The Incomparable Value of Scripture
Our Confession now draws a conclusion in connection with this doctrine of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture. That conclusion is in the form of a very practical statement of faith. It is presented as follows: “Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God . . .”
We have already noted in our remarks concerning the battle for this truth that our Reformed fathers had in mind particularly the position of the Roman Catholic Church when they mention the various elements which they do not consider of equal value with Holy Scripture. In the concrete, historical situation in which faith found itself at the time our Confession was composed those were the issues. Faith had to take a position on those issues. Faith is not concerned with some merely theoretical propositions. It never is. Faith is a matter of life, of living; and therefore, it always faces issues. If you would answer the question, “What do you believe?” you must needs make a choice and answer also the question, “What do you not believe?” Moreover, when you answer these questions, you must also act upon your answers, follow them up in actual life. When you say, “I believe the doctrine of the sole sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures as the only rule of faith,” you will be faced concretely with the opinions and writings of men, even of saints; you will be confronted by custom, by public opinion, by the decision of the half-plus-one, by tradition and by ancient practice, by a claimed apostolic succession and authority; it will be demanded of you to bow before the decrees and statutes of ecclesiastical councils. And you will be compelled to make a choice, even as our fathers did, and that too, sometimes at the risk of their very lives. You must express yourself. You will be asked: do you acknowledge and will you bow before the authority of all these? And the answer, the practical, concrete, down-to-earth, answer of faith is: “Neither do we consider of equal value with those divine Scriptures” anything else. Such is life, the life of the Christian!
Times change. But faith does not change. And the concrete problems with which faith is confronted may change. But the basic issues remain the same. Still the position of faith is: “I believe the doctrine of the sole sufficiency of the Scriptures.” And still you are confronted by a choice of faith in your everyday, concrete life as a church-member who professes the Reformed faith. You are confronted with such a concrete situation every time your minister takes his place at the pulpit on the sabbath and you occupy the pew and listen to his sermon. You are expected to believe what is preached, to bow before the authority of that sermon, to do what is enjoined upon you from the pulpit. But why? Is it because your minister is an educated man, and might probably overwhelm you with his learning if you should venture to disagree with him? Is it because he has all the fathers on his side, and can cite an Augustine and a Luther and a Calvin and a Kuyper and Bavinck to support him? The sole question is: did he preach the Word of God? If he did you have no choice but to bow. If he did not, you may never bow, even though you should be cast out of the synagogue, should lose your ecclesiastical status, or should forfeit your life. Your consistory, or your classis, or your synod makes a decision, a “decree.” No one seems to discern any wrong in it. No one raises his voice in protest. That is, the great multitude lend their authority to that decree. But you are convinced before the face of God that said decree militates against the Word of God. What must you do? Will you bow, or will you protest? Your faith says: “Scripture is solely sufficient, and I consider nothing else of equal value with those divine Scriptures.” And if you take that faith seriously, you will never bow before any other claimed authority.
Or have you never considered what imps of unbelief lurk in such expressions as, “My church takes the position that . . .” Or: “Our leaders say . . . And they are educated men; they ought to know.” Or: “Synod has decided . . .” Or again: “I agree with the position of the Protestant Reformed Churches. I believe they have the truth and that their preaching is according to the Scriptures. But . . . they are so small. . . . I hate all that trouble and fighting. . . . I can’t see that these things are so important.” Or yet again: “It’s no use to protest; you won’t get any place anyway.” Or still another familiar refrain: “We mustn’t have a split; we must keep peace.” Have you never considered what a denial of the faith is really implicit when one allows such considerations to determine his course of inaction? Have you never considered that if such had been the position of our Reformed fathers, you would never find this seventh article in our Confession? Have you never stopped to consider that if such considerations had motivated certain men in the 16th century there would never have been a Reformation, and we would have no Reformed fathers, but would still be in the Roman Catholic Church?
Positively speaking, therefore, the Reformed faith holds that Holy Scripture occupies an altogether unique place in the church. This unique place is due to the fact that the Scriptures alone are sufficient. They fully contain the will of God. This does not mean that Scripture merely occupies the highest place. Scripture is unique. All else is of authority only in so far as it derives its authority from and is based upon Scripture.
This also clarifies at once the position of the Reformed believer with respect to the various “authorities” mentioned in. this article. We certainly do not throw out the writings of holy men. We like to consult the fathers. We need commentaries. We want our dogmatical writings, in which the truth is systematically set forth. We are, and ought to be, a people that respect custom and precedent. We are not unmindful of the consensus of the church in the past. We do not individualistically despise the decisions and decrees of church councils. We do not cast but our creeds and confessions. But we hold that Scripture occupies the controlling place. Even our confessions are subordinate to the Scriptures and are of value only in so far as they meet the test of Holy Scripture.
Practically speaking, we must remember, however, that this very principle of faith implies a heavy responsibility for the believer. He does not individualistically judge that something is not according to the Scriptures and then go his own way. It is his calling, if he is convinced that his church is not walking the Scripture-ordained way, to make the utmost effort to convince them. This holds true both with respect to the confessions themselves and with respect to all the official actions and decisions of the church. When a church departs from the Word of God, that is a very serious matter. And no believer can in good conscience keep silence or simply go his individual way and let his fellow believers proceed unhindered and unwarned in that unscriptural way. Only when the way of protest has been seriously followed to the very end, and when the way for further objection appears closed, only then do the believers resort to the course of reformation by way of separation. This is the church political application of the principles laid down in Article VII of our Confession. And this is the rule of Article 31 of our Church Order.
Notice, too, that our Confession furnishes a very fundamental reason for the position which it takes. We read: “for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself.” In this connection we may note, in the first place, that our Confession simply equates the Scriptures and the truth of God. They are the same. This is plain from the fact that in the preceding statement, concerning the incomparable value of Scripture, our Confession uses the terms interchangeably. One the one hand, we read: “Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures.” In the second half of that statement, on the other hand, we read: “nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God.” In the second place, we should note that our Confession maintains that the Scriptures art the sole source of the truth of God. For it adds the negative statement: “for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself.” In other words, no man of himself can ever write or speak the truth. He always lies. If a man would speak the truth, he must receive it from God Himself; that is, from the Holy Scriptures.
But from a practical, spiritual point of view, notice to what a high plane our Confession lifts us here. “The truth is above all.” What a foreign note this is in our modern religious world! The truth? That really does riot count at all! Unity counts for something. And ecclesiastical peace is valuable. And for these we must not be too insistent upon truth. We can give and take a little on that score. And we ought to be tolerant over against the views of others. Such is the modern spirit. And the Reformed community is by no means free of this cancerous disease. And many a Reformed church member admittedly sacrifices the truth, that truth that is “above all,” for his own, personal, selfish reasons. Our own Prot. ‘Ref. communion has again recently witnessed the spectacle of members who by their own admission forsook churches who have that truth that is “above all.” They said, “I know the Protestant Reformed Churches have the truth, but . . .” Yes . . . but: the fact remains that it is Reformed to believe that the truth is above all! That means that there are no legitimate reasons for forsaking the truth. That means that the Reformed believer is filled with a warm devotion to the truth, a fiery zeal for the truth, a readiness to defend and to fight for the truth. That truth, the truth of Scripture, rules. It dominates all,—our confession, our speech, our walk, our preaching and teaching, our mission work, our worship and liturgy; our polity, our government, our discipline. By all means, we must have the truth! For the love of God’s sake, we must have the truth!
Such is our Reformed faith.
This Infallible Rule
In the foregoing we have already treated the thought of our Confession that Scripture is the sole criterion, the sole standard of judgment, according to which all that is written and developed and taught in the church must be judged. We may point out in this connection, however, that our Confession very solemnly accentuates the negative, and that it places this confession in the mouth of the believers personally: “Therefore, we reject (we: not just our church, our ministers, our synod, etc.; but we, believers) with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine receive him not into your house.” Faith, therefore, is in its very nature a rejecting faith as well as an accepting faith.
But we call special attention to this particular statement of our Confession because of the reference to “this infallible rule.” And we do so because in the recent controversy in the Christian Reformed Church there was debate about this reference. The question is: does the phrase “this infallible rule” refer to the whole of Scripture as infallible? Then, of course, you have a clear statement of our Confession that Scripture is infallible. Or does the phrase refer to the two statements from the epistles of John which follow, so that it merely means that those two statements constitute an infallible rule? Those who tend to deny the infallibility of Scripture maintain the latter interpretation; those who maintain that our Confession teaches that Scripture is infallible hold to the former position.
Concerning this question we may note the following:
1) First of all, the truth of the infallibility of Scripture does not stand or fall in our Confession on the basis of this one point. Even if the Confession did not use the term infallible at all, the fact remains that the doctrine of infallible inspiration is plainly taught.
2) In the second place, even if the weaker of the two interpretations is followed, the fact remains that here too the idea of infallibility is implicit. If the one rule of the apostles, “Try the spirits, whether they are of God,” is an infallible rule, then by implication the whole of the apostles’ teachings and the whole of Scripture is infallible.
3) In the third place, linguistically there can scarcely be any question as to the meaning. In our English translation the use of the pronoun “which” might leave the impression that the article is speaking of an infallible rule which the apostles have taught us, and that this infallible rule is then quoted in the two texts from I John 4:1 and II John 10. Neither in the French nor in the Dutch translation, however, does the relative pronoun “which” appear. It would be much more proper to read here: “Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, ns the apostles have taught us, saying . . .” Or: “as we learn from the apostles . . .” Then the meaning is clear. There is an infallible rule, norm, canon. That infallible rule is the divine Scriptures. The apostles have taught us to reject whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule. And this we do. This is in accord with the French original, which reads: “C’est pourquoi nous rejetons de tout notre coeur tout ce qui ne s’accorde a cette regle infaillible, comme nous sommes enseignes de faire par les Apotres, disant . . .” It is also in harmony with the adopted Dutch rendering: “Daarom verwerpen wij van ganscher harte al wat met dezen onfeilbaren regel niet overeenkomt, gelijk ons de apostelen geleerd hebben, zeggende . . . .”
This marks the end of the doctrine of Holy Scripture in our Belgic Confession. From the extensive treatment of this doctrine in our Reformed Confession we certainly learn one fact, namely: it is Reformed to hold the Scriptures in extremely high regard, to accord those Scriptures an altogether unique place. They constitute the very foundation of the whole structure of the Reformed faith. If that foundation is weak and untrustworthy, the whole structure of the truth is endangered. The most crucial error the church can make is to tamper with the infallibility of the Scriptures, the foundation of the truth. This was the position of our fathers.
Let the church today listen to the voice of our fathers.