We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For, since the whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. For, since it is forbidden, to add unto or take away anything from the word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear, that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. 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, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject 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.
This article is the last in our Confession concerning the doctrine of Holy Scripture, and it constitutes at the same time a very fitting climax and conclusion of our faith concerning the Word of God. It is not difficult to discern that for the church in the days when our Confession was composed this was a life-and-death matter. Every expression breathes this. It is very evident that for our Reformed forebears the very existence and confession of the church was bound up in this doctrine of the Word of God. The church must and does live by the Word. For the Word of God is the only infallible rule of faith and life. Such was the very principle of the Reformation. And it was a living principle. It lived in the hearts and in the consciousness of the Reformed believers. It throbbed and vibrated in the whole confession and the entire life and practice of the church. No mere academic question was this question of the Scriptures. Not from lofty heights of rationalistic wisdom and scientific conceit did our fathers approach this matter, but in simple faith. And therefore the language of this article is precise and unequivocal. It is not the language of those who are so ashamed—or so fearful—of assuming a definite and distinct stance that they must follow devious paths of compromise, compose long statements designed to bring together irreconcilably conflicting views, and seek refuge in purposely vague and obscure expressions concerning “peripheral matters.” It is the language of those who were fighting for the very life of the church, fighting for the cause of the truth. It is the language of holy intolerance. It leaves no room for doubt. It budges not a hair-breadth. It insists in language that all can under understand: the Word of God is the touchstone of the entire confession and life of the church. And that Word of God is the only infallible rule of faith and life.
The doctrine set forth in Article VII is called the doctrine of the “sufficiency of Holy Scripture.” Briefly, this means, as the term implies, that the Holy Scriptures are sufficient for the church for our faith and our life. The Scriptures contain all that we need. Nothing more can be said, and nothing more need be said, than what the Scriptures say. Implied in this truth of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, and also implied in all that Article VII has to say on the subject, is the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, that is, the truth that these Scriptures, which contain fully all that is necessary for faith and practice, are clear, lucid, understandable to any believer, so that any child of God can discern Scripture’s infallible rule and apply it. It is not necessary whatsoever that anyone or any body should come between the believer and those Scriptures. All God’s children may and must read and understand the Scriptures for themselves and put the spirits to the test of the infallible rule of the Word of God, receiving what is in harmony with this rule, and rejecting whatever does not agree with this rule.
To these two important subjects, then, we must give our attention.
The Battle For This Truth
It is very evident, of course, that a certain definite, historical situation and struggle gave rise to the language of this article. And that situation was that of the Reformation, when believers were called to choose position over against Rome and its hierarchical imposition of false doctrines and corrupt practices upon the church. This is the reason for the sharp statements of a negative character in Article VII. The Confession has Rome in mind when it states: “For, since the whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures.” The specific point here is that if it is unlawful for an apostle to teach anything contrary to the Holy Scriptures (or for an angel from heaven, as the next statement of the article has it), then it is certainly unlawful for the Romish Church and for the pope, though he claims to be the successor of Peter. The same is true of the following statement: “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.” Here again the Confession strikes at the position of Rome. By writings of holy men are meant the church fathers, to whom Rome appeals for authority: The Reformed believer maintains that we may study their writings and their views, and may trace the history of doctrine; and the Reformed believer will have a healthy historical sense, and will not divorce himself from the church and the faith of the church in the past. But he maintains that no writings of the fathers have any value next to, equal to, and above Holy Scripture. Also the fathers (whether they be the ancient fathers, like Augustine, Jerome, Tertullian, Irenaeus, etc., or whether they be our Reformed fathers, like Calvin, Beza, Ursinus, etc.) must pass the acid test of Scripture before we may accept anything they write. Thus, similarly, Rome will appeal to custom (what has always been taught and done in the church), to the great multitude (the majority, or the consensus of the church, or what the vast multitude of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church has always maintained over against the small minority of dissenters), or to antiquity (what has from ancient times been taught by the church—and Rome boasts of a history of many centuries), or to succession of times and persons (a reference to the pope who claims to be Peter’s successor), or to councils, decrees, or statutes (another favorite authority with Rome; and it is not impossible that the reference here is specifically to the Council of Trent and its “Canons and Decrees,” which spearheaded the so-called counter-Reformation).
Now our Reformation forebears saw clearly the truth expressed in this seventh article of the Belgic Confession, and they saw that the violation of this fundamental principle lay ultimately at the root of all Rome’s errors. On the one hand they saw that Rome violated the principle of the Christian’s freedom of conscience under the Word of God. Rome would deny the office of believers and treat the church, the body of believers, as a minor child, that must be under tutors and governors. It took the position of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, “This people that knoweth not the law is accursed.” And on the other hand, they saw that. this self enthroned hierarchy of the Romish Church itself refused to be bound by any authority whatsoever, but simply assumed to itself the prerogative of declaring what would be authoritative and what would not. In other words, the hierarchy, namely, the pope, elevated itself and its authority above the Word of God. Hence, the pope could say that the teachings of the Word of God were authoritative, or he could say that the decrees of councils were authoritative (whether or not they agreed with the Word of God), or he could maintain the authority of traditions (again, even if those traditions militated against the Scriptures). The church (the pope) with supreme authority declared what was the will of God. And the Reformation maintained that only God can declare His own will for His people, and that therefore the Word of God, the Scriptures, are the supreme authority in the church. This is sometimes called the “formal principle” of the Reformation—a rather cold designation for so important a matter. But this was the nub of the whole Reformation ultimately. It was not that the Reformers opposed authority in the church. It was not that they did not want any binding pronouncements in the church. But they insisted that the only authority that could bind the conscience of the Christian is the authority of Holy Scripture itself. And if the pronouncements of pope or of councils, the teachings of the church fathers and the traditions of the ancients could not pass the acid test of the Word of God, no believer was bound by them, and no institute had the right to attempt such binding.
Rome, of course, will attempt to deny this and to make its own false position obscure, in order to deceive the people. Especially since the possession of the Scriptures became possible for the common layman, and especially in those sectors where there is sufficient learning to read the Scriptures, the impression must be left that the authority of the Scriptures is acknowledged. But this is a false impression. And the position of Rome on this matter is the same today as it was in the Reformation era. In fact, this dogma of the infallibility of the pope (when he speaks ex-cathedra) has been elevated to official doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church.
That this is Rome’s position is easily proved. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1546-1563) not only abound with appeals to the authority of councils, the consent of the holy fathers, custom, and tradition (especially, of course, when it comes to dogmas that are entirely foreign to Scripture), but in the Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures this Council of Trent expressly elevates unwritten traditions to a position of equal authority with the Scriptures. We quote this Decree of the Fourth Session in part: “. . . and seeing clearly that this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand: (the Synod) following the examples of the orthodox Fathers, receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety and reverence, all the books both of the Old and of the New Testament-seeing that one God is the author of both—as also the said traditions, as well those appertaining to faith as to morals, as having been dictated, either by Christ’s own word of mouth, or by the Holy Ghost, and preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.” (italics mine, H.C.H.)
And as to the infallibility of the pope, we quote from Chapter IV of the First Dogmatic Constitution On The Church of Christ (Vatican Council, 1570): “Therefore faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Saviour, the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and the salvation of Christian people, the sacred Council approving, we teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex-cathedra, that is, when in discharge of the office of pastor and doctor of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed for defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.”