While going over Calvin’s rebuttal of Sadoleto’s letter from 1539, I read a paragraph where Calvin held Sadoleto’s argument to a biblical standard. Calvin was a scholar of the early church. He cites from patristic sources regularly. He read widely in what was available to him in his day. And yet he gave us an example of what it means to know history, to know what those before us have said, and yet to hold their views up to Scripture as the final test of truth. I referred to his stand as “Reformed Biblicism,” and proclaimed myself a Reformed Biblicist, seeking to be faithful to that important concept.
I do not believe Calvin was the first, nor do I pretend that everyone in the past in whom I would see a commitment to a proper, Scripturally defined and historically knowledgable biblicism, has practiced their craft with complete consistency. But I believe a very strong and balanced case can be made for Calvin’s stand in 1539, and the one we must take today as well.
Please allow me to very briefly outline the position.
It starts with the highest view of Scripture. The Bible is theopneustos. Nothing else is. Therefore, it is utterly unique.
It is unique in its origin, in its nature, in its effects, in its purpose, and in its consistency.
It is intended to be a sufficient guide to Christ’s body, the Church.
It is intended to be seen as God’s very speech, and it has authority for all men, no matter their spiritual state.
The Bible then teaches us that Christ has established His Church, His body, and that the Word is intended to be central to the teaching and proclamation that defines that body.
Since we have Christ’s promise to build His church, we can expect the continued ministry of the Holy Spirit amongst His people, preserving and protecting them down through history.
We do not have to re-invent the wheel with each generation. We can learn much from those who came before us.
However, we learn both positively and negatively. Their words do not become equal with Scripture, nor the lens through which we are to read Scripture, either. We learn from their successes as well as their failures. We see that they often had great insights, but at the same time, were blinded by their conflicts and prejudices.
We recognize that the tendency in the past has been for the church to become her own authority, erecting unbiblical structures of authority that limit the corrective work of the Word and Spirit in her midst. Often tradition has been elevated to a position of having equal authority with Scripture, being seen as a necessary possession without which Scripture actually becomes a dangerous thing.
We can read the interpretations of those who have gone before us and learn much, while at the same time recognizing fundamental problems. For example, the rise of monasticism led to traditions developing that impacted the interpretation of Scripture literally for centuries. We are under no compulsion to embrace traditional readings that were simply repeated over and over again when it is clear that they were originally based in misunderstandings.
Creeds and confessions are important monuments in the history of the gospel’s progress in the world. But we must remember that the majority of these come from a small portion of that expansion, primarily from Europe and Asia Minor. Hence, they are focused upon the theological questions prevalent there, and use the language of those cultures. We often forget that there is a whole, big world with many more languages and cultures out there.
Creeds and confessions are secondary documents; indeed, we might say creeds are secondary and confessions tertiary, as they are often derived from creedal statements. Creeds are few, and ancient, confessions are many, and often more modern.
Both are dependent for their authority upon their fidelity to that which is ontologically superior to them; that is, their authority is derivative from Scripture for they are, by their nature, human, and fallible. They are not theopneustos.
This observation should not be novel or surprising to any Protestant. In what might be seen as the older equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, Luther said in his concluding statement before the Emperor at the Diet of Worms:
Since your most serene majesty and your highnesses require of me a simple, clear, and direct answer, I will give one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is clear that they have fallen into error and even into inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.
Popes and councils have erred and have even contradicted each other. Was Luther wrong? No, he was assuredly right. And how do we know when their statements and teachings are contradictory to the truth? Luther answers: subjection to God’s word. There is surely nothing new about such a stance for those who are Reformed.
Today Reformed biblicism is being mocked and derided through the use of straw-man misrepresentation, and that by believing, confessional men. Let’s lay to rest the straw-men so actual progress can be made between men of good faith who will honestly seek to represent the issues with integrity.
It is said we are pretending the Bible fell down out of heaven three days ago, i.e., we reject the reality that there are generations of interpreters who have come before us. FALSE. Ancient writings and modern commentaries can all be helpful and should be consulted when dealing with the Biblical text, not because they hold some traditional authority, or together form some Great Tradition (the amount of contradiction and inconsistency precludes such banal representations), but because we recognize that the Spirit of God has been active from the beginning, and hence, we can be benefitted by such study and reference. But, just as the Spirit’s work does not make us infallible, we can see errors in those who have gone before us. We can see that traditions have become popular in the past that have corrupted understandings for literally centuries, as noted earlier (views of women, for example, or especially views related to papal texts and papal authority, for another). The Second Nicene Council gives a glorious example of pure and utter error determining the outcome of the council’s decrees.
Next, we are told that to be a biblicist is to believe it is just you and your Bible under a tree, each person a tabula rasa, starting from scratch each and every day. FALSE. There is nothing in being a Reformed biblicist that requires one to ignore everything the Spirit has provided to us in the form of past generations, commentaries, multiple translations, community interaction, etc. None of these things, however, can be elevated to a point of equality with, or interpretative control over, Scripture.
We are told to be a Reformed biblicist is to reject creeds and confessions. Every man become his own Pope! FALSE. It is to reject the elevation of creeds and confessions to the level of Scripture, yes. It is to agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of the LBCF at 1:10:
The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.
That means creeds and confessions are to be subject to the Scripture. But, we are told that this means we get to change our doctrine at our every whim, at the drop of a hat! FALSE. Such does not follow at all. Recognition of the inferior nature of creeds and confessions to Scripture does not require us to believe that those who have gone before were naive or ignorant and hence missed the most central realities of the Christian faith, leaving it all up to us today to fix it all! This is an absurd charge. At the same time, to be a Reformed biblicist is to insist that the content of the Christian faith has been “once for all delivered to the saints” so that, in the words of the LBCF in 1:7, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.” So, a Reformed biblicist can recognize development of theological language over time, in, say, how the questions related to Christology developed after the Council of Nicea up and through that of Chalcedon, without investing in those councils, or the interpretations of the key writers, East and West, a parallel authority to Scripture. Even the greatest of the writers of the past must be held to the standard of Scriptural consistency and, when they went beyond those bounds, the Reformed biblicist does not find any compulsion in following them in their speculations.
Hence, the Reformed biblicist is simply allowing Scripture to be God-breathed, the Spirit to be accomplishing His purposes in the Church, those of the past to speak and testify to the truth (and to their own errors and traditions), and the useful and beneficial gifts of God in commentaries, textual resources, etc., to bless us in the present. Always the biblicist believes:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; therefore it is to be received because it is the Word of God (LBCF 1:4).