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Article 6 — Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation

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Posted by Marty Ford, 6 Mar 2017

Marty Foord explores the thorny issue of the sufficiency of scripture in today's post on the 39 Articles.

VI — Of THE SUFFICIENCY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES FOR SALVATION
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Of the Names and Number of the Canonical Books

Genesis
Exodus
Leviticus
Numbers
Deuteronomy
Joshua
Judges
Ruth
The First Book of Samuel
The Second Book of Samuel
The First Book of Kings
The Second Book of Kings
The First Book of Chronicles
The Second Book of Chronicles
The First Book of Esdras
The Second Book of Esdras
The Book of Esther
The Book of Job
The Psalms
The Proverbs
Ecclesiastes or Preacher
Cantica, or Songs of Solomon
Four Prophets the greater
Twelve Prophets the less

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras
The Fourth Book of Esdras
The Book of Tobias
The Book of Judith
The rest of the Book of Esther
The Book of Wisdom
Jesus the Son of Sirach
Baruch the Prophet
The Song of the Three Children
The Story of Susanna
Of Bel and the Dragon
The Prayer of Manasses
The First Book of Maccabees
The Second Book of Maccabees

All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.

“Yes, Scripture is God’s word but we cannot as Christians do without the insights of modern science and recent medical advances”. “We know much more now about sexual orientation than in New Testament times, and we must take that into account”. Have you ever heard these kinds of statements? They focus on what article six addresses: the sufficiency of Scripture. The first five of the thirty-nine articles reaffirmed the Church’s universal beliefs. Article six now turns to issues of controversy, particularly with medieval Catholicism.

1. THE SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE
For what is Scripture sufficient? This is the critical question because there are many issues the Bible does not address such as the nature of quantum physics, the fundamentals of genetics, or the complexities of the human brain. Article six clearly states how the Bible is sufficient: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation”. Scripture’s purpose is to bring about people’s salvation. It is not necessarily to explain the intricacies of DNA, or provide a cure for cancer.

Now, “salvation” in article six is not simply becoming a Christian. For the reformers it also entailed perseverance until final salvation on judgement day. In short, Scripture is sufficient for both the conversion and conservation of believers.

Why did Scripture’s sufficiency need affirmation in the sixteenth century? Because many in medieval Catholicism maintained that Scripture lacked necessary knowledge for salvation. They held that Jesus handed onto the church other teachings and rituals not found in Scripture. Various medieval theologians argued that these unwritten traditions had been preserved by the Holy Spirit through a continual succession of bishops passing them on through time. As John Eck, the fierce opponent of Martin Luther said, Christ’s apostles “taught many more things than they wrote, which have equal authority with those things written”.

Indeed the Roman Catholic Council of Trent followed Eck, officially insisting that the church’s,“truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.”

What were examples of these unwritten traditions? Doctrines like the perpetual virginity of Mary and rituals like the need to face East in a church service or the sign of the cross.

The reformers admitted that Jesus himself did and said many more things not found in Scripture. But that was not the issue. It was whether what was written in the Bible was adequate for salvation. And the verse to which the reformers appealed was: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30–31)

What is written in John’s Gospel (which also assumes the authority of the Old Testament) is sufficient for salvation. And with every NT book added to this, the Bible only becomes more sufficient.

So, if Scripture is sufficient for salvation, article six draws out the obvious implications: “so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Here article six unmistakeably rejected any need for extra-biblical traditions in a person’s salvation. It released the believer from the burden of a legion of ceremonies which had accumulated by the sixteenth century. Moreover, as the Heinrich Bullinger noted, it would be impossible to prove these oral traditions came from the apostles.

2. THE SIZE OF SCRIPTURE
If Scripture is sufficient the next obvious questions arises: which Bible do we mean? The medieval church inherited a disagreement from the early church about the number of books in Scripture. The twenty-seven New Testament books were not in doubt but there was a question about the Old Testament. It was originally written in Hebrew (with some chapters in Aramaic). However, several centuries before Christ the Old Testament was translated into Greek. This was understandable given that many scattered Jews lived outside of Israel and were raised in a world that spoke Greek. Legend had it that seventy or perhaps seventy-two people translated the OT separately into Greek, and then discovered their translations were identical. Hard evidence shows this story is highly likely a myth. But in light of it, the Greek OT came to be known as the Septuagint.

Now the Septuagint that circulated amidst the early church contained a collection of extra books not found in the Hebrew OT. They became known as the “apocrypha”. What was the status of these books? On the one hand, Augustine thought these extra books were inspired Scripture because he believed the story of the seventy translators and that such a miracle proved the Septuagint was God-breathed. On the other hand, the renowned linguist Jerome (AD347-420), contended that the apocrypha were not in the Old Testament because they were never received by the Jews as inspired Scripture.

Martin Luther, at his famous Leipzig debate with John Eck in 1519, first concluded that the Old Testament apocrypha was not inspired Scripture due to its dubious statements used to justify purgatory. The reformers followed Luther and a long succession of early church fathers and medieval theologians. This debate prompted the Roman Catholic Council of Trent to define the limits of Scripture, the first ecumenical council to do so. In 1546 Trent affirmed that the Old Testament apocrypha was inspired Scripture. This was a striking conclusion given the many eminent Christian figures who believed the apocrypha was uninspired, which even included Luther’s great theological nemesis, Cardinal Cajetan.

In light of Trent it was important the English Church produced an official position on the limits of Scripture. And article six explicitly sides with Jerome (“as Hierome saith”) in rejecting the apocrypha as inspired Scripture. The Bible was confined to the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew Old Testament and the twenty-seven New Testament books because their “authority was never any doubt in the Church”. In other words, throughout the centuries as Christians have sought to discern which books are Spirit-inspired and which are not, there developed an unquestionable core. The apocrypha were too disputed to be included.

But article six does not conclude the apocrypha is useless. Rather, it affirms the books as helpful for an “example of life and instruction of manners”. But the article explains, the apocrypha cannot be used in the way inspired Scripture can: “to establish any doctrine”. That is for the Bible alone.

3. THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SCRIPTURE
Article six’s affirmation of the sufficiency and size of Scripture has immense significance for us today. Firstly, Scripture’s sufficiency is one of the most neglected teachings of our day. If Scripture is sufficient for the believer’s conversion and conservation then Scripture must contain all we need for a healthy church life. Put another way, Scripture should provide the rationale for all church activity. However helpful management techniques and leadership methods may be, they do not in themselves contain the life-giving food that converts and conserves church members. Technique is only as useful as it helps promote the Christ clothed in Scripture.

Secondly, Scripture’s sufficiency helps us grasp the place of popular disciplines like science and psychology. They may be useful in learning more about God’s breath-taking world but they alone can never convert and conserve believers. Too often a discipline like psychology seeks to prescribe what is good or evil for humans. But psychology is unable to define what is good or evil. That is the prerogative of a purposeful creator alone. Psychology does well when it describes. It alone cannot prescribe. True, medical science may assist us to live more comfortably. But without Scripture this amounts to making the Titanic more luxurious as it sinks. Disciplines like science and psychology are wonderful servants for a biblical worldview, but terrible masters. No matter how much we learn about the nature of sexual orientation (description), for example, it is for the one who designed sex to say how it is used (prescription).

Finally, the sufficiency and size of Scripture reminds us to derive our Christian beliefs from the sixty-six books of Scripture alone. No matter how old, attractive, or ornate, a church tradition, if it cannot be established from Scripture it cannot be imposed. On the other hand, the current postmodern climate pressures us to create and chose our own values: “I have the right to believe what I like”. Not so in light of Scripture. If Christians are “to establish doctrine” (about salvation) from Scripture’s sixty-six books alone, then we have no choice but test all beliefs against Scripture itself no matter how culturally uncomfortable the conclusions may be.

Martyn Foord is Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology and Church History, and Dean of Ministry Development at Trinity Theological College, Perth, Australia.

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