A Walk through the 1689 Baptist Confession, pt.4: The Clarity, Availability, and Finality of Scripture

1689conf

Chapter 1: Of the Holy Scriptures, Paragraphs 7-10

7._____All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.

( 2 Peter 3:16; Psalms 19:7; Psalms 119:130)

8._____The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have a right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded in the fear of God to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and through patience and comfort of the Scriptures may have hope.

( Romans 3:2; Isaiah 8:20; Acts 15:15; John 5:39; 1 Corinthians 14:6, 9, 11, 12, 24, 28; Colossians 3:16 )

9._____The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.
( 2 Peter 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16)

10.____The supreme judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved.

( Matthew 22:29, 31, 32; Ephesians 2:20; Acts 28:23)

 

Understanding the Confession

The Clarity, Availability, and Finality of the Scriptures

I. The Clarity of Scripture (Para 7)

Three aspects on the clarity of Scripture.

The Bible is clear. The arguments for the clarity of Scripture must first be stated. First, it may be argued that the clarity of Scripture is part of its sufficiency (2 Timothy 3:16–17). It is ridiculous to say that the Scriptures are adequate to equip the man of God for every good work, if they are not clear enough for him to understand. Such writings would be sufficient for nothing at all. Second, the clarity of Scripture is presupposed in its ability to produce conviction (2 Timothy 3:14). The verb translated ‘become convinced of’ in the NASV means to feel confident, he convinced. It is clear from the connection with verse 15 that the Scriptures are the source of this conviction. The point is that one is never convinced of anything until it is clearly seen to be true.

Even truth will not produce conviction and confidence if it is presented obscurely. Since Scripture had produced not merely notions but convictions in Timothy, it must have been clear. Third, the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture is affirmed in many other places (Psalms 19:7–8; 119:105; 2 Peter 1:19; Proverbs 6:22–23; Deuteronomy 30:11–14).

The extent of the clarity of Scripture may also be treated here. The Confession speaks of this as ‘those things necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation’. Again, this is not intended to limit the clarity of Scripture to a few simple gospel truths. Such a minimizing mentality was foreign to these theologians. Rather, the evidence cited above shows that the clarity of Scripture is not to be limited so severely. Those things necessary for salvation in the minds of Westminster theologians must surely have included at least the central duties of the Christian life and good works. Such duties make up the way (Matthew 7:13–14) which leads to life.

The Bible is not equally clear in all its parts. Certainly the classic passage relevant to this point is 2 Peter 3:16. Here Peter (who wrote a few things that are hard to understand himself) asserts that in Paul’s writings there are things hard to understand. It must be noted that this assertion is carefully qualified by Peter. Only some things are hard to understand. Only the untaught and the unstable distort these things to their own destruction. Then Peter adds by way of further qualification that such people engage in this kind of distortion with reference to the rest of the Scriptures as well. This, of course, underscores the idea that the fault in such distortion does not lie in the obscurities of Paul’s writings, but in the untaught and unstable. Clearly the presence of such difficulties does not negate the practical sufficiency and clarity of the Word for its redemptive purpose.

The Bible is not equally clear to all. Again at this point 2 Timothy 3:15– 17 illustrates this point. Verse 15 asserts that the Scriptures are clear enough to give to a child the wisdom that leads to salvation. This is the implication of Paul’s statement that ‘from an infant’ (literally) Timothy had known the sacred writings that were able to give him the wisdom that leads to salvation. This is, of course, hyperbole. Infants know nothing about any writings, let alone the sacred writings. Paul means to say, however, that as soon as Timothy knew anything, he knew the Scriptures, and he knew them precisely as that body of writings which are able to make wise unto salvation even a child like Timothy. Verse 17 asserts that the Scriptures are clear enough to equip the man of God for every good work. There may be an intentional contrast between the child of verse 15 and the man of God in verse 17. At any rate it is instructive to observe what Paul mentions with regard to the man of God.

We are immediately confronted here with the question, ‘Who is the man of God?’ The evidence identifies the man of God not as any believer, but rather as one with an official position of ministry among the people of God. The man of God is the man entrusted with a special position of leadership in the church by God himself. It is the man among the people of God who is in some special way associated with God or identified with God. Three lines of thought converge to justify this conclusion.

1. There is the Old Testament usage. It is clear that in the Old Testament this designation was not used of all godly Israelites but reserved for those who led them.

2. There is the usage of 1 Timothy 6:11. It seems clear that in this entire context Paul is thinking of Timothy in his official ministerial capacity (1 Timothy 1:18; 5:17–25; 6:2,14, 17–18, 20).

3. There is the context of 2 Timothy 3:17. In the preceding verse Paul is definitely thinking of ministry. The Scriptures are profitable (as translated by the NIV) for teaching, rebuking, correction, and training—different facets of ministry of Timothy and every true pastor. In the succeeding verses the emphasis continues to be upon the ministry (2 Timothy 4:1–5).

The man of God may not simply be equated with every true believer. Hence, it is right to see in 2 Timothy 3:15–17 a reflection by Paul on the idea that the Bible is not equally clear to all. It is clear enough to enlighten even a child as to the way of salvation. It is clear enough to enlighten the man of God with reference to the whole range of his duties.

The sufficiency and clarity of Scripture do not, therefore, negate the necessity of the church’s ministry. This caution is most needed in our day. In the classic passage it is the clarity and sufficiency of the Scripture for the work of the pastor-teacher that is specifically emphasized. This fact alone ought to refute the smug independence from the ministry of the church often deduced in our day from the sufficiency of Scripture (see also Acts 8:30–31; 17:11; Ephesians 4:11–13). The following conclusions are warranted by these passages. These passages clearly underscore the sole and supreme authority of Scripture. There is no priestly authority invested in the ministry which makes pastors qualitatively different from other Christians. These passages also teach the practical necessity of the man of God in the life of the people of God. Though one cannot assert that the ministry of the church is absolutely crucial in the conversion of each individual, yet such ministry is often the means of conversion. More importantly, the pastor-teacher is crucial to the ongoing life of the church. One may speak of a general, practical necessity of the teaching ministry. Finally, these truths taken together clearly teach the complementary function of the Word of God and the man of God. The Scriptures do not permit us to despise or neglect either.

There are several practical implications. We must reject modern individualism. We need guides in the Scripture. We must maintain teachable, humble attitudes towards our instructors in the faith. We must receive their instruction and search the Scriptures. We must permit nothing unnecessarily to lessen our benefit from the public ministry of the Word. It ought to be a priority for every Christian to put himself and his family under a faithful ministry of the Word.

Several practical conclusions of great significance follow from the perfection, that is to say, the sufficiency and clarity, of the Scriptures. The first is the centrality of the Scriptures in Christian guidance. The Scriptures provide the key or secret to the discovery of God’s will for our lives. They are able to do this because they are a sufficient and clear guide to the entirety of God’s preceptive will for us. The wisdom clearly and completely contained in the Scriptures enables us to order our lives in a wise and God-pleasing fashion. In the light of the Scriptures and their wisdom even such knotty decisions as those concerning college, vocation, and marriage are made clear. It is to the Scriptures, therefore, that we must point those in need of the divine guidance promised in those same Scriptures (Psalm 25).

The perfection of Scripture must also obliterate all cynicism or skepticism with respect to the meaning or the proper interpretation of the Scriptures. Even professing Christians will sometimes say, ‘Great men of God have differed, so how can I expect to be certain of the meaning of Scripture at this point?’ How often the objection is raised ‘That’s only your interpretation!’ Such objections presuppose and imply the insufficiency and obscurity of the Scriptures. They are a denial of the perfection of Scripture. They are an assertion that when God spoke he muttered, stuttered, or stumbled. Such ideas are clearly rooted in rebellion against the God of Scripture. They are contradicted by the sufficiency and clarity the Bible ascribes to itself.

The perfection of the Scriptures means that the source of error in matters of faith and life is sin. This is not to say that every error is solely or equally caused by sin. It is to say that unfallen men would not be guilty of sins of ignorance with regard to what they believed or practiced. When the objection is raised ‘that great men of God have differed,’ the answer must be given that they were sinners none the less, and sinners with blind spots caused by their remaining sin.

The sufficiency and clarity of Scripture must be the presuppositions with which we confront every issue of faith and life. It is our duty and our privilege to expect that our duty on any issue of faith and life will be sufficiently and clearly revealed in the Scripture. Any approach to the practical study of the Bible not rooted in such a perspective is improper and must tend to be ineffective because it grieves the Spirit who breathed out the Scriptures. Issues like the Christian Sabbath, Believer’s baptism, and others—perplexing as they can sometimes appear—must not be regarded as insoluble. Since they are clearly matters of duty, we must regard the Scriptures as sufficient and clear enough to resolve them.

II. The Availability and Finality of Scripture

Does this chapter in the Confession support the doctrine of the unlimited inerrancy of Scripture?

By the phrase, ‘the unlimited inerrancy of Scripture’, I intend the notion that the Scripture is without error in all that it affirms. This is affirmed as over against those professed evangelicals who have opted for a view of Scripture which has been described as ‘infallibility rather than inerrancy’ or ‘limited inerrancy’. Such views have been espoused in order to allow for errors in the historical or scientific assertions of the Bible. It is difficult to deal patiently which such patently contradictory formulas as ‘infallibility rather than inerrancy’ or ‘limited inerrancy’. Language has rarely been used so dishonesty. The following assumes a more straightforward use of human language.

An ingenuous reading of this chapter must lead to the conclusion that its authors would have supported unlimited inerrancy were they part of the modern debate. To begin with, they speak of the Scriptures being ‘given by the inspiration of God’, ‘being of divine inspiration’, and finally, of their ‘being immediately inspired of God’ (1:2, 3, 8). Further, in the most conservative fashion they have no doubt about the exclusive canonicity of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments (1:2, 3). Also in the most conservative fashion they simply assert that Scripture ‘is the Word of God’ (1:4). Yet more, they speak of ‘the consent of all the parts’, the ‘incomparable excellencies and entire perfections’, and ‘the infallible truth’ of the Scripture (1:5). Clearly, they could not have believed that the Scriptures contradicted themselves or that their historical or scientific assertions were not reliable. Yet again in the most conservative fashion the Confession distinguishes between the ‘immediately inspired’ originals, which are the court of final appeal, and necessary, though human translations (1:8). Furthermore, in paragraphs 9 and 10 the Confession underlines the absolute finality and supremacy of Scripture. Scripture is ‘the infallible rule’ for deciding questions of interpretation and ‘the supreme judge’ for all other religious controversies. Such an understanding absolutely does not allow for calling into question the statements of Scripture on the basis of the dictums of modern science or historical research. Clearly, if given a choice between the statements of modern science or the assertions of the Bible, these authors would find in favour of the Bible every time. Such teaching is equivalent to unlimited inerrancy. Finally, if further evidence is needed, the reader may consult chapters 4:1–3, 19:1, and 22:7 of the Confession where, upon any fair reading of the text, a view of creation and Genesis 1–3 is assumed which today is everywhere associated with the strictest view of biblical inerrancy.

Clearly, there is no justification for the idea that either the London or the Westminster Confessions tolerate deviations from unlimited inerrancy. One further comment is, however, necessary. It is the purpose of creedal documents like the Confession to exclude error. Errors and heresies now exist which, however illegitimately, purport to hold the confessional position on Scripture and even adopt venerable theological language in which to express their erroneous teaching. Subtle heretics can make their position appear plausible to the unwary. The unfolding of error in history and the progress of the church’s understanding and ability to express truth in words does occasionally require that formulas once sufficient to exclude error be strengthened and clarified. There may indeed be room here to expand the confession to include the view of the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible, and its unlimited errancy in light of modern controversies.

 

Resources

1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. http://www.rblist.org/1689.pdf.

Waldron, Sam. A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. Durham, NC: Evangelical Press, 1999.

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