John Jewel’s “Challenge” to Rome (1)

It is no exaggeration to say that one sermon dominated anti-Catholic preaching in the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign, and that was the Bishop of Salisbury John Jewel’s Challenge sermon, first delivered on November 26, 1559, and again on 31 March 1560. But before we examine the sermon, we need to ask, who was John Jewel? Jewel is not well known among Anglicans today. Most readers of Meet the Puritans have probably heard of Thomas Cranmer, but John Jewel? But Jewel’s contribution to Anglican theology and the Elizabethan Puritan movement is of the same significance as Cranmer’s. 

We’re in the midst of a study of the 39 Articles of Religion. We know that Archbishop’s Cranmer in 1543 and Parker in 1563 were the authors. But who edited the final revision of them in 1571 when the Articles promulgated as our Anglican confession of faith? It was John Jewel. There were times in our study of the Articles that we examined corresponding sermons in the two Books of Homilies, for a fuller statement of Anglican doctrine. John Jewel was the editor the Second Book of Homilies. What is more, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Archbishop Bancroft gave instructions that every parish church should have a copy of Jewel’s Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae on display in English so that all could read it. His Apologia was the defense of his Challenge sermon. Every Elizabethan Puritan would have been familiar with Jewel’s sermon and his subsequent classic work defining the Reformed Church of England.

St. Paul’s Cross was a preaching cross and open-air pulpit in the grounds of old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. As an open-air pulpit of mostly timber with room for 3 or 4 inside it, set on stone steps with a lead-covered roof and a low surrounding wall. From here was preached much of the English Reformation, along with many major events in London’s history. John Jewel was the first appointed preacher after a period of disuse in the transition between the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth. To get a sense of what it was like to hear a sermon like Jewel’s Challenge sermon live, visit the Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project, a digital recreation of the open-air preaching in the St. Paul’s yard. The audio provides the experience of hearing Dean of St. Paul’s and poet John Donne’s sermon for Gunpowder Day, November 5th, 1622 in original pronunciation.

The Challenge sermon and the Apologia that followed were designed to convince the hearers to accept the Reformed position of the Elizabethan church and to abandon Roman Catholic practices. Jewel was a solidly Reformed theologian who wanted to define the new Church of England after Queen Mary as the Church which kept a two-tiered structure of authority: Scripture alone possesses magisterial authority. While tradition’s authority was always ministerial, it is subordinate. Tradition is subject to Scripture because only Scripture is the inerrant and infallible written source of God’s revelation to his people. Jewel challenges all comers to prove the Roman case from the Scriptures, along with supporting councils and Church Fathers from the first six hundred years after Christ.

Specifically, he uses his patristic knowledge to show that they, like the Anglican Church, based their teaching firmly upon the Bible. He writes in his Apology:

We receive and embrace all the canonical Scriptures, both of the Old and New Testament. And we give thanks to our God, for that he hath raised up unto us that light, that we might always have it before our eyes, lest we should, by the deceit of men or guile of evil spirits, be led away after errors and fables. These we acknowledge to be heavenly words, by which God hath laid open to us his will; upon these only men may repose their consciences; in these, all things whatsoever that are necessary to our salvation are abundantly and perfectly contained, as Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, Cyril, have taught. They are the might and power of God unto salvation; they are the foundations of the prophets and apostles upon which the church of God is built; they are the most certain rule by which the church can be tried, if it wavers or err, and to which all doctrine ecclesiastical should be reduced; against them neither should any law, any tradition, any custom be heard,—nay, though Paul himself, or an angel from heaven, should come and teach otherwise [Apology, 39-40].

Jewel’s argument in his sermon is simple. He sets out the biblical principle of the sinful human corruption of godly worship and its necessary restoration according to the Word of God. Taking as his sermon text 1 Corinthians 11.23, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, etc.,” he suggests a parallel with their own time. Because of man’s sinfulness and rebellion against God, there is an inevitable corruption of divine worship as God commanded. In the same way Apostle Paul admonished the Corinthians for the errors that they had allowed to creep into their observance of the Lord’s Supper and gave commands to prevent such corruption, this same command is relevant to English men and women today because the order for the Supper has been restored to the same order given by the Lord Jesus Christ and practiced for five or six hundred years throughout the catholic Church without exception. Jewel says he will explain why the Mass must be abandoned, and how those who “delight in it” have misread the Scripture and tradition of the Church Fathers. As his later ministry as Bishop attests, Jewel’s concern is a pastoral one, so that the people of England may bring to God acceptable worship. 

Next time we will look more closely at Jewel’s Challenge sermon.

William Perkins and Medieval Exegesis

In my previous post, we considered the response of William Tyndale to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholic exegesis, specifically the fourfold method. In line with his claim for the “single, full, and natural sense” of Scripture passages, William Perkins (1558-1602), a pioneer in the rise of Puritanism, states in his preaching-handbook classic, The Art of Prophesying (1592), “Scripture has only one sense, the literal one.” He contrasts this with “the Church of Rome,” which “believes that passages of Scripture have four senses.”  

Perkins illustrates this from Genesis 14:18 from “the figure of Melchizedek” and how “he offered bread and wine to Abraham.” According to the fourfold method: “The literal sense is that the king of Salem, with the food that he brought, refreshed the soldiers of Abraham, who were tired after their travel. The allegorical sense is that the priest offers up Christ in the mass. The tropological sense is that we are to give to the poor. The anagogical sense is that Christ who is in heaven shall be the bread of life to the faithful.” Perkins vehemently concludes, “This pattern of the fourfold meaning of Scripture must be rejected and destroyed.” 

Unfortunately, he never tells how we ought to understand this passage. At the same time, he does not throw away every element of the fourfold approach: “An allegory is only a different way of expressing the same meaning.” In others, a text may need to be exegeted as an allegory where the meaning comes not from a surface reading but a figurative one.  “The anagogy and tropology,” are simply “ways of applying the sense of the passage.”  In other words, we get to the ethical and/or eschatological import only by way of application not sense. Therefore, it is one thing to set forth several applications of the one meaning and quite another to extract several meanings from a passage. 

In Perkins’s posthumously published Commentary or Exposition, upon the Five First Chapters of the Epistle to the Galatians (1604; recently republished by RHB), he critiques the fourfold approach again in discussion of Galatians 4:22-24, where Paul identifies Abraham’s wives, Hagar as the “bondwoman” and Sarah as the “freewoman,” as an “allegory” representing the Old and New Covenants. He argues that the “Papists” here make a “double sense” of Scripture in terms of the literal and the spiritual. Perkins attests that there exists in the fourfold approach the literal sense (whether proper or figurative) and the spiritual sense, in which is included, the allegorical (OT “signifying” NT ideas), tropological (“touching manners”), and anagogical (“the estate of everlasting life”) senses.

Applied to what Paul calls the “free” and “mother” city of Jerusalem in Galatians 4:26, the fourfold method sees it as a city “properly,” the “Church” allegorically, “a state well ordered” tropologically, and “the estate of eternal life” anagogically. Perkins claims, “to the contrary,” there is always just one “full and entire sense,” the literal one expressed in a straightforward or figurative manner by way of divine intention. Instead of seeing these as two senses, as the Roman Catholic does, they are but one, for “to make many senses of Scripture, is to overturn all sense, and to make nothing certain.” In other words, arguing for multiple senses leads to chaos and confusion and the lingering question, So what does this text mean anyway? 

Regarding the three spiritual senses, Perkins maintains, “they are not senses, but applications or uses.” So, within the “history of Abraham’s family” in Jerusalem the literal and figurative understanding of the text are not two senses, but “two parts of the one full and entire sense.”  Thus, the full sense contains “not only the bare history, but also that which is thereby signified.” In this way, we do not negate the historical aspect of the text but see it as a contribution to the fuller sense intended by the Holy Spirit.

Perkins does not connect divine intention with fuller sense in a detailed manner. Still, we can see that he has much to contribute to the contemporary hermeneutical discussion and debate over sensus plenior (“the fuller sense”). In other words, given the unity of a Bible breathed out by the superintending work of the Holy Spirit, should we not expect at times a divinely intended meaning not immediately apparent in the text and may even transcend human authorial intention? Unfortunately, Perkins is not available for a detailed response to this question. 

In the process, we are left wondering how to get at the meaning of a passage understood figuratively. Are we not liable to the very subjective overturning of Scripture we want to avoid? Perkins helps us in the Art of Prophesying, where he insists that the Scripture itself governs its interpretation with three subordinate means for such interpretation: “the analogy of faith, the circumstances of the particular passage, and comparison with other passages.” 

The analogy of faith refers to a summary of Scripture extracted from its clearest texts. The summary fences in errant conclusions teachings we may glean from more “cryptic” texts. The circumstances of the passage concern the preceding and following context within which the passage resides. Discussing the context naturally leads to considering the passage in comparison with other passages, which helps to clarify the one meaning of the text.  

Taken together, context and circumstances help us to differentiate between “plain” passages whose meaning arises naturally out of the context (e.g. “whoever believes in [clearly Christ] will receive remission of sins” in Acts 10:43) and “cryptic” ones requiring the plain parts of Scripture to shed light on the “dark” passage (e.g. “This is My body [bread understood metaphorically as Christ] which is broken for you” in 1 Cor. 11:24). Put simply, some texts must be understood in light of other clearer texts and in agreement with the theological summary of faith. In this manner, theology and exegesis continually feed off of one another. Without explicit discussion, the Puritans understood very well the symbiotic relationship between biblical and systematic theology. 

To his credit, even the medieval Aquinas (considered in our previous post) asserted that the obscure must be interpreted in light of the clear. Likewise, the Puritans did not insist that the surface reading of a text always got to its “single” meaning. Sometimes, we have to dig deeper. Still, the Puritans saw the failure of Roman Catholic exegesis to limit the text to the single meaning. Thus, we hear Perkins speaking of the divine “intention” of the Holy Spirit as interpreter and determiner of meaning. This comes in connection to Perkins’s mention of the anointed preacher of Isaiah 61:1 finding its ultimate meaning in Christ as revealed in Luke 4:18. This meaning is not immediately apparent in the Old Testament text and so divinely determined and discovered in light of the entire canon of Scripture. 

Perkins’s exegetical approach leads to extracting its teachings, which are either explicitly stated (e.g. human depravity) or necessarily deduced (e.g. the Trinity). This highlighted discontinuity with medieval exegesis, which strays into excesses all too easily. In a couple of instances, Perkins takes issue with Augustine, who was certainly a forerunner to such medieval wanderings. 

Finally, Perkins considers the “uses” or applications must come directly from the text. In line with his earlier discussion, this necessarily relates to tropological (ethical) and anagogical (eschatological) uses. Most importantly, and with the impact of Lutheran hermeneutics apparent, proper application demands knowing whether the passage sets forth the law or gospel. In line with his two-covenant theology, he argues that the law shows the “need for perfect inherent righteousness, of eternal life given through the works of the law, of the sins which are contrary to the law and of the curse that is due them.” The gospel, by contrast, reveals “Christ and his benefits, and of faith being frutiful in good works.”

In the end, the Puritans showed both continuity and discontinuity with medieval exegesis and even the fourfold method. Unfortunately, in calling attention to the continuity, some scholars have missed the distinction that the Puritans made between sense and application. Such an oversight leads to the tendency to see how foundational the discontinuity remained. Still, the continuity that remains leaves us wondering whether helpful discussion and healthy compromise might take place at a table talk with Augustine, Aquinas, Tyndale, and Perkins.

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William Tyndale and Medieval Exegesis

William Tyndale (c.1494–1536), the English Reformer and proto-Puritan, clearly showed a burden for providing the Scriptures in the common language of the people. Likewise, regarding biblical exegesis, he imparted correctives for the abuses of medieval interpretation. We must appreciate the connection between the provision of the Word of God in English and the more direct approach to interpretation advocated by Tyndale. The clarity of God’s message to the church was directly proportional to the intelligibility of translation and interpretation. The translator should strive for simplicity without becoming simplistic.

In The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), Tyndale primarily emphasizes the interpretation of Scripture as “the opening up of the words and statements of Scripture in order to bring out its single, full and natural sense.” He thus wrote against the medieval division of biblical texts into “foure senses, the literall, tropological, allegoricall, and anagogical,” which must “be rejected and destroyed.” He clearly manifested the Reformation dismissal of this exegesis as evidenced by his contemporaries Luther and Calvin. 

Medieval exegete Nicholas of Lyra (c.1270-1349) sums this approach up basically and supportively in verse: Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria, quid agas tropologia, quo tendas anagogia – “the letter teaches events, allegory what you should believe, tropology what you should do, anagogy where you should aim.” Much earlier, John Cassian (c.360-435), in his Conferences and in connection with the principles of Origen, manifests a pioneering development of the fourfold method by appealing to “historical interpretation and the spiritual sense.” The spiritual sense of the text concerned the allegorical, tropological, and anagogical aspects of it. The historical concerns the knowledge of “things past and visible” as we understand the text literally at the time of writing. The allegorical moves beyond “what actually happened” as it prefigures “the form of some mystery.” The tropological involves “the moral explanation which has to do with improvement of life and practical teaching.” The anagogical refers to “to still more sublime and sacred secrets of heaven” or matters “future and invisible.” 

We can understand this method concretely by Cassian’s treatment of Galatians 4:26, “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” He says the city is historically or literally “the city of the Jews” as it existed and was inhabited visibly. Allegorically, the city symbolizes or prefigures “the Church of Christ.” Tropologically or ethically the city concerns practically “the soul of man, which is frequently subject to praise or blame from the Lord.” Anagogically or eschatologically, Jerusalem denotes the future and “heavenly city of God.”

In dealing with the medieval approach, Tyndale affirmed the legitimacy of allegorical (symbolic) interpretation, which treats that which is “appropriate to faith” and emerges rightly out of the literal sense. The tropological “pertaineth to good manners (say they) and teacheth what we ought to do” and “the anagogicall to hope and thinges above.” Both of these are unnecessary, because we can reach them by seeing texts as allegories of manners and hope. In this way, each passage has “but one sense,” which is the literal. In other words, the passage contains one meaning not several. As far as Tyndale was concerned, digging for multiple senses easily leads to unbridled subjectivity. He therefore supported the use of allegorical interpretation but with caution. Though allegories can “beguil” us, “there is not a better, vehementer, or mightier thing” to communicate truth “than an allegory.”

While the differences between medieval and Reformation exegesis exist, we must qualify the discontinuity and avoid too radical of a dichotomy. For example, theologians such as Aquinas were careful to insist that the three spiritual senses must be based on the literal, which is God’s intended meaning. In this way, the text communicates literally one thing on the surface and another beneath it as determined by the Spirit, the divine author. In this manner, there may be more continuity between medieval “sense” and Reformation/Post-Reformation “application” than meets the eye. Furthermore, Aquinas argued that the spiritual sense of a text must be governed by the straightforward literal sense set forth elsewhere in Scripture. Thus, the four senses need not be communicated everywhere. 

In the end, the big issue at hand for Tyndale, as he helped to set the stage for Puritan exegesis, concerned the meaning of the text. He wanted to safeguard the Scripture as God’s authoritative Word sufficient for all of faith and life and clearly understood by the typical Christian man. In so doing, Tyndale was insistent that a passage has one intended and essential meaning given by God not two, three, or four. So, the allegorical understanding of a text sets forth that one meaning in terms of the fuller divine sense, hopefully without unwarranted allegorization. Even with the qualifications considered above, the fourfold medieval approach tends to take the Scripture away from the individual Christian by obscuring its clarity. Consequently, the church and not the Bible becomes the sufficient and authoritative rule for the Christian life, since the individual must rely too heavily on the former for elucudating the truth. 

Amandus Polanus on Interpreting Scripture through Meditation

As the previous two posts demonstrated (#1, #2), Amandus Polanus envisioned Christians interpreting the Scriptures with the help of the church. In colloquial terms, this means that no Christian can read their Bibles well by themselves on a private island with no external aids or input. Yet it remains a duty for all believers to read, interpret, and profit from the Bible in order to be wise for salvation through faith in Christ. In Polanus’ view, the best way for individuals to study, understand, and apply the Scriptures is by learning to meditate on Scripture. He did so broadly by laying out rules for meditating on Scripture, by showing the nature of meditating on understanding and applying Scripture, and by relating meditation on Scripture to the continual reading of Scripture (Syntagma, 684). His treatment of meditation on Scripture shows the close connection between the proper understanding of Scripture and personal piety in Reformed theology.

In Polanus’ estimation, meditation on Scripture primarily involved reflecting on the meaning and use of Scripture. This led Polanus to describe several prerequisites to meditation.

  1. The first step lay in reflecting on the end and scope of Scripture, which was knowing God, through Christ, by the Spirit (684-685).
  2. Second, meditating on Scripture requires prayer to God from true faith and from a pure and humble heart (685).
  3. Third, this leads to seeking the experimental knowledge of God through Scripture, which involves sincere piety, the fear of God, and humility, as passages such as Psalm 25:14, 111:10, and Proverbs 1:7 illustrate (686).
  4. Fourth, those meditating on Scripture must love and desire to truth as it is set forth in Scripture (687, citing Ps. 119:40, 47-48).
  5. Fifth, they must be teachable (687, citing Jn. 3:12, 33).
  6. Sixth, they must desire to practice the will of God (687, citing Jn. 7:17).
  7. Seventh, they must be catechized in the doctrine of faith and good works (687, citing Heb. 5:12-14). This involves gaining a sense of the teaching of Scripture as a whole, approximating the analogia fidei, in order to understand the parts of Scripture in relation to one another.
  8. Eighth, readers must understand the languages from which Scripture is drawn (687, citing 1 Cor. 14:5). This does not negate the need for translating the Scriptures into vernacular languages, for which Polanus argued in chapter forty. His comments on understanding biblical languages related more directly to ministers.
  9. Ninth, students of Scripture must come with that faith by which they receive the Scriptures as the Word of God with all of its divine qualities (687).

Readers should note that all of these prerequisites for meditating on Scripture related to the disposition of the reader rather that to a set of interpretive techniques. The point was that who a person was in relation to God, through Christ, by the Spirit, and the prayerful disposition resulting from saving faith was more important to biblical interpretation than mere exegetical method. Students of Scripture must have the right disposition to meditate on Scripture before they could use the right means of understanding and using it.

Polanus next treated twelve hermeneutical techniques needed to understand Scripture as a whole and in its parts (687-691). These directions, in his view, exhibited the media of meditation set forth in Scripture itself. Scripture was thus not only the object of meditation, but Scripture was sufficient to teach believers how to mediate on Scripture.

  1. The first step was the careful reading and scrutiny of Scripture, involving the diligent investigation and observation of its testimonies concerning the dogmas of faith and the precepts of good works (688). This reflected the fact that Reformed authors taught that the Scriptures were sufficient for Christian faith and life.
  2. Second, all translations of Scripture must be judged by the original Hebrew and Greek text of Scripture (688).
  3. Third, interpreters must keep the end and scope of Scripture in view, which is Christ Jesus the Lord and the true knowledge of him (688). This meant that any interpretation of specific texts of Scripture must aim at the end of Scripture as a whole.
  4. Fourth, interpreters must observe and discriminate between the law and the gospel (689). He added that the primary error of the Papists lay in confounding the law and the gospel, by which he meant that they blurred the distinction between God’s promises of salvation and those duties that he required of his people as a result.
  5. Fifth, readers must observe proper order and method in investigating the sense and use of Scripture (689). This involved considering propositions, themes to which propositions led, and arguments that confirmed and explained these themes. In modern terms, we would call this situating verses in their particular contexts.
  6. Sixth, readers must consider whether the senses of the words in a text are proper or figurative (689).
  7. Seventh, they should compare texts with similar places in other parts of Scripture and they should interpret less clear passages in light of clearer ones (689).
  8. Eight, it can be helpful to compare dissimilar passages in Scripture in order to reconcile statements that might appear to be contradictory to one another at first glance (690).
  9. Ninth, readers must seek to retain the things taught in Scripture as well as words and phrases used in Holy Scripture (690).
  10. Tenth, they ought to examine whether their interpretations of Scripture fit with the rule of faith (regula fidei) as it is comprehended in summaries such as the Apostle’s Creed and the Decalogue (691).
  11. Eleventh, students of Scripture should consider the interpretations of others on specific passages, especially those of church councils and creeds (691).
  12. Twelfth, some understanding of the arts of grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, and physics are secondary helps in interpreting Scripture properly (691). He referred here to a broad training in the liberal arts, which could help equip students of Scripture read and think well in general.

Eleven of these hermeneutical rules for meditating on Scripture grew out of the Reformed view of the sufficiency and authority of Scripture as its own interpreter. Only the last rule acknowledged that skills acquired through other fields of study may have some auxiliary use.

Polanus drew his treatment of mediating on Scripture as a means of biblical interpretation to a conclusion by listing several necessary media following the process of Scripture mediation that would facilitate the continual reading of Scripture (691-693). These included gratitude to God for granting the proper sense and use of Scripture (691-692), repeatedly reading and hearing the Scriptures and ruminating over both (692), growing in communion with the triune God through the saving truths of Scripture (692), and using translations of Scripture properly in order to excite piety (692). Meditation on Scripture is contrary to carnal wisdom (693. Carnis sapientia ac prudentia), natural blindness in sinners, impiety, hatred of the truth, unteachableness and prejudice, neglecting the divine will, ignorance of the first doctrines of religion (catechisis), ignorance of the biblical languages (for teachers), and to doubting the truth of Scripture (693-695). He then added twelve impediments to mediating on Scripture that resulted from the four general causes of ingratitude, neglect, ignorance, and disobedience (695-696).

This sketch of Polanus’ treatment of mediation as a means of private interpretation of Scripture illustrate several important points about the Reformed view of biblical interpretation.

  1. First, meditation was an act of piety and devotion to God. One third of Polanus’ treatment of meditation describes a right disposition created by saving faith in Christ and leading to true devotion to God. This illustrates that piety was integral to classic Reformed theology.
  2. Second, meditation encompasses the entire process of biblical interpretation. While this requires correct rules for interpreting Scripture, it aims at the use of Scripture in cultivating communion with God as well.
  3. Third, private meditation on Scripture was not independent of drawing from the interpretation of the church. Private meditation, especially by ministers, presupposed catechesis, creeds and councils, and the reflections of others on Scripture. This connects well with the two preceding posts on the role of the church in interpreting Scripture.
  4. Fourth, meditation on Scripture is possible for the regenerate alone. It grew from the soil of saving faith, true piety, and worship and obedience.

The thrust of Polanus’ treatment of the private interpretation of Scripture was that to those who have, more will be given. Scripture is clear in itself and it will be increasingly clear to those who meditate properly on its meaning and uses through faith in Christ.

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Amandus Polanus on the Church’s Role in Interpreting Scripture (2)

Mprevious post demonstrated Amandus Polanus’ teaching that the Scriptures are clear in themselves and that there is a difference between magisterial and ministerial interpretations of Scripture. Magisterial interpretation belongs to God himself speaking in Scripture while ministerial interpretation belongs to the church. Polanus argued, contra Roman Catholicism, that while the church never has magisterial authority in interpreting Scripture, it does have a ministerial role to play in helping believers understand and apply the Bible. The above-mentioned ideas led Polanus to outline a hierarchy related to interpreting Scripture in order of priority. Before doing so, he interjected some thoughts on private meditation upon Scripture (“Question six.” Syntagma, Hanover, 1610, 684-696), which will be the subject of the next post.

Question seven treated exercising judgment regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture. Contra Bellarmine, he argued that the magisterium and the consent of the church fathers could not be an infallible rule of interpreting Scripture, since these authorities often contradicted each other (701-705). Christ is the only infallible teacher of the church through the Spirit’s work in conjunction with Scripture, since all of Christ’s teaching comes from the Father (706).

Yet question eight acknowledged the fact that diverse interpreters of Scripture possessed different levels of authority (711). The only divine magisterial authority resided in Scripture itself and never in the church (711). Under Scripture, however, the interpretations possessing the highest ministerial authority were:

  1. Ecumenical creeds ands councils (712-713). The interpretations of Scripture resulting from such creeds and councils should bear the greatest weight with believers, while remembering that they are secondary rules only (regula secondaria; 713).
  2. Non-ecumenical church councils came next in the pecking order of ministerial aids to interpreting Scripture. Proclamations of regional councils must agree, first, with Scripture and, second, with the interpretations proposed by ecumenical councils (713-714).
  3. The judgment of the church Fathers, pastors, and doctors of the church then came next as helps in interpreting Scripture (715). While such individual interpreters of Scripture carried less weight than ecumenical and regional councils and creeds did, they still retained ministerial authority under Christ. Such interpretations of Scripture, while necessary, possessed much less authority than public interpretations (715; multo inferioris sunt autoritatis, qua publica interpretationis). In this last case, only pastors and doctors of the church interpreted Scripture with ministerial authority.
  4. Private individuals had the right to interpret Scripture, but they should do so under and with the aid of ministerial interpretations of the church.

Polanus concluded his defense of ministerial authority in interpreting Scripture with a refutation of Bellarmine’s arguments for the magisterial authority of the church (717-748). Rather than examining the points of contention between these two authors in detail, it is useful to draw some conclusions concerning Polanus’ representative Reformed view of the interpretation of Scripture in light of its perspicuity:

  1. First, Christ is the only true pastor and teacher of the church (721). This means that the only infallible interpreter of Scripture is Scripture itself. All ministerial interpreters of Scripture are subject to correction by Scripture itself.
  2. Second, the church has no magisterial power to interpret Scripture (722-734). The Lord designed the church to have ministerial authority that all Christians should listen to and learn from without transferring his own divine authority to the church at any level. God alone is the supreme judge of all religious controversies and he administers his authority in the church through Scripture (746).
  3. Third, Polanus concluded that Bellarmine missed the point of debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics by attacking the private interpretation of Scripture (747-748). The real issue, in his view, was whether the church’s role in interpreting Scripture was magisterial or ministerial. Both assigned a necessary role to the church in interpreting Scripture while the disagreed over the nature of that role.

Polanus’ arguments illustrate that the Protestant doctrine, which is now known as sola Scriptura, was never designed to reject the God-given role of the church in interpreting Scripture. Private judgment is necessary in light of the absolute authority of Scripture and it is possible in light of the perspicuity of Scripture. If private Christians accept the ministerial interpretation of the church with implicit unquestioning faith, then they will be subjected to the tyranny of men rather than the authority of God. However, if they reject the ministerial authority that God committed to his church, then they will be led astray. His teaching in this regard reflected the Apostle Paul’s assertion that the ascended Christ gave pastors and teachers to his church (Eph. 4:12-16).

By assigning higher levels of ministerial authority to ecumenical councils and creeds than to regional ones, and to both over individual pastors and doctors of the church, he recognized that Christ works most clearly and powerfully through graded levels of church courts (which reflects an incipient Presbyterian view of those courts). Only the Triune God speaks with infallible authority and the church is always liable to error and subject to correction at every level. The debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics was not over the necessity of the church and her ministry in interpreting Scripture, but over the distinction between ministerial and magisterial authority. Because the Scriptures are clear, the church and the individual Christian can interpret them profitably to the end of salvation through faith in Christ. Yet Christians understand and apply the Bible most profitably in the context of the church and through the ministry that Christ committed to her.

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Amandus Polanus on the Church’s Role in Interpreting Scripture (1)

Sola Scriptura is one of the slogans that have come to be attached to the Protestant Reformation.While the so-called five solas, as descriptive terms of Protestant theology, originated long after the sixteenth-century, they capture well some of the primary emphases of Protestant thought as they relate to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Reformed authors, in particular, treated Scripture as the cognitive foundation of the knowledge of God for redeemed sinners. The Spirit of God working by and through the written and preached Word produced the true knowledge of God through his Son Jesus Christ. Among other things, these ideas require that Scripture possess divine authority, that it be sufficient for faith and practice (2 Tim. 3:15-17), and that its primary message be clear (perspicuous). Scripture possesses divine authority as the very Word of God. Scripture is all that the believer needs to become wise for salvation through faith in Christ as well. Scripture is able to make believers complete by furnishing them with all they need for every good work (1 Tim. 3:15-17). Yet if Scripture is not clear on these points, then it will remain a closed book to all who read it.

The clarity, or perspicuity, of Scripture became one of the main points of debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Reformation and Post-Reformation periods. Roman Catholic authors denied the perspicuity of Scripture. They appealed to the magisterium of the Church to provide authoritative interpretations of the Scriptures in light of church tradition. Protestants, by contrast, argued that was inherently clear because Scripture is profitable and sufficient for the ends that Scripture assigns to itself. Scripture authority and sufficiency both supposed and demanded perspicuity.

Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) wrote extensively on the doctrine of Scripture against the famed Roman Catholic apologist, Robert Bellarmine (1542-1621). His refutation of Bellarmine spanned nearly 800 pages in his Syntagma Theologiae (Hanover, 1610, pp. 95-831). Polanus was a German Reformed theologian who spent much of his academic career teaching in Basel, Switzerland. Historians, such as Richard Muller, have referred to his Syntagma as one of the most important textbooks of theology in Early Reformed Orthodoxy. Polanus’ treatment of the perspicuity of Scripture sought simultaneously to substantiate the right of the private interpretation of Scripture by individual Christians and the necessary role of the church in interpreting Scripture correctly. This post and post two sketch briefly his arguments for the church’s role in interpreting Scripture in opposition to Bellarmine’s defense of the magisterium. The third post in this sequence develops his treatment of the private interpretation of Scripture in light of his counsel meditating on Scripture. Together, these posts show that the Reformed view of the perspicuity of Scripture argued for both the necessity and the insufficiency of private biblical interpretation. Instead of examining his biblical arguments in detail, these posts seek to outline large sections of his thought followed by a few biblical reflections on them.

After establishing the authority, necessity, and canon of Scripture, Polanus treated the perspicuity of Scripture under the question of whether it was permissible for the laity to read the Scriptures (chapter 43, pp. 583-598). After giving thirteen reasons (from Scripture) why the average Christian had both the right and the duty to read Scripture (591-597), he developed his teaching on the perspicuity of Scripture (chapter 44) in response to Bellarmine’s objections (599-632). Responding to Bellarmine’s treatment of Scripture became a standard feature of the Reformed development of the doctrine of Scripture during this time period.

Polanus’ primary contention was that no part of Scripture was obscure in itself (601, 606). While this did not mean that everything taught in Scripture was equally clear to all people, he argued that the Scriptures are light with respect to what they are and that they give light to the sons of light through the Spirit’s work in their hearts (610). He concluded that the Scriptures, like the sun, have light in themselves and that only those who are blind (through sin) cannot see their light (610). The result is that, for believers, “The Scriptures are the external instrument and the external cause of the understanding of faith “(611, my translation). While Christians may not understand everything in the Bible with equal clarity, the Scriptures are inherently clear in relation to their ability to communicate God’s intended purpose. In contrast to Bellarmine (613-623), Polanus argued (from Scripture) that the Spirit enables believers to understand Scripture for salvation as well as to grow in understanding Scripture throughout the Christian life (624-632).

Polanus’ arguments for the perspicuity of Scripture led him to answer several questions regarding the proper interpretation of Scripture. His fourth question related to the church’s role in interpreting Scripture under the heading of power and jurisdiction in interpreting Scripture (672-683). The first three questions, respectively, related to the sense and use of Scripture in light of its ends (633-644), various means of explaining Scripture in light of various biblical genres (644-670), and analytic and synthetic interpretations of Scripture (671-672. From ends to principles or from principles to ends, respectively). He answered his fourth question regarding power and jurisdiction in interpreting Scripture by explaining the relationship between magisterial and ministerial authority. His first point was that the highest authority and judge over the interpretation of Scripture, which is magisterial, was God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture as the author of Scripture (672). This meant that the Sprit was the supreme judge of all controversies regarding the sense of Scripture, since the Father speaks to the church by his Word and Spirit. The highest authoritative interpreter of Scripture was, thus, Scripture itself. Under Scripture, the Lord committed the public ministerial authority of interpreting Scripture to the church (673). As his fifth question reiterated, the church’s authority in interpreting the Bible was not magisterial (contra Bellarmine), since the interpretations of the church could be either true or false (673). The church must implore God for the illumination of the Spirit in interpreting Scripture and the church must interpret Scripture in light of Scripture itself (676). He added here that even Bellarmine admitted this principle on some level. In light of these distinctions, Polanus concluded that private individuals could offer edifying, yet not official, interpretations of Scripture (679). While private interpretation is necessary, godly ministers and church councils alone help the church through the corporate interpretation of Scripture (681-682).

The above material defines the nature of the perspicuity of Scripture as well as the nature of the church’s role in interpreting Scripture. This is an important foundation, since it shows that the fault present in all misinterpretations of Scripture resides in those interpreting Scripture rather than in Scripture itself. Contra Bellarmine and Roman Catholicism more largely, the Scriptures are clear. The next post expands his treatment of what the role of the church in interpreting Scripture should look like.

The Sufficiency of the Bible Contra Rome

As far back as the late medieval period, men such as John Wycliffe (c. 1329–1384) and Jan Hus (1373–1415) called the church of their day to return to Scripture. When challenged by hostile church officials, Hus answered his opponents, “Show me… better out of the Scriptures, and I will forthwith recant!” Hus’s devotion to sola Scriptura cost him his life, for it compelled him to attack the principles on which the medieval church based its authority.

Beginning with Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), and continuing in men such as John Calvin (1509–1564) and John Knox (c. 1514–1572), the Reformers developed Hus’s emphasis on Scripture to promote a recovery of the great teachings of the Bible. Sola Scriptura at its heart was an assertion of the sufficiency of the Bible for the faith and practice of the church. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “The Word of God—and no one else, not even an angel—should establish articles of faith” (Part 2, Art. 2, Sec. 15). The Geneva Confession (1536/37) declares in its first article, “For the rule of our faith and religion, we wish to follow the Scripture alone, without mixing with it any other thing which might be fabricated by the interpretation of men apart from the Word of God; and we do not pretend to receive any other doctrine for our spiritual government than that which is taught us by the same Word, without addition or reduction, according to the command of our Lord.”

The principle of sola Scriptura explains why the Reformers accepted some parts of Roman Catholic teaching but not others. They believed that Christ, as the only Head, rules His church by His Word and Spirit. The authority of Scripture is thus absolute, the authority of Christ Himself, not an authority derived from or accorded to it by the church. Calvin said that Scripture is as authoritative as if we heard God’s “living words” from heaven with our own ears (Institutes, 1.7.1) and so Christian’s should be governed by its promises (Institutes, 3.2.6–7) and the church should be wholly subject to its authority (Institutes, 4.8).

The principle of Scripture alone arises out of the unique properties or attributes of the Bible as the Word of God. Since Scripture is God’s written Word, we cannot pass judgment on Scripture; rather, Scripture passes judgment on us. As God’s Word, the Bible is the only book characterized by infallibility and inerrancy. Every word of every sentence is there by God’s determination (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As the Word of God, the Scripture is pure truth without any assertions of error (Prov. 30:5). Thus, Luther said, quoting Augustine, “I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant” (What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass [St. Louis: Concordia, 1959], 1:87).

Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible has full authority to rule our consciences, for it comes to us resonating with the words, “Thus saith the Lord.” This authority is not dependent upon the testimony of mere men, or the judgment of the church, but arises from the certainty produced by the Spirit who bears witness to the Word (1 Thess. 1:5). Calvin emphasized the self-authenticating character of the Bible. This teaching holds that the Bible’s witness is confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit in the believer’s heart (Institutes, 1.7.2–5).

As the revelation of the only wise God, the Scripture is not obscure, but perspicuous, meaning that its sense is clear and can be understood (Ps. 119:105). With the Spirit’s illumination to overcome our native blindness, the Bible both authenticates itself and interprets itself. It must be said that Holy Spirit is the true expositor of the Bible, enabling “not only the learned, but the unlearned” to use Scripture to interpret Scripture and so “attain to a sufficient understanding” of it (Westminster Confession, 1.7, 9). The key of interpretation, therefore, belongs to the entire community of Christians, not just to Peter and his reputed successors in Rome. While tradition aids interpretation, the true, spiritual meaning of Scripture is its natural, literal sense, not an allegorical one, unless the particular Scripture passage being studied is clearly allegorical in nature.

The fact that the Bible is the written Word of God, supremely authoritative and self-authenticating, unfailingly true in all that it declares, clear in its doctrines, and made efficacious by the Spirit’s work, implies that the Bible is uniquely sufficient as God’s special revelation to us today. Recovering the Word of God means releasing the power of God (Rom. 1:16). As this Word of power, we can look to Scripture to transform and renew our minds as an instrument of the Spirit of God. That power must be manifested in our lives, our homes, our churches, and our communities.

Biblical Sufficiency Defined

The doctrine of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures teaches that “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary” for saving faith and the Christian life is revealed in the Bible. Therefore, the preaching, teaching, and counseling ministries of God’s church are the ministry of the Word of God. There is no need or warrant to base our doctrine or directives on anything else, even if enshrined in church tradition. When an early bishop of Rome based an argument on tradition, Cyprian (c. 200–258) responded with this rule: “If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles… let this divine and holy tradition be observed.” Cyprian argued, “What obstinacy is that, or what presumption, to prefer human tradition to divine ordinance, and not to observe that God is indignant and angry as often as human tradition relaxes and passes by the divine precepts.” Cyprian warned, “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error” (Epistle 73.2–3, 9).

The Reformation brought a renewed emphasis upon the Bible’s sufficiency as special revelation in opposition to Roman Catholic claims to supplement the Bible with additional revelation passed down in tradition. Calvin said, “All our wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, and neither ought we to learn, nor teachers to draw their instructions, from any other source” (Commentary on 2 Tim. 4:1). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) offers a helpful summary of the doctrine: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.”

The sufficiency of Scripture is, however, limited to the Bible’s purpose in revealing truth for our salvation, faith, and obedience (Ps. 19:7–11; John 20:31). The doctrine does not assert that the Bible is sufficient to guide all human activities in every respect, except in the most general way. The Bible does not claim to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of everything. Instead, it gives us “the words of the wise” so “that thy trust may be in the Lord” (Prov. 22:17, 19). The Holy Scriptures “are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). It is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (v. 16). Other matters must be governed by “the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed,” such as “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Biblical Sufficiency Clarified

The Bible’s sufficiency should also not be understood to exclude the use of the church’s helps, such as her many teachers past and present, and the writings produced by them. These are not to be rejected, but welcomed as a means that the Holy Spirit has provided in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11–13). However, they are subordinated to the Bible in such a way that they have authority to direct our faith and obedience only insofar as they faithfully reproduce and apply the teachings of Scripture. The principle of Scripture alone, rightly understood, does not mean the church of any given time or place operates by the Bible alone without reference to the traditions of the church through the ages. Rather, the sola of sola Scriptura means that the Bible alone is the fountain and touchstone for all authoritative teaching and tradition. This point especially needs to be emphasized in an ahistoric contemporary culture that emphasizes radical individualism and personal liberty. As Peter warns, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20).

Nor is it right to appeal to the decisions of the church’s synods and councils as if they were as authoritative as Scripture. In Roman Catholicism, much is made of the decrees of the “Ecumenical Councils” of the ancient church, as though the authority of such assemblies were infallible and absolute. The Westminster divine did not reject the decisions of these bodies outright, but sounded a warning: “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as an help in both” (21.4).

The Bible’s sufficiency as revelation should also be carefully distinguished from its efficacy. The efficacy of the Word of God comes from the present activity of the Holy Spirit working with the Word (1 Thess. 1:5). The Westminster divines wisely added the following qualification to the definition cited above: “Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word (John 6:45; 1 Cor. 2:9–12).” However, this does not reduce the Bible to a dead letter. The Word and the Spirit are inseparable (Isa. 59:21; John 6:63), for the Spirit directed the writing of the Bible Word (2 Peter 1:20–21), and the Word is the great instrument of the Spirit for accomplishing His work in us and in the world (John 16:7–11; Eph. 6:17). We must always remember, however, that the Spirit is sovereignly free, working when and where and how He pleases (John 3:8), as He uses and applies the Word, whether to harden the wicked or draw sinners to Christ.

The sufficiency of the written Word of God does not mean that the Bible contains all special revelation granted throughout redemptive history. Our Lord Jesus Christ did many things that are not written in the gospels (John 20:30; 21:25). God revealed some things to the apostles that He forbade them to report to the church (2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 10:4). However, the Bible does contain all things that God willed to function as the rule of faith and obedience for His people.

Though the sufficiency of Scripture informs all of life with respect to how to please God, it has special relevance for the sacred activity of the church and its officers. The Belgic Confession says, “Since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures” (art. 7). All our activities, though serving many legitimate earthly purposes, should be done for God’s pleasure, but the public worship of the church is performed in God’s special presence for His pleasure as the sacrifices of His royal priesthood offered in His living temple (1 Peter 2:4–5, 9). Therefore, in the worship and witness of the church as the church of God, the sufficiency of Scripture implies and confirms the regulative principle: we must worship as God has commanded, not according to human ideas of worship, neither adding nor subtracting from His Word (Deut. 12:30–32).

This is not to say, however, that we must have biblical warrant for every incidental detail of our worship. The Westminster divines again clarified, “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed (1 Cor. 11:13–14; 14:26, 40).” The regulative principle must be nuanced: the Bible is sufficient to direct us in regard to the elements, content, and character of our worship, but provides only general guidance with regard to things merely circumstantial to it. 

Biblical Teaching on Scripture’s Sufficiency

Negatively, we find the sufficiency of Scripture asserted in the prohibitions against adding to or taking away from God’s Word (Deut. 4:2). The Word of God, as it exists in each stage of redemptive history, is sufficient to be the wisdom and righteous law of God’s people (Deut. 4:6–8). The Bible closes with a warning not to add to or take away from the book (Rev. 22:18–19; cf. Prov. 30:5–6).

We recognize that the Word of God as revelation predates the Bible, for God spoke to mankind in the garden of Eden. His spoken word was prior to His written word. God spoke to Adam, Eve, and the serpent after the fall, and His spoken word was sufficient to bring our first parents to repentance and faith in the coming Savior. God added to His word progressively over time through His servants the prophets, but forbade men to add or subtract anything according to their own ideas. Through Moses, God initiated the writing or “inscripturation” of His word, He Himself writing the ten commandments on tablets of stone. At every point in redemptive history, the word of God, spoken or written, was sufficient for His people’s needs at that time. With the apostles and New Testament prophets, God completed His special revelation. Today the Bible is the only Word of God that the church possesses. 

As the written Word of God, the Bible issues an oft-repeated warning against drawing spiritual wisdom from any other source. All claims to know God’s will for us today must be tested by Scripture, as the prophet Isaiah admonished (Isa. 8:20). Tradition cannot be added to the Bible as a distinct source or repository of divine revelation. Isaiah, the Lord Jesus, and the apostle Paul all unite to warn against doctrine or practice based merely on “the precept of men,” “the tradition of men,” or “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Isa. 29:13; Mark 7:6; Col. 2:22).

Positively, the Bible bears witness to the completeness and finality of its revelation. The Bible is sufficient for moral instruction. Even before the coming of Christ, the prophet could say, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee” (Mic. 6:8a). The Bible is sufficient for evangelical repentance and salvation. When He spoke of the rich man in hell and Lazarus with Abraham in heaven, the Lord Jesus presented the rich man as denying the sufficiency of Scripture. He asked Abraham to send a man back from the dead to warn his brothers, but when Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them,” the man in hell objected, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” In other words, the rich man claimed that the Bible was not enough; men need to see miracles. The answer of Abraham in Christ’s parable is startling: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:27–31). If God’s Word is rejected, then no miracle will suffice to convince them. How much more is God’s revelation full and complete now that God’s Son has come in the flesh (Heb. 1:1–2).

Christ performed this work of revelation during His earthly life, and brought it to fulfillment in the ministry of the Spirit through His apostles. The Lord Jesus said to them that the Comforter “shall teach you all things” (John 14:26). Christ promised the Spirit would “shew you things to come” (John 16:13). The “all things” and “all truth” in view is certainly not all possible knowledge about everything, but consists of the full revelation of the Father’s will for our redemption, accomplished in Christ (vv. 14–15). These promises, originally given to the apostles, pertain especially to the apostolic ministry of the Word that was distilled in the New Testament writings. They do not give warrant for new revelations that add to the Bible, for the Spirit “shall not speak of himself,” or go beyond Christ, but, Christ said, “he shall glorify me,” and “shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (vv. 13–15). Therefore, in the apostolic documents of the New Testament, together with the Old Testament, we have the “all things” and “all truth” which God has willed to reveal in Christ, for our time and for all time to come.

Paul deduced the sufficiency of Scripture from its nature as a “God-breathed” document. He said to Timothy, “From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:15–16). Even when taught to children, the Bible is “able” to lead them to wisdom and salvation. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, the Bible is also sufficient for the church and its ministries. A “man of God” in biblical parlance is God’s prophet (Deut. 33:1; 1 Kings 13:1–10; 17:24), but here, a preacher of the Word (2 Tim. 4:2; cf. 1 Tim. 6:11). Paul said that God’s servant is fully equipped for “all good works,” the whole ministry required of him by God, because the Bible is “profitable” or useful for all those works. We find the same Greek phrase here translated “all good works” (pan ergon agathon) a little earlier in this epistle: “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). Just as a holy life qualifies a man morally for ministry, so the Bible qualifies him with the full revelation of truth needed to feed the flock of God. This is all the more striking when we remember that Timothy had listened to Paul’s preaching for years (2 Tim. 2:2; 3:10), but when Paul neared death, he did not tell Timothy to rely primarily upon his memories of Paul’s words, but to rely on the Holy Scriptures. Having the written Word is even better than fallible memories of an apostle’s teaching, even if you heard an apostle with your own ears. Peter bids his readers take heed to the written Word of God because, as “the word of prophecy,” it is “more sure” than his own testimony as an eyewitness of Christ’s transfiguration in the mount (2 Pet. 1:16–21). Thus Paul proceeded to tell Timothy, “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).

Ten Lasting Fruits of the Reformation

God sent forth the power of his Word in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The Reformation served as a dynamic motivation and catalyst for change and progress wherever its influence reached. Many would credit Martin Luther as the driving engine that propelled the Reformation, but Luther said, “I did nothing; the Word did everything.” John Knox said, “God did so multiply our number that it appeared as if men had rained from the clouds.” How did the Reformation change the church and the world? Here are ten lasting fruits in which the Reformation made a significant difference.

1. The Word of God 

The Reformers recognized the Bible as God’s written Word, and the supreme rule of faith and life for both the individual believer and for the life of the church. Here is the great starting point for understanding the aims, dynamism, and achievements of the Reformation. As part of the revival of learning connected with the Renaissance, the Western church recovered the knowledge of the original languages of the Bible. For the first time in many centuries, her scholars and teachers were able to read the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament, and examine the extant Latin translations of the Bible in the light of the original. If you want to call yourself an heir of the Reformation, then you must be a student of the Bible. Read the Word of God and meditate on it daily. Cultivate a systematic understanding of the Bible’s teachings. Compare Scripture with Scripture. Never walk away from private devotions, family worship, or a sermon without taking hold of some particular truth and applying it to your soul.

2. The Gospel of Grace

The Reformers recovered the authentic gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, and proclaiming it to the ends of the earth through zealous evangelism. They taught that sinners are saved as Christ graciously works in them by His Word and Holy Spirit, convincing them of their sin and misery, and leading them to faith in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, offered once for all, as the only ground of their salvation. Justification from the guilt of sin is not the distant goal, but the beginning of life in Christ. Good works are fruits that accompany justification, and only serve to confirm it. Justification is by faith alone, through Christ alone. Salvation is the gracious, free gift of God, “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:9). What Luther and the other Reformers discovered was that Rome had exchanged the true gospel for a false one. According to Rome, salvation was achieved by slow degrees and hard work, by receiving the sacraments and by doing such good works as the church required or directed. Sinners must atone for their sins by doing penance in this life and suffering the fires of purgatory in the next, calling on saints and angels for help, and cherishing the hope of full salvation only in the far distant future. Some degree of comfort was afforded to the faithful by the sale of “indulgences,” promissory notes issued by the church forgiving or “indulging” some part of the debt of sin owed to God. This “gospel according to Rome” was a message to inspire fear of wrath, not faith in Christ.

3. Experiential Piety

The Reformers enlivened the church worldwide with a deep conviction of the fatherly sovereignty of God through Christ, which results in a deep, warm, sanctifying, experiential piety or godliness that moves believers to commit their entire lives to His praise. One of the most compelling proofs of this assertion is the Heidelberg Catechism. Nothing is stated in an abstract or purely theoretical way. The very first question is intensely personal and experiential: “What is thy only comfort in live and in death?” Time and again the practical use or personal benefit is pressed: “What doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” (Q. 59). This pressure persists to the last sentence of the Catechism: “Amen”––that is, the “Amen” of the Lord’s Prayer—“signifies that it shall truly and certainly be, for my prayer is more assuredly heard of God than I feel in my heart that I desire these things of Him” (Q. 129). Subsequent generations of Reformed pastors and teachers took up this concern and developed it, as Christian experience and the strengths and weaknesses connected with it, received close scrutiny, careful analysis, and thorough exposition.   

4. Old Paths 

The Reformers preserved, exposited, and defended the ancient Christian faith through preaching and sound literature as the system of doctrine taught in God’s Word. The Reformers found support for their formulations of the Christian faith in the writings of the ancient church fathers. They saw themselves as the true heirs of historic Christianity. The Roman church had added to the biblical faith and obscured the gospel of justification, but there remained many essential truths of true Christianity as summarized in the Ecumenical Creeds. Though mired in layers of corruption, the gold of apostolic Christianity had not been utterly lost. The Reformed faith was given to the world not as something new, but only a return of the faith, worship, and order of the apostolic church. It is popular today to cast off all tradition in order to cultivate a religion based on “me and my Bible.” Much contemporary Christianity is superficial and without deep foundations, and so very unstable. However, this is not the Reformation principle of Scripture alone, but a corruption of it. We do not reject tradition in itself, but tradition that is not subordinate to the Bible.

5. The Head of the Church

The Reformers reasserted the crown rights of Christ as King over the nations and the only Head of the church. This resulted in a church where all is done in subjection to God’s Word and in relation to the triune God rather than in subjection to man’s desires. The Reformers soon found themselves at odds with the hierarchy of the church, and in particular with the Pope. Over the centuries, the Papacy had advanced its claim to dominion over the worldwide church and over the kings and princes of Christian Europe. In a similar way, these kings and princes often claimed dominion over the church within their realms. Not infrequently, these divergent views led to fierce and bloody conflicts. The Reformers found themselves fighting a two-front war, as the Pope used all his power to suppress the Reformation, and hostile kings and princes resisted and punished attempts to reform the church in their territories. Against both, the Reformers exalted Christ as the only Head of the church in heaven and on earth. Where they prevailed, the church was delivered from the twofold tyranny of the Papacy and the state. 

6. Christian Freedom

The Reformers established the freedom of the Christian from tyranny in the church, the rights of citizens under the rule of law, curbing the powers of kings and nobles, and enabling the rise of representative democracy in the form of constitutional monarchies and republics. Upholding the supreme authority of Scripture, they dealt a deathblow to the medieval theory of the divine right of kings. All estates of the nation, including the king, are subject to the law of God and the laws of the state. Each citizen lives under the law’s protection, enjoying the liberty secured by subjection to God and to Christ. None but God has power over the conscience, and the calling of magistrates is to “do justice for the helpless, the orphan’s cause maintain; defend the poor and needy, oppressed and wronged for gain.” This idea of kingship broke upon sixteenth century Europe as a revolutionary thunderbolt. A long struggle ensued to curb the excesses and abuses of kings, free the church from interference by the state, and establish the rule of law in Protestant Europe. It is no coincidence that representative democracy flourished best in lands and nations where the Reformed faith was most deeply rooted. The habits of democratic self-government were acquired by many citizens in meetings of congregations, consistories, classes, sessions, presbyteries, and synods. The modern deliberative assembly is the brainchild of Presbyterianism. We should cherish our political freedoms and use all lawful means to preserve them. The rule of law, rights of all human beings, and covenantal accountability of leaders to God and the people are precious biblical principles. However, we should also remember that no political freedom has a stable foundation unless the church remains grounded in its freedom in Christ. Unless Christians walk in our blood-bought freedom from the dominion of sin, we cannot expect society around us to preserve civil liberty. Moral degeneration corrupts political freedom into a mask for any tyranny that promises to gratify a people’s passions.

7. Vocations for the Common Good

The Reformers recast the state as a commonwealth, promoting the dignity of labor, encouraging commerce, and increasing wealth among all classes, while curbing the excesses of unregulated capitalism and providing for the care of the sick and the poor. In the view of the Reformers, a well-regulated state ought to provide for the common good. All should thrive together, walking agreeably in decency and good order. Everyone has a stake in the life and well-being of the nation. No man is granted freedom to do as he pleases, without regard to the laws of God and the state. Such is the idea of the state as a commonwealth. Reformed Christianity played a major role in the eradication of serfdom and the abolition of slavery, though, sadly, for some Reformed Christians these measures seemed too radical to be endorsed. According to the Reformed idea of vocation or calling, the common laborer came into his own as an image-bearing servant of God. Reformed doctrine sanctifies all of life, and resists attempts both ancient and modern to draw a line between the sacred and the secular. Men of wealth are called to use their wealth for the good of others and for the cause of Christ. The restoration of the office of deacon meant that measures were taken in hand to care for the sick and lighten the burden of poverty on the poor. The communion of saints, each one employing his gifts for the advantage and salvation of the others, welded Reformed communities together as forces for benevolence, civic improvement and social progress.

8. Marriage and Child-rearing 

The Reformers established the Christian home on the principles of Scripture, in which marriage is understood as a reflection of the Christ/church relationship; where husband and wife covenant with each other to walk in God’s ways; and parents, to rear their children, who are loaned to them by God. Casting out the medieval cult of celibacy, the Reformers embraced and exalted marriage in the Lord as the norm for the Christian life. The Christian family is counted as the basic unit of the church and the foundation of society. In no better way can the mystery of Christ and His church be honored and enacted before the world. The children of believers once more became the heritage of the Lord, loved and nurtured, called to faith and repentance, confronted with Christ’s claims upon their faith and obedience, and schooled in the “true and perfect doctrine of salvation” taught in the Reformed churches.

9. Arts and Sciences

The Reformers rekindled the spirit of inquiry, founding schools, academies, and universities; disseminating knowledge; encouraging research and exploration; enabling many discoveries and producing many valuable inventions. Exalting God as Maker of heaven and earth, believing that man was created in God’s image, and valuing the creation as God’s handiwork, Reformed Christians have been stirred to seek out the laws of the universe and to realize much of the great potential built into the world as God created it. Believing that knowledge is essential to life and happiness, Reformed Christianity fostered the development of universal education. A large chapter in the history of Reformed Christianity in the United States is the history of the founding of schools, school systems, and institutions of higher learning wherever Presbyterian and Reformed immigrants and settlers established their new homes and churches. The need for a well-educated ministry lay at the heart of this enterprise, but side by side lay the concern for an educated laity, that all might profit from the ministry of the Word.

10. The True Worship of God

Perhaps, above all, the Reformation promoted true worship. For them to worship God, whether privately or publicly, was to bow down before His majestic glory, and in spirit and in truth to bring Him, in and through Jesus Christ and in accord with Scripture, the honor and praise that belong to Him alone. Calvin said that the Christian faith turns on two main hinges: how we are saved, and how we should worship God. Reformation worship turns away from the saints as heavenly mediators and encourages people to draw near to God the Father through the sole mediation of God the Son by the power of God the Holy Spirit. It simplifies the sacraments (from seven to two), purges the service of unbiblical rituals and imagined sacred objects, and restores the people to their function as a holy priesthood. It makes the Holy Scriptures both the rule of worship and its content as the church reads the Word, prays the Word, sings the Word, preaches the Word, and sees the Word in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. 

Conclusion: Soli Deo Gloria

Here then, we have ten crucial ways that the Reformation—contra Rome—has blessed our world. What is the one great reality that all these things reflect? The diamond of the Reformation is the glory of God. The Reformation was about the centrality of God—the supremacy, sovereignty, holiness, goodness, and mercy of God in His triune being. The spirit of the Reformation, if you boil it down to its distilled essence, is to love God by faith in the grace of Christ, as He is revealed in the Scriptures.

Bite-Size Bunyan (4): The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded

Even though he wrote it as relatively recent convert and at the young age of 31, The Doctrine of the Law and Grace Unfolded (1659) is one of John Bunyan’s most theologically developed works. It also sets forth his two-covenant theology likely impacted by his reading of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians (1535), which itself echoes the covenant theology of Augustine. For Bunyan, an Old Covenant under Adam promising life for obedience remained in effect after the fall but without the possibility of fulfilling the conditions. This necessitated the New Covenant of grace fulfilled in the person and work of Christ on behalf of the elect. In summary, everyone is either under the law by way of the Old Covenant or grace by way of the New Covenant in Christ. 

Bunyan’s thought parallels in different ways sixteenth and seventeenth-century British federal theologians such as Robert Rollock, William Perkins, William Ames, John Ball, Samuel Petto, Edward Fisher, and Tobias Crisp. This included a two-covenant theology of works and grace, a two-Adam federal representation, viewing the Mosaic Covenant in some sense as a republished covenant of works, a growing emphasis on a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son, election as the foundation for the covenant of grace, and seeking a balance between the unconditional and conditional aspects of the Covenant of Grace. 

In Law and Grace, Bunyan develops his covenant theology on Romans 6:14, “ye are not under the law, but under grace.” He considers the Old Covenant law not just as the Mosaic Covenant but as the restated Covenant of Works, which now cannot promise life except as fulfilled by Christ. In this manner, and in contrast to mainstream Puritanism, Bunyan did not view the Mosaic Covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace, but that which drove men to the latter covenant.

So, those under the Old Covenant could still have access to grace, “the free love of God in Christ,” who delivers sinners from “the curse and condemning power of the old covenant.” This New Covenant of Grace made the Covenant of Works “old,” because the latter was not established upon grace. God made the new covenant with Christ before time on behalf of believers, though it encompasses other covenants made with men in redemptive history, namely, those with Adam (Gen. 3:15), Noah, Abraham, and David as “types” of Jesus.  

Regarding Christ’s fulfillment of the demands of the Covenant of Works, he exists as the “second Adam” in history who “was before the first” as the eternal Son of God. Similarly, we should see “the second covenant” of grace “before the first” of works. Without using the explicit wording, Bunyan clearly espouses a pactum salutis or covenant of redemption made eternally with Christ on behalf of the elect. His understanding here was possibly influenced by Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645). 

In summary, for Bunyan, “law” and “grace” in Romans 6:14 denote “the two covenants which all men are under; that is, either the one or the other.” Such a Covenant of Grace ran parallel to the Old Mosaic Covenant of Works into which one could participate through the Spirit of regeneration who produced faith in Christ. As a Baptist, he sees the New Covenant as completely co-extensive with the Covenant of Grace. To be under the former is to be under the latter. 

In contrast to the Reformed Orthodox of his century, Bunyan tended to remove any sense of conditionality in the Covenant of Grace. Leaning towards those accused of antinomianism (e.g. John Saltmarsh and Tobias Crisp), he sought to safeguard salvation by free grace through the emphasis on an unconditional covenant. In line with this, Bunyan asserts that obedience can never be viewed as the ground for assurance, which would mean dependence on a “Legal and Old Covenant-Spirit” seeking persuasion by being “fitted for Christ” with an obedient frame. Bunyan qualifies this with an anti-antinomian warning to avoid the charge, “the Doctrine of the Gospel is a licentious Doctrine.” Only “fools” conclude this as those who never “tasted of the virtue of the Blood of Jesus Christ.”  Thus, he sets forth the distinction between duties performed from either a “Legal or Evangelical” frame. Clearly, while he wants to avoid any sense of faith connected to obedience as a condition, he maintains the non-meritorious necessity of works for the elect. 

In the end, we may find Bunyan’s covenant theology in need of some adjustment. However, he solidly and simply presents a two-Adam two-covenant structure of works and grace grounded in a Christ-centered doctrine of salvation and founded upon the sovereign decree of election.

Justification & Sanctification (3)

In this article, I will conclude looking at Obadiah Sedgwick’s discussion of the doctrine that God promises to sanctify and justify this people. Thus far we have seen the differences and similarities between these two salvific gifts (article 1), and the reasons God in the covenant of grace promises both of them (article 2). I will now take a look at three uses of this doctrine.

The first use is that it reproves people who teach the importance of justification but not that of sanctification. Sedgwick speaks of people who “would have men to be believers of Christ, but they would not have men to be holy.” The reason these people emphasize justification by faith to the exclusion of sanctification is because “holiness cannot justifie us.” In this scheme, justification is equated with salvation and thus if something does not contribute to our justification then it is at best superfluous and at worst to be rejected. The problem with this, as Sedgwick points out, is that justification is not the whole of our salvation. God would not have made Christ our sanctification if our holiness wasn’t an integral component of our salvation.  

The second use is that it reproves people who presume that all they need is forgiveness in order to be saved. These people, Sedgwick says, speak often about mercy for pardon of sins, even in affectionate terms, but they have no time for pursuing holiness. Indeed, they “oppose holiness, and scoff, and scorn at holiness.” Once again, the problem with this is that justification is not the whole of our salvation. Sanctification is equally necessary for salvation. “You must have your sins pardoned, or else you cannot be saved; and so you must have your hearts sanctified, or else you cannot be saved.”

Sedgwick suggests that there are two possible reasons people are eager for justification but shy away from sanctification. The first is that holiness goes against the grain of our sinful nature. Although mercy (justification) and holiness both “relieve the sinner,” the latter does so in a way that is abrasive to our “sinfull love” because “it fights against our sins, and doth purge, and work them out from our hearts, and will not suffer sin to bear Rule there.” In this sense, justification is like soothing ointment on a nasty cut, whereas sanctification is like rubbing alcohol. One is pleasant and the other is not. The other possible reason people balk at holiness is that they do not view it as “the way to heaven (see this post).”  Instead, they see it as the way of hardship and thus something to be avoided.

The third use of this doctrine is that Christians should not be content with only justification. Justification provides us with a right and title to heaven and sanctification makes us fit for heaven. Both are necessary, therefore, for entering heaven. Moreover, God never gives one without the other. If God justifies you then he also sanctifies you; and if you are not sanctified, then you are certainly not justified. In order to support his point that God always gives both gifts together to his people, Sedgwick turns to union with Christ. He writes: “when you are by Faith united to Christ, your communion immediately falls in for sanctification as well for Righteousness.” Faith binds us to Christ and in Christ we are both sanctified and justified. Sanctification, therefore, doesn’t flow from justification. Rather, both justification and sanctification flow together from union with Christ. Sedgwick notes, however, that not everyone agrees with this. He says that “Some hold that sanctification is an inseparable effect of justification.” Unfortunately, Sedgwick doesn’t tell us who the “some” are (Lutherans?) but he does go on and say that sanctification is “unquestionably” a “companion” of justification. They flow together hand in hand from union with Christ.