Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Authority of Scripture
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. Galatians 1:8-9NKJV
Question three of the Westminster Larger Catechism asks, “What is the word of God?” It gives the answer, “The Holy scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.” Last time we looked at this question we examined the inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of Scripture. Today we consider how the Scriptures alone are the ultimate authority in all matters of faith and practice for the individual Christian and for the whole Church.
To say that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the only rule of faith and obedience does not mean that there are no other authorities in life. The Westminster divines affirm the authority of all “superiors” in various relationships, whether that be in the family, the Church, or the state. They affirm the God-given authority of church and state governments. And since they were knowingly developing a confession of faith and catechisms for the state church at the behest of the English Parliament, it is safe to say that they affirmed the authority of creeds and subordinate (to Scripture) standards. No, when the divines teach that Scripture is the “only rule of faith and obedience,” they are appealing to the long-cherished Protestant tradition that ultimately Scripture alone can be my rule, my guide, my measuring standard. Whereas manmade creeds and traditions can be helpful and informative, I cannot rest in the opinions of men, no matter how distinguished or celebrated. I must measure and examine what I believe and what I do by the Word of God. All creeds, confessions, traditions, theologies, philosophies, worldviews, systems of morals and ethics, laws, rules, and codes of conduct must themselves be judged by Scripture in order to determine their worth and accuracy. When it comes to what is true and accurate to affirm and to believe in the Christian religion, and what is good and right to do and to avoid in the Christian life, Scripture alone must ultimately decide.
This doctrine was crucial in the Protestant Reformation. In fact, even though it was the doctrine of justification that was boiling at the surface of the disagreement and came to the fore first, the underlying foundation and source of heat in the debate was the question of who is the final authority for the individual Christian and for the Church as a whole? Medieval church officials accused Martin Luther of going against popes, councils, and the Tradition of the church. They claimed that these were the authorities over Christians who had no right to disagree with them. Here councils refers to historical gatherings of church officials like the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, or Ephesus, and Tradition is that “unwritten” body of doctrine that Rome affirms was passed down by the apostles, through the church fathers, and is still with us today. Luther had no right to go against what these authorities asserted for it was held that they were on equal authority with Scripture and that they alone could authoritatively interpret Scripture.
The apostle Paul thunders against this claim in the verses from Galatians at the head of this article. If we apostles, Paul says—those men uniquely and personally commissioned by Jesus and given the power to do miracles and to give miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit to others with the laying on of their hands (Acts 8:18)—or if even the celestial angels from heaven would come down and give another gospel to the Galatians than the one they had already received from Paul, they are to let those apostles or angels be accursed! They are not to listen to them or believe them, they are to let them be accursed. Beloved, here the apostle Paul is telling ordinary believers in Galatia to test all teachings and all rational beings, whether from earth or heaven, by the Word of God alone! In other words you and I are to judge all things and all persons by God’s Word in Scripture. Whatever does not conform to Scripture is to be rejected. Every person, every institution, every council, tradition, belief, or pronouncement of man is, and must always remain, subject to the Word of God, because Scripture alone is the final authority in all matters of Christian belief and practice.