What it is and why it’s important.
How do we know doctrine? Where do we go to learn the oracles of God? What is the foundation of all Christian theology? It is important to be confessional, and confessions are great summaries of doctrine, but no confession is an infallible standard. Even the reformed confessions bear witness that the only rule of faith is the word of God contained in the Scriptures given to the church. The reformers held Sola Scriptura in high regard over against the errors of the papists, and we would do well to follow their example.
Its Own Witness
First, we’ll compare the Westminster Confession’s statements on Scripture to that of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 82
This is why “Sola Scriptura” was so important in the Reformation. Contrast the above statement with these points from the Westminster Confession:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
There is abundant evidence for the authority of the Scriptures. One needs simply to consider the writing itself. The Westminster Confession states in chapter 1, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to a high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God…” (WCF 1.5)
Testimony of the Church
“The testimony of the Church” is the witness of Sola Scriptura. Other religions have their standards of truth, some objective and some subjective, but I think you would be hard pressed to find such devotion to holy words as is seen in the true church of the Christian religion. Unfortunately, today the protestant church at large seems to have lost some of its drive for the truth of Scripture. We have long departed from the words of Martin Luther, who stood under trial for his writings against the Roman church saying, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils – my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” Pragmatism has infected the church today, allowing emotions and feelings to be the rule of faith instead of the Scriptures. This notwithstanding, the history of the protestant church has been to uphold the Scriptures above all else. Without it, we have no foundation to base our doctrine on.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
2 Timothy 3:16-17 KJV
What can be found in the Scriptures is enough to “throughly furnish” the believer unto all good works. This is why the Confession itself, being a tool for edification in the church, testifies that the Scriptures are to be the rule of faith and life. All other writings and teachings of the church must be founded on Scripture and must point back to the authority of Scripture. However, in contrast to the papists, the church does not determine what Scripture is. The Roman church states that the church itself is what gives Scripture its authority, and the church receives its authority from Scripture. You might see how this reasoning is circular and nonsensical. The confessional position is that Scripture receives authority not from anything external, but from itself. This is because the Scriptures are the words of God, and being from God, have no higher authority to appeal to.
Heavenliness of the Matter
The divine ascendancy with which the Scriptures speak is another evidence of their authority. No writings produced by men have come so close as to revealing the deepest nature of humanity.
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
Hebrews 4:12-13 KJV
No other writings have such a way of bringing to light the darkest aspects of man’s depravity and sin. Alternatively, no other writings present such an unheard of answer to this problem. As the Scriptures themselves say, the gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing, and the natural man cannot receive the things of God. It is almost sufficient evidence of the heavenliness of the matter to see the way that natural men such as proclaimed atheists react to the content that can be found in the Scriptures.
The Scope of the Whole
Though written over a time span of almost 1500 years by over 35 different authors from different geographical areas and using different languages, there is one consistent theme to be found in the Scriptures.
Q. What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A. The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
In every place in the Scriptures you will find the abasement and failure of man compared to the glory and faithfulness of God. The mercy and grace of God are placed at the highest level of majesty. The constant call for men to repent of their sins and trust not in themselves but the grace of God through Christ can be found on almost every page. There is sufficient evidence in the general revelation of nature that there is a God, but there is not sufficient enough revelation outside of the Scriptures to say how man can come to know him.
Our Full Persuasion
Continued from above, the Confession states, “…yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” (WCF 1.5) Neither the internal nor the external evidence for the authority of Scripture is sufficient to convince someone of their truth. As I’ve already stated, man in his natural state cannot understand the things that are found in the Scriptures. The things of God must be made known to us through the working of the Holy Spirit.
But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God:for they are foolishness unto him:neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.
1 Corinthians 2:9-13 KJV
The only appropriate response to this knowledge is to search ourselves to see if we have this mind of Christ. Do we take our own judgements to Scripture when we read it? Or do we ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten our understanding? If we recognize our sinful state, and our need of a revelation from God, do we search through the means we have been given to receive this revelation? Or do we search for some other “easier” way? Understanding the Scriptures is not easy. We are still humans trying to understand the words of God. We must rely on the Spirit to aid us in our studies, and we must discipline ourselves constantly to seek a deeper and deeper respect for the matter contained in the Scriptures. The Scriptures themselves exhort us to engage in daily discipline of the study of the Scriptures.
Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates: That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the Lord sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth. For if ye shall diligently keep all these commandments which I command you, to do them, to love the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to cleave unto him; Then will the Lord drive out all these nations from before you, and ye shall possess greater nations and mightier than yourselves.
Deuteronomy 11:18-22 KJV
This does not mean that other documents are not of any importance. Creeds, councils, confessions, and commentaries are immensely helpful tools that should receive wide use in the church. If you join me over at The Reformed Collective, I will be tackling that topic in upcoming articles.