We have been concerning ourselves for some time in this column with the history of the doctrine of Scripture as a larger part of the history of doctrine. That study has now brought us to the threshold of the Reformation. It is to the doctrine of Scripture as developed and defined by the Reformation that we now turn our attention. We can well express our subject in these terms. The Reformed doctrine of Scripture developed by the Reformation was not the work of only one man or individual but was the work of the Reformation as a whole. Whether we turn to Luther or Calvin, to Zwingli or others of the Reformers, always there is an underlying unity of thought and agreement among them on this doctrine.
It is true that there were individual differences in the way the Reformers expressed themselves, or differences in the points which received emphasis among them. Nor did every Reformer see the doctrine of Scripture with the same clarity or insight. But the striking thing about the doctrine of Scripture held by the Reformers, from different countries, speaking different languages, and of varying backgrounds, is this, that they were united in one common view of Scripture as the Word of God and as the sole authority for the faith and life of the church. “Scripture alone” was truly the watchword of the Reformers.
This unity of thought and doctrine was not due to any one man or his labors. Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland both arrived at essentially the same view of Scripture independently and from very diverse backgrounds. In various ways and by various means, God led the Reformers to the Word of God and to Scripture’s own testimony concerning itself. In so doing, He led them also to sound principles of interpretation and of understanding that Word of God, principles which were not new, but had already been laid down in Scripture and developed in seed form by the early church. It is this which makes the Reformation truly a re-formation, a return to the doctrine and truth of the Word of God and a reforming of the church upon the foundation of Scripture.
In that return to Scripture the doctrine of Scripture taught in the Word of God itself was again set forth and developed. But it was now developed in clearer form than that achieved by either the early church or the forerunners, Wycliffe and Huss. Though they may have differed on other points, in the doctrine of Scripture the Reformers were essentially one. It was this doctrine which set them apart from the rationalism and unbelieving skepticism of the Renaissance and from the church of Rome, which set tradition alongside Scripture and placed the church’s authority over the Word of God. The Reformers were united concerning the one principle: “sola Scriptura,” or “Scripture alone” as the sole authority for faith and life, the foundation of doctrine and the church. From that principle they would not waver.
This means that in our study of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture we are confronted with a wealth of material to be drawn from the writings of the Reformers and from their history, for this one principle of “Scripture alone” was a matter of much controversy, not indeed among the Reformers themselves, but between them and their Romish opponents. It is to these controversies and the issues raised by them that we shall direct our attention in coming articles. They embrace such questions as, which books form the Word of God? from where does Scripture derive its authority? and does it have sole authority? Such questions also concerning how Scripture is to be interpreted, by whom, and by what means, confronted the Reformers. These questions are also today very much living questions in the Christian church at large, and it is important therefore that we know of them and of the answers to them. As we consider these questions we will see that on these matters the Reformers indeed speak with one voice.
One issue however deserves our attention from the outset. That issue may properly be called the non-issue of the Reformation. For indeed, in all their discussions, even with Rome, neither .Rome nor the Reformers had any disagreement upon one point, at least formally, and that was this, that the Bible was the authoritative, infallible, inerrant Word of God. Rome indeed disagreed with the Reformers’ definition of the nature and source of that authority, disagreed with the Reformers that Scripture had sole authority, setting beside it also what it conceived to be an infallible oral tradition received from the apostles. But that the Scriptures were the Word of God, possessed authority, and were moreover infallible and inerrant, was not an issue of the Reformation. It was confessed by the Reformers and by Rome, at least in principle. Rome indeed in its veneration of tradition denied in practice what it confessed formally, but nevertheless, that the Scriptures were the infallible and inerrant Word of God was never the issue.
The church of Rome, in its response and answer to the Reformation at the Council of Trent, 1546, in its fourth session, declares concerning Scripture that it “. . . receives and venerates with equal affection of piety and reverence, all the books both of the Old and New Testament—seeing that one God is the author of both—. . . .” While Rome added to the list of the Old and New Testaments the apocryphal books, yet the principle of divine authorship was never denied. Though Rome speaks of inspiration in mechanical terms of dictation, rather than the organic view held by the Reformers, which things we shall more fully consider, the Lord willing, yet, that the Bible was God’s Word, of divine authorship, infallible and inerrant, and of divine origin and inspiration was not an issue even between the Reformers and Rome. We will not find therefore that this issue, which is today a prominent one, is an issue which was much debated by the Reformers directly.
It is important that we understand this non-issue clearly. It is so often contended today that the Reformers, in their views of inspiration and Scripture, held a low view of these matters. Thus the Reformers are often claimed by those who today would deny divine inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy, as even advocating these modern-day opinions. The appearance of proof for this idea is given by selecting various statements of the Reformers which speak rather freely of the Word of God, the books of Scripture, their authorship and contents. This abuse of the Reformers’ writings is nothing more than a deliberate distortion of the facts of history and the Reformers’ views. The Reformers were free to use the language they did and in the form they did simply because these modern heresies had not yet arisen in the church. It is historical falsehood to read back now into the Reformers issue which they did not even consider at the time and which for them were never points of controversy. To pull, for example, as is so often done, offhanded comments of Luther from the notes and reminiscences of his students and friends (Luther’s Table Talks), and which were made while sitting at table, and then to present them as the authoritative view of the Reformer on the doctrine of Scripture is nothing more than the practice of deceit upon the ignorant. In like manner, imprecise statements of Calvin have been selected to show that he taught both Arminianism and the theory of common grace. Indeed, in such a manner one could make the Reformers teach nearly anything one wished.
The united testimony of the Reformers as a whole and of the Reformed creeds which they produced gives expression to one clear principle, that the Scriptures are the Word of God, of divine authorship, fully sufficient for faith and life, and to be received in all their parts as the Word of God, infallible and without error. The current departures from this truth in the churches of the Reformation and the denial of these things is simply not Reformed, but rather innovation and heresy. Nor is there any need for lengthy reports on these subjects in Reformed churches which hold to the three forms of unity, as has also been the case in recent years. Our Heidelberg Catechism, for example, states in Question and Answer 21, that true faith holds for truth “. . . all that God has revealed to us in. His Word” (emphasis added, TM), and that this belongs to the certain and assured knowledge of faith. Likewise our Belgic Confession of Faith in Article Three declares, “Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures,” and again in Article Five, “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, . . .” (emphasis added, TM). This is the Reformed view, the view of the Reformers under whose influence and. doctrine our creeds were written. He who teaches otherwise, or that church which teaches otherwise, or in its decisions manifests that it so teaches, has departed from the position of the Reformation and can no longer call itself Reformed or Lutheran. In the light of the fact that Scripture’s infallibility and inerrancy was a non-issue in the Reformation, even between the Reformers and Rome, but one of agreement, to deny this principle is to depart from the historic Christian faith; and, as our Catechism makes plain, it is a matter of unbelief, for it is not the expression of “true faith.”