With the penning of the last book of Holy Scriptures, the written record of the revelation of God was finished. The work of the Spirit of Christ by which “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” was brought to a close. God had given His church a complete and infallible Word to be the rule of faith and life. The Scriptures in all their beauty and power, as the revelation of God in Jesus Christ were given unto the church as her most precious heritage.
Our Lord in the Upper Room had promised His disciples that He would send unto them the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who would reveal unto them all things concerning Christ, and the wonder of God’s grace and salvation in Him. In John 16:13-15 we read,
Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth: for He shall not speak of Himself; but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall He speak: and He will shew you things to come. He shall glorify Me: for He shall receive of Mine, and shew it unto you. All things that the Father hath are Mine: therefore said I, that He shall take of Mine, and shall shew it unto you.
That promise He had fulfilled. He had declared unto them in John 14:26, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, Whom the Father will send in My name, He shall teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.” By the power of the Spirit poured out upon the church, Christ had directed the writing of the gospels, the letters and epistles of the apostles and had revealed unto the apostle John “things which must shortly come to pass.”
That Word of Christ, given by the Spirit of Christ unto the prophets in the old dispensation and unto the apostles in the new, forms one complete revelation of the living God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is the church’s richest treasure, the Word of God, her heritage of the truth as it is in Christ Jesus. It is an inexhaustible treasure of the gospel of our salvation, and the church shall never fully comprehend the height and depth of that revelation. For it is the revelation of the triune God, Who transcends all our thought, Whose greatness and glory are immeasurable.
That truth the church has always possessed, from the day when God revealed unto Adam the coming of One Who would crush the head of the serpent, even until now. Always the church has beheld the center of that truth and understood it in its essence as the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus. But age by age God added to that Word, shed new light upon the promise until its fulfillment in Christ and the closing of the New Testament Scriptures. Always the believing heart and mind of the child of God has reflected upon that Word of God and sought to appropriate its riches and to bring forth out of that Word things old and new.
With the close of the canon of the Scriptures, the history of doctrine properly begins. Until the completion of the Scriptures the development of doctrine was not fully possible, for God had yet more light to shed upon the promise. The whole of the truth recorded in Scripture was not yet given. Furthermore, in the old dispensation the Spirit had not yet been poured out upon the church, and God’s revelation was given in types and in shadows of the reality which was to come. That history of doctrine which is the subject matter of this department of the Standard Bearer is the history of the church’s struggle to appropriate the rich heritage of the Word of God.
The church has ever reflected upon that Word of God. She has sought to systematize the truth of that Word and to set forth in clarity its truths. This labor has given rise to the creeds and confessions of the church, in which the church gives authoritative expression to what she believes to be the truth of that Word. In that struggle to develop and give clear expression to the truth which is her heritage, she has been led by the Spirit of Christ which is the Spirit of truth. The promise of the Spirit of truth did not cease with the close of the Scriptures, for that Spirit abides in the church. He is the inward principle by which the church lays hold of the objective Word of God in the Scriptures, understands that Word and confesses it. For the Word of God is spiritual and must be spiritually discerned. The promise which Christ gave to His apostles, that the Spirit of truth would guide them into all the truth, is a promise unto the church of all ages.
That truth the apostles and the early New Testament church did not understand in all its fullness. As the prophets before them, the church of the new dispensation searched their own writings to understand the mind of the Spirit of Christ which spake by them. We must not so conceive of it, as if in the days of the apostles the whole of doctrine contained in the Scriptures was clearly understood in all its parts but then fell into darkness and ignorance. Such was not the case. The church indeed possessed the truth concerning Christ in its deepest essence, believed and appropriated it. By the apostles the foundation of the church was laid upon the cornerstone which is Jesus Christ. But that truth, under the leading and guiding impulse of the Spirit of Christ, had to be developed. Every age of the church has stood upon the shoulders of those who have gone before. Every generation builds upon the heritage of the truth which its forefathers were led to find in that Word of God. The early church set forth the great truths of the Trinity and of the person and natures of Christ. Upon that foundation was built the truth of sin and grace, and of God’s sovereign predestinating purpose by such church fathers as Augustine. In the Middle Ages the truth of the atonement was clearly developed by Anselm, the doctrine of the church by Wycliffe? Luther developed the truth of justification by faith. Calvin, the greatest of the reformers, systematized and enriched the truth in the light of the principle of the sovereignty of God. Upon the foundation of Calvin our forefathers at Dordt laid the foundations of Reformed doctrine and church government. We as Protestant Reformed people, have built upon that heritage of the truth.
Behind all the history of doctrine and its development stands the providence of God, leading and guiding His church into all the truth, ever and again driving His people to His Word to discover its riches and to discern ever more clearly the wonder of grace in Jesus Christ and the glory of our God.
That history has not always followed a straight path; there are twists and turns in it. The history of doctrine is the history of a sinful people whose sins and weaknesses have also marred their understanding of the Word of God. The church has often taken wrong turnings. The wisdom of men and the philosophy of the world has always stood alongside that development, tempting the church to depart from the straight path into error and heresy. In the providence of God wicked men have also arisen in the church, carnal men and false prophets who have sought to subvert the church and to mar the purity of her doctrine. This too was under the Lord’s hand, that by these means the church might be driven to defend the truth, to develop it over against the lie. The calling of the church in every age is to contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.
That calling is also our calling as the church of Jesus Christ. God has given us a rich heritage of the truth of His Word. That truth we are called to know and defend. We must teach it to our children, instructing them in that heritage that it might be committed unto the generations that follow us. It we are to be faithful to fulfill that calling, we must know our Reformed heritage, not only its doctrine, but also its history and development. That history is rich and varied, intimately bound to the struggle to maintain the truth over against the lie. That struggle we are called to carry on. That truth we also are called to develop and enrich as His people. We have not arrived. Our knowledge and understanding of the truth is greater than that of our fathers, but we have not yet attained unto perfect knowledge. We are confronted by new errors which arise in the church with which we must battle, errors which are not always new in themselves but are often old heresies, warmed over for a new age and presented in a new guise.
If we are to fulfill our calling, therefore, we must know and understand our heritage of the truth in its historical development. We must know also the history of the lie and the attacks upon that truth, the errors which the church in the past has made, that by so doing, we may discern the truth from the lie in the times in which God has placed us. To that end the study of the history of doctrine is a necessity for the church of the present. We are to see the leading of the Spirit of Christ in His church of the past, to know the men which He has used to develop that truth which is our heritage, that we might give thanks unto God also for His work in the church of the past. We must also take warning from the errors of the church in the past and her struggle for the truth, that we do not become complacent or indifferent. Rather we labor with the Word in the consciousness that the Spirit of Christ yet leads us into all truth.
Such a purpose and calling transcends the limits of one column in the Standard Bearer. It is the calling of the church, as a living organism in the midst of the world, to maintain, defend, and develop the truth in the life of the body of Christ. It is the purpose of this department, however, to sketch the history and development of doctrine in the church of the past, to trace the doctrines which we have received from our forefathers in their development. These sketches will not be exhaustive, for the history of the church is itself the history of the struggle for the truth of the Word of God. It is hoped that they will enrich our appreciation of the heritage of the truth which God has given us.