The foundational issue in the Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century was the question of authority. Where was authoritative special revelation from God to be found upon earth?1 The Roman Catholic Church taught that there were two sources of special revelation: Scripture, and the tradition of the church. This church tradition had begun as oral traditions supposedly passed down to the church from the apostles. Eventually it came to mean anything that the church had declared, whether in its councils, its magisterium, or its pope (speaking ex cathedra). The Roman Catholic Church taught, then, a dual source for authority regarding matters of faith and life.2
Luther, and the rest of the Reformers following him, proclaimed instead that God’s special revelation was found in the Scriptures alone. Luther sparked the Reformation based on this conviction when he expressed it to the peril of his own life at the Diet of Worms. There Luther declared with famous words, “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.” Scripture is the authority for faith and life, Luther said, and if the church and her tradition contradict Scripture, then Scripture’s authority must rule the day.
This principle of sola scriptura became what is called the “formal” principle of the Reformation—Scripture alone would rule the faith and life of the Reformation church. This principle is encapsulated in the Reformation creeds, including the Belgic Confession of Faith written by Guido de Bres and officially adopted by the Dutch Reformed at the Synod of Dordt 1618-’19. In Article 7 the Confession begins, “We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God….” And then in the second paragraph of the same article: “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.”
The Scriptures alone are the ultimate authority for doctrine and life for the church and for the individual church member. They alone can ultimately bind the conscience. And if the teaching of an individual or the church is proven to contradict the teaching of the Word of God, the teaching of men must fail. In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, the authority of Scripture depended upon the authority of the church. In the teaching of the Reformation, the authority of the church depended upon the authority of Scripture.3The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone (Eph. 2:20). The responsibility of the church is to hold up that Word in all its power and clarity before the church and the world (I Tim 3:15).4
Because Scripture alone is the source of special revelation and is the ultimate rule for faith and life, the Belgic Confession teaches the sufficiency of Scripture. That teaching is found especially in the first paragraph of Article 7, where it declares that Scripture is sufficient because it contains three things: “the will of God, whatsoever a man ought to believe unto salvation, and the whole manner of worship.” God’s will, His commands for His creatures’ lives, is contained in this Word. The fact of the will of His decree is revealed in these Scriptures. The plan of salvation, even as that plan was unfolded in the history of Scripture itself, is contained therein. The way we are to worship God corporately, and in our whole life, is clearly revealed in the Word of God. There is no other authority necessary for faith and life.
However, the Scriptures do not exhaust the knowledge of God. God is beyond our comprehension. Yet, they contain the sufficient revelation we need at this point in the history of redemption, to live before the face of God and, by grace, to advance the kingdom.
That does not mean that the Scriptures are sufficient for everything we need to know about everything. They are not. The Scriptures are not sufficient to teach you how to paint your house. They will not tell you, in the end, which college to go to. They will, however, tell you that you ought not paint your house on Sunday. They will tell you that you need the means of grace while you are in college, and that you need to study in a place where you can live a Christian life. Their sufficiency is not in being a “magic eight ball” for every life decision. Their sufficiency is in leading God’s people in all of life regarding salvation and spiritual understanding.
When the Confession says the Scriptures are sufficient, it also does not mean that we must never go hear sermons, or read books about the Bible, or have creeds. The Confession is not promoting a Biblicist mentality, where it is just me and my Bible. It means that books, and writings, and even church services, are necessary and valuable, but only insofar as they are founded upon the Word of God. The Word is the ultimate authority regarding everything to which it speaks.5
The question now is why are the Scriptures aloneauthoritative and sufficient for doctrine and life? The answer the Confession gives is that these Scriptures are alone the inspired Word of God, whereas the councils of the church and the statements of popes are not.
In Article 3 the Belgic Confession states that not only the oral Word of God given to the prophets and apostles, but also the writing of that Word on the original pages of the books of the Bible, was a process inspired by God. The source of the words of Scripture is God’s own breath. As the Scriptures themselves testify concerning themselves, “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (II Peter 1:21); and “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” (II Tim. 3:16).6
While God used men to write the words He wanted to be written down to reveal Himself, there is not one word in all of Scripture that ultimately traces itself back to man. God took up, and sovereignly ordained, the personalities, experiences, and even sins, of the human writers so that exactly what He wanted to reveal would be written down in the exact form He desired. There is no mechanical inspiration advocated by the Confession, but the emphasis in Article 3 is certainly on the fact that even though the Scriptures are organically inspired, their source in every jot and tittle is the mind of God Himself. As surely as the source of the Ten Commandments written in stone by the finger of God is God alone, so the source of all Scripture as breathed by God onto the page through the minds of men is God alone. Therefore, the Scriptures alone are ultimately authoritative. And, therefore, the Scriptures alone are sufficient.
But there is one more question that must be answered. How do we know that these sixty-six books, the books contained in the Protestant Bible, are alone those God-breathed words? What about other books that claim to be authoritative? What about the apocryphal books of the Roman Catholic Church? What about the Book of Mormon, or the Koran? What about recently discovered documents such as the so-called gospels of Thomas and Judas? How do we know those are not inspired?
In Article 5 the Confession gives three ways by which we know and trust that the Protestant Bible is alone the inspired Word of God. The first way is by the objective witness contained in the Scriptures themselves. The Confession says that the books of the Bible carry the evidence in themselves that they alone are God-breathed. The Scriptures are self-authenticating. That means, first, that they explicitly testify concerning themselves that they are inspired, as we have already seen. But it means more than that. It means that just as the cell of a human body contains within it the evidence of a divine creator in its complexity and unity and purpose, so too the Word of God contains within it an imprint of divine origin.
One such internal evidence would be the diversity and yet unity found in the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible. Consider the great diversity among the books of the Bible. There are sixty-six books written from three separate continents, in cities, countryside, prison, palaces; written in three different languages: Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek; written in multiple genres of literature: history,7 law, poetry, proverb, prophecy, letter, vision; written by forty different authors, many from very different walks of life: fishermen, kings, peasants, poets, statesmen, herdsman, a military general, a cupbearer, a doctor, a tax collectorï¿½and all written over a period of 1,500 years.
And consider, then, the unity in the Scriptures amidst that diversity. There is one story covering the origin of the world to the end of the world, about one God, with one way of salvation centered in one man, who was God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, with everything before Him and after Him pointing to Him in the forms of types, symbols, prophecies; and with one clear purpose in all of that history: that God might bring one people together to Himself that He might have a bride for His Son, all to the praise of the glory of His grace. Such a unity amidst such great diversity is an imprint of the hand of God upon these sixty-six books.
Another evidence the Scriptures carry in themselves is mentioned explicitly by the Confession: the things foretold in them are fulfilling. Indeed, the Confession states that the very blind (the unregenerate) can see (they will not believe apart from grace, but they do see it if they study the Bible) that hundreds of prophecies in this book have been fulfilled—over 300 regarding Jesus Christ alone.
Other so-called holy books do not have this internal evidence. They do not have a unity around a divine and glorious message, beyond human invention. They do not have this record of specific prophecy and fulfillment. These sixty-six books are alone the Word of God.
Nonetheless, this objective witness of the Word of God is not enough to convince us of the authority of Scripture without the subjective internal witness of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit “witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God.” The Holy Spirit must work in a person’s heart and produce faith in the Holy Scriptures. But the Holy Spirit does not do this by zapping someone mysteriously, or by a person simply picking up the Bible and feeling something extraordinary as he holds it in his hands. But rather, as the Word is read and as one hears it proclaimed, the Holy Spirit testifies, in the hearts of the elect, that the Word is true. Therefore, as when Nathaniel was doubting Philip’s witness that Jesus was the Messiah, and Philip said to him, “Come and see,” we too, God’s people, will be convinced by the Spirit as we “come and see” the Word of God read and proclaimed. Finally, there is some place given to the testimony of the church in the authority of the Word of God. Here, the Confession is careful. Article 5 says the authority of these books is established, “not so much because the church receives them and approves them.” Rome taught, and still does teach, that the books of Scripture have authority only because she says so. Scripture derives its authority from her. The Belgic Confession declares the opposite. The Word stands alone, and the church derives its authority from the Word.8 But the fact that so many in the church of all ages have agreed concerning the objective and subjective witness of these books, and the fact that the Protestant church unanimously holds out these books alone, ought also to bring some substance to the claim that these sixty-six books are alone the Word of God.
This doctrine of Scripture was not abstract and theoretical for the Reformed churches, nor was it for Guido de Bres himself. Article 3 of the Confession contains a powerful pastoral statement regarding the inspired, infallible, authoritative, sufficient Word of God, namely, that the purpose for which God gave us this sure Word is for “a special care which He had for us and our salvation.” If we cannot trust this Word, there is no hope. If this Word depends upon the authority of a church made up of sinners for its authority, there is no comfort. Guido de Bres was hanged for his testimony concerning the authority of Scripture and the other doctrines of the Reformed faith. All the while he maintained a great faith in the promises of the Word he defended. How could he do so, except the Word that says, “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” traces itself back, not to the authority of men, but to the authority of the God to whom he entrusted his soul.
1 The Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed agreed that there were two sources of revelation: general and special. But they did not agree on how many sources of special revelation there were.
2 Later, at the Council of Trent, which was the Roman Catholic Church’s official response to the Reformation, Rome officially anathematized anyone who did not bind himself to this dual source of special revelation. See the “Decrees of the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent.”
3 The Roman Catholic Church also teaches that the hierarchy of the church can provide infallible divine guidance. Therefore the members are to have implicit faith in the church’s interpretation of Scripture. The Scriptures themselves, then, are not ultimately free to interpret themselves. For, if the Scriptures are shown to interpret themselves in a way contrary to the interpretation of the Roman Catholic magisterium, the church’s interpretation must simply be trusted.
4 The Confession does not teach, however, that the church has no authority. Article 7 says that we do not consider the writings of men or the decisions of the church to be of equal value with Scripture. The church and its teaching have authority in accordance with the Word of God. Also, a man may (and if he wants to stay in a particular communion, must) willingly submit himself even to rules and regulations in the church for the sake of unified practice, even if they are not explicitly taught in the Word of God. But in the end, the church’s authority is always subject to the authority of God’s Word. And a man’s conscience may not be ultimately bound, but by the Word of God alone.
5 This includes geology, history, biology, psychology, etc. insofar as the Bible speaks to those matters. The Bible, for example, is not a biology textbook, but it does speak to biology and it does have authority that guides us as we study biology.
6 For what to me is a convincing argument that the phrase “All scripture” here refers explicitly (not just by implication) not only to the OT books, but to NT books as well, see the NIGTC on the Pastoral Epistles written by George W. Knight III, pp. 447, 448.
7 Containing references to thousands of places, events, times, people, never once contradicted by archeological discovery.
8 The entire Belgic Confession reflects the faith set forth by John Calvin (indeed, the Belgic Confession is based on Calvin’s French Confession of 1559). Article 5 is a good example of this reflection of Calvin. Institutes 1.7.2: “It is utterly vain, then, to pretend that the power of judging Scripture so lies with the church that its certainty depends upon churchly assent. Thus, while the church receives and gives its seal of approval to the Scriptures, it does not thereby render authentic what is otherwise doubtful or controversial. But because the church recognizes Scripture to be the truth of its own God, as a pious duty it unhesitatingly venerates Scripture.”