Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone – was the central struggle of the great sixteenth century Reformation when the Roman Catholic Church made Scripture dependent on the church’s traditions and authority, and when the Anabaptists elevated the ‘inner light’ above Scripture. Sola Scriptura continued to be the key issue in subsequent reformations. In this article Rev M Retief shows why the Roman Catholic Church and various sects act contrary to God’s Word when they claim that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the church into new truths. He shows how a false reinterpretation of Scripture also occurs when today extra-biblical sources such as narrative styles, metaphor, fiction and errors of non-Biblical literature are used as indicators of how we have to read and understand the Bible.
Sola Scriptura (7)
The sufficiency of Holy Scripture
As Reformed believers we confess the completeness and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. We confess this clearly and boldly in the Belgic Confession, 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. The whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in it at length. It is therefore unlawful for any one, even for an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in Holy Scripture: yes, even if it be an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says (Gal. 1: 8). Since it is forbidden to add or to take away anything from the Word of God (Deut. 12: 32), it is evident that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects.
We may not consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with the divine Scriptures; nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and lighter than a breath (Ps. 62: 9). We therefore reject with all our heart whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us: Test the spirits to see whether they are of God (1 Jn 4: 1). Likewise: If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting (2 Jn 1: 10).”
The Roman Catholic Church teaches, however, that Holy Scripture is indeed very helpful but that, in the final analysis, it is neither necessary nor sufficient. However, it says that the church is sufficient in itself and should live by its own traditions. According to Rome the complete doctrine is not found in Holy Scripture but in the traditions of the Church. Whilst Holy Scripture is part of that tradition, and remains dependant on that tradition for its authority and interpretation, the tradition also goes beyond and above Scripture. Thus the Romish church teaches many doctrines which are not found in Scripture, such as their seven sacraments, purgatory, Mary being without original sin, teachings from the apocryphal books, and countless superstitions, fantasies, and inventions of men.
Over against this the Reformation confessed the completeness and sufficiency of Holy Scripture as quoted in the Belgic confession, above: it contains the complete doctrine that we must believe, and the whole manner in which we are to serve God. Nothing may be added or be taken away – not even by an angel from heaven!
Rome upholds its own tradition next to and above Scripture; the Reformation honours tradition only to the extent that it flows from and rests on Holy Scripture.
Word and Spirit
Our confession regarding the sufficiency of Holy Scripture also relates to the relation between Word and Spirit. Rome, and many other sects, believes that the Holy Spirit continues to teach the church new things and to guide the church into new truths after the completion of Holy Scripture. For this Rome uses John 16: 13 as proof text:
“…when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and will tell you things to come.”
John Calvin explains the meaning of this text, saying that this promise was given to the apostles, and that this promise found its fulfilment in the writings of the apostles in Holy Scripture. He says:
“That very Spirit had led them into all truth, when they committed to writing the substance of their doctrine. Whoever imagines that anything must be added to their doctrine, as if it were imperfect and but half-finished, not only accuses the apostles of dishonesty, but blasphemes against the Holy Spirit.”
“…now that their writings may be regarded as perpetual records of that revelation which was promised and given to them, nothing can be added to them without doing grievous injury to the Holy Spirit.” (Calvin’s Commentaries, 2005, book 18, volume 2, p 143)
C Bouma explains this verse, John 16: 13, saying that the apostolic letters are the fruit of this promise of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gave the apostles in His work of inspiration what He heard from the Father. And with reference to the words “and will tell you things to come” Bouma explains that “the fulfilment of this promise is given in the letters of the apostles and in the Revelation of John” (Korte Verklaring der Heilige Schrift, 1964, Het Evangelie naar Johannes, vol. 2, p 120, my translation).
The apostles received the full revelation of truth and have put it to writing, and that revealed truth in writing is the guidance of the Spirit to the church of all ages. The Holy Spirit continues to enlighten our minds so that we may understand this truth, but He does not add new or different truths.
Not only Rome, but also the Anabaptists and many other sects, claimed that the Spirit continues to guide the church into new truths. Calvin refuted this error in his Institutes, where he was writing about the Romish claim that the church cannot err because it is guided by the Spirit. It brought him to the topic of the relation between Word and Spirit when speaking about the guidance of the Spirit. He wrote:
“And that my readers may better understand the hinge on which the question chiefly turns, I will briefly explain what our opponents demand, and what we resist. When they deny that the church can err, their end and meaning are to this effect: Since the church is governed by the Spirit of God, she can walk safely without the word; in whatever direction she moves she cannot think or speak anything but the truth, and hence, if she determines anything without or besides the word of God, it must be regarded in no other light than if it were a divine oracle. If we grant the first point – i.e., that the church cannot err in things necessary to salvation – our meaning is, that she cannot err, because she has altogether discarded her own wisdom, and submits to the teaching of the Holy Spirit through the word of God. Here then is the difference. They place the authority of the church without the word of God; we annex it to the word, and allow it not to be separated from it.” (Institutes, book 4, chapter 8, par 13, 2008, p 767, 768)
Calvin then, in the same passage, comes to the frequently quoted text of John 16: 13, and says:
“ ‘When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth’ (John 16: 13). How? ‘He shall bring to your remembrance all things whatsoever I have said unto you.’ He declares, therefore, that nothing more is to be expected of his Spirit than to enlighten our minds to perceive the truth of his doctrine.”
“We may now easily infer how erroneously our opponents act in boasting of the Holy Spirit, for no other end than to give the credit of his name to strange doctrines, extraneous to the word of God, whereas he himself desires to be inseparably connected with the word of God; and Christ declares the same thing of him, when he promises him to the church. And so indeed it is. The soberness which our Lord once prescribed to his church, he wishes to be perpetually observed. He forbade that anything should be added to his word, and that anything should be taken from it. This is the inviolable decree of God and the Holy Spirit, a decree which our opponents endeavour to annul when they pretend that the church is guided by the Spirit without the word.” (ibid, p 768)
The error which holds that the Spirit continues to guide the church today into new truths apart from and besides what has clearly been revealed in Scripture is not limited to Romish theology. Liberal theologians such as H Berkhof and JM Kuitert, and many other representatives of modern theology, argued that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the church into new truths, appealing to John 16: 13. We find this today especially with charismatics and some evangelicals.
However, Holy Scripture has come to completion. God has given us His complete and perfect Word. Also the Holy Spirit does not add anything to this Word, but guides the church with the revealed truth contained in Holy Scripture.
Hermeneutics and the sufficiency of Holy Scripture
The completeness and sufficiency of Holy Scripture also means that we do not need extra-Biblical sources to come to the correct understanding of Scripture.
It is one of the most basic and most important principles of Reformed hermeneutics that we allow Scripture to be its own interpreter. We do not allow extra-Biblical information to determine the meaning of Scripture; Scripture itself has the final say in matters of interpretation and the meaning of its own text.
We allow Scripture to interpret itself when we compare Scripture with Scripture. One passage of Scripture can never contradict another passage. When our interpretation of a specific text contradicts the clear teaching of the rest of Scripture, our interpretation of the text is wrong. And where Scripture gives its own reasons for saying something, we do not try to place the words in a different context than the context which Scripture itself provides. And when Scripture presents something to us as history, we don’t try to interpret it as a metaphor in which the historicity of the facts becomes irrelevant, etc. We allow Scripture to speak for itself and to tell us how it wants to be interpreted.
It is possible to compare Scripture with Scripture in a fruitful and conclusive way because Scripture is clear revelation, has one divine Author who does not contradict Himself, forms a complete and perfect unity, and has one doctrine which is comprehensive, complete and sufficient. This completeness and sufficiency of Scripture also includes the principles for Scripture interpretation.
When theologians say with the mouth that they allow Scripture to have the last say, while at the same time they allow, for example, ancient literature in which fact and fiction are mixed together to serve as parallel of how the Bible writers wrote, and thus to throw “light” on the way in which we should read Holy Scripture, the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of Scripture are denied in practice. Narrative styles, metaphor, fiction and errors of non-Biblical literature then become indicators of how we have to read the Bible! Then the first chapters of Genesis, for example, may be interpreted very different from the way Scripture itself presents and interprets its own words.
Reformed hermeneutics stand on the principle of sola Scriptura, which is only possible if, and as long as, the authority, necessity, clarity and sufficiency of Scripture are acknowledged. We hope to come back to this point when we will DV discuss the principles for Bible interpretation.
In our next article we will DV look at the unity of Scripture and how this unity provides a solid foundation for Scripture interpretation.