This is the third in a series of articles on the vows of Presbyterian ministers and elders. For the earlier articles see

Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel, and the gospel lies at the heart of the church. Nothing can take his place. However, this raises a further question: where do we learn of Jesus and the gospel? Where is the common ground and the ground rules for what we believe and do in church? 

The first vow of Presbyterian office-bearers answers these questions by pointing to the Scriptures. This vow reads as follows:

  1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only rule of faith and practice?

The boundary of Scripture – of the Old and New Testaments

Over the years it has been important to define exactly where the boundary of Scripture lies. In the second century Marcion wanted to remove all the Old Testament, and all Gospels except for selections from Luke. Of the rest of the New Testament, only ten of Paul’s letters were retained, with modifications. The second century Montanists used private revelations from the Spirit to displace God’s word. The Roman Catholic church treated the Old Testament apocrypha as Scripture, despite its rejection by their own early father, Jerome. 

More recently we have the canon within the canon as defined by critical scholarship and even the red-letter Bible that privileges certain parts of the Gospels. Functionally, many Christians largely ignore the Old Testament by not reading or preaching from it, or by interpreting it in ways that make it mere background to the New Testament.

For these reasons, it is important to have clarity about just what is counted as Scripture. The whole Bible is to be revered, read, preached, and treated as the word of God.

The nature of Scripture – the word of God

What does it mean to call Scripture ‘the word of God” in this first vow? This is the God-inspired word which is useful to bring people to faith in Jesus, teach, train, correct and rebuke such that God’s people are fully formed to live out their life in him (2 Tim 3:15-17). This is the word that points to Jesus who is the final revelation from God and to which nothing can be added or taken (Lke 24:27 44-47; Heb 1:1-2; Rev 22:18-19). When its readers are illumined by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 1:11-13), this word has great power to cut through human defences (Heb 4:12) and accomplish God’s purposes in their lives (Is 55:10-11).

The nature of Scripture as the word of God establishes its place in the lives of God’s people and his church. We do not worship the book or treat it as a magical talisman, aesthetic object or antiquarian artefact. Rather, we honour it because it is the word of the God who has saved us and whom we worship, trust and serve. Its authority in faith and life goes back to God who is the author behind its writers and to Jesus to whom it testifies.

In asserting that Scripture is the ‘word of God’ the church does not deny its humanity, just as an assertion of the divinity of Jesus does not deny his humanity. And so, we give attention to such things as historical content, literary genre, language, personality, canonical order, and the individuality of the various Biblical writers in the interpretation of Scripture. 

The function of Scripture – the only rule of faith and practice

Few Christians would dispute the importance of Scripture as the word of God. However, some would qualify the words ‘only’ and ‘faith and practice’ in the vow. What does it mean to call Scripture the ‘only’ rule? The contrast is with those who would add other authorities. The leading alternative is church tradition, including Protestant tradition. Of course, it is helpful to look at what earlier people have thought about Scripture, and it is arrogance not to do so. However, once we regard their views as binding, we head into the territory of adding to Scripture and making fallible past figures into the rule of faith. The Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience has helpful aspects, but also risks blurring the uniqueness of Scripture as the ‘only’ rule. Tradition, reason, and experience have all led the church badly astray at different times.

What about Scripture as the only rule of ‘faith and practice’? Few question the place of the Bible as the rule for defining the faith. If our understanding of Jesus and the gospel is not drawn from the Bible, the result is uncertainty and chaos.  But what of the “… and practice”?

This takes us to the Presbyterian and reformed understanding of the regulative principle. How do we decide what goes into gathered worship and how it is organised and presented? Are these things decided by what we have done before, the opinions of church leaders, a congregational vote, the personal tastes of those organising them, fresh revelations of the Spirit, or the latest insights from the entertainment industry and Harvard Business School?

The Presbyterian answer is ‘none of the above’. Rather we are to look for Biblical warrant for all things while being sensitive to the light of nature (common sense) and circumstances. Shaping our church goverment and gathered worship is not a matter of finding a text to be made a pretext for every detail of church life. Rather, we look for principles, patterns, precepts, and precedents in Scripture, starting with the view that it is God’s right to define how his church should be governed and how he should be worshipped.

Scripture and church leaders

This first vow of Presbyterian office-bearers makes chapter one of the Westminster Confession a profession of personal commitment. When leaders have a shared commitment to Christ and an agreed standard for the church’s faith and life, there is a solid basis for unified service of Christ and his gospel.

                                                                                    – David Burke

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