Sola Scriptura: What It Isn’t (Muller)

Product Details The Reformation teaching of sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) does not mean that the Christian alone reads the Bible alone and interprets it alone.  Sola Scriptura does not at all mean we should be lone rangers when studying, interpreting, and applying God’s Word.  According to sola Scriptura private devotions aren’t bad, but private interpretation is.

And historically speaking we probably shouldn’t use Luther on trial at Worms as an illustration of what sola Scriptura means unless we give it a fuller contextual explanation.  The Diet of Worms wasn’t at all “Luther alone and his Bible alone against the Roman Catholic Church.”

Here’s how Richard Muller describes it.

“…It is…entirely anachronistic to view the sola scriptura of Luther and his contemporaries as a declaration that all of theology ought to be constructed anew, without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation, by the lonely exegete confronting the naked text.”

“It is equally anachronistic to assume that Scripture functioned for the Reformers like a set of numbered facts or propositions suitable for use as ready-made solutions to any and all questions capable of arising in the course of human history.  Both the language of sola scriptura and the actual use of the text of Scripture by the Reformers can be explained only in terms of the questions of authority and interpretation posed by the developments of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.  Even so, close study of the actual exegetical results of the Reformers manifests strong interpretive and doctrinal continuities with the exegetical results of the [early church] fathers and the medieval doctors.”

Richard Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics vol. 2 p. 63-64.

(This is a repost from July 2013)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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The Clarity of Scripture (Turretin)

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1 (This is a re-blog from April, 2016)

The perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture has been denied by the Roman Catholic Church, the Socinians in the 17th century, and other such groups.  During and after the Reformation, the Reformers had to explain, teach, and defend this doctrine (e.g. WCF 1.6-8).  What does the clarity of Scripture mean?  What doesn’t it mean?  Francis Turretin (d. 1687) had a good discussion on it.  I’ll summarize it below.

A) The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that they are perfectly clear to every person.  Scripture is not clear to unbelievers and the unregenerate (2 Cor. 4:3).  It does not mean that a person can understand the Word apart from the work of the Holy Spirit.  The perspicuity of Scripture does not mean that there are no mysteries in Scripture, nor does it mean that all parts of Scripture are equally clear.  The clarity of Scripture does not mean that we never need help (prayer, teachers, sermons, etc.) in understanding it.

B) The perspicuity of Scripture does mean, however, that Scripture is clear about the things essential to salvation: “Without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, [Scriptures] may be read and understood profitably by believers.”

This truth may be proven from Ps. 19:8, 119:105, and 2 Pet. 1:19.  In the Old Testament, God tells his people to obey the law, which means they understood it (Dt. 30:11).  The clarity of Scripture can be further proved:

  1. By their efficient cause (God, who cannot be said either to be unwilling or unable to speak plainly without impugning his perfect goodness and wisdom).
  2. By their design (to be a canon and rule of faith and practice, which they could not be unless they were clear).
  3. By the matter (that is, the law and the gospel, which anyone can easily apprehend).
  4. By the form (because they are to us in place of a testament, contract of a covenant or edict of a king, which ought to be perspicuous and not obscure.

Furthermore, the church fathers acknowledge the clarity of Scripture.  Chrysostom said,

“The Scriptures are so proportioned that even the most ignorant can understand them if they only read them studiously.”  He also said, “All necessary things are plain and straight and clear.”

Augustine:

“In the clear declarations of Scripture are to be found all things pertaining to faith and practice.”

Similarly, Irenaeus wrote,

“The prophetic and evangelic Scriptures are plain and unambiguous.”

I’ll end with Gregory:

“The Scriptures have, in public, nourishment for children, as they serve in secret to strike the loftiest minds with wonder; indeed they are like a full land deep river in which the lamb may walk and the elephant swim.”

You can read Turretin’s brief and helpful discussion in volume 1, pages 143-147 of Institutes of Elenctic Theology.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Self-Evidencing Power of the Bible (Cunningham)

 Thy Word Is Still Truth William Cunningham (d. 1861) was a Scottish pastor and also a professor of theology and church history.  Some of his lectures were published after he died, including a series of lectures on the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Here’s a short section from “Lecture XXII” which was a commentary on WCF 1.5.  These comments make me think of Psalm 119, which constantly tells us that the Word is effective for helping us walk God’s way and avoid sin:

“…Certain it is, from the experience of all in every age who have made the attempt, that the more men study the Bible with diligence and humility, and with prayer for the divine blessing and guidance, the more clearly will they see through it all the traces of God’s presence and agency, the more fully will they experience its self-evidencing power, and the more thoroughly will they be persuaded by what they see and feel, as well as by submission to the authority of God clearly revealing this truth by his apostle, that it is all given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and instruction in righteousness.”

“Believers are liable to be assailed by temptations to error as well as to sin, and they are not always exempted from occasional temptations even to the fatal error of infidelity.  And they are commonly enabled to resist these temptations, and to hold fast their profession, through the Spirit opening up to them more fully, and impressing upon them more deeply, what they may have previously seen of the self-evidencing power of the Bible, and what they may have formerly noticed of the efficacy of its doctrines and statements upon themselves, in changing their natures, in enlightening their understandings, in sanctifying their hearts, and in regulating their conduct. Thus they are persuaded that the Bible could not possibly have been a cunningly devised fable, that it must have come from God, and that it is only by cleaving to it as a light unto their feet, and a lamp unto their path, that they can be guided in the way everlasting.”

William Cunningham, “Lecture XXII” in Thy Word is Still Truth, p. 520.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Should We Take the Bible Literally?

The historic Christian faith is a faith that takes the Bible very seriously.  For example, in Reformed theology, we say God’s Word is sufficient, necessary, clear, and authoritative (among other things).  But should we take the Bible literally?  Well, yes and no.  Yes, we take it literally in what it says and teaches; we shouldn’t argue with God’s Word or sit in judgment over it.  But we realize there is figurative language in Scripture.  For example, we don’t believe that God literally has wings (Ps. 91:4).  So we do and we don’t take the Bible literally.

But there’s a better way to say this.  D. Brent Sandy does a nice job in explaining “literalness” as he comments on Isaiah 2:4 (They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. NIV):

“These words could be understood to say that each person who has a sword or a spear will reshape it by pounding it into a plow or pruning hook (good luck!).  That would be a very strict literalness.  Or a reader may conclude that ‘beat’ refers to going to a blacksmith who will use fire to soften the iron before refashioning it.  Having a blacksmith do it would be a little less literal.  Another step away from strict literalness would be for those who have any instrument of aggression to transform it, by whatever means necessary, into an instrument of agriculture.  The statement is still literal, though the specific words of the text are pointing to a meaning beyond the surface meanings of the words.

Or if we take the author to be saying that political peace will be acheived between all nations – or even simply that God will restore order on the earth – the figurative meaning may be predominant, but all literalness has not been lost.  Only when we reach the point of denying that anything will happen as a result of these words have we moved completely away from literal meaning.  At that point to be nonliteral would mean to be nonhistorical (nonactual).  In other words, the literal or figurative interpretation of Scripture is not a simple black-or-white issue.

…Unfortunately, the uses of the word ‘literal’ become confusing, in the minds of both those who make pronouncements and those who hear pronouncements.”

These are helpful comments.  There are large sections of Scripture that contain figurative language: the poetry in the Psalter, the oracles of the prophets, and the visions in Revelation (to name a few).  We shouldn’t take all Scripture as strictly or woodenly literal since it’s not meant to be taken that way.  While we should submit to every part of Scripture, and view all Scripture as God-breathed, inspired, and infallible, we shouldn’t read it all in the same literal manner.  It would be quite a mess if we did!

The above quote is found on pages 3940 of Sandy’s book, Plowshares and Pruning Hooks.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Servants Bowing Before the Word (Monod)

 Thy Word Is Still Truth  Adolphe Monod was a French preacher in the first half of the 19th century.  After serving as a pastor for some years, he became very ill and could no longer preach.  Yet even on his sick bed he would write sermons and preach sermons to the people who came to visit.  These sermons were later put into book form: Farewell to His Friends and the Church.  I was reading sections of Monod’s work recently and was impressed at how he talked about Scripture.  Here are a few helpful quotes:

“I commend to you, my dear friends, the Word of God as something for constant, in-depth study and meditation.  It will lift us up above everything else.  It will, through Jesus Christ, be the strength of our lives, the joy of our hearts, and our powerful consolation in life and in death.”

“When Scripture proclaims God’s will or the way of salvation or the great doctrines of sin and grace, and of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what it tells us is no less true and no less certain than if heaven were opened above us at this very moment and the voice of God resounded, as it once did at Sinai, saying these same things to us.”

“Oh, how can we surround this book [the Bible] with enough attention and respect?  No doubt Scripture is not the truth that saves us, but it is the road to that truth.  It is not salvation, but it is the book that reveals our salvation, a salvation we would never be able to know without it.  Through Scripture and in proportion to our growth in understanding it, we will also become better acquainted with Jesus, the Savior of our souls.”

“The greatest of all God’s servants are those who bow before that Word.  Saint Paul, David, Luther, Calvin were jealous to humble themselves in the dust before it, and if possible they would have gone still lower.”

These quotes can be found in Thy Word Is Still Truth, chapter 35.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Faith and Work Bible (NIV)

For review purposes I recently received the “NIV Faith and Work Bible“(edited by David Kim and published by Zondervan).  It isn’t exactly a study Bible; instead, it’s a Bible that has doctrine and application articles scattered throughout.

More specifically, the theme of these articles have to do with core Christian doctrines and what it means to live them out in our daily vocations.  There are also 31 short articles at certain places in Scripture which gives readers a summary of the overall story of redemptive history.  Basically, in this Bible you’ll get articles on 1) Bible storylines, 2) Doctrine, 3) Application to the workplace.

Many of the articles in this Bible are solid and helpful, utilizing various resources such as Abraham Kuyper, Anthony Hoekema, John Murray, and many others.  There is something of a “renewing creation” emphasis, but it didn’t seem to be taken to the extremes that I’ve seen elsewhere.  I also like the real life stories of how a person in a certain vocation applied doctrine to life.  You can preview this Bible on Amazon if you want more detail.

I do like the larger font in this Bible, and it is edited nicely.  However, I’d rather have these articles in a separate book rather than scattered throughout the Old and New Testaments.  I didn’t really need a new Bible, but I did want to read these articles in this Bible, and I’m glad I own them.  But now I have one more large resource on my shelves that could have been much smaller if the articles were published separately.  I’m guessing that most people who buy this Bible already have enough Bibles, and now you have to spend more than thirty bucks to get yet another new one.

In summary, the articles and application stories in the “NIV Faith and Work Bible” are helpful, but it would have been better if they had been published as a separate book instead of mixed throughout a Bible.
(NOTE: I received this Bible as part of the Booklook blogger program, and was not compelled to write a positive review.)
Shane Lems

Logos 7: A Review

I’ve been using Logos Bible software for Bible study and sermon preparation since June 2014.  Though I wouldn’t say it has changed my life, I would say that it has seriously improved my studies.  I realize Bible study software can become a crutch that hinders thinking, since it is tempting to let the software do things the brain should do.  But used rightly, like a good tool, I’ve found Logos to be a great asset in devotional reading and serious textual study and sermon writing.

Recently the Logos team generously sent me an upgrade – from Logos 6 to Logos 7 – for review purposes.  I’ve used it quite extensively now, so I’m ready to give some thoughts on it.  To be sure, there are too many new and updated features for me to comment upon here, but you can check this list for more details.

One thing I like in Logos 7 is the fact that there are more screen layouts to choose from (Bible journaling, word studies, topic studies, and of course you can save and name your own screen layouts).  Right now since I’m preaching from Luke and Numbers, I have those two layouts saved so they’re ready to go when I am.

Logos 7 also has a Bible browser that lets you do a search using your own types of filters.  For example, I wanted to find all the instances of someone seeking God in the Bible.  The filter was “People: A Seeker of the Lord” and it gave 34 results in the NIV.  I can now further narrow that search down to a sense of the word like seeking refuge or seeking good, for two examples.

There are also some video courses included in Logos 7.  In my library I have “Preaching the Psalms” by Mark Futato, “Introducing the Gospels and Acts” by Darrell Bock, and a few others on ethics, the resurrection, and so forth.  I’ve only watched a few of the Psalms videos, but so far they are very well done.

There is also a sermon editor in Logos 7.  I’ve used it for sermon handouts (simple outlines), but in my opinion it isn’t as good as a regular word processor for writing full sermons.  I assume this editor will improve with time, just as other features in Logos have.

One very helpful addition to Logos 7 is the fact that when you do a passage/verse study using the “Passage Guide,” the search includes systematic theologies, biblical theologies, confessional documents, and more.  What is this?  Well, today I was looking up Jeremiah 29:13.  Using the Passage Guide I could find where this verse was mentioned in my systematic theology books, biblical theology books, and confessions/creeds.  Very nice!

One more feature worth mentioning is the concordance.  With this tool, you can make your own concordance of any section of Scripture.  This is great, for example, if you want to see which words Paul used the most (or the least!) in Philippians.  There are also some filters so you can find just the Greek (or English) words you’re looking for.

I could go on and list more new/updated features, but I want to keep this review relatively short.  To be honest, I only mentioned the tip of the Logos iceberg (for example, the iOS and Android Apps are very nice)!  There’s a lot more to Logos than what I mentioned (for another example, you can use it offline). Indeed, Logos 7 is a very powerful Bible study tool.  Like all tools, it can be used wrongly, but when one learns to use it rightly (which does take some time!), it is certainly a blessing for studying God’s holy word.

To be blunt, Logos isn’t cheap.  Right now if you use this link (HERE), you’ll get a discount on Logos Silver (total of $467.50) or Logos Gold (total of $935.00).  Even if you use a monthly payment plan, I realize this is quite a bit of money!  However, if you study the Word a lot, and are looking for powerful Bible software, I’m almost sure that after of using Logos for a year or so, you’ll say it is worth the price.  By the way, if your pastor doesn’t have Logos 7 and is interested, it may be worth having your church look into getting it for him.  It really is that good and I have no qualms in giving it my full recommendation.  Keep up the good work, Logos team!

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI