“Search the Scriptures,” said Jesus [John 5:39], and even today we follow his words. They were words spoken to his critics: to those who did not believe on him. Christ submitted his own teachings to the light of Scriptures. These critics were members of the visible congregation (the OT equivalent of church) of God. The Pharisees were not simply Jews, they were religious Jews, Jews who claimed to worship God, and whose sect was the dominant one. They were devoted to ritual and to the performance of good deeds, yet they did not believe the Scriptures.
From Jesus’ words we can glean several lessons. First, there are Scriptures. Scriptures, as Paul tells us [2 Tim 3:16] are given by inspiration of God. Such books exist. There are Scriptures, something denied neither by my opponent in this debate, nor by virtually any sect of Christianity. Since the time of Moses, the Jews (later the whole world) have had Scriptures.
Second, the Scriptures are searchable. They are able to be searched i.e. examined. The Swedish Bible expresses it, “I rannsaken skrifterna” – which we might interpret: “Ransack the Scriptures.” The underlying Greek word seems to justify a strong sense to searching. The word describes a deep investigation, not merely a cursory scan. The Scriptures can be examined deeply, in great detail.
Christ thirdly teaches that Scriptures speak of him. This is the topic of Scripture. Recall Luke’s account of Christ on the road to Emmaus. Luke 24:27 And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.
So then, let’s diligently obey the command to search the Scriptures, for they speak of Christ: both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Philip the evangelist preached Jesus to Ethiopian Eunuch from Isaiah [Acts 8:35]. So then, from Scripture we can learn about the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, and the way to be saved from our sins. It is there for us to read.
Summary of the doctrines
The WCF, chapter 1, provides the following ten sections, each backed up by footnoted prooftext.
(I) The Reformed doctrine of Scripture is at heart a practical one. We use the revelation that we have. We acknowledge that there is general revelation of God in the works of creation and providence, and that this general revelation renders men unexcusable. We also recognize that general revelation is not enough. We acknowledge that Scripture is not the only way that God has revealed himself propositionally to men. God has revealed himself at various times in various ways. Today, however, God does not speak to us face to face – as with Adam in the garden. God does not speak to us out of a burning bush, as He did with Moses in the wilderness. Jesus does not teach us on the mountaintops or in the synagogues, as during His earthly ministry. Nevertheless, we have revelation: Scriptures. The Scriptures serve to comfort the Church and provide resistance to human frailty of memory, as well as to the hatred of Satan and the world.
(II) We have sixty-six books of Scripture. Since this is not a debate on the canon of Scripture, I will not expound at length on the matter of the canon. The canon of Scripture is simply all of those inspired writings that God has given to us. We find it handy to write out the list of the canon, as a sort of table of contents to it. But of course the list itself, nor the ordering of the list, is inspired. Indeed, even the titles of some of the books are not inspired, but simply conventional.
(III) We reject as authoritative the Apocrypha – those additional books and parts that are not inspired, but which have sometimes been called Deuterocanonical. They are of historical interest – and they are of grammatical interest, since they are ancient books written in Greek. Nevertheless, since they are not inspired, they do not have any more authority than any other human writings. Again, however, the topic of the Apocrypha is largely a question of the canon of Scripture, which is not the topic of this debate, and so a greater length exposition of the matter is unnecessary for now.
(IV) The authority of Scripture is entirely the result of Scripture being inspired by God. It is not the result of the testimony of any man or group of men. It is the Word of God, and is therefore to be believed. In other words, we obey Scripture because it is God speaking, not because men say that it is God speaking.
(V) The Church testifies to the Scriptures, and this may be something that leads us to Scripture. Likewise, the content of Scripture may itself persuade us that it is God’s word – because of its beautiful style, its internal consistency, and its providing a discussion of God and his character. Ultimately, though, we accept Scripture because we are inwardly persuaded by the Holy Spirit that it is God’s Word. He may use means, but in the final analysis we accept the Scripture’s as God’s Word because the Spirit enlightens our minds. Such a distinction is not intended to downplay or derogate the means. As Scripture says: Isaiah 52:7 How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth! Nevertheless, we do not believe men, but rather God.
(VI) The Bible is a complete document. It is sufficient. It contains everything that we need to know for faith and life in general, in order to glorify God and in order to be saved. Nevertheless, the illumination of the Holy Spirit – who persuades us of the truth of inspiration of Scripture – is necessary for anyone to obtain a saving knowledge of God, even from Scripture. It is complete – but it is not exhaustive. It does not tell you how to program in Fortran – it does not tell you whether to work in retail sales or landscaping. The Bible doesn’t even tell us what time of day to have our church services. It does provide general guidance in those areas, and it does teach the use of prudence.
(VII) Not all of the teachings of Scripture are equally clear, but the things necessary to be known for salvation are clearly taught, so that even uneducated people can understand them. That is not to deny that a saving knowledge requires the illumination of the Holy Spirit: it surely does. It is also not to deny the value of teachers in the church and of the counsel of our fellow brethren whether with us or preceding us. Nevertheless, we note that it is not those deep things of the word (whose depths we plumb with the help of the great theologians), but the necessary things of which we speak. As Chrysostom so memorably put it in his Third Homily on Second Thessalonians, “All things are clear and open that are in the divine Scriptures; the necessary things are all plain.”
(VIII) The authentic version of the Bible is the original language in which the Bible was written. For the most part, that is Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). Thus, when there are disputes they are to be settled by reference to the original language texts. Nevertheless, since many people cannot read the Greek of the New Testament or the Hebrew of the Old Testament, it is both proper and necessary to translate the Scriptures into a language that is understandable to the reader. Recall in Acts 2:7-21, the account of the outpouring of the gift of tongues at Pentecost. By the miraculous gift of tongues it was not only signified but provided that the word of God would be preached to every part of the world, not in a foreign language but their own.
(IX) Scripture interprets Scripture. That is to say, we let Scripture speak for itself. We do not (or at least we ought not to) seek to impose our own ideas, theories, etc. on Scripture. If we come to a difficult passage, we should search out its meaning by turning to more clear passages, because that is safer. Indeed, this is how we read documents normally. If there is some difficult word in a letter, whose meaning is not perhaps immediately apparent, we look to the context. If the immediate context does not help we look to the broader context.
(X) Whenever there is a dispute among men on matters pertaining to religion, the supreme arbiter that we have is the Holy Spirit, speaking through Scripture. Thus, when two Christians disagree, they ought to seek to resolve their disagreement ultimately by reference to Scripture. That does not mean that there is no role for the church in resolving disputes. That is not to say that the church always plays its role well. As the Apostle John reminds us, speaking of Diotrephes, 3 John 10 Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbiddeth them that would, and casteth them out of the church. Finally, Scripture provides a way for men to settle their disputes over such doctrines as the doctrine of alleged papal infallibility. Otherwise, how would we decide whether that doctrine is a true doctrine?
It is this doctrine, the doctrine that Scripture is the ultimate arbiter, that ultimately seems to serve as the primary bone of contention between the Reformed and the papists. It should be noted that the fallible authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith heavily footnoted their work with Scripture. Thus, at least on its face (and until someone has given us reason to doubt their proofs), we might conclude that the WCF’s chapter I, on the doctrine of Scripture were properly derived from Scripture.
There are two main questions to be considered. The first question is whether the Scriptures are an authority – a source to which Christians can turn to settle disputes. The second question is whether there is any other authority of equal or greater dignity in our possession.
The answer to the first question is that Scriptures are authoritative: Christians can turn to them to settle disputes. Normally this question is not disputed by the papists. They normally admit to the authority of Scripture. They normally recognize that any doctrine contrary to Scripture is wrong. The answer to the second question is that it is really up to the proponent of the other authority to demonstrate its dignity. But the papists cannot establish that there is some other authority existing today that is God’s Word: that has the same or greater authority than the Bible. Therefore, we answer both questions in favor of the doctrines of Sola Scriptura, leaving Mr. Bellasario the burden of demonstrating any other Word of God.
Several objections, however, are sometimes raised.
Objection 1 – Scriptures are not Clear
Sometimes it is objected that Scriptures cannot serve as an ultimate arbiter because they are not clear. This is a very old objection, but as invalid today as when it was first raised. A first part of the answer to this objection may be found in the fact that Christ commends the search of Scripture. If Scripture were so unclear as not to be understandable, or not useful for resolving disputes, it does not seem reasonable that Christ would commend the study of Scripture.
Historically, some papists have acted consistently with their view that Scripture is unclear by hindering the promulgation of editions of Scripture in the common tongue. For example, while the “Venerable” Bede is said to have provided an early partial translation of the Bible (perhaps only John’s Gospel) into English, and there are various other partial translations (for example, a translation of at least some of the Psalms in Alfred’s day, and perhaps by his authority) that are believed to have been made, they were incomplete and poorly distributed. The first English Bible was not published until the time of Wycliffe in the 14th century. Wycliffe received martyrdom for his troubles, and the papist authorities sought to destroy the copies of the Bible that he printed. It was not until the beginning of the 17th century, by which time the flood of English Bibles was already unstoppable, that a complete papist edition of the Bible in English was released.
The following admonition was included with the papist Bible: “To prevent and remedy this abuse, and to guard against error, it was judged necessary to forbid the reading of the Scriptures in the vulgar languages, without the advice and permission of the pastors and spiritual guides whom God has appointed to govern his church, Acts 20:28. Christ himself declared, “he that will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican.” Matt. xviii. 17.” (all emphases in original)
This objection was raised long ago. Irenaeus describing heretics states, “When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and accuse these same Scriptures, as if they were not correct, nor of authority, and [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.” [Ante-Nicean Fathers, volume 1, page 415, Roberts et al.] Irenaeus’ comments confirm that Ireneaus believed that Scriptures are correct, of authority, not ambiguous, and that the truth can be extracted from them by those ignorant of tradition.
The answer that Irenaeus gives is that these are people who do not follow Scripture. They appeal to it when they think it useful. They appeal to tradition when they think that is useful. But when they are presented with Scripture or tradition to the contrary of their views they just reject it. Irenaeus’ reasoning makes sense. Either Scriptures have God’s authority, or they do not.
Objection 2 – Scripture’s Authority Derives from the Authority of the Church
Sometimes it is objected that Scripture obtains its authority by recognition of the church. For example, some papists object that it is the church that provides us with Scripture, and that we trust Scripture because we trust the church. In this matter, they are fond of quoting Augustine.
But Scripture is authoritative because inspired. It is of authority because God is its author, not because men recognize it as such. Scripture was authoritative before it was even complete. Scripture has been authoritative since Moses wrote down the first parts of it. Scripture is to be believed whether or not it is promoted by godly men. The Scribes and the Pharisees were not godly men, but they were those who promulgated the Scriptures in the time from end of the prophets. But Moses’ writings had authority, not because they were from the Pharisees, and not because they were from Moses, but because they were from God.
As Paul explained: 1 Thessalonians 2:13 For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe.
Objection 3 – The Canon
Sometimes one sees objections to the authority of Scripture based on the doctrine of the Canon. For example, it is claimed that the Scripture contains no infallible table of contents. But this objection is a bit absurd. If they will grant that we know that these sixty-six books of the Bible are from God, then the table of contents is easily derived from the books, simply by laying them on the table in front of us.
Usually the objection is more practical, though: how can we convince someone of the canonicity of Esther (for example)? The answer to that question, however, ultimately lies in the persuasion of the Holy Spirit. We must receive the word of God by faith. Thus, it is written that “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.” (Hebrews 11:3)
Furthermore, Scripture was authoritative with an incomplete canon. One only needs to look to Paul’s own behavior: “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the scriptures….” (Acts 17:2).
So let us hasten humbly listen to Scripture, recalling Chrysostom’s exhortation, from his 3rd Homily on Second Thessalonians, “Tell me then, I beseech you, if now, when we are all present some one entered, having a golden girdle, and drawing himself up, and with an air of consequence said that he was sent by the king that is on the earth, and that he brought letters to the whole city concerning matters of importance; would you not then be all turned towards him? Would you not, without any command from a deacon, observe a profound silence? Truly I think so. For I have often heard letters from kings read here. Then if any one comes from a king, you all attend; and does a Prophet come from God, and speak from heaven, and no one attend? Or do you not believe that these things are messages from God? These are letters sent from God; therefore let us enter with becoming reverence into the Churches, and let us hearken with fear to the things here said.”
Positive Scriptural Presentation
Given the foregoing, we could rest the matter. Nevertheless, let us hear the testimony of Scripture itself, for it does speak of itself.
2 Timothy 3:14-17
14But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; 15And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: 17That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
What may we gather from these verses? First we may gather that holy scriptures are sufficient to provide knowledge for salvation. Paul tells Timothy that the scriptures “are able to make thee wise unto salvation.” It’s hard to imagine a more clear statement of the sufficiency of Scriptures than that.
What else may we gather? “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” All Scripture is, literally, God-breathed. God is the author, not man. Men pen the Scriptures, but the Scriptures themselves are breathed by God. It is His word, not theirs. This goes to the authority of the Scriptures. Scriptures are of authority because they are the word of God.
Next, “and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” While the Bible is not a textbook, it is useful for dogmatic inquiries both of a positive kind “for doctrine” “for instruction in righteousness” and of a negative kind “for reproof, for correction.” From the Bible we can determine not only what things should be believed about God, but – negatively – what things are not to be believed about God.
Finally, “That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” This combination of “perfect” from the Greek word αρτιος and the phrase “throughly furnished” from the Greek word εξηρτισμενος, provides a double confirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Romans 15:4 similarly calls us to Scripture, specifically indicating that there was a purpose to Scripture and that its purpose was not limited to its immediate audience but to future generations as well. It is written for our learning. That is to say, it provides teaching. And it provides our hope, thereby giving us reason for patience and comfort. This speaks, like the previous verse, to the sufficiency of Scripture.
We may see that Jesus himself relied on Scripture as authoritative. In disputing Jew tradition regarding the Sabbath, in Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus hammered the Pharisees with Scripture. As noted above, the nation of
We can see something similar in Mark 7:1-23. In that passage, Jesus again hammers the Jews for their extra-scriptural traditions. Note that Jesus condemns not only the extrascriptural requirement of continual handwashing, but even more so the contrascriptural tradition of misusing the concept of “Corban” to avoid filial duties. Of significance, Jesus here identifies Scripture as “the word of God.”
Of course, “the word of God” is any revelation from God. Moreover the word of God is exclusive and not to be added to by human authority:
5Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. 6Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.
And of course, Proverbs is not the only such warning:
Deuteronomy 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Deuteronomy 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
Revelation 22:18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
Next, let us turn to a verse that doesn’t mention Scripture explicitly:
John 6:68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.
This verse is important because it sums up the practical aspect of Sola Scriptura. We trust what the Bible says, and don’t go away from it, because – frankly – what’s the point? Scripture has the words of eternal life: it has not only the law, but the gospel.
As it is written:
1God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, 2Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; 3Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high; 4Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
From this passage too we can see a shift in the revelation of God. There were prophets for the fathers – and there was Christ himself for the apostles and evangelists. There were before many ways in which God revealed himself, but now through the Gospel of Christ. And how is that Gospel provided? Through Scripture.
But not everyone will hear Scripture. Let us turn to the passage that Jesus quoted against those who had decided to impose human tradition:
11And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed: 12And the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I am not learned. 13Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:
Notice how this passage goes? It answers the first objection identified above. It answers the objection that Irenaeus was faced with, and it answered them more than 700 years before the virgin birth of Christ. Fro you see, the learned people try to claim that they cannot read the Bible, and so do the unlearned people – but the implication is that both can read them. Isaiah is not afraid to question their motivation for doing so, either: he explains that their heart is far removed from Him, and instead of learning from His Word, they prefer to learn by the “precept of men.”
One thing we know for sure, the word of God is true.
Psalm 119:160 Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever.
1 Peter 1:25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.
So then, as well, Scripture is the standard by which we measure all things. Jesus Christ himself, in the passage that opened in the introduction to this essay was willing to submit his teachings to Scriptural scrutiny, and furthermore, in the passages discussed above, used Scriptures as an authority to judge human traditions.
We can see the same thing confirmed elsewhere in Scripture. For example, the Bereans are commended in this way:
Acts 17:11 These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.
Notice that they searched the Scriptures diligently to determine whether the things they were being taught were true. For this to be commendable, it must be understood that there is possible for Scripture to be used as a standard. In other words, it is not the height of arrogance, but a noble trait, to search the Scripture to determine whether a doctrine is true or not.
That does not mean that mere human effort is guaranteed to produce the correct answer in every instance. As mentioned above, the Holy Spirit’s illumination is necessary:
Luke 24:45 Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures,
Furthermore, contrary to some contentions of adversaries of Scriptures as our sole rule of faith, it is not the knowledge of Scriptures, but lack of knowledge of Scriptures that leads to error:
Mark 12:24 And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?
Matthew 22:29 Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.
Finally, let us turn to a most practical passage:
6I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: 7Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. 8But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. 9As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
This verse provides a serious warning. But how do we check for gospel versus false gospel? It is by comparison to the gospel preached by Paul – a gospel that we have in Scripture. We don’t have Paul. But even if we did, it wouldn’t make a difference. Look carefully at verse 8. Paul writes “though we” – to wit the apostles. Paul places the gospel message, the true one, in a higher position than his own teachings, such that if he himself apostatized and taught another gospel, it should be rejected. Such a warning presumes that the men of
Why? Because we know that there will be false prophets – those claiming to have the word of God, who do not have it.
2 Peter 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
And the apostle John provides the solution to the problem, the way to discern the spirits:
1 John 4:1 Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
How do we try (i.e. test) the spirits? By comparing their teachings to those teachings we know to be true. John even provides a specific example in 1 John 4:2-3 of how we can rightly pass judgment on the teaching of teachers.
The conclusion of all the above is that Scripture is authoritative. It is to be believed. It is a reliable standard by which we may judge other things. There is no other such standard. What we will turn to? Our church? But churches have erred. The Old Testament church, the congregation of