Faithful to Scripture and Confession Today
Faithful to Scripture and Confession Today
What does it mean today to be faithful to Scripture and confession? Actually, there are two elements within this question. There is something which always remains the same and there is something which changes.
1. Faithful to Scripture⤒🔗
The Scriptures always remain the same. The Bible was given to us as a whole and there is nothing we can add to it or take away. We can change the translation, but the Bible does not change in this. The Bible does not change because Jesus Christ does not change. Jesus Christ remains the same, yesterday, today and forever (Hebr.13:8). He is the One who comes to us in the Holy Scriptures. These have been given to us for once and always as the Word of Jesus Christ, always the same gospel.
Something else which does not change lightly is the confession. The confession is not as unchangeable as the Bible. Our confessional statements have gone through a long history, but in the confession we see especially continuity, stability. We confess the same Faith in predestination as did the Synod of Dort, almost four centuries ago, the same faith in the godliness of Jesus Christ as at Nicea, almost 17 centuries ago. We cannot suddenly make changes to the confession on our own initiative. We have agreed that we can only do that together as churches. This gives the confession also a very stable character. No wonder, it is the confession of Jesus Christ, whose name always remains the same.
But the question is: what does it mean today to be faithful to Scripture and confession? And with this an element of change clouds our view. The Bible is unchangeable and our confession is also fixed, but our situation keeps changing. Being faithful to Scripture and confession does therefore not mean that you can always keep saying the same things. In a new situation you are obliged to highlight other things from the Bible. I think of the scribe about whom the Lord Jesus preaches in Matthew 13:52: “every teacher of the law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old”. New and old things! The new stays up front because with our unchangeable Bible we stand in ever changing situations. You see this happening in the course of history: in times of reformation new things are brought to light from the Bible. When Augustine taught that man is completely dependent upon God’s grace, they thought him to be a modernist, who could do with cleaning his act up a bit. When Luther discovered that our righteousness before God does not consist of our good works but that God lets us share in His righteousness, they wanted him to be silent with his pernicious modernism! The Bible was opened and new things came to the light. Some thought it was marvellous, some wanted to know nothing of it.
And that is where it becomes tense. On the one hand unchangeable Bible, a fixed confession. On the other hand a situation which keeps changing, and which requires new things. This tension is characteristic for the situation in which our churches find themselves at this moment. In a new time, in a new century we want to move on with the old word of our God. That causes questions to rise, differences of opinion, discussions. We cannot avoid these. We cannot let the Bible stay closed and only focus upon the new times: then we would lose control and be unable to follow a stable course. We can also not only repeat that which was said in years gone by: then we would be unfaithful to our calling for today. We only can go along together by being faithful to Scripture and confession today.
Scripture and Confession←↰⤒🔗
Scripture and confession, can you put them on the same line? Is it true that they are not the same? The Bible is God’s Word, the confession is the word of man. Nonetheless, there is a certain similarity. In the church we have promised to abide by both Scripture and confession. Both constitute the norm in the church. When the minister says things in a sermon which go against the Bible, then you may go to him and address him on that point: you are not allowed to say that, because in the Bible it is stated differently. But, if the minister preaches against the confession, you may also approach him: he has promised to keep to that confession. There is a difference in the way in which the Scriptures and confession are normative. In what follows, I will say more about this. But there is also similarity: in the church we may address each other on the question of Scripture and confession. We want to be faithful to both.
The Bible is the absolute norm for the church That is to say: all other agreements which we hold to within the church are subject to the Bible. But the Bible itself is not subject to any single limitation. In the church we have a great many agreements: the confession, the church order, synod decisions, local arrangements etc. But these never go above the Bible and if they are in stride with the Bible then they must be changed. Not any agreement is an absolute norm – only the Bible is. The Bible is free. The Bible has absolute authority.
It is not so that we in the church, grant the Bible this special status, or that we declare the Bible to be valid. We give no authority to the Bible, the Bible has authority in and of itself. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic church is that the Bible has the church to thank for her authority.
But Calvin opposes this with the words of Paul in Ephesians 2:20: the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets”.
The church is built on the Bible, not the other way around. The Bible is the word of God. God has the highest authority in the church, that is why His word has the highest authority. Nothing can oppose this.
Nevertheless, we would like to have our say often enough. Because the Bible is often a very awkward and maladjusted book. The Bible does not adapt itself to our norms and values but lays down on us her norms and values and we can have great difficulties with those.
The Bible is often opposite to our culture. What the Bible says about sex, about the relationship between man and woman, about creation, about our total dependency upon God and so on: it simply does not fit in our modern day culture. For this reason there is so much resistance to the Bible.
You do not need to be surprised at this, that can be no other way. An absolute norm always collides with other norms and values. Then people see the Bible as out of date: ridiculous to obey it. Or the Bible could be seen as a dangerous book. So called Christian fundamentalists are put on a level with Muslim fundamentalists. That is how much resistance the Bible arouses today.
But we must not forget: the Bible is often equally contrary to our own church and Christian culture and tradition. Naturally, our traditions and habits are decided partly by the Bible. But our tradition does not have the last word. Only the Bible is the absolute norm. For this reason, being faithful to the Scriptures today means being prepared to hold our Christian and church life up to the light of the Bible. Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda: the reformed church must always keep being reformed. You always have to be critical also of your own past and your own habits. Because the Bible does not adjust to us, but we must always listen to the Bible again.
For this reason it is not objectionable modernism when critical questions are raised about our liturgy, about our choice of spiritual songs, about our youth work, about our church life, about our preaching. Does everything have to stay as it was in the past? No, of course not, because the past is not our norm. Does everything then have to change? No, of course not, because change is not our norm either. But the Bible is our norm and we always have to return to it. The Bible teaches us to look critically at ourselves. The Bible wants to instruct us in being disciples of Jesus today, disciples of the kingdom of heaven. Then we take new and old treasures out of our storeroom. The question when there is renewal in the church must always be: is this the way for us to be faithful to the Scriptures today? Not: was it like this in the past? Nor: do they do it like this everywhere? But: what do the Scriptures ask of us?
I began my work at the Theological University in Kampen with a lecture about the clarity of the Bible. The clarity of the Bible means: we are not dependent upon others for the explanation of the Bible, not dependant on the church, not dependent upon science. The Bible explains itself. The Holy Spirit explains Himself. God the Triune One speaks in the Bible in such a way that we can clearly understand Him.
The clarity of the Bible does not mean that there are no difficult texts in the Bible. Of course there are. Everybody who studies the Bible knows this. Nor does the clarity of the Bible mean that the simplest explanation of the Bible is always the best. Sometimes you have to take a Bible text not in a literal sense but as imagery – not because you cannot believe it literally but because the literal explanation does not do justice to what God wants to say to us. When in Psalm 42:7 David says “all your waves and breakers have swept over me”, then this is a metaphorical way of putting it, a way of poetic licence which indicates how great David’s need of God is. If you take this literally, you do not do justice to the text. Sometimes you need to bring a portion of Scripture in context with another in order to understand it well. When Mark 16:16 says: “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved”, that does not mean that only believers can be baptised, because the Bible tells us much more about the place of children in the church. It is not always about the simplest explanation, but it surely is always about doing justice to the Bible.
The clarity of the Bible means also that everybody is free to call upon the Bible. The clarity of the Bible means that we, reformed believers, are not automatically right. Others can also be right if they call upon the Bible. In short, the clarity of the Bible can set us in a critical light. We must be prepared to be open to questions about our faithfulness to the Scriptures. We must be prepared to explain what we believe. He who appeals to the Scriptures must be heard in the church because God’s Word is clear. It does not let itself automatically be caught in our reformed exegesis. A Baptist who is faithful to the Bible may address us about our argumentation for infant baptism. And he must let himself be addressed by us about his argumentation for the ‘believers baptism’. Faithfulness to the Scriptures can take questioning, if it is good, even opposition against our reformed convictions. Let the Bible be the judge. This means: let God, who speaks His word, be the Judge.
I want to bring one other aspect of the Bible to the forefront here. It is what I like to refer to as the ‘relief’ of the Bible. With that I mean that all of the Bible is God’s Word, but that not all of it is of the same importance. We talk about the relief of a landscape: there are peaks and dales and plains. In the Bible we see the same. There are high peaks from which you can have a good view of God’s unlimited goodness in Jesus Christ. These are the texts we have in our heads and in our hearts such as John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.
There are plains in which nothing special appears to happen, the genealogies, the stories about every phase of the journey through the wilderness. There are the valleys of unimportant details: “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come – and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (2 Tim.4:13).
Is it a pity that the Bible is like this, that not every text weighs the same? Absolutely not. It is the beauty of the Bible. The Bible is the book of the history of God with His people. In this history, God is with his people day by day. It is never too much for him to be the God of his people. He is present at the top moments and in the dips, He is also present during the many normal days, in which nothing special happens. ‘…The Lord our Saviour, who daily bears our burdens’ (Ps.68:19). This is mirrored in the Bible.
You have to take account of this when you read the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are not a collection of proof texts of our dogmas or our reformed way of living. You cannot just transfer every word of God to our time, at the drop of a hat. God spoke his word and let it speak to specific people in specific situations. If you want to be faithful to the Scriptures, then you must keep looking at how God says something, when He says something, why He says something. In the Bible we do not find ready-made dogmatics, nor a church order, nor a handbook for the Christian ethics. The Bible is absolutely not a scientific manual for biology or history. The Bible is the book of the history of redemption which is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That is how we must read it. That is how we must be faithful to it.
That means we need to talk about it often with each other: what does it mean in practice to be faithful to the Scriptures and to the confession? It is not possible to avoid disagreeing with each other about this from time to time. What does faithfulness to the Scriptures mean when we are talking about observance of the Lord’s day or about the way we deal with divorce in the church or about the way we see creation? It is not wrong at all if we have to discuss these things with each other. Let us not immediately accuse each other of being unfaithful to the Scriptures. Let us on the contrary try to help each other further so that our ‘love may abound more and more and more in knowledge and depth of insight’ (Phil.1:9), for the benefit of our understanding of the Bible and for the promotion of our living in accordance with the Scriptures. We need each other to be true to that beautiful, divine book.
2. Faithful to the Confession←⤒🔗
We have to be faithful to the Scriptures. But the confession is also norm in the church. We have promised to hold ourselves and each other to it. How?
The confession is not an absolute norm to the church, it is a relative norm. That is to say: the confession is always related to the Holy Scriptures. The confession has no authority of its own, as is the case with the Bible. The confession takes her authority from the Holy Scripture. It calls upon the Bible and can therefore speak of authority.
For this reason, criticism of the confession must not be treated in the same way as criticism of the Bible. If somebody refuses to believe the Bible then eventually he will have nothing more to say in the church. There is after all, no higher authority upon which you can call. But if somebody is not in agreement with the confession, you can always go back to the Bible together. If someone from outside the Reformed church argues against the confession appealing to the Bible, then you must take him seriously. You cannot say, this is what the confession says, thus it is true. Then, too, it is necessary to read the Bible together, because the authority of the Confession is vested in the Bible.
That is not to say that everyone in the church is free to shoot holes in the confession. We have agreed that we will be faithful to it. Therefore we treat it with care. Certainly people who lead the church in ministry and teaching are obliged to take care: ministers of the Word, and students of the Theological University, for example. They must not propagate their own ideas, but the doctrine as we have accepted it. For this reason the form which elders and deacons sign as officers states that we sincerely believe the doctrine of the confession and are prepared to testify to it and defend it.
Why do we actually have a confession, while we already have the Bible? Could we not manage just as well without it? We know that there are very many Bible Christians who manage without official confessional statements. The Bible is enough for them. Why not for us?
It is my firm conviction that the confession is essential for the church. A confession is the human answer to God’s word. God wants us to answer His word. We see this in the Bible. The Lord Jesus asks for the confession of his disciples: “And who do you say that I am?” (Matth.16:15). Jesus does not put words in their mouths. No, He wants their own confession with their own words. God by His word elicits our answer. In this way we may glorify God.
Confession belongs to the relationship between God and us in the covenant. Within that covenant, God is first. He speaks first. The covenant came into being exclusively on His initiative, unilaterally, but it exists bilaterally. That is to say: we have our place in that covenant. We also may speak within that covenant. We may, we must, confess his name. This is why Jesus says in Matthew 10:32: “whoever acknowledges (or: confesses) me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven”. Without our ‘good confession’ it does not work.
Actually I think that nobody ever can manage without confession. Even the people who say they decline every confession, do, in fact, have a confession. If you say: Scripture alone, sola scriptura, you already have a confession. That is not something that is said in the Bible. Scripture alone: that is our answer to the Bible, our confession. Therefore it is in fact nonsense, or at least an antinomy, to say: Scripture alone, and therefore no confession. Even to declare a confession superfluous, you need a confession! The confession is essential, obviously.
But no matter how essential, we know that confessions came into being at a certain moment in history. And, that they bear the characteristics of their origin. Confessions are human, historical documents. They answer the questions of their times on the basis of the Bible. But indeed, those are the questions of their times.
Look, for example at our oldest confession, the Apostles’ Creed, a simple, beautiful, deep confession, through which we feel united with our brothers and sisters from all times and places. But at the same time, it is a confession which completely bears the marks of its time. You find nothing in it, for example, about the Bible as Word of God, nothing about the sacraments, about baptism and Lord’s Supper. At that time that did not appear necessary.
But in the Heidelberg Catechism there is much about the sacraments. There is so much that you sometimes think: oh, that those questions and answers on the sacraments were over! Six Lord’s Days long are all about them, more than a tenth of all the Lord’s Days. That is how important the doctrine about the sacraments was in the days in which the catechism was drawn up.
But not only the subjects which were dealt with, also the way in which they are treated bears the characteristics of the time of origin. The Canons of Dort have a rather complicated structure, so much so, that one chapter even has two numbers: chapter 3&4. You can also wonder why the Canons of Dort start with election in chapter 1, and not simply in the reality of our lives, with faith and repentance, the current chapter 3&4, and then end with election? This is what Calvin does: he begins with faith and regeneration and ends with the election. Then you do not run the risk of the misunderstanding as though you have to be sure of your eternal election before you are allowed to believe. This misunderstanding brings problems for many people today.
You can only understand that surprising structure of the Canons if you realise that they had to answer the Remonstrance. They stick closely to the Remonstrance. Only they combine the answers to articles 3 (about the fall of man) and 4 (about regeneration) of the Remonstrance, into one chapter. If you had to draw up a confession about election today, that would more than likely be very different. But at that time, it had to be in that way. At a certain moment in history the church had to formulate her confession. That is our confession – drawn out by the word of God, but a completely historical, human writing.
What this brings with it is that our confessional documents have their limitations. They are not about everything which could be mentioned when you answer to the word of God. And that which they do deal with, they deal with in a limited way, determined by their situation and time.
The confession does not say very much about the covenant for example! As reformed believers in the course of time we have learned to understand the riches of the covenant from the Bible. But looking back from where we are to our confession, we do not find any part entirely dedicated to the covenant. There are casual comments here and there. Our confession is very brief on the subject, even when infant baptism is under discussion in Lord’s Day 27 of the Catechism and in article 34 of the Belgic Confession of Faith.
The confession says very little about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Lord’s Day 20 is one of the shortest of the Catechism, article 11 of the Belgic Confession is also very brief. Is there not more to be said about this today? There is much attention for the person and work of the Spirit now. A modern reformed confession undoubtedly would have something to say about that.
And then there are the larger subjects which came under discussion after the completion of our confessional statements. Today there is much discussion about creation and evolution and about Intelligent Design. Of course our confession can say nothing about that, but at the same time this gives an indication of its limitations. Lord’s Day 9 deals with the creation itself only in a subordinate clause. Today, certainly in the teaching given to the youth of the church, more must be said. In short, we have a rich confession but it does not constitute the last word which can be said.
It is therefore not strange, that questions arise regularly about adding to the confession or about new forms of confession. I think that there is a need for this. You cannot force this. And any reformed church federation should better not start this on its own. But I do feel the desire that we, as reformed Bible-true Christians in the Netherlands, meet each other on the basis of our old confession in a fresh answer to the word of God, which also enables us to make clear to others who we are and what we stand for.
Naturally, much more can and must be discussed, when we talk about faithfulness to Bible and confession. In the discussions after my lectures, all sorts of current and concrete questions came to the forefront: questions about the meaning of what the Bible tells us about creation and fall into sin, questions about the way we celebrate Sunday, about official talks with the Netherlands Reformed Churches (NGK) about Bible and confession, questions about the gifts of the Spirit, questions about how new confessional formulations must be gone about – and so on and so forth.
I have not been able to do more than roughly sketch a few main lines which are important for how we deal with Scripture and confession. It strikes me as important that in discussing real subjects, we are in agreement about these main lines. I hope that in a way this article can contribute to this.
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