Themes in Puritan Theology: Scripture
March 8, 2018
So, this is part 5 of a series I am just announcing now, which I hope is not too much of a distraction. We have looked at Puritan theology and theologizing in general in the first three posts. Then in the last, we gazed upon the natural and divine lights, as Stephen Charnock called them, denoting natural and Scriptural revelation respectively. We also saw the stepping-stone role of natural revelation to Scripture, the former of which allows sinners, argued John Owen, to “know” God but the latter alone to actually “come” to him savingly. In connection to what we have said already of the Scriptures as supernatural revelation, I want to treat the general Puritan doctrine of Scripture more fully in this post.
As heirs and reformers of the Reformation, the Puritans embraced the foundational principle of sola Scriptura, or salvation by “Scripture alone,” which gets emphasized right away in the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith, “Of the Holy Scripture.” Likewise, the Shorter and Larger Catechism quickly stress the vital importance of Scripture, the former calling it the “Word of God” in which we find “the only rule to direct us” in our theology (living unto God). Indeed, the Confession refers to the Bible as “immediately inspired by God” (1.8) in the originals with “the Word of God dwelling plentifully” in even translations. For God to reveal himself to fallen humanity, he needed to stoop down and speak to us in a voice that came directly from him to us in manner that we can comprehend. After all, as theologians tell us, the finite cannot comprehend the infinite.
So, that God reveals himself supernaturally in his Word demands “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God” (WCF 1.6) for the “saving understanding” of what he reveals. Thus, John Owen ("The Reason of Faith," in Works, 4:49) argues that we must believe with a “divine and supernatural” faith worked in us by the Holy Spirit to embrace the Scripture as very Word of God along with the truths conveyed by the words.
As we consider the doctrine of God’s Word in the Confession, we see that the Puritans emphasized the four major attributes (characteristics) of Scripture that are often highlighted today, namely, its: sufficiency, necessity, authority, and perspicuity.
The sufficiency (being adequate for faith and life) of Scripture appears in the very first section of the Confession as it states that the light of nature is “not sufficient” for us to know God in a saving manner. Scripture as special revelation makes up for that inadequacy as that revealing “all things necessary for [God’s] own glory, man's salvation, faith and life” (WCF 1.6).
The necessity (being essential for faith and life) of Scripture manifests its intimate connection to sufficiency, since we cannot know God savingly without it. Thus, God revealed himself in special ways to his people and eventually superintended, by the Holy Spirit, the recording of such revelation to preserve the truth making “the Holy Scripture to be most necessary” (WCF 1.1). As Owen notes ("The Divine Original of Scripture," in Works, 16:319), the necessity of special revelation formerly demanded embracing “the word spoken,” but now the “word written.” The focus is now upon the written word, since the “former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people” (WCF 1.1) have ceased.
The authority (being supreme over faith and life) of Scripture “for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed,” does not depend “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” (WCF 1.4). Indeed, the Puritans utilized natural theology with evidences internal and external to the Bible to manifest it as the authoritative Word. Yet, they also affirmed its “self-evidencing light” as divine truth that one “rejects at the peril of his eternal ruin” (Owen, "The Divine Original of Scripture," in Works, 16:322). Likewise, the Bible stands as “the supreme judge” in all theological “controversies,” as it exists as the final word with “the Holy Spirit speaking” in it (WCF 1.10).
The perspicuity (being clear in matters of faith and life) of Scripture meant that it so clearly sets forth “things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation,” that even the “unlearned” may understand them, even if all biblical teachings are “not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). Truths less clearly “set down in Scripture,” may be “deduced” (reasoned as truth) “by good and necessary consequence” (a valid and demanded argument) from the entirety of Scripture (WCF 1.6). Consequently, for the Puritans, “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself,” which means that we understand a murky passage “by other places that speak more clearly” (WCF 1.9). In this way, the Puritans affirmed the unity and harmony of all parts of Scripture, for God cannot contradict himself. The interpretative principle that Scripture interprets Scripture is often referred to as the “proportion of faith” (John Flavel) or the “analogy of faith” (Thomas Goodwin).
There you have it, the doctrine of Scripture for the Puritans was a “S.N.A.P.” (sufficiency, necessity, authority, and perspicuity), as some like to call it today with a catchy mneumonic device (Hey, it helps my little brain). May we affirm and defend the same attributes for the Bible, the inspired and self-authenticating Word of God.
Meet the Puritanssupporting
For previous posts in this series, see:
- What is Puritan Theology?
- William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
- William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
- The Two Lights