Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

the word of God (Main)

God's covenant Word

Sola Scriptura and the clarity of Scripture

As is well-known, one of the primary issues at the time of the Reformation was the recovery of the authority of Scripture as the ultimate authority. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”) became a rallying cry for the Reform.

Despite the fame of the issue, it is widely misunderstood. And furthermore, other issues relating to the Word of God have largely been forgotten.

In much modern evangelicalism, sola Scriptura has come to mean that Scripture is the only authority, period. The Church has no authority whatsoever, doctrinally speaking. For some, ideal biblical interpretation would mean sequestering oneself in a closet with a Bible and no study aids. This, of course, is extreme, but even more widespread notions evince a related tendency to disparage the authority of the Church as teacher of God’s Word.

In addition, a wrong-headed view regarding the doctrine of the “perspicuity” (i.e. clarity - now there’s a term that doesn’t match its meaning!) of Scripture means that everyone is essentially equally able to understand the Word of God. (Little wonder, since Scripture’s authority so frequently boils down to “what it means to me.”)

In both of these areas, the modern view is a declension from the original Reformation view. In the eyes of the Reformers, the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Timothy 3.15), and thus bears genuine authority. The phrase sola Scriptura was not intended to claim sole authority for Scripture, period, but sole ultimate authority. The real teaching authority of the Church is derivative; it has been delegated to her by Christ. And the Word of Christ always stands over the Church. Therefore, what the Reformers rejected was not the authority of tradition, say no more: it was the (then recently-developed) notion that the tradition of the Church was an equal authority to the Scriptures. The Reformers said: there can be only one ultimate authority - and it must be a transcendent authority: the Word of God Himself.

Thus, sola Scriptura, properly understood, is not a repudiation of the place of the authority of the Church or the tradition of the Church. To the contrary, biblical interpretation is not to be treated as a private affair. It is engaged in the context of and in dialogue with the Church, the community of the Holy Spirit, and carried out according to “the rule of faith.” The Reformers had no more sympathy for extravagant heretical interpretation than did Rome (as Michael Servetus would surely testify).

Likewise, the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture was not formulated as a claim that the Church did not need teachers. In fact, the Reformers considered that many things in Scripture were not entirely clear. The clarity of Scripture refers, not to a wholesale statement about how easy the Bible is to understand, but rather, to the fact that what is necessary for salvation is highly knowable and clear, no matter how mysterious Scripture may be in certain respects.

This clarity, in truth, is closely connected to God’s covenant with man. The Scriptures are not an esoteric body of gnostic writing for the elite. They are God’s voice to His people.

Once more: this does not mean that the Bible is “simple” or that every believer can pick it up and immediately discern the import of the passage. But it does mean that God’s will is not distant or unattainable, due to obscurity (cf Deuteronomy 30.11-14). It is something that may be explained clearly enough that all may be saved who hear and believe, for God’s will is to exercise the faith of His people by means of His self-communication.

So what was the point with this issue of the “perspicuity of Scripture”?

What the Reformers were opposing was the medieval Roman Catholic notion of “implicit faith.” They believed that Rome had mystified the truth; as a result, the dogma arose that while the faithful may not understand all Church teaching - if much at all - they would nonetheless be saved through “implicit faith.” This implicit faith essentially amounted to: “Whatever the Church teaches, I believe, and that’s good enough for me.” The Reformers did not deny the difficulty of Scripture (John Calvin did not even dare write a commentary on Revelation). But they did deny that God’s will for His people was so obscure that one might have to resort to trusting the magisterium of the Church rather than God Himself.

Teaching and preaching the covenant Word

This drawing back from Rome’s position, however, was emphatically not a minimization of the teaching role of the Church. Rather the opposite, it was a promotion of it, because it laid special stress upon the duty and calling of the Church to teach and catechize. The preaching of the pure faith was not to be left in the universities; it was to sound forth to the people of God.

In an age when preaching is denigrated as the activity of a “talking head,” and when more “interactive” forms of “communication” are frequently preferred, such as skits, dramas, musicals, discussion panels, and who knows what - the attitude toward preaching that was maintained among the Reformed (as well as the Lutherans) sounds downright astonishing. Far from demeaning the role of the minister of the Word of God (for after all, the Bible was in every hand, so what place could a minister have anymore, right?), both Reformed theologians and Reformed confessions made it very clear that the faithful preaching of the content of Scripture is itself the Word of God (see the quotation of the Second Helvetic Confession I.4, below). The seed of faith is implanted by the preached Word. “Grace is conferred by means of admonitions” (Canons of Dort III/IV.17). The sermon is thus neither a lecture, nor a dispensable pep talk, but God’s means of communicating with His people.

If this is all so, we are confronted with highly important questions regarding the way we approach preaching. The sermon is not the place for piling high personal anecdotes or opinions. The preacher stands in the (terrifying) place of the mouthpiece of God.

Nor is the sermon the place to propound the tightest scholastic theology, or to lecture on the intricacies of the aorist. The original meaning of the text must, of course, be expounded as diligently and closely as possible; and likewise the preacher must take care to be doctrinally sound. But the point is that the sermon is not a lecture, and the gathered congregation is not an academic class. The corporate assembly is the place where the family of God has gathered in order to hear Him speak, and to speak to Him in a covenantal dialogue.

Outside of the pulpit too, the nature of God’s Word as a covenant Word shapes how we are to handle it. The intervening centuries since the Reformation have seen the rise of a notion that the Bible is to be handled just like any other book. It is not. It is true, as said above, that the Bible is not an esoteric piece of mystery for the gnostic elite. In that sense, it is to be read “normally.” But this is the Book of the Church; it is the Book of the congregation of God. And therefore the only right way to read it is, to borrow from Augustine, from the posture of faith seeking understanding. It is a Book to wrestle with, to grapple with - but it is not a mere book to dissect as if it were an “object.” It is the Word of the living God, addressed to His living people, to whom He has given life through the power of His voice. “Upon this one will I look,” Yahweh says: “upon the one who trembles at My Word” (Isaiah 66.2).

Bibliography

Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Keith A. Mathison: The Shape of Sola Scriptura. (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001.) A profoundly important work, which shows that the Reformers essentially adopted the view of tradition held by the Early Church, while the Roman Church of the high medieval period were innovating a new, radicalized view of tradition.

C. Trimp: Preaching and the History of Salvation: Continuing an Unfinished Discussion. (Dr Nelson D. Kloosterman, trans. Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Book Service, 1996 [Dutch 1986].) This is an unfortunately little-known but valuable work which carefully discusses the issue of “redemptive-historical preaching,” particularly in connection with a discussion which took place in the Netherlands in the first half of the 20th century. Well-balanced and thought-provoking.

Ronald S. Wallace: Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957.) A very close reading of the original sources, providing a stunning of Calvin’s high view, not only of Scripture, but of preaching.

Quotations

When the prophet says by the breath of His lips, this must not be limited to the person of Christ; for it refers to the Word which is preached by His ministers. Christ acts by them in such a manner that He wishes their mouth to be reckoned as His mouth, and their lips as His lips.

- John Calvin, Commentaries on Isaiah at 11.4

Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is preached, and received of the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be feigned, nor to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; who, although he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God abides true and good.

- Second Helvetic Confession 1566, I.4

The apostle Peter has said that “no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20). Therefore we do not allow all kinds of exposition. Whereupon we do not acknowledge that which they call the meaning of the Church of Rome for the true and natural interpretation of the Scriptures; which, forsooth, the defenders of the Romish Church do strive to force all men simply to receive; but we acknowledge only that interpretation of Scriptures for orthodox and genuine which, being taken from the Scriptures themselves (that is, from the spirit of that tongue in which they were written, they being also weighed according to the circumstances and expounded according to the proportion of places, either of like or of unlike, also of more and plainer), accords with the rule of faith and charity, and makes notably for God’s glory and man’s salvation.

- Second Helvetic Confession1566, II.1