[The following is meant for a Life Group at McIlwain Presbyterian Church]
The Westminster Confession of Faith
The Holy Scripture
- Why do you think the confession stresses that the authority of the Scriptures depends not on any man or church, but wholly upon God?
- What gives God the right to be ultimately authoritative? In other words, for what reasons should we as created beings feel compelled to esteem what He says as ultimately binding?
- Go back to the Garden and test your answer. When God commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, how could Adam have been absolutely sure God could be trusted? After all, wouldn’t Adam need corroborating evidence in order to be sure that he would in fact die, especially when the serpent was assuring him that what God told him was not so?So I ask again: How could finite Adam ever hope to fully know the right answer without engaging in some kind of verification process? Would it have been wrong for him to set up a science lab and slice off tiny bits of the fruit and test it repeatedly in order to confirm the working hypothesis that the fruit would in fact lead to death?
[Before reading Confession 1.5]
- Have you ever shared the gospel with someone and thought to yourself, “How can I ever hope to defend the truthfulness of this good news against the myriad of objections that could arise? To what degree must I possess a mastery of science, history, ethics, philosophy, archaeology, textual criticism, ancient languages, theology, and other religions? Or, similarly, have you ever shared the gospel with someone so simple, so incapable of tracing out the truthfulness of what you are presenting, due to their broken life, or lack of education, or inability to even obtain the relevant literature to study it out, that you wonder to yourself, “How could this person ever hope to figure out whether or not this good news I am presenting is assuredly true? Do they have to possess a mastery of science, history, ethics, philosophy, archaeology, textual criticism, ancient languages, theology, and other religions?”
- Upon what, ultimately, does the confession ground our certainty that the Bible is the Word of God? Does the answer surprise you at all? Why or why not?
- What about Mormons or Muslims who claim that they know their document is the one true holy book because of a “burning in their bosom,” or some other spiritually verifying equivalent?
- What do you make of this quote from Jonathan Edwards?
“Unless men may come to a reasonable, solid persuasion and conviction of the truth of the gospel, by the internal evidences of it, in the way that has been spoken, viz., by a sight of its glory; it is impossible that those who are illiterate, and unacquainted with history, should have any thorough and effectual conviction of it at all. They may without this, see a great deal of probability of it; it may be reasonable for them to give much credit to what learned men and historians tell them; and they may tell them so much, that it may look very probable and rational to them, that the Christian religion is true; and so much that they would be very unreasonable not to entertain this opinion. But to have a conviction, so clear, and evident, and assuring, as to be sufficient to induce them, with boldness to sell all, confidently and fearlessly to run the venture of the loss of all things, and of enduring the most exquisite and long continued torments, and to trample the world under foot, and count all things but dung for Christ, the evidence they can have from history, cannot be sufficient. It is impossible that men, who have not something of a general view of the historical world, or the series of history from age to age, should come at the force of arguments for the truth of Christianity, drawn from history, to that degree, as effectually to induce them to venture their all upon it. After all that learned men have said to them, there will remain innumerable doubts on their minds; they will be ready, when pinched with some great trial of their faith, to say, “How do I know this, or that? How do I know when these histories were written? Learned men tell me these histories were so and so attested in the day of them; but how do I know that there were such attestations then? They tell me there is equal reason to believe these facts, as any whatsoever that are related at such a distance; but how do I know that other facts which are related of those ages, ever were? Those who have not something of a general view of the series of historical events, and of the state of mankind from age to age, cannot see the clear evidence from history of the truth of facts, in distant ages; but there will endless doubts and scruples remain.
But the gospel was not given only for learned men. There are at least nineteen in twenty, if not ninety-nine in a hundred, of those for whom the Scriptures were written, that are not capable of any certain or effectual conviction of the divine authority of the Scriptures, by such arguments as learned men make use of. If men who have been brought up in Heathenism, must wait for a clear and certain conviction of the truth of Christianity, until they have learning and acquaintance with the histories of politer nations, enough to see clearly the force of such kind of arguments; it will make the evidence of the gospel to them immensely cumbersome, and will render the propagation of the gospel among them infinitely difficult. Miserable is the condition of the Houssatunnuck Indians, and others, who have lately manifested a desire to be instructed in Christianity, if they can come at no evidence of the truth of Christianity, sufficient to induce them to sell all for Christ, in any other way but this.”
- Is there apologetic value in this? Might it provide us with greater confidence when we share the gospel?
- Given such truths, what should be our goal in apologetics? To what should we direct people? And how?
- Roman Catholic apologists argue that the Scriptures are not meant to be interpreted by individuals in isolation from the infallible teaching ministry of the Roman Catholic Church. To do otherwise is a sure recipe for chaos as each person functions as the ultimate judge.
One Roman Catholic asks,
“Where does it say or imply that the teaching of Scripture is so clear that no authority on Earth would be needed to determine and preserve authentic Christian doctrine, so that individual believers aren’t reading their Bibles and running off in all directions and starting independent churches and sects and denominations that contradict one another even on essential issues of the faith?”
St Francis De Sales, writing against the Reformation, says,
“But the worst is, you are not able to come to an agreement: — for where will you find a trusted arbitrator? You have no head upon earth to address yourselves to in your difficulties; you believe that the very Church can err herself and lead others into error: you would not put your soul into such unsafe hands; indeed, you hold her in small account. The Scripture cannot be your arbiter, for it is concerning the Scripture that you are in litigation, some of you being determined to have it understood in one way, some in another. Your discords and your disputes are interminable, unless you give in to the authority of the Church.”
In combination with this sentiment comes the suggestion that the Scriptures are too complex for private interpretation. While every doctrine you need to know is contained in Scripture (which is to say that it’s materially sufficient), it isn’t sufficiently clear. You need Tradition and the Church to provide the necessary light for knowing what is to be accepted and not accepted.
Here is how Catholic Answers puts it in one place:
“Scripture can’t really interpret itself because interpretation takes two: text and reader. And although the text of Scripture is God-breathed and inerrant, those who read it are not. The intellectual darkness from which all people suffer—caused by sin, vice, ill will, habit of error, or just plain mental density—interferes with the transmission and reception of the Bible’s meaning. We can’t always get it perfectly right because we’re not perfectly right.
Not to mention: even though God is the author of Scripture, he authored it through human instruments who used words, phrases, metaphors, concepts, and writing styles particular to their time and place and even their own personality. All those things take parsing out for readers thousands of years later.” [So what we need, therefore, is the Roman Catholic Church to provide clarity and answers to questions we can’t possibly sort out by ourselves.]
- What say you?
- What about those passages that speak of Tradition as binding? As Paul says, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Th 2:15). Since the apostles spoke an authoritative word, doesn’t it follow that there is an authoritative oral Tradition alongside Scripture that is binding?
Roman Catholic, Dave Armstrong, argues that sola scriptura is a circular argument and should be discarded.
He says, “When all is said and done, Protestants who accept sola scriptura as their rule of faith appeal to the Bible. If they are asked why one should believe in their particular denominational teaching rather than another, each will appeal to “the Bible’s clear teaching.” Often they act as if they have no tradition that guides their own interpretation.
This is similar to people on two sides of a constitutional debate both saying, “Well, we go by what the Constitution says, whereas you guys don’t.” The U.S. Constitution, like the Bible, is not sufficient in and of itself to resolve differing interpretations. Judges and courts are necessary, and their decrees are legally binding. Supreme Court rulings cannot be overturned except by a future ruling or constitutional amendment. In any event, there is always a final appeal that settles the matter.
But Protestantism lacks this because it appeals to a logically self-defeating principle and a book that must be interpreted by human beings. Obviously, given the divisions in Protestantism, simply “going to the Bible” hasn’t worked. In the end, a person has no assurance or certainty in the Protestant system. They can only “go to the Bible” themselves and perhaps come up with another doctrinal version of some disputed doctrine to add to the list. One either believes there is one truth in any given theological dispute (whatever it is) or adopts a relativist or indifferentist position, where contradictions are fine or the doctrine is so “minor” that differences “don’t matter.”
But the Bible doesn’t teach that whole categories of doctrines are “minor” and that Christians freely and joyfully can disagree in such a fashion. Denominationalism and divisions are vigorously condemned. The only conclusion we can reach from the Bible is what we call the “three-legged stool”: Bible, Church, and Tradition are all necessary to arrive at truth. If you knock out any leg of a three-legged stool, it collapses.”
What say you? Doesn’t 2 Peter 1:19-21 support this notion?