Submission to the authority of Scripture must not be seen as a matter of preference but of great necessity if one is to think rightly about God and the Christian faith. Michael Allen observed, "The Word of God is decisive precisely because humans left to their own devices are prone to idolatry, fashioning God according to their own conventions."1 Through a careful study on the doctrine of man, the Reformers concluded that man’s faulty presuppositions and cognitive dissonance is due to his depravity. They believed that such condition makes him unreliable especially in matters that pertain to the Christian faith. This realization caused them to affirm that Scripture alone should be the ultimate and final authority for faith and practice. Allen explained, "Reformed theology is systematic, not in the excessive sense of teasing out some first principle deductively but in the modest sense of showing the compatibility and lovely fittingness of all Christian teaching drawn from the one Word of God."2
Allen’s explanation on Reformed theology reveals the essence of the Reformed Scripture Principle as it relates to the ongoing role of church confessions, ecclesiastical authority, and Christian tradition in its various forms. Allen notes, "This concern to root theology in the practices of the church has been expressed by the term means of grace. Certain means, or instruments, have been set apart by God for the betterment of humanity."3 The Reformers believed that the development of confessions could contribute to that end. Allen explained, "Reformed theology is committed to the sole final authority of the Bible, to be read amongst the church and under the authority of her official confessions."4 The confessions they developed were crucial in awakening a desire among believers to uphold and defend the truth. They also served as a safeguard that protected believers from false doctrines that denied the sufficiency and efficacy of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. The Reformed confessions provided biblical grounds as to why salvation is by grace through faith alone. This is seen in the Belgic Confession (1561) where it states, "We justly say with Paul, that we are justified by faith alone, or by faith apart from works. However, to speak more clearly, we do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness."5 The doctrine of justification stated in the Belgic Confession is clearly derived from the word of God. The Apostle Paul himself defended this foundational truth, "Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified," (Gal 2:16). Paul was compelled to write a letter to the church in Galatia to reveal the heresy that was being taught by the Judaizers, who believed that salvation was to be achieved through circumcision and obedience to the Torah. But a careful study of the Scriptures reveals to us that purpose of the law is to show our sinfulness and the holy standard of God. Paul says, "So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith" (Gal 3:24). Without the law, we would not see our sinfulness and our need of a Savior. Therefore, God’s law should not be viewed as a means to salvation but as a mirror that reveals our depravity and inability to save ourselves (Rom 3:20).
It is also important to note that these confessions were also "an extension of pastoral authority, wherein the elders of a Reformed church exercise leadership in shaping the form of the church’s common life according to the Gospel."6 Thus, it is vital to see how the Reformed Scripture Principle relates to ecclesiastical authority. Allen notes, "Pastoral authority is itself an extension of the sovereignty of the Word and his written words in Holy Scripture."7 The Reformers saw the need to base church structure and leadership on this principle to ensure the welfare and growth of the church. The Westminster Confession of Faith echoes: "All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both."8 The affirmation of the authority of Scripture in this regard protected Reformed churches from abusive authority and heretical teachings. The church was not ruled by a single individual but by qualified elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7). This provided accountability and transparency in church administration and membership. It is also important to note that this form of leadership can be argued biblically. For example, Paul commanded Titus to "appoint elders" (Tit. 1:5). The plurality of elders provides mutual accountability that would protect any leader from falling into sin or from teaching a doctrine with no biblical basis. It also allowed them to fulfill their responsibility "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ" (Eph 4:12).
Having discussed how the Reformed Scripture principle relate to the ongoing role of church confessions and ecclesiastical authority, it would be helpful to also see how it relates to Christian traditions in its various forms. There is a need to understand that "tradition is not God’s Word and, thus, is not guaranteed to be right and true."9 Because of the errors committed in this regard, the Reformers saw the need to consult the Scriptures for clarity and guidance. Allen notes, "Protestants subsume the authority of such traditions under the all-encompassing rule of Holy Scripture."10 The Regulative Scripture principle proved to be vital in shaping their decisions on the approval or rejection of certain traditions. They did not allow man’s opinion or preference to be the determining factor in this area. Allen notes, "A helpful way of noting this distinction is to say that whereas the Roman Catholic Church views tradition in a magisterial light, the Reformed churches consider tradition to be appropriate in a ministerial function. For the creature of the Word, tradition is valuable only in as much as it rightly gives the Word to the people of God."11 This kind of commitment to the Scriptures led to a clearer understanding of Christian dogmatics that contributed to the growth and stability of Protestant churches.
Thus, the contemporary church has a lot to learn from the Reformers when it comes to the application of Scripture in church confessions, ecclesiastical authority, and Christian traditions. The implications are verifiable especially in light of today’s culture that promotes pluralism and syncretism. There is also a need to follow the example of the Reformers and allow their legacy to shape the way a church is to understand and apply Scripture in all spheres of life. When the Apostle Paul wrote his last letter, he wanted his disciple Timothy to remain true to God’s Word. Paul reminded him of the usefulness of Scripture when he said, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16). The phrase "breathed out by God", conveys the idea that God is the ultimate Author of Scripture. It was important for Paul to remind Timothy of that truth for him to see that God's authoritative and enduring Word is the final authority for faith and practice. Failure to see this truth would affect a church's methodology and spirituality which would eventually lead to a loss of integrity. But when a church allows the Scripture to determine what should be taught and practiced, spiritual growth and maturity will be evident.
The impact of the Reformation in church history and cultural transformation showed the world that when the Word of God is honored, souls are saved, lives are transformed, and churches are revitalized for God's glory. May the unwavering commitment they have displayed serve as a challenge and an inspiration for the contemporary church to proclaim the truth to a world that is drowning in a sea of deceit. And as the church proclaims God’s word through different means, may she find great assurance in this unchanging truth: "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." (Isa. 40:8) Indeed, the Reformation has taught the church this very important principle: The absolute and timeless truths of Scripture has the power to change a life, a city and an entire generation. And if the 21st century church is to have the same impact, she must have the same desire and commitment to be influenced and transformed by Scripture alone.
- Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (New York: T&T Clark International, 2010), 7.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 137.
- Ibid., 155.
- BC 22
- Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (New York: T&T Clark International, 2010), 144.
- Ibid., 144.
- WCF 31.4
- Michael Allen, Reformed Theology (New York: T&T Clark International, 2010), 141.
- Ibid., 139.
- Ibid., 140
Allen, Michael. Reformed Theology. New York: T&T Clark International, 2010.
Gootjes, Nicolaas Hendrik. The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic, 2007.
The Westminster Confession of Faith. 3rd ed. Lawrenceville, GA: Committee for Christian Education and Publications, 1990.