The Necessity of the Bible
We, the Church of Christ, cannot believe in Christ, cannot live in Christ, and cannot grow in Christ without God’s revealed Word in Scripture. The Bible is the only source and the only foundation of true doctrine. Without the Bible there can be no true church and no true religion. Thus we confess the necessity of Holy Scripture. Any deviation from this confession leads to gross heresy and false religion.
The Roman Catholic Church, mystics such as Anabaptists and Charismatics, and liberal theologians, do not acknowledge the absolute necessity of the Bible. They believe that the Holy Spirit guides the church also apart from the instruction of God’s revealed Word in Scripture.
According to Rome the Spirit guides the church in an infallible way by means of the Pope, in whom the apostolic office continues. And thus, according to Rome, the church can exist without the Bible. The Bible is then still acknowledged as a very helpful norm and means, but not as absolutely necessary.
Mystics believe that the Holy Spirit continues to reveal the truth to individuals also apart from Holy Scripture. Thus, according to them, true faith is possible without the Word. The Bible is then not regarded as the only source of truth on which our faith is founded but only as an important and helpful means to climb to higher spirituality. Furthermore, the mature believer reaches such a level of spiritual knowledge and communion with God through the indwelling of the Spirit that he can do very well without the Bible. The Bible is then still helpful, especially for the young believer, but not necessary.
Church history has shown how such mysticism leads in the end to rationalism. Both mysticism and rationalism have the source of truth not in an external Word, the Bible, but internal in man himself. The mystic ascribes his own internal knowledge to the working of the Spirit, and the rationalist ascribes his own internal knowledge to the “light of nature”, but both find the knowledge and the light in themselves. The mystic calls it the enlightment of the Spirit, and the religious rationalist calls it the “natural light” of man’s mind and conscience, but in the end there is no real difference: man lives by his own internal knowledge and light.
Most modern and postmodern theologians today, also in churches that still call themselves Reformed, deny the necessity of the Bible. They do not make a clear distinction between the revelation and the enlightment of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enlightens all believers and, according to them, this enlightment of the Spirit was the cause and source of Scripture, so that the Bible is not regarded as supernatural revelation through divine inspiration. God, then, has not given the Bible to the church by the hand of prophets and apostles through special revelation (only), but the church itself has written the Bible through the enlightment of the Spirit. That enlightment of the Spirit continues so that the Bible is not absolutely necessary but only a helpful norm and means for instruction. The Bible is then the product of the church under the enlightment of the Spirit, instead of the church being built on the revealed Word of God. The Bible then rests on the church, and not the church on the Bible. The church, indwelled by the Spirit, is then self-sufficient without the Bible.
The Spirit and the Word
God, through His Son Jesus Christ, reveals His truth to us by His Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit there is no revelation of truth. But now, with regard to the necessity of Scripture, the question is: How does this revelation of truth by the Holy Spirit come to us? Does the Holy Spirit give us the true knowledge of God and faith also apart from God’s revealed Word in Scripture; or does He impart this to us by means of God’s revealed Word only?
The Bible gives us a clear answer. God’s revealed Word is the only means by which the Holy Spirit imparts to us both the knowledge of the gospel as well as faith in Christ. Furthermore, God’s Word is not only the seed of regeneration by which we are made alive in Christ, but also the food by which we continue to grow in Christ. Scripture teaches this clearly in passages such as Romans 10: 13 – 17 and 1 Peter 1: 23 – 25. Thus we also confess it in various articles of our confessions, such as Lord’s Day 7, Answer 21; Lord’s Day 25, Question and Answer 65; Canons of Dort, Chapter 1, Article 3, and Chapter 5, article 14.
With regard to Lord’s Day 25, Question and Answer 65, we have to note that the sacraments are not mentioned as a second means by which the Holy Spirit gives us faith, but that He uses the sacraments to strengthen the faith which He has worked in us by the preaching of the gospel.
So then, the Holy Spirit joins us to Christ by a true faith which He works in us through the preaching and proclamation of God’s Word. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17). And since we now have the revealed Word of God only in Holy Scripture, we need the Bible with absolute necessity.
One of the main arguments of Rome against the necessity of the Bible is that the church existed before the Bible, and therefore can exist without it. That argument, however, is totally flawed. The church never existed without God’s revealed Word, and today we have the revealed Word of God in Scripture only. The Holy Spirit uses this means only, the revealed Word of God, to teach and guide us in the truth.
The relevance of this doctrine
We live in a time of church deformation. When we look at the large bonds of Reformed churches worldwide we see a trend of deformation, a direction away from Scripture as the only source and foundation of our faith. In this process a denial of the necessity of Scripture plays a major part. Scripture is in general still viewed as norm for our faith, and as an important means for edification, but no longer as the only source of revelation and truth on which our entire faith, and our entire life, is based and founded.
In dealing with the necessity of Scripture the key point is the relation between Word and Spirit. Does the Spirit guide the church also without God’s revealed Word in Scripture, or not? It also concerns the question of ongoing revelation: Does the Spirit guide the church into new truths today? Moreover, it concerns the distinction between the unique revelation of the Spirit in Scripture and the Spirit’s ongoing work of enlightment. And it concerns the relation between the Word and church: Did the church produce the Word, or did the Word produce the church? Which one rests on which as source?
Let us illustrate the relevance of this topic with a few examples from church history and our own day. John Calvin, in his letter to cardinal Sadolet (September 1539), in which he refutes various errors of Sadolet and Rome, speaks among other things about the term Church and its relation to the Spirit and the Word, and points out the error of boasting about having the Spirit and the guidance of the Holy Spirit while separating the work of the Spirit from the Word. He writes:
“When you describe it (the Church – RMR) as that which in all parts, as well as at the present time, in every region of the earth, being united and consenting in Christ, has been always and everywhere directed by the one Spirit of Christ, what comes of the Word of the Lord, that clearest of all marks, and which the Lord Himself, in pointing out the Church, so often recommends to us? For seeing how dangerous it would be to boast of the Spirit without the Word, He declares that the Church is indeed governed by the Holy Spirit, but in order that that government might not be vague and unstable, He annexed it to the Word. For this reason Christ exclaims, that those who are of God hear the word of God – that His sheep are those which recognise His voice as that of their Shepherd, and any other voice as that of strangers, (John 10: 27). For this reason the Spirit, by the mouth of Paul, declares, (Eph. 2: 20) that the Church is built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets. Also, that the Church is made holy to the Lord, by the washing of water in the word of life. The same thing is declared still more clearly by the mouth of Peter, when he teaches that people are regenerated to God by that incorruptable seed, (1 Peter 1: 23). In short, why is the preaching of the gospel so often styled the kingdom of God, but because it is the sceptre by which the heavenly King rules His people?” (Calvin’s Tracts relating to The Reformation, 1844, Volume 1, p 35, 36)
Calvin continues to correct Sadolet by adding further:
“Well, then, does Chrysostom admonish us to reject all who, under the pretence of the Spirit, lead us away from the simple doctrine of the gospel – the Spirit having been promised not to reveal a new doctrine, but to impress the truth of the gospel on our minds. And we, in fact, experience in the present day how necessary the admonition was. We are assailed by two sects, which seem to differ most widely from each other. For what similitude is there in appearance between the Pope and the Anabaptists? And yet, that you may see that Satan never transforms himself so cunningly, as not in some measure to betray himself, the principal weapon with which they both assail us is the same. For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods. And you, Sadolet, by stumbling on the very threshold, have paid the penalty of that affront which you offered to the Holy Spirit, when you separated Him from the Word.” (ibid, p 36)
Rome and the Anabaptists met each other in this mutual error that both boasted of the guidance of the Spirit without acknowledging that the teaching and guidance of the Spirit is only by means of the revealed Word of God as we have it in Scripture. Thus they separated the guidance and work of the Spirit from the Word and denied the necessity of Scripture.
In refuting the Anabaptists on this point of separating the work of the Spirit from the Word, Calvin wrote:
“…the Holy Spirit so cleaves to His own truth, as He has expressed it in Scripture, that He then only exerts and puts forth His strength when the Word is received with due honour and respect.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 9, par. 3, translated by Henry Beveridge, 2008, p 45)
Calvin states further that the children of God…
“…know of no other Spirit than the one who dwelled and spoke in the apostles – the Spirit by whose oracles they are daily invited to the hearing of the word.” (ibid, p 45)
Thus the Reformers upheld the inseparable unity of Word and Spirit over against Rome and the Anabaptists. Thereby the Reformers confirmed the necessity of Holy Scripture, for the Spirit will not guide or rule the church without God’s revealed Word in Scripture, but by this means only.
The error of Rome and the Anabaptists of separating the work of the Spirit from the Word is very much alive in our own day, not only among Charismatics, but also among theologians who are Reformed in name only. When men separate the work of the Spirit from the Word man attributes his own opinion to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, irrespective of what Scripture may teach on the matter. When the clear teachings of Scripture clash with the culture of our day, theologians seek for a hermeneutical tool whereby Scripture may be reinterpreted to suit our own time and context and to agree with the opinion of man; but this self-willed religion is practiced under the pretence of being led by the Spirit. The situation is then portrayed as if Scripture is not clear on this point or on that matter but that we are waiting on the Holy Spirit to guide us into new truths and new understandings of Scripture in our time and context, which may well be in practice the very opposite of what the apostles have written to the churches in their time and context. To say it in the words of Calvin as quoted above: “when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods”. It is then portrayed as if the Bible is a very difficult and unclear ancient book, but luckily we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and to unite us even when no one agrees about the teachings of Scripture!
The Holy Spirit does indeed teach and guide us in the truth, but never without the Word; much less in contradiction with the Word! To remain in the true faith we need God’s revealed Word, the Bible, with absolute necessity.
Prof. J van Genderen wrote:
“If Scripture were not necessary, it would lose its central position. Something else would move into the centre: the church (Rome), spiritual man (spiritualism), the religious community (Schleiermacher), or man’s personal opinion. In practice, the necessity of Scripture means that one must apply oneself diligently to the reading and hearing of Scripture, if one seeks to receive any gain and benefit and any fruit from the Spirit of God (Calvin, Institutes, 1.9.2). To say it with Polanus: in this life we need Scripture for our daily bread!” (Concise Reformed Dogmatics, 2008, p 107)
Over against Rome and the Anabaptists the Reformers confessed and defended the authority of Scripture, the necessity of Scripture, the sufficiency of Scripture and the clarity of Scripture. These characteristics of Scripture are once more under strong attack. In the next article we will, DV, look at the war that rages around the clarity of Scripture.