Confessionalism and the Need for Creeds.
(Creeds and Sola Scriptura)
To the law (לְתוֹרָ֖ה) and to the testimony (וְלִתְעוּדָ֑ה): if they speak not according to this word (כַּדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה), it is because there is no light in them. (Isa. 8:20)
Question.—What ought we to think of the doctrine of sola Scriptura with reference to creeds?
Answer.—The principle of sola Scriptura is the formal principle of the Protestant reformation. It is a Latin term, in the ablative case, which indicates that it is adjectival modifier of a verb—in this case the verb is judge. It describes the motion something (i.e., judgment) moves. Sola Scriptura is the claim that Scripture is the alone infallible rule of faith and life—it’s the only infallible authority. This was made against the contending claims of the Papistical faction which sought to add two additional formal principles of faith—i.e., sources of infallible authority:
1. The Magisterium. This is that ecclesiastical authority which lays down, or makes a deposit of, the authentical teaching of the Church. This is not merely the Church that cannot err by faith, but the Church that cannot err by reason of an infallible formal principle that is not Scripture.
2. Tradition. This is another formal principle of infallible authority that is transmitted from generation to generation, usually requiring the assistance of an Apostolical succession of bishops.
Against these views, sola Scriptura asserts a single formal principle—Sacred Scripture. The authority of Scripture is not dependent upon the authority of either the Church or some Apostolic succession. Rather, as Calvin notes, “[W]hen the Church receives it [i.e., Scripture], and seals it with her suffrage, she does not authenticate a thing otherwise dubious or controvertible; but, knowing it to be the truth of her God, performs a duty of piety, by treating it with immediate veneration.” (Inst. I.7.ii.)
Yet, we must acknowledge the supernatural character of the Church, which exists only by means of the Spirit of God, 1 Cor. 12:3. This is the Church which cannot err by faith, John 10:4, 5. All believers are born again by this incorruptible seed, the Word of God, 1 Pet. 1:23. But the representative Church is possessed of no such formal principle and participates in this supernatural character of the Church because and inasmuch as (quia et quatenus) its disciplinary decisions are taken in a real spirit of submission to Scripture, Acts 15:28.
Scripture is, then, the regula regulans, the rule ruling. Scripture is the alone infallible norm and rule of faith and life, 2 Tim. 3:15-17. This, however, presupposes that Scripture must have the rule over matters of faith and its practice, Matt. 22:29.
Creeds, and confessions, are regula regulata, rules ruled. Their authority is derivative and, therefore, subordinate to Scripture, Luke 10:26. Rather than possessing the formal principle of faith and life to the Church, they contain the material principle of faith and life held forth by the Church, 1 Tim. 3:15. They contain the doctrine embraced by a particular Church and are, therefore, binding upon all that wish to live in fellowship with that Church, 1 Cor. 1:10. Though, in a formal sense, there are no dogmas in Scripture, 2 Tim. 1:13; yet, in a material sense all true doctrine is found therein, Acts 16:4; John 5:46.
Creeds, and confessions, as regula regulata, when displaying a proper regard to their formal principle are themselves to be allowed as material principles possessed of derivative authority, Heb. 10:23.
Creeds, and confessions, are necessary since the Fall, 1 Cor. 2:14; to bear a proper witness to the truth of Scripture, Rom. 10:9-11. Scripture possesses a priority of authority, being the infallible Word of God, John 10:35; but creeds, and confessions, possess a priority of pedagogy, being the material principles of the Church’s witness, or testimony, 1 Cor. 14:19.
Nonetheless, though they differ as to what is proper to each, the law, as well as the testimony, of the LORD, are to share a common inspired teaching, Ps. 19:7. The law does this by an immediate infallible claim of authority, Jos. 1:8; whereas the testimonies are mediate and dependent, 2 Tim. 3:14.
Because creeds, and confessions, when framed with due reference and respect to the Word of God, share a common inspired teaching, they are to be received as authoritative instruction, Matt. 18:19, 20. Mediate and derived authority is, in fact, yet authority, Matt. 8:9; and, in matters of religion, this principle of authority extends itself into all things necessary to governing, Col. 4:17; including the matter of attaching an authoritative sense to Scriptures themselves, Tit. 2:15.
The same Spirit that inspired the Scriptures, 2 Pet. 1:21; works in believers to declare the genuine sense of those Scriptures, 1 Cor. 2:13. The Scriptures and their genuine sense are not to be considered two different things but the instruction of the Spirit is chiefly to be studied, Neh. 9:20; Matt. 13:52.
Sola Scriptura is, therefore, not a principle which excludes any other authority, or even any other authority in matters of religion, but a formal principle which asserts that there is only one source of infallible authority in the Church in all matters of faith and life.