ecently, I got into two completely unrelated discussions on two completely unrelated blogs about two completely unrelated topics. One was a discussion on Rose’s Reasonings about homosexuality. The other was a blog I had never visited (Lenscleanse), yet found via a link on Matt Gumm’s blog, and the topic was how small groups should not be permitted to take communion.
What was so interesting was that in both cases, those with whom I was discussing the relevant topics (in Rose’s case, a commenter named Earl) were both very gracious, yet both gave very similar information in their answers. That information was that they base much of their theology on the Westminster Confession of Faith. Or, perhaps a more fair way to express it would be to say that they believe the WCF is an accurate representation of their theology.
As many of my regular readers can imagine, I had a bit of difficulty hearing this because I think that this represents a problem within a lot of Christianity. I have read the WCF, and I find it problematic in several areas. In many ways, it goes beyond Scripture and forms propositions that Scripture itself does not clearly teach.
For example, Chapter XXVII states in part:
There are only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.
Now, I do not take issue with the idea that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. That is clearly biblical. However, the closing phrase presents a major problem. Where does Scripture teach us that only “lawfully ordained” ministers can “dispense” these? At the conclusion of the Lenscleanse article linked above, “RevGoT” (the name that author uses) writes the following:
Barna’s recent book Revolution seeks to applaud the entrepreneurial vein of pomo Christianity. He bids good riddance to the church and institutional authority in favour of sacramental understandings of Starbucks and any gathering between two Christians. This means that we need to redouble our efforts and retreat to the Scriptures to “sell” this notion of communion with Christ with his body in covenantal worship not just Christian fellowship.
In response, I wrote in my comment: “So, if you ‘retreat to the Scriptures’, what do you find?” Part of RevGoT’s response to me was:
On hermeneutical method, you mentioned that you look at those passages where the Lord’s Supper is discussed and see no mention of discipline there. This method fails to make the biblical theological connections from all of Scripture. This method is described in Westminster Confession Chapter 1
To be accurate, I had mentioned that I didn’t see discipline or authority (this idea that only certain people can distribute the elements of communion, or baptize believers). But at any rate, here are three paragraphs from Chapter I of the WCF, which appear to speak to what RevGoT was trying to say:
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. Nevertheless, we acknowledge…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.
VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: 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.
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.
I’ve highlighted one particular segment in bold, because it strikes at the heart of something that I find troublesome. One of the “solas” dearly held by the Reformed tradition is that of Sola Scriptura, or “Scripture Alone”. And this belief is what is spelled out in the portion immediately preceding the bold section above. Specifically, it is the belief that there is no revelation of God necessary outside of Scripture, and that Scripture alone is the only infallible rule for living.
Yet, in the section I have highlighted, we find that certain areas of worship and church government are held by the writers of the WCF to be outside of Scripture! And it is this very issue that came up on Lenscleanse. The author was maintaining that it is inappropriate for a group of believers who are not organized in a “covenental relationship” (a loaded term, to be sure!) to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. And in supporting this statement, he said that we needed to “retreat to the Scriptures” to support it. However, I maintain that this concept cannot be supported by Scripture, and is, in fact, a tradition imposed on Scripture by the Reformed tradition.
In imposing these manmade traditions onto Scripture, the whole notion of sola scriptura becomes a myth. It becomes a noble-sounding slogan which is devoid of meaning once the curtain is pulled back. RevGoT made the following statements in an attempt to show that this position was biblical:
Since sacraments are signs and seals given to his covenant people, it means that the original word (words of institution and biblical substantiation) needs to be spoken by one of his pastor-teachers that we never think the sign is ours, or that power is automatically conferred by the mere act. God owns his people and owns the sign and uses his ordained officers to deliver his gifts to his people (Eph. 4).
So, according to his interpretation of Eph 4, the “gifts” that God gave the church are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and because Eph 4 mentions certain “officers”, these are the only ones who can administer them. I maintain that this is a distortion of Eph 4, wherein the gifts mentioned are the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers themselves.
I am open to correction on this, as many of my regular readers know, but I would like someone to show me from Scripture a defense of the following:
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only allowed to be “dispensed” by a “lawfully ordained minister”
- The “offices” mentioned in Eph 4 refer to “lawfully ordained” positions
- Groups of believers gathered together for fellowship are prohibited from participating in the very signs of our oneness in Christ (i.e., the Lord’s Supper)
In closing, allow me to quote from Paragraph X of Chapter I of the WCF, as it seems to indicate a standard for itself that those who adhere to it fail to consider:
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.
By that standard, I think it’s time that Reformed believers actually articulate their beliefs by accurate hermeneutical interpretation of Scripture, rather than just punting to a derivative work and using that as the foundation of their arguments. As I told Earl in my discussion with him on Rose’s blog, I’m not interested in comparing what he says with the WCF. I’m interested in comparing what he (or anyone) says with Scripture itself.
Until next time,