Well Done Phil!

“It seems odd, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1.

“Tradition is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it.” – J.I. Packer, “Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today,” JETS 25 (1982): 414

“Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.” – R. C. Sproul

“The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of our own time and place, but with the wider ‘communion of saints’ down through the age.” – Michael Horton, “What Still Keeps Us Apart?”

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“Sola Scriptura” is not the same as “Solo Scriptura”. A proper understanding of “Sola Scriptura” will not lead to an individualistic, “me and my Bible in the woods” approach to Bible interpretation. Because of Christ’s gifts to the Church through the centuries, we have the privilege of standing on the shoulders of giants.

On this theme, I loved reading Phil Johnson’s response (some time back) to a questioner at his Pyromaniacs blog site who asked:

Your identity as a “Baptist”; your endless quotations from Charles Spurgeon; your faithful devotion to John MacArthur; and especially your willingness to call yourself a “Calvinist” are all huge red flags that tell me something is seriously wrong with your theology. Why do you teach a system of doctrine that is named after a mere man? Why are you following human teachers instead of going to the Bible alone? After all, 1 John 2:27 says, “The anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you.” We ought to go to Scripture alone to establish our doctrine! The truth is in God’s Holy word, not in any theological system or theology textbook developed by mere men. Isn’t that principle what the Reformation was originally about? Sola Scriptura? Didn’t even Calvin himself go to Scripture for the truth instead of reading other men? I believe that if Calvin himself wrote for this blog, he would point people to the truth in God’s Holy word, not to a theology developed by some other man.

Phil’s reply: You have seriously misunderstood Sola Scriptura if you really imagine that it rules out human teachers or eliminates systematic theology. The Reformers (including Calvin) often cited the works of Augustine, Tertullian, Jerome, Cyprian, Ambrose, and others-ranging from the early church fathers through Aquinas. They didn’t follow any of them slavishly, of course, but they certainly took them seriously. Not one of the major Reformers would have tolerated the claim that because the Church Fathers were mere men they were therefore irrelevant or incapable of shedding any helpful light on tough theological questions.

Sola Scriptura means that Scripture alone is the final court of appeal in all matters of faith and practice. It is an affirmation that “the whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” and that “nothing at any time is to be added [to the Bible], whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” It recognizes that there is ultimately no higher spiritual authority than God’s Word, so “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 . . . it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

But none of that means we’re obliged to discard the wisdom of godly men from ages past and require each man to try to discern truth from scratch by reading nothing but Scripture by himself.

As for Calvin, he certainly did “point people to the truth in God’s Holy Word” – but one thing he did not do was steer people away from the important theologians of the past. In fact, Calvin’s works are filled with references to the Church Fathers – Augustine in particular. Calvin knew it was important to demonstrate that he was proposing nothing wholly novel and that his theology was in the doctrinal lineage of the greatest theologians of the church. He regarded himself as Augustinian, in precisely the same way many today think of themselves as “Calvinists.”

If Calvin wrote for this blog and someone responded to one of his posts by refusing to read what Augustine wrote, Calvin would probably write that person off as arrogant and unteachable.

Incidentally, 1 John 2:20, 27 is the apostle John’s response to an early outbreak of gnostic-flavored spiritual elitism. He was refuting some false teachers (he called them “antichrists”) who insisted that real truth is a deep secret, different from the apostolic message, into which people must be initiated by some anointed swami. The Holy Spirit indwells and anoints each believer, and He is the One who truly enlightens and enables us to understand truth. But He also gifts certain people with a particular ability to teach others (Romans 12:6-7; Ephesians 4:11). So while John was condemning the notion of enlightened masters in the style of Freemasonry and gnosticism, he was not making a blanket condemnation of teachers. He himself was a teacher.

Bonus (from Phil):

A follow-up message asks if I am suggesting it’s wrong for someone to abandon all books and human teachers and rely only on what he can glean from the Bible for himself. Answer: yes, I think that’s wrong because it’s arrogant and reflects a sinful kind of unteachability. This is my whole point: sola Scriptura doesn’t rule out the valid role of teaching in the church.

Furthermore, it is simply not the case that any common, unskilled, unschooled individual, sitting down with his Bible and no other tools, can expect to come to a full and mature understanding of Scripture without any help from godly teachers who understand some things better than he will ever get it on his own. Here’s Bernard Ramm’s famous response to the arrogance reflected in such a perversion of Sola Scriptura:

It is often asserted by devout people that they can know the Bible completely without helps. They preface their interpretations with a remark like this: “Dear friends, I have read no man’s book. I have consulted no man-made commentaries. I have gone right to the Bible to see what it had to say for itself.” This sounds very spiritual, and usually is seconded with “amens” from the audience.

But is this the pathway of wisdom? Does any man have either the right or the learning to by-pass all the godly learning of the church? We think not.

First, although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual it is a veiled egotism. It is a subtle affirmation that a man can adequately know the Bible apart from the untiring, godly, consecrated scholarship of men like [Athanasius,] Calvin, Bengel, Alford, Lange, Ellicott, or Moule…

Secondly, such a claim is the old confusion of the inspiration of the Spirit with the illumination of the Spirit. The function of the Spirit is not to communicate new truth or to instruct in matters unknown, but to illuminate what is revealed in Scripture. Suppose we select a list of words from Isaiah and ask a man who claims he can by-pass the godly learning of Christian scholarship if he can out of his own soul or prayer give their meaning or significance: Tyre, Zidon, Chittim, Sihor, Moab, Mahershalalhashbas, Calno, Carchemish, Hamath, Aiath, Migron, Michmash, Geba, Anathoth, Laish, Nob, and Gallim. He will find the only light he can get on these words is from a commentary or a Bible dictionary. [from Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970), pp. 17-18 (emphasis in original).]

3 thoughts on “Well Done Phil!

  1. “Some, under the pretence of being taught of the Spirit of God, refuse to be instructed by books or by living men. This is no honoring of the Spirit of God. It is disrespect to Him, for if He gives to some of His servants more light than to others – and it is clear that He does – then they are bound to give that light to others, and to use it for the good of the church. But if the other part of the church refuse to receive that light, to what end did the Spirit of God give it? This would imply that there is a mistake somewhere in the economy of God’s gifts and graces, which is managed by the Holy Spirit.”
    C. H. Spurgeon
    “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”
    Hebrews 13:7

  2. Thank you for a great post reminding us of the danger of setting ourselves free from the godly men and women of the past to whom we owe the continuation of the faith. God works the gift of salvation through the preaching of the Scriptures, which is itself the exposition of Holy Writ by a man. Preaching is not the mere reading of the Bible, but the explanation of it. Even the Apostles gave explanation to the Old Testament books, which is now contained in the New Testament.

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