Rev. Kamps is pastor of the Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
Its Absolute Authority
It hardly seems necessary, for members of our Protestant Reformed Churches, to write on the authority of Scripture. We have always enjoyed, as a denomination of Reformed churches, a united commitment to this fundamental understanding of God’s Word. It is impossible to find in any of our ministers’ writings, of past and present, or in any of our ecclesiastical decisions throughout all the years of our existence, any questioning of the sole authority of the Bible. This is truly an evidence of the blessing and care of Christ Jesus for us as His church. This failure on our part to attack or even question the authority of Scripture is not due to the fact that we have not been exposed to the writings and urging of others who would show us a better way. The opposite has been true. Outside of our churches the church of Jesus Christ has been constantly engaged in a battle over the Bible, its authority, its inerrancy, and its infallible inspiration. We have consciously rejected every attempt from without to undermine our heartfelt trust in the Scriptures as the Word of God.
Our faith in the sole and absolute authority of the Bible is to be attributed exclusively to the grace and goodness of God to us. Let us not lift our heads in pride and boast of our strength, for we, as any other body of churches, are ever inclined to reject the Word of God. Unbelief lurks in the breast of every saint. But let us lift our voices in thanksgiving to our heavenly Father, who has preserved us in the faith by His irresistible grace.
Let us be aware that the doctrine of the authority of Scripture is most fundamental to the Christian faith. This is true, of course, from a formal viewpoint. Certainly the doctrines of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ Jesus, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit, from a material viewpoint are above all fundamental. But from a formal viewpoint the authority of Scripture as the Word of God takes first place. The reason is obvious. We would have no knowledge of God as our Savior and Redeemer by His Son in our flesh if the Scriptures were without authority. All Christian doctrine has its basis in God’s Word. It ought to be plain to any thinking man that, should he lose confidence in the Bible as the Word of God, he then would have no basis whatsoever for any doctrine of the Christian faith. Without the foundational doctrine, from a formal viewpoint, of the absolute authority of Scripture, the whole structure of Christian doctrine falls into a heap. Therefore, when in the individual church or denomination men deny and attack the sole authority of Scripture, they are attacking Calvary itself. They do violence to God and His Christ.
Reformed believers make a beautiful confession in regard to the authority of Scriptures. I call your attention to the fifth article of our Belgic Confession: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts, that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are fulfilling.”
The above confession was based upon the Scriptures’ own testimony concerning themselves. This is an important and often overlooked principle. The Bible claims for itself this sole authority. The church does not impose upon Scripture a. duty and responsibility which it is unwilling to bear. The opposite is true: the Bible demands of the church and of the individual believer that it rule the faith and life of the church. The Scriptures claim for themselves the supreme, no, the exclusive, honor and position of Master over all. Not the human mind or reason is lord; not the church is lord; not the learned doctors of theology and philosophy are the lords. The Bible alone is Lord and Master in all matters of faith and life. In addition, the Bible has, under the blessing of the Spirit of the exalted Christ, fulfilled this position and responsibility of absolute Master in the life of the church most effectively and beautifully. Not one saint given to Christ from all eternity has been lost. Through the means of the Scriptures the saints have been kept from the wiles of the Devil and from perdition through unbelief. The Bible is Lord and Master! And it is such because it is the very Word of God! We believe that all is well when and where the Scriptures rule alone.
What in fact does the Bible say of its own authority? Jesus, when He was tempted by the Devil, answered him with these words: “It is written” (Matt. 4). Jesus thus appealed to the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. The Scriptures were His Master for they were the Word of His God. Jesus unquestioningly submitted to the Word. When the fearful reality of the shame and suffering on the cross stood before the Lord, did He then reject the authority of the Word of God? No, but He confessed, “Thy will be done.” Paul tells us what was the Lord’s confession in that moment: “Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me…Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God” (Heb. 10:5, 7). Besides, the whole of Psalm 119 is a song of praise to God in regard to the beauty, saving power, goodness, and authority of the Scriptures. In addition, we may be reminded of those classic passages II Timothy 3:16, 17; II Peter 1:16-21; and Revelation 22:18, 19. But I would also call your attention to the instruction Jesus gave indirectly to the authority of Scripture, when He sent out the disciples to preach the gospel to the lost sheep of Israel: “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me; and hethat despiseth me despiseth him that sent me” (Luke 10:16). And, in Matthew 10:40 we read, “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me.” I believe that no more comforting words could ever be spoken to a preacher of God’s Word. The disciples were sent out to preach the gospel that in Jesus of Nazareth all the Old Testament promises were fulfilled. That Word is so authoritative for faith and life that he that believed and received the preacher believed and received God. The converse was and is true for unbelievers.
Men today though they claim faith in Christ Jesus and demand of us that we receive them as brethren, refuse to confess with us that the Bible is in its entirety the Word of God. Some reject the historicity of Adam and Eve and of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. For them this portion of Scripture is myth. Be sure, they assure us, it has gospel value; but what it records really never happened. Others claim that revelation is a dynamic reality, not to be considered something “static” and limited to the pages of a book, not even The Book. The Bible, they claim, is the word of men, of the ancient Hebrew people. It is, therefore, only the ancient church’s response to the Word. The Word of God is not written. It does not have an objective, tangible form. We are not to equate the Bible with God’s Word. They assure us too that they believe in Jesus and have faith in God. But God’s Word is something we encounter subjectively. This “Word” of God one cannot just pick up and read. The church and believers must ever recognize that that “Word of God” is different for every culture and age. Others, in the same vein of thought, boast and rejoice in the movement of the Spirit of Christ, His leading and guiding of the church, even then when the Bible is contradicted by their and the church’s pronouncements and decisions.
What a blessing for God’s people it would be if Christian discipline could be exercised in the churches of our land and throughout the world. But all too often the particular churches have lost the spiritual strength to discipline those who rend and pervert God’s Holy Word.
It should not escape us that our confession of the sole authority of God’s Word, the Bible, is of utmost significance for us as Protestant Reformed Churches and as individual believers. Our Reformed Creeds have a subordinate and only formal authority in the life of the churches. They may never have supreme authority. Sometimes it is said that we are to preach God’s Word in the light of the Heidelberg Catechism. Those who speak thus do not know what they are saying. It must be just the other way around. In addition, how could there be in the church a “creedal consciousness” unless it be that we believe that the Scriptures demand of us a definite and exclusive confession of our faith. The authority of the Scriptures demands confession of the truth. This conscious awareness of the authority of Scripture will not allow us to tolerate the lie and the perversion of God’s Word. But where the authority of God’s Word is no longer operative in the congregation, one can believe and teach whatever he pleases.
Besides, it is the authority of Scripture as our living confession that motivates the church to provide a trained ministry, insists upon exegetical preaching in the pulpit on the Lord’s day, and thus moves the preacher of the Word to declare uncompromisingly, “Thus saith the Lord.” Good, lively preaching cannot be found where men have undermined the authority of the Bible. It is spiritually and psychologically impossible. Where the authority of the Bible is denied, all that the people can get is one “preacher” after another who offers his suggestions and opinions to the people for their consideration and reflection. The preaching then has lost its power.
What made the Reformers of the church, Calvin and Luther, great men of God? Their deep and profound conviction of the sole and absolute authority of God’s Word. That this is true, a thousand different writers give testimony to the fact. What has made the Reformed church a powerful witness to the gospel in ages gone by? Preaching that was permeated with and arose out of a commitment to the sole authority of the Bible. What then must we say for the future, for our children and grandchildren and for the church in coming generations? Let the children be taught the Reformed doctrine of Scripture. Let their catechism and Christian school training ring with the authority of the Scriptures. And believe, dear saints, that God will bless that instruction to your children and grandchildren.
The doctrine of the authority of Scripture must not be left simply in the realm of theory. Far too often this is done, it would seem. The authority of Scripture must have a concrete and definite application in the individual believer’s life and in the corporate life of the churches. Especially in our day of lawlessness and fierce individualism is this above all necessary. Elders must not let their pastor go to the pulpit to preach the authoritative Word of God while they themselves as officebearers are unwilling to enforce the authority of the Word in the congregation’s life. Then the minister in effect has no consistory. If the elders will not discipline for public violation of God’s Word, sinful lifestyle, neglect of the means of grace, rebellion against the State, and whatever else may call for discipline, they in effect undermine the authority of the Bible in the life of the congregation. Let all heartily acknowledge that the authority of the Scriptures demands the exercise of Christian discipline in the church of Jesus Christ.
If the doctrine of the sole authority of Scripture is not upheld concretely in the Reformed church by the exercise of Christian discipline, then that church must join those who debate ceaselessly the theory of the authority of the Bible. If we would fail to exercise the authority of the Bible, we would lose its power. Only by a constant and concrete application of the authority of Scripture can we silence those who will not acknowledge its sole authority and right to rule in all matters of faith and life.