Article 7 - The Sufficiency of Holy Scripture
THE SUFFICIENCY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
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 (Galatians 1:8). Since it is forbidden to add to or take away anything from the Word of God (Deuteronomy 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 (Psalm 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 John 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 John 1:10).
DeBres – like we today – lived in a time when countless teachers made their wisdom available on questions relating to the meaning and purpose of life. In the midst of that abundance, deBres confessed that accurate and helpful answers come ultimately from the Word of God alone. The Bible’s divine origin together with the care of the God who gave it conspire to mean that this Bible contains all I need in order to understand what life is about and how to live it. This conviction lay behind David’s delight in the law of God, or His commandments, His ordinances, His statutes and His Word –all terms that describe the Bible – and on this conviction was built David’s confidence that the Word of God was a reliable light on his path through life (Psalm 119). This canonical Bible is sufficient; it provides the complete standard for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of my faith. “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.” The result is that I need never worry that the day will come when I’ll be at a loss as to what I must do on the ground that God hasn’t told me. This gives immense comfort. My God doesn’t tell me just a fraction of what I need to know. Rather, in His love for me He has told me everything He considers necessary for me to know. What care and mercy this is!
This is not to say that I necessarily understand all of God’s Word or its implication for my life. Some parts of Scripture are indeed hard to understand (2 Peter 3:15,16). More to the point: I am finite and sinful, and so I cannot understand all the deep things of God (Isaiah 55:9). That is why there is need for a lifetime of being busy with the Scriptures, and always considering the questions of life in the light of God’s Word. Hence Paul’s charge to Timothy: “you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (2 Timothy 3:9). Timothy had learned much from Paul, the man chosen by God to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, and so ultimately Timothy learned these things from God Himself. In the midst of life’s big questions, Timothy (and we too) must read God’s Word regularly, and continue to learn its treasures. Paul expands on the point a few verses later: “... Holy Scriptures…are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:15-17). In truth, the Bible is sufficient, able to make a man of God capable of meeting the demands of the times. That was true in Timothy’s days, true in deBres’ days, and true today also. I don’t need anything in addition to God’s Word, for God’s Word “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).
The point is not easy to accept. We are quickly tempted to say that what God says in His Word doesn’t make any sense in our circumstances. We tell ourselves that God understands that we find the Bible’s directives to be too difficult for us. More, we remind ourselves that God gave us heads with which to think, and He wants us to use those heads. Yet the child of God acknowledges who God is, and therefore acknowledges that the Word such a God gave is invariably sufficient and its instructions accurate for whatever circumstances the same God puts on our path.
THE AUTHORITY, CLARITY, SUFFICIENCY, AND NECESSITY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
DeBres wrote his confession in a particular context. Persons of Roman Catholic and Anabaptist persuasion surrounded him and his congregation. These Roman Catholic and Anabaptist countrymen held positions on the value of Scripture that differed dramatically from what deBres heard God say in His Word. Inasmuch as similar errors still surround us today, it is beneficial that we be acquainted with these errors, and with the Biblical response.
The Authority of Scripture
The Roman Catholic Church accepts that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. However, the Roman Church also accepts tradition as a reliable source for divine revelation. It falls to the Pope to determine which source has final say in a particular matter of doctrine or life. The Bible, for example, does not teach that Mary was without sin. On the basis of church tradition, however, the Pope has decreed that Mary was indeed perfect. The Pope, then, becomes the final authority, and not the Word of God.
The Anabaptists also maintain that Scripture has authority. Yet Anabaptists leave room for the Holy Spirit to tell people in His own sovereign way what course of action must be taken. One can insist, for example that the Holy Spirit has revealed to me that I must be an office bearer in church – irrespective of what the Bible says about qualifications or how one becomes an office bearer. In theory, then, the Holy Spirit is raised above the Word of God. But in practice (since anyone can claim to receive a message from the Holy Spirit and nobody can verify it), man is made the final authority.
In Article 4 deBres confessed the canonicity of the Bible. That is to say: the Bible is the final judge for what is right or wrong, in all areas of life. It is authoritative. Popes and people need to take a place under the Bible, not beside it or above it.
We do well here to take note of deBres’ words in Article 7: “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.” We, too, can easily fall for the Roman Catholic error of ascribing the final authority to ‘holy’ men, be it Augustine, or John Calvin, or Klaas Schilder, or anyone else. Remember that all men of themselves are liars. Even large bodies of men (synods) do not have the final say regarding any point of doctrine, since even a large body of persons remains a body of sinful persons. Final authority lies with the Bible and with the Bible alone. It is for that reason that all communicant members of the church are responsible (according to gifts) to stay abreast of developments in the churches, and to ensure, as best as possible, that the churches together remain faithful to the revelation God has given in Holy Scripture. This will require prayerful reading and study by all of us. The confession that authority lies not with people or Synods, but with the Bible, has consequences.
Nor must we fall for Anabaptist tendencies and base our decisions and actions on what “I think.” When it comes to the truth, there is no room for personal opinions or feelings, simply because our hearts remain sinful and inclined to evil. We need to base all our decisions and actions unequivocally on what the Bible says.
The Clarity of Scripture
The Roman Catholic Church says that the Bible is unclear at face value. In order to understand it one needs to digest the interpretation of the Church. So, in deBres’ time, the Roman Catholic Church forbade the membership from having a copy of the Bible, and instructed the membership instead to listen to the priests, since the priests were equipped to interpret this dark book.
The Anabaptists also deny that the Bible is clear. They claim that the Holy Spirit must reveal to each of us what the Bible means. Instead of reading and listening to the Bible, then, one needs to remain open to what the Spirit might be saying to you.
Is God’s love and care for me such that He has given me a Word that is too difficult for me to understand? Is that our God?! Thankfully, no! In His care for us, the Lord God has given us a Word that is not open to two interpretations. Granted, there are passages we struggle to understand. The Bible itself acknowledges that some things are difficult to understand: “Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15b, 16). Yet the drift of Scripture is clear, and the will of God is clear to all who humbly read what Scripture says. The consequence is that none may shy away from the Bible as if it is too hard to understand. It is for us instead to be prayerfully busy with the Scripture God in His care for us has given.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
The Roman Catholic Church maintains that the Bible is not enough. One needs the interpretation of the Church in addition to it. For many years it disallowed its members to have their own Bible. Only since approximately the last 30 years are members permitted to have a Bible of their own, but the official interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church is required alongside it.
The Anabaptists maintain that the Bible is not sufficient. One needs the Holy Spirit to give additional revelation. This sentiment carries with itself the notion that the Lord can reveal new things to us.
“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.” So, in the midst of life’s struggles, we do not look for new answers or new revelation from heaven, but we turn always and again to the Scripture. Our God does not change, and so His will does not either – even when He in His providence lets cultures change.
The Necessity of Scripture
As far as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned, at bottom one does not need Scripture, as long as one listens to and accepts what it is the Church teaches.
Similarly, as far as the Anabaptists are concerned, one again ultimately doesn’t need Scripture as long as one listens to the voice of the Holy Spirit within you.
In contrast to the Roman Catholics and Anabaptists of their day, deBres and his fellow believers treasured the Bible. They understood that if God gave His Word to man, then that Word obviously must be necessary. Since the Holy Spirit works faith by the means of the Word, each person is obliged to remain busy with that Word. More, since God is pleased to use the Word to light up the path along which He wants His children to walk in the journey of life (Psalm 119:105), God’s people obviously are to keep studying that Word.
It is by His Word that God leads me and gives me direction for the questions and challenges facing me, no matter what my situation is. To find my answers to these questions and challenges I read the Bible first and foremost. To leave the Bible closed, to consider that the Bible is not really necessary for me in order to get through my day, is typically Anabaptist. I have confessed that the Bible is sufficient for the daily regulation, foundation, and confirmation of my faith. I now must live this confession. That is to say: I must be busy with the Bible, day by day, and make it my business to study it with a concerted effort. Being busy with the Scripture is simply a matter of living consistently with the faith we are allowed to confess. To leave the Bible closed, or to study it intermittently, is to deny the matter learned from Scripture and confessed in Article 7.
Points for Discussion:
- Are all answers for all questions of life found in the Bible? Discuss.
- Why is continued Bible study so necessary?
- Should we also study the writings of men of faith who have gone before us, eg, Calvin? How should we treat his work?
- Somebody once said to me: “I read…, and read…, and read…, but nothing I read in the Bible seems relevant…. I get so disillusioned. What’s the sense of reading the Bible?!” How should one answer this challenge?
- How should we treat tradition and customs received from our parents? I think, for example, of praying before and after meals, reading Bible at table.