Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Doctrine without Scripture?

Sometime ago I was reading the website of a Reformed Institution that had a page detailing its official views on justification. There is nothing at all wrong with saying where you stand on controversial issues. I could agree with some of the statements, some I could agree with if they were qualified, some I could not accept, and some were just flat out strange. But as I read this document with all of its assertions about justification, I noticed that it cited many catechisms and confessions but it did not cite Scripture even once in the entire document. This left me concerned and confused (that is PC for it scared the daylights out of me).

What role does Scripture have in Reformed theology? The approach taken in the anonymous document mentioned above is concerning because: (1) It replaces Scripture with the Confessions. (2) It makes the Confessions the mediator of Scripture. (3) It assigns, by implication, the authority of Scripture to the Confessions. (4) It turns the Confessions and its modern devotees into a new magisterium and thus undermines everything that the Reformers themselves fought against and even died for, the authority of Scripture in the life of the church: Sola Scriptura.

Let me head off two potential objections. First, that the Confessions are a summary of what Scripture teaches. Yes and No! The Confession constitute an attempt to summarize and systematize the teaching of Scripture. As such, I can happily sign my name on the dotted line underneath the WCF because I believe, all things being even, that it represents the mind of Scripture. However, the Confessions are also interpretations of Scripture by fallible human beings and they place Scripture in a theological framework also developed by human beings. Thus, they are one step removed from Scripture itself. To cite the Confession then is not the same as citing Scripture and neither should we ever presume to think so. Second, we all interpret Scripture in light of some tradition and there is no neutral perspective and no strictly biblicist approach to interpretation. I concede as much. The Confessions and Catechisms represent the fallible attempt of men and women to articulate the infallible truths of Scripture. The Confessions/Catechisms represent the mind of the Reformed Tradition. Tradition is a tool for reading Scripture. We should read Scripture in light of our Tradition, but we should also read Tradition in light of Scripture!

For those in the Reformed churches, I ask you, should we cite the Confessions rather than Scripture in our doctrinal forumulations? I say unto you: "nay" and "over my dead body"!

1. We have the example of the Bible itself where theological truth is defined by that which is "according to the Scriptures" (e.g. 1 Cor. 15.3-8) and theological truth is apprehended by being good Bereans and "searching the Scriptures" (e.g. Acts 17.11).

2. The example of the Reformers themselves would lead us to believe that Scripture must be primary in our theological formulations and church life (not just derivative from commentaries on Scripture). Calvin himself said: “Let us not take it into our heads . . . to seek out God anywhere else than in his Sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.”

3. Semper Reformanda means testing our doctrine, polity, liturgy, and church life to make sure that it is in line with Scripture not in line with the Confessions (not rehearsing the mantra that the Confessions are substantially without error and engaging in deviant labelling of those who disagree).

4. This perspective is also the view of one of the Reformed Confessions. Let me cite to you the 1560 Scots Confession XVIII:

When controversy arises about the right understanding of any passage or sentence of Scripture, or for the reformation of any abuse within the Kirk of God, we ought not so much to ask what men have said or done before us, as what the Holy Ghost uniformly speaks within the body of the Scriptures and what Christ Jesus himself did and commanded. For it is agreed by all that the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of unity, cannot contradict himself. So if the interpretation or opinion of any theologian, Kirk, or council, is contrary to the plain Word of God written in any other passage of the Scripture, it is most certain that this is not the true understanding and meaning of the Holy Ghost, although councils, realms, and nations have approved and received it. We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love.

Once upon a time, men could make doctrines for the Christian religion without reference to Scripture. It was called the Dark Ages. For the sake of the Reformation of the church, I urge my brothers and sisters in the Reformed churches to give serious consideration to the relationship between Scripture and Confession and not elevating (in practice especially) the latter over the former. Otherwise we will wake up one day and find ourselves enslaved to a new magisterium that claims to be biblical, but in practice, is far from it. There endeth the lesson.


Gordon Kennedy said...

Well said Mike. In our Reformed tradition this needs to be said clearly and often.
The nature of the Confessions, documents produced by human labour, must mean that at some point, in some place, there will be error. In this they are different from the 'spirated' nature of Scripture.

Frozen Choson said...

I think for the most part you are right. However, I have an idea of the statement that you are referring to. I think you have to take context into consideration regarding Justification, here in America. There are two questions, regarding Justification, going around in American Reformed and Presbyterian circles: (1)Are NPP-like views, in the mold of N.T. Wright and Dunn, considered "Reformed" and "Confessional"? (2) How do you justify them from Scripture in light of our interpretive history?

In our ecclesiastical contexts, they are both legitimate questions. Do we prefer to argue Biblically over Confessionally, of course? But, it does not negate asking them as two separate questions. So, when a Seminary that is self-consciously "confessional" responds to one of those two questions, it does not negate the importance or force of the other, it just answers: "Is it confessional? Is it Reformed according to our ecclesiastical context?" The biblical and exegetical questions, which I think you understand, would clearly take many more different kinds of arguments, include a lot more "technical" language, and render a concise statement difficult, if not impossible.

Another point, implied in those confessional statements, footnoted with most printed copies, are the scriptural references that undergird those summaries, albeit "interpretations by fallible beings". So, in our context, citing confessions is one way to answer the question: "Is your version of Doctrine X (in this Justifcation) confessional as the implied interpreted summaries of those Biblical texts?" Reply: No or yes: Here's the confessional testimony. Now, does that mean they have no regard for a Biblical defense? I would argue no. But, I think if you look into the various faculty bibliographies and works of this seminary, you will find a wealth of exegetical, biblical and systematic arguments, along with "confessional" statements, that are part of making a "historical" and "ecclesiastical" case. Now, if the statement said, here is a case for doctrine x and then cited only the confessions, then I would say you are absolutely justified.

If someone wanted to argue that a certain view of Justification is based on Scripture, that's fine. No problem, there are lots of different churches that do that and have done that. But, when a Reformed church, in keeping with Paul's exhortation to Timothy to follow the "pattern of sound words" in the form of confessional statements, appeals to them as part of, not the whole of, their refutation, is not necessarily "doctrine without Scripture".

Anyhow, just trying to inject some context into the nature of the arguments here on this side of the pond

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Well, I hope the comment comes out better than what is 'brewing" in my head!!
Since Scripture itself was canonized by the Church and the Church was a Jewish sect, then the question is, what constitutes the Church? Faith.
But, since Scripture was the theologizing of scribes, cannonized by the Church and given to the common person as an educational tool, what is the Church? Educator.
If the Church split over the Nicene Creed which was the "God/Man" (divine/human) and the developing "traditions" of the Western Church developed many doctrines that were unscientific (Virgin Birth, et al), then isn't the Church about MAN and virtue?
If the Church is about Faith, Intellectual development, and Moral development, then I would imagine it IS about MAN made in God's image!!!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I might add that all of the "models" of faith, intellectural and moral have "end" understandings of full development...
Fowler's "faith devleopment' understands symbolization or representation of (models)...which defines that particular faith tradition...

Perry's "intellectual devleopment"'s end is commitment, but is not understood in "one value" but complexity, where one chooses to commit..

Kohlburg's "moral development"'s end is justice, which is reason's end in assessing just causes...while Gilligan's "moral model" of care ends in understanding "self and other", which affirms both parties in an agreement, whereas Kohlburg's sense of justice was in "social contract" or our nation's form of government!

This is the end of development in man...virtue, as understood in our form of government and the values it holds, while the individuals within the government have risen to the place of developing their moral sense of "self and other", which is about equality, respect and opporturnity...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

another side line...In our government, there has been freedom enough for there to be development of many kinds of moral models, which are representative of our government's understadning of "God's creating men with certain inaleinable rights' which are endowed by their Creator...it is reason, which every human being has...therefore, it is not in presumptuous pre-determination, as in caste systems, or familial connections, as in monarchys, but in equality under law...this is the value that affirms the individual and does not limit the indiivdual's faith commitment to a specific brand...freedom in religious conviction and expression...nor in occupation, freedom in choice, and contract...nor is there a difference in opportunity, because we prohibit discrimination, and inhibit "good ole boy networking", as in Neopotism....

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Michael,

I'm not sure if I've commented before, but I'll leave a couple of thoughts.

Isn't N.T. Wright always accusing his accusers from the Reformed crowd that they are elevating Reformed Confessions above Scripture (vis-a-vis Justification). I'm still considering Wright's views on that particular doctrine and tend to side with Wesley (who tended Reformed on that issue), but I thought it an interesting parallel.

I should say from the other side (and I suspect you would agree) one reason (one among several) that I left non-confessional Evangelicalism in college and returned to the United Methodist Church of my childhood was the need for SOME doctrinal certainty. Sola Scriptura is a doctrine without content, since individuals (and Sola Scriptura is usually taken to mean that the individual interprets scripture) will interpret it to mean a wide variety of things. At that time I discovered the freedom that came with believing that the CHURCH (not the individual) was the Spirit-led interpreter of Scripture on doctrine - and the Church does so in dogmatic theological statements, i.e. confessions (I have been refining this view for years, and am basically an advocate of Paleo-orthodoxy now). And coming from the chaos of "every man (or congregation) for himself" Sola Scriptura, confessions can be very appealing in giving authoritative interpretation, at least on fundamentals.

Michael F. Bird said...


1. Wesley was somewhat ambivalent on justification. He at once point rejected imputation, but on another ocassion (his sermon "The Lord our Righteousness" he affirmed it). Weslyians tend to be cautious of divorcing justification from sanctification (see Ben Witherington's Romans commentary).

2. We do need creeds and confessions. (1) The mantra "No creed but Christ and no book but the Bible" is not itself found in the Bible and short summary statements of faith can be found in the NT. (2) If someone says "I believe the Bible" it begs the question, "What does the Bible say?" (3) We had the Apostles Creed before we had the canon. (4) The canon of faith is an inscripturated version of the rule of faith.

R. Scott Clark said...


I imagine that you are referring to the statement adopted by the faculty and board of Westminster Seminary California.

A bit of context.

1. That statement was adopted in the context of repeated claims by the self-designated "Federal Vision" to be "confessional." Thus, this statement was only a preliminary injunction, as it were, against this claim. The statement was not intended to be read as an exhaustive or complete response to the FV (and secondarily, in this case, to the NPP).

2. The statement was also appended to and published in a volume that did attempt to make a more comprehensive account of the historical, sociological, theological, exegetical, redemptive-historical, and pastoral questions associated with the FV and NPP movements. That volume was Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

3. Along with that volume I would also point your readers to Mike Horton's substantial and thorough interaction with Tom Wright's project in Covenant and Salvation and to John Fesko's recent volume Justification. This volume may be said to represent the response of a faculty member ex post facto since John has recently been appointed to the faculty and begins with us in July, Dv. Finally, the statement assumed a good bit of exegetical interaction with the FV and NPP movements that pre-dated the statement. You are well aware of that work by Waters, Stuhlmacher, and others.

Further, the faculty continues to work on these issues. They were certainly afoot and in the background as several faculty contributed to the recent volume The Law is Not of Faith which focuses on the question of the role of the Mosaic law in the history of redemption and in the history of Reformed theology and in contemporary formulations.

4. Let me remind you that, as Richard Muller and others have pointed out, there has always been a place for summaries of exegesis. Calvin did not do a great deal of detailed biblical exegesis in the Institutes but rather used them as a way of harvesting his biblical work published in his commentaries and preached in sermons. No one could safely say that Calvin was not a "biblical" theologian. Different genres have different requirements. Thus confessional documents do not, in themselves, present a good deal of biblical exegesis. They harvest work done by pastors and theologians. So we were simply trying to re-state the confessional doctrine over against the extensive revisions of Reformed theology and practice proposed by the NPP and its FV followers.

5. Finally, it should be remembered that the confessions and catechisms that we cited in that document are not simply mini-systematic theologies. They are public, binding, and authoritative statements of how the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches understand God's Word. We are men under authority. We are not authorized to willy-nilly re-invent the Reformed faith and certainly not upon what we regard to be a poor foundation marked by generally sloppy biblical exegesis and unsupported historical claims.

R. Scott Clark
Professor of Church History and Historical Theology
Westminster Seminary California

Michael F. Bird said...


I confess that you have found me out. I didn't want to name the document, but illustrate a concern of mine.

1. I supected that the FV was the primary target given the labelling of "covenant moralists". I genuinely appreciate the concerns raised and recognize that this is an in-house debate within the Reformed churches as to who represents the reformed tradition. Obviously it is fitting then to engage that matter on the basis of shared confessional platforms. Still, the complete absence of Scripture is very concerning. I emailed the WSC statement to several Presbie NT friends from Sydney to Scotland to Atlanta and they had the same reaction: flaberghasted by the absence of Scripture. It is the interaction of Scripture and Confession that should mark any serious doctrinal discussion by the Reformed churches (even in its abbreviated and interim form). I think you're setting a dangerous precedent even if you're intentions are noble.

2. I keep meaning to read Horton's recent book on covenant and salvation (I'm with Murray rather than Kline on Adamic administration). While I disagree with aspects of Horton's evaluation of NTW on the White Horse Inn, I thought his comments were fairly careful and thoughtful. We might even be working together in a future project! I flicked through Fesko's book at ETS and hope to see if he really can unite the ordo salutis and historia salutis in his approach.

3. For me it's not a matter of reinventing willy nilly the Reformed faith, but of making sure that our faith stands in conformity with the Holy Scriptures. If we find evidence of an error, deficiency, or some area requiring qualification, we should be prepared to make it.

4. I did initially write out a point by point response to the statement, but decided not disseminate it since it would only antagonise persons and I'm probably not endeared to certain WSC faculty members as it is. But some of the denials in that document did leave me gob smacked. For instance, # 2: That the Lutherans and Calvinists have different doctrines of justification. There is evidently a lot in common between these two reformational streams concerning the forensic nature of justification and opposing the Roman Catholic perspective of an infused righteousness, but there are also clear differences between them. For instance on imputation, the Augsburg Confession in article 4.3 says that, ‘This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight’ while the Westminster Confession article 11, in direct opposition to Augsburg, states, ‘[God] freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them’. What is imputed? Is it ‘faith’ (Augsburg) or Christ’s ‘obedience’ (Westminster)? Since Reformed theologians hang so much on the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, do Augsburg and Westminster have the same view here? In short: no! There is a difference here and it is hardly immaterial.

I thought the big problems were the outright lack of Scripture and some very sweeping generalizations that make the document liable to criticism.

R. Scott Clark said...


Just to address the last point, are you aware of the Harmony of Reformed Confessions (1580)? Have you looked at it? Do you know what the first document in it is? It's the Augsburg Confession. It's in there as an expression of the fundamental Protestant unity on justification.

We you aware than Calvin signed the Augsburg Confession? He was not alone. Other Reformed folk also signed. It. They never saw any great problem with Art 4. Their problem was with Art 10.

The sort of tension you assert between the Lutheran and the Reformed on justification was unknown in the 16th and 17th centuries. On justification, in the classical period, we were all "evangelicals" or "Lutherans."

If you will consult the Book of Concord you will see that Lutheran orthodoxy understood Augsburg Art 4 rather differently than you do. For more on Luther's doctrine of justification see my lengthy essay in the recent number of the Concordia Theological Quarterly.

The Reformed never understood themselves to be articulating a fundamentally different doctrine of justification from Luther or from Lutheran orthodoxy. There did develop differences of emphasis and rhetoric, i.e. of ways of speaking about the law, but these differences have to be spelled out quite carefully.

Tony Stiff said...

As someone whose taken vows as an ordained pastor in the PCA I know how valuable and necessary it is to have the confessional play an esteemed role in theological disputes between ordained pastors in the same body.

However I don't think for a second Michael you are undermining that, rather your simply pointing out that we ought to always embody the sole authority in all theological controversies in how we discuss and engage them. And to do so by citing the scriptures and supporting arguments with them. Why anyone would contest that request is beyond me.

All and all thankyou for both your discretion in not mentioning names in your original post and for your challenge to the broader church to consider how we theologize in the public sphere.

Tony Stiff

jeff miller said...

Mr. Bird,
Thanks for this post and more importantly, for this approach to the truth. I am not saying that you would approve of my conclusions and observations but I have a few "documents for your consideration" which I hope reflect Jesus' perspective on the difference between the "word of God" and the "tradition of man".
With Hope in Christ,

sujomo said...

Thanks for the post on your blog Mike and for the comments of all, especially Prof Scott Clark.

Are you aware that Calvin viewed the Institutes as a "necessary tool" for reading Scripture. Ganoczy expressed the link between Calvin's Institutes and the text of Scripture in terms of the "first hermeneutical circle". Scripture and the Spirit constitute a "second hermenuetical circle". Such a "hermeneutical circle" (hermeneutisch Leitfaden) is evident in Calvin's comment on Romans 3:38 where, in the context of alluding to the epistle of James and the meaning of justification, he urges the reader, "On this subject, see my Institutes".

I believe that Calvin was concerned that the Institutes guide his readers through what he referred to as the "labyrinth" of the Scriptures. Thus the concept of sola scriptura was somewhat nuanced.

When the confessions aid us understand what Scripture is saying then they are genuine aids. But we must never overlook the possibility that confessions may not always be the aids we traditionally view them as.

Can I respectfully ask Prof
Scott Clark why the Westminster Statement (helpful as it may be in its US context)makes no reference to the Second Helvetic Confession (I suspect there are links between this and the Scots Confession of 1560)which has Scripture integrated into its formulations and not just appended as proof texts?

Thanks everyone for some stimulating thoughts. A real learning curve for me.


The Pook said...

The lack of scripture citation or reference is strange, yes.

The statement that causes me most concern is this one, however:
"We deny that there are truths found in Scripture but not in the Standards that overthrow or undermine any element in the system of doctrine expounded in the Standards." (italics mine)

Despite explicitly denying that the Subordinate Standards are equal with Scripture, this document says (without citing scripture!) that nothing in Scripture can overthrow any significant element in them. Surely that not only sets the confessional standards higher than the Westminster Assembly intended, but also assumes a certain omnisicience on the part of the framers of this document??? If they had left out the "any element in" I could agree with it given the historical meaning of "system of doctrine" in this context. But "any element" seems to imply the Confessional equivalent of biblical inerrancy!

At the same time though, it's interesting that the document does not include the word 'inerrent,' does include the word 'infallible,' and upholds Presuppositionalism but not Evidentialism. Yet what it affirms and denies could be held equally by Inerrantists or Infallibilists. I think it is a very well thought out and expressed statement, apart from the concern expressed above.

Frozen Choson said...

To The Pook,

You are referring to the statement from WTS (Philadelphia) regarding the recent controversies there. Presumably, the same criticism, leveled by Mr. Bird, may apply there as well. However, as I posted above, the context of the controversy is over what is "confessional", not necessarily what is exegetical. So some of Dr. Clark's comments are analogous in their case as well.

Also, I beg to differ with your assessment. All that they are saying is that Biblical truths that are not treated in the Westminster Standards do not "undermine or overthrow" the specific elements of the Standards, as a system of doctrine.

I would say the same thing for the ecumenical creeds without batting an eye. It doesn't mean that I hold the Apostle's or Nicene Creed higher than Scripture. All it means is that if you believe a system of doctrine is Biblical,(i.e. incarnation, two-natures Christology, bodily Resurrection Trinity, etc) then all Scriptural texts connected with those doctrines will only give greater nuance, clarity, or precision, and not seek to "undermine or overthrow" it. WTS is seeking to apply this on a larger scale in the Westminster Standards, as a larger system of doctrine and with doctrinally important "elements" contained therein.

The Pook said...

Sorry I didn't read the thread closely enough. I mistook it for being about the other Westminster Seminary statement, quite right.

I disagree with your assessment of what that statement means, however. It doesn't say what you paraphrase it as saying. I don't see how you can make an omniscient open ended statement to the effect that there can never be discovered anything in Scripture that proves any part of the confessional standards wrong. (Yes that's my paraphrase of it!)