The Fundamental Principle of Protestantism

Systematic Theology, 3 Volumes One of the high notes of the gospel is that Jesus has set his people free from sin’s guilt and bondage, Satan’s tyranny, and the demands and curses of the law as a covenant of works.  Since he has set us free, we are to walk in that freedom (Gal. 5:1).  We obey his law out of gratitude, and submit willingly to him, but we do not allow human laws and traditions to bind our consciences.  Sola scriptura: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, for man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (WCF 1.6).  Charles Hodge explained this in a wonderful way (if you listen carefully, you can hear echoes of the Westminster Standards and Martin Luther in these words):

“It follows from the fundamental principle of Protestantism, that the Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice, that no work can be regarded as good or obligatory on the conscience which the Scriptures do not enjoin. Of course it is not meant that the Bible commands in detail everything which the people of God are bound to do, but it prescribes the principles by which their conduct is to be regulated, and specifies the kind of acts which those principles require or forbid.”

“It is enough that the Scriptures require children to obey their parents, citizens the magistrate, and believers to hear the Church, without enjoining every act which these injunctions render obligatory. In giving these general commands, the Bible gives all necessary limitations, so that neither parents, magistrates, nor Church can claim any authority not granted to them by God, nor impose anything on the conscience which He does not command.”

“As some churches have enjoined a multitude of doctrines as articles of faith, which are not taught in Scripture, so they have enjoined a multitude of acts, which the Bible neither directly, nor by just or necessary inference requires. They have thus imposed upon those who recognize their authority as infallible in teaching, a yoke of bondage which no one is able to bear. After the example of the ancient Pharisees, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, and claim divine authority for human institutions. From this bondage it was one great design of the Reformation to free the people of God. This deliverance was effected by proclaiming the principle that nothing is sin but what the Bible forbids and nothing is morally obligatory but what the Bible enjoins.”

“Such, however, is the disposition, on the one hand, to usurp authority, and, on the other, to yield to it, that it is only by the constant assertion and vindication of this principle, that the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free can be preserved.”

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, book 3 page 237 (III.XVII.4.3).

shane lems
hammond, wi


One comment on “The Fundamental Principle of Protestantism

  1. David Gray says:

    Hodge is certainly right. Where it gets complicated is how you interpret the Bible. I grew up in a tradition where we talked a lot about believing the Bible is literally true yet concluded that when Jesus said “This is my body” it was time to conclude it was pure metaphor. I think ultimately if your interpretation of Scripture doesn’t have any reasonable sort of antecedent in church history and probably the patristics you need to think again. That is one of the reasons Calvin was very intent in his disputes with Rome to cite patristic sources and even medieval ones like Bernard of Clairvaux.


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