Previous article in this series: February 15, 2016, p. 233.
In April of 1521 someone did what no one had done, at least publicly, for centuries. He appealed to Scripture as the final authority to which alone he would submit. Before some of the most important, influential, and powerful men in the world, the man said:
Since you majesty and your lordships desire a simple reply, I will answer without horns and without teeth. Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me! Amen.1
The man, of course, was Martin Luther, at that time a humble monk and university professor from Wittenberg, Germany. He had been summoned by the pope and the emperor to stand trial for his teachings before a Diet that was assembled at Worms, a city in Germany. It had been more than three years before this that Luther had posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the chapel door of the university in Wittenberg.
The day before Luther took his courageous stand, he had made his first appearance before the Diet. On a table in front of the members of the Diet was a stack of books written by Luther. In the books he had criticized the practices and teachings of the church of his day, the Roman Catholic Church. He had been especially critical of the church’s teaching that the pope was the supreme authority in the church. He was also an outspoken critic of the teaching of the church that people are saved not only on the basis of the cross work of Jesus, but that their own merits and the merits of the saints had to be added to Christ’s merits. Before the assembly, the spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church, Johann Eck, demanded that Luther recant what he had written and make public apology for his errors. Luther had asked the emperor, Charles V, for a reprieve of one day so that he could formulate a careful response to the demand of Eck. To Eck’s consternation, the emperor granted Luther’s request. It was the next day, on April 18, 1521, that Luther made his defense before the Diet and spoke the well-known words in which he appealed to God and took his stand on the authority of Holy Scripture: “Here I stand.”
In our treatment of the doctrine of Holy Scripture we have concluded our consideration of what the Bible teaches about itself. We have seen that there can be no question that Scripture views itself as the infallibly inspired, inerrant Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men. The Bible is like no other book. It is a holy book, and it is a holy book by virtue of the fact that it is the Word of the Holy God. The Word of God is not in Scripture. Scripture does not merely contain the Word of God. Neither does Scripture become the Word of God. Scripture is the Word of God. It is the Word of God in its entirety. It is the Word of God from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. Nothing need be and nothing can be added to the Scriptures.
Because Scripture is the Word of God, Scripture partakes of the perfection of God. The Reformers identified certain perfections of Scripture. These perfections or properties of Scripture are a result of Scripture’s infallible inspiration. These perfections set Scripture apart from every other book. There is no book like this book. Following the lead of the Reformers, the Reformed faith distinguishes five outstanding perfections of Scripture. The perfections of Scripture are: Scripture’s authority, Scripture’s necessity, Scripture’s perspicuity, Scripture’s sufficiency, and Scripture’s reliability or trustworthiness. In this article and those that follow, we will consider together these perfections of Scripture.
The first perfection of Scripture is Scripture’s authority.
Authority is a fact of life. Everywhere we turn, whoever we are, whatever we are doing we are under authority. We confront authority in society, where the government exercises its authority over the lives of the citizens. We confront authority in the workplace, where the boss or the owner of the business exercises authority over his workers. In the church, we confront the authority of the officebearers. In school, we confront the authority of the teachers and of the principal. In the home, we confront the authority of our parents. And in marriage, God gives to the husband authority over his wife, an authority that he is called to exercise in a loving, caring, and nurturing way.
Authority is the right to rule. It is the right to impose your will on someone else, the right to tell them what they must be and how they must live. Authority is the right to command obedience and require compliance to your desires. The fifth commandment of God’s law concerns authority. And although the wording of the commandment concerns the obedience required of children to their parents, implied in the fifth commandment is the obedience that the child of God owes to all authority, authority in every area of earthly life.
Ultimately, all authority comes from God. God has all authority in Himself simply because He is God. He has created all things and owns everything. In Romans 13:1, the apostle says that “there is no power [the word in the original is ‘authority’] but of God.” Jude adores God as “the only wise God our Savior” and says that to Him “be glory and majesty, dominion and power,” and once again the word “power” is literally the word “authority.” Jesus says to Pontius Pilate in John 19:11, “Thou couldest have no power [authority] against me, except it were given thee from above.”
They that exercise authority have their authority from God. God gives to parents authority over their children. Parents do not have authority over their children because they are older or wiser or bigger. Might does not make right. Rather, God gives the right to rule to parents and to all those who are in positions of authority. They have their authority from God and are called to exercise their authority on behalf of God, whether parents in the home, king or president, policeman or mayor, elder or Christian school teacher.
God exercises His authority especially through His Word. That word is first of all the incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, whom He has exalted and glorified at His own right hand. But that word through which He exercises His authority is also His Word written. That is generally the case, that those who are in authority exercise their authority through their word. Parents exercise their authority through the word that they speak to their children. The government exercises its authority over its citizens through the laws that it passes. The church exercises its authority through its decisions. So too God exercises His authority through His Word.
Because Scripture is the Word of God, Scripture is authoritative. It ought to be obvious that only if Scripture is the infallible and inerrant Word of God, without any error or contradiction, can it be the authority in the church. Suppose once that Scripture contained errors, contradictions, and untruths. How could Scripture possibly function as the authority in the church? It could not. If Scripture is to be the authority in and over the church, the supreme authority, it must be infallible. To deny Scripture’s infallibility is effectively to dismiss Scripture as the authority in the church. What confidence could we have in Scripture’s authority if it is filled with errors and contradictions? We could not have any confidence in its authority.
As the authority of the sovereign God Himself, whose Word Scripture is, the authority of Scripture is the highest, the ultimate, the supreme authority. Its authority is the final authority in the church. By insisting on the authority of Scripture, Luther did not despise the authority of the church or the authority of the church councils. His praise of the Council of Nicea is well-known. Luther and the other Reformers did not mean by sola Scriptura that the Bible is the only authority in the church. He did not deny any and all authority to tradition or to the officers of the church. Rather, what Luther insisted on was that the Bible was the only infallible authority. What he meant was that the Bible had unique authority. What he meant is that the Bible is the highest and ultimate authority in the church, the authority that is over all other authority. What he meant was that the Bible is the only independent authority, whereas all other authority in the church is derived.
In addition, Scripture’s authority is an absolute and over-arching authority. It is that for the believer. It is the authority over the faith, that is, what we believe and confess. It is the authority over life, that is, how we are to conduct ourselves in every situation and at all times. Scripture alone binds the conscience of the believer. That is what Luther affirmed before the Diet of Worms: “My conscience is captive [that is, ‘bound’] to the Word of God.” And he went on to say that “going against conscience is neither safe nor salutary.” Only God’s Word binds the conscience, binds it in such a way that we must believe that Word in its teaching and submit to that Word in its commands. No other book—merely human book— possesses such authority.
Scripture is the supreme authority for the church. It is the authority over the teaching of the church. It is the authority over the worship of the church. It is the authority over the life of the church. It is the authority over the discipline of the church. There is not and there may not be introduced any other authority in the church than the authority of the Word of God.
In that connection, Scripture is the ultimate authority over the assemblies of the church. Scripture is the authority over the consistory, the classis, and the synod. And Scripture is the authority over the session, the presbytery, and the general assembly.
Scripture is uniquely the absolute authority in the church. Not Scripture and something in addition to Scripture, but Scripture alone. That was the critical word at the time of the Reformation, as it is the critical word still today. Just as Rome taught that salvation was not by faith alone, but by faith and works, so she also taught that the authority in the church was not Scripture alone, but Scripture and something in addition to Scripture. Scripture and the ex cathedra pronouncements of the pope; Scripture and tradition; Scripture and the writings of the church fathers; Scripture and the apocrypha; Scripture and the decrees of the church councils. Over against the view that held to the authority of Scripture and…, the Reformation called the church to recognize the authority of Scripture alone.
Just as the Roman Catholic Church denies the authority of Scripture, not outright but by adding some other authority alongside the authority of Scripture, so do also the cults and sects characteristically add to the authority of Scripture. To Scripture the Mormons add the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and The Pearl of Great Price. The Muslims add to Scripture the Quran. The Seventh-Day Adventists place the writings of Ellen G. White alongside Scripture—though some SDAs would deny this. And the Jehovah’s Witnesses add the writings of Charles Taze Russell as an authority alongside of Scripture.
That Scripture is the only authority also condemns those who add other revelations of God to Scripture. Scripture can be the only authority in the church only if it alone contains God’s revelation to His church. That Scripture alone is the authority in the church and in the life of the believer condemns the modern Charismatic movement which insists that revelation is ongoing. The Reformers also repudiated those in their day who insisted that revelation was not to be confined to Holy Scripture. In a sermon on John 16:14, Luther said:
For this reason I have said that if we are to hold to Christ’s Word and prophecy and to judge all teaching and signs, life and activity, according to this, the Holy Spirit Himself must be present with His revelation. If teaching, signs, life, and activity are in opposition to this chief doctrine and article of Christ—concerning which Christ says here that the Holy Spirit will declare it to His disciples—one should ignore and reject them, even if it snows miracles every day. For anything in opposition to this doctrine [set forth in Scripture] is surely a lie and is introduced by the devil for the seduction of souls.2
“Even if it snows miracles every day,” that is, even if those who deny Scripture’s sole authority and claim authority for their own purported revelations are able to “snow miracles” upon the church, they must not be believed. Scripture alone is the authority in the church. And Scripture alone is the authority in the church because Scripture alone is the infallibly inspired and inerrant Word of God. In full agreement with Luther, Calvin writes that
[s]ince the church is Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)?3
Next time we will demonstrate from Scripture and our Reformed confessions the sole authority of Scripture. And we will make some practical applications on this truth to the life of the believer.
1 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 185. Cf. also J. J. Ellis, Martin Luther: The Hero of the Reformation Which Changed the World (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1941), 59-60. The quotation of Luther is a blend of that found in the two sources cited here. There is some dispute whether Luther spoke the words “Here I stand,” or whether they were added to the record later. Whatever the case may be, that is certainly what Luther intended to convey, that he was taking his stand on the authority of Scripture alone.
2 Luther’s Works, Volume 24, Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, Chapters 14-16, Jaroslav Pelikan and Daniel E. Poellot, ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1961), 371.
3 Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.2.4; 2:1046.