One of the highlights of the Spring semester is the opportunity to read through and discuss the Belgic Confession. Yesterday, as we worked through articles 24–27 a theme emerged. One of the great differences between the Roman communion and the Reformed communions is the restraints placed on the visible church by the Word of God in the Reformed confession. This is not true so in the Roman communions nor is it so in many evangelical nor, in some ways, in Anglican communions, where the Word of God does not have the same regulative or normative authority. The unique, magisterial, normative authority of authority touches just about everything in the Christian faith. Rome, which confesses that Scripture is God’s Word also confesses that unwritten Apostolic tradition is also God’s Word. What is this tradition? It is whatever the papacy says it is. Pius IX (1801–1900) declared, “Tradition—I am tradition.” Louis XIV steams in his grave (“L’etat c’est moi”). The ways the Roman communion relates ecclesiastical authority to Scripture (tradition trumps Scripture), means that she can do whatever she will.
When Christians do not recognize and heed the regulatory authority of Scripture, God’s people are never free from the tyranny of good ideas. In the medieval church it was widely assumed among the theologians that the nature of things is such that God cannot say of anyone “just” unless that one is actually, inherently, intrinsically just. So the church developed a sacramental system to accomplish that end. Where our Lord (as Rome concedes) instituted only two sacraments (holy baptism and holy communion), in the 13th century, Rome instituted five additional sacraments (confirmation, penance, extreme unction, holy orders, and marriage). The underlying theory is that our standing with God is contingent upon grace and our cooperation with grace unto the accumulation of sanctity, inherent righteousness, and merit, then there must be a sufficient dispensation of grace. Seven is the perfect number, which is explains why indulgences (which still exist) have never been elevated formally to sacramental status. The medieval church elaborated on the divine sacraments. There is no biblical warrant for the five false sacraments. There is no evidence that these were observed in the New Testament or even by the early church. They were “sacramentals,” popular elaborations upon the divinely-instituted sacraments, which were not formally recognized in the church as sacraments until the late 13th century and not finally imposed unequivocally until the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The result of Rome’s elaboration upon the divine institution? Luther called it the “Babylonian Captivity” of the church. When good intentions replace the unique, ruling (magisterial) normative authority of holy Scripture, the result is always bondage.
In evangelical circles this happens in less obvious ways. In contemporary evangelicalism the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) is a form of bondage. Scripture nowhere teaches that we should be listening for extra-canonical revelation but in some circles it is dogma that the Lord speaks in a “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11–13 (KJV). It does not matter that such an interpretation is a manifest abuse of Scripture it is the major premise for much modern evangelical piety:
1. Christians hear the still small voice of God.
2. I hear the still small voice.
3. Ergo I am a Christian.
The first (major) premise is false. Thus, the second (middle) premise is therefore false but Christians nevertheless live in bondage to the quest for immediate, extra-canonical revelation from God thereby effectively denying the sufficiency of Scripture. Have not the escapades of the last 25 yers (e.g., the Kansas City Prophets et al) illustrated the folly of marginalizing Scripture in favor of claims of continuing revelation?
Under Belgic art. 24 we noted how the medieval church effectively concluded that the gospel is insufficient to produce the desired outcome (sanctity). Thus, Christians were placed under the law of grace and cooperation with grace. Consider for a moment how self-defeating that is. Paul says, “It it is by grace then it is no more by works” (Rom 11:6). “Cooperation with grace,” whether we say it is for justification or whether for salvation, is works. Let us say that someone concedes justification by grace alone (sola gratia) but then says that salvation i.e., justification and sanctification, is partly on the basis of or through works (cooperation with grace). They have defeated grace (as if that were possible). What good is such a “justification”? In the nature of such a case, such a justification (if we may even call it that) is only provisional since, if one does not produce sufficient works, it shall have been for nought. As the man said, you gotta serve somebody, it might be the covenant of works or it might be the covenant of grace, but you gotta serve somebody.
Belgic 24 would have us think quite differently. “Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.” The gospel, the covenant of grace, frees us from the condemnation of the law and from the covenant of works. In Reformed theology, Jesus has fulfilled the covenant of works. He has not made salvation merely possible for those who do their part (i.e., cooperate sufficiently with grace) but as at the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), he has saved helpless sinners who could not and would not save themselves. This is why we confess that both our justification and our salvation are by grace alone through faith alone (sola fide). We confess that we are justified “even before we do good works” and “Moreover, although we do good works we do not base our salvation on them; for we cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment.”
In Belgic 25 we confess that we are free from all the “ceremonies and symbols of the law,” i.e., the types and shadows of the Old Testament and the civil and ceremonial (religious) laws and regulations. The church of the holy elaboration always wants to take us back to the types and shadows. It always undermines the freedom of grace and the liberty of the New Covenant. We have, we confess “the substance” of what was promised in the types and shadows: Christ. We no longer need the shadows, but the elaborators seek to take us backwards in redemptive history. This is not just a problem for Romanists. It is a problem for Protestants too. Imagine that you were giving Irenaeus and Calvin and Turretin a guided-tour of your church building. What would they say? What types and shadows would they see?
The Bishop of Rome calls himself “Pontifex Maximus,” i.e., High Priest, which was the title of the pre-Christian pagan Roman priest. This is another elaboration. It marginalizes the true and only High Priest: Jesus. Read the book of Hebrews very slowly and carefully and tell me that the author would have thought that it was a good idea that, having been freed from the daily Levitical sacrifice by once-for-all sacrifice of Christ as the Lamb of God, we should institute a so-called “New Covenant priesthood,” complete with a daily, memorial, propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Such an idea is ridiculous on its face. Yet, that is exactly what happened. In the 9th century Radbertus gave us the theory of transubstantiation and in 1215 the 4th Lateran Council made it law and used it to justify their doctrine of a memorial, bloodless, eucharistic sacrfice, which is an utter repudiation of the book of Hebrews. Some evangelicals are almost as guilty, however. Those (classic and modified) Dispensationalists who look forward to the re-building of a temple in Jerusalem and to the re-institution of a memorial sacrificial system, are nearly as guilty of excising Hebrews from the canon in favor of another holy elaboration beyond Scripture. In Belgic art. 26, we confess, with Hebrews, that Jesus is the only Mediator, that Mary is no “mediatrix” (which Rome teaches). He alone is the God-Man who stands before the Father for us. He is sufficient. His ministry is sufficient. His death is sufficient. It needs no elaboration.
In principle, the Reformation was rejection of well-intended but unauthorized elaborations. When we say sola Scriptura we are saying, in part, that Scripture is enough and that, unless God has commanded it, the church has no authority to impose a doctrine or practice, however beneficial it may seem at the time. The unique magisterial authority of Scripture means that we are free from ostensible additions to Christ’s finished work for our salvation. It means that we are free from the quest for ongoing (extra-canonical) revelation. We are free the return to types and shadows. We are free a “New Covenant priesthood” and new memorial sacrifices whether now or postponed until the millennium.
In this Luther Year, this 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, let us take the opportunity to think critically about the ways we, even in confessional Reformed congregations, have wandered in our piety and practice from the original understanding of Scripture as we confess it. Let us embrace the true, original understanding of semper Reformanda by always returning again to the Word of God as we confess it for our theology, piety, and practice.