Survey Studies in Reformed Theology
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©1996, 2006, 2010, 2016
We Humans can actually know things as they really are. It’s possible.
As humans we were made in the image of God. Of course that does not mean we look like him, or that he has limitations like the ones we have. It means that there are things in our nature that reflect the nature of our Creator. We are his handiwork designed to show the imprint of his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. In God those things are infinite, eternal and unchangeable. In us they are finite, temporal, and changeable.
Truth begins with God, not with pure logic or our human observations. It’s one of his attributes.
The goal of these foundational studies (Prolegomena) is to establish a basis for testing what’s right and true. Since as Creator he determined the characteristics of everything outside of himself, truth is the way things are in God’s mind. He can be the only absolute guage for measuring the truth and rightness of anything.
Some say we find truth by Logic. But Logic only handles information, it cannot create it. It has to assume certain things so we can decide what the facts are. We call the things we assume “presumptions”. (or more technically “presuppositions”)
For example: the secular world might presume that something is moral as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. But God reveals what is moral, he defines it. It’s the way he sees things. Our presumption is that God has spoken, and what he says sets the moral boundaries.
Critics assume we are just using “circular reasoning”. They say we believe the Bible is God’s word just because it says so. But it’s God who implants that certainty in those he redeems. It’s a work of the Holy Spirit. We use linear rather than circular reasoning.
In man’s fallen condition, God’s truth isn’t perceived accurately. In his attempt to live in God’s world – while denying his moral relationship with it – he will either deny the possibility of knowing truth at all, or he will try to create a substitute, and therefore he builds on a false standard for truth. An invention like that forces everything to be interpreted in a way that supports mankind’s fallen imagination of what’s true and right. But the Bible shows us that there is real truth, and that it’s bound to the person of the Creator.
Psalm 117:2 “the truth of the Lord is everlasting”
In John 14:6 Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life”
We say that all the truth revealed to us by God is analogical. That means it agrees with, corresponds with, but isn’t completely identical with, what is in God’s perfect mind. There is an “analogy” between what God tells us, and what God knows infinitely and perfectly.
Deuteronomy 18 says that it’s required of prophets that their message be consistent with everything God reveals, and that it needs to agree with what God actually does or permits.
In Acts 17:11 the Bereans are called “more noble” because they searched the Scriptures daily to test what they heard from the Apostle Paul. They tested it against the only objective authority available to them as a standard, the Scriptures.
The possibility of knowing truth rests in the consistency of God’s mind. Therefore there can’t be any real contradictions about anything in our world. If contradictions can exist, there is no possibility of knowing anything as being “really true”. If a thing might both be and not be, at the same time and in the same way, then everything can be considered to be nonsense and unknowable. If someting is an actual a contradiction, then it does not correspond with the way things are in God’s mind. It’s not a “true truth”.
So a system of truth needs to be rooted in the nature of God.
God does not know things in the same way we organize them. We understand things and ideas by giving names to individual things and ideas. We associate similar things into groups, and give them a group label, or name. This enables us to study things by working with these groups of ideas [such as: collie/dog(canine)/mamal].
In God’s mind there are no isolated ideas that need to be studied to produce higher order ideas. Systematic reasoning is unique to us creatures. The Creator has a unified absolute mind which we attempt to understand through his revelation. As Creator, he designed us to be able to know what he wants us to know. He used holy men to produce an inspired, objective and infallible record of revelation. Today, the Bible is sufficient to teach us all he wants us to know about himself and about his plan. Included in God’s word are rules for studying the word itself. To the degree that we use God’s methods consistently, our study will produce ideas consistent with truth as it exists in the mind of God.
But for a study of God’s truth to benefit us, we must be spiritually alive through the work of the Savior. In our fallen, spiritually dead condition we distort and re-interpret what God makes known. To benefit from the study of God’s word …
– We need to admit ourselves to be sinners in the sight of God. That we justly deserve his displeasure, and are without hope unless we are redeemed by his sovereign mercy and provision through Christ.
– We need to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and we need to humbly rest in him alone for salvation as offered in the Gospel.
– We need to have a credible profession of faith so that our lives don’t keep contradicting what we say we believe.
– We need to submit to Christ’s teachings and authority as revealed in his Word. That authority is administered by his church as he established it.
It’s the duty of leaders in the home, in the church, and in the community, to understand these things to the best of their ability, and to lead those they’re responsible for to appreciate the truths God has made known. Paul wrote about this to two first century church leaders. To Titus (in Titus 1:9) he said that a teacher must be, “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” He wrote to young Timothy (in 1 Timothy 3:2) saying that all Elders must be “able to teach…” .
God provides his word, and sends his Spirit to enable the leaders to teach and to lead in a godly manner.
So, what part do written confessions play in defending God’s revealed truth?
Some say we should not have creeds or confessions, just the Bible. This might seem to be very noble, but it misunderstands what creeds and confessions are. They are not drafted to be another source of truth. They are teaching tools that attempt to spell out the basic teachings of the Bible on different topics. Having a carefully worded creed acts as a set of boundaries. They warn us if we drift off into ideas contrary to what the Bible says.
It’s naive to think that anyone can study or teach the content of Scripture without developing ideas about topics such as the nature of God, the origin of the Bible, the way of salvation, and other similar things we call “doctrines” or “teachings.”
If the beliefs, or creeds, that govern our understanding are not written down it makes it hard for our doctrines to be examined against the standard of God’s word.
Even a simple translation of Scripture involves some interpretation. When the New Testament writers used the Hebrew Scriptures, they were translated into the common Greek of the day, not simply quoted in their original language. To put an idea into another language, the translator must first understand what it means.
There is biblical precedent for explaining the texts of Scripture beyond simply reading them. In Nehemiah 8:8 Ezra read the Scriptures assisted by helpers: “they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”
The Bible assumes and commands that it will be interpreted by its teachers. Paul, in 2 Timothy 4:2, said ministes should “…reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction…”
If no interpretation or explanation of Scripture is allowed beyond simply quoting the Bible, it would make God’s revelation unavailable to most people. All Christians would have to thoroughly know ancient Greek and Hebrew.
No comments could be made about what the Bible says aside from simply reading the Scripture texts. Sermons would be forbidden unless they were just the reading of the Bible. Even selecting Bible verses to support what we believe involves a certain amount of interpretation. In the form of creeds, catechisms, sermons, commentaries, or Bible foot notes, written summaries are important in teaching God’s word, but they must rely upon the authority of the Bible alone.
All people have creeds (beliefs about what God has said) written or not. If not written, then it’s difficult to examine beliefs for their agreement with the Bible. Unwritten creeds tend to contribute to confusion and heresy. By setting clear boundaries, written creeds and confessions help identify denials of Biblical authority, and protect against elevating human ideas to equal standing with the Creator’s truth as revealed.
Good biblical statements unify the voice of the church and its teachers. Good Creeds and Confessions present a careful and sound summary of biblical ideas. By them teachings and ideas can be examined.
Officially adopted statements of the church’s beliefs are Biblical. In Acts 15:23-29 the Jerusalem Council of Elders issued a written decision. It was sent to the churches to correct errors and instruct the new churches. Their published statement made it possible to communicate accurately the advice of the council.
Heresies arise as a result of our imperfections. Since the earliest days of the church some have misused the Bible and attached their own meanings to it. For example: Arianism denied the actual deity of Jesus. This error was corrected and the biblical teaching explained in the Nicean Creed of 325 AD. It explained what the Bible teaches about the nature of man as a finite, changeable creature, and his corruption due to his fall into sin. It confirms that errors will arise unavoidably.
Good creeds point to the authority of the Bible alone. The first article in the Westminster Confession of Faith is titled, “Of the Holy Scriptures.” There it immediately says that the Bible is its only foundation for truth.
1:9, 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.
1:10, 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.
31:3, All synods or councils, since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both.
Good confessions are scripturally worded. They maintain a cautious reliance upon biblical language and expressions as doctrines are explained. They forbid all human speculation in stating what is true.
A good creed, confession, or catechism would rather say less about God and our duties than to speculate in areas of less clarity or where students of the Bible admit a need for continuing study.
A good creed, confession, or catechism covers the fundamentals faithfully and soundly. For example, speaking from its unique position in history the Westminster standards were based on a good knowledge of the Scriptures as originally written. They drew upon the wisdom of the early creeds and councils, the sound understanding of the past work of scholars, and previous conflicts in Christ’s church.
it needs to be done both Doctrinally and Devotionally.
Doctrinally, what we believe should honor God for what he really is, has done, and has promised. We need to properly understand the principles by which he commands us to live. What we believe as truth should bear an accurate relationship with the way things are in the Creator’s mind.
Devotionally, the goal of theological study should be to conform our lives to what pleases God. We need to think on his blessings, and thankfully appreciate God’s goodness toward us personally in Christ. It should stir us to humble and sincere worship of our Creator/Redeemer.
Our dominant goal should be as Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 1:14 that we might, “guard through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to” us.
Questions for Review and Thought
1. Why are we naturally concerned with knowing what is true?
2. How does the way God knows things differ from the way we know them?
3. What biblical reasons justify men explaining the Scriptures to others?
4. What text in the Book of Acts lays a foundation for church leaders writing statements of faith and practice to guide and help the church?
5. If the Bible is our only way of knowing what is true, then why is it helpful to have a confession or a catechism?
6. What is the danger of a church not having a written creed or confession?
7. What makes the Westminster Confession and Catechisms good statements of faith?
8. Why is it important that every family have and use a copy of the Bible?
9. Why is it helpful for every home to have a copy of the Westminster Standards?
(Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (1988 edition) unless otherwise noted.)