The Reformed doctrine of the exclusive authority of Scripture as the only and all-sufficient rule of faith and life stood at the heart of the reformers’ controversy with Rome. This truth Rome denied and continues to deny. This principle, along with the truth of justification by faith, formed the key doctrinal dispute by which the reformers stood or fell.
Rome, as we saw in the previous article, maintained that Scripture derived its authority from the church, set forth in the visible institute, centering in the clergy and the papacy. The church, that is the clergy of the church, were considered the successors of the apostles, and it is this succession of apostolic authority receiving the books of Scripture which also gave to Scripture its authority. Moreover, limiting the activity of the Spirit of truth to the clergy as the “teaching church,” Rome also removed the Word of God from the hands of the people. In the light of this position, Rome denied to Scripture its sole and exclusive authority in the church.
Over against this false view, the reformers maintained that the source of Scripture’s authority was to be found in Christ, Who gave His Word to the church by the apostles. To the reformers, therefore, Scripture as God’s Word possessed divine authority in itself, and was itself truth and the sole standard of truth. That word necessarily stood above every word of man or tradition of men, and indeed above the apostles themselves. This principle they found in the Word of God itself. Thus our Belgic Confession of Faith, when it speaks concerning this in Article VII, quotes Galatians 1:8, “But though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” To come therefore preaching any other gospel than the gospel of Christ is to pervert it (Galatians 1:7). Since, as the reformers reasoned, that gospel is set down in Scripture according to Scripture’s own claim and testimony, every tradition and word of men must be tried by its standard. The apostle himself says that if he himself were to preach anything different, it was not to be received.
In the same light the reformers maintained that the Spirit of truth was not limited to the clergy alone, but was given unto the whole church. This internal and subjective principle of the source of Scripture’s authority was rooted in the truth of the priesthood of all believers. Upon this principle of the believers’ spiritual anointing to know and understand God’s Word, the reformers restored the right and privilege of the people of God to interpret and understand God’s Word themselves. Not only therefore did Scripture have sole authority over the church, but the ordinary believer could understand that Word and could test and prove all things in the light of that Word for himself. If any came teaching another gospel, not only might he reject it, but he must reject it, according to the very calling of his anointing set forth in I John 4:1, “Try the spirits whether they are of God . . . .”
This set Rome and the reformers utterly at odds with one another. Rome wanted to maintain alongside of Scripture the higher authority of the church and clergy, and, as a second word of God, the supposed oral and apostolic traditions of the church. According to this theory, the preaching and teaching of the apostles was contained not only in Scripture, but had been also kept and preserved in the church in oral form. It had also been written down in part in the writings of the church fathers.
Rome gave this oral tradition equal authority with Scripture. In it, moreover, were taught things which supplemented what was contained in Scripture and which they claimed were necessary also to interpret Scripture. Scripture alone was insufficient. The traditions and practices of the church of long standing were all supposedly based on this apostolic tradition, and because of their antiquity were to be received as binding upon the church. Moreover the church, that is the clergy and the papacy, as the custodian of this tradition, was permitted further to expound and interpret this tradition, and by the Spirit residing in the priesthood of the church, might also expand this tradition and bring new truths to light.
Having an additional source of authority in an oral tradition which is ever expanding in its interpretation by the church, is a fundamental part of the Romish system and continues to be so. In the light of it Rome has, since the days of the Reformation, added the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary in 1850 (the idea that Mary was kept free from original sin), and the idea of the infallibility of the pope in matters of doctrine in 1870. This principle allows the Romish church, in effect, to teach whatever it wants to and to make that teaching authoritative doctrine in the church. The only restriction upon this “tradition” is a vague one to the effect that the doctrine must reflect a certain consensus or agreement of those considered to be church fathers. In reality, the doctrine of papal infallibility has now eliminated even this need.
Over against this serious error which throws open the door to almost any gospel other than the gospel set down in Scripture, the reformers maintained that Scripture alone has the sole right to regulate our faith and bind our conscience. All things, even the ancient practices of the church and the writings of the church fathers, as weak and fallible men, must be tried in the light of the Word of God. It and it alone is the authoritative will of God for the church. It alone has the power to compel the conscience of the believer by its testimony, and to guide and rule our faith and life. It alone is the standard of truth. This principle the reformers applied both to the life of the believer and to the order and worship of the church. It is this principle which our Belgic Confession of Faith embodies in Article XXXII which speaks of the order and discipline of the church, declaring,
In the meantime we believe, though it is useful and beneficial, that those, who are rulers of the Church, institute and establish certain ordinances among themselves for maintaining the body of the Church; yet they ought studiously to take care, that they do not depart from those things which Christ, our only Master, hath instituted. And therefore, we reject all human inventions, and all laws, which man would introduce into the worship of God, thereby to bind and compel the conscience in any manner whatever.
In the light of this the papacy and the whole manner and order of the Roman worship must fall to the ground, since none of it is taught in God’s Word. The reformers therefore began a thorough reform of the church in the light of the Word of God. This reform embraced the whole life of the church, not only its doctrine and theology, but its order, its worship, and its discipline. It set before the people also the calling to a Biblical walk in godliness. The reformation involved, in the light of this one principle, a spiritual transformation and renewal of the whole church and the life of the people of God upon the sound foundation of the absolute and all-sufficient truth of the Word of God.
Nothing might challenge this principle of the sole standard of Scripture, neither the persuasive arguments of men, the decrees of counsels, nor the opinions of the church fathers. Whatsoever did not agree with the infallible rule of the Word of God was to be rejected. No practice, ceremony, or tradition which did not agree with it was either to be kept or introduced into the church. Our Confession of Faith in Article VII states this principle of the absolute and sole standard of the truth of God’s Word and its sufficiency, when it states that this truth of God set down in the Scriptures,
. . . is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.
Our Reformed fathers understood the issue most clearly. Either we say with Christ, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17), and we bow before it, or we are left with the vanity and lie of men. To this truth of our Reformed heritage we also must cling. For it also we must contend, and that particularly in our day when more and more we see the Christian church, also those churches which have their roots in the Reformation, departing from this sole standard of the Word of God. It is the truth of God’s Word which is at stake when we see about us introduced into God’s house another gospel and doctrine, inventions of men in the order and worship of the church which God has not commanded, and a walk of life which is not according to truth.
Nor must we think that we are immune from this trend. That departure begins so easily when we as the people of God in our own life and walk become hearers but not doers of the Word. It is so easy and so pleasing to the flesh and our sinful vanity to set alongside of Scripture our own feelings and experiences, our own wisdom and desires, as a second authority. It is so easy to allow the philosophy of this world to intrude into the church. In this matter there is no compromise, for it is either Scripture alone as the sole foundation of truth, which is above all, fully sufficient for faith and life, or we shall be left with only the vanity of men.