Some confessions begin with the doctrine of God (e.g. Augsburg Confession; The Thirty-nine Articles; French Confession of Faith; Belgic Confession of Faith) assuming the authority of Scripture for their distinct doctrinal articles. The Second Helvetic Confession and the Westminster Confession of Faith begin by affirming the Bible, Holy Scripture, as the word of God and therefore the only authority for our knowledge of God and his way of dealing with sinners. The Second London Confession follows this pattern. This method is wise and edifying as well as coherently rational. As the church is the “pillar and buttress” of the truth, its content of proclamation and teaching arises from Holy Scripture for it is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (1 Timothy 3:15; 2 Timothy 3: 16). Establishing the certainty of that foundation as prolegomenon to an exposition of doctrines to be believed should satisfy the mind and the spirit and give the right note of urgency and sobriety to the exposition of the other doctrines of the faith.

This chapter begins with a statement not contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith. “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience.” The word “only” modifies the three words that follow, confirming the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. This principle rejects the Apocrypha as having any authoritative word for developing doctrine, as stated in paragraph 3. Also, it eliminates the authority of the church as developed in Roman Catholicism but points to the self-testimony of Scripture that its authority depends on its authorship by God (paragraph 4). Paragraph 10 closes this chapter with another strong statement of the singularity of Scripture’s authority. The final judge in the examination of all councils, determination of all controversies, development of all doctrines, and testing of all private opinions and claims to spiritual insight in “whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Scripture delivered by the Spirit, into which Scripture so delivered, our faith is finally resolved” (10). The entire history of divine revelation through prophets, poets, kings, and apostles has in the end been committed “wholly unto writing.” This makes the Scripture to be most necessary because “those former ways of God’s revealing his will unto his people” now are ceased—sola scriptura. That body of revealed truth is contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments originally written in Hebrew and Greek is “immediately inspired by God” (paragraph 2).

So insistent on the exclusivity of Scripture as authoritative were the framers of this confession that they again departed from the language of the Westminster—“or by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from scripture”—and substituted “or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture.” The statement thus reads, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture; unto which nothing is to be added whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.” (6). At the same time, the confession recognises that “some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church” should be ordered by “the light of nature and Christian prudence” in conformity to “the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (6). This gives room for churches to develop such guiding documents as by-laws, procedures for the functioning of a pastor-search committee, the way in which the Lord’s Supper will be distributed, how many Sunday School classes to have and what age groups they should be organised, in what kind of building should the church meet for its corporate worship and education, and how evangelistic outreach should be pursued.

A clarifying comment on its sufficiency immediately follows the first sentence: “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 inexcusable; yet they are not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will, which is necessary unto salvation.” Thus, we see the importance of the words “saving knowledge.” God has given his image-bearers many ways to attain knowledge of the world he created and to discern the truthful nature of discourse. Empirical investigation (induction) combined with deductive logic yields an ever-increasing understanding of the world that we have been commanded to subdue. This yields a sphere of discovery for technology, understanding disease, development of cures, better-yielding crops that make for human flourishing in this life. The path to eternal life, however, through the forgiveness of sins only comes from divine revelation, for such redemption calls for divine wisdom—“the things that God has prepared for those who love him have been revealed to us by the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2: 9, 10).

Scripture is “certain.” This word is virtually synonymous with “unerring” or “inerrant.” It does not deceive or lead astray. None of its proposition, when rightly deduced from the text of Scripture, will be found erroneous. If the Bible erred, most likely, it would err in those areas of greatest mystery and not open to human investigation or human deduction. If error were detected in the historical narrative, how much trust could be given to the statements reflecting the mind and purpose of God, the miraculous in nature, and the mystery of the transcendent? Scripture, however, suffers from no uncertainty because every part of it is “given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life” (2). Its absolute authority is to be received “because it is the word of God” (4).

Not only does the Bible, in fact, contain no errors, but it is also impossible that it could contain errors. It is “infallible.” As a piece of literature spanning more than one and a half millennia, the coherence and non-contradictory character of its text, the present relevance and eternal pertinence of its teachings are guaranteed by the reality that it is “immediately inspired by God.” An abundance of evidence may convince the reader of the divine origin of Scripture: “The testimony of the Church of God,  ... the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, and the majesty of the style” along with the “consent of all the parts” and the consistent intent to bring all glory to God through the wisdom of the manner of man’s salvation, its “incomparable excellencies” as well as its “entire perfections.” Even beyond these observable evidences that the Bible is just what it aims to be—the word of truth given as a “thus saith the Lord,”—the final element of convincement is the “inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the word in our hearts.” It is that internal and supernatural work that produces “our full persuasion, and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority” of Holy Scripture. The confession uses the word “infallible for a third time in this article when it teaches, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself” (9).

How does one understand this word given to us by God? The confession points to two realities. One is the nature of the study of language when seeking to deduce a consistent message from a text. The second is the reality of the “inward illumination of the Spirit of God for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word” (6). The confession claims perspicuity for Scripture but recognises different levels of difficulty in comprehending distinct parts: “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear to all” (7). By the principle, however, of the analogy of faith, one may compare Scripture with Scripture and find greater clarity in some parts that will yield a progressive clarity in others (9). Scripture is non-contradictory, nor is it of such a nature that the meaning is pliable. The meaning is “not manifold, but one.” By the process of comparing Scripture with Scripture, one may eventually arrive at the “true and full sense of any Scripture” (9).

The second aid in understanding is the operation of the Holy Spirit under whose inspiration the Scripture was given. This understanding is called a “saving understanding” (6). The true power and intended outcome of Scripture are that we might internalise the proposition and sense its truthfulness. To know the proposition, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and believe that it is true is of a different kind of knowledge from sensing the weight of sin and its condemning power. In this recognition, we are back to the first sentence of the paragraph, which calls Scripture the “infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience.” Saving knowledge has that distinction of carrying the content that is necessary to know for salvation in the areas of our fallenness, the qualifications of Jesus as Saviour, the nature of repentance, and the hope of eternal life. This is the content from which organised Christian truth is developed. “Faith” in this context means the consent of heart to these truths thus deduced from Scripture. The content is the material source for the Spirit’s effectual operation in the new birth, the giving of a new heart, the granting of spiritual life. “Obedience” refers to the life of faithfulness as we replace our worldly standards for living and thinking with divine truth. This truth sanctifies and aids us in laying aside the weight of sin and energises us to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7: 1).

As one progresses through the confessional exposition of doctrines taught by the Bible, this article gives assurance that we are not giving a detached investigation of the mere opinions and prejudices of human rationality, but we are looking into the very words of eternal life. According to the truths here set forth we learn that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Hebrews 4:13).

Dr Tom Nettles

24th April 2021