THE SCOPE OF THE SCRIPTURES
Adapted from a Sermon by Thomas Boston (1676 -1732)
We come to the third question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This morning, I will closely follow a sermon by Thomas Boston, a Scottish puritan of the early 18th century whose selected text for the occasion was:
Follow the pattern of the sound words --- in faith and love.(2 Timothy 1:13)
in these words there is,
(1) The character of Scripture, doctrine: it is sound words: sound and pure in itself, and sound in its effects, being of a soul-healing virtue. (Ezekiel 47:9)
(2) The sum of it, faith, showing what we are to believe: and love, what we are to do. (1 John 5:3: John 14:15) This love has a particular relation to Christ, all our obedience having to be offered to God through him, as our faith fixes on God through him. This was what the apostle preached.
(3) our duty with respect to it: to Follow the pattern of the sound words. This means,
 To have a pattern of the doctrine in our minds, a pattern faithful to the teaching of Scripture.
 To follow it: to cling to it, and keep hold of it, without flinching from it, whatever dangers or difficulties may come with doing so.
Both these senses are implied in the words.
The text gives us a good starting point and foundation for the answer to the third question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
Q-3: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
And the answer, summarizing the Biblical teaching in a few words is:
A: The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
We start with some general observations regarding the teaching of Scripture.
1. We have on the one hand some things which are taught in the Scriptures which are not central: that is, the main purpose of the Scriptures is not to teach these things: neither are they taught for themselves, but for how they help understand other things. And so in the Scripture we may learn the knowledge of several natural things, as of the nature of some trees, birds, beasts, and so on, of farming, the customs of several nations, especially of the Jews, and so on. But these and others like these are only taught in the Scripture, as having something to do with our faith and obedience. So the vine is described in Ezekiel chapter 15 to illustrate the uselessness of empty professors. However, whatsoever is taught in the Scriptures, seeing the Scripture is God's word, is all to be received by divine faith, though all Scripture-truths are not of equal importance.
2. On the other hand, the Scripture teaches some things that are central. And these are faith and obedience. These are the two parts of the doctrine of the Bible. Whatsoever concerns religion, or the salvation of souls, in the old and New Testament, may be reduced to one of these two heads. it is either an article of faith, or a point of obedience.
Now this second teaching, concerning faith and obedience, we will consider under the following four headings:
l. The nature of faith and obedience, and the connection between the two.
II. The manner of the Scripture's teaching.
Ill. The sense of Scripture.
Finally we will show
IV. That the Spirit of God speaking in the Scriptures is the supreme judge of controversies in religion.
And so first, let us consider
I. The nature of that faith and obedience which the Scripture teaches, with the connection between the two.
i) As to faith.
Divine faith is a believing of what God has revealed, because God has said it, or revealed it. People may believe Scripture-truths, but not with a divine faith, unless they believe it on that very ground, the authority of God speaking in his word. And this divine faith is the product of the Spirit of God in the heart of a sinner, implanting the habit or principle of faith there, and exciting it to a warm reception and firm belief of whatever God reveals in his word.
And the faith which the Scripture teaches is what a man is to believe concerning God. This may be reduced to four heads: what God is, the persons in the Godhead, the decrees of God relating to everything that comes to pass, and the execution of them in his works of creation and providence. Now, though the works of creation and providence show that there is a God, yet that fundamental truth, that God is, and the doctrines relating to the Trinity, God's acts and purposes, the creation of all things, the state of man at his creation, his fall, and his recovery by the mediation and atonement of Christ, are only to be learned from the holy Scriptures.
From this we see that,
1. There can be no right knowledge of God acquired in an ordinary way without the Scriptures.
Our Lord tells the Sadducees “you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” (Matt 22:29) Those places of the earth where the Scriptures are absent are in deep darkness, and without the saving knowledge of God. And so the Apostle tells the Ephesians, that, before they were visited with the light of the gospel, they were “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph 2:12)
2. Where the Scriptures are not known, there can be no saving faith.
For, says the Apostle to the Romans, “how then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news! ... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom 10:14-15, 17)
3. There is nothing we are bound to believe as a part of faith but what the Scripture teaches.
Who it may be that propose it, and whatever they may pretend as to their authority, in the prophetic words of Isaiah, ‘to the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn,” (Is 8:20) (or no light in them). No man must be our master in these things: For we “have one instructor, the Christ" (Matt 23:10) He is Lord of our faith, and we are bound to believe whatever he has revealed in his word.
ii) As to obedience,
it is that duty which God requires of man. It is that duty and obedience which man owes to God, to his will and laws, in respect of God’s universal supremacy and sovereign authority over man; and which he should render to him out of love and gratitude. The Scriptures are the holy revelation from where we are to learn our duty, “by them is your servant warned,” (Ps 19:11) says David. The Bible is the light we are to pay attention to, that we may know how to guide our course, and order the several steps of our life. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path,” (Ps 119:105) says the Psalmist
From these things we see that:
1. There can be no sufficient knowledge of the duty which we owe to God without the Scriptures.
Though the light of nature to a certain extent shows our duty to God, yet it is too dim to reveal the will of God with respect to salvation.
2. That there can be no right obedience yielded to God without the Scriptures.
Those that walk in the dark stumble: and the works that are done in the dark will never stand up to the light: for, in this matter, there is no way to do this work rightly by guesswork. All proper obedience to God must be learned from the Scriptures.
3. That there is no point of duty that we are called to, but what the Scripture teaches.
Men must neither establish duties for themselves, or others, but what God has explicitly made a duty. As the Psalmist declares beautifully in Psalm 19, the law of God is exceedingly broad, and reaches the whole conversation of man, outward and inward, and man is bound to conform himself to it alone as the rule of his duty.
iii) As to the connection between these two.
Faith and obedience are intimately joined together, because there is no true faith but what is followed with obedience, and no true obedience but what flows from faith. Faith guides obedience, and obedience is the proof of faith, as James states “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17) Those who are without faith cannot be holy; and those who have true faith, their faith will work by love.
So we see that,
1 . Faith is the foundation of duty or obedience, and not obedience or duty the foundation of faith.
See how Paul’s words to Titus highlight this: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.” (Titus 3:8) Here the things to be believed are placed before the things to be practiced, in order to distinguish between the order of things in the covenant of grace, and what they were under the covenant of works.
Under the old covenant, doing, or perfect obedience to the law, was the foundation of the promised privilege of life: but under the covenant of grace, the promise is to be believed, and the promised life is to be freely received: and from this flows the believers obedience to the law, out of gratitude and love for the mercy he has received.
2. That all works without faith are dead, and so cannot please God.
“For whatsoever is not of faith is sin;” (Rom 14:23) and without or separate from Christ we can do nothing. Faith is the principle of all holy and acceptable obedience.
3. That all works without faith will come to nothing.
Those who adopt and encourage moral duties without highlighting the necessity of regeneration, and union with Christ, as the source of all true obedience, are foolish builders; they lay their foundation on the sand, and whatever they build will soon be overturned; and they pervert the gospel of Christ. Such would do well to carefully consider what the Apostle says to the Galatians, “if anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal 1:9)
And now we go on to consider
II. The manner of the Scriptures teaching.
1. The Scripture teaches some things expressly in so many words.
as, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3) Other things it teaches by good and necessary consequence; as, that believers are to be baptized. Now, whatever can be proved by just and necessary consequence from sacred Scriptures, has the same weight, as to the binding power on men's consciences, as if it were taught there in so many words, whether it be in points of faith or obedience.
2. The Scriptures teach only externally. it is the Spirit that teaches internally.
The Scriptures externally reveal what we are to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man; but the inward illumination of the Spirit of God is necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Scriptures. Hear these solemn words spoken by the Lord, “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt 11:27)
We come in the third place to consider
III. The meaning of the Scripture.
1. Scripture has one meaning, not many meanings.
There may be several parts of that one meaning related to one to another as some prophecies have a respect to the physical deliverance from Babylon, the spiritual by Christ, and the eternal in heaven; and some passages have one thing that is a picture or type of another as the Passover Lamp is a picture or type of Christ.
Yet these are all part of one full meaning shown in different ways, some simple, and others more complex.
Some Scriptures have only a simple sense, containing a declaration of one thing only: and that is either proper or figurative. A proper sense is that which arises from the words taken properly, and the figurative from the words taken figuratively.
a) Some have a simple proper sense, as, “God is spirit,” (John 4:24) “God created the heavens and the earth;” (Gen 1:1) which are to be understood according to the plain meaning of the words.
b) Some have a simple figurative sense: as, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away.” (John 15:1) These have but one simple sense: but then it is a figurative one, and is not to be understood according to the plain words, as if Christ were a tree in this case.
The richer or mixed meaning is found wherein one thing is held forth as a type of the other; and so it consists of two parts, the one respecting the type, the other the antitype, that is, the thing to which the type points: which are not two senses, but two parts of that one and entire sense intended by the Holy Spirit.
For example Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that those who were stung by the fiery serpents might look to it and be healed. The full sense of which is, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14) Here we see a literal and mystical sense, which make up one full sense between them.
Now the meaning of the Scriptures must be one, it is one overall message all held together and presented in various ways all interrelated in one wonderful unity of truth.
2. Scripture is its own interpreter.
That is, where there is a question about the true sense of Scripture, it must be found out what it is by searching other places that speak more clearly; the Scripture itself being the infallible rule of interpreting Scripture.
Now that it is so, appears from the following arguments.
(1) The Holy Spirit gives this as a rule
After the apostle had called the Christians to pay attention to the Scriptures, he gives them this rule for understanding it, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet 1:20) As it came; so it is to be interpreted: but it did not come by the will of man; therefore we are not to rest on men for the sense of it, but holy men speaking as they were moved by the Holy Spirit, and therefore without error. Therefore we are to look to the help of the same Spirit in other places.
(2) There are several approved examples of this.
Scripture itself contains examples of comparing one Scripture with another, to find out the meaning of the Holy Spirit; as in Acts chapter 15 “and with this the words of the prophets agree." (Acts 15:15) The Bereans are commended for this. (Acts 17:11) Indeed, Christ himself makes use of this to show the true sense of the Scripture against the devil, Matthew 4:6, “throw yourself down,” (said that wicked spirit): for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you.” (Matt 4:6) “Again it is written, “(says Christ), “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (4:7) And so our Lord makes out the true sense of that Scripture, that it is to be understood only with respect to them who do not cast themselves on a tempting of God.
This then is the great, chief, and infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, to compare one passage with another. Other things may be added as helps and means in order to find out the true sense.
1. The knowledge of the Hebrew and Greek,
Knowledge of the languages in which the prophets and Apostles wrote, is an excellent help in the right understanding of the Scriptures. These original languages are the best commentaries on Scripture; and many times it is found so by those that know them.
2. Distinguish between literal and figurative words.
The Scripture frequently uses figurative expressions, which, if taken to the letter, will lead to a very absurd sense.
3. The commentaries of godly and learned writers are not to be neglected.
4. The general knowledge of world history.
This can be of notable use in the knowledge of the prophetical writings. And the knowledge of the Jewish customs can be a great help in understanding the Scriptures.
5. Always pay attention to the logic of faith.
Be careful to never deviate from it: for the Spirit of God speaking in the Scripture is always one and the same; and therefore we are never to think that one Scripture can be contrary to another or the known doctrine of the Bible and the form of sound words: For example ‘This is my body which is broken for you.’ This cannot be so understood as if Christ’s body were locally present in the sacrament: because we believe, according to the constant doctrine of Scripture, that Christ is ascended into heaven, and will come again at the last day: and until then the heavens must contain him.
1. Go to God for his Spirit to teach you. (Ps 119:18)
it is Christ’s work to give people understanding of the Scriptures. If you want to understand what Paul says, pray for the Spirit by which he wrote.
2. Beware of a carnal, earthly, and fleshly mind.
When the heart is carnal, the mind is greatly blinded, and so utterly unfit for searching the Scriptures.
3. Endeavour to apply yourself to godliness.
An exercised frame of mind proves sometimes to be an excellent commentator.
4. Lastly, Endeavour to practice what you know.
I proceed to show, in our last main heading, that,
IV. The Spirit of God speaking in Scripture is the supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined.
This is a very important point, and the whole of religion depends on it. One man says one thing, another man says another: the question is, who shall be judge, and to whose conclusions are we to stand and submit to?
Men generally go four different ways here:
First there are
i) Those who believe in a private revelation
We see this in the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements. They accept private revelations for the resolution of controversies. But whatever these may pretend, the Scripture is our only rule. For,
1 . Whatever revelation or light men may pretend to, God binds them and us to the written word.
As in the passage already quoted from Isaiah, (Isaiah 8:20) if they do not speak according to the Scriptures, they have no light. By going against the word, they show themselves to be under a spirit of delusion as the Apostle John stated: “whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (1 John 4:6)
2. The Apostle Paul devotes them to a curse.
They are pronounced accursed, though they were angels, who preach any other gospel than what he preached, and the Galatians received from his hand. (Gal 1 :9) Not only a gospel contrary to it, but another, anything different from or besides it, though not completely contrary to it. And if it is different the Spirit is inconsistent with himself, for he is the author of all the Scriptures.
3. We are commanded to “test the spirits,” (1 John 4:1.)
Now, how can they be tested without a rule or standard? And what standard do we have to try them by but the written Word? This was the rule which the Bereans made use of to “test the spirits” of the apostles, for which they are highly commended. It is that rule to which Christ sends the Pharisees to test his own doctrine. (John 5:40)
4. These private revelations are either a complete or partial rule.
If they are our complete rule, then the Scriptures are useless which is blasphemous, and contrary to all those commands that requires us to pay attention to the reading, searching and obeying of them. If they are a partial rule only, then they either teach according to the Scripture, or not. If according to it, then it is no new revelation, but only what the Scripture already teaches us. If not, it is because they are false and there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20)
In the second view,
ii) The Roman Catholic teaching sets the church as the ultimate authority
They assert that there is in the church a visible and infallible judge of controversies in religion. This we deny, and far more that the pope, or a council approved by men is such a judge. For,
1. The Scripture makes no mention of any such judge
In any of the places where the officers of the church are described (Romans 12:7-8; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11) nor anywhere else.
2. Our faith must not lean upon the testimony or authority of man.
“You were bought with a price;” writes the Apostle, “do not become bondservants of men.” (1 Cor 7:23) And he says of his work “not that we lord it over your faith” (2 Cor 1:24) declining, in his own name, and in the name of his fellow Apostles, being such a judge. But our faith leans on the word of God ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” (Eph 2:20)
3. The teaching of the church should be examined by the Scriptures.
The Bereans “were more noble than those in Thessalonica” in that “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) Now he whose teaching is to be examined by another, cannot be the supreme judge of controversies.
In the third place there are,
iii) Those who set up reason to be the supreme judge in matters of religion.
In our day, this includes Unitarians and Universalists who hold to this view
There is no doubt but we have much use for reason in matters of religion; as,
(1) To perceive and understand the things revealed in the Scriptures, (Matt 13:51)
(2) To compare them one with another, (Acts 17:11)
(3) To explain them, (Neh 8:8)
(4) To argue from the Scriptures, (Matthew 12:3)
(5 ) To defend the truths from objections. (Rom 9:19-20)
That it is not the judge nor the rule, that is, that reason should not to be admitted of itself, and according to its principles, to determine controversies of religion, is what is asserted.
To illustrate this by an example, consider the Trinity. We plainly see that the Scripture teaches it: and therefore, though our reason cannot understand, we will believe it, because it is plain the Scripture says so.
They say, they cannot believe that there are three persons in the Godhead, and not three gods, because reason is against it; and therefore finding the thing disagreeable to reason, though it were in ever so plain words found in the Scripture, they will not believe it as the words stand, but will force another meaning on the words though ever so farfetched.
And, that it may not be thought that this is the same way that the orthodox go too, in explaining Scriptures that are understood figuratively. Here is an example of that also. The Scripture says, Christ is a vine, a door, the bread is his body, and so on. We know indeed that this is contrary to reason if taken literally: but that is not the prime reason why we reject the literal meaning, and on which we build our faith as to the true meaning, as the case is with Unitarians, but because it would be contrary to other Scriptures to understand it in such a way.
Now, that reason is not the supreme judge of controversies in religion, is proved by the following arguments.
1. Reason in an unregenerate man is blind in the matters of God.
“The natural person”, writes the Apostle, “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor 2:14) (Eph 4:17-18; Ephesians 5:8)
2. Reason is not infallible.
Since reason is clearly not infallible it cannot be accepted as the final judge in matters concerning our souls. Reason may be deceived. Paul tells Timothy that “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” (2 Tim 3:13)
3. Reason must be subject to the Scripture.
It must submit itself to be judged by God speaking there. In the words of the Apostle ‘the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,’ (2 Cor 10:4-5) Matters of faith are above the sphere of reason; and in the same way that sense is not admitted judge in those things that are above it, so neither reason in those things that are above it. For “great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness.” (1 Tim 3:16)
Lastly, in the fourth place,
iv) The orthodox affirm the supreme judge of controversies in religion to be the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
This is proved by the following arguments.
1. In the Old and New Testaments, the Lord still sends us to this judge.
They do not allow us to turn either to the right hand nor left from what he there speaks. The Israelites are commanded in Deuteronomy to live “according to the terms of the law which they teach you.” (Deut 17:11) “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them." (Luk 16:29) is the sole remedy given for the rich man’s brothers. We are instructed to ‘search the Scriptures." (John 5:39)
2. It was the practice of Christ and his apostles to appeal to the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.
In Matthew chapter 4, Christ still answers Satan with that, ‘It is written.’ (Matt 4:10) And so while speaking to the Sadducees about the resurrection in Matthew chapter 22. (Matt 22:31-32) And in many places in the Gospels (John 5,10; Luke 24:44). We find his Apostles doing the same in the book of Acts. (Acts 17:11;26:22-23; Acts 15:15-16) And Peter writes that “we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” (2 Peter 1:19)
3. Only the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures is qualified to be supreme judge.
To the Spirit of God speaking in the Scriptures, and to him only, agree those things that are necessary to make up one supreme judge.
(1) we may certainly know that the sentence which he pronounces is true, for, being God, he is infallible.
(2) we cannot appeal from him, for he is one above whom there is none.
(3) He is no respecter of persons, nor can he be biased in favour of one or another.
As we come to a close, having discussed the doctrinal part of this subject, we will end with
The first inference from all that has been said is that
1. People then should diligently read and study the holy Scriptures, in order to know what to believe and what to do.
As the Scripture is the only rule and test of faith and obedience, let us apply ourselves to diligently search into it, that we may understand all matters to be believed and practiced relating to our salvation, and reject every principle and every precept, whatever may be is source, if it is not taught in the Holy Scriptures. We are not to believe anything to be an article of faith, or a duty that we are to perform, unless it has the sanction of the Spirit of God in the written Word, and be commanded to us by that infallible Judge. Let it then be our daily care and principal study to make ourselves familiar with the Word of God, and draw from that infallible treasury all our knowledge as to faith and practice.
The second inference is the observation
2. How dangerous must it be to maintain opinions and practices which are manifestly contrary to the word of God.
How dangerous must be the state of those who hold doctrines contrary to and harmful to the foundations of Christianity. Many such doctrines are taught and propagated in our day; such as the popular teaching which can be described as Easy-believism which boldly teaches that saying a prayer or signing a card is all that is needed to be saved; the Universalists who effectively teach that there is no hell and that all will be saved; and others who set up creeds, confessions, and covenants of human invention, in the place of the infallible oracles of truth.
A third inference is,
3. How worthy of reproof are they who take no trouble to read the Scriptures.
They seldom look into them, or at most only on a Sunday, without giving attention to what they read; and so are grossly ignorant of the first principles of religion.
And one last inference is that
4. Religion, if it be of the right sort, will be practical religion.
A blind obedience, or ignorant obedience, to some of the duties of religion is no better than bodily exercise, which, in the context of eternity, does little good.
All right obedience flows from a principle of faith in the heart. True faith will always produce, and be accompanied with good works. And it is in vain for men to say they have religion, unless they abound in all the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ to the praise and glory of God.
Let us then show our faith by our works, in paying diligent attention to all the commands of God, and doing whatsoever he has enjoined us in his Word.