“Now faith is unwavering assent to what is heard [from Christ], in full assurance of the truth of what is proclaimed by the grace of God. This was shown by what what was testified to Abraham, that ‘he did not waver in unbelief, rather he was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and was fully assured that what he promised he is able to do.’ But if ‘the Lord is faithful in all his words’ and ‘all his commandments are faithful, established unto ages of ages, made in truth and uprightness,’ it is a clear indictment of abandoning the faith and of arrogance either to supplant anything that is written or to introduce anything not written. For our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘My sheep hear my voice,’ and before this he said likewise, ‘A stranger they will not follow but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ And the Apostle, using an example from human affairs, more emphatically forbids adding or subtracting anything in the God-breathed Scripture, which he has in mind when he says, ‘Though a covenant be confirmed by human agency, no one denies it or makes addition to it.”
-St. Basil the Great, ‘On the Faith’, page 73 in his On Christian Ethics. Similarly, §26.1 of Basil’s ethics, “That it is necessary to confirm every word or matter with the testimony of the God-breathed Scripture, so that the good is established and the evil reproached.” He cites Matthew 4:3-4 and Acts 2:12-17ff for this latter rule.
This is not only sola scriptura, but the regulative principle. Faith in Christ includes faith in his words, which cannot be subtracted from or added to in faith or practice without modifying faith in Christ. Ethical conduct in faith demands that all faith and practice (word or matter) be ruled by God speaking in scripture: the Bible is the norming norm, because “It is necessary not to be fixed on one’s own reasonings to the rejection of what is said by the Lord, but to understand that the words of the Lord are worthier of belief than one’s own convictions” (§8.3). This is the practice of faith.
A friend asked me the other day what I thought were the key 4-5 distinctives of Reformed theology. I gave my answer, but have found myself pondering that question. I think I would rephrase it to “the distinctives of Reformed faith and practice.” Reformed theology is not just about reforming doctrine, but practice. It’s an embodied, lived tradition of the church. So what separates Reformed faith and practice from other Christian traditions, particularly the (Ana)Baptist, Lutheran (though there is a lot of overlap here), Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, and Wesleyan traditions? I think the best resources for a quick overview are John Calvin’s The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1544), William Perkin’s A Reformed Catholic (1597), and R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confessions (2008). So Reformed churches are,
Catholic and Creedal. The Reformed are Reformed Catholics (in distinction to Roman or Eastern Orthodox Catholics) and fully embrace the Catholic tradition expressed in the Apostles’, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian creeds. To be Catholic is to affirm and submit to Nicene Christianity as biblical Christianity. Nicene Christianity in particular defines the biblical and Catholic doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity and humanity. The Reformed also affirm and look to the church fathers for guidance.
Sola Scriptura. All Christians affirm the authority of scripture, and the Reformed are no different. Where differences lie is in the uniqueness…
Compare this “review” of Pete Enns’ most recent book How the Bible Actually Works by Robert Yarbrough of Covenant Seminary with this review (part 1, part 2) by Geoff Holsclaw of Northern Seminary. Both reviews come to similar conclusions about the effect of Enns’ understanding of the Bible, and both reviewers argue that Enns’ attempt to take the Bible on its own terms fails to do just that. But Yarbrough’s criticisms do not take into account how Enns arrives where he does, while Holsclaw’s review orients around charitably and fairly engaging with Enns’ work. In other words, Yarbrough’s review is not about Enns’ book, but about attacking Enns’ conclusions while masquerading as a book review, whereas Holsclaw actually reviews it. I am sure Enns knows which reviewer dealt fairly with his work and accurately represented his book, and I know which person I would want reviewing anything I were to write in the future. Relatedly, Enns has a guide on how to not to review books.
A friend passed along this insightful review by Hillel Halkin of Robert Alter’s one-man literary translation of the Old Testament. A great portion of the review uses Alter’s translation of the Jephthah account in Judges 11 as an example of the difficulty in translating ancient Hebrew well. Jephthah’s exclamation when his daughter comes through his front door can have a range of emphases depending on the way Hebrew worked colloquially:
In the Hebrew, Jephthah’s exclamation is, “Aha, biti! Hakhre’a hikhra’tini, v’at hayit b’okhrai.” This is difficult. If one were to try to translate it literally, one would arrive at something like, “Ah, my daughter! To bring to knee have you brought me to my knees, and you have been one of my troublers”…
How should this be translated?
As Alter does [“Alas, my daughter, you have indeed laid me low and you have joined ranks with my troublers”]?
As: “Ah, my daughter, you surely have undone me. You have done what no enemy could do”?
As: “Damn it all, child! You’ve tripped me up, you have, and trouble is all you are”?
Without knowing whether this is formal or casual Hebrew it is impossible to say for certain how Jephthah’s statement should be translated. Halkin states, “Much of the Bible is like this. Its translators work in a closed circle. To understand the nuance of a line, they must understand the passage in which it occurs, but they often cannot understand the passage without understanding each line’s nuance. Before objecting that ‘Damn it all, child!’ can’t possibly be the tone in which Jephthah is speaking, we need to consider the monstrously self-centered person he can be viewed as being…
Dan Wallace on the demise of pastoral understanding of the biblical languages:
Now, half a millennium after Luther nailed his theses to the door of the great Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, theological seminaries are on a rapid decline. Greek and Hebrew continue to be casualties. Genuine study of the biblical languages is being replaced by “Greek/Hebrew appreciation” courses—a euphemism for anything but deep appreciation, or nothing at all. Bible software, which can be an absolutely amazing tool for profound study of the original languages, has too often become a crutch. Rely on it enough and it becomes a wheelchair. One really needs to get immersed in Greek for a couple of years before being able to profit fully from Bible software that deals with the Greek…
Evangelical churches are frequently seeking pastors who have amazing speaking abilities, but who can’t exegete their way out of a paper bag. This is hardly what the Reformers had in mind. Listen to Luther:
“In proportion as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. For it was not without purpose that God caused his Scriptures to be set down in these two languages alone—the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New in Greek. Now if God did not despise them but chose them above all others for his word, then we too ought to honor them above all others.”
“And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.”
The Reformers argued, correctly, that if the church were to truly hold to scripture as its authority, then it needed pastors capable of reading and understanding scripture in its original languages. The common practice of pastors relying on Bible translation software and interlinear translations is a surrender of the pastoral prerogative to exegete and expound scripture to the church. Instead, the tools have become “wheelchairs” that do the work of exegesis on our behalf.