Friday, August 30, 2019

Locating the doctrine of Scripture

A lot of evangelical and Reformed confessions of faith place the article on the doctrine of Scripture near the start of their documents.  For example, the doctrinal basis of the FIEC puts it second, after the doctrine of God; the Westminster Confession puts it first.  Presumably the idea here is to be up front about your authority for what is going to follow (although if that is the case, the Westminster arrangement is more logical), and perhaps there is an implicit recognition that the confession can be revised in the light of Scripture - something which is made explicit in, for example, the Scots Confession of 1560 when the authors ask "that if any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugning to God’s holy word, that it would please him of his gentleness, and for Christian charity’s sake, to admonish us of the same in writ; and We of our honour and fidelity do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is, from his holy Scriptures), or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss."  (But note where the full article on Holy Scripture is placed in this confession: right down at 19, after the doctrine of the church!)

A couple of conversations recently have got me thinking again about what difference this makes, and where it would be best to place the article on Scripture.

I do think that the place this article holds in your confession is likely to both reflect and shape your doctrine more generally.  Clearly this could be the case if the article were relegated to an unimportant position; that may well mean that the recognition of the authority of Holy Scripture within the church is on the wane.  But I think putting it first (or worse, second) also has effects.

If you put the doctrine of Scripture first, I think there is a danger of an almost Quran-like doctrine: this book was revealed from heaven, and in it we see a timeless revelation of God.  This tends to be wedded, in contemporary evangelicalism, with the desire to answer one of the big questions of modern thought: where can we find a foundation for thought?  Scripture here is asserted as the foundation, behind which nothing can be found.  I worry about this on two counts.  Firstly, I don't think it does justice to what Scripture says about itself, or its function as a witness to Christ and not merely a compendium of true facts about God and the world.  Second, I think marrying your doctrine of Scripture to this sort of modernist foundationalism produces a brittle faith, which doesn't stand up well to questioning.  And third, I think it risks leaving us philosophically adrift, expressing our doctrine in a philosophical mode which has been largely left behind by the world at large (and not without reason).

If you put the doctrine of Scripture second, after the doctrine of God, I think the big danger is that Scripture becomes the functional mediator between God and man - something which Scripture itself does not claim to be.  The effect is to minimise the ongoing work of Christ and the Spirit.

I think you need to put the doctrine of Scripture after the article on the incarnation: to make clear that in fact the reason we believe in the authority of Scripture is not primarily because it is a book from heaven but because the living Word of God has stepped down into our history in the person of Jesus Christ.  Scripture derives its authority from the historicity of the gospel, and not vice versa.  This is true even though, from our perspective, we may only come to know the historicity of the gospel from Holy Scripture.  We believe that God speaks to us because he has spoken to us in his Son.  It is Jesus, not Scripture, which is the fundamental communication of God to man.

Then again, it's probably best to delay further, and place the doctrine of Scripture after the article on the Holy Spirit.  That way we make it clear that the Scriptural witness to Christ is itself breathed out by God, that its authority is his authority.  A strong filioque (that is to say, an understanding of the relationship between Word and Spirit which binds them closely together) will underline the fact that through Scripture God speaks by his Spirit, and the word he speaks is the Word he spoke, namely Christ Jesus.

Anyway, just a thought for anyone writing future confessions of faith.  If only there were such people out there.

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