All Heretics Quote Scripture

An HB Classic

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]

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  1. This question is perhaps tangential to the broader context of this post but very relevant to the matter raised in it of Scripture’s sovereignty over the church.

    Where can one find the sturdiest critiques (from a Reformed perspective) of Brevard S. Childs’ approach to canonical analysis?

    I ask this question here because a) views of canonical authority in the tradition of Childs seem to be the dominant ones at the seminary in which I am enrolled (Wycliffe College in Toronto), b) I am temporarily residing in Japan where I do not have access to theological libraries and, c) I find myself turning more and more to online resources from WSC circles for answers to the increasingly dominant question(s) in my life: “Why do I feel betrayed by my evangelical heritage? (And what should I do about it?)”

  2. Hi Luke,

    I’m probably not the best one to address this question. You might do better to write to Bryan Estelle.

    I’ve read Childs with profit (I’m thinking of his Exodus commentary). Frankly, I ignore the critical stuff and pay attention to his “canonical approach.”

    What is it exactly that troubles you?

    Have you read Horton’s Covenant and Eschatology?

  3. There are some folks at my church (a PCA trying to recover the reformed confession!) who use Kay Arthur studies/method. I’m familiar with her and would consider her to be in the subjectivist category as described in your article. Thus, I would prefer her studies not be used. I don;t use them. Am I on track with this analysis?

  4. Hi Chris,

    I should think that Kay’s study materials would probably not pass the WCF test on a couple of levels. There are LOTS of good Bible Study materials out there. A Reformed congregation should have no need to rely on KA.

    • Would you be willing to list some Bible Study materials that you would put into the “good” and “confessional” categories? Either just listing some here – or maybe even a whole article on that topic?

  5. Many thanks for your reply. I’m afraid I really didn’t frame my question very well at all.

    I also have found profitable the applications of Childs’ canonical analysis to OT interpretation (I have in mind his student, Christopher R. Seitz’s article on the twelve “minor prophets”). However, I get the sense that while Childs and those following in his steps have accomplished a wonderful feat in bringing back to mainstream scholarship an emphasis on interpreting Scripture within the canonical structure in which it has been handed down, they have done so by effectively transfering (even if they might deny doing so) the source of canonical authority from the prophets and apostles to the “community of faith.” In other words, I get a sense that they are ascribing to the church (they seem to prefer the term “community of faith”) not only the role of interpreting Scripture, but also of shaping it or even authenticating it. These authors speak of a “canonical process,” and I am trying to weigh statements like: “Serious discussion about whether or not this or that text is ‘authentic’ does not play out against the backdrop of moral urgency it once did, in part because we have come to see the key role tradents and the community have in shaping the prophetic word” against statements like: “The community does not add its own corrections and supplements: that is too reductionist a view of God’s word spoken” (both of the above statements are taken from the same paragraph in the above mentioned article by Seitz).

    My suspicions and reservations may very well turn out to be unfounded, but I would very much like to get a better grasp of the issue before I have to write anymore exegesis papers.

    (I regret to say that I have not yet had an opportunity to read Horton’s “Covenant and Eschatology” but that, as well as a number of other books by him, your own “Recovering the Reformed Confession,” and Kim Riddlebarger’s “A Case for Amillennialism,” are all
    on my “books to buy when I get back to Canada” list.)

  6. Luke,

    This is a reasonable concern. This isn’t my field so….

    In the contemporary academy it’s pretty difficult to stand up and say, “Listen here, this text wants to be regarded as having been given by God through human agents and that is how the church has historically received it and that’s how the believing church continues to receive it.”

    So the move it typically to relocate the authority of the text to a subjective place. The text is authorized by a community. In that case the community forms the the norm and norms the text. The community elects the text.

    Historically, it was the other way round. The text founds and forms the community and norms the reader.

  7. Vanhoozer, in his Drama of Doctrine, deals with this issue specifically, and at great length. I’ve found it to be extremely helpful when thinking about this issue, but less than helpful when thinking about other tangential issues (which I don’t have the time or brain power to go into). I don’t think any semi-orthodox STogian has dealt with postliberal hermeneutics to the extent that Vanhoozer has. You might want to add it to your Canada book list.

  8. Quick question, Dr. Clark,

    For those of us who are too poor to buy another book, are your lectures on Sermon Audio basically a broad outline of the book? I realize there is more in the book than in the audio, but did you significantly rework any of the points you made in those lectures?

  9. Ben,

    You can get the book via inter-library loan for free from virtually any public or private library. If you ask your local library to order the book for their collection they can do that too.

    The WSC bookstore has the book on sale for $17.36.

    It’s a 340+ page book. No the lectures do not really do justice to the material. The lectures are really just a sketch.

  10. Thanks. Our library seems to be a bit slow in getting some books. I’ll have to ask them. $17 is a bit pricey for me right now, oddly enough.

  11. Dear Dr Clark,

    I really enjoyed reading RRC and found a lot of its arguments really penetrating. It lead me to a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Reformed faith. I particularly appreciated the way you show the Reformed have tried to steer a channel between the Church being above criticism from the Bible and the Bible being at the mercy of the private interpreter. At first glance, there is a lot to like about the idea of the Church being the divinely instituted interpretative community, not least of all that it certainly appears biblical to me.

    Where I get stuck, and where you might be able to help me is when important doctrinal disagreements crop up within the church itself, and appeal to the scriptures, or even the fathers don’t seem to help very much. Obviously certain churches have confessed the Reformed faith and that carries a good deal of weight for me; godly people over a number of centuries, after thorough discussion have concluded that that is what the Bible is saying. But equally many churches have confessed the Book of Concord and I suppose many of them were godly, learned etc.

    The fall back options all seem a little unsatisfactory. Either, it seems to me, I go on what I think the scriptures are saying, and I weigh the arguements for myself and make my decision. But in that case I think I probably end up with a bit of a hotch potch, more Lutheran on the Law, more Reformed in my Christology and probably a Baptist on the sacraments. Good luck founding my denomenation of 1.

    Alternatively I can take a bit of a leap of faith and say I think Christianity in at least a reasonably pure form must have been practised at some point in the past and I think the Reformed are right most often so I almost take it on implicit faith that I’ve got it wrong and the reformed arguments for infant baptism really are right.

    Finally, I could say that there really are only a few post reformation essentials that the whole church has confessed, justification, an ordinary means based spirituality etc and try and come up with some kind of “mere protestantism” where serious matters like ecclesiology are necessarily set aside until we can all come to an agreement. Not a satisfactory option either.

    There must be a better way around this issue and I would be really thankful if you can help me find it.

    • Ed,

      Let me question what seems to be an unstated premise in your post: that the Scriptures are either not sufficient or not sufficiently clear to resolve a significant question between two confessions.

      I don’t accept that premise. Scripture is sufficient and sufficiently clear for every significant question between confessional traditions. We do have to work at it (see below) but it can be done. Scripture was given for that purpose. It wants us to interpret it, to compare Scripture with Scripture, to read it with the church, and to submit to it. It can be done. It has been done. That’s why there are competing traditions.

      I also think there might be another premise lurking in your post, that if it’s a hard question then we may punt. I don’t think so. E.g., Either Christ’s two natures are such that his humanity is transformed by his deity or it isn’t. What does Scripture say? It says, “like us in every respect, sin excepted.” In other words, making the decisions between two confessional claims is difficult but life is hard.

      Whether people are godly is not the determining factor. We did not reject Rome because she was impious (although she did admit in council that she was impious!). The church historically confessed that truth is objective and can be known.

      I don’t think that an eclectic theology is in any way necessary! The answer is more study. Eclecticism, if I may be blunt here, is a sign of laziness. I say that because, in my experience, (e.g., Wheaton and previous evangelical experience and now teaching at sem for 16 years) it means that you haven’t really taken the claims of any one tradition seriously enough to wrestle with its claims on its own terms. At the same time, you may be setting up tensions where they don’t exist. E.g., I don’t quite know what you mean when you say “Lutheran on the law.” Are you assuming something here that isn’t true? On the sacraments, either the covenant of grace with Abraham is still in force or it isn’t. If it is, then infants are still being initiated into the covenant community and that is what Peter says in Acts 2: the promise is to you and to your children and to gentiles who are being brought in. That’s the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17. What’s the issue. Again, the Lutherans and the Reformed agree on paedobaptism but the Baptists, because of their over-realized eschatology and misunderstanding of Jeremiah (where they ignore his contrast between MOSES and the new covenant and assume that Jeremiah must also include Abraham in the contrast) on the new covenant dissent from the entire history of the church.

      The fall back options all seem a little unsatisfactory. Either, it seems to me, I go on what I think the scriptures are saying, and I weigh the arguements for myself and make my decision. But in that case I think I probably end up with a bit of a hotch potch, more Lutheran on the Law, more Reformed in my Christology and probably a Baptist on the sacraments. Good luck founding my denomenation of 1.

      Alternatively I can take a bit of a leap of faith and say I think Christianity in at least a reasonably pure form must have been practised at some point in the past and I think the Reformed are right most often so I almost take it on implicit faith that I’ve got it wrong and the reformed arguments for infant baptism really are right.

      Your instinct is right. There is an alternative: the Reformed confession. Keep pressing on. You’ll get there. It’s painful. It’s a paradigm change. It’s counter cultural but, to paraphrase the old Nixon campaign slogan, in your heart you know it’s right.

    • Dear Dr Clark,

      Thank you for your friendly exhortation. I assure you I will keep studying. Since you’ve posted three articles and made a few substantive points, I couldn’t possibly do justice to what you’ve said in all beyond saying that I do believe in the clarity and sufficiency of scripture, and thank you for pointing out a place where that belief isn’t being worked through, that I have made my best efforts to understand the reformed model as best I can and have even been persuaded of it in the past – I could ask if you know of some places where a few of my key questions are dealt with, but I don’t want to waste your time – though I’ll confess that even with a fair bit of reading I’ve never quite “got” Lutheranism. On the topic of being Lutheran on the Law I suppose I mean I am in substantial agreement with what Luther says in “How Christians should view Moses” where he seems to say that nothing of the Mosaic covenant, not even the ten commandments, are binding on Christians except insofar as they are part of the natural law (and I might add ‘or mentioned in the NT’). That obviously leads our Lutheran brethren to certain views on things like the Lord’s Day or the way to apply what for Reformed people is the second commandment which as far as I understand it put one far beyond the pale of any confessional understanding of the Reformed faith. I’d love to hear if that I’m assuming something which isn’t true but they seem like two fundamentally different ways of approaching the Law.

      Thanks again for your kind and respectful interaction.

  12. Even the devil himself quoted Scripture…and to the Lord Himself.

    That’s why we don’t pull the text off the page. We pull the gospel out of the text.

  13. I understand the painful nature and mind straining experience from trying to come to understand what is true.

    When it comes to infant baptism, at the present moment it makes more sense to me. I say that because being part of the covenant community requires certain things from believers, and those outside of it are not expected to follow it (how can they?); so how can you require children to do things like pray (an act of worship), read the Scriptures, teach them to love God (how can you do that with someone outside the only community which loves God?), and behave in a distinctively Christian way if they are outside the covenant community? It seems more consistent to let children decide (or better, to wait for some profession when older) if they want to attend church, participate in family worship, or do other distinctively Christian activities if you don’t have them as part of the covenant community. Paul says to children, that they are to be obedient in all thing to their parents, for this is pleasing to the Lord; how can we be found to be pleasing without being a part of the community? Are there works outside of Christ that are pleasing to Him? Paul quotes one of ten commandments to children, and then refers to the promise associated with it; how can such promises be given to those outside the community?

    • The other thing I forgot to mention is the lack of individuality, at least in what I can see, from the culture in which Christianity sprang. These people had close family bonds and practiced “arranged” marriages; to do something outside the family or to leave the family seems to have been a more serious action than it is today.

      I wonder if those that want a little of this and a little of that from different traditions, are also the most schismatic? The product seems to end up being an independent church that seems to think of itself necessary because in all these 2000 years of Christianity, no one has got it right.

    • Dear Alberto,

      Your point is well seen. In fact, one of the things that most put me off adopting the Baptist position was the weakness of most Baptist thinking in terms of a theology of children and childhood. Usually Baptists don’t seem to get much past that babies born to believers are vipers in diapers and need converting.

      The passages and social realities to which you have alluded would certainly be a coup de grace to such reductionisms. Nonetheless I wonder whether Baptists could retain the option of a little more nuance than that, nuance which could do justice to the right concerns you raise. What if the children of believers have something more like the status of catechumens? In that case they are not completely disassociated from the church and yet are not fully initiated into it. In that case they may properly be taught to pray, to love God and to believe the Gospel whilst still acknowledging that they may or may not yet be believers. In that case the rationale for instituting a new ceremony such as confirmation is lost because the full membership of the church which follows public profession includes not only access to the Lord’s Table, but to the Church’s sacramental life more generally.

      I acknowledge that this position is contrary to what is taught in the Reformed confession and offer it simply as an answer to Alberto’s question. I accept that, this being a blog for advancing the Reformed confession, Scott has every right to delete it if it seems good to him.

  14. Ed,

    One brief response. You’ve quite misunderstood Luther! He was NOT antinomian. He strongly affirmed the abiding validity of the moral law against the antinomians in the late 20s and early 30s. He wrote extensively against them and in his catechism clearly taught the abiding validity of the 10 commandments. This is why I say that the eclectic method you’re using is leading to bad results. You must study the competing confessions on their own terms and judge them by God’s perspicuous Word. I fear that you are taking short cuts, which is not helping you to resolve these issues. The Reformed and Lutherans don’t really disagree substantially on the abiding validity of the moral law. Calvin never thought that he disagreed with Luther on the Law. That was never a point of discussion or controversy. He doesn’t even hint at it.

    • Dear Dr Clark,

      Naturally as a professional church historian I take it for granted that you know your stuff much better than I do. I hope you will grant that statements like “That Moses does not bind the Gentiles can be proved from Exodus 20:1, where God himself speaks, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” This text makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us. For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews. The sectarian spirits want to saddle us with Moses and all the commandments. We will just skip that. We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the New Testament and the natural law. Therefore it is clear enough that Moses is the lawgiver of the Jews and not of the Gentiles.” are at least open to a somewhat understandable misunderstanding in the direction I took them.

      I’m well aware that Luther uses the decalogue in his catechisms and I’ve read with some profit his treatise on good works which is similarly based on the decalogue, but it does appear that Lutherans view the ten commandments as continuing to apply more because they are a reasonable summary of natural law – and even then the fourth commandment comes in for substantial reinterpretation – than because of anything about their place in the Mosaic covenant. I’m also aware that Lutherans very often seem to use the term “the law” when they seem to be referring not so much to Law of Moses as to moral aspect of the Bible’s teaching in either testament. I’m trying hard to understand Lutheranism in its own terms and I’m aware that the 1525 sermon isn’t a confessional document, but when I see confessional Lutherans answer questions about the decalogue they do seem to point to it all the time. See for example here: where every single answer references that sermon and one even says that “the ten commandments don’t apply to us” at least in as much as they are the ten commandments. If I can’t take it from confessional Lutherans, who can I take it from?

      I’m sure you have better things to do than to answer my questions on the Lutheran view on the Law of Moses, but I’m really willing to read anything you think can clear up my confusion. Perhaps if I could ask for an answer to a question it would be what you think it looks like to study the competing questions on their own terms. In this matter, for example I’ve done my best to read what Luther says, I’ve observed how Confessional Lutherans seem to answer questions about these sorts of things. I’ve read the Catechisms and the formulae of concord and done my best to understand what they’re trying to say. Short of going to a Lutheran Church and meeting Lutherans themselves (as far as I can tell, Lutheranism is next to non-existent in England and has been for a long, long time), what should I do to correct my method?

  15. Ed,

    There is a widespread misperception of Luther’s understanding of the law. Here is a very helpful account:

    Luther was distinguishing between the various aspects of the Mosaic law, which was 613 commandments. Historically the church has distinguished between the moral law, which is grounded in natural law, the ceremonial law (worship), and the civil law.

    The Reformed did not apply the 10 commandments because they were Mosaic but because they were natural.

    Luther, Calvin, and the Reformed did not disagree about this.

    The Reformed agreed with Luther that the law, insofar as it is Mosaic, is no longer in force. This is what the Westminster Assembly concluded in WCF ch 19.

    • Dear Dr Clark,

      Thank you for the recommendation, I’ll give that a look and read the essay.

      Just to clarify, then, would the difference between Reformed and Lutheran on the Sabbath not be a difference in principle so much as in the application of that principle?

  16. How do we, in the Reformed community, respond when this very quote [“All heretics quote Scripture”] is directed at us?

    I have been informed by more than one person now that heretics not only “quote Scripture” but also appeal to “Sola Scriptura” as their sole authority divorced from centuries of The Church and it’s interpretation. Not to mention, that the RPW and Sola Scriptura (upon which the RPW depends) only make sense if Jesus Christ never founded a church [presumably the of Rome].

    RC Sproul is quoted & re-quoted as saying that the canon of Scripture “is a fallible list of infallible books.” If Rome erred so badly for so long, how do we know Rome didn’t err with respect to the New Testament? I do not struggle with these things per se because I am Confessional but I am curious how to respond without sounding like a broken record saying “because the Bible tells me so” or “that what the Standards say, so there!”

    • Hey Jess,

      Well, we’re catholics. We interpret the Bible with the church. So, we’re not just making up things as we go along. The Scripture is normative but it has to be read and it has been read (interpreted) with the church and we’ve consolidated that interpretation with the church in the confessions.

      Can we have absolute, ontological certainty that we’ve gotten everything right? No, but great consensus on creation, humanity, fall, Christ, Trinity, and salvation is very comforting.

      Rome didn’t make the canon. The early church gradually received and recognized the 27 books that compose the NT as having intrinsic marks of canonicity. In that sense the canon is self-attesting. The church did not make the canon in some committee room. The church, over time, in various places, but quite early and rather unanimously (with a few minor exceptions) received most of the NT quite early (by the middle of the 2nd century).

  17. Dr. Clark,

    On your post above related to the clarity of Scripture. Would you be willing to go so far as to say that all Scripture is perspicuous? It seems to me that the WCF’s statement of perspicuity on matters relating to salvation is often taken to mean that anyone who holds that all Scripture is perspicuitous is beyond the confessional bounds. Is plenary perspicuity–defined to mean that all that Scripture conveys in all of its teachings can be understood by all believers–a position that places one ouside of the WCF? If I recall, Luther argued for perspicuity of all Scripture in the Preface of his Articles that were condemned by Pope Leo X. (By the way, I do not think anyone would disagree that Scripture possesses innate perspicuity, a clarity that inheres Scripture apart from the reader, a clarity not imposed upon Scripture by interpretive frameworks, theological systems, reader’s experiences, nor emotional or rationalistic responses.)

    Perhaps you have read:

    The book is Edwards’ dissertation on the topic of how the early English Reformers viewed the perspicuity of Scripture.

    Edwards provides quite a compelling argument that the WCF statement seems to stop short of declaring all Scripture perspicuous. Yes, I realize that perspicuity does not mean all things in Scripture are easily discerned, nor can be discerned by all persons. Perhaps these caveats are at the root of the rationale behind the WCF’s treatment of perspicuity?


    • Hi Patrick,

      I’ve not read Edwards. I’m a little skeptical about a claim that the early English Reformers believed that all Scripture is equally perspicuous or that the Westminster Divines were markedly different in their view of Scripture than the earlier English Reformed. People are forever setting the earlier Reformation against the Westminster Divines because they don’t like the standards. I’m getting bored with the whole discussion because it isn’t usually historical. It’s usually folks trying justify their own views, which is dogmatics, not history.

      I don’t see any strong reason to vary what the WCF. Are Scriptures are not alike plain in themselves. Who knows what “baptism for the dead” means? There are passages that might mean one thing or might mean another. Calvin takes that approach frequently.

      What we must know for the Christian life and faith, we can know. What we don’t need to know, we don’t need to know.

  18. Dr. Clark: The things that Jess mentions are something I’ve been hearing a lot lately, so I decided to throw out a few thoughts (I’d appreciate your critique if you disagree).

    I think we need to look past the subterfuge that apologists of Rome use when they write or speak for an American evangelical audience. One of the ways we could define the Church is as all those who believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Catholics may say they agree that the Bible is the Word of God, but they would define the Church as a human organization established and preserved by Christ by the means of Apostolic succession, ect (the Magisterium). So, as Reformed, I would read a verse where Christ promises to preserve his Church as meaning that there will always be those who hear and obey the voice of their shepherd (Scripture), where a Catholic would read this as meaning that the Church of Rome will always exist (even if it’s teaching is contrary to the Word of God). In my understanding, for Rome, there are three primary authorities in the Church, for example, consider; “It is clear therefore that…sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others” (Catholic Catechism) and: “…it is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence”(Dei Verbum). Also, they believe in continuing revelation, the Magisterium is guided by the Holy Spirit, (this is how they explain the fact that they teach doctrines today that are not found in the Fathers or early Church), for example: “…through…those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her”(Dei Verbum). The problem with this is when the Magisterium is considered a co-authority with Scripture, inevitably it becomes a ruler over Scripture (the very Word of God) in practice. For example, a Catholic would say that the Magisterium (Church) defined the Canon, whereas we might say the Church is defined as those who recognize the books of the Bible as the Voice of God. The Catholic Church is thus not a Christian Church in a sense, and neither does it have hope of reformation, as long as it defines itself this way. I think we need to realize this when listening to a Roman apologist, our difference with them is much more fundamental than whatever finer point is actually being discussed.

  19. Dr. Clark:
    Could you expand on what you mean when you say:

    “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”

    What kind of standing must they have?

    • Hi Mark,

      When I say “sect” I’m defining it the way it the Belgic Confession does in Art 29:

      We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of “the church.” We are not speaking here of the company of hypocrites who are mixed among the good in the church and who nonetheless are not part of it, even though they are physically there. But we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves “the church.”

      In that context “sect” almost certainly referred to the Anabaptist groups that flourished from the 1520s. These were groups that claimed ongoing revelation, that denied sola Scriptura and justification sola fide. There have often been such groups plaguing the church. Just because someone says “I have a word from God” doesn’t mean that we have drop everything we’re doing and take them seriously.

      I’m increasingly interested in the way the confessional Lutherans deal with just about everyone who isn’t confessional Lutheran: “You’re all a bunch of sects. Drop dead.” Now, I’m a little kinder and gentler than my confessional Lutheran cousins and probably willing to talk to a larger circle of people but I understand why they take that position.

      The same is true with those who appeal to Scripture. Not every appeal to Scripture is equally valid. Take the JWs. They couldn’t read a passage in its original context, according to original intent, to save their lives. If the claim of the group is prima facie nutty, then why can’t we dismiss it. There are more serious claims and questions that demand attention. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do apologetics. We should but we’re talking about when is it proper to consider revising doctrine.

      I do actually address this in RRC. There’s a section surveying an essay by John Murray on this. Machen wrote a great essay the “Creeds and Doctrinal Advance.” As Christians we begin with the perspicuity of Scripture. It’s clear enough to be understood for Christian doctrine and the Christian life. If an argument is Christian, that’s one thing. If an argument contradicts the catholic faith or leads us away from the faith, that’s another. Liberalism was an attack on the reliability of Scripture and basic Christian doctrine. So, Murray said, they have to get out of the church before we can talk to them. I would add that we should only talk to them if it’s useful.

      How did the Apostle John deal with the pre-Gnostic heretics who denied the humanity of Jesus? How patient was he with them? How tolerant did he tell the churches to be with them?

  20. Thanks for the excellent response, and a hearty amen to “I would add that we should only talk to them if it’s useful” 🙂 An excellent guiding principle.

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