Rev. Smit is pastor of the Immanuel Protestant Reformed Church in Lacombe, Alberta, Canada.
As it was true at the time of the Reformation and as it continues to be true, one of the key points of conflict and separation between the Roman Catholic Church and the faithful children of the Reformation is the nature and extent of scriptural authority. In that conflict, there are two distinct sides: either the church (or man) is the supreme authority in matters of life and doctrine, or Holy Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of life and doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church maintains that its Tradition and hierarchy are an authority above Holy Scripture. Faithful churches of the Reformation in the past maintained, and churches today who seek to be distinctively and soundly Reformed must continue to maintain, the supreme authority of Scripture in all matters of life and doctrine.
Opposed by the Roman Catholic Church
The Roman Catholic Church’s view of the authority of Scripture is based on what we could call a historical argument. It is argued that since the New Testament books of the Bible were not completed until the end of the first century, the New Testament church existed prior to the existence of the complete Canon for many decades. As a result, it was the ancient catholic church that assembled these books together and gave to the world the Bible. It is argued, therefore, that the authority of Scripture rests upon the witness of the church.
Now, I suppose that no RCC theologian would ever be so bold to say that verbatim. You will find in their writings attempts to prove the Scripture’s inspiration and authority. However, the RCC theologians deny the divine inspiration and authority of Scripture when they claim that only the witness of the church can provide us with any conclusive certainty regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture. As a result, the orthodoxy that the Roman Catholic Church claims to maintain regarding the authority of Scripture is in fact completely denied when it maintains that Scripture possesses its regulatory authority on the foundation of the church and its Tradition.
This conclusion is confirmed in the writings of John A. O’Brien, a Roman Catholic theologian. He concluded, in his catechism book for youth and for converts to the RCC, that the Bible is not a safe guide for the believer in matters of doctrine and life because it does not have three necessary qualifications. He wrote,
From all of what [was argued before this conclusion, RJS] it must be abundantly clear that the Bible alone is not a safe and competent guide because it is not now and never has been accessible to all, because it is not clear and intelligible to all, and because it does not contain all the truths of the Christian religion.¹
The alleged deficiency in Scripture’s ability to regulate all matters of doctrine and life requires the church, it is argued, to come alongside the Bible with its Tradition and its ability to interpret in order to make the Bible clear and authoritative in the life of the church. The result is that “. . . the Catholic Church is the living authoritative interpreter of the Bible.”² In other words, the RCC claims that it must make Scripture an effective authority in the life of God’s people.
A second aspect to this historical argument is the matter of its “sacred tradition.” Since the Scriptures were not completed until the end of the first century, the RCC claims that there is a “sacred tradition” that existed prior to and independently from the revelation of God in Scripture. The RCC describes this Tradition in the catechism written under the watchful eye of the current pope (Benedict XVI) and approved by the former pope (John Paul II).
The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.³
What does this Tradition include? It is difficult to find a specific list of what is included. However, we are told that the tradition includes the gospel concerning saving truth and moral discipline that was communicated orally to the church. Orally, the apostles
. . . handed on, by the spoken word of their preaching, by the example they gave, by the institutions they established what they themselves received—whether from the lips of Christ, from His way of life and His works, or whether they had learned it at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.4
We learn that this “sacred tradition” includes all manner of things that shaped the doctrine, life, church government, worship, and liturgy of the church. Nevertheless, whatever these things of Tradition might be, you will not find them written down in the Scriptures.
How high a place does this Tradition have in comparison to Scripture? For the RCC, these two are bound so closely together that faith and truth flow out of both Tradition and Scripture (in that deliberate order!) unto the church. For the church member to possess merely Scripture will not be sufficient. He must also be attached to the Tradition of the RCC (through the papacy) in order to know what must be believed and how he ought to live. That this Tradition is more important than Scripture is evident from the following quote:
There are certain truths which Christ and the Apostles taught which are not recorded in the Scriptures, but which are embodied in the life, practice, and ministry of the Church, in her written and unwritten traditions, which supplement the Biblical record. In other words, the church in her worship and religious and moral observances was a going concern before a word of the New Testament was written. She is not dependent on it for her existence, nor is she limited in her doctrines to it [i.e., to the Bible, RJS].5
It is evident that Tradition has the supreme place of authority over Scripture in the RCC.
However, in the final analysis, Tradition does not have ultimate supremacy. What certain popes and men in the church have declared as truth has supremacy. When in 1870, at the First Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church finally cemented into its Tradition the infallibility of the pope in his ex cathedra statements, the supremacy of Scripture’s authority was crucified, and the supremacy of man, particularly the pope, in all matters of doctrine and life, was enthroned, so that the papacy has fully presumed to take the place of God and the Scriptures on earth. Therefore, in the RCC the guide and foundation of one’s faith must be, in the final analysis, the pope, Tradition, the clergy of the church, and Scripture, too, but only where it agrees with the hierarchy and its Tradition.
This denial of the authority of Scripture included an attack on the very nature of that authority. The Roman Catholic Church refuses to presuppose that the books of Scripture, particularly the New Testament books, are in any way self-authoritative. The Roman Catholic Church does not believe that Scripture itself provides certain and self-sustaining testimony to its own divine authority. They do not wish to prove from Scripture that Scripture is divinely authoritative, which is actually the argumentation of a true and childlike faith. They do not wish to do that because they believe such reasoning (proving Scripture’s authority from Scripture) is a logical fallacy. Rather than do that, the RCC maintains that it must judge the authenticity of Scripture’s claims to inspiration and authority. When the ancient church by its decisions finalized what books would be included in Scripture, then the Scriptures, it is argued, received their binding authority in the church. In other words, if the church did not furnish certainty concerning the Scripture’s inspiration and authority, the child of God could never trust the authority of Scripture. Therefore, on the condition of the declarations of past councils and its papacy, the RCC gives Scripture its binding authority in the church and she presumes to regulate that authority of Scripture through its interpretive pronouncements, papal statements ex cathedra, and Tradition.
We can conclude that the RCC is not “managed according to the pure Word of God” (Belgic Confession, Article 29), because it has rejected the supreme authority of Holy Scripture, which alone is able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (II Tim. 3:15).
Confessed and Defended by the Reformation
In opposition to these errors regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture, Christ raised up in His church faithful Reformers. These led the church back to the confession that the holy Scriptures are the supreme authority for the confession and daily life of the believer, and that whatever is not consistent with Scripture must be rejected.
The Reformation made its stand unambiguous. The creeds that the Reformed and Presbyterian churches wrote to summarize their confession of the truth of Scripture uphold the truth that the Scriptures possess supreme authority for its infallible regulation of all matters of doctrine and life.
For example, in the Belgic Confession, written in 1561, Reformed churches have embraced the authority of Scripture over against the error of the RCC. In Article 5, Reformed churches confess:
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 evidence in themselves . . . .
Then, in Article 7 of the same Belgic Confession, Reformed churches address specifically that matter of the Tradition of men and the worthiness and authority of the writings of church fathers or councils in comparison to Holy Scripture. After asserting the sufficiency of Holy Scripture to be the only rule of faith, Reformed churches confess:
. . . Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees, or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth 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 . . . .”
The same regard for the supreme authority of Scripture is taught by the Second Helvetic Confession, published by the Swiss Reformed churches in 1566. At the very beginning of Chapter 1, the confession asserts that the authority of Scripture is divine and independent of men because it is the very Word of God.
We believe and confess the Canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God Himself spake to the fathers, prophets, and apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.6
Then, in chapter 2, the Second Helvetic Confession addresses the issue of the relationship of the practices and writings of our ancient forefathers and of Scripture.
Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we do modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to the Scriptures. Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings matched with the Canonical Scriptures, but bid us allow them so far forth as they either agree with them or disagree. And in the same order we place the decrees and canons of councils. . . . Therefore, in controversies of religion or matters of faith, we cannot admit any other judge than God Himself, pronouncing by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do not rest but in the judgment of spiritual men, drawn from the Word of God . . . .
The Second Helvetic Confession makes a very significant observation. The supreme authority of Scripture is never man-made or man-dependent, but Scripture derives its authority from its only Author, God Himself. To submit to the authority of Scripture is to submit to God. To reject the authority of Scripture is to reject God’s authority and to submit to man’s authority and to what is right in the eyes of man. That rejection of God’s authority results only in the fierce judgments of God, which Scripture by various examples makes plain.
Echoing the confessional statements of the Reformed churches throughout Europe, the Westminster Confession of Faith, in chapter 1 (in sections 4, 5, and 10), gives clear statements of Scripture’s supreme authority in all areas of life and doctrine. Therein is another clear testimony of the high honor and willing submission that the faithful heirs of the Reformation give to the Holy Scriptures.
Necessary for Reformed Churches Today to Maintain
That submission to the divine authority of Scripture must be maintained.
It is historically and distinctively Reformed to maintain that Scripture is the supreme judge and guide in all matters of doctrine, history, mathematics, chemistry, biology, geology, medicine, technology, entertainment, commerce, athletics, church government, church worship, sabbath observance, home life, courtship and dating, the lifelong bond of marriage, government, labor, and other things.
To confess otherwise is dishonoring to God and rebellion against the Word of God. To confess otherwise is spiritually disastrous to the hope and comfort of a church, household, or individual. In this regard, Herman Bavinck, in his extensive treatment of the authority of Scripture in his Reformed Dogmatics, makes a significant point concerning the intimate relationship between our faith (and our enjoyment of that truth in life and death) and the authority of Scripture.
Both the Christian faith and Christian preaching require divine authority as their foundation. “Faith will totter if the authority of the divine Scriptures begins to waver.”7
At the end of that quote, Bavinck was quoting from the church father Augustine. Hence, we learn from both of these forefathers, that if one begins to pick away at the foundation of faith, soon he will make the whole of it come tumbling down. If we allow a church, a pope, a theologian, a highly-learned scholar, or even ourselves to chip and chop away and then to replace the foundation of the authoritative Scriptures, our faith will totter and crumble.
That conclusion of Augustine makes real, logical sense. If we question, with a view to undermining, God’s authority in Scripture to tell us how the creation came into existence, to tell us how the worldwide Flood destroyed the earth, to tell us how the miracles of Scripture came to pass, to tell us the lifelong character of marriage, to tell us the ordinance of the headship of the man over the woman in all areas of earthly life, to tell us what is sin and what is acceptable in His sight, then inevitably we will begin to question God’s authority to tell us that the only way of salvation is by grace alone in Christ Jesus alone through faith alone as revealed in Scripture alone. If we lose that, then what is left of our faith?
When we begin to question and reject the Word of God, our faith will shake and wobble. Then, before the howling winds of the errors of old and the present day, how shall such faith withstand the peril of falling headlong into error, evil, and ruin? Let us in a childlike faith be steadfast to uphold the truth of the supreme authority of the holy, inspired, infallible Word of God.
But how shall we be steadfast to esteem this jewel of our Reformed heritage? It is only possible by God’s grace alone, another precious jewel of our Reformed heritage. Let us be earnest to seek God for His grace and the Spirit of Christ to remain steadfast in this foundational truth of the supreme authority of His Word.
1 John A. O’Brien, The Faith of Millions: The Credentials of the Catholic Religion (Huntingdon, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1938), p. 148.
2 Ibid, p. 148.
3 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994), section 83, p. 26.
4 Ibid, section 76, pp. 24-25.
5 O’Brien, p. 147.
6 The citations from the Second Helvetic Confession are taken from Creeds of the Churches, Edited by John H. Leith (Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1982 [3rd edition]), pp. 132-192.
7 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, translated into the English by John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Dutch Reformed Translation Society, 2003), p. 461.