Second Helvetic Confession: On the Scriptures

I have been reading the Second Helvetic Confession. What is that you ask? Here is a little background. Here is the document itself, which is longer than either the Westminster Confession or the Belgic Confession. While I don’t agree with all of it, such as its “ever virgin” phrase or its excessive pessimistic view of the church in history, overall it is rich and is worth consulting. Here is the first section of the confession on the Scriptures.  I have put in a bold a few phrases I enjoyed.

CANONICAL SCRIPTURE. We believe and confess the canonical Scriptures of the holy prophets and apostles of both Testaments to be the true Word of God, and to have sufficient authority of themselves, not of men. For God himself spoke to the fathers, prophets, apostles, and still speaks to us through the Holy Scriptures.

And in this Holy Scripture, the universal Church of Christ has the most complete exposition of all that pertains to a saving faith, and also to the framing of a life acceptable to God; and in this respect it is expressly commanded by God that nothing be either added to or taken from the same.

SCRIPTURE TEACHES FULLY ALL GODLINESS. We judge, therefore, that from these Scriptures are to be derived true wisdom and godliness, the reformation and government of churches; as also instruction in all duties of piety; and, to be short, the confirmation of doctrines, and the rejection of all errors, moreover, all exhortations according to that word of the apostle, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof,” etc. (II Timothy 3:16-17). Again, “I am writing these instructions to you,” says the apostle to Timothy, “So that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God,” etc. (I Timothy 3:14-15). SCRIPTURE IS THE WORD OF GOD. Again, the selfsame apostle to the Thessalonians: “When,” says he, “You received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it, not as the word of men but as what it really is, the Word of God,” etc. (I Thess. 2:13) For the Lord himself has said in the gospel, “It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you”; therefore “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Matt. 10:20; Luke 10:16; John 13:20).

The sufficiency, authority, and clarity of Scripture are key battlegrounds in the church today and will be in the coming years. Those of us in the reformed world would be wise to read not just the key works on Scripture (Warfield, Whitaker, and systematics), but also to mine the depths of the confessions and catechisms.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Here is a quote from Richard Gaffin’s book Perspectives on Pentecost. Brackets are mine.

The Reformers asserted themselves so energetically on both these fronts [Roman Catholics and Anabaptists], because they recognize that, along with all the obvious differences between the two, they posed a common threat to the supremacy of the Bible (scriptura sola): Rome with its institutionalized, ecclesiastically authorized body of tradition; the Anabaptists with their spontaneous, charismatically sanctioned “revelations,” each endangering the sole authority and sufficiency of Scripture and so the true freedom of the Christian man. Confirmation of these observations would seem to be found in the way contemporary Roman Catholicism has so easily accommodated the charismatic movement.

My first pastorate was in a Pennsylvania town that was predominately Roman Catholic and Orthodox. When I told an older pastor I was going there he said, “The biggest church besides the RC will be the Charismatic one.” He was right. It is easy to slide between the two.

Bavinck on Sola Scriptura

The following paragraphs from Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics: Volume I come after a discussion of how the theologian must function within his local church and use his confession. Here is a sentence explaining Bavinck’s point. “Dogmatics [theology] is possible only for one who lives in the fellowship of the faith with one Christian church or another.” He goes on to say that theologians/dogmaticians must stand on the shoulders of previous generations and not just those in their particular line of theology, but other lines as well. Lutherans begin within their own confession, but then move on to study and learn from other branches of the church, such as Presbyterian and Baptist. He also argues that none of us begin without presuppositions. We all have been taught something and from that deposit we then do theology. But there is a logical question that follows: Doesn’t this build our theology on the foundation of our confessions and our church instead of God’s Word? If we cannot do theology outside of a church and must have human teachers does that make our church and those teachers the source of our theology? If theology must be done in the church does that make the authority of our theology the church and her teaching? Here is Bavinck’s answer to that question. Whenever you see dogmatics, etc. just substitute theology or theologian. I have removed a few Latin phrases.

This is not to elevate the history of dogma and the confession of the church to a position of infallible authority. There is a difference between the way in which a dogmatician is shaped and the primary principle from which dogmatics receives its material. In every branch of learning, the practitioner begins by living from the tradition. He always gains his first acquaintance with the field from an authority. He must first absorb the history of his discipline and attain a knowledge of the present state of the field; then he can go to work independently and acquire his own insights into the object of his research. But no one in his right mind will, for that reason, view the tradition, which was pedagogically [it taught him] so important to him, as the source of his discipline. It is no different for the dogmatician. Pedagogically the church is prior to Scripture. But in the logical order Scripture is the sole foundation of church and theology. In case of conflict between them, the possibility of which can never be denied on a Reformational view, church and confession must yield to Scripture.

Not the church but the Scripture is self-authenticating, the judge of controversies, and its own interpreter. Nothing may be put on a level with Scripture. Church, confession, tradition-all must be ordered and adjusted by it and submit themselves to it…The Reformed, though deeming a confession a necessity in this dispensation of the church in order to explain the Word of God, to turn aside heresies, and to maintain the unity of the faith, denied with the utmost emphasis that the confession had any authority apart from Scripture. Scripture alone is the norm and rule of faith and life. 

Jesus & The Bible

Jesus is not the Bible. We do not bow down to the book on the table, as if it contains Jesus. However, we cannot find Jesus outside of the Bible. For humans, God has given us the Scriptures as the only way we know Jesus. Jesus is in Heaven and we can pray to Him there. But we cannot hear the voice of Christ outside of the Scriptures. We cannot know Christ’s character outside of what read in the Scriptures. How do we know the work in our lives is the Spirit of Christ and not the Devil? The Bible.  The Bible is where we find Jesus. There is no Jesus in church tradition unless He is the Jesus of the Bible. There is no Jesus in your heart unless He is the Jesus of the Bible. The preacher is not preaching Jesus unless he is preaching the Jesus of the Bible. When someone believes they can find Jesus outside of the Scriptures they have left the anchor of God’s Word for either a church tradition, whether written (Roman Catholic) or spoken (celebrity preacher) or some personal experience where they met or heard Jesus. If we seek to find and follow Christ outside of the Scriptures we have shifted the foundation for our worship of Christ and walk with Christ from the words of God to the words of men.

The Danger of Hearing God’s Word

God’s mercy is great, but it is not endless. In the life of a man, a church, a denomination, a community, or a country a place can be reached where even God’s mercy cannot be found.  II Chronicles 36:15-16 describes one such a circumstance: 

The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD rose against his people, until there was no remedy. 

God loved His people, Israel. He loved them enough to send them prophets and messengers. He loved them enough to send them messengers early and late or as the ESV says, “persistently.” He sent Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and others. They came and they preached and they preached and they preached. They risked death and ridicule to bring them God’s Word. Why? God loved His people.

But the people would not hear. They mocked, despised, and scoffed at the prophets. They killed them, ran them out of town, threw them into pits, ignored them, and laughed at them. They continued to worship idols, commit adultery with the nations, oppress the weak and poor, commit sexual immorality, and ignore God’s law……Until there was no remedy. Look at that sentence. Let it sink in. “Wait,” we say, “Isn’t God’s mercy always there for the taking whenever I need it?” No. There was a point of no return. There was a line where God’s wrath could no longer be stayed. His mercy did not just keep coming and coming. Eventually His mercy dried up. Then He sent the Babylonians and they besieged Israel, burned her, led her best men away as prisoners, left the land ravaged, and killed her women and children.

Whenever we hear the Word preached it is God’s mercy to us. He is being kind to all, but especially to the hard-hearted. He is saying, “Here is my Word one more time. Now repent and turn.” He is saying, “Don’t take advantage of my patience. Don’t wait. Turn and be saved.”  

Sitting under God’s Word week after week, month after month is only good if we are repenting and pushing on to greater obedience. Hearing God’s Word without seeing the holiness of God, our own depravity, the wonderful provision of Christ, and the need to be forgiven will lead to hearts of stone, eyes that glaze over when the Word is preached, and a life that is not conformed to Christ. Often the hardest hearts in the world are those who hear the Word of God over and over and yet do not repent.

God’s compassion can run dry. A man who sits under the preaching of God’s Word week after week, but does not turn and change will find himself crying out for help and it will not come (Proverbs 1:28-29).  A denomination that tolerates sin despite the prophets in her midst will find her gates battered and the sheep slaughtered.  A church that allows grievous sins in her midst to go without rebuke and without discipline will find Jesus striking her with sword of His mouth (Revelation 2:16). There comes a point where there is no remedy, where the only option left is judgment. This idea is echoed in Hebrews 6:1-8 and in James 1:21-27, as well as numerous other passages throughout God’s Word.

II Chronicles 36:15-16 is a warning for all of us who enter God’s house week after week. Hearing is not enough. We must pray that the Spirit will work through the Word to change us. We must strive for holiness and the death of sin in our lives (Romans 6:12). Where we fail we must confess our sins and throw ourselves upon the mercy of Christ. Where we grow in holiness we must give thanks to the One who has begun a good work in us (Philippians 1:6). Otherwise we will find ourselves looking for a remedy when there is none. And we will be cast out with those who mocked God’s messengers.

Similar Posts:
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Two Types of Preaching
Questions on Repentance

Reading is Not Enough

Every year the elders at our church give a recommended Bible reading schedule that will get someone through the Scriptures in a year. Some of our congregation follow this schedule. Some follow another schedule. As a pastor I know that my congregation cannot grow without a regular steady diet of God’s Word.

But what about when people read God’s Word, but do not grow?  How can someone read the Bible day in and day out, often for years and not become more holy or not see significant spiritual growth? How can someone read the Bible daily, attend sermons weekly and be a spiritual infant? We all know people who have read God’s Word repeatedly and know it well, yet are still spiritually immature or are even drifting further and further from the faith. How does that happen?

There is no one size fits all when it comes to this. There are many reasons why someone reads the Bible and yet does not grow. However, having observed this pattern over the years there are a couple of reasons that consistently show up when this occurs.

Outside Authority
Reading the Bible only produces growth and maturity if the Bible is the absolute authority in one’s life. If there is another authority that trumps the Bible then reading it will produce change when it lines up with that other authority. The authority is what rules a person’s heart, not God’s Word. That authority can be tradition, family, friends, data, anti-naturalistic presuppositions, modernistic individual ideas, Netflix, pleasure, etc. This list is almost endless. Most of us think the Bible is our authority. But when we are confronted with an unpleasant truth from the pages of Scriptures we appeal to someone or something else that allows us to continue as we are. I am not encouraging a me and my Bible only mindset. We need other input. But all other input must be subordinated to the Word of God. We do not grow if there is an outside authority that often confirms our biases and allows us to read the Bible, but not really change.

Reading It for Others 
If I was to pinpoint one main reason why people read the Bible and yet do not grow it is this one. Too many people read the Bible for other people. They read it with the sins and problems of those around them in mind instead of their own. Reading is mainly about teaching others instead humbling ourselves. We prepare a meal for others, but refuse to eat it. Of course, this is a great failure of pastors and teachers. We study, but not for ourselves. We mine the riches of God’s Word, with an eye to the holiness of our people, but not to personal holiness. But it is also a problem among Christians who are not pastors or teachers. We read the Bible so we can teach our spouse or our children. We read it so we can evangelize. We read it so we can confront members of other denominations or confront members of our own churches. We read it to defend certain doctrines. None of this is inherently wrong. But it must not be first. First we should read for ourselves. What does the Lord want to teach me today? Where have I gone astray from his paths? Where has my zeal gotten weak? Has my love for Christ gone cold? Is there a specific sin the Lord is bringing to my attention that I need to repent of? Is there some part of His character he wants me to examine more closely? David uses the word “I” dozens of times in the Psalms. Why? David knew his walk with God was the priority. As we take those truths and apply them we will be fit to teach others with not just our words, but our lives.

Lack of Ongoing Practical Obedience
The Bible is not a magic pill we take to become more holy. To grow in Christ and holiness we must keep pressing. Too often we are like a 40 year old who was a star athlete in high school, but is now overweight and can barely run a 40 yard dash. He talks often his feats in high school not realizing that he has not grown since then. We too look back to previous greatness but are stuck in neutral, coasting through our Christian life. We keep up appearances, but there is no growth happening. One reason we can read and not grow is that we are not pressing forward. We read the Bible last year. We will read it again this year and gain next year. We look back with fondness on growth that occurred 5 years ago or 10 years ago. But we are no longer maturing. We don’t weep over our sins much.  We check the boxes, but do not examine our lives.  We don’t address our specific sins. We don’t cultivate those virtues we are weak in. Sin has taken root and we are too lazy to get in the dirt and pull it out. Holiness is too hard so we read the Bible and talk about the Bible, but don’t obey it. What is interesting about this problem is that when we work hard to grow the Bible comes alive to us. Passages that were dead leap to life.  We stop reciting the same verses over and over and find new ones. Books of the Bible that we thought were irrelevant but read because we had to now become more interesting.  Our eyes are opened to sins we did not see before. We come to love God more and people more. But this does not happen by remembering past battles we have won. It happens because we are still fighting, still on the front lines. It happens because we take God’s Word and push it into the corners of our lives. All the Bible reading in the world will not compensate for laziness in our walk with Christ.

I would encourage reading the Bible over and over again. It is our life. It tells us about our great God, the Son He sent, and the Spirit who now indwells us. It tells us about our sin and the remedy for it. It tells us about the world God made and how to relate to the people in it.  Read and read again. But reading is not enough.  If we don’t believe it is our absolute authority, don’t read it personally, and don’t constantly seek new ways to apply it to our lives we will find that we know the facts of the Bible well, well enough to convince others we are mature. But the reality is we are still spiritual infants.

The Supreme and Infallible Judge

Francis Turretin’s section on Scripture, his 2nd topic, is marvelous, wonderful, invigorating, and Biblical. I recommend it for all who are interested in the Protestant view of Scripture. The 20th question in the Topic is:

Whether the Scriptures (or God speaking in them) are the supreme and infallible judge of controversies and the interpreter of the Scriptures. Or whether the church or the Roman Pontiff is. We affirm the former and deny the latter against the papists. 

He then says:

This is a primary question and almost the only one on account of which all the other controversies about the Scriptures started. From no other cause is either that authority of Scriptures called in question by the papists or their integrity and purity attacked or their perspicuity and perfection argued against, than to prove the Scriptures cannot be the judge of controversies and the necessity of having recourse to the tribunal of the church. 

He then gives seven reasons why Scripture is the supreme and infallible judge.

First, “God in the Old and New Testaments absolutely and unconditionally sends us to this judge.”

Second, “The practice of Christ and his apostles confirms this for in controversies of faith they appeal to the Scriptures.”

Third:

A supreme and infallible judge is one who never errs in judgment, nor is he able to err; is uninfluenced by prejudice and from whom is no appeal. Now these requisites can be found neither in the church, nor councils, nor pope, for they can both err and often have erred most egregiously.

Fourth:

Man cannot be the infallible interpreter of the Scriptures and judge of controversies because he liable to error. Our faith cannot be placed in him, but upon God alone from whom depends the sense and meaning of the Scriptures and who is the best interpreter of his own words. 

Fifth:

If there was such a judge as the papists maintain: (a)  it is a wonder that the Lord never mentions this interpreter who is so essential; (b) that Paul in his epistles…does not inform them even by a single word of so great a privilege; (c) that Peter in his catholic epistles did not arrogate this as about to be transmitted to his successors, much less exercise it; (d) that the popes were neither able nor willing by that infallible authority to settle the various most important controversies which the Romish church cherished in her own bosom (i.e., between the Thomists and the Scotists, the Dominicans and the Jesuits, the Jesuits and Jansenists, etc.). 

Sixth:

The church cannot be regarded as the judge of controversies because she would be a judge in her own cause and the rule of herself.  For the chief controversy is about the power and infallibility of the church, when the very question is whether the church is the judge, or whether the church can err. 

Seventh, “the ancients here agree with us.” Turretin then goes on to quote church fathers who agree that the Scriptures are the final judge.

Here are a couple of other quotes from this section and the next, which is on what authority the church fathers should have in the church. All parentheses are his.

When we say that the Scriptures are the judge of controversies, we mean it in no other sense than that they are the source of divine right, and the most absolute rule of faith by which all controversies of faith can and should be certainly and perspicuously settled. 

The orthodox (although they hold the fathers in great estimation and think them very useful to a knowledge of the history of the ancient church, and our opinion on cardinal doctrines may agree with them) yet deny that their authority, whether as individuals or taken together, can be called authoritative in matter of faith and the interpretation of the Scriptures, so that by their judgment we must stand or fall. Their authority is only ecclesiastical and subordinate to the Scriptures and of no weight except so far as they with them. 

Therefore we gather that the fathers neither can nor ought to be regarded as judges in our controversies, but as witnesses who (by their wonderful consent) give testimony to the truth of Christianity and prove (by their silence or even by weighty reasons) the falsity of the doctrines introduced by the papists beyond and contrary to the Scriptures. Their writings must be respectfully received and read with profit. Yet at the same time they cannot have any other than our ecclesiastical and human authority (i.e., subordinate and dependent on the Scriptures.