Sola Scriptura (1) by Rev M Retief


Without Holy Scripture we have no source of revelation or knowledge by which we are able to rightly know God.   Without the Bible we cannot know the truth, or distinguish between true and false.   Since the whole Bible, and the Bible alone, is the only source of revelation by which we are able to truly know God, this revelation constitutes the complete and only content of our faith and the only norm for our entire life.   This revelation, the Word of God in writing, comes to us with the divine authority of God Himself.   The revelation is clear.  It is also perfect and complete and fully sufficient to guide us in all ages until the coming of Christ in glory.  And we need this revelation with absolute necessity, for without it only pitch darkness and idolatry remains.  

This revelation, the Word of God, is now available in writing only.   We may add nothing to the Bible, and may not take one word away from it.   The Holy Spirit does not continue to add new revelation; instead, the Holy Spirit teaches and guides us through this Word only.  The Bible is therefore the only source and norm for sound theology.

That is what we confess with the Reformed watchword “sola Scriptura”.

But in our day this foundational truth is more and more being denied by theologians in churches that still call themselves Reformed.   The very foundations are shifting.

For this reason I intent to write a series of articles on the Bible as the only source of revelation by which we can gain sound doctrine and by which we are to live.   The series will, DV, also deal with foundational matters such as epistemology (in this case: what the believer knows and how he knows it), the authority of Scripture, its clarity, sufficiency and necessity; closing the series with the principles for interpreting Scripture, which we draw from Scripture itself.    The purpose of this series is to reaffirm the principle of sola Scriptura for our entire faith and our entire life, showing its importance and relevance also for our day and time.   The articles might not follow regularly every fortnight but, DV, over a longer period of time.

In this first article we will make a small start and limit ourselves to the question: Is the so called “general revelation” another source and norm for theology?

How do we “read” creation?

In the Belgic Confession, Art. 2, we confess that we know God by two means: “First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book…”

In writing the Belgic Confession, Guido de Bres made abundant use of the writings and formulations of John Calvin.   Also in this second article it is helpful to see how Calvin has used and explain this image of creation and God’s providence as being as a book before our eyes.   Calvin wrote:

“For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly” (Calvin’s Institutes, translated by Henry Beveridge, 2009 edition, p 26).

In other words, although creation and history testify of God, we are only able to read this testimony through the glasses of Scripture.   Creation and history needs to be “read” or interpreted and understood through the glasses of Scripture; and without the instruction of Scripture there is no way in which we can gain any sound doctrine from God’s works in creation or history.

Calvin confirms this further by adding that “it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture” (ibid, p 28).  And he adds further:

“It being thus manifest that God, foreseeing the insufficiency of his image imprinted on the fair form of the universe, has given the assistance of his word to all whom he has ever been pleased to instruct effectually, we too, must pursue this straight path, if we aspire in earnest to a genuine contemplation of God – we must go, I say, to the word, where the character of God, drawn from his works, is described accurately and to the life; these works being estimated, not by our depraved judgment, but by the standard of eternal truth” (ibid, p. 28).

Our “depraved judgement” makes the “glasses” of Scripture indispensable to “read” creation and God’s providence in history.    Without Scripture we can gain no true knowledge, or as Calvin puts it: not the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine.

Calvin concludes this teaching by saying that the human mind, through its weakness, is unable to come to God if not aided and upheld by His sacred Word, and that we seek God in vain without the Word (ibid, p 29).

Article 2 of the Belgic Confession may not be read in isolation from Articles 5 and 7.   When it comes to the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith we turn to Scripture only.  Creation and God’s providence in history can only serve to confirm Scripture; and even that needs to be done through the glasses of Scripture.

We need to be absolutely certain and convinced of this, for a deviation on this point will have far reaching consequences for all of theology and life.

What does Scripture say about this?

Scripture teaches us that creation declares the glory of God.   We see God’s work in creation.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.   Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge.   There is no speech nor language where their voice is not heard.   Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world…” (Psalm 19: 1 – 4).

This is said even more clearly in Rom. 1: 18 – 21:

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them.  For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”

And with regard to God’s providence and care we read that the living God “did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14: 17), where it is said that God’s care and dealings with us “witness” of Him.

In the light of such passages it is clear that our confession in the Belgic Confession Art. 2 is fully Scriptural when it says that God makes Himself known by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe which is before our eyes as a most beautiful book; but seeing how much these passages of Scripture (and BC art. 2) have been misused in the past and present to come to some sort of “natural theology” adding or taking away from the principle of sola Scriptura, we need to spell out what Scripture does say, and what it does not say, about this.

In Rom. 1: 18 – 21 the apostle says that God’s eternal power and divinity is shown in the things He created, but that men suppress the truth in unrighteousness.   The words in verse 19, “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them” means: what may be known of God (in creation) is clearly shown to them, for God has shown it to them.   The words “what may be known” do not refer in that context to the intimate and sure knowledge of faith.   And when verse 21 says that they “knew” God, the reference is limited to the things that can be seen of God in creation, namely God’s power and divinity.   But the context makes clear that they did not gain any true knowledge of God.   The knowledge of God, in its full Scriptural meaning, is a knowledge which always leads man to glorify God; but in this case the knowledge refers to the testimony of creation to them and in them, which is at the same time rejected by them, and thus not known in the full sense of the word.   When it is said in verse 21 that the ungodly “knew” God, it is no true knowledge of God, but only rejected evidence of God.   Such rejected evidence of God is not a first step, or a stepping stone, to come to the true knowledge of God.

We have to read also this passage in the light of the rest of Scripture which everywhere clearly states that the Gentiles did not know God.

What does BC Article 2 say?

When we confess in the Belgic Confession Article 2 that we know God “first, by the creation…”, it does not mean that we first come to know God a little bit through creation and afterwards better through His Word (for our knowledge of God always comes first through the Word), but God started to reveal Himself when He created all things, and afterward revealed Himself more fully and clearly through the instruction of His Word.    That is the order to which Art. 2 refers; not the order in which we come to know God.

The first “means” in Article 2 is often called “general revelation” (due to a lack of finding a better term), but we have to understand that this “general revelation” does not imply general knowledge of God.   The Belgic Confession itself does not mean this.   When Article 2 says, “We know Him…”, the word “we” refers to the believers, just as in Article 1: “We all believe…”, and in Article 3: “We confess…”, etc.   Those who do not believe in Jesus Christ do not know God a little bit through creation.

A different view of man

It is especially man’s fallen state of total depravity and blindness, but also the natural lack of understanding that remains to a great extent in the believer, that makes the light of Scripture absolutely necessary to enable us to “read” creation and God’s providence in history.    Whenever the total depravity of the natural man is denied, and whenever the remaining sinfulness of the regenerate man is in any way ignored, so that either the totally depraved or the regenerate is viewed more positively than viewed by Scripture, the inevitable consequence for theology is to see “great potential” in the general revelation, and to compromise the principle of sola Scriptura in theology.

The Bible is our only source and norm for theology

We, Reformed believers, accept Holy Scripture – the whole Bible and the Bible only – as the only source of revelation by which we are able to know our God truly, clearly and surely; to know Him and His salvation, and His will for our lives, and any part of sound doctrine.   The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by this means only, and He guides and confirms us in the truth by this Word only.  God’s revealed Word in Scripture is our only source and norm for theology, or sound doctrine.

This is the most basic principle for Reformed Dogmatics.   H Bavinck, for example, in his Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Reformed Dogmatics), said that the Reformation acknowledges Holy Scripture as the only principle for theology (he used the Latin term “principium unicum”) (1918, p 73).   And so said all of us.   But the times have changed, for there are many theologians today who still call themselves Reformed, but who consciously, deliberately and blatantly move away from this foundation.

This article only made a small start in dealing with the matter, but I trust that the planned Sola Scriptura series will DV continue and that the importance and relevance of the topic will become abundantly clear – also for our time.