The Bible and the Religion of Protestants

The Religion of Protestants

“The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants.” So wrote English Protestant apologist William Chillingworth in 1637, but the same words might just as well have been written in 1537 or 1937. From the beginning of the Reformation, built on the “formal principle,” sola Scriptura, to the present, the Bible has remained at the center of the Protestant confession, distinguishing it from the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic faiths, with their willingness to put more weight on the role of tradition. Indeed, one might fairly argue that, if anything, the Bible has come to occupy a more and more central role in many expressions of Protestantism, particularly in the United States.

But although the Reformation had been built firmly upon the foundation of the Bible from the beginning, it is important to remember that the doctrine of Scripture was not itself the pearl of great price which the Reformers sought to recover—that was the glorious gospel of justification by grace through faith. The doctrine of Scripture was, so to speak, the strongbox for preserving that pearl of great price: since God had revealed the way of salvation clearly, fully, and sufficiently in Scripture, no human word could add conscience-binding doctrines or traditions that could serve as conditions of access to God. Faced with the tortured uncertainty of his standing before God, Luther had proclaimed the gospel of justification, as revealed in the Word of God, as a basis of newfound certainty, by which the believer could approach the throne of God with confidence in his favor.

Luther at the Diet of Worms, by von Werner, 1877

The Bible and the Quest for Certainty

As the Reformation progressed, however, the newfound freedom of a church that had cast off the authority of a papacy began to breed new uncertainties. After all, the Roman church had not claimed merely to tell believers what they must do to be saved, but had offered authoritative doctrinal and moral guidance on a host of matters, and also helped define the proper scope of other lesser human authorities—from parents to parliaments and everything in between. Without such guidance came the risk of moral uncertainty. And the obvious solution was to turn to the same guide that had banished uncertainty from the realm of salvation: Scripture. With the Word of God as our guide, many reasoned, we could navigate all the challenges of life together with minimal uncertainty.

But what if Scripture did not always address the moral, social, and political questions we faced? Or what if, even when it did so, its guidance was hardly transparent, or seemed specific to a particular historical context? What then? The great English theologian Richard Hooker worried that if Scripture was to be our guide in everything, to the point of replacing other rational and human authorities, “will not Scripture be a snare and torment to weak consciences, filling them with infinite perplexities, scruples, insoluble doubts, and extreme despairs?” (II.8.6) It was these symptoms that he thought he witnessed in the Elizabethan Puritan movement, which claimed to find in Scripture a complete model for church government and liturgy, a complete solution to the various ills they saw afflicting the English church and society.

While their claims were in his view harmful enough even in the narrow context of debates over church government, his greatest worry was that there was little to stop this logic being extended into every area of life. Once one adopted the syllogism: “Scripture tells us everything that is necessary. It seems to us necessary to know X. Therefore, Scripture tells us X” there is no theoretical limit to what truths one may insist on reading into Scripture. And, Hooker memorably remarks,“just as exaggerated praises given to men often turn out to diminish and damage their well-deserved reputations, so we must likewise beware lest, in attributing too much to Scripture, such unbelievable claims cause even those virtues which Scripture truly possesses to be less reverently esteemed” (II.8.7).

The consequences of such reasoning are not merely destructive to our understanding of Scripture itself, but to our lives together as believers. Once one contends that Scripture simply must provide the answer to some question or other, and claims to have found the biblical answer, the stakes of any disagreement are raised immeasurably. No longer is failure to agree a mere matter of poor reasoning, inattentiveness to the evidence, or just plain stubbornness; no, it is a matter of basic obedience to God, basic faith in His Word. Thus every disagreement becomes grounds for a potential ugly church split, for why should we maintain fellowship with someone who doesn’t take God’s Word seriously?

You do not have to be a professional church historian to recognize that this is hardly a mere hypothetical danger. On the contrary, schism has been a pervasive characteristic of Protestant churches—and especially those influenced by the kind of Puritanism Hooker here opposes—right down through the centuries. Already in the nineteenth century, American theologian John Nevin decried the epidemic of “private judgment” that led a whole string of would-be religious reformers to found new sects founded, as they fervently insisted, upon the Bible alone, freeing it from the layers of superstition and confusion that centuries of interpretation had added.

Ironically, though, the unshakeable faith in Scripture’s comprehensiveness, simplicity, and perspicuity was on the rise just at the same time that the latest developments in scholarship were undermining such faith. With the rise of higher criticism in the late 1800s, theological liberalism took it more and more for granted that the Bible could not simply be trusted to give us everything our religion required. It must be supplemented, and often deconstructed, with critical reason. In response to the rise of liberalism, the ordinary rank-and-file of the American churches, along with a few of their more conservative leaders, doubled down on their faith in Scripture, insisting that the Bible, interpreted according to its plain “literal” sense, could tell us everything we needed or even wanted to know—the date the earth began, the date it would end, and everything in between. Contemporary Protestantism remains bitterly divided between such biblicistic fundamentalists, confessionalists who interpret their Bibles through the lens of various theological traditions, and liberals who continue to demand a wide berth for critical reason, and minimize the ongoing authority of Scripture.

This strife is the cause of many of our divisions, and false confidence in Scripture’s perspicuity continues to fuel arrogant and abusive Christian leaders who dismiss any kind of opposition as infidelity. Countless converts away from orthodox Protestantism cite their weariness with the seemingly intractable disagreements that fracture our churches today.

Hooker’s attempt to pre-emptively address these issues, before they tore Protestantism apart, should thus be of intense interest to us today. His answers may not provide a panacea to every crisis of authority, but they do provide a compass for navigating these mazes that remains remarkably applicable today. His response invites us to reconsider first, the nature of certainty, and second, the purpose of Scripture.

“As Much Certainty as the Nature of the Subject Permits”

On the question of certainty, Hooker sought to temper our temptation to seek religious and moral certainty in every area of life. To be sure, there was nothing wrong with seeking certainty in principle. On the contrary, he observed, it is simply human nature: “the mind of man always desires to know the truth with as much certainty as the nature of the subject permits” (II.7.5). But the key phrase here was the last—with as much certainty as the nature of the subject permits. The world, for all its beautiful variety and order (or perhaps because of its beautiful variety and order), is not a clockwork deterministic machine. It is a place full of uncertainties, possibilities, and probabilities, and it is the mark of wisdom to adapt the mode of our knowledge, and our claims to certainty, to the nature of the objects being known. Some eternal truths, he thinks, can be known intuitively and self-evidently, others by “strong and invincible demonstration.” But “if both these ways fail, then whichever way greatest probability leads, there the mind follows” (II.7.5). Scripture too can provide us certainty in those things it clearly teaches, but not in those things which it doesn’t. In fact, most of us, most of the time, rely on the probable authority of the testimony of the learned, and adjust our level of certainty accordingly. This probable assurance should suffice in most cases, so that our consciences can often be assured without direct guidance from Scripture: “in all things our consciences are best resolved and most in harmony with God and nature when they are persuaded only as far as the available grounds of persuasion will bear.” Indeed, to demand otherwise does not give greater assurance, but rather greater “confusion”:

When bare and unfounded conclusions are put into their minds and they find that they do not have the expected certainty, they imagine that this proceeds from a lack of faith and that the Spirit of God does not work in them as it does in true believers. By this, their hearts are much troubled, and they fall into anguish and confusion. But the fact is that no matter how bold and confident we may be in words, when it comes down to it, then however strong the evidence for the truth is, so strong is our heart’s assent—and it cannot be stronger, if properly grounded. (II.7.5)

In other words, you can’t make yourself more certain about something just by trying harder, if the matter is intrinsically uncertain.

“Sufficient Unto the End for which It was Instituted”—The Purpose of Scripture

So which things are uncertain, and which aren’t? Hooker tried to answer these questions by providing a fresh account of the purposes of Scripture. Of course there are things on which Scripture offers the believer certainty (Luther’s Reformation, at least, had staked itself on this claim), but Hooker insisted that we clarify the scope of Scriptural authority.

Hooker was resolute in affirming that Scripture was wholly sufficient “unto the end for which it was instituted.” But what is this end? Well, what does Scripture itself say?

The main point of the whole New Testament is what John describes as the purpose of his own account: “these are written, that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31). The same is true of the Old Testament, as the Apostle tells Timothy, they are “able to make thee wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). (I.14.4).

Accordingly, argues Hooker, everything that is necessary for our salvation in Christ must be either expressly affirmed in Scripture, or able to be readily and necessarily deduced from it (such as the doctrine of the Trinity). On the basis of this conviction, he clearly opposes the Catholic understanding of the authority of tradition, insisting that nothing essential to salvation can be added by human authority. But the Puritans, argued Hooker erred in an equal and opposite direction, by acting as if Scripture did not merely contain all things necessary to salvation, but all things necessary in any sense, necessary to answer burning moral, ecclesiastical, or political questions that were troubling them.

Many Christians today err in exactly the same way, although we are less likely to focus on the issues of church government and liturgy that generated such conflicts in the decades following the Reformation. Our questions are more likely to be about civil government, or economics, or education, but in every case, the reasoning is the same. These are the burning questions of our day, and we are not content with God’s Word being a lamp to our feet and a light to our path; it has to be a complete map of our path, a blueprint for the societies we are supposed to build, or a battle plan for the societies we are supposed to tear down. And thus we find ourselves interrogating Scripture for answers until it yields such a blueprint, and feign surprise and gratitude when it often ends up yielding the answers we already wanted to hear. Hooker deftly mocks this abuse of Scripture in one of the most memorable passages of his Laws:

As for those extraordinary arguments in which they claim that God must have done everything that in their view needed to be done, I must admit that I have often been taken aback by their exceeding boldness. When the question is whether God has delivered in Scripture a complete, particular, and immutable form of church polity, why do they presumptuously and superfluously attempt to prove that He should have done it, when the real question that matters is whether He has in fact done it? If there is no such thing recorded, it is as if someone were to demand an inheritance on the grounds of a written will, and, since the will contains no mention of this, to go on to argue from the love or favor which the maker of the will had for him, imagining that such pleas will cause the will to contain what other men cannot find in it. When it comes to the deeds of God, our duty is merely to search out what He has done and to admire it with meekness, rather than to argue about what our reason dictates God should have done. The different ways in which God may do good to His Church are more numerous than we can imagine, and we cannot presume to judge which is best until, having first seen what He has in fact done, we may know it to be the best. If we do otherwise, surely we go too far and forget our place. Our pride must be restrained, and our arguments must be silenced by the words of the blessed apostle: “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?” (Rom. 11:33-34).


All quotes from Hooker above are taken from our new modernization of Books II and III of his Laws, entitled The Word of God and the Words of Man.

Bradford Littlejohn is President of the Davenant Instituteauthor of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty, and editor of Reformation Theology.

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