Thomas C. Miersma is pastor of the First Protestant Reformed Church, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
With this article we begin to direct our attention to the doctrine of Scripture and its development following the period of the Reformation. There are two basic elements which necessarily shape any consideration of this period in the development of the doctrine of the Word of God.
In the first place, the Reformation laid down the fundamental principles of sound Biblical interpretation and the doctrine of Scripture. As reformed believers this forms our starting point. The reformed doctrine of Scripture was elicited from Scripture itself. It is Scripture’s own doctrine concerning itself, God’s Word concerning His Word. We take our stand therefore upon that foundation, for its doctrine and principles are the doctrine and principles of Scripture itself. This does not mean that every aspect of the doctrine of the Word of God was spelled out with perfect clarity by the Reformation. New questions would arise after the Reformation which the reformers had not fully dealt with, as they were not issues which they confronted directly.
The fundamental issue the reformers confronted was that of the authority of God’s Word as the only rule for faith and life, over against Rome’s elevating the church and her decrees and pronouncements to the seat of supreme authority. The reformers, therefore, when speaking of the inspiration of Scripture and while holding the same organic view of inspiration which we hold, also used language which at times appears to reflect a more mechanical conception of inspiration. The doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy were also not direct issues at the time of the Reformation. Thus the reformers, when speaking of Scripture, were free to use language which we would today avoid because these truths are under attack. This freedom of the reformers when speaking of Scripture has also been used repeatedly by the enemies of the reformed doctrine of Scripture to read back into the reformers’ writings views which they did not hold and would have repudiated.
In spite of this occasional lack of clarity or precision in the reformers’ writings when judged in the light of modern controversy, the reformed doctrine of Scripture may be said to have reached its essential completion with the close of the Reformation era. The Post-Reformation era has been one not so much of development as of refinement and clarification of the doctrine of the Word over against heresy, error and assaults upon the truth of God’s Word. The reformers laid down two basic principles concerning God’s Word, which are fundamental. The first is sola scriptura, Scripture alone as the sole source and,standard-of authority. The second concerns the interpretation of God’s Word. namely that Scripture interprets Scripture. In these two principles is comprehended the whole of the reformed doctrine of the Word of God. They answer the questions concerning Scripture’s infallibility, inerrancy, trustworthiness, and also the nature and extent of its authority. Scripture alone as that which possesses sole authority for faith and life, the Word of God and His rule for the church, leaves no room for a Bible which is part man’s word and part God’s Word, in any form. The principle that Scripture interprets Scripture and is its own interpreter answers any questions concerning the means by which Scripture is to be interpreted and eliminates any other standard of interpretation, whether that be philosophy, archaeology, modern psychology, or modern social-political thought.
The period following the Reformation, to the present, to which we will turn our attention in coming articles, can therefore be characterized as one of refinement and defense of the truth on the part of those who held and do hold fast to the heritage of the Reformation. It is at the same time a period of departure from the truth of God’s Word, a period of apostasy, of subtle corruption of the truth, and serious error. The assaults upon the reformed truth of God’s Word have been many. They have taken on different forms, come from different quarters, and have been directed at different aspects of the truth. The trustworthiness of Scripture has been the object of attack, that is, its accuracy and inerrancy. That it is God’s Word and not man’s word, that it is a unity, that it is its own reliable and infallible interpreter have all been called into question. Man has sought to place his reason, his emotions, his experiences, and his science above that Word of God.
Therein lies the second element. In many respects also the fundamental issues over which the reformers had to contend with Rome are still the issues over which the battle is currently being waged. The Church of Rome at the time of the Reformation not only sought to maintain its own authority to make the Word of God subject to its decrees, but it had also fostered the climate of philosophy and free thinking which was found in the Renaissance. This might at first appear to be a contradiction, but such is not the case. Rome separated faith and reason as two distinct kinds of revelation. According to Roman Catholic teaching, faith is a matter of revealed theology which itself is a matter of Scripture and tradition, which in turn is a matter of church dogma. Reason however, proceeding from the creation or general revelation, independent of God’s Word, produces natural theology by human wisdom, and is found even in the pagan philosophers. Rome maintained that reason or natural theology alone was insufficient of itself, but made it the servant of revealed theology. Rome thus attempted by her tradition to marry the Word of God and the pagan Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Thus we find that although the Church of Rome was rigid and unyielding in church dogma (particularly against the Reformation which represented a threat to the church’s wealth, power and worldly influence) during this same period, worldly and dissolute popes fostered the pursuit of the pagan art, culture, and philosophy which was the preoccupation of the Renaissance. Many of these popes also encouraged the new humanism which was rising in Italy, with its delight in the pleasures and lusts of the flesh.
The reformers however, severed the bond between revealed and natural theology and liberated theology from this false union to bring theology wholly into subjection to the Word of God, and in the light of that Word also to bring all things into subjection to the will of God.
The Reformation had no place for a separate natural theology apart from God’s Word. The Reformation however had also this consequence, that the power of the Roman Church over life across Europe and its hold upon the thoughts of men was also weakened. In the breakdown of Rome’s power and control over men, the seeds of worldly philosophy which were already present in the Church of Rome were also given room to grow and develop independently as a separate force outside the control of the church and church dogma. The result was that in its development, worldly philosophy and the revived humanism of the Renaissance now became increasingly an open power in opposition to the gospel and the Word of God.
Thus the Reformed Church in its struggle to maintain the truth of God’s Word, must contend not only with error within the church, false doctrine and apostasy from within, but also with the rising and powerful influence of modern philosophy. That is especially the case as the world by means of its philosophy seeks to re-enter the church to overthrow it. That means for our consideration of this Post-Reformation period that in addition to addressing the various errors within the church, we will also have to say something about the history and development of modern philosophy and its effect upon the church.
At the same time the reformed doctrine of the Word had to be and must still be defended against Rome, the influence also of various other sects arose at the time of the Reformation. This means that the struggle to maintain the truth of God’s Word is one which has been and is being fought on a number of different fronts at the same time. So often the church, in defending the truth from one foe has been tempted to swing to another extreme, equally in error, which for a time appears as an attractive solution to the problems before her and with which she contends. This is no less true in contending for God’s Word.
Nor can the struggle to maintain the doctrine of the Word of God be separated or completely isolated in our consideration from other assaults upon the truths of that Word. Arminianism, to use but one example, by its denial of the sovereignty of God constitutes not only an attack upon the doctrines of grace and salvation but also upon the doctrine of Scripture, for only by human reasoning can the truth of God’s sovereign grace, plainly set forth in the Word of God, be resisted and rejected. Arminianism exactly because it sets itself against God’s Word in this matter, brings into the study of that Word the principles of worldly wisdom and rationalism. The God Who sovereignly gave His Word, set down in the Scriptures, is the same sovereign God in salvation. Deny the one and the other also is destroyed. To these things then we will turn our attention, D.V., in future articles as we consider Scripture in the Post-Reformation era.