THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION
VIEWS ON THE CHURCH
It is indeed an historical fact that the Scriptures have been made of no account wherever the authority of tradition has been admitted. As soon as tradition and decrees of churches are viewed as having equal value and authority with the Word of God, or as soon as people simply accept the decrees and decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies, the inevitable result will be that the masses will become increasingly ignorant of the Word of God. It is true that we, too, have our Confessions. However, our Confessions must never be regarded as having equal authority with the Bible. Our Confessions must never serve any other purpose than to lead us to the Scriptures. They must never be received and venerated apart from them. They must never stand next to the Word of God, but are always to be approached as the expression of the faith of the Church of God in the truths of that Word, and must therefore always be interpreted in the light of Scripture.
Finally, we have the following observations. Why does Rome insist on its doctrine of Tradition? Rome surely does not maintain the authority of traditions because it would maintain the truths of the Word of God. On the one hand, it is surely a fact that the Romish Church corrupts and distorts the fundamental truths of the Word of God. And, on the other hand, Tradition is not necessary to maintain the Scriptures. Rome needs traditions exactly because it would maintain and teaches doctrines which are not taught in the Word of God. We do not need traditions to maintain doctrines such as: the Divine creation of all things as by the Word of His power and by the breath of His mouth, the advent of sin into the world and the depravity of the sinner, the coming of Christ and His atoning suffering and death, His resurrection and ascension, the Divine institution of Baptism and of the Lord’s Supper, the power and efficacy of Divine grace, the return of Christ upon the clouds of heaven, etc. Rome needs traditions exactly because it would maintain doctrines such as: the infallibility of the pope, the pope as the successor of Peter, the worship of Mary, the seven sacraments, the Popish mass, justification not solely by faith but also by works, etc. Rome must have its traditions, not because it would maintain the Word of God but because it defends teachings that are foreign to the Word of God. And, Rome’s conception of traditions is surely contrary to the Word of God. Never does our Lord Jesus Christ quote anything except from the Old Testament Canon, and completely exclusive of the Apocryphal books. And in the Scriptures Rome’s doctrine of Tradition is clearly denied by such passages as Matt. 15:3, Matt15:9, I Cor. 4:6, Isaiah 29:13, andRev. 22:18-19. Permit us to quote the first and last of these passages, We read in Matt. 15:3, Matt 15:9: “But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandments of God by your tradition? But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men.” And in Rev. 22:18-19we read: “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.”
We conclude our discussion of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Tradition with one more observation: we can speak of traditions in a good sense of the word. Rome, we know, interprets Tradition as a doctrine which has been handed down by the apostles and preserved and definitely confirmed by the bishops and especially by the pope. This conception, we have noted, is untenable. However, we do well to remember that also the Bible is a book that has been written in past ages and under various historical circumstances. The different books of the Word of God bear the character of the times in which they were written. How plain the Word of God may be as far as the doctrine of salvation is concerned, and how true it may be that the Bible is and remains the Word of the living God, the various historical and geographical features of the different times should always be borne in mind. Tradition, in the good sense of the word, is the interpretation of the eternal truths in the language and life of a present generation.
THE RIGHT AND POWER TO INTERPRET
We will recall that the two main principles of the Reformation of the sixteenth century are the formal and the material principles. The formal principle implies that the Reformers acknowledged but one source of authority: the Holy Scriptures. With this principle they stood opposed to Roman Catholicism, False Mysticism, and to Rationalism. Over against the Roman Catholic Church the Reformers rejected everything as having authority except the Word of God, whereas Roman Catholicism also acknowledged Tradition as a source of authority. To this we have now called attention. Another point of difference between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism was that the Roman Catholic Church claimed that the right and power to interpret the Bible belonged to the Church, i.e., the clergy, whereas the Reformers maintained the principle that every Christian is able and has the right to interpret the Word of God.
Protestantism, of course, sets forth the principle that the Holy Scriptures, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, and exclusive of the Apocryphal Books, are in themselves the one and only rule of faith and oft-life. In the Formula of Concord, a Lutheran confession, adopted toward the close of the sixteenth century, we read in Article 1 the following: “We believe, confess, and teach that the only rule and norm, according to which all dogmas and all doctors ought to be esteemed and judged, is no other whatever than the prophetic and apostolic writings both of the Old and of the New Testaments; as it is written (Psalm 119:105) : ‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’ And St. Paul saith (Gal. 1:8): ‘Though an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed.’ But other writings, whether of the fathers or of, the moderns, with whatever name they come, are in nowise to be equalled to the Holy Scriptures, but are all to be esteemed inferior to them, so that they be not otherwise received than in the rank of witnesses, to show what doctrine was taught after the Apostles’ times also, and in what parts of the world that more sound doctrine of the Prophets and Apostles has been preserved.” â€• end of quote.
Also the Westminster Confession of Faith, the English Protestant Confession and adopted in 1647, expresses itself on this subject, as in Articles 1-7, 9-10, and we quote: “Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation; therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people being now ceased . . . Under the name of holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the Books of the Old and New Testament, which are these, etc. All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life . . . The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of the Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings . . . The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God . . . . We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts . . . The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed . . . All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear to all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them . . . The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly . . . The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” â€• end of quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith. We should note that this Westminster Confession of Faith declares in Art. 7 that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (italics ours). And in Art. 9 we read that the Scriptures must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. And the idea, of course, is that the Scriptures must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly by all the people of God and not only by the learned. The Lord willing, we will continue with this in our following article.