Category Archives: Doctrine of Scripture: Creed and Confessions

Were the King James Translators KJV Only?

WERE THE KING JAMES TRANSLATORS KJV ONLY?

 

Rowland S Ward

This is the title of an article on the web by a Dr Robert Joyner[1]. Let me use his title, and borrow liberally from his outline in summarising an answer.

There is a group today that is called the King James Only or the AV Only. This is because they insist that the King James Version (also called the Authorised Version) is the preserved Word of God and the only Bible for the English speaking people. They usually attack all other versions and delight in pointing out the errors in them.

I want to raise and answer the question, is this the position of the King James translators? If I can prove that the King James translators disagreed with the King James Only group in every point, then the KJV Only group does not have a leg to stand on. They base everything on the King James translators. The KJV advocates revere and lift them to the high heavens. They were superior translators, they say. You can see how inconsistent it is to be KJV Only and believe the opposite of what the KJV translators themselves believed.

In the original 1611 KJV there are eleven pages in the front called, THE TRANSLATORS TO THE READER of which copies are readily available on the internet.[2] In this introduction, the translators explained their philosophy and beliefs about Bible translations. I want to use their introduction, and show you that they disagreed with the KJV Only group in every point.

1. Scholarship affirmed

If you read THE TRANSLATORS TO THE READER, you will see that it is very scholarly essay with many references to earlier writers, with some praised for their translation work despite heretical beliefs. This is important because it shows the KJV men did not set scholarship over against belief in the Scriptures as do many KJV people today, or judge the value of translation by the personal beliefs of the translator.

2. The Hebrew and Greek texts must judge all translations

The KJV men believed the Scriptures were given by inspiration of God, and that all translations should be judged by the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Of course they no more had the very original manuscripts of the Scriptures than we have, but they had a number of copies to work from.

3. The KJV men did not believe translators were inspired or prevented from making mistakes

They were to work as scholarly men, depending on God, but could and did make mistakes.

4. They believed honestly executed translations were the word of God

All translations showed the fallibility of translators. Yet, as a speech of the Prime Minister translated into another language is still the PM’s speech, or a person may still be called handsome though he has a few warts or freckles, translations, even the poorest in English, were God’s word.

5. The KJV men did not believe in condemning other versions, nor did Jesus and the apostles

There were a number of versions in English in 1611 but the KJV men specifically state they are not condemning them. They believed these earlier translations had been raised up by God for the blessing of his people. In their own work they simply sought to make ‘a good work better’. The KJV men also affirmed that the Greek translation used in New Testament times was ‘faulty in many places’ ‘Yet which of the apostles did condemn it? Condemn it! Nay! They used it.’

6. The KJV men thought that fresh translations would be needed from time to time

The KJV men aimed to build on the labours of others and to try to improve them. They said earlier translations were good and they tried to make them better so England could have a common Bible. In some respects their task of revision rather than a completely new translation compromised accurate translation. They certainly had no thought that they were producing an inspired translation or one without mistakes. Indeed, no sooner was the KJV issued than a new edition was necessary because of mistakes, including printing errors, in the first. This new edition was published in 1613. In 1629 the Apocryphal books were omitted (there had been earlier opinion favourable to including these books for reading though they were not to be used to establish doctrine). Ussher’s chronology was added in 1701.

The version currently used has further updates in spelling and dates from 1769. Since then many words have become obsolete or changed their meaning, so the KJV does not fulfil its translators’ aim to produce a translation in the language of ordinary people, a translation which would be a common bible all could use.

In addition, further study of the Hebrew and Greek languages and discovery of more manuscripts means that more accurate translations can be made today, although the message of the Bible has not changed.

7. The KJV men frankly recognised translation difficulties and uncertainties

They wrote: “It hath pleased God in his divine providence, here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation, (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain) but in matters of less moment.” The KJV men believed in putting varying readings in the margin. They also wrote: “Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scripture for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty, should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be so sound in this point.” The KJV men wanted people to be aware of places where the reading was uncertain lest people make too much of the passage, and they thought giving different possible readings was helpful rather than the opposite.

CONCLUSION

What a shame today that so many exalt the KJV translators to lofty heights and yet contradict everything they stood for when it comes to Bible translations. What inconsistency! You would be wise to stand with the KJV men and not with those who go contrary to the very translators they depend upon so much.


[1] It appears to be a section of Robert A Joyner, King James Version Only? A Guide to Bible Translations published by the author in 2000, but I’ve been unable to trace further information.

[2] Conveniently, on the site of the Trinitarian Bible Society, ironically a Society which in English language circulates only the KJV: http://www.trinitarianbiblesociety.org/site/articles/trn-rdr.asp

 

 

 

Review: The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A.T.B.McGowan

BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Spiration of Scripture

[in the USA, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture]

by A.T.B.McGowan

(Apollos, 2007 £14.99 ; IVP, 2008 US$22

 

Rowland S. Ward

The blurb to the soon to be released USA printing of this book by the Principal of Highland Theological College [HTC] in Dingwall, Scotland, reads in part:

Evangelicals have taken extraordinary care in formulating and articulating a high view of Scripture. And yet the doctrine is not without its inadequacies and its internal critics–both past and present.

Reviewing the evangelical discussion and formulations over the past century and more, particularly in the Reformed tradition in North America, Andrew McGowan is not content with the present state of the question. The way forward is to reach back within the European evangelical tradition, particularly to the work of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. The prescription is to anchor the doctrine of Scripture in the work of the Spirit, the divine spiration of Scripture. And the contested idea of inerrancy should be replaced with an informed concept of the infallibility or authenticity of Scripture.

McGowan was a guest preacher at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in September 2007, but more recently (May 2008) an invitation to lecture on covenant theology at the Presbyterian College in Melbourne has been withdrawn because of the controversy over his book on Scripture.

Reviews have varied. Dr Gregory Goswell of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne gave a very positive review entitled ‘Challenging but Helpful’ in New Life (Melbourne), issue of 21 February 2008. [New Life is edited by Rev Bob Thomas, a recent Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.] Dr Goswell, who teaches Old Testament, trained at Moore Theological College and is a widely read scholar and a former missionary in Jordan. Dr Chris Sinkinson in Evangelicals Now! (UK) for June 2008 has the opposite opinion: his review is entitled ‘Dangerous and Mistaken’.

McGowan is a Church of Scotland minister and in 2006 the Kirk recognised HTC, of which McGowan was a principal founder in 1994, as a suitable training place for its ministers. It might be thought that McGowan’s views are influenced by a desire to please that body, but I doubt this. If it pleased the liberal element in the Kirk it certainly would not please the supporters of HTC, although he probably wants to bring in the more theologically conservative folk who are not strict inerrantists. I think McGowan is the kind of fellow impatient with mere mouthing of the formulas of the past. He wants to see truth stated freshly and relevantly, and bring people together where possible. Who can disagree? The danger is that we can confuse and drift from the right path, even as we seek to strike out a helpful way forward. I think this has happened in the book subject of this review.

McGowan wants some reconstruction of the doctrine of Scripture. (1) He is not happy beginning with the doctrine of Scripture in our theology, but considers we should start with the God who gave us Scripture. (2) He considers ‘inspiration’ is not so helpful in modern usage and ‘divine spiration’ would be more suitable, with ‘recognition’ replacing ‘illumination’ and ‘comprehension’ replacing ‘perspicuity’. (3) He further wants to replace ‘inerrancy’ by ‘infallibility’ as a middle position between, in his view, wrongly polarised errant and inerrant views, and argues that more attention needs to be given to the human voices in Scripture. (4) He wants recognition of a proper evangelical tradition in the church. (5) He wants Scripture’s use in the church to be pastorally appropriate.

(1) McGowan’s argument is that while establishing Scripture as true goes before the doctrine of God drawn from it in point of logic, yet the order is wrong theologically. Scripture cannot rightly be understood as the revelation of God apart from the work of God’s Spirit. The big danger of Scripture first is that people think they can understand Scripture without God’s aid, which encourages rational proofs and evidentialist apologetics which, while not without some value, are not as suitable as Van Til’s presuppositionalism, in McGowan’s view. I think McGowan reminds us of a danger. Nevertheless, in some respects the force of the argument is blunted when we realise that the Westminster Confession’s first chapter, which is on Scripture, emphasises the very point McGowan makes in its 5th, 6th and 10th paragraphs.

(2) On vocabulary there is not much to object to if we consider what McGowan means by the suggested terms, except for the choice of infallibility over inerrancy. But I do wonder if the discussion on vocabulary achieves much. It is true theopneustos ‘inspiration’ (KJV) would be better rendered ‘God-breathed’ (NIV), which is what the title words ‘Divine spiration’ are meant to represent. The title change for the US edition suggests they are not marketable words for our cousins. To jettison traditional terms might not only cause more confusion and less precision, but contribute to the breaking up of the evangelical tradition McGowan wants to develop (cf. pp. 175ff).

(3) McGowan spends pages 51-122 successively looking at the liberal and fundamentalist developments which, in his view, gave rise to the inerrancy position. In considering the impact of the enlightenment and the rise of liberalism he looks at the reaction to liberalism of neo-orthodoxy (Barth) and conservative evangelicalism (Machen, Van Til). After a brief word on Warfield’s affirmation of inerrancy, McGowan moves to the American movement described as ‘fundamentalist’ from 1920, but which itself had a more rigid position of Scripture than in the books called The Fundamentals published 1910-15 which gave the movement its name.

Faced with inerrant autographs no longer in our hands and variant readings in the surviving manuscripts, some indeed took the line that the Greek text behind the KJV or even the KJV itself should be regarded as the inerrant text and rejected all textual criticism, while others (happily) did not. The neo-evangelicals of the 1950s and later (eg. Carl Henry, Billy Graham) retained inerrancy but affirmed reverent scholarship and social involvement, neither of which were typical of separatist fundamentalism. In reaction to the new evangelicals, writers like Jack Rogers and Donald McKim argued against inerrancy, opposing the Princeton men like the Hodges and Warfield, and claiming the Westminster Confession supported their functional view of the Bible’s inspiration (ie it was inerrant in the matters of salvation but not necessarily on other matters). McGowan reviews the debate that arose, and rightly rejects the historical reconstruction advanced by Rogers and McKim… yet one is left with the lingering fear that the result of McGowan’s reformulation leads in a very similar direction. At any rate he seems to regard ‘minor textual difficulties’ (p. 125) as inevitable given human authorship. He does not identify any ‘errors’ in Scripture, but he doesn’t seem concerned if others find such. This position is quite different from those who recognise variant readings have occurred subsequent to the giving of the autographs, but accept this as a reality of God’s providence.

In his fifth chapter (pp. 123-164) McGowan argues his case for abandoning the term ‘inerrancy’ in favour of ‘infallibility’. Here he pits James Orr and particularly Herman Bavinck against the Princeton tradition of the Hodges and Warfield. I found this an annoying chapter since, while there were some differences of approach as between my favourite systematic theologian, Herman Bavinck, and my favourite Princeton professor, B.B.Warfield, those differences should not be exaggerated. Bavinck does not use the term inerrant and he does criticise the Baconian method of Charles Hodge and others at Princeton, but in point of practical conclusion there is very little difference between them.

Orr does speak of the ‘possibility of minor errors’ (Revelation and Inspiration [1910] 215, speaks of strict inerrancy as on the face of it ‘a suicidal position’ (ibid, 197ff) and does not think inspiration required ‘mistakes’ in genealogies and such like to be corrected (Problem of the Old Testament [1906] 49-50,487). However, importantly, Bavinck does not allow for the possibility of error in the autographs. Just like Warfield he affirms Scripture is ‘totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts’ so as to be ‘without defect or stain’ (Reformed Dogmatics I 435). Thus Warfield writes (Selected Shorter Writings II 547): ‘the whole Bible is recognised as human, the free product of human effort, in every part and word. And at the same time the whole Bible is recognised as divine, the Word of God, his utterances, of which he is in the truest sense the author.’

McGowan concedes the closeness of Warfield and Bavinck both specifically (eg. pp. 135, 211-212), and also in the way he does not formally recognise the similarity of some of his quotations of Bavinck with statements of Warfield. In addition, the notion that the inerrancy view of Scripture was developed by Charles Hodge (p. 163) is unsupportable by historic evidence, and is contradicted by the approving citation of Mark Noll on page 85 to the effect that the entire truthfulness of Scripture is the common doctrine of most Christians in most churches in all ages. The inerrancy position gets represented by some straw men along the way.

Perhaps McGowan’s main issue is that those holding inerrancy usually affirm that in giving us his word God could not give it with errors since to do so would be inconsistent with his holy and sovereign will. McGowan says we should not impose a concept on Scripture or God a priori, but let Scripture itself inform us. But nowhere does he offer any exegetical material on passages, such as Jesus’ saying, ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’. It is not surprising that there is no Scripture index! Warfield himself points to the importance of starting with what the Scriptures teach about themselves and looking at the facts within Scripture in that light, rather than generating a theory of Scripture from our assessments of various facts in Scripture (Works I 214ff). Some things in Scripture may appear contradictory and if we start from them we may formulate a defective view of Scripture, and twist the obvious claims of Scripture as to its own character. Indeed, if Scripture is the word of God through men of his choosing, how can it partake of that which is contrary to God’s nature? It may fall out in God’s providence that textual variants arise or infelicitous translations are made, but can that which is God-breathed, the autographs, contain that which is not true?

Perhaps a further clue to the rather confusing discussion in McGowan’s book is his statement, ‘Inerrancy requires one to demonstrate the scientific accuracy of the autographs’ (p. 84). McGowan dislikes the rather arid debates on inerrancy and attempts at harmonisation which arise from people who forget Scripture is given for a particular purpose. One recalls Augustine’s comment in AD 404: “Nowhere in the gospel do we read that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and the moon.’ For he wanted to make Christians, not mathematicians” (Debate with Felix the Manichee, 1, 10). Certainly, some, even in the Reformed community, are too given to attempting scientific proofs or harmonisations of Scripture due to an excessive literalism that does not give sufficient emphasis to the meaning and intent of Scripture. But a good theologian should aim at clarity and accuracy in his critique.

Taking the most generous approach, one feels that McGowans’ work is well intentioned but likely to add to confusion in this area. Too often we can read Scripture through an interpretative grid owed to polarised positions brought about by past debates. I think some clarifying discussion is desirable, but this pleasantly written work could have been digested into a journal article highlighting with much greater precision the points of alleged difference, and suggestions for the way forward. Unhappily the volume falls short of its intended purpose.

It will bring, if it has not already, a sharp reaction among American conservatives, given McGowan’s standing in conservative evangelical and Reformed churches there hitherto. In Australia also there is already some controversy. I do not consider his views outside the obligations of a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Australia [PCA] in terms of the Basis of Union of 1901, and in that respect a censure of a PCA minister holding such views does not seem appropriate. There are a few of such views in Victoria but a greater proportion in the more diverse New South Wales. The potential for some bitter in-fighting is there, especially given existing strrains between Victoria and New South Wales.

From the more important aspect of the building up of the kingdom of God, one would not like to see McGowan’s views spread. I believe McGowan is a good man. It is not so much McGowan that concerns one, but what others will do with his views. They seem likely to feed into the general lowering of right and clear views of Scripture characteristic of many evangelicals in the present day.

Postscript: Since writing the above I have received my copy of God’s Word in Servant-Form by Richard B. Gaffin Jr (Reformed Academic Press, 2008) which ably discusses Abraham Kuyper’s and Herman Bavinck’s doctrine of Scripture finding it in substantial agreement, certainly on the point of its freedom from error, with the views of the old Princeton school. The volume is a lightly revised version of articles in the Westminster Theological Journal 1982 and 1983. McGowan is aware of these articles and cites Gaffin approvingly on page 138, but confusingly says on the same page that “Following James Orr they rejected the inerrentist position and held to an infallibilist postion”. This is not Gaffin’s conclusion nor does it agree with the facts of history.

Further note (31/7/08): McGowan’s position on Scripture seems very like that of James Orr (1844-1913). Orr was a United Presbyterian minister and then Professor at the UP College (1891-1900) and the United Free Church College (1900-13). He helped draft the UP Declaratory Act of 1879 which weakened adherence to the old Calvinism (and which in modified form is part of the 1901 constitution of the Presbyterian Church of Australia), although his own works generally upheld conservative positions. His best book, The Christian View of God and the World3 [1897] was reprinted by Kregal of recent years. All his work is characterised by wide reading, and clarity of analysis.

Can you trust the Bible?

The Old Testament Text

In 1947 some papyrus scrolls were found near the NW shore of the Dead Sea. Eventually more scrolls were recovered. They had been in the library of a small Jewish religious group which had its centre there from about 150BC to AD68. There were copies of all or parts of every Old Testament book except Esther. These manuscripts were 1000 years older than the oldest Hebrew text previously known! Yet they required no changes to what we previously believed about the Old Testament teachings: all is confirmed by these older manuscripts.

So for the Old Testament we have ancient texts from before the New Testament period. This is a vastly superior position to that of other ancient books where only a few copies survive, and these from long after the original writing.

In addition, we have the early Greek translation of the Old Testament dating from well before Christ and often quoted in the New Testament, despite at times it being a rather free translation.

The New Testament Text

There are currently over 5,000 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Most of these are fragmentary but some are very complete. These have been investigated in detail by scholars. The abundance of material, plus the evidence from ancient translations, enable us to be sure we have virtually the original text. For although it is true that there are many differences, these are mostly spelling mistakes and similar errors. The abundance of evidence from different early Christian centres usually makes it easy to eliminate these copying errors. The number of places in the New Testament where there is any very serious question about the original reading is about 60. In any event, whatever reading one takes from the available evidence the teachings of the Christian faith are unaffected.

Of course it is important to interpret the Bible correctly. There are many Bible believers who derive some very strange ideas from it, particularly relating to unfulfilled prophecy. They miss the basic storyline, that the Bible unfolds God’s redemptive purpose for the human family and for creation. It provides a provisional fulfilment of God’s promises in Christ and the kingdom of God by what God did among Old Testament Israel.

If we look at the way in which the Bible–written over a period of some 1400 years by 40 different authors–is harmonious; if we consider its marvellous accuracy in historical detail and the many predictions fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus Christ, we have something very impressive. But the impact on people’s lives is also impressive. Granted that a few odd people twist the Bible, it remains that multitudes have been transformed by the Bible, and have been prepared to die for it. They have not just become religious, still less fanatical; but they have been so transformed that love of God and their neighbour has become a marked characteristic of their lives.

However, all this does not of itself prove the Bible is God’s Word, but it does show us that belief in the Bible as God’s Word is not stupid. The points made earlier are fully consistent with the claim that the Bible is the inspired word of God. If they were not true then we would certainly have an obstacle in the way of believing the Bible to be God’s Word. The Bible books indicate the claim of ultimate divine authorship and authority about 4000 times, while Jesus repeatedly affirms the authority of the Old Testament Scriptures.

Are we to light a candle so that we can see the sun? No, for there is no superior authority to God that can be brought forward to prove him. Ultimately, the reason why a person believes the Bible to be not just a reliable book, but the Word of God, is because of the testimony of God’s Spirit by and with the Word. Two people can hear the same evidence; one accepts and the other rejects, because on one God has mercy and the other is left in unbelief.

So what are you doing about the Bible? Are you perhaps just arguing about it without being familiar with it? Far better to search the Scriptures prayerfully and carefully. What strikes the sincere inquirer is the unique personality of Jesus who regarded his life as a fulfilment of the promises of the Old Testament. He practised what he preached. His holy life was not the product of evolution but of God’s intervention. God’s book is also unique: thoroughly human yet exactly the Divine message God intended, and free of error. The Bible can be trusted because God can be trusted. ‘Men spoke as they were borne along by the Spirit of God’ (2Peter 1:21).

So get into it! Don’t be sidetracked by talk of different translations making things confusing. That’s a cop out. Standard translations such as the NIV or ESV or the more traditional New King James convey the same message. The word of God does not consist simply in words on a page. Words are bearers of meaning. As we translate from the Hebrew and Greek originals we may use a variety of words, particularly in a rich language like English. So long as the words convey the intended meaning we should have no concerns at all.

 

Review: Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns

SPECIAL BOOK REVIEW

Inspiration & Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

by Peter Enns

(Grand Rapids: Baker 2005) pbk. 197pp $19.95 ISBN 0801027306

 

Reviewed by Rowland S. Ward in The Presbyterian Banner, May 2006

 

This book is by the Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. [Enns has left the Seminary as of mid 2008.] He was also editor of the Westminster Theological Journal 2000-05. My initial knowledge of it came through a somewhat abrasively hostile review in New Horizons (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church magazine) last year, which I am surprised was published in that form. At the other extreme a positive, certainly non-critical, review appears in Evangelicals Now! (UK) May 2006, while Bruce K. Waltke of Regent College and Reformed Theological Seminary gives one of the blurbs on the back cover. I confess my own reading of the first few chapters was a positive experience, but as I went further on I revised my opinion somewhat. Let me explain.

In five chapters Enns outlines his vision for a more adequate appraisal of the OT. Chapter 1 (pages 13-22) suggests that adequate attention has not been given to the human character of Scripture whereas we should, says the writer, use the model of the incarnation to stress that Scripture is truly human and truly divine. B.B. Warfield’s excellent 1894 essay on the Divine and human in the Bible is cited. The difficulty perhaps is that your initial comfort with this idea is dispelled somewhat because Enns, unlike Warfield, does not adequately develop the aspect of Scripture as truly Divine as well as truly human, and to that extent his incarnational model breaks down. In Enns’ hands the emphasis on the humanity of Scripture seems imbalanced.

His Chapter 2 (pages 23-70) sets out the challenge to the nature of Scripture from its setting in the ancient near east. For example, the OT text has similarities to Akkadian and Babylonian creation and flood accounts, similar customs in the tablets discovered during the 20th century at Nuzi, similar laws in the Code of Hammurabi, who predates Moses, and it seems to borrow wholesale from the Egyptian book Instruction of Amenemope in Proverbs 22:17-24:22, and so on. Enns does not want to conclude that the Bible is just a bunch of stories derived from ancient cultures, or that its similarities to these other books reduces its inspiration or that the Bible is dependent upon these other accounts. However, he does say there is a ‘conceptual similarity’, that as the OT was given in the ancient world’s cultures, all of which had myths of origins, it is understandable that the OT would have its own myth, defined as ancient, premodern, pre-scientific ways of addressing questions of ultimate origins and meaning in the form of stories (p.50). It is surely right of Enns to insist God speaks to man in his real-life situation. It is surely right to insist that Genesis does not address modern questions of a scientific nature. (No one will accuse me of rejecting that proposition!) Of course he is also right to insist history is always interpreted history, always selecting and presenting with a purpose in mind. Yet one cannot help feel that Enns leaves us in some ill-defined area where we can concede lack of fundamental historicity, and indeed where we have such a bias in the history that our conclusions can only be provisional.

Chapter 3 (The Old Testament and Theological Diversity pp. 71-112) accentuates one’s unease for to me Enns is magnifying difficulties to prove diversity. For example, Proverbs 26:4 & 5, cited on p. 74, are not diverse but two parts of one whole, just as is the case with Galatians 6:2 & 5. The diversity in the theology of Chronicles compared to Samuel-Kings is not a contradiction but arises from selection and emphasis for the changed context after the exile. Enns admits this, but somehow you think that he’s wanting to lead you further, since an anchor point for the divinity of Scripture is not as clearly made as for its humanity. The diversity in the two forms of the Ten Commandments, particularly the motivation for keeping the 4th commandment, is well known and its implication, that the heart of the commandment may be expressed in a different context in a slightly different but complementary way, should be fully acknowledged, but hardly impacts on traditional Reformed hermeneutics.

Chapter 4 (pp. 113-165) looks at the use of the Old Testament by the NT writers, and here one really sees orange lights turning to red. Having preached through pretty much the whole of Scripture at least once, I’ve tried to face NT use of the OT honestly. My view, which Enns rejects, is that even in those cases where you might at first think something odd is happening (‘rabbinic exegesis’ is the in-phrase), one usually finds on further reflection that the NT has rightly perceived the true intention of the OT passage in the overall context of Scripture. Enns boldly asserts that ‘the New Testament authors were not engaging the Old Testament in an effort to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author’ (p.115). Somewhat confusingly he adds that they were explaining what the text meant, that is, they were explaining what the text means in the light of Christ’s coming. Reading on, we find that Enns argues the ‘odd’ interpretations reflect the traditional way the text was interpreted in the apostles’ day and to which they were heir. An analogy might be the way some Christians think of Rahab’s scarlet cord as a type of Christ (cf. p. 161). Clearly that is far fetched, not grounded in the passage at all, but it is ‘a layer of meaning’ that many have found edifying. In the same way, suggests Enns, the apostles employed an interpretative method which was relevant to their hearers, even though it violated the canons of grammatical/historical exegesis as we understand them. I found this section loose and somewhat confusing, even self-contradictory at times. There are good things mixed with less than satisfying argumentation.

The short closing chapter offers no further help. One agrees far too many evangelicals read the OT with a poor paradigm in mind. It is too easily read through the interpretative grid provided by polarised evangelical–liberal positions. It is easy not to face real difficulties honestly. But after making every allowance I can only say that Enns’ book should be considered with considerable caution. It is attractively written and there are useful bibliographies. As it is, it doesn’t really quite match the standard of careful Reformed scholarship that we would expect from Westminster Theological Seminary. One can only hope and pray that the issues raised by this book will be dealt with on their merits. Perhaps its author can free it from imbalances and ambiguities in a further edition.

Note: Enn’s connection with WTS ended mid 2008.

Westminster Assembly Picture Review

“Assertion of Liberty of Conscience by the Independents
in the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 1644”
painted by John Rogers Herbert, RA ca. 1844.

This is a well-known picture just republished [December 2007] by permission of the Palace of Westminster Collection in a high quality full-colour format measuring 24” x 36” by Rev Andrew Moody of .

It comes complete with the key identifying the 67 persons pictured. A colour reproduction made in 1993 for the 350th anniversary of the commencement of the Assembly is of lesser quality.

The story of the picture is little known and is as follows. A Congregational minister, Rev Dr James W. Massie (1799-1869), who had been a missionary in India 1822-39, and was Secretary to the Home Missionary Society of the Congregational Union, suggested the picture and drew the outline.1 J.R.Herbert (1810-90) was a well regarded painter who had converted to Roman Catholicism about 1840 through the influence of the up-and-coming architect-designer of Gothic revival, A.W.N.Pugin (1812-52). Pugin was involved with the design of the new Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) following the disastrous fire of 1834. From about this time Herbert’s pictures are largely of religious subjects. Perhaps the 200th anniversary of the 1644 event pictured was in Massie’s mind. Certainly the Westminster Assembly picture belongs to about this period, and was exhibited by Massie in connection with his lecture series in various British cities on Liberty of Conscience from at least February 1846. The artist was permitted to view the Jerusalem Chamber by the Dean of Westminster 1842-45, Thomas Turton, and provides a faithful representation2 of the main meeting place of the Assembly, as he also does with most of the individuals pictured. The picture was issued as an engraved print by Thomas Agnew, Printseller to the Queen and Prince Albert, Exchange Street, Manchester on 16 December 1648. An interesting review appeared in The Baptist Magazine for August 1849.3

According to The Baptist Magazine,4 the printed prospectus of 1848 describes the scene in which Philip Nye, one of the five Independents in a largely Presbyterian Assembly, asserts ‘that, by God’s command, the magistrate is discharged to put the least discourtesy on any man, Turk, Papist, Socinian, or whatsoever, for his religion. They were for union in things necessary, for liberty in things unnecessary, and for charity in all.’ In other words, the claim is made that the Independents affirmed full toleration of all religious groups. The looks of surprise/horror on various faces is intended to reflect reaction to this bold affirmation. Accordingly, the original print under the 1848 title gives a reference to Robert Baillie’s letters Vol 2. p. 146 – “We were all highly offended at him – all cried him downe”.

However, if one looks up the Baillie reference, one finds Nye was opposing the Presbyterian desire for uniformity and therefore he urged toleration of all whose errors were not fundamental, as for instance the difference in church government between the Independents and the Presbyterians. But as to the toleration of those not orthodox in fundamentals, Baillie is a witness that the Independents at the Assembly were of the same mind as the Presbyterians, and opposed those – not members of the Assembly – such as John Goodwin, who favoured toleration of the various religions mentioned.5

Massie, as the one behind the commissioning of the picture, represented Nye and his fellow Independents as advocates of complete toleration in his lectures,6 but cites Baillie in a completely inaccurate fashion. The careful Baptist historian, E.B.Underhill, pointed out Massie’s erroneous claim in The Baptist Magazine for October 1847. His critique, slightly extended, was subsequently published.7

 

The picture is an impressive one. There is a certain artistic licence in that men who were not actual members are included, such as Baxter, Owen, Cromwell and Milton.8 It might seem strange that this picture of an Assembly dear to Presbyterians should have been conceived by an Independent who claimed too much for his party, be painted by a Roman Catholic convert, and represent that which Presbyterians of the time opposed as inimical to the reformation of the British church. But that’s how it is in God’s providence. But it is a picture capable of providing a useful talking point. I like The Baptist Magazine’s suggested alternative title: “The Westminster Assembly receiving Philip Nye’s development of the tendencies of Presbyterianism.”9

 

 

Dr Rowland S. Ward is minister of Knox Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia in Melbourne.

This article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of The Presbyterian Banner.

 

1 Extract from the Liverpool Albion 21 February 1846 as cited in J.W.Massie, Liberty of Conscience Illustrated. (London: John Snow, 1847) viii.

2 Liberty of Conscience, 138.

3 The Baptist Magazine for 1849 (London: Houlston & Stoner, 1849) 494-498.

4 Page 495.

5 Baillie, Vol 2, 145-146; note also Vol 2, 122.

6 Liberty of Conscience, 112.

7 The Independents not the first assertors of the principle of full liberty of conscience: with especial reference to the views of the five dissenting brethren in the Westminster Assembly of Divines (1849) 18pp.

8 See the justification for the presence of these spectators in Liberty of Conscience, 98-99.

9 Page 498.

The Bible Versions Question

Q. If God inspired the Bible in the first place why are there differences in the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and why do the common translations differ among themselves?

THE SHORT ANSWER
God has inspired his word so that every word as originally given was as he intended.

God has marvellously preserved the original manuscripts in an abundance of copies far more numerous than for other ancient writings. The more manuscripts we have the more we are satisfied that we have the original text in doctrinal purity and very near the exact wording of the autographs. Most copyist’s errors do not even show up in translation, and the others do not make any Christian doctrine uncertain. There is no need for division in churches over the common Bible versions.

An honestly executed translation brings God’s message to us even if we cannot read Hebrew or Greek. Translations vary in quality but where the meaning is faithfully conveyed verbal differences among them are not of great consequence. All translations must be tested by the Hebrew and Greek texts.

THE LONGER EXPLANATION

The Old Testament
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with some small sections in Aramaic). However, by about 200 BC the influence of Greek culture was such that a translation into Greek became necessary. It was made by Jewish scholars and is called the Septuagint or LXX for short because of the tradition that 70 scholars did the work. The translation was done over a period and is often free. The first five books (Genesis-Deuteronomy) are translated in quite a literal way, the rest much less so.

Many of the quotations in the New Testament come from the LXX and sometimes are different in detail from the standard Hebrew text. See this for example in Acts 15:16-18 (Amos 9:11-12) or Hebrews 1:6 (Deut 32:43). Another example is the use of ‘tongue’ for ‘glory’ in Acts 2:26 (Psalm 16:9) or ‘angels’ for ‘God’ in Hebrews 2:7 (Psalm 8:5). In quoting the LXX the NT writers do not endorse everything in it, but found it of practical utility for ordinary purposes.

In other cases the Greek translation is a very exact rendering of the Hebrew, while in still others the NT quotes the Hebrew in a way which brings out a particular idea inherent in the original without giving a literal rendering. A good example is Matthew 2:6 (Micah 5:2). In some cases these quotations probably represent a variant reading from the LXX (eg. Matthew 12:18-21 compare Isaiah 42:1-4).

It is clear therefore that the very earliest Christians believed that all Scripture was God-breathed, but also accepted that this did not mean the surviving manuscripts were in every respect flawless. They also recognised the difference between the Hebrew text and a translation, and used a translation that certainly departed from a literal type of translation to a greater extent than many modern English versions.

The rest of this article will concentrate on the New Testament although the basic principles apply to the Old Testament as well. Incidentally, the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the mid 20th century include copies of almost every OT book and are dated about 100BC, that is, 900 years earlier than the copies we had previously. They are for substance identical.

Greek manuscripts of the New Testament

While the Jews were quite fastidious in the copying of the OT text, Christians seem to have been less careful with the NT. In any case numerous copyists’ mistakes occur in the manuscripts. The majority of variations are spelling errors, missing a word or a line, repetition of a word or line, or using a word which only sounds like the correct word, and in practice these variations are not significant. Other differences arise where explanatory words are inserted to make the meaning dear, readings are combined because of uncertainty as to which is correct, or the language of one Gospel is conformed to the parallel place in another. Few wilful changes exist. Communication was not easy and so standardisation was difficult to achieve before the rise of monarchical bishops and greater institutionalisation of the church. As copying continued, regions tended to perpetuate their own textual idiosyncrasies and so have Bibles with slight variations from those used in other more distant areas. From the numerous quotations in early Christian writers and from
the early translations into other languages we are able to understand something of these local
variations.

The image “http://www.worldinvisible.com/images/apolog/fragjn.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Portion of John’s Gospel circa AD 120

Finding the correct reading is often quite easy, but it’s not simply a matter of counting the number of Greek manuscripts. We have to weigh the different families of manuscripts that developed in different centres. We need to look at all the branches, even if some did not last long, to see what the original stem was like. For example, churches in Caesarea and Alexandria were suppressed under Moslem rule after the 7th century, while the church at Rome did not use Greek much after the 4th century but Latin. However, the church at Constantinople constantly copied its form of manuscript since it was in daily use until the Turkish invasion of AD 1453. If we put all the Greek manuscripts together – there are over 5,000 known, 95% being later than the 7th century – the manuscripts from Constantinople’s sphere of influence will dominate. Indeed, we call the texts from this branch of the family tree Byzantine (because it was used in Constantinople), or the Majority text. It has a tendency to harmonise different readings instead of choosing between them. But of course the evidence of these manuscripts is not of itself a reliable guide to the original reading since there are other branches of the family tree. Their form of text has also been preserved in God’s providence. Again, more recent texts are not automatically excluded since they may be copies of earlier manuscripts. Also older manuscripts are not automatically good ones.

As well as the Majority texts two other major families are usually accepted, both dated to the second century. The so-called Western text type was typical for writers from North Africa and Europe such as Tatian, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian and Cyprian, and in the Old Latin translations from around AD 180. It is characterised by a tendency to paraphrase. The Alexandrian text type was commonly used by writers such as Clement, Origen, Dionysius and Cyril. Far from Origen (185-254) being the creator of this text type, it dates from before his time.

When all the forms of text used in the different parts of the early church are carefully compared a text even closer to the original than the Majority text can be prepared. Such a text is used by most modern versions.

The Greek Church and the Majority text

We know that the Majority text type originates in the 4th century because no manuscript earlier than AD 300 has its distinctive readings, no version before 300 has its text type and no Christian writer before that date quotes a distinctively Byzantine reading if proper critical editions of these writers are examined. The very popular preacher, John Chrysostom (347-407), used a text something like the Byzantine. The Syriac Peshitta is Byzantine in the Gospels and is sometimes said to about AD 180. However, even if true, this view would date the Majority text at about the same age as other text types and so not prove its superiority to them. In fact, the Peshitta appears to have been produced about AD 400 as a revision of the Old Syriac versions which were of Western text type.

The Greek version became so venerated that fresh translations to take account of changes in the language were not made. Even today the Orthodox Church in Greece seeks to restrict the use of the Bible in Modern Greek and the average Greek does not understand in detail the liturgy of his church in the ancient Koine. The same thing happened to the Latin Vulgate produced at Bishop Damascus’ request by Jerome about AD 390 as a revision of earlier Latin translations. At first it was criticised but ultimately (despite changes over the centuries) was regarded by the Council of Trent (1646) as the only authentic version. In some parts of the Protestant church today a similar thing has happened with the King James Version of 1611.

The origin of the printed Greek texts

Printing was invented in Europe in 1450. When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, scholars brought Greek manuscripts of the NT to the West. The Roman Catholic humanist, Desiderio Erasmus, published a printed Greek text in 1516 and a second edition in 1519. A third edition was issued in 1522 and a fourth in 1527. The 1519 edition was the basis of Luther’s Bible. In 1551 Stephanus, a printer in Geneva, released a printing of Erasmus’ 4th edition of the Greek text along with the Latin Vulgate and Erasmus’ Latin translation in parallel columns. In this edition the New Testament was divided into numbered verses for the first time.

The ‘received text’

Calvin’s successor at Geneva, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) prepared no less than 10 editions of the New Testament with annotations. In 1633 Elzevir of Leiden printed a Greek New Testament substantially the same as Beza’s small 1565 edition. The preface made the claim that the reader had ‘the text which is now received by all’ hence the expression ‘received text’. However, it is based on only a handful of largely late (12th century) manuscripts of the type used in Constantinople.

The ‘received text’ is not the best text that could be constructed from the Majority text family: over 1,000 changes would be required to achieve this. Indeed, in a dozen places the ‘received text’ has readings unsupported by any Greek manuscript. The most notorious are certain words in 1 John 5:7-8 commonly omitted today but inserted in Erasmus’ 3rd edition. These words do exist in two Greek manuscripts (both late) and in modern writing in the margin of two more. In each case the wording shows they were derived from Latin translations.

The King James Version

A text like the ‘received text’ was the basis of all Protestant translations from Greek before 1881, including the great King James version of 1611. This translation was not immediately accepted by all English-speakers, particularly Scots. It was a generation before the Geneva Bible of 1560 (the Bible Shakespeare used) was supplanted. Many Puritans of the mid-1600s wished a more thorough translation which did not retain the old ecclesiastical words (such as ‘bishop’ for ‘overseer.’) since these tended to endorse practices in the Church of England unknown to the New Testament age. Others argued for revision on other grounds. However, the general accuracy and majesty of style of the K]V were not to be denied. In an age of few books, it became the staple for those who could read and also shaped the English language. Some 400 errors in the original printing were corrected and the spelling standardised by successive editions, the most recent being 1769.

The important preface The Translators to the Readers (now only found in library editions) rejects the notion of a perfect translation. It affirms that even the very worst English Protestant translation may be regarded as the word of God, states that the translators sought to make a good work better, and justified the use of the earlier work of men who might have had wrong views on religious matters but were good scholars nonetheless. For example, the KJV translators used the Roman Catholic Rheims NT of 1582. The translators vindicated their decision to include some variant readings in the margin saying it is better to be cautious about obscure things than argue about them. Some examples of marginal readings are: when correct word doubtful – Rev 15:3 (saints, nations or ages); when verse in doubt – Luke 17:36; when meaning doubtful – Luke 17:21 (within or among).

Criticisms of modem versions

Critics of modern translations claim that the underlying textual basis is corrupt. The facts are otherwise. Two scholars of the Church of England, B.F.Westcott (1825~1901) and F.J.A.Hort (1828-92) were particularly influential in establishing the principles of textual comparison and analysis. Whatever their doctrinal views – and the Church of England in the later part of the 19th century was hardly noted for its orthodox BibIical theology – Westcott and Hort were very competent scholars. Such a champion of orthodoxy as B.B.Warfield, the author of the standard defence of the inspiration of the Scripture, agreed with their basic approach.

Westcott and Hort argued that the text type represented by the ‘received text’ originated in the 4th century. This is acknowledged as correct by later scholarship (see above). But the text type they regarded most highly was that found in two great bound volumes – Sinaiticus (obtained from the monastery of St Catherine at Mt Sinai and published in 1862) and Vaticanus (kept in the Vatican Library from before 1475 and photographed and published in 1890). Both manuscripts come from the 4th century. In general they are both Alexandrian type texts (although Sinaiticus includes some Western readings), and show a preference for shorter readings. Later scholars, while not having quite the same view of Sinaiticus and Vaticanus as Westcott and Hort, accept the broad principles of their work but give more weight to some Majority text readings.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Codex_Vaticanus_B%2C_2Thess._3%2C11-18%2C_Hebr._1%2C1-2%2C2.jpg

A page from Codex Vaticanus

Westcott and Hort were contemptuous of the ‘received text’ and some of their critics replied in kind. The High-Church Anglican scholar, Dean John Burgon, did not understand and/or rejected the genealogical principle and has been followed by a few others whose chief influence today is through independent churches or on the fringes of established denominations. Since liberal and modernistic scholars have often been associated with recent translations there has been an aversion to them by conservatives that in some cases is quite excessive. Obviously there is scope for difference of opinion about the weight to be given to particular manuscripts in any particular case, but this is of no great importance for ordinary Christians, and is certainly nothing to worry about – nor to split churches over. The New King James Version (1982) is recommended for those who wish a version in continuity with the KJV but with more modern language.

It is sometimes said that the modern versions are weak on the deity of Christ. The argument is that the modern versions choose the variant or translate the text so as not to support the doctrine. If this was so the doctrine is still amply attested in many other places but, in fact, it is not so with the major modern translations. If one examines John 1:1, 18; Acts 20:28; Rom 9:5; 2 Thess 1:12; 1 Tim 3:16; Titus 2:13; Heb 1:8 and 2 Pet 1:1, the RSV and NEB accept four of these nine passages as unambiguous references to Christ’s deity, the KJV and GNB accept five, Westcott and Hort and RV six, and the NASB, NIV and NKJV seven. So much for the alleged bias!

One can certainly understand a preference for retaining familiar words, but the vehemence of many attacks on modern versions and the extreme claims made for the KJV are very disappointing. That strict Protestants should use arguments once propounded against the Protestant Reformers is ironic to say the least. Indeed, the Greek of the NT is not Classical Greek at all but the language of ordinary people at the time without special education (Koine Greek). This became very clear in the 1890s when everyday written materials preserved in the dry climate of Egypt were recovered.

Translation types

The KJV and its various revisions tend to a ‘formal equivalence’ method of translation, retaining word sentence structure and word order where possible. A translation such as the New Living Translation (1996) has a ‘dynamic equivalence’ approach which endeavours to state the meaning of the original in the idiom of the receptor language without close regard to the form of the original. The New International Version takes a somewhat middle position. Of course no version can be absolutely literal since idioms often do not transfer in translation. Indeed, even the KJV can be quite free at times. The statement ‘God forbid!’ 15 times in the KJV New Testament, chiefly in Romans, renders what would literally be ‘May it never be!’ or, more idiomatically, ‘Perish the thought!’

Some modern translations

The changing meaning of words and the discovery of many more Greek manuscripts led to the production of the Revised Version of 1881 and its American equivalent, the American Standard Version (1901). Although it was closer to the original, through the pedantry of scholarship at the time it lost the beauty of style of the KJV. It needs to be said, of course, that the Bible does not have a uniform literary style.

The Revised Standard Version (1952) was an improvement on the language side and was further revised in 1971. The English Standard Version (2001/2007) is a conservative revision of the 1971 RSV. The New English Bible (1970) was a fresh translation rather than a revision but was idiosyncratic and also had few translators of evangelical conviction. The first English version for Roman Catholics made from the Hebrew and Greek rather than the Latin Vulgate was also issued in 1970 – the New American Bible. The New American Standard Bible (1971, revised 1995) is a rather literal conservative revision of the ASV of 1901 and useful for close study. The Good News Bible (TEV) of 1976 is a fresh translation intended for those for whom English is a second language but is too free for my liking, particularly in the OT. The Contemporay English Version (1995) seems to be replacing it. The New International Version (1978) is perhaps the most widely used modern translation and helpfully balances form and freedom. I have used it in preaching for many years. Today’s New International Version (2005) is a revision published alongside the NIV. The New Living Translation (1996) is a true dynamic equivalence version; its forerunner, The Living Bible (1971) was a self-declared paraphrase.

It should be kept in mind that the publishers of Bibles have particular axes to grind in the interest of furthering their business or particular views. For example, this reviewer cannot see sufficient difference between the NIV and the ESV to have warranted the criticisms of the NIV offered by ESV supporters.

Conclusion

The differences between the underlying texts should not be overemphasised, nor even the different approaches to translation. There will always be some difference of viewpoint but the cause of God is not in danger. All translations have strengths and weaknesses. For this writer the list of weaknesses is longer with the KJV than the NIV because of the less exact underlying text, outdated language and, on balance, more translation problems.

The fundamental principles discussed in this article have been known through the ages by scholars even if they were not so scientifically developed and applied. The Reformers of the 16th century were aware of them. It is striking to think that the Scriptures have come down to us in God’s providence often through the hands of those who did not acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah or who did not understand and teach the Biblical message. And despite the sifting by scholars, many of whom were not believing men, the Scripture comes from their hands in full integrity: no other books are on a similar plane and entitled to claim a place in it, no doctrine has dropped out, no truth lacks adequate textual support, and the essential integrity of the text for everyday purposes is undoubted.

Get hold of a good modern translation and stick with it. Read carefully, study prayerfully, memorise constantly, obey consistently!

© 1998, 2007

Creed Subscription: The Limits to Liberty and Change

We have considered Subscription to a Creed and the Authority of Holy Scripture. Now the question of changing a Confession, and the issues of liberty of opinion and taking exceptions are addressed more specifically.

While the Church can never pronounce on everything in Scripture, she can never consent to add to or contradict Scripture through her Confession. If she discovers that such has occurred she is bound to change, as the framers of the Scots Confession of 1560 (replaced by Westminster in 1647) pointedly stated, and as was reaffirmed in 1847 by the Free Church of Scotland Assembly when it approved the Constitutional Catechism.

Revision, restatement or correction of the Confession will not involve significant change in its Catholic, Protestant and Calvinistic character. On the issues involved in these matters Scripture is clear, although we may find better words to express them as language changes or a better grasp of particular biblical passages is achieved.

Scruples

It is on other issues, usually of secondary importance, where scruples may arise. In the event of some scruple arising as to anything in the Confession a subscriber must keep in mind that the Confession is not his only but also that of the Church. The Confession is the consensus of the Church not to silence dissent but to prevent tyranny over the whole body by dissenting individuals and factious parties. We are all prone at times to be over-scrupulous and/or undisciplined, hence the Church in proper Assembly is the proper forum for resolutions of difficulties.

Some scruples arise from misunderstanding. In the PCEA subscription is to “the whole doctrine” of the Confession, that is to all its teaching both major and minor. However, that does not mean that I declare that the statements of doctrine in the Confession are necessarily formulated in the best manner, that they are exhaustive statements of the doctrines expressed, that every teaching of Scripture is dealt with or every error condemned, or that mere allusions or incidental remarks are binding.

Here and there the changed historical circumstances of a church with a long history like ours may mean misunderstanding.

(1) Long-standing, godly elders are not always aware that WCF 23:3, about the role of the civil magistrate in calling Synods, was limited by the Church of Scotland when it adopted the Confession in 1647, and is therefore limited by us, and rightly.

(2) I’ve heard some of our people express the opinion that the questions used at ordinations and inductions need to be recast a little to relate them more to our Australian situation than to the Disruption in Scotland in 1843. I think there’s merit in this.

(3) Others may not realise that the term ‘psalms’ in WCF 21:5 was not intended by our Mother church in 1647 to be necessarily equated to the Psalter, or to decide the limits of Biblically permissible songs in God’s worship.

(4) Still others may misunderstand the reference to the papacy in WCF 25:6, or even the reference to creation in the space of six days, 4:1.

The antidote in such matters is a bit of historical study and maybe some clarifying updating of the text.

Liberty and its limits

There remains the question of liberty of opinion. The framers of the Confession never intended their work to decide every issue. It was, after all, a consensus, and dealt with all the major doctrines. So there will be areas where different opinions on subsidiary/ undefined issues will be held by those who are intelligent and genuine strict subscribers.
But what about areas the Confession does speak to? Can there be disagreement there? Yes and No, I would say.

Yes, because even the Confession itself distinguishes between errors censurable in their own nature (eg. the grounds of divorce), and other errors which are censurable because of the manner in which they are maintained and propagated (WCF 20:4). It therefore seems to be open for the church to accept as an office-bearer someone otherwise qualified who has certain exceptions [being ‘errors not censurable in their own nature’], which are not maintained and propagated in an objectionable manner.

No, given that no distinction is made between major and minor doctrines when accepting ‘the whole doctrine’. In the PCEA any exceptions would have to be dealt with at Synod level, and we have not had occasion to do so hitherto.

Most churches, including the PCEA, have allowed good sense to rule in those few minor points where well recognised differences exist. For example, a number of the best ministers in our tradition [eg. Murray M’Cheyne of Dundee, John Sinclair of Geelong] were of pre-millennial persuasion (although not dispensational). This is hardly fully consistent with the Confession but has not given rise to censure.

Sometimes it is argued in less strict bodies that one has a ‘liberty of opinion’ to believe but not to teach a different viewpoint on some secondary issue dealt with in the Confession. I do not believe this is tenable. It leads to a new papalism where the authority of the church binds the conscience improperly. A promise not to teach something one regards as the teaching of the Word of God is rightly forbidden by WCF 22:7. It follows that if a Church accepts an office-bearer otherwise qualified who had certain exceptions, those exceptions should be in relatively small matters (‘not censurable in their own nature’) and could be publicly expressed by that person, so long as there was respect for the consensus Confession of the Church. In other words, the manner of maintaining them would have to be appropriate, not fomenting schism, etc.

The liberty of opinion clauses that became common in larger Presbyterian bodies around 1900 were framed in a context where there was dissatisfaction with major doctrines like the atonement and God’s decrees, even Scripture itself. To grant an undefined liberty of opinion (and logically therefore liberty of expression also) in matters not essential, without defining the essentials unambiguously, is to invite a broadening of teaching beyond the limits of Scripture. Is it being loyal to Christ the only Head of the Church? Yet in rightly strongly objecting to such a procedure as replacing a definite creed with a fluctuating one we must be careful not to advance a confessionalism which undercuts the supremacy of Scripture and thus denies our Confession!

Yes, we need a strict subscription, yet always the recognition that if anything is found apparently repugnant to the Word of God we will give satisfaction from that Word or amend the confession to make it conform to Scripture.1 Of course the future orthodoxy of a Church will not be secured simply by fine trust deeds or formulas of subscription, but by godly men who know, live and teach the Word of God.

Also, while checks against hasty or ill-considered action are good, the Christian Church must always be free to obey her Lord in entering into a wider expression of visible unity in agreement with the Word of God, where that possibility presents itself.2

So how would one summarise a proper subscription?

Here follows my draft of the substance of what I believe is involved in my own subscription as a PCEA minister. It is couched in rather different words than the questions and formula I signed in 1976 in order to illustrate what I have been saying, and to further understanding of the proper place of the Confession.

1. I wholeheartedly and willingly acknowledge before God without mental reservation, that the Holy Scriptures, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, are the Word of God and the only rule of faith and conduct.

2. I further wholeheartedly and willingly acknowledge before God that I believe all the doctrines contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith as received by the Church of Scotland in the year 1647, and interpreted in the Disruption documents by those who formed the Free Church of Scotland in the year 1843, to be a faithful setting forth of the teaching of the Word of God. To all those doctrines, both major and minor, I subscribe without reservation and confess to be my own understanding of the teaching of the Word of God, which I will assert, maintain and defend.

3. In making this subscription I understand that the Westminster Confession is not on a level with the Word of God. Thus, I do not declare that the statements of doctrine in it are necessarily formulated in the best manner, or that they are exhaustive statements of the doctrines expressed, or that every teaching of Scripture is dealt with or every error condemned, or that mere allusions or incidental remarks are binding. Nevertheless, I subscribe as previously stated to all the teachings intentionally conveyed by the Confession because I believe them to be derived from the Holy Scriptures and in agreement with them.

4. I pledge myself faithfully to adhere to all the teachings of the Westminster Confession and to reject all doctrines or opinions whatever that are contrary to or inconsistent with them. Should at any time a question arise as to my understanding of any of the teachings of the Word of God that may seem to conflict with my subscription to the teaching of the Confession, I solemnly undertake not to act or teach independently but to bring such a matter before the relevant church assembly for clarification or resolution, including by final appeal to the Word of God.

5. I further acknowledge that the principles of Presbyterian government by elders duly met in congregational, regional and broader assemblies, as also the simplicity and spirituality of worship as practised by this Church, are soundly based on the Word of God. I acknowledge the authority of the Church to administer the teaching of the Word of God in subjection to that Word, and I promise to observe the Practice and Procedure of the Church in an orderly manner and to uphold its worship, government and discipline. Should I have cause in conscience to disagree with a decision of the church, I recognise that I may clear my conscience by a formal dissent, but that I remain obligated to submit to my brothers in Church assembly and to promote the unity of the Church.

 

End Notes

* From The Presbyterian Banner, April 2001.

1 This provision was expressly stated by the framers of the Scots Confession in 1560.
2 A strict subscription to the WCF, as I have defined it, would not appear inconsistent with a similar strict subscription to the Three Forms of Unity also, except perhaps in regard to the theoretical underpinning of the fourth commandment where the early Reformation position reflected in the TFU has been supplanted in the WCF by the binding moral obligation of a weekly day of rest, cf. Richard Gaffin, Calvin and the Sabbath (Christian Focus/Mentor 1998); Z. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (English translation 1852) on Q 103; G.I.Williamson, The Heidelberg Catechism – Study Guide (P & R 1993) on Q 103. Note the two views well stated in Acts of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod, 1972, pp. 146-166. In practical terms there appears no great difference in Sabbath observance among the strict subscription churches at the present time, if one allows for cultural variations.

Subscription to a Creed and the Authority of Holy Scripture

1. Creeds & subscription

Confessional subscription, that is, adherence to a doctrinal statement by office-bearers of the Church, is a subject of considerable importance, particularly for a strict-subscription church like the PCEA. It is also one of some difficulty given that we do not want to deny the primacy of Scripture by seeming to place our creeds on the same level as Scripture by not allowing any dissent from them.

Indeed, even the practice of catechism preaching in the manner of some in the Dutch tradition has been one we have tended to follow only in so far as we follow the catechism subjects in a series of topical sermons drawn from Scripture. We are very jealous about not giving a place to creeds in the pulpit that belongs to the word of God alone. That’s the theory anyway. This article aims to explore how the creeds should function in the life of the church.
Development of creeds

Initially it was enough to assert belief in some major truths of the Scriptures. Yet a brief confession such as ‘Jesus is Lord’ has many implications. As differences arose among those who claimed loyalty to Christ and the Scriptures, it was necessary to set out some of these implications at length.

In early Christian centuries there was much dispute concerning the person of Christ and his relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. The orthodox Catholics of the time set out their understanding in a form we sum up as the doctrine of the Trinity. In the 16th century Reformation the issues included the relationship of Scripture and church tradition, the nature of justification, and the nature of the church and the sacraments. Protestants made statements on such issues, protesting against the denial of Scripture as the primary and ultimate standard. In the early 17th century there was controversy over God’s grace and salvation leading to the Calvinistic statements of the Synod of Dort 1618/19.

While the Roman Catholic Church produced its decrees and sought submission to them on the authority of the Church, Protestants produced creeds but insisted on the primacy of Scripture, not Church or pope. Many Confessions were produced in the different lands to which the Reformation spread. The Westminster Confession of 1646/47 comes at the virtual close of the creed-writing age among Protestants. This accounts in part for it being really the high-water mark of creedal composition.

Some history1

Seventeenth century Scots had no problems with strict subscription to the Westminster Confession. The Church of Scotland (1690, 1694) and the Scottish Parliament (1693) legislated it as part of the compact that recognised the Church of Scotland as the legally established religion.

In Ireland the English Church was the established one. Presbyterians in the north (Ulster) formalised subscription for licentiates in 1698 but this was not the case in the south of Ireland. In 1719 the Crown granted recognition based on the Westminster Confession, but there were significant numbers who scrupled submitting to ‘human tests of divine truths’ and toward whom the Synod exercised forbearance. Non-subscribers usually eventually went off into unitarianism. The resolution came only much later with the enforcement of subscription in 1835 which paved the way for the union of 1840 with the Secession Church.

In North America a kind of modified subscription was agreed to in 1729. The Confession was accepted but exceptions in articles ‘not essential and necessary’ could be allowed by presbyteries. From this provision, intended to have limited application, came at length a laxity that destroyed the orthodox character of mainstream Presbyterianism, particularly in the early 20th century.

Meanwhile, the Scots’ adherence to strict subscription was weakened in the latter half of the 19th century more especially from about 1875. Declaratory statements designed to soften the clear contours of orthodox Calvinism were adopted by various of the major Scottish bodies (1879, 1892), and had their impact in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. An ill-defined liberty of opinion allowed Presbytery or Assembly interference only if there was disturbance in the church. Changing intellectual currents were significant factors and the mainstream churches were further pushed into major heresy as the 20th century progressed. Key elements of the faith were sidelined or rejected.

I am far from saying that strict subscription is a guarantee of spiritual prosperity: The Church of Scotland during the reign of the Moderates c.1770-1820 was nominally at least a strict subscription church, but it was often cold and formal. The PCEA is and always has been a strict-subscription church, but that has not guaranteed outward progress. However, clear-cut subscription to doctrinal statements by ministers and office-bearers is certainly not without great importance. ‘Guard the sacred deposit’, said Paul to Timothy. But churches have often been unwilling to do this.

Options

In 1720 Irish minister Rev Samuel Haliday of Belfast, refused to subscribe the Confession, but offered the following statement:

 

I sincerely believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the only rule of revealed religion, a sufficient test of orthodoxy or soundness in the Faith, and to settle all the terms of ministerial and Christian communion, to which nothing may be added by any synod, assembly or council whatsoever; and I find all the essential articles of the Christian doctrine to be contained in the Westminister Confession of Faith; which articles I receive upon the sole authority of the Holy Scriptures.2

 

So Haliday affirmed the primacy of Scripture, and the utility of the Confession as containing all the essential items of Christian belief, but he did not indicate how much or how little of the Confession he regarded as Scriptural. Haliday himself claimed that there were many non-essential items in the Confession. Clearly, his is a basis which does not secure clarity of belief, one of the chief purposes of a Confession.

The same position follows if we were to have a subscription to the Confession in so far as it agrees with Scripture, or a similar ambiguous form of words, such as those imposed by the Dutch King on the Reformed Church in 1816. Only if we affirm the Confession as founded on and in agreement with Scripture, and therefore something we accept because it is Scriptural, can we secure clarity and definiteness. But then what becomes of the primacy of Scripture and final appeal to it?

2. The primacy of Scripture

The primacy of Scripture is to be respected in Christ’s Church. Elders and ministers are not to be chiefly specialists in Canon Law, resisting examination of the Word of God by a mere citation of the Confession of Faith. They are to be capable teachers of the Word of God, for it is to such that Christ has committed the affairs of his Church. The past cannot be ignored but the Gospel must be confessed in the present.

Hence, the FIRST function of a Confession of Faith is to make sure that Scripture is our primary standard in all matters of faith and conduct.

We make that claim in the very first question addressed to candidates for office! [Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and the only rule of faith and practice?] Thus a Scriptural Confession derives its authority from the Scriptures, not the other way around. The placement of the subject of Scripture as Chapter 1 in the Westminster Confession reminds us of this in a striking way. Also important is the way in which the Confession drives us back to the Scriptures in any controversy (1:8-10). We do not honour our Confession if we use it, rather than Scripture, to refute some error that may arise.

A SECOND function of a Confession of Faith is to provide a rallying point for those of like mind concerning the main teachings of Scripture.

A Confession will probably become more full in the light of fresh disputes or heresies which require a response, but it can never be a kind of definitive commentary on every passage of Scripture. Its explanations, however good and correct, are not inspired as Scripture is. Indeed, it is always open to revision and restatement in the light of Scripture as the primary standard. Given the present fragmented state of the Christian Church it will always be wise to seek wider counsel before formal amendment with a view to avoiding idiosyncratic change.

A THIRD function of a Confession of Faith is to serve as a public statement of the faith of the people of God, and to teach the faith catechetically.

A Confession of Faith will be carefully expressed but it should not be in old-fashioned language lest it fail to be an adequate public statement and means of instruction. Its coverage is not all the minutiae of the theological schools, but the grand and clearly revealed truths in the Bible, which it seeks to commend to others.3

A FOURTH function of a Confession of Faith is to be a solemn bond for the office-bearers of the Church.

Their subscription to such a form of sound words provides a bond of fellowship and co-operation. The terms of subscription must recognise the primary authority of Scripture as the rule of faith. And the vow must be taken sincerely (WCF 22:4), therefore also the meaning of the Confession must be clear.

A Confession produced by a meeting of many minds and/or formally adopted by the Church has greater authority than the opinion of an individual. Office-bearers need to be particularly careful not to elevate personal opinions to greater importance than the teachings expressed in the Confession.

A FIFTH function of a Confession is to form the basis of the trust on which Church property is held.

If these trusts do not give any power of change at all, to that extent they may not conform to the inherent power of the Church to formulate her Confession subject to Holy Scripture as set out above.4 On the other hand, those who seek change have often done so with a view to modifying adversely the essential doctrine of the Confession, rather than making it an even closer representation of the teaching of Scripture. If there is a genuine unanimity on the scripturalness of proposed changes, there should be no problem.

The Confession forbids us to make Synods or Councils the rule of faith (WCF 31:4), and this is a uniform principle of our Reformed tradition (eg. Belgic Confession Art 7; Second Helvetic Confession Ch II). Thus the productions of the Westminster Assembly cannot be regarded as the rule of faith, but they may be and ought to be a help to faith.

The Roman Church made its appeal to Scripture and tradition including decrees of Councils. Canon Law was the rule of faith not the Scriptures. The Confession is not rightly viewed if it is seen as a new Canon Law.

True, appealing to Scripture against the Confession in any significant way does involve ‘abandonment of the communion of which the Confession is the bond’ (John Macpherson, 1882). Yet even here, any judicial proceeding should emphasise the Scripture basis of the doctrine rejected. That will honour the Confession because that will honour Scripture!

End Notes

* From The Presbyterian Banner, March 2001.

1 I have provided a more detailed survey in Rowland S. Ward, The Westminster Confession of Faith: A Study Guide (Wantirna: New Melbourne Press, 1996) 204-213.

2 Finlay Holmes, Our Irish Presbyterian Heritage (Belfast: Presbyterian Church in Ireland, 1992) 65.

3 Note my The Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (Melbourne 1996 reprinted, 2000, 2001). Examples of matters not decided include the infra-and supra-lapsarian order of the divine decrees, the definition of usury, the appointed time for the efficacy of baptism, and the relation of the active obedience of Christ to justification and sanctification. See also Peter J. Wallace, Whose Meaning? The Question of Original Intent at <http://www.nd.edu/~pwallace/intent.htm>.

4 Note this point well made in Constitutional Catechism of the Free Church of Scotland (1847) Q.44 & fn.

Scripture, Tradition and Authority

What is the correct relationship between the Scriptures, the tradition of the church and authority? This is not a new question but it is an important one.

The Bible only?

There are many who say ‘the Bible only’ is our authority, but then we face widely competing claims as to what the Bible teaches. We have all heard of extremely individualistic and even bizarre interpretations of Scripture. So the answer of the church has been to appeal to the Bible rightly and rationally interpreted. As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) put it: ‘For the Holy Scripture was not given to the church by God to be thoughtlessly repeated but to be understood in all its fulness and richness….’1

For example, the use of the term ‘Trinity’ immediately reminds us we are not using a word found in Scripture. Yet Orthodox Protestants accept the doctrinal conclusions in the Nicene Creed even if they reject some of the speculations held by some of Nicene Fathers. It is an uninformed, sectarian or latitudinarian spirit which mouths the cry, ‘The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.’2 It was uttered by a rather liberal Anglican scholar, William Chillingworth, in order to modify the doctrines in the creeds. It had already been the principle of the Anapaptists of Reformation times, and it was the claim of the Churches of Christ of 19th century America, in the interests of their own sectarian unwritten creed. More recently many evangelicals use it without proper understanding.

In no case is ‘the Bible only’ a true claim, for every group (Protestant or otherwise) claiming ‘the Bible only’ has its own interpretation. Christians do not wish to quibble over words but they do wish to adhere to the true meaning of Scripture. Hence the necessity and honesty of declaring our understanding of controverted teachings of Scripture in a public Confession of Faith.3

In short, the genuine and original Protestant position is that the church is bound to be a confessing church – that is, to subscribe a statement of what it believes Scripture teaches. The original Protestants understood this very well. Hence Lutheran, Presbyterian/Reformed, Anglican, and early (Calvinistic) Baptist churches expressed their faith by continuing to accept the so-called Apostles’ Creed (even if they reinterpreted the latest part of it – that concerning Christ’s descent into hell dating from c.AD 500), and by compiling quite lengthy Confessions of Faith and Catechisms. A striking unanimity is found in these confessions, the differences being almost entirely confined to some points on the sacraments, on church government and on the application of Scripture to worship. These Confessions are an eloquent rebuttal of the common allegation that the Protestant principle which excludes an infallible Pope inevitably leads to numerous divergent and competing sects and denominations.

One is a Protestant not because he holds ‘the Bible only’ but because he holds certain views about the Bible and its content. A Jehovah’s Witness is not a Protestant no matter how vociferously he claims the support of the Bible. He is a Protestant who accepts a certain interpretation of the Bible, whose confession is not an individualistic one formed without regard to the gathered community of the church, but who stands with brothers and sisters in recognising the historic Protestant creeds as faithfully setting out the true meaning of Scripture.

Is Scripture supreme?

Given the recognition that Scripture is the supreme standard the question arises as to how a confessing church can honour the supreme standard if the condition of office is strict subscription to a Confession of Faith. Subscription is not a severe tension point in cases where one is not required to accept the whole teaching of the confession as one’s own confession, but in these cases one is subject to the dangers adoption of a confession is designed to prevent (idiosyncratic interpretation, doctrinal breadth or heresy under the guise of belief in the Bible), while the church is also seen to be failing to bear witness to all that Christ has commanded. That kind of subscription is full of ambiguities.

But strict subscription churches have every right to remove men who teach against the declared and agreed understanding of Scripture. This does not mean that the Confession has become supreme, for the Confession is not on the same level with Scripture or above it, nor the primary ground of faith. It is derivative – taken from Scripture – and thus subordinate, but yet not opposed to Scripture, to which indeed it would lead us back. A true Confession merely seeks to set forth what Scripture teaches on various subjects so as to be a suitable bond of union for those agreed as to the teaching of Scripture. Scripture is the final court of appeal. This is what the Protestant Reformers meant by sola scriptura.

Doubtless the Pope has every right to remove teachers in his communion who teach against the Roman faith. However, in the Roman understanding, Scripture is not supreme but is held along with oral tradition and the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church. The magisterium is not limited to the written Word of God but includes unwritten tradition. and in the final analysis to reject the magisterium is the same as rejecting Christ and his Apostles. Although on the one hand the Roman church gives high respect to Scripture on the other she takes away from it by her additions and by her claim to be the only sure identifier of Scripture as well as its infallible interpreter. Sola scriptura does not apply as a formal principle as it does in orthodox Protestant churches.

Scripture and the Word of God

In the Old Testament period God revealed himself and his will in many different ways – dreams, visions, angelic visitation etc. In the time of Moses (1400 BC) much was given in written form, and subsequent prophets called the people back to faithfulness to God’s Word through Moses. In doing so they gave oral teaching and later much of this too was reduced to written form. But the existence of the word of God in oral and written forms does not mean two words of God. The essence of both oral and written forms is the will of God made known, the teaching of God which for good reasons God now brings to us only in written form, the former ways of revealing himself and his will having ceased. Thus, the church may be older than the Scripture (the written word) but it is not older than the word of God preached by apostles and prophets who, indeed, are the church’s foundation (Eph 2:20). The word of God is now to be found only in sacred Scripture. We ask the Church of Rome: show us the fragments of oral tradition going back with certainty to the apostles and we will happily observe them. But in fact, this kind of tradition is not what the Roman Catholic church has.

Orthodox Protestants hold that it was God’s intention that his Word be reduced to writing, doubtless because of a written form being more effective in preserving the truth. In regard to the Old Testament we see this intention in several ways but we will limit ourselves to the New Testament witness.
1. Writing to the Church at Rome Paul says: ‘For everything written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope’ (Rom 15:4).
2. To a chiefly Gentile church at Corinth he draws teaching from the Old Testament history affirming: ‘These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come’ (1 Cor 10:11).
So the Old Testament was given by God with us in mind, as the quotations above show. The appeal is to what has been written not to unwritten albeit true traditions, since God intended the written word alone to guide his people. How much more the New Testament!

Indeed, the New Testament era is one characterised by further revelation in which the Word of God is being reduced to writing. Thus Peter classes Paul’s writings with ‘the other Scriptures’ (2 Pet 3:16). If we accept Augustine’s dictum: ‘The New is in the Old concealed, the Old is in the New revealed’ we can see that the New completes the Old and gives us a completed canon of faith. At the same time we must not under-estimate the New Testament warnings of apostasy, and the signs of this already in the first century (cp. Revelation 2 and 3). This underscores the importance of the Word of God in written form and warns against making even early teaching or practices not warranted by Scripture normative for ourselves.

The Word of God is the highest authority and by its very nature judges all other authorities. Accordingly, God’s people are warned about adding to or subtracting from the word of God (Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18-19). The only way we could lawfully add to the Bible was if we had further words from God given for this purpose. We do not have such words. Even Rome’s traditions do not include evident words from God going back to Christ and his apostles. Rather, Rome resorts to claiming a supposedly infallible authority over Scripture, so as to prevent its proper authority over the church.

Traditions good and bad

The early post-apostolic church and the church of the Middle Ages constantly assert the sufficiency for doctrine of Scripture, the written word. The implication is that traditions do not vary Scripture. Mind you, Basil the Great (330-379), writing in AD 375 supposes the sign of the cross, praying to the east, invocation at the Eucharist, anointing with oil, and other baptismal practices are holy mysteries that were guarded from profane curiosity by being passed on by unwritten tradition and which, if they were rejected, would mutilate the Gospel.4 Writing with somewhat greater soberness in about the year AD 379 Jerome states:

Don’t you know that the laying on of hands after baptism and then the invocation of the Holy Spirit is a custom of the Churches? Do you demand Scripture proof? You may find it in the Acts of the Apostles. And even if it did not rest upon the authority of Scripture the consensus of the whole world in this respect would have the force of a command. For many other observances of the Churches, which are due to tradition, have acquired the authority of the written law, as for instance the practice of dipping the head three times in the laver, and then, after leaving the water, of tasting mingled milk and honey in representation of infancy.5

This quotation indicates that it was recognised that certain practices had not originated with the Apostles but had acquired authority over time. Now tradition is not necessarily bad. Scripture speaks of holding fast to apostolic traditions, verbal or written (2 Thess 2:15). But here we have non-apostolic traditions – what we might term ecclesiastical traditions. Not all of them are bad either. But we have to be extremely careful not to bring anything alongside Scripture in matters of faith and worship, still less to bring in anything which contradicts Scripture. As Ursinus(1534-83) put it: ‘The true worship of God now consists in every internal or external work commanded by God, done in faith, which rests fully assured that both the person and the work please God, for the Mediator’s sake, and with the design that we may glorify God thereby.’6

Of course we should agree with the Westminster Confession (1646): ‘We also acknowledge that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and the government of the church, circumstances common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by natural intelligence and Christian prudence, but always in line with the general rules of God’s word.’7 We do not claim every detail of our system of church government is explicitly set out in Scripture, but we do aim that its basic principles reflect Scripture – Scripture as the supreme standard, creedal statements subordinate to Scripture, a single class of church rulers (elders/presbyters), graded assemblies by which the unity of the church is expressed.

As to such details as ‘the time, the place, the form and order of sermons, prayers, reading in the church, fasts, the manner of proceeding in the election of ministers, in collecting and distributing alms, and things of a similar nature, concerning which God has given no particular command’ the church acts in the interests of edification but does not bind the conscience as if she must be obeyed on her authority. Rather we obey for the sake of good order and to avoid offence since, as Ursinus says: ‘laws are observed properly when they are observed according to the intention and design of the lawgiver.’8

The Protestant Reformers saw that ecclesiastical traditions can come to be regarded as more important than Scripture or even to misinterpret and misapply Scripture, a tendency evident already in the quotations from Basil and Jerome given above. The Protestant Reformers always wanted to call the Church back to the text of Scripture and its proper meaning in order that no wrong tradition obscure the pure word of God. Yet our Reformed fathers did not think that the mind of the church expressed in the creeds should be lightly regarded. Indeed, I think their general attitude to a doubter would be that he or she should assume the correctness of such Confessions pending more thorough examination of Scripture. They were drawn up by the teachers God had given his church and are entitled to credit over and above the claims of an individual. Sure, we do not claim they express Biblical doctrine in the most perfect way, but then it is the teaching conveyed by the words and not the mere words themselves that we insist on.

It is easy for those who have come into the Reformed faith of recent years, to lack full appreciation of its rich inheritance, and to be influenced by the Anabaptist approach to appeal to the Bible only without giving sufficient weight to the lawful and proper authority of the church, and the necessity for the church to be a confessing community. The Reformed church is the heir of the best in pre-Reformation thought as well as of the Reformation heritage itself. Let us not forget it.

Sola scriptura is the correct formal principle of the church and its proper application will have no more radical consequence than returning the faith and practice of the church to an apostolic simplicity, with proper regard for good traditions and the teaching authority of the church. The Creeds and Confessions of the Reformed church are important signposts, excellent means of instruction, valuable devotional manuals. It is exciting to rediscover them.

 

* Dr Ward is minister of the Melbourne congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia, a member denomination of the International Conference of Reformed Churches. He has written extensively on Presbyterian history and doctrine.
1 H.Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (Grand Rapids 1956) 157. Compare Z. Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Phillipsburg 1985) 10: ‘Our knowledge of [Divinity] must necessarily remain confused and imperfect unless every part of this doctrine be taught in some systematic form.’
2 William Chillingworth (1602-44) was the populariser of the phrase in his The Religion of Protestants a Sure Way to Salvation (London 1638) i, ch. vi., 56.
3 Cf. J.Calvin, Institutes, I, xiii, 3-5.
4 See Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, 27 and the citation in the Eastern Orthodox Longer Catechism of 1839, Q 24, in P.Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Grand Rapids 1983) 2:449-450.
5 Against the Luciferians, 8; citation from NPNF edition.

6 Commentary, 517.

7 WCF 1:6 cited from R.S.Ward (ed), Westminster Confession and Catechisms in Modern English (Melbourne 1996).

8 Commentary, 521.