Holy and Canonical
“We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical . . .” This is a statement of the faith of the church and its members concerning “these books,” that is, concerning the books mentioned in the preceding article. In Article III is the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scriptures. In Article IV is the list of the canonical books. In the present article is the statement of our faith with respect to these books that constitute the inspired Scriptures of the Old and of the New Testament.
In the first place, we acknowledge them as canonical. What this means need not be discussed again: for it has been dealt with in our treatment of Article IV. Two things must be emphasized in this connection. First of all, we receive these books, that is, acknowledge them: And, in the second place, our acknowledgment of these books is such that there can be neither exception to it nor addition to it. None of the sixty-six books is either more or less canonical than the others. They all occupy their own, indispensable place in the whole of the canon. And no other books occupy a similar place: we receive these only as canonical. This is undoubtedly a reference to the fact that others, specifically the Roman Catholics, would give a place to the apocryphal books in the canon. And while a separate article is devoted to this subject in our Confession, we take note of the fact that here already the apocryphal books are excluded from the canon in the faith of the church. Among all other books, therefore, in the mind of believers the Scriptures occupy a unique place. They only are canonical.
In the second place, we must note that these canonical books are holy, according to this confession. The term canonical is more or less a formal term. The term holy describes these canonical books materially. They are books set apart, separate, from all other books. There are no other books like them. In fact, in this world of sin and darkness, in which it is impossible that a holy book be written by man, mere, natural man, and in which all that is written is innately unholy and impure, these books alone are unsullied, unbesmirched by the corruption of sin and darkness. Other “holy” books may be produced by pens of saints. But they are holy only in principle. And, besides, their holiness can only be a derived holiness. They are holy only in so far as they derive their contents from the Scriptures and base their authority, or claim to authority, upon the Word of God. But these books, in distinction from all others, are absolutely and perfectly holy.
Indeed, in the faith of the Christian the Scriptures are on a pedestal. They occupy a position above all other writings. No, the Christian does not worship the Bible. He is not guilty of bibliolatry. He worships God, and bows before Him. And because he does the latter, he acknowledges the absolute authority of God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures.
For it is undoubtedly with respect to the latter idea, that of authority, that our Confession speaks here of these books being holy and canonical, in the first place. It is just because the Scriptures are God’sWord, i.e., because the authority of God Himself underlies all that they contain, that these Scriptures are in the most absolute sense of the word authoritative. Their authority is divine. Authority is the majesty and the prerogative to declare what and how the creature shall be and shall do. It is to “have the say-so.” And God is the only Sovereign of heaven and earth. His authority is not derived, but original. It is not limited, but absolute. He has all to say over all things and over everyone. Through the Scriptures He comes, with the divine authority. And before it there is nothing to do but to bow. You may not—no, you in the deepest sense cannot—put that authoritative Word aside. If you attempt to do so, it condemns you. You cannot say, as you might with any other word, that you are not yet convinced, that you must first give it some thought. The Scriptures do not come with an attempt to persuade you. Nor do they approach merely the intellect and its thoughts. They do not ask you to discuss things, to “talk them over,” to see whether it is possible or not to believe what they say. That Word demands. It insists. It approaches the heart. It has authority without first attempting to convince. It has authority over against whatever may be our “convictions.” It calls forth faith. And faith is obedience—unreserved, unconditional, unreasoned obedience. That Word of God is the end of all contradiction. “It is written” is the unconquered, but all-conquering, weapon!
From this primary idea of the divine authority of “these books” follows the truth that they are holy also in respect to their dignity, as is already implied above. They are unique when considered from the viewpoint of their intrinsic value and import, and separate from all other books in that respect. Moreover, as the article emphasizes strongly, they are holy as to their contents. Also this follows from the fact that these Scriptures constitute the Word of God, Who cannot lie. Hence, these books are such that we believe, without any doubt, all things contained therein.
This is not the proper occasion for an extended discussion of faith versus doubt. But because this phenomenon of doubt, especially with respect to the Scriptures, is not uncommon, particularly among Christian young people, and more particularly among Christian youth of an intellectual bent, so to speak, it may be well to make a few brief points in this connection. And let me insert here that this whole matter of Christian youth’s doubts could well stand more lengthy treatment. Briefly, however, we remark the following: 1) Faith and doubt stand diametrically opposed to each other. Doubt is principally unbelief. In the case of the Christian, therefore, doubt does not have its origin in the regenerated, believing heart, but in the old man of sin. 2) Doubt in regard to the Word of God, the Scriptures, strikes at faith’s most precious treasure and at the very foundation of faith. Without the Scriptures as the Word of God, the whole structure of the truth of the gospel topples. Hence, without faith in the Scriptures, all faith is essentially impossible. It is characteristically at this faith in the Scriptures that the devil aims his temptation in the case of Christian youth, who is “strong, because the Word of God abideth in him.” I John 2:13-14. 3) This doubt is not basically an intellectual problem, though it may appear such, but a spiritual one. And its cure is not an intellectual one primarily, i.e., the cure of reasoning and argumentation, but a spiritual one, i.e., the cure of the Spirit and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Word of God.
In this connection we may note that principally the situation is just exactly as it is described in Article V. Faith believes, emphatically without any doubt, all things contained in the Scriptures. Principally, I say, it is exactly thus: at any juncture introduce a single doubt, just a little seed of doubt, in regard to an apparently insignificant thing, and the door is opened to doubt all. I know very well that appearances would seem to belie this. It is apparently possible to doubt certain things contained in the Scriptures and yet to believe in God and in Christ. But principally this is not so. And not only is he who begins to doubt on very dangerous ground spiritually; but brutal experience has shown only too often to what fatal proportions that first little seed of doubt can grow, both in the life of the individual believer and in the faith of the church as a whole.
Moreover, in close connection with what we said above concerning the authority of the Word, it must be remembered that this “believing, without any doubt, all things contained therein” is a priori the position of the Christian. It is the beginning of the expression of faith, not the end. It is the Christian’s starting-point, not the end of a long process of investigation and argumentation. Tb be sure, this does not mean that the believer has no problems with anything whatsoever in the Scriptures. It does not mean that he at once understands all things. In this respect it always remains true that we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But it does indeed mean that the Christian’s approach is not that of doubt, and that he does not insist that first he must have all problems solved and must understand fully all things contained in the Scriptures, and that then only can and will he believe.
In this same connection we may say a few words about the distinction between historical and normative authority of Holy Writ. And, in the first place, we would sound a note of caution. If this distinction is employed in order to escape the absolute authority of the Scriptures, it must be discarded. If the intention is to deny the authority of Scripture with respect to things historical, but to maintain that authority with respect to things normative, that is, all things that have to do with faith and life, then this distinction is nothing but an arbitrary and sinful attempt to drive a wedge of dualism into the Scriptures. But if employed Scripturally, the distinction is sound, and it simply formulates a truth concerning Scripture which we all recognize at once. Let me employ an example that is often used. Job’s friends had a certain theory as to the explanation of Job’s sufferings. It was a corrupt theory. That entire theory of Job’s friends is recorded for us in the book of Job. That they held this theory is simply a fact of history which the Bible records for us faithfully. In regard to that fact the Bible has historical authority. But in recording the view of Job’s friends, Scripture also makes it plain that their view is to be condemned. Their theory has no positive, normative authority for our faith and life. The same is true of Pilate’s cynical, skeptical question, “What is truth?”That Pilate said this is the truth of Scripture; but whatPilate said is not the truth, but the lie. Never, therefore, may this distinction be used in order to justify the false doctrine that God’s Word is to be sought in the Scriptures, and that the so-called historical passages are not inspired while the normative portions are inspired.
Bearing all the above in mind, we may note that Article V sets forth a three-fold relation between faith and the Scriptures:
1) The Scriptures are for the regulation of faith. They are a divinely appointed canon, a rule. As such, they serve as a criterion to distinguish the truth from the lie, and thus serve as a guide for doctrine and life.
2) The Scriptures serve as the foundation of our faith. Scripture is the only ground on which the Christian faith is based, and that too, just exactly because it is God’s Word.
3) The Scriptures serve for the confirmation of our faith. By means of the Scriptures faith is nourished and strengthened. All that can ever nourish and strengthen faith is the Word of God Himself. And without the Scriptures, there is no Word of God—and, no faith.
I cannot refrain from applying the truth of this article for a moment. For us this article certainly contains a fact of spiritual life that needs repeated emphasis. If it be true that we receive these Scriptures “for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith,” let us live according to this article of faith. And that means that we and our children live close to the Word of God in our homes, in the midst of the church, and in our schools. We evince far too much disdain for the Scriptures frequently (as our lethargic, hit-and-miss society life plainly witnesses). And far too often, even in our homes, we give those Scriptures only a little passing notice. And only one thing can result from this: our faith must needs suffer and become weak. If we are a people whose confession is genuine, therefore, let us live and walk day by day and in every sphere of life by and from the infallible Word of God, the Scriptures.