Previous article in this series: March 1, 2015, p. 254.
With this article we begin our consideration of the thirty chapters of the Second Helvetic Confession. Considering the length of these chapters, our plan is to write two Standard Bearer articles on each chapter. We will quote the individual sections of each chapter; following each section we will give a brief exposition. We intend to use the titles of the chapters of the Confession as the titles for our articles. Although the chapters of the Second Helvetic Confession are quite lengthy, quoting them is necessary if the purpose of familiarity with the creed is going to be achieved. The titles of the sections in each chapter will form the headings of the subsections in each of our articles.
We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.
And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same.
The Second Helvetic Confession begins its exposition of the Reformed faith with the doctrine of Scripture. This is altogether proper. This is necessary. Everything depends on one’s view of Scripture. More than anything else, this is what distinguishes the Reformed faith. What distinguished the Reformed faith at the time of the Reformation was its view of Scripture. This is what set the Reformed apart from the Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and the Anabaptists and enthusiasts, on the other hand. Both Rome and the Anabaptists erred in their view of Scripture. That aberrant view of Scripture affected everything. And as different as they were from each other, both Rome and the Anabaptists were alike in that they denied the sufficiency of Scripture, that in Scripture “the Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God.” Rome denied the sufficiency of Scripture by adding to Scripture tradition, as an equal authority alongside of Scripture. That tradition consisted of the writings of the church fathers, the decisions of the church councils, and the Apocrypha. The Anabaptists denied the sufficiency of Scripture by adding direct revelations and immediate promptings of the Spirit. The Reformers said, “A plague on both your houses.” And they affirmed the sole authority and complete sufficiency of holy Scripture, with appeal to, where “it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from” the Word of God.
Still today, this is the issue, and still today this is what distinguishes the Reformed faith—at least the Reformed faith properly understood. Scripture alone is the arbiter of truth. Scripture alone is the authority for faith and life. Scripture alone is determinative in the life of the church, both the local congregation and the broader assemblies. And Scripture is determinative for the walk of the individual believer in the midst of the world. The method employed by Bullinger in the Second Helvetic Confession of beginning with the doctrine of Scripture is the distinctively Reformed method. All the truth that we confess and that is summarized in the confession is revealed in holy Scripture. The Reformed view of Scripture is that it is “the true Word of God.” Fundamental to the Reformed faith is its view of Scripture.
As concerns the origin of Scripture, Scripture is divinely inspired. Where did the Bible come from? How did the church get the Bible? What is the source of everything contained in the Bible? There is one answer to all of these questions, and that one answer is divine inspiration. The Bible has its origin in God, “[f ]or God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.” Since Scripture is inspired by God, it is “holy,” which Bullinger affirms no less than three times in the opening paragraph of the confession. And since Scripture is inspired by God, it is the “true Word of God.” It is the “true” Word of God in every verse, in every chapter, in every book, in both its testaments. It is “true” from beginning to end, true in its history, true in its prophecies, true in its commandments, true in its instruction, and true in its gospel. Since the Bible is true, it contains no errors, no contradictions, no inaccuracies, and no mistakes. And since the Bible is true, it must and it can be believed. Still more, since the Bible is true, confession of its doctrine is worth every sacrifice, worth the loss of every earthly possession and privilege, even of life itself, which is exactly the price that many paid throughout Europe and beyond in the days in which the Second Helvetic Confession was written.
Scripture Teaches Fully All Godliness
We judge, therefore, that from these Scriptures are to be derived true wisdom and godliness, the reformation and government of churches; as also instruction in all duties of piety; and, to be short, the confirmation of doctrines, and the rejection of all errors, moreover, all exhortations according to that word of the apostle, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof,” etc. (). Again, “I am writing these instructions to you,” says the apostle to Timothy, “so that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God,” etc. ( ). Scripture is the Word of God. Again, the selfsame apostle to the Thessalonians: “When,” says he, “you received the Word of God,” etc. ( ). For the Lord himself has said in the Gospel, “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you,” therefore “he who hears you hears me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” ( ; ; ).
Scripture teaches “fully all” godliness. If that statement is not a redundancy, it is very close to being a redundancy. But so emphatically does the confession teach the sufficiency of holy Scripture. The doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is practical and has a practical fruit in the life of the Christian who confesses this truth. From the holy Scriptures are “derived true wisdom and godliness” and also “instruction in all duties of piety.” These three, wisdom, godliness, and piety, are closely related. Piety is reverence for God in the heart, joined to godly living. Piety is a Christian virtue, a grace worked in God’s people by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. True piety consists of “wisdom and godliness.” Wisdom is first. Wisdom is the application of right knowledge, in this case knowledge of the Word of God. That wise application of God’s Word leads to godliness, practical godliness in everyday life.
But the foundation of godliness is doctrine. The Reformed faith emphasizes doctrine. The foundation of religion is not ritual or superstition, but doctrine—the teaching of the Word of God. The purpose of Scripture is “the confirmation of doctrines.” “Doctrines,” in the plural. All the doctrines must be confirmed by Scripture. Nothing is to be taught as doctrine in the church that is not founded in the Word of God.
For this reason, Scripture serves as the source for the “reformation and government of churches.” Reformation is always a return to the truth of the Word of God. This was the case with the Reformation of the sixteenth century. It was a return to the authority of the Word of God and to the great doctrines taught in the Word of God: the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation, the total depravity of the sinner, salvation by grace alone, the finished work of Christ alone, justification by faith alone, and many other great truths. Besides being a return to right doctrine, the Reformation was the recovery of proper church government. Scripture is the source of the proper government of the church. The organization of the church, the offices in the church, as well as the calling of the officebearers, the standard for right and wrong in the church—these are all determined by the Word of God.
And not only is Scripture the source of right doctrine, but on the basis of Scripture error is also to be refuted. The calling of the church is antithetical and polemical. Scripture is not only to be used for “the confirmation of right doctrines,” but Scripture is also to be used for “the rejection of all errors.” Error must be pointed out. The lie must be exposed. And heretics and heresies must be clearly identified and refuted, following the example of Christ and the apostles.
The confession establishes the authority of Scripture by appeal to Scripture itself. Proving that Scripture is the Word of God by appeal to Scripture itself is not circular reasoning, as some contend. Scripture is the Word of God; only God has the right to make that bold claim for Himself. The article appeals to the teaching of the apostle Paul and to the teaching of our Lord. The first passage cited is the classic passage on divine inspiration,, “All Scripture is inspired by God.” The article adds and , as well as Jesus’ teaching in , , and .
The Preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God
Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minster that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.
Neither do we think that therefore the outward preaching is to be thought as fruitless because the instruction in true religion depends on the inward illumination of the Spirit, or because it is written, “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor…for they shall all know me” (), and “neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” ( ). For although “no one can come to Christ unless he be drawn by the Father” ( ), and unless the Holy Spirit inwardly illumines him, yet we know that it is surely the will of God that his Word should be preached outwardly also. God could indeed, by his Holy Spirit , or by the ministry of an angel, without the ministry of St. Peter, have taught Cornelius in the Acts; but, nevertheless, he refers him to Peter, of whom the angel speaking says, “He shall tell you what you ought to do.”
This paragraph of the first chapter of the Second Helvetic Confession makes plain the uniquely Reformed view of preaching. It makes plain what preaching is, as well as the central importance the preaching has in the life of the church. The Reformation was not only a return to the Scriptures, but it was also a return to the centrality of preaching. The Reformation was a recovery of the preaching of gospel as the chief means of grace and salvation in the church. At the time of the Reformation, preaching had all but disappeared in the church. The preaching has been replaced by the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Mass. What preaching remained in the church was often in a language that the people could not understand. The Reformation was a recovery of the content of the gospel; but it was also a recovery of the preaching of the gospel. The implication of an infallibly inspired Scripture in II Timothy 3, the last part of the chapter, is not in the opening verses of II Timothy 4, “Read the Word,” but “Preach the Word” (). For this reason, Christ and the apostles preached the Word. The confession calls attention to the apostle Peter’s preaching to Cornelius and his family, as one example of God’s will to work salvation through the preaching of the Word, rather than directly or through the agency of angels. The preaching of the Word is the Word of God.
Once again in our day preaching has fallen upon hard times. There is widespread disdain for the preaching of the Word. The preaching is regarded as a weak, ineffective means for the salvation of sinners. Less and less time is accorded the preaching in the worship services of the church, until finally only ten or fifteen minutes is given to the sermon. Substitutions are made for the preaching, substitutions that purport to take advantage of the possibilities offered by modern technology, substitutions that are regarded as much more promising than the old-fashioned preaching to which our parents and grandparents listened. But all of this is pretending to be wiser than God, who will today as in every age have His people taught “by the lively preaching of His Word” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q.A. 98). And the reason for this? The rea son is that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.
This has practical implications for the people of God. This is the reverence that we must have for the preaching of the Word and for the preaching office in the church—in our own congregation. This is why we must cultivate in our children and in our grandchildren deepest respect for the preaching and the preacher. This is why they must not hear us continually criticizing the preaching and the preacher, always finding fault with what was said or with the way in which it was said. The preaching of the Word is the Word of God. As committed as we are to an infallible Scripture, so committed ought we to be to the preaching and teaching of those Scriptures in the public worship of the church. The question is emphatically not, “Could God save His people by some other means than the preaching?” The question is, “What has God revealed to be His will as regards the salvation of His people?” That is the question. And the answer to that question is that God has made it known that it is His will to save His people, to save them initially and to preserve them in salvation, by means of the preaching of His Word.