An Irenic Clarification
Some public responses to Dr. Waldron’s recent blog post, “Do We Still Believe in Sola Scriptura?”  https://cbtseminary.org/do-we-still-believe-in-sola-scriptura-sam-waldron/ have demonstrated a misunderstanding of both the purpose of the article and the main point of the article. This article was not in any way intended to be an attack on any particular person or group of people. That was the main reason for not providing the sources for the various quotes he gave. The issue here is statements, not personalities. The question is not whether or not those who made these statements believe in Sola Scriptura, but whether or not these particular statements are truly compatible with Sola Scriptura. We do not believe that any of those who made these statements are deliberately trying to undermine this foundational doctrine. We do, however, find these statements troubling. I hope what follows will help to clarify why. (Some statements have been shortened in order to clarify the exact portion of the statement that seems problematic.)
Semper Reformanda … does not mean changing doctrine, but it means applying the doctrine to our lives. It is a clarion call to a vital experiential understanding of the truth in the lives of Christ’s sheep. So, it’s not changing our doctrine, but applying the doctrine that we already know to be biblical.
This statement was made a number of years ago in a lecture on confessionalism which we really appreciated overall. It appeared in the context of pointing out that some have seemingly attempted to use Semper Reformanda to undermine the confessional position of an association of churches. We agree fully that such use is improper. But we find this statement to be an overreaction.
The statement has the appearance of making the doctrine of the confession beyond the possibility of reformation, as the only thing that can be further reformed is our application of doctrine. The principle of the matter is the issue here. If Scripture is authoritative over all doctrinal statements, those statements must be seen as reformable, should Scripture call for it. The Congregationalists “reformed” the Westminster Confession and the result is the Savoy Declaration. The London Baptists further “reformed” those Confessions and the result is the 2LBC. We do not believe that the Holy Spirit is incapable of shedding further light from Scripture on these documents that would call for further reformation.
We are not calling for the amendment of any doctrine in the 2LBC. We just want to be clear that Scripture is in every way authoritative over any such document and fear that the idea that all doctrine contained therein is above the very possibility of reformation undermines that authority. We recognize that the terminology of Semper Reformanda did not originate in the reformation and that it has been abused by some. But we use it as a representation of a truth held by the reformers and Puritans alike, that all human documents are subject to the authority of Scripture. We desire to say no more than Bavinck when he wrote, “And, finally, the confessions do not impede a growth in knowledge but keep it in the right course of development, and they are themselves to be checked and revised against the Holy Scriptures as the only norm of faith. Such examination and review can take place at any time, though it must be done in warranted and legitimate ways.”  Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God (Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 103
“Everything necessary for the Christian life is found in the Bible. But not every detail of the faith is there.”
This statement is found in an online review  https://www.thelondonlyceum.com/book-review-the-failure-of-natural-theology/ of Jeff Johnson’s book The Failure of Natural Theology. The author is in no way purposefully attempting to undermine the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. But we’ve spoken with both Thomists and non-Thomists alike who find the statement problematic.
As the author of the statement notes, “2LCF 1.1 confesses the following: ‘The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience…’”
A short analysis of this pithy expression of Sola Scriptura may clarify the issue. The basic statement is: Holy Scripture is the rule. Rule is first modified by four adjectives, only, sufficient, certain, and infallible. We take this to mean that Scripture is the only sufficient rule, the only certain rule, and the only infallible rule. Rule is further modified by “of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.” We take this to mean that Scripture is the only sufficient rule, the only certain rule, and the only infallible rule for all saving knowledge, for all faith, and for all obedience. So to the point at hand, Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule for faith.
If Scripture is the rule for all faith, then the statement that “not every detail of the faith is there” is problematic. If a doctrine is not derived either explicitly or implicitly from Scripture, it is not the faith.
We do not deny that our confession of faith serves as a subordinate rule of faith. We only mean to stress that it is indeed subordinate to Scripture at every point. It may be the case that the author of this statement is simply including such things as “circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence” (2LBC 1:6) in his definition of the faith. If this is the case we are simply working with differing definitions of “the faith.” Again, we are not seeking to discredit the author of this statement by insisting he meant something he did not intend. The point is simply this: if we are referring to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, every article of it must be either explicitly or implicitly derived from Scripture.
“Heresy is a belief that contradicts, denies, or undermines a doctrine that an ecumenical church council has declared biblical and essential to Christianity.”
This statement appears in the book Simply Trinity, by Mathew Barrett. Dr. Waldron found a great many aspects of this book helpful and necessary and is not implying that Dr. Barrett is willfully undermining Sola Scriptura.
The problem is defining heresy as contradicting, denying, or undermining an ecumenical church council, rather than contradicting, denying, or undermining Scripture. For one thing, how would we condemn many of the errors found in Trent? What ecumenical council would we point to in order to condemn transubstantiation as heresy? Do we need an ecumenical council in order to condemn the doctrine of Mary as co-mediatrix? Yes, contradicting, denying, or undermining the Nicene Creed is indeed heresy, but not by virtue of the fact that the Creed came from an ecumenical council, but by virtue of the fact that the Nicene Creed accurately sets forth the teaching of Scripture.
Perhaps this statement was not meant to be a full definition of heresy. Our point is simply that it should not be considered the full definition. If no Reformed theologian considers this a full definition, we praise God.
When pressed on the lack of biblical evidence for this (doctrine usually today associated with Roman Catholicism), he insinuated that I was being a biblicist. I said that our doctrine should come both implicitly and explicitly from Scripture, he said some of our doctrine comes from outside of Scripture.
This comes from a conversation between three friends of mine, all of whom I consider to be faithful brethren who are faithfully serving our risen Lord.
The issue is the same as statement 2 above. If Scripture is our rule of faith, what doctrine must we hold that is neither explicitly nor implicitly derived from it? Can a doctrine that is neither explicit nor implicit in Scripture be considered biblical doctrine?
I dearly love all the men who were in this conversation and in no way desire to alienate any of them. That doesn’t change the fact that I don’t believe that the idea that some doctrine comes from outside of Scripture comports with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Thomas Aquinas held Sola Scriptura.
Because Thomas demonstrably had a high view of Scripture, some have concluded that he held to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
- While Thomas Aquinas made statements that appear to support Sola Scriptura like, “The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith.” He also made statements such as, “The Apostles, led by the inward stirring of the Holy Ghost, handed down to the churches certain instructions which they did not leave in writing, but which have been ordained in accordance with the observance of the Church as practiced by the faithful as time went on. Therefore the Apostle says: ‘STAND FAST, AND HOLD THE TRADITIONS WHICH YOU HAVE LEARNED, WHETHER BY WORD’ — that is by word of mouth — ‘OR BY OUR EPISTLE’ — that is by word put into writing (2 Thess 2:15) ….” which demonstrate his belief in oral tradition as equally authoritative.
- To ascribe the doctrine of Sola Scriptura to someone who held church tradition as well as Scripture as equally authoritative demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura.
Dr. Waldron did not conclude or imply that therefore there is nothing useful in Aquinas, that all of his writings should be categorically dismissed, or anything else of that nature. Rather, two conclusions should be drawn: 1. If one’s definition of Sola Scriptura does not exclude Thomas, that definition is not really Sola Scriptura. 2. Aquinas must be read with great discernment. The fact that the theologian you are reading did not consistently hold to Sola Scriptura (contradicting it in multiple places) must be kept in mind when you read him.
Hopefully we have been able to clarify why we are convinced that such statements are a danger to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I sincerely hope no one continues to have the idea that we are accusing some group of theologians of deliberately undermining the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. If that had been the case, we would have named names and tried to prove that they were all associated with that group.
Our desire moving forward with this conversation would be to see interaction with the statements in question. Perhaps you agree with the statements but don’t think they actually undermine Sola Scriptura. Perhaps you are convinced that Sola Scriptura is not as important as we’re making it out to be. It would be most helpful if those who still disagree with Dr. Waldron after reading this clarification would take the time to explain why they do not find these statements as troubling as we do.
We find this clarification necessary because we have witnessed the way some have misinterpreted his statements, misunderstood his purpose, and attributed intentions to him that he did not have. Our desire is for irenic discussion by which we may be of mutual benefit to one another.
The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.
Rexford Semrad has served as an administrator at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary since 2015. He is married to his wife of 32 years, Marion, and has 8 children. He is a member of Grace Reformed Baptist Church of Owensboro, KY where he serves as a Deacon and a Gifted Brother. Among other things, Rex particularly enjoys theology, hot sauce and Church history.