The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms
II. The Holy Scriptures
That men may be taught aright how they are to glorify God, some instruction which shall be the rule for their direction is needed. This rule is given us in the Scriptures. They are said to be the only rule to direct us in fulfilling the end of our being. This rule chiefly teaches us what we are to believe and do in attaining that end. This rule consists in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the word of God given by inspiration, consisting of sixty-six books. The number is merely mentioned in the Larger Catechism, but a complete list of these books by name is given in the first chapter of the Confession. The doctrine of the Standards is that these Scriptures form the only and all-sufficient rule for the guidance of men in all matters of religion. In expounding the contents of the Standards, and especially of that remarkable chapter with which the Confession opens, the particulars may be summed up under three heads. These are the nature, the contents, and the interpretation of the Scriptures.
1. The Nature of the Scriptures.
As already stated, the sacred Scriptures are the sole and sufficient rule of faith and duty. In regard to this general statement, the Confession sets forth several particulars which are now to be noted in order.
Firsts The place and value of the light of nature is suggested. By the light of nature is meant that manifestation of God's will and man's duty which may be derived from external nature, from the events of providence, and from the mental, moral and religious nature of man. The opening utterance of the Confession very clearly teaches that the power, wisdom and goodness of Almighty God are made known to men in these ways, to such an extent that they are conscious of moral responsibility, and without excuse before God, if they fail to serve him. The light of nature is thus adequate to ground man's responsibility to God, and to make it just for God to punish man for disobedience. In this way the Standards assume the validity and value of natural religion, and it is upon this sure basis that revealed religion is made to rest. It is important, therefore, to keep in mind that the Standards assume the reality of the religious element in man's constition, and of the primitive knowledge of God, which, in the exercise of that religious element, man may obtain from nature and the events of providence.
But with equal clearness the Confession asserts that the light of nature is not sufficient to give man that complete and correct knowledge of God which is necessary for salvation, duty, and destiny. Hence, mere natural religion can never secure for men who are in a sinful state that knowledge of God and of the way of life which they need. If men were not disabled by sin the case might be different. It might be further argued, that if any member of the sinful race of mankind could be found who did so live up to the light of nature as to be without fault or sense of guilt, such a person would be acceptable to God. But the fact is, that no such case is to be found anywhere, and a sense of guilt rests universally on the race. It is, therefore, with great propriety that the Standards take the position, that while the knowledge of God and his will which men have in a natural way is adequate to leave them without excuse before God, still, it is cannot save and rightly guide them.
Secondly, The light of revelation is next considered. By the light of revelation is denoted that knowledge of God and his will which is set forth in the sacred Scriptures. These Scriptures contain God's revealed will touching salvation, duty and destiny, committed to writing. The Confession teaches, as do the Scriptures also, that God was pleased to meet man's need by revealing himself at sundry times and in divers manners, and in thus revealing himself to declare his will to the church. In all the ages the revelation was made primarily to the church, and then by the church to the world. The church thus becomes the candlestick of the Lord, which is to hold forth the light of divine revelation to the world in darkness and sin.
These special ways of revealing God's will, and committing it to writing, continued for a period of about sixteen hundred years. In due time this was to cease, so that God was further pleased to secure, that the necessary things thus revealed should be committed entirely to writing, by the hands of men who were chosen and qualified for this purpose. This was necessary to preserve the revealed will of God, and to render its propagation possible in the world. The possession of the sacred oracles by the church ministers to the stability and comfort of her people in all ages, and affords her protection against the corruptions of the world and the assaults of Satan. For such reasons as these the Confession concludes that the revealed word of God, in permanent written form, is most necessary for the welfare and progress of true religion.
The Confession next defines the canon of Scripture, and gives a complete list of the canonical books of the Old Testament, thirty-nine in number, and of the New Testament, twenty-seven more, making sixty-six in all. The Confession expressly excludes the Apocrypha from the canon of Scripture, and it is not admitted to have divine authority. It is not to be regarded nor used in a way different from other merely human writings. The only authoritative word of God is the sixty-six books.
Thirdly, The inspiration of the canonical Scriptures is to be considered. This is one of the most important questions in regard to the nature of the Scriptures, and this is the feature of them which mainly constitutes their authority. While the Confession plainly states the fact of the inspiration of holy Scripture, it does not fully define in what that inspiration really consists. This does not imply that any view whatever may by taken of the scriptural facts denoted by their inspiration. The whole of the sixty- six books are given by inspiration of God, and the Confession in its teaching implies the full force of the claim which the Scriptures thus make as to their own origin and nature. God, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, is their divine author, through the free active powers of the men who wrote the books.
Owing to the importance of the statement of the Confession that the whole of the sixty-six books are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life for sinful men, some expansion of its meaning may be of service at the present day. This expansion can only give the headings of the statement of the doctrine of inspiration which is involved in the Confession. First, The divine inspiration of the canon of Scripture is supernatural, so that the various books are not the natural products of the times in which they were produced, or of the men who spoke or wrote their contents. Inspiration is not merely a natural genius for religion. Secondly, The agency of the Holy Spirit is dynamical, not mechanical. The Holy Spirit so operated upon the activities of the human authors of the several books that, while they were divinely controlled and directed, they were not coerced or compelled. They were not machines, but free men divinely guided. Thirdly, So far as the contents of the Scriptures are concerned, their inspiration is plenary, not partial. The whole of the Scriptures, not merely the more important parts, are inspired, and all these parts are possessed of equal divine certitude.
Fourthly, So far as the form of the contents of the Scripture is concerned, their inspiration is verbal, in the sense that the writers were divinely guided in the choice of the language form, as well as divinely moved in regard to their thoughts. This does not imply mere dictation, but it asserts that the sacred writers were not left to themselves in regard to the form of their writings, anymore than in respect to their contents. The inspiration of the Scriptures, therefore, is supernatural, dynamical, plenary, and verbal. Infallible truth as to contents, divine accuracy as to form, and supreme authority as to their claim, are the qualities of the sacred Scriptures as of no other writings. It is proper to add that these qualities belong in an absolute sense to the original writings of the inspired authors. Subsequent copies have been kept pure and authentic by divine providence in a most remarkable way. It is in this field that the work of the textual critic renders such a useful service, but the question of the correct text should never be confounded with that of the inspiration of the text, no matter how closely they may be related.
Fourthly, The question of the authority of the Scriptures next claims attention. What are the grounds upon which confidence in the supreme authority of the word of God may securely rest, and on account of which it is to be believed and obeyed? The answer to this question forms a very important part of the doctrine of the Confession at this point. Negatively, as against Rome, the authority of Scripture does not depend on any merely external support, such as that of any man, no matter how learned, nor upon any church, even though it be ready to speak with a great deal of authority. Positively, its authority depends wholly upon God, who by his Spirit is the divine author of the Scriptures. They are to be accepted as authoritative because through them the voice of God is undoubtedly uttered.
At the same time the Confession indicates, with great caution and skill, the proper place and form of the evidences which lead to the conviction that God is speaking to men in and by the Scriptures. When these evidences lead to this conviction, the ground or basis of their authority is not the evidence itself considered, but rather the fact that God is now known to be uttering his voice in the Scriptures. Three classes of evidences are mentioned in the Confession. First, There is the external or the historical evidence of the divine origin and inspiration of the Bible. This is found in the witness of the church, either testifying in her corporate capacity, or by means of individuals within her ranks. By the testimony of the history, by the witness of the miracles, and by the fulfillment of prophecy, men may be moved to a high and reverent esteem for the Scriptures and to a conviction of their truth and divinity.
Secondly, There are the internal evidences which arise from the nature of the contents of the Scriptures. This is a very important branch of the evidences described in the Confession. It embraces the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole, which is to give glory to God, the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, and many incomparable excellences, and the entire perfection of the Scripture, are arguments whereby it abundantly evidences itself to be the word of God. But when thus proved it is still true that the basis of authority is not in the evidence, but in the fact of the divine authorship of the writings.
Thirdly, There remains what may be termed the spiritual evidence, which is the highest and strongest of all. This consists in the agency of the Holy Spirit, the divine author of the Scriptures, bearing witness by and with the word in the souls of men, and thereby producing a full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority of the word in the heart. This is an exceedingly important but not easily understood position. It asserts that the same Spirit who gave the word by his inspiration, also produces by his illumination the full conviction in our hearts that it is what it claims to be, the sure word of God. This is the witness of the Spirit in experience.
2. The contents of the Scriptures are next to be considered.
The topic which the Confession here raises is that of the completeness of the Scriptures, as the rule of faith and life. This simply means that the whole counsel of God in regard to all things necessary for his glory, and the salvation and duty of man is contained in the Holy Scriptures. These things are discovered in the Scriptures in a twofold way. They are either expressly set down in Scripture, or deduced therefrom by good and necessary consequence. In the first case the matter is clear, and in the second, care must be taken that no improper inferences are made.
The idea of the completeness of Scripture also implies that nothing is to be added to or taken from them at any time. The canon of Scripture is complete and closed, and all that men need for faith and life is therein contained. Hence no supposed new revelations of the Spirit are to be added, and the opinions and traditions of men are to be excluded.
The Confession further asserts, that for the saving knowledge of the contents of the Scriptures the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit is also needed. Spiritual things are to be spiritually discerned. The saving knowledge of the word is spiritual knowledge, and to give this kind of knowledge the divine Spirit is necessary. The conclusion is that the Spirit first gave the word, the Spirit evidences the word, and the Spirit teaches the saving meaning of the word.
At this point a very important principle, sometimes overlooked and sometimes pushed too far, comes into view. This principle relates to certain circumstances of government and worship, but it does not apply to matters of doctrine. According to the Confession, there are certain circumstances in the government and worship of the church which are common to human actions and societies, such as the hours for public worship, or the number of ruling elders to be chosen in any church, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence. But even in these cases nothing is to be ordered or instituted in the church which is not in accordance with the general rules of the word. This plainly means that even in these matters the great principles of the Lord of God are not to be departed from.
3. The interpretation of the Scriptures is the third and last topic for discussion in this chapter.Some care is needed here also in order to understand the doctrine of the Confession.
It is first stated that all the things contained in the Scrip- tures are not equally, or alike clear to all who read. At the same time everything which needs to be known, believed, and observed for salvation is so plainly and fully put forth, that the unlearned as well as the learned, with a proper use of the ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient knowledge of them for salvation and life. This being the case, the common people are to have access to the Scriptures
To secure this, generally and continuously from age to age, the Scriptures are to be translated out of the original tongues in which they were immediately inspired by God, into the common language of every nation unto which they come, so that all may be taught thereby. In this connection the Confession states that, by the singular care and providence of God, these Scriptures, passing from age to age, and from one language to another, have been kept pure and autheutic; that is, they have been preserved correct and intact. Consequently they may be relied on as in every way worthy of confidence. In all controversies of religion the appeal is to the Scriptures, and the people have a right to, and an interest in, the perusal of the Scriptures, so that, the word dwelling in them, they may worship God in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures have hope.
Two important statements of the Confession remain for brief explanation. One pertains to the infallible rule for the interpretation of the Scriptures, and the other relates to the supreme judge in matters of religion. To the first, the answer of the Confession is that the Scripture itself is its own rule of interpretation. This is what is known as the principle of the analogy or proportion of faith. By means of this principle the meaning of one passage is to be ascertained by the comparison of it with others which are perhaps more easily understood. Every part of Scripture is to be understood in the light of the analogy of the whole.
To the second question the Confession makes the reply that the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is the judge, whose sentence is to determine all matters of religion, alike for the church and the individual. The decrees of church councils, the opinions of good men, and the impressions of private spirits are all to be guided and formed by the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. Thus it appears that the Holy Spirit is the final exegete, as well as the invincible apologete, of the sacred Scriptures. The infallible rule for the interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself, and the supreme judge in matters of religion is the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures. It may be added that the Spirit thus speaks to the church, and through the church to the world.