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.