Westminster Confession on Sola Scriptura

Is the Westminster Confession's definition of Sola Scriptura derived from Scripture alone?

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What if the Westminster Confession's definition of Sola Scriptura was not actually derived from Scripture?* That is a serious charge to make, but if it is true then serious ramifications follow for the Protestants who accept that Confession. Because Sola Scriptura is a foundational doctrine for the Protestant Reformation, if it is false, then the foundation of the Protestant Reformation crumbles.

This article will examine the whole of the First Chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), this chapter deals with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and how it is defined. All quotes from the WCF will be indented, and given a Catholic critique based on what the Bible really does (or does not) say. All hyper linked footnotes (in blue) are from an offsite Protestant webpage which claims to give Scriptural proof for what the WCF teaches. (All highlights and emphasis are by me.)

I. 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 unexcusable;[1] yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation.[2] Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church;[3] and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing;[4] which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary;[5] those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.[6]

Catholics would fully agree that natural revelation alone is insufficient for determining Divine Truths and that these Truths can only be known by Revelation from God. What is said above is - for the most part - true, however, the parts highlighted in red contain serious presumptions and errors. Nowhere does the Bible teach what amount or what extent of Revelation was committed to Scripture, so the WCF cannot say all the information necessary for salvation was committed "wholly unto writing." A Catholic is free to believe that the Bible is materially sufficient, that all truths are contained either explicitly or implicitly, but a Catholic cannot affirm formal sufficiency (in which Tradition and infallible Church are good but ultimately unnecessary and not equal to Scripture). Next, the WCF says the former means of Revelation have ceased, yet the Bible nowhere teaches "former means" like Oral Tradition have ceased, much less Revelation itself. It is true that Divine Revelation has ceased, but that is a Tradition itself, not a teaching from Scripture. 

One would think that such key information was clearly laid out in Scripture, yet the "prooftexts" given in footnotes 4, 5, and 6, say nothing close to anything about all of Revelation necessary for salvation has been committed entirely to Scripture, nor that the former forms of Revelation like Tradition have ceased.

II. Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testament, which are these: Of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel, II Samuel, I Kings, II Kings, I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. Of the New Testament: The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, The Acts of the Apostles, Paul's Epistles to the Romans, Corinthians I, Corinthians II, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians I , Thessalonians II , To Timothy I , To Timothy II, To Titus, To Philemon, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The Epistle of James, The first and second Epistles of Peter, The first, second, and third Epistles of John, The Epistle of Jude, The Revelation of John. All which are given by inspiration of God to be the rule of faith and life.[7]

The WCF proceeds to list the canon of Scripture, citing what books the WCF considers "Scripture," yet this list of books is one of the most unBiblical claims the WCF could make. Nowhere does the Bible list what books belong in Scripture; in fact the answer to that question depends first and foremost on Tradition to answer. The footnote given here comes nowhere close to a formal list of which specific books belong in the Bible.

III. The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.[8]

On what grounds does the WCF make this claim? From Scripture? Not at all. This teaching is not derived from Scripture.

IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not 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.[9]

A Catholic would find nothing objectionable to this, and in fact would wholeheartedly agree. Scripture is an authority preciesly because it is Divine Revelation, but that is not at all the same as saying Scripture is the only authority.

V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture.[10] And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.[11]

The phrase "word of God" is not confined to Scripture, because passages like 1 Thes 2:13 show it includes the Oral Teachings of the Apostles (which are never taught to be confined to Scripture alone). But what is most serious about the above part (highlighed in red) is the pure subjectiveness of the "persuasion" is not much different than the "inward testimony" Mormons claim for the Book of Mormon. The idea that the proof, persuasion, and assurance (that any given book of the Bible is inspired) ultimately comes down to the individual's feelings is not founded upon the teachings of Scripture. Inward testimony plays a part, but it is not the ultimate grounds. In fact, such subjective grounds are so dangerous that any Protestant could literally add books to or remove books from the Bible with no way for another Protestants to (consistently and logically) oppose them fom doing so.

VI. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.[12] Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word:[13] and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.[14]

The above passage must be read carefully. If the WCF is advocating material sufficiency, in which the Church and Tradition play a distinct but equal role to Scripture, then the above passage is more or less fine. However, if the WCF is advocating formal sufficiency, in which the Church authority and Tradition are not infallibe authorities, then that is not acceptable and does not harmonize with the actual teachings of Scripture.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all:[15] yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.[16]

The Scriptures nowhere teache that those things necessary for salvation are clearly taught somewhere in Scripture, much less that the unlearned could find and grasp them. Further, the very doctrines which are deemed "necessary" are never laid out in Scripture, so what is "necessary" ultimately depends on each individual and thus purely subjective. Footnote 16 comes nowhere close to advocating what is being taught here.

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical;[17] so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.[18] But, because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God, who have right unto, and interest in the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them,[19] therefore they are to be translated in to the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come,[20] that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship Him in an acceptable manner;[21] and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope.[22]

Overall, there is nothing significant whith which a Catholic would object to in this passage. It in no way supports Sola Scriptura, it merely is giving some practical advice.

IX. 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 must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.[23]

This is a very unBibilcal claim and quite presumptive. Nowhere does Scripture say the infallible rule of interpretation is Scripture itself, in fact such a "rule" is purely relative because it always depends on what the individual thinks is more clear. Such a claim is fine as a principle, but not as an "infallible rule," much less a rule taught by Scripture. Also, nowhere does Scripture say or guarantee that any given disputed passage will be rendered more clearly somewhere else in Scripture.

X. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.[24]

Nowhere does the Bible say it is the supreme judge of all doctrinal controversies. Nor does the Bible say that decrees of councils and other such authorities are subordinate to Scripture. In fact, it would be illogical to say Scripture is the supreme judge over the Church authorities because the Church is what interprets the Scripture. If the Gospel were a painting on a canvas, and the Scriptures were the paint while the Church was the brush, would it be logical to say the Scripture is the ultimate authority? The brush is just as necessary as the paint to produce the painting, and yet there is no power struggle between the two. The same reasoning is to be applied to the relationship with the infallible interpreting power of the Church (Acts 15:28) in relation to Scripture.

There should be no question, after what has been shown above, that the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith on Sola Scriptura is not actually founded upon the words of Scripture, but rather upon the opinions and traditions of men. It should be quite astonishing, and troubling to any Christian conscience, that a doctrine alleged to be so foundational to the Christian faith is actually founded upon the weakest evidence, most presumptuous claims, implicit arguments, and (worst of all) lacking a clear Scriptural mandate.

*The Westminster Confession of Faith is a widely respected Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant confession which lays out essential Protestant doctrines and has been held up as a standard by many bodies of Reformed Protestants for about 350 years (it was written in 1646).