One of the Ecks (there were two) is (or was it Bob Godfrey?) reputed to have said (I can’t find the reference), “All heretics quote Scripture.” If he said it, he meant it as rebuke to Luther’s appeal to Scripture. Of course, Eck was formally correct. As Herman Bavinck wrote in his Reformed Dogmatics (1, 423):
Every sectarian and heretical school of thought initially begins with an appeal to Scripture against the confession, and would have us believe that its deviation from the doctrine of the church is required by Scripture. But in most cases further investigation leads to the admission that the confession of the church has the witness of Scripture on its side. (HT: Adam Myer).
So we have to distinguish between the Reformed appeal to Sola Scripture, i.e. to Scripture as the sole authority for faith the Christian life and the Roman view of authority and the sectarian view of authority.
In the Roman conception, all authority is mediated through the church, so that Scripture does not form the church but the church forms the Scripture. In the Roman view, Scripture does not norm the church so that, in a real sense, there is no possibility of genuine Reformation.
In the sectarian (whether rationalist or subjectivist or both) scheme, the private Bible reader is sovereign and autonomous. The Bible says what it says to the reader (subjectivism) or what it can mean (rationalism). To the rationalist (e.g., the Socinians, Thomas Jefferson, the liberals) it is either the case that the Bible is inherently defective because it was written from a mythological point of view or it the rationalist knows a priori what it can or can’t say. The reasoning goes like this: The Bible is reasonable, the doctrine the Trinity isn’t reasonable, ergo the Bible can’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity. To the subjectivist, it is the personal encounter with the text that norms all norms. The text means what it means to the reader. In both these schemes, the reader norms the text rather than the reverse.
According to the Reformed churches, the Bible is the Word of God. It norms all norms. Even though it is contrary to the spirit of the modern age we still hold that the Bible is sovereign over the church (contra Rome) and the reader (contra rationalism and subjectivism). We say that the Scriptures produced the church (not the reverse). The Scriptures fundamentally are the Word of God. That Word was given through human authors but that process of revelation was superintended by God the Spirit. It was Spirit speaking through prophets and apostles. There is a real humanity to Scripture but that humanity does not norm the divine authority, inspiration, integrity, or truthfulness of Scripture.
The churches do not create the canon or the Scriptures. Rather the churches simply receive the Scriptures and the canon. The Scriptures are divinely formed. Contra Rome the authority of the church is ministerial not magisterial. The same principle applies to the autonomous modern rationalist or subjectivist.
It’s true that the Bible must be read. This is where the church enters. Who gets to say what the Scriptures mean? Is it the sovereign rationalist or the sovereign subjectivist? No, it is the divinely instituted and constituted community of interpretation. Does that community (the church) norm the revelation? No. The revelation norms the community. At the same time we are not skeptical. The Scriptures can be understood because they are meant to be understood and interpreted and we are constituted to read and interpret Scripture. We do so, the Spirit helping us, illuminating the Word for us and witness to us that what the Scriptures teach is true.
This reciprocal process is what is meant by the slogan, ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. The church is Reformed by and according to God’s Word but that process is ongoing. This slogan does not mean, as it is often claimed, that to be truly Reformed is to be open to rejecting the Reformed faith! We’re Reformed because we believe it’s biblical but the history of the church shows that the churches do not always remain faithful to the Scriptures as confessed by the churches. In the modern period (since the early 18th century) there are several ways in which the Reformed churches have strayed from our confession and, thus, semper reformanda is a way of calling the church and her members back to what we confess whether it is in theology (e.g., covenant justification), or piety (e.g., the means of grace), or worship (e.g., the regulative principle).
All heretics quote Scripture. The gnostics did it. The Eutychians quoted Scripture. The Anabaptists quoted Scripture and the Socinians quoted Scripture. The ancient response of the church was, to use the language of Tertullian, to challenge the ground of our opponents’ appeal. What right do they have to quote Scripture or to claim an interpretation of Scripture. The church must always be open to re-thinking our confession, and, if it can be shown that we have erred (and popes and councils do err) we must always submit to Scripture but that doesn’t mean that we must always submit to every appeal to Scripture by every sect or sectarian who waves a Bible in our face. The church has to read the bible together and evaluate responsible arguments from God’s Word but those who make appeals from the Word to reform our theology, piety, and practice must have some standing to make that appeal. We submit to the Word not to the spirit of rationalism, subjectivism nor to we submit to illegitimate ecclesiastical authority.
You can read more about this in Recovering the Reformed Confession.
See also this excellent post by Todd Rester on Voetius’ argument against the Socinians.
[This post first appeared on the HB in 2008]