The Defense against Rival Interpretations

Key Points During this Time

  • Partly in response to internal and external pressures, the early church developed a three-fold defense of what is apostolic: the episcopate, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon
  • The monepiscopacy grew out of practical leadership concerns and came to be associated with the idea of apostolic succession
  • The rule of faith and the creed were received as summaries of the apostolic teaching, for instruction and liturgical use
  • The Apostles Creed grew out of an earlier formula of baptismal confession used in Rome, attesting to an early practice of regularly reciting in worship a concise statement outlining key tenets of orthodox Christian belief
  • The formation and recognition of the New Testament canon underwent four stages: Scripture principle, canonical principle, closed canon, and recognition of the closed canon; several criteria of canonicity functioned in an interrelated way
  • The church did not create the canon but recognized it, putting itself under the authority of Scripture


Partly as a natural development in its identity formation and partly in response to rival expressions of Christianity, the church of the second and third century developed a “three-fold defense of “what is apostolic”: the monepiscopacy, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon. These interrelated components were understood to constitute reliable channels of apostolic authority as the church moved further away from the generation of the apostles themselves. Though aspects of each component exhibit signs of having been shaped by continuing interactions with “heretics,” they also convey beliefs and practices that were present prior to those controversies.

The bishop functioned as the authoritative teaching office and channel by which the apostolic message had been preserved. The evidence indicates that the earliest Christian communities were led by a plurality of elders or bishops, yet by the early second century a monepiscopacy is emerging, signaled first by the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Having a single bishop over the local church allowed churches to address a number of practical leadership matters more effectively. By the late second century, the theory of apostolic succession was being developed by Irenaeus, deployed to demonstrate that the recognized teaching chair of a given church ought to be received as the custodian of apostolic truth as it had been handed down since the apostles’ time, from generation to generation. By the third century (Hippolytus), the idea had developed that bishops are successors to the apostles themselves.

The rule of faith and creed functioned as guides by which to interpret the essence of the apostolic message. The rule of faith was a summary of apostolic teaching, in a flexible form that varied somewhat from place to place. It guided the reader or hearer in discerning the basic plot and gist of proper Christian doctrine and behavior. The creed was more succinct and fixed in form, deriving from baptismal confession formulae for regular liturgical use. The fourth-century Apostles’ Creed from Rome stands as the heir to an earlier form, the Old Roman Symbol of the third century. The Roman church led the way in adapting baptismal confessions into a fixed creedal formula, and the Apostles’ Creed became a standard piece of liturgy throughout western churches.

The canon functioned as the repository of the content of the apostolic teaching. Christians inherited the idea of canon and the Jewish Scriptures from Judaism, though differences existed as to which text to use (Hebrew or Greek) and what the precise contents of the Old Testament should be. The church relied mostly on the Greek Septuagint, translating it into many other languages, and largely accepting the books and expansions circulating with Greek copies of the Old Testament. The development of the New Testament canon proceeded through four stages: the recognition of the Scripture principle (late first/early second century), the canon principle (by about 180), a closed canon (by the fourth century), the recognition of a closed canon (in the fourth/fifth centuries). The criteria by which books were received as canonical were their inspiration, their apostolicity, their antiquity, their catholicity, their use in public worship, and their right doctrine.

One persistent question under discussion concerns the relationship between the church and its channels of authority, particularly the New Testament canon. Whereas a process of development involving human activity is undeniable, the church did not create the canon so much as recognize it, and by doing so put itself under a separate authority rather than keeping its own power.


The Necessity of Meditation

The Puritans stressed the need for christian meditation, what we commonly refer to as devotions. These reasons can be summarized easily in six points.  

  1. Our God who commands us to believe the Scriptures, and it also commands us also to meditate on it, in that the Scripture is sufficient for doing it. Often the puritans would use biblical characters as examples to compel their church members to do this; Isaac, Moses, Paul, Timothy, Joshua, David, Mary. For example; Psalm 19:14 reads, Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
  1. Meditate on the word, because it is God’s letter to us. Christian do not run over God’s letter in haste, but meditate on his love in sending it to us.
  1. One cannot be a mature Christian without meditation. Thomas Manton once said, “faith is lean and ready to starve without meditation.”
  1. Without meditation the preached word will fail to benefit us. Baxter said, “reading without meditation is like swallowing raw and undigested food, a man may eat too much, but cannot digest too well.” The sermon is not enough for the Christian’s weekly living, he must constantly be reading, and applying the truths of Scripture to his life.
  1. Without meditation our prayers will not be effective; this serves as a middle sort of duty between word and prayer. The Scripture feeds meditation, and meditation feeds prayer.
  1. Christians who fail to meditate are unable to defend the truth. Without proper meditation on the Scriptures, the Christian has no backbone, and no self-knowledge. Manton would teach, “man who is a stranger to meditation does not know himself. ”

As Thomas Watson preached, and we may need to ponder “tis meditation that makes a Christian.”

Sola Scriptura: The Reformation Debate

r8313popeRoman Catholicism has traditionally affirmed Scripture’s inspiration and inerrancy; arguments with Protestants during the Reformation developed around the relationship between Scripture and tradition. Roman Catholic teaching considers Sacred Scripture (the Bible, with the apocryphal books) and Sacred Tradition (originally unwritten traditions passed down by the apostles and their successors) to be two integral aspects of the one Word of God. While Roman Catholicism treats tradition as magisterial (tradition possesses normative authority together with Scripture), classical Protestantism treats tradition as ministerial (tradition, reason, experience, and culture are all under the authority of Scripture). Historically, Protestants have admitted that written Scripture and oral tradition were two aspects of God’s special revelation, but that time came to an end with the close of the apostolic era. While Roman Catholics believe the apostolic office still continues today in the church’s hierarchy, Protestants argue that the church’s preaching and teaching ministry no longer lays the foundation built once and for all by the prophets and apostles (Eph. 2:20). There is a qualitative difference between binding apostolic tradition (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15) and the fallible traditions of the covenant community—even its leadership (Mark 7:1–13).

Faithful tradition belongs to the Spirit’s illumination, not to inspiration. Thus, creeds and confessions carry a subordinate authority to Scripture, as faithful summaries of Scripture’s overarching scope (its testimony to the triune God and his ways, centering in the gospel of Christ). The witness of the church serves Scripture’s authority rather than establishes it. This includes the nature of the canon’s formation. The church did not create the canon through ecclesiastical power; it recognized these particular writings as the authoritative Word of God.

The sufficiency of Scripture is inseparable from its clarity. This does not mean that all parts of Scripture are equally plain or lack depth of meaning, nor does it deny past and present controversy over biblical interpretation within the church. Scripture is clear on its most important matters, when interpreted according to its own witness, within the broader community of faith, and in light of its scope. If such weighty matters of Scripture are not clear in their purity and simplicity, the teacher rather than the text is at fault. Sola Scriptura is not simply an affirmation of the unique authority of the Bible but a confession of the sovereignty of God’s grace—because God alone saves, God alone teaches and rules our faith and practice.

In modern and contemporary theology, Protestantism has had difficulty retaining its classical emphasis on the unique authority and sufficiency of Scripture, often folding God’s voice into that of the Christian community or the individual believer. Even those who hold a high view of biblical authority may inadvertently subordinate God’s Word by assimilating contemporary culture’s assumptions about reality, then attempting to address this reality with the Bible. We should rather interpret all of reality in light of God’s Word, allowing Scripture to address us as well as the world.

Definitions are particularly important here: The gospel is properly understood as the specific announcement of redemption from sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus in fulfillment of all God’s promises, while“culturemay be defined in this context as the common realm of social practices, vocations, beliefs, and assumptions shared by Christians and non-Christians in a given time and place. Like tradition, reason, and experience, culture is not inherently evil or opposed to faith, but none of these testify to God’s gracious and saving action in Christ. The church’s primary “cultural location” is in Christ, under the normative authority of Scripture. When culture is given an authoritative or normative role alongside Scripture in the church, the world cannot be judged or redeemed by the living voice of God from outside itself.

HT: Summary taken from chapter five of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.

The Princeton Formulation of Inerrancy

The formulation of B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge is perhaps the best articulation and development of the church’s historical doctrine and may be summarized as follows.

  1. A sound doctrine of inspiration requires a specifically Christian ontology; all misconceptions of or challenges to the historical view of inerrant inspiration ultimately rest on false suppositions regarding the relation between God and creatures.
  2. Scripture’s redemptive-historical progression and development must be highlighted; inspiration is organic rather than mechanical (as in the dictation theory).
  3. The question of apparent contradictions and errors must be squarely faced and addressed.
  4. It is the communication that is inspired, not the authors themselves; we should not imagine the prophets and apostles to be personally omniscient or infallible.
  5. The Bible is inspired and without error in all its “real affirmations”; the human authors’ recorded claims and affirmations, not their scientific or cultural assumptions and backgrounds, are the inspired and inerrant Word of God.
  6. Inerrancy is not the foundation of the doctrine of Scripture (much less of the Christian faith); Christianity is true not because it rests on an inspired and inerrant text, but vice versa.

The inerrancy debate in American evangelicalism is largely one between Old Princeton and Karl Barth. The former is often caricatured as fundamentalism, while the latter is equally caricatured as liberalism. Nonetheless, Barth’s view, like fundamentalism and liberalism, is quite different from that of Protestant orthodoxy here in America. Barth’s criticism of traditional inerrancy stems from his actualism—that is, his ontology of God as “being in act,” specifically applied to the free activity of revelation as identical with the very being of God. Revelation is always an event of God’s self-revelation in Christ, never an objective deposit. Scripture is the church’s normative witness to revelation, and as a creaturely witness it is not only fallible but (like Christ’s human nature) necessarily fallen. Barth also tends to collapse inspiration into illumination, since he seems to allow no qualitative distinction between revelation in and through the Bible and the church’s reception and interpretation of it. Some evangelicals have attempted to reconcile Barth’s views with the church’s traditional understanding, but these continue to employ the fundamentalist caricature rather than the truly classical view of inspiration and inerrancy.

HT: Summary taken from chapter four of Michael Horton’s The Christian Faith.

Trinitarian Cooperation in Redemption

Something to consider; Because of its authoritative source and saving content, Scripture is the very Word of the triune God.

  • Scripture is from the Father’s utterance as its source.
  • Scripture declares Christ’s person and work as its content and center.
  • The source and content of Scripture attain their ends in the perfecting agency of the Spirit.

The unified work of the persons of the Trinity in Scripture’s inspired content and form may not be divided; accounts of inspiration are skewed or insufficient whenever the manner of one person’s working is given precedence over that of the other two.

HT: Dr. Michael Horton, Chapter Four in the The Christian Faith. 

Exegetical Tools Used by the Puritans to Interpret Scripture

The Westminster Confession of Faith makes some important points about the interpretation of Scripture, including chapter 1.9: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” A text may demand an allegorical interpretation because it literally is an allegory, but theologians are not to go to the text with the fourfold method (the literal sense “is that which is gathered immediately out of the words,” which is then coupled with the “spiritual sense,” divided into allegorical, tropological, and anagogical) in mind as a basic presupposition for interpreting the Bible. The Scriptures themselves must dictate how they are to be interpreted.

Another specific exegetical tool used by the Puritans to interpret Scripture is the analogy of faith (analogia fidei). Needed explained are the differences between the analogy of faith and the analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae). The Scriptures interpret the Scriptures, so that “when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture,… it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” The analogy of faith (analogia fidei) resulted from the fact that the Bible is the Word of God and therefore possesses an intrinsic consistency and unity. That is to say, the Scriptures do not contradict themselves. The analogy of faith maintains the internal consistency of the Scriptures, which are not contradictory. The analogy of faith differs from the analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae) insofar as the analogy of faith is a principle whereby a theologian uses the “general sense of the meaning of Scripture, constructed from the clear or unambiguous loci [passages] as the basis for interpreting unclear or ambiguous texts.” The analogy of Scripture, however, more specifically has in view the interpretation of unclear passages by comparing with clearer passages that are related to the difficult text in question.

Another specific exegetical tool used by the Puritans to interpret Scripture is to understand the limits of human reasoning. John Owen did not mince any words when it came to another fundamental aspect of interpreting the Bible. Those who attempt to interpret the Scriptures “in a solemn manner, without invocation of God to be taught and instructed by his Spirit, is a high provocation to him; nor shall I expect the discovery of truth from anyone who so proudly and ignorantly engageth in a work so much above his ability to manage.” Owen affirmed that the Holy Spirit works on the minds of the elect so as to enable them to understand the Scriptures since He is the immediate author of all spiritual illumination. Christians cannot assume this will happen, as if to take for granted this spiritual privilege; rather, they must pray that God would enable them to understand His mind and will, which apart from the Spirit is impossible. We must not allow our fallible reasoning a place of preeminence above the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit enables Christians to receive all of the truths of Scripture without letting reason dominate the way. If reason was to dominate our interpretation this will lead to various theological errors. Goodwin claims that the cause of all theological errors “hath been for the want of reconciling these things together.” He clearly has in mind those who exalt reason over revelation, which meant that so many glorious truths were denied in favor of reason. Reason cannot work out the mysteries of the Bible. If reason becomes the primary principle, and not faith, we will understand nothing, or little, of the mysteries of salvation. In the same way, Flavel suggests that reason is no better than a “usurper when it presumes to arbitrate matters belonging to faith and revelation.” Instead, reason sits at the feet of faith. Indeed, God’s works are not unreasonable, “but many of them are above reason.”

Lessons from Richard Greenham on Reading the Word

Puritan Greenham, A Profitable Treatise for the reading and understanding of the Holy Scriptures. Dr. Beeke writes, “Though Greenham is used here as a model, many Puritans have addresed the “how-to” of Bible reading.” His points are worthy of your time;

1. Diligence, if you read The Scriptures diligently it will make your rough places plain, difficult easy, and unsavory tasty.

2. Wisdom, choice of matter, do not spend the bulk of time on the most difficult portion of the Word, do not move from revealed to unrevealed, the wise reader will aim to be established in a well rounded doctrine. Time, never let a day pass without reading the Bible, Sunday most of the day.

3. Preparation, approach the Bible with a reverential fear, swift to hear, and slow to speak. Approach with faith in Jesus Christ, sincerely desirous to learn of God, and put your heart into reading the Bible.

4. Meditation, if you don’t meditate you won’t get depth, the difference between rowing and drifting to a destination in a boat; reading without meditation is barren

5. Conference, Proverbs 21:7, iron sharpening iron, concerned about small group discussions, not too large; should be able to be free to speak.

6. Faith, faith is the key to profitable reception.

7. Practice, the doing of a sermon; “is the sermon finished?  It has been preached, but not yet been done” reply of a Puritan husband to his wife’s question upon returning home from church.

8. Prayer, indispensable for all our reading of Scripture; before and after the reading of the Bible, pray as you read them, memorize verses, meditate, think about it and then put it into practice.

If you need nourishment of your body, then you need a blessing for nourishment of spiritual things; we need to do these things to get the bible into us; we must get into it in a genuine and saving way.

HT: Notes taking while in Puritan Theology under Dr. Joel Beeke. Read his full article on Reading and Hearing the Word in a Puritan Way.