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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Rome and Reading Scripture (Muller)

Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.) It’s very hard for most  Christians in the West to imagine what it would be like if they didn’t have a Bible at home to read.  It’s even harder to imagine the church telling us not to read the Bible and not wanting it to be translated into common languages.  This was the very situation before the Reformation.  The Roman Catholic church neither wanted common people to read Scriptures nor did Rome want the Scriptures to be translated into the common language of the people.  Thankfully the Reformation happened!  Here’s a paragraph about this topic from Richard Muller’s PRRD volume on Scripture (volume two):

Against the Roman objections that lay reading of the vernacular Scriptures is detrimental to the life and teaching of the church and that such reading is hardly necessary to salvation, the Reformed respond that the problem of abuse in no way undermines the command of God to read and study the Scriptures.  …The reading of Scripture is enjoined on those who are able, for the sake of strengthening them in their faith and shielding them against the enemies of God. What is more, the Roman claim that the reading of the Scripture by laity breeds heresy falls short of the mark inasmuch as heresy is founded not on reading per se, but on mistaken reading—and the careful, informed, and reverent reading of Scripture will preserve the faithful from the errors of the heretics. As for the argument that “holy things are not given to dogs,” it is quite clear from the text (Matt. 7:6) that Christ does not here refer to the reading of Scripture and does not intend to designate the children of God as dogs—rather he means that the symbols of divine grace are not to be given to the unfaithful.

Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy; Volume 2: The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 467–468.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI

Evangelicals, Sexual Revolution, and Roadkill (Guinness)

Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization by [Guinness, Os] As I’ve said before, Impossible People by Os Guinness is an excellent book in many ways.  One reason I appreciate it is because Guinness calls the church to stand firmly, carefully, and purposefully on the truths and teachings of Scripture.  He laments how some evangelicals have waffled and wavered when it comes to sexuality, gender, marriage, and other similar topics.  What is so clear in Scripture has been abandoned, explained away, or simply ignored by evangelicals trying to keep up with the sexual revolution.  Guinness’ words are helpful:

“Today’s evangelical revisionists should take sober note.  Time and again I tremble when I hear or read their flimsy arguments.  They may be lionized by the wider advocates of the sexual revolution for fifteen minutes, because they are siding with that wider culture in undermining the clear teaching of Jesus and the Bible that stands in their way.  For there is no question that Jesus, the Scriptures and Christian tradition all stand resolutely in their way.  But in truth, the sexual revolution has no real interest in such Evangelicals, and they will be left as roadkill as the revolution blitzkrieg gathers speed.  But that is nothing compared with the real tragedy of the revisionists.  It is no light thing for anyone to set themselves above and against the authority of Jesus and his Scriptures.  The apostle Peter betrayed Jesus and was restored, but Judas stands as the warning for all who betray Jesus for their personal, sexual or political interests and condemn themselves for their disloyalty.”

“Both Jesus and the apostle Peter tell us to ‘remember Lot’s wife’ (Lk 17:33), but our Christian revisionists should remember Lot himself.  Having chosen the benefits and privileges of living in the well-watered garden country of Sodom, having married into their social circles and having worked his way up to into the inner leadership of the city, Lot was suddenly confronted by the moment of truth.  He had been utterly naive and deluded in trusting the Sodomites.  When the chips were down, they had no respect for his hospitality, no time for his different moral standards, and they threatened to deal with him as brutally as his guests: ‘This one came in as an alien, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them’ (Gen 19:9).”

“Poor Lot became a joke even to his in-laws.  In spite of all his efforts and contrary to all that he imagined, he had still not arrived, and he was never accepted as he imagined.  He was always the alien – as Abraham never forgot that he was and was respected for being.  We of course should always be resident aliens as faithful Christians who are in the world but not of it – regardless of the world’s pressure on us to change with the times and line up with the so-called right side of history.”

Os Guinness, Impossible People, p. 74-5.

Shane Lems

 

 

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

God Told Me!? (A Critique of Mysticism)

What do you do when a friend says, “God told me I needed to go on a diet,” or “The Holy Spirit spoke to me last night and said you should make more friends”?  How do we even begin to respond?  It’s not easy to respond to such comments; it takes patience and wisdom!  If you’ve heard these statements before, you might appreciate Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ comments on this kind of “God-told-me” mysticism.  In the paragraphs below, Lloyd-Jones says these are his main critiques of mysticism: 1) it is claiming continuing inspiration, 2) it devalues Scripture, 3) it devalues the person and work of Christ, 4) it focuses on the Lord’s work in us so much that it forgets His work for us, 5) it is weak on the doctrine of sin, 6) it is entirely subjective, 7) it tends to extremism and fanaticism.  Here are his comments:

“The main criticism of the evangelical can be put in this form: It is a claim to a continuing of inspiration.  The mystic in a sense is claiming that God is dealing as directly with him as He was with the Old Testament prophets; he claims God is dealing with him as He did with the Apostles. …The mystic says he has received a new and fresh message and that he is in a state of direct inspiration…. Now we believe that God gave a message to the prophets, He gave a message to the Apostles; but we say that because God has done that, it is unnecessary that He should do that directly with us.

“My second criticism would be that mysticism of necessity puts the Scriptures on one side and makes them more or less unnecessary.  You will always find that persons who have a mystical tendency never talk very much about the Bible.  …They say, ‘No, I do not follow the Bible reading plans; I find one verse is generally enough for me.  I take one verse and then I begin to meditate.’  …He does not need this objective revelation; he wants something to start him in his meditation and he will then receive it as coming directly from God; he depreciates the value of the Scriptures.”

“I do not hesitate to go further and say that mysticism, as a whole, even tends to make our Lord Himself unnecessary.  …There have been people who have been mystical and who claim that their souls have immediate access to God.  They say that just as they are, they have but to relax and let go and let God speak to them and He will do so; they do not mention the Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…The danger of mysticism is to concentrate so much on the Lord’s work in us that it forgets the Lord’s work for us.  …It is so concerned about this immediate work upon the soul that it quite forgets the preliminary work that had to be done before anything could be done upon the soul.  It tends to forget the cross and the absolute necessity of the atoning death of Christ before fellowship with God is in any way possible.”

“We can go further….  Mysticism is never very strong on the doctrine of sin.  The mystic tends to say, ‘…If you want to know God just as you are, you have to start getting into communion with Him, and He will speak to you and give you all the blessings.’  They never mention the doctrine of sin in the sense that the guilt of sin is such a terrible thing that nothing but the coming of the Son of God into the world and the bearing of our sins in His own body….”

“Another very serious criticism of mysticism is that it always leaves us without a standard.  Let us imagine I follow the mystic way.  I begin to have experiences; I think God is speaking to me; how do I know it is God who is speaking to me?  …How can I be sure that I am not the victim of hallucinations, since this has happened to many of the mystics?  If I believe in mysticism as such without the Bible, how do I test my experiences?  How do I prove the Scriptures; how do I know I am not perhaps being deluded by Satan as an angel of light in order to keep me from the true and living God?  I have no standard.”

“In other words, my last criticism is that mysticism always tends to fanaticism and excesses.  If you put feelings before understanding, you are bound to end in that, because you have nothing to check your experiences with, and you will have no reason to control your sensations and susceptibilities.”

Lloyd Jones goes on to mention that the Scriptures are the “only authority and final standard with regard to these matters, with regard to a knowledge of God.”  He said, “the evangelical doctrine tells me not to look into myself but to look into the Word of God. …It tells me that God can only be known in His own way, the way which has been revealed in the Scriptures themselves.”

This entire section is very much worth reading.  It’s found on pages 89-92 of Life in Christ.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

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

Comfort on the Deathbed (Or: A Pastor’s Most Important Resource)

Simon Goulart was a Reformed theologian and pastor from France who served in Geneva in the middle of the 16th century.  His preaching and teaching were solidly biblical, clearly doctrinal, and very applicable.  One example of this is his biblical comfort he gave to Christians on their deathbed.  Scott Manetsch gives a good summary of Goulart’s pastoral care:

As Christians approach death, Goulart recognizes, they are frequently tempted to doubt God’s promised salvation and despair of their future hope.  In this spiritual drama, Satan is especially active.  Goulart’s discourse ‘Remedies Against Satan’s Temptations in our Final Hour’ enumerates the stinging accusations and doubts that Satan launches against God’s children as they struggle on their deathbeds.  The voice of Satan accuses: ‘You are a miserable sinner, worthy of damnation.’  ‘Your sins are too great to be forgiven.’  ‘How do you know that the promise of the gospel pertains to you?’  ‘Are you certain that your repentance and faith are genuine?’  ‘How do you know that you are among God’s elect?’  In response to each of these attacks, Goulart provides the faithful Christian a ready answer, drawn from the pages of Scripture.

For example, when Satan questions the believer’s election, the Christian responds: ‘All true believers are sheep of Jesus Christ, elected in him to eternal life.  Psalm 23 says that ‘The Lord is my Shepherd.’  And Psalm 100 says ‘Know that the Lord is God.  It is he who has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.’  So too, Jesus Christ says in John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice.’  I have heard this voice and heeded it.  Thus, I am one of the sheep of this Great Shepherd, who has given his life to bring me into his sheepfold, having rescued me from your jaws, O roaring lion.’

Clearly, Goulart believed that God’s Word was to serve as the pastor’s most important resource in caring for Christians on their deathbeds.  Scripture is like a ‘pharmacy’ for wounded souls, he asserted.  It offers a ‘secure harbor for agitated consciences.’

The above quotes were taken from Scott Matnetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, p 297-298.

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