with permission from Clarion
Vol. 39, No. 23, 24 (1990)
The Bible alone
One of the catchwords of the Reformation of the 16th Century was the expression "Scripture alone." Two other expressions belong to it: "by grace alone" and "by faith alone." Together they were used to characterize the central motives of the Reformation movement. They are so well-known that today even the Latin translations are still used: sola gratia: "by grace alone," sola fide: "by faith alone," sola scriptura: "Scripture alone."
In these expressions the difference between the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church was summarized. How do we know what God has revealed to us, and where can we find this revelation? The Roman Catholic Church answered: In Scripture and in the tradition of the church. There is revelation not only in the Bible, but also in the Apocrypha and in the oral traditions which have been preserved within the church. To prove a point of faith one need not just look in Scripture, one can also use what tradition teaches.
Over against this the Reformation maintained its "Scripture alone."This means negatively: No tradition, no apocrypha, no teaching of the apostles preserved in oral tradition, no quotations from the orthodox church fathers. All of this cannot be used to prove the doctrine of the church. However, there is also a positive side to it: God's revelation as far as we need to know it, has been recorded in Scripture. The church has to prove the totality of its doctrine from Scripture alone. And what cannot be based on Scripture should not be a part of the faith.
This has been expressed in the confessions of the Reformation. We can think of the Heidelberg Catechism. In answer to the question: "What is true faith?" the Catechism teaches: "True faith is a sure knowledge whereby I accept as true all that God has revealed to us in His Word..." (L.D.7, 21). Here, by the way, we see two other implications of "Scripture alone." it does not only exclude (Scripture alone), it also includes all of Scripture (alf that God has revealed in His Word). The second implication is the connection between "Scripture alone" and "by faith alone' (true faith . . . I accept as true all that God has revealed in His Word; this faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel) and "by grace alone" (out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ's merits).
In this way "Scripture alone" is in connection with "by grace alone" and with "by faith alone" firmly rooted in the Reformation.
the Bible Alone
After this it will come as a surprise that there is a confession from the time of the Reformation which expresses a different opinion: the Belgic Confession. This, at least, is the opinion of Mr. Robert VanderVennen, who wrote an article in Calvinist Contact (Sept. 14, 1990) under the challenging title: "Not the Bible alone.'
This article is directed against the "concerned members of the Christian Reformed Church." Those concerned members are angry because other members of this church do not decide matters from "the Bible alone." However, according to VanderVennen, they are themselves wrong. The concerned members do not maintain their confession, for they neglect Art. 2 of the Belgic Confession. In it the Reformed Churches confess that "we know God and His ways by two means, not one." VanderVennen says: "We can trust God's revelation to us by both means. That's why Reformed Churches affirm both "general revelation" and "special revelation."
The "concerned members" are reproached because they only refer to Art. 3-7 of the Belgic Confession. They neglect Art. 2. When they send overtures to the synod they ask the Christian Reformed Church to reaffirm Art. 3-7. Why do they not mention Art. 2? VanderVennen says: "I have the impression they didn't want to reaffirm all of what the confession says about Scripture."
So we were mistaken when we thought that "Scripture alone" was one of the basic convictions of the Reformation, it seems. The Reformation taught something different, as can be seen in the Belgic Confession. Who then gave us the idea that the Reformation taught "Sofa Scripture," one wonders.
But this point is of more than historical interest. When we read an article like that of VanderVennen we cannot but feel ourselves involved. In the first place, we sympathize with the struggle of the concerned. In the issues that cause their "concern" we stand behind them. And we have been hoping and praying that their struggle for the purity of doctrine may, - under the blessing of the Lord -, have success.
And in the second place, we too have been taught, and have taught, that we have to derive the content of our faith from Scripture. If it is true that this view is not that of the Reformation, because Art. 2 or our Belgic Confession speaks about two means for knowing God, then it is time for us to investigate whether we should not change our conviction on many issues.
This view on the meaning of Art. 2 of the Belgic Confession will have a great impact on our faith. The opening sentence of VanderVennen's article is: "Many 'concerned members of the Christian Reformed Church' are angry and sad that other CRC members do not use the 'Bible alone' as their means to decide sensitive issues like the role of women in the church, creation and evolution, and homosexuality." But the concerned members are wrong, the "other members" are right. We cannot decide such matters from "Scripture alone."
How should the church decide such matters? On the basis of Scripture and our modern knowledge. "Authoritarian people want the Bible to stand 'over' knowledge we get from other sources." "But neither the Bible nor the Belgic Confession places one over the other. Both 'books' need to be read together and discussed communally." So there should be a kind of interaction between Scripture and today's (often scientific) knowledge. What does this mean? The article does not show the result of this approach for the "sensitive issues," but we can easily guess the result from recent discussions.
The question of women in office can be decided on the basis of Scripture alone. To mention only one text: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent," 1 Tim. 2:11,12. But when the book of nature can be invoked, the situation changes. Nature teaches us that women are equal to men in intellectual abilities. They can be excellent and efficient teachers. They have received gifts from the Lord, as can be seen by everyone. On the basis of this fact the church should allow women in whom the gifts have been recognized, to teach in the church, be it as an elder or as a minister. What then about 1 Tim. 2:11,12? The solution is that Paul here gives a practical instruction based on the insights of his time into the position of women. At that time a teaching woman in the church would have been repellent in the eyes of the people. But a new understanding of the nature of women will lead to opening the offices in the church for them.
Then the issue of creation and evolution. What are the consequences of the conviction "not the Bible alone," for this. It will mean that the data from geology and biology should be taken seriously, because they belong to "general revelation." God has revealed them. Therefore the church may not push aside this content of the book of nature. It should read both in the book of Scripture and in the book of nature, and take both seriously. The net result will be that the record of Genesis 1 must be understood in such a way that there is room for evolution as the way in which God created.
Of course here we think of the discussions at Synod 1988 of the Christian Reformed Church. Synod had to decide whether three professors at Calvin College were doing justice to Scripture in their teaching. One of the outcomes of the discussion was the decision to appoint a study committee with the following mandate: "To address the relationship between special and general revelation as found in the Belgic Confession Article 2 . . ." (Art. 101, G 6, Acts of Synod 88, p. 598).
The third "sensitive issue" is that of homosexuality. The reasoning here can be much similar to that in the case of women in office. In our century the whole view on homosexuality has been changed. This new view is then taken as a result of God's revelation in nature. Therefore we now have to read the book of Scripture and the book of nature together. The new content of the book of nature brings us to a new look at the biblical passages. They do not give a general condemnation of homosexuality, but reject only a number of excesses. Next the scientific data will be the basis for a different approach to homosexuality.
All this is involved in the question "the Bible alone" or "not the Bible alone." Of course the list is not exhaustive. What is more, the list can never be exhaustive. Science will continue to discover new things. That will mean that other beliefs based on biblical data, will continue to be challenged from the side of science. When a teaching from science has been established by science as a real fact, the interpretation of the Bible has to be changed. For established facts have to be treated as revelation in the book of nature.
The result of this opinion concerning the teaching of the church in Art. 2 of the Belgic Confession would be a faith which (not develops, but) changes according to the progress of science.
Well may one wonder whether this opinion is in agreement with the original intention of the Reformation, summarized in the catchword "Scripture alone." We will therefore do a little exploring in Calvin's Institutes. (The quotations from the Institutes are taken from the edition of John T McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles).
Calvin discusses general revelation and special revelation in book I, which is called: The knowledge of God the Creator. It is important (even though it is not the focus of our present discussion) that for Calvin general revelation is particularly connected with the knowledge of God the Creator. In the following books of his Institutes Calvin discusses the knowledge of God the Redeemer (II), the way we receive the grace of Christ (in which he develops his doctrine of the Holy Spirit, III) and the external means of grace (IV). But these doctrines are no longer discussed in connection with general revelation (see especially I,vi,1).
But back to our problem, whether Calvin teaches "Scripture alone" or not. He begins by investigating the knowledge of his divine majesty which God has implanted in all men (I,iii,1). But does this implanted knowledge bring about knowledge of God? No, says Calvin. He compares it with a seed. God has given this seed in the heart of all man, but not even one man out of a hundred fosters it. And in no one does it ripen. It therefore does not produce any fruit (I,iv,1). In other words, the first means of revelation does not result in true knowledge of God. But God does more than just giving the "seed." He reveals Himself and daily discloses Himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. "As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see Him" (I,v,1). Calvin mentions here God's glory (I,v,1), and His power, goodness and wisdom (I,v,3). Does this then lead to true knowledge of God? Not at all. "Such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us" (I,v,11).
It is therefore necessary that another and better help was added to direct us toward God the Creator. This help is Scripture. "For by His Word, God rendered faith unambiguous forever, a faith that should be superior to all opinion" (l,vi,2). Calvin does not reject looking at creation: "However fitting it may be for man seriously to turn his eyes to contemplate God's works, since he has been placed in this most glorious theater to be a spectator of them . . . ." But Scripture comes first: "Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture" (I,vi,3).
Where does Calvin stand? We may summarize his view in this way:
1. Calvin is very pessimistic about the use man makes of God's general revelation. The whole tenor of his discussion is, that man rejects it. Calvin uses the discussion of general revelation not to emphasize how much man knows, but how necessary Scripture is. His emphasis on the depravity of man would make him wary to include the results of science as revelation in the book of nature.
2. The content of general revelation as discussed by Calvin is the knowledge of God, His glory, and His power. There is no indication here that Calvin would view data about the earth and about man derived from nature, as general revelation.
3. For Calvin Scripture and the book of nature are not laying side by side as revelation. Scripture has precedence. True religion takes its beginning from Scripture. In this way we can understand Calvin's famous description of Scripture as "spectacles" (I,vi,1). Only when our mind is provided with the doctrine of Scripture can we see clearly what God reveals about Himself in nature.
The reason for including a discussion of Calvin's view here, is the hope that this may have some influence on people who want to call themselves after Calvin. But VanderVennen appealed not to Calvin, but to the Belgic Confession. We hope to continue this discussion in the next issue.
We continue the discussion with Mr. Robert VanderVennen, the Assistant Editor of Calvinist Contact. He wrote an editorial in which he stated that the concerned members of the Christian Reformed Church in their opposition against the decision of synod concerning women in office etc., do not hold to their own confession. For Art. 2 of the Belgic Confession states clearly that there are two revelations: the book of nature and the book of Scripture.
Two weeks ago we discussed what Calvin has said about general revelation in the beginning of his Institutes. We concluded that VanderVennen's approach does not find support in Calvin. But this is not sufficient, of course. VanderVennen did not refer to Calvin, but to the Belgic Confession. We have to answer the question whether this confession teaches that we have to decide our modern problems in the light of Scripture and nature.
If the Belgic Confession would teach "not the Bible alone," that would mean a contradiction between this confession and another Reformed confession: the Heidelberg Catechism. We saw last time that the Heidelberg Catechism clearly teaches "Scripture alone," in Lord's Day 7. It is all the more remarkable because this contradiction would have gone by almost unnoticed for hundreds of years. And this contradiction would exist, not on a rather obscure point of doctrine, but on a central matter: Do we find our arguments in religious matters only in the Bible, or in Bible and nature?
But the situation is even more remarkable. For the rule "Scripture alone" is also expressed in the Belgic Confession itself. In Art. 3 the writings which are God's revealed Word, are called "holy and divine writings." In Art. 4 these Holy Scriptures are called "canonical." To this is added that "nothing can be alleged" against them.
Art. 5 explains how we have to use these books. We receive them "for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith." Our faith should be according to Scripture (regulation). Our faith should be based upon Scripture (foundation). Our faith has its firmness because of Scripture (confirmation). This applies to "all these books." No book from Scripture is excepted. But it applies to "these only." No book outside the holy and canonical books is given for "the regulation, foundation and confirmation of our faith." This is "Scripture alone!"
But it is not the only time this rule occurs in the Belgic Confession. It is repeated in Art. 7: "We believe that this Holy Scripture fully contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein." Scripture contains the will of God "fully." We know there is more revelation. There is also general revelation, and there is also special revelation which has not been recorded in Scripture. But Scripture is perfect, complete, in the sense that there is all which God wanted us to know for now. Scripture is sufficient.
The Belgic Confession teaches with great emphasis: "the Bible alone." Would this confession at the same time teach: "Not the Bible alone," in Art. 2? This is more than remarkable, it is improbable. We need another look at Art. 2.
Art. 2 begins with the words: "We know Him by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe . . . ." In these first words the content of general revelation has been indicated: We know Him by two means. "Him" is God, the God whose greatness has been confessed in Art. 1. The same limitation in the content of general revelation can be seen in the text which the confession quotes: (We) "perceive clearly the invisible things of God, namely, His eternal power and deity." We know God through general revelation, says Art. 2. That we should use the book of nature "to decide sensitive issues like the role of women in the church, creation and evolution, and homosexuality" cannot be founded on Art. 2. A more correct application of Art. 2 would be: "Even the strata of the earth, as studied by the geologist, are disclosing page after page, with large characters imprinted, showing God in His providing care for men as well as manifesting His unlimited power." (H. Beets, The Reformed Confession Explained, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1929), 27)
There is also another element in Art. 2, which defines the relation between general and special revelation. "Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word . . . ." Scripture has two advantages over God's general revelation.
Scripture is clearer as well as fuller. If a Christian wants to know God, he can look at creation. But reading directly in Scripture will make it much clearer to him." Although God has revealed Himself in the creation, preservation and government of all things, He has more clearly and fully revealed Himself to us in His Word. This indicates the superiority of the Scriptures to general revelation." (P Y De Jong, The Church's Witness to the World (St. Catharines: Paideia Press, 2. pr. 1980), 88) We can even go a step further. Revelation through nature is incomplete, but in Scripture revelation God makes Himself more fully known "as far as is necessary for us in this life, to His glory and our salvation."
This corresponds with the confession of Art. 7, that Holy Scripture "fully" contains the will of God and that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein. There is no contradiction between Art. 2 on the one hand, and Art. 5 and 7 on the other hand. Art. 2 says: There are two means of revelation, but the Word revelation is more clear and more complete. And Art. 5 and 7 say: Since Scripture contains fully the will of God, you will find there all you need for your faith. Everything you can learn from creation and from God's government of the world you will also find in Scripture, and more. And therefore: "Since it is forbidden to add or to take away anything from the Word of God, it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects," Art. 7.
VanderVennen appealed to the Belgic Confession to prove that "the Bible alone" is not the teaching of the confession. Within the Reformed Churches it is legitimate to argue on the basis of the confession, since the confessions summarize the doctrine of Scripture for us. However, our investigation of "the Bible alone" would be incomplete without studying the Bible itself. Therefore I want to turn for a moment to Rom. 1, where the classical expression of general revelation can be found, and which is the basis for Art. 2. Several elements from Paul's exposition are important for us.
There is general revelation because God reveals. "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them," Rom. 1:19.
This general revelation is first of all revelation about God. "Ever since the creation of the world His invisible things, namely, His eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made, v. 20. God's "invisible things" also include His wrath, which is revealed from heaven, v. 18. This implies the sin of man. However, this passage does not speak of a general revelation concerning man or the earth.
This general revelation leads to knowledge in man. But it is again knowledge of God, which is in view here. "For although they knew God. . . ," v. 21 a.
But man in general rejects what he can know about God from creation and His government of the world. ". . . they did not honour Him as God or give thanks to Him. . . ," v. 21 b.
That has two results, The first is the punishment. "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth," v.18.
The other result, which is connected with this punishment, is the darkening of the mind. ". . . but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened." v. 21 c.
This makes the gospel so important as the only means to escape this punishment. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith" v. 16.
And for that reason the Old Testament (and the New) are important. "The law and the prophets bear witness to it (righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe), 3:21.
In this exposition of Paul general revelation is mentioned in connection with the sinfulness of man. It underscores the importance of the gospel of salvation. And it certainly does not give a positive assessment of the value of general notions concerning our "sensitive issues."
Of course the function and importance of general revelation will be different for Christians. Through the grace of God they believe in God who reveals Himself in Scripture. Believing in God, they will look around in this world, and see there the greatness of God, and the healthiness of His creation ordinances. But this order may not be reversed, as if we can first derive our knowledge from creation, and then adapt the Bible to it.
VanderVennen speaks about two books of revelation, which should be read together and discussed communally. But unless he gives absolute preference to Scripture, he will grant revelatory character to the discoveries of science. That would make the scientists the prophets of God's progressive general revelation. To preserve the "faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) we have to maintain the rule "the Bible alone."