Calvinists to a degree resemble other branches of Christianity in that they affirm the Trinity, salvation by Christ's atoning grace, creation by God, and much, much more. The distinctive aspects of the Reformed faith all stem from the doctrine of Scriptures. The Reformed faith is by no means alone in affirming infallibility and inerrancy; such a view is common to other theologies as well. Calvinism, however, gives to Scripture a priority lacking in other theological systems.
In the Westminster Standards, we have the full development of the Reformed faith. In recent years, some have sought to separate those standards from Calvin and to insist on a marked difference. Such contentions were shown to be false by Paul Helen1 The Westminster Standards give us in summary form the essentials of the Reformed faith, and their view of Scripture is of interest to us.
Because our view of God and our faith is dependent on the Bible, the Bible has a necessary priority. The truth of a faith is governed by and depends upon its foundation. If that foundation is a religious experience, then the faith is a private revelation; moreover, given man's fallen and frail nature, man's experiences are at best a dubious standard. The same is true of man's reason. Paul in Romans 1:18ff. makes clear that all men know the truth of God, because it is written in all their being. Men, however, "hold" that truth in unrighteousness (i.e., they suppress it because they are unjust and in sin). The redeemed give voice to that truth, but, not being perfectly sanctified in this life, cannot give other than a faulty and sin-conditioned witness to it. The same is true of tradition; there is often more to tradition than some will allow, but tradition is transmitted by and filtered through sinful men, and hence, it reflects man's will all too often. The Bible, however, is God's Word, given by Him, protected by Him, and speaking for Him.
The Westminster Confession of Faith hence begins with a chapter on "The Holy Scripture." It asserts the God-centered nature of Biblical authority in Section IV:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God, (Who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
There is an important Biblical premise here. Both truth and authority are identified with God. There is no neutral realm of truth by which God and man are alike to be judged. This is the premise of rationalism and of other perspectives. God and man are alike held to exist in an independent environment which sets the standards for both. Hence, for example, some like Gordon Clark would have an independent law of contradiction govern both God and man. For him, "the logical consistency" of the Bible is its best defense.2 The law of contradiction, however, cannot be used as a test or a proof of God or the Bible, because the law of contradiction presupposes the God of Scripture and His orderly creation. If the universe is one of brute factuality and chance, then no law of contradiction can exist. There can be no legitimate use of the law of contradiction unless all are agreed that it can only exist in God's creation. To agree on this, however, means that its use as a test or proof of God is unnecessary. The usual use of this law is to detach it from God, to give it a neutral power and dominion over God, and then to use it as a yardstick to judge God and the Bible. In the process, the law of contradiction is Hellenized and is ascribed to a world of brute factuality, upon which various patterns are imposed. As Van Til noted:
A law of contradiction that is found to be operative in the created world in the sense that man's intellectual operations require its recognition, but that rests on God's nature, is something quite different from a law of contradiction that operates independently of God. In the former case the facts of the universe, if they are to be rationally intelligible, are not ultimately dependent upon the law of contradiction as man knows it, but upon God's internal coherence that lies behind the law of contradiction. Thus the facts of the universe can retain their novelty for man while they have not lost their rationality for God, and therefore also for man. In the latter case the rationality of the world does not depend upon God, but upon the principle of contradiction as an abstraction. In that case facts lose their novelty for man when he sees that they work according to the law of contradiction.3
To use the law of contradiction abstractly and without presupposing the God of Scripture is as logical as asserting the validity of Christ's atonement in a universe without God. It is an amazing arrogance on the part of men to insist that God must be verified by them and receive their philosophical seal of approval before He shows His face in public! All too many theologians and philosophers of religion, however, hold to such a demand.
For us, however, whatever God says is truth, because God is "truth itself." Scripture has authority because it comes from the supreme and absolute authority.
The Confession, moreover, declares that God gave the Word and also gives "the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word" by His Holy Spirit (Ch. 1, Sec. VI). The Spirit does not speak in contradiction to the Word. It follows, therefore, that:
X. The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.
The Larger Catechism, Q. 2, makes clear, moreover, that, although "the very light of nature in man, and the works of God, declare plainly that there is a God," both man and nature being fallen, God's" Word and Spirit only, do sufficiently and effectually reveal him unto men for their salvation." Note the phrase "for their salvation." All men can read and be learned in the Bible; only those whom the Spirit moves can have "the saving understanding" and read "for their salvation."
Because of this priority of Scripture, the Reformed faith is catholic in its use of the Bible, i.e., it recognizes its universal jurisdiction and application. God through His law-word governs the totality of life, so that nothing is outside of God and His government. The Bible, thus, is not only a salvationist book but a manual for our total lives, for law, politics, economics, the family, school, church, and more.
If we limit the scope and jurisdiction of God's Word, we limit God and His dominion. All too many theologies box the Faith with a corner of creation. The vast domain of the universe is seen as divided into a variety of polytheistic realms. Most of the universe belongs to science, and most of the earth to politics and the state. Off in a sterile corner, boxed in from the rest of creation is a private institution called the church, and its private, isolated religion, Christianity. Because of this mutuality, churchmen limit the Faith to the salvation of the soul and to ecclesiastical concerns. The vision of such men is so narrow that for them to fight the wars of the Lord means to fight against other churches. No doubt, on Judgment Day, some Presbyterians in line for sentencing will spend their time passing judgment on the Baptists; the Baptists will tell one and all how bad the Catholics are; while the Catholics will assure the Protestants that they are heretics. Meanwhile, the Lutherans will tell all others that the salvation of non-Lutherans is questionable. To all such, the Lord will say, "Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition" (Mt. 15:6).
In brief, the Bible is not a church book; it is God's book for all of life, for church, state, school, family, economics, the arts and sciences, and all things else. It is God's command word, giving marching orders for all of life.
Calvin spoke of the necessity for the Bible to preserve man from twisting God's revelation to his own devices:
For, if we consider the mutability of the human mind how easy its lapse into forgetfulness of God; how great its propensity to errors of every kind; how violent its rage for the perpetual fabrication of new and false religions, it will be easy to perceive the necessity of the heavenly doctrine being thus committed to writing, that it might not be lost in oblivion, or evaporate in error, or be corrupted by the presumption of men.4
The offense of Scripture to the unregenerate is that it tells him that he is not a god but a sinner under the judgment of God. To the regenerate, the Bible is the good news of his salvation, but, to the extent that he is unsanctified, to that extent the offense of Scripture remains. This side of heaven, therefore, the believer must contend with an unwillingness in himself to read and to submit to God's Word. Behind this fact of offense is our reluctance to keep on growing; we tend to be satisfied with a few drops of faith in the ocean of our sin. We are unwilling to change, to see our faults, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to hate only what God hates, and to love as we have been loved. Hence the necessity of Scripture: we need the open and sure Word of God as a corrective, a guide, and as commandment.
This is why reading the Bible, and our submission to its law-word is a moral act. An immoral resistance to holiness keeps us from the Word, whereas the fact is that to read and obey means to grow in grace and holiness. Calvin noted:
[T]hat the mind of man, being full of pride and temerity, dares to conceive of God according to its own standards; and, being stuck in stupidity, and immersed in profound ignorance, imagines a vain and ridiculous phantom instead of God.5
Many men use the Bible as a building block in their creation of idols by making partial use of it together with their various humanistic concepts. One such example is the belief in God as love. Very plainly, the Bible tells us, "God is love" (1 Jn. 4:8), but it also tells us that He is a consuming fire of judgment, that He is a jealous God, and much, much more. The Reformed use of the Bible precludes using one aspect of the Bible, and one attribute of God in isolation or in priority above all others. To illustrate, it is a perversion of the Reformed faith to stress the sovereignty of God above all His other attributes. Our human nature lacks balance; some of us are good in certain areas, such as philosophy, music, or mathematics, and weak in other areas, such as carpentry, painting, and selling. Just as there are a variety of human beings, so too there is a variety in their aptitudes. In God, not only is all potentially a full actuality, but all powers and attributes exist in perfection. To single out love, sovereignty, law, justice, grace, or any other attribute of God's nature and to give it priority is to view God in humanistic terms, as a man. It results in an anthropocentric doctrine of man.
Faithfulness to the Reformed view of Scripture prevents this. We then live by every word of God (Mt. 4:4), and we see God in terms of His total Word. To illustrate, if we forget the tabernacle as a part of God's revelation, we have a limited view of God, because we fail to see how central and important God's Word is concerning all approaches to Him and the worship He requires. If we dismiss the simple sacrifices as irrelevant now for us because they ended with Christ's atonement, we underrate the seriousness of sin in God's eyes and the exactness of His requirements. If we neglect the law, we neglect the justice or unrighteousness of God, and so on. We then wrongly divide the Word of truth and separate moral law, ceremonial law, and civil law. The fact is that all law is moral law; all law tells us what is right or wrong; and all law calls for a separation from certain practices as contrary to God's covenant requirements. No law of God is immoral or amoral, and no law of man can be so either.
Calvin began his Institutes by stating, in the first paragraph, that "[I]t is evident that the talents which we possess are not from ourselves, and that our very existence is nothing but a subsistence in God alone"6 If "our very existence is nothing but a subsistence in God alone," then it follows of necessity that our every word, thought, and act should be governed by God alone. God's sufficient word for that government is the Bible.
If we approach the Bible humanistically, we will either reject it, or else we will see it as a life and fire insurance contract, in terms of what it can offer to use. If we approach the Bible from a faithfully Reformed perspective, we will then see ourselves, our salvation, and our calling from a God-centered perspective. Our Lord tells us plainly therein, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness [or justice]; and all these things shall be added unto you" (Mt. 6:33). We will then recognize, when we seek first God's kingdom, what Van Til sets forth so clearly:
In saving us from sin, Christ saves us unto his service. Through the salvation that is ours in Christ by the Spirit, we take up anew the cultural mandate that was given to man at the outset of history. Whether we eat or drink or whatever we do, we want now to do all to the glory of God. Moreover, we want our fellowmen with us to do all things to the glory of God. We are bound, as we are eager, to inform them of that which we have been told, namely, that we shall continue to abide under the wrath of God and eventually be cast out into utter darkness, unless, by God's grace, we seek to do all things to the glory of God. Calling upon all men everywhere to join with us in fulfilling the original cultural mandate given to mankind which we may now undertake because of the redeeming work of Christ is our joy each day.7
As we have seen, there is a perfection and a simplicity in God's being, so that all His attributes and the totality of His nature makes all things equal and perfect, so that no one aspect of His being can be exalted over another. God is totally God and totally perfect and absolute in all His being. This is not true of man. Man as a creature is God's creature, and therefore has been created by God to serve Him in various ways, each of us according to the gifts we have received. At one point, however, there is a difference. Of all men everywhere, the same requirement holds: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever." Every aspect of our lives must have a single focus, the service, glory, and enjoyment of God. In this, Scripture is our guide and command-word.
1. Paul Helen, Calvin and the Calvinists (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982).
2. Gordon H. Clark, God's Hammer, The Bible, and Its Critics (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, 1982), 15ff.
3. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1976), 37f.
4. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 1, chp. 6, sec. 3, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1936), 83.
5. Ibid., bk. 1, chp. 11, sec. 8, vol 1, 122f. 6. ibid., bk. 1, chp. 1, sec. 1, vol, 1, 14.
7. Cornelius Van Til, The Doctrine of Scripture (The den Dulk Foundation, 1967), 1.