims over against unjust judgments rendered by the lower assemblies, and delivered those wrongfully made the objects of Christian discipline.

But what has been a blessing throughout so much of her history has also been a bane. How often in the history of the church have not the church’s assemblies been corrupt, rendered unjust judgments, and rather than vindicate that which was right, countenanced error. The SHC mentions “Jeremiah and other prophets [who] vehemently condemned the assemblies of priests which were set up against the law of God.” In Jeremiah 5:31 the prophet rebukes those “priests [that] bear rule by their means.” And in Lamentations 4:13 he prophecies the judgment of God on “the iniquities of her priests, that have shed the blood of the just in the midst of her.” It was the Jewish Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death. Roman Catholic Church councils declared in favor of the most grievous errors and condemned Reformed believers to a hundred different deaths. The Roman Catholic Council of Constance (1415) revoked John Huss’ safe conduct and burned him at the stake as a heretic. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) pronounced its anathemas against any who embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. And even in the history of the PRCA, our founding fathers had to contend with hierarchical behavior on the part of the broader assemblies, as well as assemblies that promoted error rather than the truth.

The “decrees of councils” are to be received only when and in so far as those decrees are in harmony with the Scriptures. No council of the church possesses intrinsic authority over the people of God. “Who is the judge?” asks the SHC in this paragraph. Its answer is: “We do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided.” The decrees of the councils are not above the Scriptures, but must conform to the Scriptures and agree with the Scriptures. The authority of the church councils is derivative. Their authority over believers and over the church is only to the extent to which their decisions conform to the Scriptures. In the language of the SHC: “So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men [the men who make up the church’s councils] which are drawn from the Word of God.”

Traditions of Men

Likewise we reject human traditions, even if they be adorned with high-sounding titles, as though they were divine and apostolical, delivered to the Church by the living voice of the apostles, and, as it were, through the hands of apostolical men to succeeding bishops which, when compared with the Scriptures, disagree with them; and by their disagreement show that they are not apostolic at all. For as the apostles did not contradict themselves in doctrine, so the apostolic men did not set forth things contrary to the apostles. On the contrary, it would be wicked to assert that the apostles by a living voice delivered anything contrary to their writings. Paul affirms expressly that he taught the same things in all churches (I Cor. 4:17). And, again, “For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand” (II Cor. 1:13). Also, in another place, he testifies that he and his disciples—that is, apostolic men—walked in the same way, and jointly by the same Spirit did all things (II Cor. 12:18). Moreover, the Jews in former times had the traditions of their elders; but these traditions were severely rejected by the Lord, indicating that the keeping of them hinders God’s law, and that God is worshipped in vain by such traditions (Matt. 15:1 ff.; Mark 7:1 ff.).

On more than one occasion the Lord Jesus condemned the leaders of the church of His day because they exalted tradition—human tradition—above the authority of the Word of God. The SHC cites Jesus’ dispute with the Jewish leaders recorded in the first part of Matthew 15 and Mark 7. In that passage the leaders found fault with Jesus’ disciples because they ate without first washing their hands. In the minds of the scribes and Pharisees this was sin on the part of the disciples. They accused them of eating with “defiled” hands (Mark 7:2). Their thinking was that in the market, it was possible that some uncircumcised Gentile or ceremonially unclean Jew had touched the piece of fruit, slab of meat, or whatever else they might have purchased. By touching this item thereafter, they were rendered unclean in the sight of God. The only way to remedy that uncleanness was by ritual washing, washings not required by Old Testament law but added to the Old Testament by Jewish tradition.

In the course of His instruction in this passage, Jesus cited another bit of Jewish tradition. That was their tradition that freed their fellow Jews of the obligation under the fifth commandment to support poor, aged parents by saying that what was needed for their support had been designated as “corban,” that is, a gift for the temple or the priests (Mark 7:10-13). Even if the gift was never given but spent on oneself, if only one said “corban,” they were free from the responsibility to use their savings to care for their parents. Thus, by their human tradition, the Jews made the Word of God “of none effect,” literally “of no authority.”

What was true of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day was true of the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation and is true of Rome still today. Rome exalts tradition as an authority alongside of and above the Word of God. That tradition consists of the fifteen apocryphal books that are added to the Old Testament Scripture, the voluminous writings of the church fathers, the decrees of the church councils, and the papal pronouncements. When the Reformers appealed to Scripture and repudiated the errors of the Roman Church from Scripture, Rome defended herself by appeal to tradition. Many of the most prominent doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, such as purgatory, the priesthood, the mass, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, indulgences, penance, the worship of Mary, her immaculate conception, her perpetual virginity, her assumption into heaven, the intercession of the saints, the use of images in worship, the celibacy of priests and nuns, the papacy, pilgrimages and fasts, the seven sacraments, and many others besides, are founded not on the authority of the Word of God, but on the traditions of Rome. Rome elevates these traditions above the Word of God. And Rome makes these doctrines and practices binding upon the consciences of her members. These doctrines must be believed and these practices must be carried out for salvation.

The SHC must not be understood to be rejecting tradition per se, as though tradition simply by virtue of the fact that it is tradition is to be rejected. Not that. Tradition has an important place in the church and ought to have an important place in the church. There are praiseworthy traditions, traditions that have proven their worth to the church over time. These are traditions that ought to be preserved in the church. These are traditions that are derived from solid, biblical principles. Such traditions as going to church twice each Lord’s Day, rather than only once; praying before and after our meals; using “Thee” and “Thou” in our prayers; the use of the King James Version of the Bible in our public worship, our Christian schools, and our homes; regular Heidelberg Catechism preaching in our congregations. We would never condemn those whose tradition is to gather for public worship only once on the Lord’s Day, which is the case in certain Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, even though we are convinced of the value of gathering for two public worship services on Sunday. We would never condemn those who pray only before or only after their meals, though we see the value of praying both before and after meals.

We would never condemn those who use “You” and “Your” in their prayers, although we are convinced that there is value in using the preferential (reverential) forms of the second person personal pronouns. We would never condemn those who use another version of the Bible than the KJV, although we are convinced that it is the best translation, based on the best manuscripts. We would never condemn those churches that do not practice regular Heidelberg Catechism preaching, as is the case with our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia, though we see the value of such systematic preaching on the fundamental truths of Scripture in the interests of preaching the whole counsel of God. Tradition has its place in the life of the church. There is value in the church’s time-honored traditions. Respect for the Spirit’s leading of the church of the past ought to foster a healthy respect for the church’s tradition. But tradition must never be elevated above the authority of God’s Word.

Tradition must never be appealed to in order to displace the authority of God’s Word, whether over doctrine or practice. Always the church must reject those traditions “the keeping of which hinders God’s law” and that have as their result “that God is worshipped in vain by such traditions,” those traditions that “when compared with the Scriptures, disagree with them.”

The sole authority of Scripture was a very practical matter for Martin Luther. He had been summoned by the emperor to appear before the Diet of Worms in order to give account of his teachings. The Imperial Diet opened on April 17, 1521. On a table in front of the august assembly was a stack of books. Luther was asked two questions by one of the presiding jurists. Were the books his books? And, would he recant what he had written in them? To the first question Luther responded with a barely audible voice in the affirmative. To the second question, in a voice that seemed to waiver, he asked for a day’s reprieve promising that on the morrow he would give his answer. One chronicler of the event remarks that it must have appeared to all present that “the wild boar was suddenly like a whimpering pup.”1 Surprised by the request and undoubtedly suspicious that he was stalling for time, the emperor Charles V nevertheless agreed to Luther’s request.

That night, left to himself in his room, Luther composed one of the most moving prayers that has ever been written. The same writer calls it Luther’s “private Gethsemane.”2 In his prayer, Luther staked all that he had written and taught on the clear testimony of God’s Word and he called God to bear testimony to that fact. Over against the pope, the decrees of church councils, and ecclesiastical tradition, he clung to the authority of God’s holy Word. This was Luther’s prayer:

2 Sproul, Holiness of God, 100.

3 Quoted in Sproul, Holiness of God, 100-1. Emphasis added.