Scripture is the only source and norm for Reformed theology
The whole concept of theology has undergone a metamorphosis in our day, also in many churches that still call themselves Reformed. The source of theology, its method, its nature and its purpose have all been redefined. Theology is no longer regarded as authoritative doctrine. In the past Reformed dogmatics was regarded as the doctrine which the church believes and teaches on the basis of Scripture, but now hardly anyone still believes in absolute truth, or even in the possibility to know the truth, or to know anything for sure. Therefore the subject Dogmatics which spoke with authority, “Thus says the Lord”, had to be replaced by a “systematic theology” practiced with the game rules of western science in a modern and post-modern context.
Theology is now viewed as a science which has to function just as any other western science. That includes the method of observing facts, which leads to theories, experiment, adjustment of theories, and to some extent of consensus (for a time). Theology is no longer expected to come with certain and absolute “truth statements”, but rather with scientifically acceptable probabilities, theories and suggestions. This new theology has many sources to aid it in its theory making, often with a philosophical starting point. The dogmatician no longer needs to confine the source of his theology to Scripture, speaking God’s words after Him. Theology has emancipated itself from the principle of sola Scriptura.
This “theology” operates from the conviction that absolute certainty of the truth is neither possible nor necessary. In this experimental theology also man’s own reason, will, emotions, experiences, intuition, and religious behaviour contributes to theological knowledge, and becomes to a great extent the subject of scientific study with the help of philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and many other social and human sciences as “scientific aids” in theology.
As “full blood scientist” the theologian also needs to be critical in his view and use of Scripture (is Scripture scientifically reliable?) and definitely critical of the “outdated” confessions of the church, seeking to keep theology relevant in a changing world. That also affects the “outdated” principle of sola Scriptura.
Reformed over against Romish theology
In many Reformed churches there is a movement back to Rome and to the theology of Rome. The pressure is on to compromise also the principle of sola Scriptura. Romish theology has many sources and norms: creation, church tradition, Scripture, infallible pronouncements from the pope, ongoing revelation by the Holy Spirit, “the natural light of the human reason”, mystic experiences, etc. In our previous article (14 June 2015) we made a start to reaffirm that Scripture is the only source and norm for Reformed theology, and also explained why creation cannot serve as another source and norm for theology. This stands in direct opposition to Rome who teaches that man is able by means of the natural light of the human reason to know God through that which is created (see the description of Rome’s teaching regarding Natural Theology in ‘Beknopte Gereformeerde Dogmatiek’, Van Genderen and Velema, 1992, p. 126).
With regard to God’s revelation in Scripture being our only source and norm for sound doctrine it is worthwhile to see how Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics has formulated the Reformed stance:
“The Reformation returned to Holy Scripture and, along with the ancient Christian church, acknowledged it as the sole foundation of theology (The original Dutch text, 1918, reads: “het eenig principium der theologie” – RMR). Rome by degrees elevated tradition to a level above Scripture, while mystics and rationalists alike draw the content of dogmatics from the religious subject” (Reformed Dogmatics, 2003, volume 1, p. 78)
“Dogmatics can only exist if there is a divine revelation on whose authority it rests and whose content it unfolds” (ibid, p. 80)
“In no domain of life are the intellect and the heart, reason and conscience, feeling and imagination, the epistemic source of truth but only organs by which we perceive the truth and make it our own.” (ibid, p. 80)
“It is therefore noteworthy that Holy Scripture never refers human beings to themselves as the epistemic source and standard of religious truth. How, indeed, could it, since it describes the ‘natural’ man as totally darkened and corrupted by sin in his intellect (Ps. 14:3; Rom. 1: 21–23; Rom. 8:7; 1Cor. 1:23; 2:14; 2Cor. 3:5; Eph. 4:23; Gal. 1:6,7; 1Tim. 6: 5; 2Tim. 3: 8) in his heart (Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Jer. 17: 9; Ezek. 36:26; Mark 7:21) in his will (John 8:34; Rom. 7:14; 8:7; Eph. 2:3) as well as in his conscience (Jer. 17: 9; 1Cor. 8:7,10,12; 10:28; 1Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:15)? For the knowledge of truth Scripture always refers us to objective revelation, to the word and instruction that proceeds from God (Deut. 4:1; Isa. 8:20; John 5:39; 2Tim. 3: 15; 2Pet. 1:19 etc.) And where the objective truth is personally appropriated by us by faith, that faith still is never like a fountain that from itself brings forth the living water but a channel that conducts the water to us from another source.” (ibid, p. 80. 81)
“Originally natural theology was by no means intended to pave the way, step by laborious step, for revealed theology. In adopting it, one was not assuming the provisional stance of reason in order next, by reasoning and proof, to mount to the higher level of faith. But from the very outset the dogmatician took a stand on the ground of faith and, as a Christian and believer, now also looked at nature. Then, with his Christian eyes, armed by Holy Scripture, he also discovered in nature the footprints of the God whom he had come to know – in Christ and by Scripture – as Father.” (ibid, p 87)
“And in the same way, speaking objectively, nature did not stand on its own as an independent principle alongside of Holy Scripture, each of them supplying a set of truths of their own. Instead, nature was viewed in the light of Scripture, and Scripture not only contained the revealed truth – revealed in the strict sense of the word – but Scripture also contains the truths which a believer can discover in nature.” (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 1918, volume 1, p 74 – my translation)
“Finally, the doctrine of Holy Scripture as the sole foundation (unicum principium) of theology is truly reformational and Reformed. Articles 2 and 7 of the Belgic Confession expressly teach that the knowledge of God and of serving him can only be drawn from Scripture. Therefore Scripture is truly the source and not only the norm.” (ibid, p 75, my translation) (In Reformed Dogmatics, 2003, volume 1, p 89 the English translation reads: “Therefore Scripture is definitely a source and not only a norm”, but the original Dutch (1918) reads: “dat ze dus wel ter dege bron is en niet alleen norma.” Bavinck does not call Scripture a source and a norm, but says that it is both source and norm of theology. The context makes abundantly clear that he is speaking of the only source and the only norm of theology.)
Bavinck also speaks of those who acknowledge Scripture as norm, but not as the source, and say that they thus degrade Scripture to be norm (ibid, p 74).
Speaking about Reformed Dogmatics, Bavinck concludes:
“Virtually every dogmatics begins with the doctrine of Scripture as the sole foundation (unicum principium) of theology” (ibid, p 76)
Throughout he emphasises that Holy Scripture is not only the norm but the only source of theology. But how the times have changed!
New theology in Kampen
In 2004 the Theological University (TU) at Kampen, where our Dutch sister churches have their theological training, published an explanation of the way in which they practice theology. The publication was called “Gereformeerde theologie vandaag: oriëntatie en verantwoording” (“Reformed theology today: orientation and account”) with Prof. A.L.Th de Bruijne as editor. Twelve theological professors and lecturers of the TU at Kampen each wrote about his own subject. Prof. De Bruijne wrote the first chapter, under the heading: Reformed Theology Today. He describes theology as a scientific practice moulded by western thinking, which needs to be played by the game rules of western science. It is a chapter worth reading for anyone interested in what is happening with theology in Kampen today.
De Bruijne does not want to narrow the object of theology down to “revealed knowledge of God” (Kuyper) or to “God’s revelation” (Douma). Such an emphasis on the Word – which he admits was common in the past – led to a too narrow view of theology.
De Bruijne sees theology as a human science which like any other science is practiced by the human ability to think and to process information, gained from God in the reality of His revelation, from the life of the church in this world, and from creation itself. The method, according to him, must also include the methods of experimental science. I quote:
“She (Reformed theology – RMR) must develop more appreciation for the hypothetical and model-orientated nature of many aspects in scientific practice. Kuyper worked with a naïf-realistic view of science. Many Reformed theologians probably still do it today. Then science produces true knowledge about reality with an objective character.” (Gereformeerde theologie vandaag, 2004, p 23 – my translation)
He continues on p 23: “Knowledge has a human character and is therefore always temporary and fallible.” The status of the results of our investigations remains temporary. “It is about hypothesis on a journey and the model/framework-character of much of our knowledge remains a relativising factor.” “If theology today really wants to be scientific, she needs to develop a greater recognition of the relative character of much of her pronouncements and results.” We “must not forget the difference between God’s truth itself and our knowledge of it. The distinction becomes even bigger in our theological scientific processing of it. It does not reach above the sphere of fallibility and temporality. And apart from direct pronouncements of faith theology also contains hypothesis in the making and uses theories and models with a temporal character. That needs to be acknowledged and to be put into practice.” (ibid, p 23, 24)
Theology, without neglecting the congregation, also needs to seek the forum of colleagues. “Exactly when it seeks with some investigation results and proposals the circle of colleagues in the sphere of the ‘game’ of the scientific discussion and not in the first place that of the congregation, theology preserves her humble character and prevents unnecessary confusion in the congregation when what is meant as hypothesis is understood as final truths. On the flip side of the coin, however, the theologians need to receive this space/freedom also in the church. Without such relative scientific discussion space/freedom theology as science cannot survive. If the church expects from theology in all her expressions ‘true words about the reality’, she condemns theology to unfruitfulness. It leads to an anxious, silent, irrelevant theology that never sticks out her neck, a theology which allows her creativity to be smothered, and forgets that she needs to work sympathetic-critical with the doctrine of the church.” (ibid p 25)
“Theology must offer more space to empirical investigation. In almost all contemporary sciences empirical methods play a role. Whoever fails to use this tool does not sufficiently utilise the possibilities and places himself in a backward position in a scientific context.” (ibid, p 25)
In short, the TU at Kampen wants to be on the forefront of scientific development, and wants to practice theology as a typical western science. They are no longer willing to focus so exclusively on God’s revealed Word in Scripture as Reformed theology has done in the past. New study fields and aids need to be added with new methods for the theology of today. The definition of theology is broadened to accommodate this desire and focus shift. Holy Scripture is no longer the only source and norm for theology.
Furthermore, all theological knowledge is regarded as human knowledge processed through the human thinking ability, fallible and temporal, and to a great extent hypothetical and experimental. There has come a growing distance between God’s truth and our understanding of it. Sola Scriptura is also under attack by a new hermeneutics which plays a key role in theology today – a hermeneutics that no longer allows Scripture to speak for itself. We leave that for a next article DV.