Introduction to Chapter 1
I suppose it may be surprising to some of you that the 1689 begins with a chapter on Scripture. After all, should not a Reformed confession in keeping with the God-centeredness of the Reformed faith begin with God? But a little thought will expose the superficiality of such a thought. Even before God, a systematic approach to the doctrines of Christianity must consider the means of knowing God. This is the reason why the Confession and most systematic theologies must begin with meditating on the way and means by which we come to know God. This means considering the doctrines of revelation and Scripture. Nothing is more important or foundational to our understanding and practice of Christianity than our understanding of these issues. They deserve our most careful attention.
An analysis of Chapter 1 of the Confession entitled, Of Scripture, reveals that it actually identifies seven major attributes of Scripture. Four of these, however, were the special emphases of the Reformation and actually imply the others. They are the necessity, authority, sufficiency, and clarity of the Scriptures. They answer these basic questions:
Why do we need Scripture?
What authority should it have with us?
Is the Scripture sufficient for our spiritual needs?
Is the Scripture clear enough for the ordinary Christian to understand?
The Necessity of Scripture (Asserted)
The very first words of the 1689 begin with an assertion of the necessity of Scripture. Here they are:
“The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.”
The assertion which begins the Confession is actually one of those places where the 1689 supplements the Westminster Confession upon which it was so extensively based. The framers added to the Westminster the sentence: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.” These words address the reason for our need for Scripture. Only from Scripture do we gain saving knowledge.
Already in this simple assertion, a thousand blind alleys which human imagination takes with regard to salvation are blocked. Men need saving knowledge to be saved that is why it is called saving knowledge! Such saving knowledge can only be found in Scripture. This is an emphatic assertion that contradicts any number of popular ideas. It tells us that men cannot be saved by sincerely following their own religions or philosophies. It tells us that saving knowledge cannot be found in the light of nature. It is not written in the stars above or revealed in the dreams of men. The only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge is Scripture! If we are interested in the welfare of our souls, it is to this fountain of knowledge that we must come and drink!
The Necessity of Scripture (Grounded)
The next words of the 1689 are the words with which the Westminster Confession—the grandmother of the 1689—begins. They speak of the ground reason for the necessity of Scripture.
“although the light of nature and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation.”
These words assert that saving knowledge or, in other words, the gospel is not to be found in what the Confession calls the light of nature and the works of creation and providence. The Confession is not denying that there is revelation from God to be found from this source which we now call general revelation. No, in fact, it is saying exactly the opposite. There is such revelation given to men through general revelation that it leaves them without excuse for their sins. The 1689 is simply affirming that such revelation does not provide what the Confession has already call saving knowledge.
What an enlightening yet controversial affirmation this is in our day! Yet it is exactly what the Psalmist teaches in Psalm 19 and Paul teaches in Romans. In Romans 1:18 to 2:16 Paul indicts the human race and argues their just condemnation under the wrath of God from the light of creation they have all around them and the work of the law written in their heart. Yet, at the same time, there is no indication that anyone can be or has been saved by that light. Rather, the Apostle goes on to affirm that by nature there is none righteous–no not one– and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. He also goes on to say that it is only in the light of Scripture that men have a saving knowledge.
Romans 3:21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, (Rom. 3:21 NAU)
Romans 10:14-17 How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? …. 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:14-17 NAU)
Clearly, this is a hard saying to many today and even to many contemporary professing Christians. Men, the Confession asserts, have enough light to damn themselves, but not enough light to be saved!
- Yes, this does not seem “fair” to us. We must, however, must remember that salvation is not by fair, but by grace. Damnation is fair because they do not live up to the light they have. This, however, does not mean that God owes them salvation. Exactly the reverse!
- Yes, there is a stern God-centeredness in this. The Confession takes the side of God and looks at things from His perspective.
- Yes, there is a strict adherence to Scripture in this. Human ideas of fairness are excluded. The assertion of Scripture is the only thing that matters.
- Yes, there is the doctrine of the exclusivity of the gospel in this. It is only through believing in the name of Christ that anyone can be saved.
- And yes, there is a firm foundation in this for Christian evangelism and missions. Men will not be saved by living up to the light they have. Nor will they be saved by sincerely adhering to their non-Christian religions. They will only be saved by hearing and believing the gospel of Christ; and that gospel is not revealed in nature, but only in the sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of Scripture.
The Necessity of Scripture (What It Presupposes)
The closing words of paragraph 1 assert that the necessity of Scripture presupposes that “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people … (have) now ceased.
The fact that God has given us written Scripture assumes that God no longer reveals Himself as He did in the days in which apostles of Christ and prophets walked the earth. This is a hard saying to the whole current of the Charismatic movement and Continuationism which has controlled the last century of Christian history. The Confession here draws a clear and bold line between the days of the apostles of Christ and prophets, on the one hand, and our day, on the other. The implication is clearly that such bringers of direct revelation are no longer with us. Such apostles and prophets were the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). Such apostles and prophets had to possess qualification which no one possesses today.
The Confession is here stating its rejection of the spiritualist Anabaptist predecessors of the modern Charismatics. It is also, however, rejecting the claims of Rome to continuing revelation outside of and beside Scripture through an infallible oral tradition and an infallible pope. All such claims must be rejected. Rather, the Christian must say with his Old Testament brethren “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.” (Isa. 8:20 NAU)
It is the very existence of the Bible which is perhaps the loudest witness against all claims to continuing revelation. God gave the Scriptures because no oral tradition or continuing revelation outside of it could be sufficient, certain, and infallible guide to saving knowledge.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.