Previous article in this series: May 1, 2015, p. 346.
(Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 1, B)
Fundamental to everything that the Reformed Christian believes and confesses is the truth of sacred Scripture: “…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…” (SHC, 1.1). What we believe and confess is derived from Scripture, is taught in Scripture, and can be defended on the basis of Scripture. It is what we believe about Scripture more than anything else that sets us apart. It distinguishes us from those who are not Christians and who have no regard for the authority of Scripture. It sets us apart from those who have apostatized from the faith, who invariably regard Scripture as less than the divinely inspired book that it is and, therefore, undervalue its authority. For good reason, then, the very first article of the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith concerns the doctrine of Holy Scripture. In the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, the SHC affirms the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture, as well as the sufficiency of Scripture. In addition, the creed relates Scripture and preaching, expressing the Reformed conviction that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” That is where we begin our conclusion to the first chapter of the SHC.
Inward Illumination Does Not Eliminate External Preaching
For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, “Go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (). And so in Philippi, Paul preached the Word outwardly to Lydia, a seller of purple goods; but the Lord inwardly opened the woman’s heart ( ). And the same Paul, after a beautiful development of his thought, in at length comes to the conclusion, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God by the preaching of Christ.”
At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.
At the time of the Reformation there were those who belonged to the “radical Reformation,” that is, the Anabaptists, who dismissed the need for hearing the preaching from the mouth of an ordained minister by appealing to the “inward illumination” of the Holy Spirit. The believer’s “inward illumination” made it unnecessary that he listen to sermons, at least on a regular basis. This “inward illumination” might even compete with and contradict what he heard in the preaching.
Let it be clearly understood: the Reformers did not deny the Spirit’s work of inward illumination. On the contrary, the Reformers taught the absolute necessity of illumination. There are several great works of the Spirit connected to the Holy Scriptures. There was the work of the Spirit to move and direct men in the writing of Holy Scripture so that what they wrote was the very Word of God (inspiration). There was the work of the Spirit to cause the church to recognize the books that belonged to canonical Scripture and to distinguish them from those that did not. There is the work of the Spirit to preserve Scripture as the Word of God both in the copying and in the translation of Scripture. Closely connected to this work of the Spirit is the Spirit’s work to preserve Scripture in every age, so that down to the very end of history the people of God have the Holy Scriptures “which are able to make thee wise unto salvation” (). One very important work of the Holy Spirit connected to inspiration is the Spirit’s work of inward illumination. This is the work of the Spirit to cause the believer to understand and to believe what he reads on the pages of Holy Scripture.
As fervently as the Reformers taught this important work of the Holy Spirit, so fervently did they also insist, first, that the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit is not the Spirit’s work of delivering new and additional words from God alongside of His Word in Scripture. The illumination of the Holy Spirit is always His work of causing us to understand Scripture, always leading us into the truth as the truth is contained in Holy Scripture. And, secondly, the illuminating work of the Spirit does not eliminate, but rather establishes the means that the Spirit uses for accomplishing this illumination, which means is the preaching of the gospel.
The SHC illustrates this clearly “both by commandment and examples.” Christ Himself commands the preaching of the gospel. Bullinger appeals to the Lord’s express command in the Great Commission. The church is to make disciples out of all the nations by “preach[ing] the Gospel to the whole creation” (). In addition, he appeals to the apostle Paul’s “beautiful development of thought” in Romans 10, which ends in verse 17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God by the preaching of Christ.”
Bullinger also appeals to examples in Scripture that demonstrate the necessity of faithful preaching of the gospel as God’s means to save sinners. The book of Acts is filled with such examples. Of all the examples he could have cited, he refers to the example of the salvation of Lydia and her family by means of the preaching of the apostle Paul. Inwe read of Lydia “whose heart the Lord opened.” But what must not be overlooked is that the Lord sovereignly opened Lydia’s heart through her “attend[ing] unto the things which were spoken of Paul.” Clearly, this history demonstrates the truth that the Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel as the means to open that which is closed, soften that which is hard, enlighten those who are ignorant, and work faith where before there was only unbelief.
This insistence on the necessity of the preaching of the gospel as the means by which the Holy Spirit illuminates inwardly the elect children of God does not rule out certain exceptions: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power.” One notable exception would be babes who die in infancy or in their mother’s womb, who never hear the preaching of the gospel. But the exceptions establish the rule. The rule is that ordinarily the Holy Spirit illuminates elect believers by means of the preaching of the gospel. Every seriousminded believer must put himself under the preaching of the gospel.
We therefore detest all the heresies of Artemon, the Manichaeans, the Valentinians, of Cerdon, and the Marcionites, who denied that the Scriptures proceeded from the Holy Spirit; or did not accept some parts of them, or interpolated and corrupted them.
Included with the first chapter of the SHC is a paragraph entitled “Heresies.” Similar paragraphs are found throughout the confession. Besides “Heresies,” there are paragraphs devoted to “The Sects,” or “Errors,” or to heretics and heretical groups by name, such as “The Epicureans” or “Lactantius.” The Reformed faith is not satisfied only in setting forth the truth positively, but in addition understands the necessity of pointing out and repudiating error. The gospel is antithetical—always antithetical. This was true of the Old Testament prophets. In the New Testament, this was true of Jesus and of the apostles.
This paragraph of the SHC mentions two individuals, Artemon and Cerdon, and three groups, Manichaeans, Valentinians, and Marcionites. Behind the groups are the founders of the groups, whose distinct teachings were held in high regard by the members of the groups. Several represent forms of Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies opposed by the New Testament church. Hints of the rejection of this error can be found, it is often thought, in the writings of the apostle John. Other of these heretics and heresies are anti-trinitarian, denying the deity of Jesus Christ and teaching that Jesus was a mere man. Several are eclectic, borrowing teachings from pagan philosophy or from heathen religions and mixing them with Christianity. And most are dualistic, positing two equally ultimate realities, one good and one evil.
But what all these religious groups and leaders have in common is that they deny the fundamental article of the Christian faith—belief in Holy Scripture. Many of the groups and leaders detract from Scripture, rejecting the canonicity of a number of the books of the Bible. In some cases, they rejected the whole Old Testament, as was the case with Cerdon and the Marcionites. Others rejected significant parts of the New Testament. Artemon rejected those Scriptures that taught clearly the deity of Jesus Christ. Others added to canonical Scripture, usually the writings of the group’s founder, as the writings and revelations of Mani or Valentinus’ Gospel of Truth.
Either error, whether taking away from or adding to the canon of Scripture, is a fundamental denial of sola Scriptura—Scripture alone. Both fall under the condemnation of the apostle in: “For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.”
What arrogance, that puny man should presume to excise certain books of sacred Scripture—the Word of God! What arrogance, that puny man should presume to exalt his writings to the level of the Word of God! That same arrogance is on exhibition in our own day. It is evident in the cults and sects, who add to Holy Scripture either the writings of the founder of the cult or additional sacred writings like the Book of Mormon or the Quran.
The distinctive mark of the believer and of the true church of Jesus Christ in the world is the confession that Scripture alone is the authority for faith and for life. Nothing may be taken away from Scripture and nothing may be added to Scripture. Because Scripture is the Word of God, nothing need be added to Scripture and nothing may be placed alongside Scripture. Scripture is sufficient for the individual believer and for the church as a whole. In the words of the opening paragraph of this first article of the SHC: “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 yet we do not conceal the fact that certain books of the Old Testament were by the ancient authors called Apocryphal, and by others Ecclesiastical; inasmuch as some would have them read in the churches, but not advanced as an authority from which the faith is to be established. As Augustine also, in his De Civitate Dei, book 18, ch. 38, remarks that “in the books of the Kings, the names and books of certain prophets are cited”; but he adds that “they are not in the canon”; and that “those books which we have suffice unto godliness.”
It is not surprising that the question of the status of the Apocrypha is raised in a Reformation creed. This was a burning issue between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church. It was not an issue that divided the Reformers, however. They were unanimous in rejecting the canonicity of the Apocrypha. To them all it was obvious that these books were not on a par with Holy Scripture. Rome, as is well known, needed the Apocrypha to establish a number of her false doctrines and wrong practices. Other Reformed confessions, like the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Westminster Confession of Faith, explicitly reject the canonicity of the Apocryphal books. Article 6 of the Belgic Confession, “The Difference Between the Canonical and Apocryphal Books,” insists that “they are far from having such power and efficacy, as that we may from their testimony confirm any point of faith, or of the Christian religion; much less detract from the authority of the other sacred books.” The Westminster Confession of Faith states that the Apocryphal books “have no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (WCF, 1.3). It was the Reformers’ settled conviction that no point of doctrine nor any practice of the Christian life was to be established solely on the basis of the Apocrypha. Significantly, Bullinger appeals at this point to Augustine (AD 354-430). In so many respects the Reformation was a return to Augustine. This foundation of the teaching of Augustine made clear that the Reformation was no novel movement, but that the Reformation represented historic Christianity— what Christianity was from its earliest days. This was also the case with regard to the Reformers’ doctrine of Scripture.
At the same time, the Reformers saw value in the Apocryphal books, especially in certain Apocryphal books. For that reason, the Belgic Confession says that “the Church may read and take instruction from [them] so far as they agree with the canonical books….” Because of this limited use in the church, these books were sometimes referred to as ecclesiastical books. They were ecclesiastical books in distinction from the authoritative canonical books. In rejecting the inspiration of the Apocryphal books, the Reformers and the SHC honored the sixty-six canonical books that comprise sacred Scripture. In these books “God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us….” (SHC, 1.1).