For the sake of clarity in our discussion, I will quote again the questions raised in our last issue by a reader from Holland, Michigan: “Today one reads much about the new theology, neo-orthodoxy, and recent scientific data which compels theologians to accept new exegetical ideas in regard to the Scriptures. What, must we say about this? Our fathers gave us our Doctrinal Standards. Are they becoming obsolete? Are there really new truths which call for a new interpretation of the Scriptures? Doesn’t the authority of the Scriptures depend on its infallibility?”
The last question I called a key question and chose to answer it first (cf. Sept. 15 issue).
The question may be asked: why is this a key—question?
There are several aspects to be considered here. Among them; I would mention, in the first place, the fact that it is this very foundational doctrine of Holy Scripture which is under attack, which they seek to change (or ignore) today. Anyone who follows contemporary theological and ecclesiastical developments knows that one of the most discussed and most frequently attacked truths is that of the doctrine of Holy Scripture. It is safe to say that to a large extent this has become the issue. In the second place, I would mention the fact that this doctrine of Holy Scripture is foundational. Why? For the simple reason—to put it in terms of the well-known formula—that Scripture is the only infallible rule (canon, standard, measuring rod) of faith and practice, or of doctrine and life. If, therefore, you can succeed in breaking down and modifying the authority of that rule, or if you can deny (by modifying, because no one likes to admit to denying directly) the infallibility of that rule of doctrine and life, you can open the door to all kinds of changes and modifications with respect to doctrine and life. In the third place, in this same connection, we. should see plainly that in the deepest sense, therefore, all the changes and modifications presently being proposed in the faith and practice of the church (also of Reformed churches, both here and in the Netherlands) are a question of authority, the authority of Scripture, the authority of the Sovereign God. In the same connection, we may note that the entire notion of “recent scientific data which compels theologians to accept new exegetical ideas in regard to Scripture” is thoroughly corrupt. I am well aware that these theologians claim that they do not mean that science must rule Scripture or our interpretation of Scripture. This, of course, would be too blunt. No, they claim that this so-called recent scientific data (and the twentieth century is immensely proud of its science and scientific data, you know) is only the occasion which should make us re-examine and modify our exegesis. But this is a ruse. And for this reason it is also a mistake to speak of new exegetical ideas. The new scientific data does not lead to exegesis, but to what the Dutch call “inlegkunde”, a laying into the text of Scripture ideas which are not in the text, ideas from outside of Scripture. The most basic rule of true exegesis is that Scripture is its own interpreter. But this, you see, is in the deepest sense a question of the authority of Scripture. The question becomes this: who is going to interpret Scripture, science or Scripture itself? And that question is at bottom: whose word is authoritative, sovereignly authoritative—man’s or God’s? Study the attacks made today on the Scriptural account of creation or of the flood, and you will soon discover that this is the issue. In the fourth place, there is this aspect, that it is precisely this authority of Holy Scripture which is the basis of our confessions, our doctrinal standards. The confessions have no authority in themselves. They are of authority only as they set forth the truth revealed by the Scriptures. And it is for this reason that the court of appeal for the confessions and for objections to the confessions is Scripture. But this brings me to some of the other questions raised.
My correspondent hits upon another crucial matter when he mentions the confessions. For there is a great clamor today about the confessions being obsolete and a clamor for changing the confessions. In the Netherlands they are already busy with this. In this connection, a few comments:
1) What has given impetus to this clamor for change? The fact that the Formula of Subscription is not enforced and that doctrinal discipline is neglected is a big factor. Today there are those in the Netherlands, for example, who are demanding that the Formula of Subscription be enforced and that men be required to adhere to the confessions. I propose that this has come too late. The method of the liberals has been to propose their deviating views in public (contrary to the Formula of Subscription), and then, when they have made sufficient propaganda and have gained enough adherents, to press for official decisions to modify the confessions. This is altogether wrong and wicked. But it is the tried and successful method of heretics. And frequently, while they carry out this policy, they do lip service to the creeds.
2) The test of the confessions is Scripture. This idea of the creeds being obsolete is a thoroughly nonecclesiastical idea. Besides, it is a ruse. But let it be stressed: the only court of appeal with respect to the confessions is Scripture. If there is something wrong with the confessions, this must be demonstrated on the basis of Scripture: otherwise the confessions stand! And this demonstration must not be by public propaganda but in the manner set forth in the Formula of Subscription. Obsolete? Is this a ruse to get the opportunity to tear down the truth expressed in our confessions? Obsolete? Because some upstart, twentieth century theologian has the colossal brass to go against not only the entire consensus of the church-of the past but also, mind you, against the guidance of the Holy Spirit Who dwells in the church? I ask: does the truth as it is in Jesus Christ—Who is the same yesterday and today and forever—become obsolete? Or do theologians and preachers and churches become so wise in their own conceits and so “up-to-date” and “relevant” in their outlook and so ecumenical and world-conforming in their entire approach to life that they cannot endure the “narrow” confides of those “old-fashioned” confessions?
3) Confessions are not made, but born. History shows that confessions do not come into existence because the church (and especially not, the theologians) sit down and decide that something is obsolete and needs replacement and revision. Confessions arise out of the bosom of the church, out of the faith of the people of God. They are spontaneous. And especially do they arise out of the crucible of controversy and conflict and persecution. In such refining fires the pure gold of the truth of the Scriptures has come to clearer light and understanding and expression in the life of the church. It is for this reason, too, that I would remark that of all times, today is not the time for a new confession. Confessions have come into existence when the church, the true church, is living on a high spiritual plane, when the love of the truth of God’s Word is strong and firm and warm. The latter is not characteristic of our age, to put it mildly.
Finally, new truths? There are no new truths. They have all been revealed in the Scriptures. To be sure, further development and refinement and enrichment of the truth as the church possesses it in the whole body of dogma is possible. But this does not mean new truths and new interpretations. This does not involve departure and beginning anew. It is development,—advancement in the same line of the old truth.