Second Helvetic Confession: The Bible and Tradition

Here is the third post (post 1, post 2) on the Second Helvetic Confession. In chapter 2, Bullinger dives into the the relationship between Scripture and tradition. I have put some key phrases in bold.

THE TRUE INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE. The apostle peter has said that the Holy Scriptures are not of private interpretation (2 Pet. 1:20), and thus we do not allow all possible interpretations. Nor consequently do we acknowledge as the true or genuine interpretation of the Scriptures what is called the conception of the Roman Church, that is, what the defenders of the Roman Church plainly maintain should be thrust upon all for acceptance. But we hold that the interpretation of the Scripture to be orthodox and genuine which is gleaned from the Scriptures themselves (from the nature of the language in which they were written, likewise according to the circumstances in which they were set down, and expounded in the light of and unlike passages and of many and clearer passages) and which agree with the rule of faith and love, and contributes much to the glory of God and man’s salvation.

INTERPRETATIONS OF THE HOLY FATHERS. Wherefore we do not despise the interpretations of the holy Greek and Latin fathers, nor reject their disputations and treatises concerning sacred matters as far as they agree with the Scriptures; but we modestly dissent from them when they are found to set down things differing from, or altogether contrary to the Scriptures. Neither do we think that we do them any wrong in this matter; seeing that they all, with one consent, will not have their writings equated with the canonical Scriptures, but command us to prove how far they agree or disagree with them, and to accept what is in agreement and to reject what is in disagreement.

COUNCILS. And in the same order also we place the decrees and canons of councils.

Wherefore we do not permit ourselves, in controversies about religion or matters of faith, to urge our case with only the opinions of the fathers or decrees of councils; much less by received customs, or by the large number of those who share the same opinion, or by the prescription of a long time. Who Is The Judge? Therefore, we do not admit any other judge than God himself, who proclaims by the Holy Scriptures what is true, what is false, what is to be followed, or what to be avoided. So we do assent to the judgments of spiritual men which are drawn from the Word of God. Certainly Jeremiah and other prophets vehemently condemned the assemblies of priests which were set up against the law of God; and diligently admonished us that we should not listen to the fathers, or tread in their path who, walking in their own inventions, swerved from the law of God.

TRADITIONS OF MEN. Likewise we reject human traditions, even if they be adorned with high-sounding titles, as though they were divine and apostolical, delivered to the Church by the living voice of the apostles, and, as it were, through the hands of apostolical men to succeeding bishops which, when compared with the Scriptures, disagree with them; and by their disagreement show that they are not Apostolic at all. For as the apostles did not contradict themselves in doctrine, so the apostolic men did not set forth things contrary to the apostles. On the contrary, it would be wicked to assert that the apostles by a living voice delivered anything contrary to their writings. Paul affirms expressly that he taught the same things in all churches (I Cor. 4:17). And, again, “For we write you nothing but what you can read and understand.” (II Cor. 1:13). Also, in another place, he testifies that he and his disciples – that is, apostolic men – walked in the same way, and jointly by the same Spirit did all things (II Cor. 12:18). Moreover, the Jews in former times had the traditions of their elders; but these traditions were severely rejected by the Lord, indicating that the keeping of them hinders God’s law, and that God is worshipped in vain by such traditions (Matt. 15:1 ff.; Mark 7:1 ff).

There is nothing really surprising here. The reformed church has always held that Scripture is the final authority and that all doctrines of men, councils, and traditions are to be held up to Scripture to see if they agree. If they do not agree they are to be rejected.

Likewise the reformed church has always held tradition in high regard while keeping it subordinate to the Bible.

Finally, notice in the very first paragraph the key doctrine that Scripture is supposed to interpret Scripture.

Second Helvetic Confession: The Preaching of the Word of God


This is the continuation of the section on God’s Word from the Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 1.

THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.

Neither do we think that therefore the outward preaching is to be thought as fruitless because the instruction in true religion depends on the inward illumination of the Spirit, or because it is written “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor…, for they shall all know me” (Jer. 31:34), And “Neither he who plants nor he that waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (I Cor. 3:7). For although “No one can come to Christ unless he be drawn by the Father” (John 6:44), And unless the Holy Spirit inwardly illumines him, yet we know that it is surely the will of God that his Word should be preached outwardly also. God could indeed, by his Holy Spirit, or by the ministry of an angel, without the ministry of St. Peter, have taught Cornelius in the Acts; but, nevertheless, he refers him to Peter, of whom the angel speaking says, “He shall tell you what you ought to do.”

INWARD ILLUMINATION DOES NOT ELIMINATE EXTERNAL PREACHING. For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). And so in Phillippi, Paul preached the word outwardly to Lydia, a seller of purple goods; but the Lord inwardly opened the woman’s heart (Acts 16:14). And the same Paul, after a beautiful development of his thought, in Romans 10:17 at length comes to the conclusion, “So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of God by the preaching of Christ.”

At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, Even without the external ministry, for that is in his power; but we speak of the usual way of instructing men, delivered unto us from God, both by commandment and examples.

HERESIES. We therefore detest all the heresies of Artemon, the Manichaeans, the Valentinians, of Cerdon, and the Marcionites, who deny that the Scriptures proceeded from the Holy Spirit; or did not accept some parts of them, or interpolated and corrupted them.

This section of the confession does a good job of balancing the need for inward illumination with the normal means of grace, the preaching of the Word. The preaching of the Word does not eliminate the need for the Spirit and vice versa. Also the confession elevates the preaching of the Word to its proper place. Really a wonderful and unique part of this confession.

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.