In the return of the Reformation to the truth of God’s Word and the controversies with Rome, a central issue was the question of Scripture’s authority. Both Rome and the reformers were agreed that Scripture was the Word of God, infallible and inerrant, possessing authority. The issue, however, was what kind of authority did Scripture possess? What was the nature of that authority? And how was that authority to be understood and interpreted? These questions were all interrelated and are worth some careful attention. The first question which must be answered in this connection is this: what is the source of that authority? On this point the reformers and Rome disagreed. Both acknowledged that the Scriptures were of God; that itself was not the issue. But how and in what way was this understood to be true?
The church of Rome maintained the position that Scripture derived its authority as the Word of God from the church. There were several elements involved in this position, and they find their center in Rome’s need to maintain the authority of the church hierarchy, particularly the supreme authority of the papacy. To understand this we must see that the entire system of Rome was founded upon the principle of maintaining a system of external grace,physically bestowed by the sacraments, through avisible priesthood. The Romish system is founded upon the idea that grace is physically conferred. Thus, for example, Rome teaches that the water of baptism is not merely a sign and seal of grace, but that the water of baptism itself, the physical washing with water, actually washes away original sin. Likewise, they taught and teach that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper actually confers grace by the physical eating and drinking of the literal body of Christ.
This latter idea of the Lord’s Supper, transubstantiation, was combined with the idea that the administration of the Lord’s Supper, the mass, was itself ‘a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, though in an unbloody manner, and therefore required a visible priesthood. Moreover, as all who partook of the Lord’s Supper must, according to this view, be partakers of Christ by eating with the mouth, Rome also identified the church as the body of Christ,exclusively with the church institute in’ its visible form. All who were baptized were then objects of grace and were included in the church. To maintain such an idea they set aside the Biblical ideas of election and reprobation and the distinction between church visible and invisible, reducing the church to the visible institute. This meant also that all of salvation was conceived of in conditional and external terms. Sorrow for sin was reduced to outward acts of penance, holiness to outward acts of obedience and devotion by means of repeated prayers, pilgrimages, fastings, and such like. To be religious or spiritual, one entered the sacrament of marriage, while to advance to an even higher plane than that of the ordinary layman, one became a priest, monk, or nun and lived a life separate from the world. Works and participation in the sacraments became the means to merit and obtain grace, and without them one could fall from grace and be lost. It is in this context that the idea of purgatory also became necessary as a place in which, after death, one would pay the temporal penalty for sin, and as the place in which sanctification would be completed. With such a system, the idea of indulgences also made sense, namely that as a means to escape purgatory, one could buy grace with money, and thus receive the forgiveness of sins and enter heaven. The church made a lucrative business out of both the sacraments and indulgences.
To prop up this system a distinction was made between the people and the clergy, in which the clergy were seen as the dispensers of grace and the embodiment of the church institute. The pope stood at the head as the visible head of the church through the hierarchy, personally manifesting Christ’s headship over the church. The authority of God in Christ over His church did not reside therefore first of all in the Word of God, but in the clergy with the pope as the supreme authority; and the working of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth was restricted to the clergy alone.
When, therefore, the forerunners of the Reformation began to teach the principle of the church as the gathering of the elect, a spiritual body, to distinguish it from the church as visible and institute, the entire foundation of the Romish church was shaken. Likewise when Luther and the other reformers taught justification by faith and salvation by grace alone without works and began to attack the system of indulgences, they were in fact laying an ax to the root of the whole Romish system. When they began to assert the authority of the Word of God over the church and to stress the priesthood of believers, the entire foundation of the papacy was attacked and undermined.
Therein also lay the division between Rome and the reformers over the source of Scripture’s authority. Rome taught that ultimate authority resided in the clergy and the hierarchy. This authority, they maintained, was received from Christ by Peter and passed along by apostolic succession to those who, following Peter, occupied the office of bishop in Rome. It is in this succession of persons and in thevisible headship of Christ in the papacy that true divine authority was to be found. Along with this they maintained certain ideas concerning Scripture. First, they maintained that Scripture received its authority from the church, that is the clergy, since the clergy, as successors of the apostles, preceded the Scriptures in origin. The church was established first, they said, then Scripture was given to the church. The church’s authority therefore was first and above that of Scripture. Secondly, it was the church which had the right to determine and had determined which books were to be received as Scripture. Scripture therefore possessed its authority because the church gave it that authority when it gathered and collected the books which make up the New Testament. More over, it was the church institute which had preserved the Word of God through the centuries by copying it, translating it, and declaring its interpretation and meaning. According to Rome, therefore, Scripture received its authority as the Word of God from the church. This in effect made the Scriptures dependent upon the church and not the church upon the Scriptures.
This position could not stand, for it was contrary to Scripture itself. Scripture plainly teaches that Christ is the only head of the church. The apostles were but instruments by which Christ gave His Word, and it was upon the authority of that Word of Christ, and by the guidance of His Spirit that the foundation of the church was laid. The Word of God set down in Scripture is not a different Word of God from that given by Christ and preached by the apostles, but the same Word. Nor does Scripture teach an apostolic succession of the authority and office of the apostles or of Peter. The church is not built upon their authority, but upon their doctrine, set down in the Word of God. Rome had based its claim for the position of Peter upon the word of Christ, “Thou art Peter and upon this rock will I build my church” (Matthew 16:18). But this theory also the reformers demolished as an unscriptural perversion of the passage. In the context of Matthew 16:18, it is not Peter, but Peter’s confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” which is the rock upon which Christ would build His church (Matthew 16:16). Moreover, the reformers saw that Scripture taught a priesthood of believers and an anointing of all believers with the Spirit. Thus the work of the Spirit could not be limited to only a few but was to be found in the whole church.
Concerning the church’s authority to determine which books belonged to the Word of God and formed the New Testament, the reformers repudiated the idea that this was done upon the church’s authority, and ascribed it rather to the working of the Spirit in the church, whose testimony in the hearts of God’s people led the church to recognize His Word and also to preserve and keep it. Thus Luther writes in his address to the German nobility,
The second wall is even more tottering and weak; the claim, namely, that they alone are masters of the Scriptures; although they learn nothing from them during their entire life, they assume authority, and juggle before us impudent words, saying that the Pope cannot err in matters of faith, whether he be evil or good . . . . They cannot quote a single letter to confirm that it is for the Pope alone to interpret the Scriptures or to confirm the interpretation of them; they have assumed the authority of their own selves . . . .
Likewise Zwingli, the German Swiss reformer, in his Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523 writes in the first of them, “All who say that the Gospel is invalid without the confirmation of the Church err and slander God.”
Over against the error of Rome the reformers set two principles as the basis of the source of Scripture’s authority. First, that the Scriptures as given by God through the inspiration of the Spirit of Christ as the Spirit of truth, themselves bear objective testimony to the fact that they are the authoritative Word of God and of divine and not human origin. This is Scripture’s own claim (II Peter 1:19ff.). Scripture therefore has its authority objectively of itself. Secondly, Scripture also presses this claim upon the hearts of God’s people by the internal working of the Spirit. Thus the Holy Spirit Himself testifies in our hearts subjectively that they are of God. It is this same truth also which we as reformed people confess in Articles III, V, and VII of the Belgic Confession of Faith, and particularly in Article V. While the truth that the church receives that Word as the Word of God is not to be ignored, it is the objective testimony of the Scriptures and the inner testimony of the Spirit which leads us to confess their authority. That authority therefore finds its source in God alone, Who gives His Word to His church, and the church has no authority apart from it, but is in subjection to that Word.