In his response to my article on why the Anglican Reformers rejected Nicaea II and condemned the religious veneration of images, Fr. Mark Perkins showed that the debate over this subject really hinges on the deeper questions about how we as Christians arrive at the knowledge of truth. Indeed, to reject what is often seen as an Ecumenical Council naturally raises questions about how we interpret Scripture, what authority the Church has, and what freedoms the individual Christian has. In this essay, I shall explain what answers the Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura, as it is set forth by the Anglican Formularies, can give to these questions. I will also be drawing heavily from the great 19-20th Century Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, and his magisterial Reformed Dogmatics, as I have found his explanations of these issues to be most helpful and to fit with the teachings of the Formularies.
As I analyze how Sola Scriptura impacts our understanding of Scripture, the Church, and the Christian, I will also endeavor to show how these implications can lead to the Church and individual believers rejecting Nicaea II. Finally, I hope to show how interpreting the Bible through the lens of Sola Scriptura naturally leads to the conclusion that it condemns the religious veneration of images.
As Christians, we have faith in God, trust in His grace, and believe He is revealed through His relationship with His people, and chiefly, in and through Jesus Christ. Our faith beholds God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; clings to His Covenant promises; and remembers the death and resurrection of the ascended Lord, and looks forward to His return. All of these things we have come to know through God’s Word alone; only through the Divine self-revelation of Holy Scripture. As the Anglican Homilies say: “we may in the Scriptures… perfectly see the whole Christ” and “in these Books we shall find the Father from Whom, the Son by Whom, and the Holy Ghost in Whom all things have their being and keeping up, and these three Persons to be but one God, and one Substance.”
Only through the God-breathed Word spoken by the Prophets, the Christ, and the Apostles, is God revealed. There is simply no other source through which we can know about God’s Covenant or anything that our Lord ever said, did, or promises to do. Therefore, as Christians, our faith is in God as He is revealed in Scripture. Thus, in the words of the great Herman Bavinck, “the ground of faith is, and only can be, Scripture… Scripture as the word of God is simultaneously the material and the formal object of faith.”
As a Christian, my conscience is, therefore, bound only to the Word of God, for only through the Scriptures have I come to know the God I believe in and obey. Nothing can be placed above Scripture, not even the Church, and to side with something against Scripture would be to betray my faith. My faith rests on God as He reveals Himself, on His own terms and through His own words, not on God as the Church imperfectly reveals Him.
The Second Council of Nicaea did not reveal God to me, and it is not part of the ground or object of my faith in any sense. Should Nicaea II be found to contradict Scripture, my conscience would compel me to reject it. Can we say of Nicaea II: ‘these are the words that the Lord spoke’ (Jer 30:4)? Are its words ‘breathed out by God’ (2 Tim 3:16)? Of course not, and so God forbid that I place my faith in its human words over the Divine words that no man can add to or take from (Rev 22:18-19), which if one preaches a different gospel to, he is accursed (Gal 1:9). I cannot betray the ground of my faith, which is nothing else but the Bible. This is the principle and doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and it is absolutely foundational for the Reformation. We can see Sola Scriptura play out most vividly in the life of Martin Luther, who after being accused by the Western Church of heresy, said before a Church Council:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.
Because Luther’s faith in the God of Israel, the Prophets, the Apostles, and Jesus Christ, bound his conscience to the Bible alone, he was compelled to reject those official teachings of the Church that he thought contradicted it, and thus he was accused of heresy. However, Luther would rather be declared a heretic than believe something he thought went against the Bible, for if the Church is found to teach something contrary to Scripture then in Luther’s eyes she is wrong, and must be reformed. It is not the Church, but God alone, Who can be trusted to be true, and thus it is only in His Word that we can have the assurance of infallibility, as John Calvin said: “our faith in doctrine is not established until we have a perfect conviction that God is its author.”
The Spirit of Truth by Whom God speaks to us in Scripture no longer gives any new teachings, and it is only because of His authorship that the Scriptures can be trusted to be infallible. Therefore, nothing else in this age can ever have the trustworthiness of the Bible, which is not merely correct in all its truth claims but in fact, creates truth. When the God Who spoke the cosmos into existence speaks in Scripture, by declaring laws and making promises, His words have an effectual and living power. The words of Scripture are ‘spirit and life’ (John 6:63), ‘living and active’ (Heb 4:12), ‘living and abiding’ (1 Pet 1:23), and the ‘truth’ that sanctifies us (John 17:17), they are thus unlike anything else in this universe. As Bavinck says: “Scripture, therefore, did not proceed from the church but was given to the church by a special operation of the Holy Spirit… the Reformation maintains that this special activity of the Holy Spirit has now stopped.”
This is indeed what the Anglican Formularies also teach, as the Homilies deny that there are “points not expressed in holy Scripture, which [are] left to the revelation of the holy Ghost.” Moreover, outraged at the Roman Church’s claim of infallibility, John Jewel, that great Anglican Divine, said: “what if they boldly and barefaced make Decrees expressly contrary to the Word of God? Must whatever they say immediately pass for Gospel? Shall this be the Army of God? Shall Christ himself be present with them? And shall they have the Holy Ghost at their Tongues end?” The implication being that they did not! Only Scripture is God-breathed, and thus, infallible.
Consequently, the traditions and teachings of men are not to bind the conscience, for we cannot ‘break the commandment of God for the sake of… tradition’ or ‘teach… as doctrines the commandments of men’ (Matt 15:3, 9). Thus, as the Homilies say: “let us reverently hear and read the Holy Scriptures, which is the food of the soul… and not run to the stinking puddles of men’s traditions.” If it is to be objected that there may be apostolic teachings found in tradition and not Scripture, we object, with Bavinck, that it is now “impossible to prove a thing to be of apostolic origin except by an appeal to the apostolic writings.”
As for Church teaching then, the Anglican Formularies tell us that the Church cannot “ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written” (Article XX), and that general councils only have authority when their pronouncements are properly “taken out of Holy Scripture” (XXI). Moreover, the Church cannot add anything to what is taught in Scripture (the Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost). Even the historic Creeds are only to be believed because they “may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture” (Article VIII), and not because of anything intrinsic to them or their author.
There is nothing about an Ecumenical Council, therefore (much less a pseudo-Ecumenical Council like Nicaea II!) that would make it an inherently reliable source of truth. If its teachings cohere with Scripture, they are true, but only because of that coherence and not because (like with God’s Word) they generate truth themselves. If they do not cohere with Scripture, then their pronouncements are, frankly, worthless. Therefore, Bavinck says the teaching of the Church “only rearticulates what is contained in Scripture,” and is not “trustworthy in and of itself” or able to bind our conscience. Of course, one may object that Nicaea II’s rulings in fact are God-breathed and thus trustworthy, but then the burden of proof is on them to prove this. Scripture has a self-authenticating witness to its Divinity which the believer, regenerated and enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is able to recognize, but this is not true of any other source.
Because God’s Word alone can be trusted, in His providence God has also ensured that Scripture provides us with teachings that are sufficient for the knowledge of everything of importance. If it is crucial for us to have the right understanding of any subject, then Scripture is sufficient on its own to give us that understanding. God would not abandon us by leaving us to seek that knowledge from a fallible and untrustworthy source. Rather, in His Word God gives us all that is necessary to live a life pleasing to Him and avoid a life that is displeasing. This is a logical necessity according to the principle of Sola Scriptura, and is thus a pillar of Protestant belief. It is found in Jude 1:3 but most clearly in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: ‘All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.’
The sufficiency of Scripture is clearly taught by the Anglican Formularies, as the very first Homily declares that “in holy Scripture is fully contained what we ought to do, and what to eschew… We may learn also in these Books to know God’s will and pleasure, as much as (for this present time) is convenient for us to know.” Moreover, Richard Hooker, another great Anglican Divine, taught that:
There is in Scripture therefore no defect, but that any man, what place or calling soever he hold in the Church of God, may have thereby the light of his natural understanding so perfected, that the one being relieved by the other, there can want no part of needful instruction unto any good work which God himself requireth… therefore they which add traditions, as a part of supernatural necessary truth, have not the truth, but are in error.
If Scripture is sufficient, another attribute must necessarily follow: perspicuity. For Scripture to be perspicuous, its teachings must be clear and easy to understand, at least regarding the subjects of critical importance, and according to St Augustine, so it is. Perspicuity is a property of sufficiency in that, while Scripture might contain sufficient information, if that information was unclear, and we by necessity had to turn to an external source to understand it, then it is no longer sufficient on its own. However, because Scripture alone is God’s infallible truth, we trust that it is able, by itself, to guide our paths. Therefore, ‘the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple’ (Ps 19:7 cf. Ps 119:105, 130 ; 1 Cor 10:15). As Deuteronomy 30:11-14 says, the knowledge of God’s will is not ‘far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?” But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.’
Returning to Anglican teaching, Thomas Cranmer wrote in his preface to the Great Bible:
All manner of persons of what estate or condition soever they be, may in this book learn all things what they ought to believe, what they ought to do, and what they should not do, as well concerning almighty God, as also concerning themselves and all other.
The Formularies also teach that Scripture is perspicuous, as the Homilies say that “although many things in the Scripture be spoken in obscure mysteries, yet there is nothing spoken under dark mysteries in one place, but the self-same thing in other places, is spoken more familiarly and plainly, to the capacity both of learned and unlearned.” Shedding light on this, Bavinck notes that one aspect of perspicuity, which he says is “one of the strongest bulwarks of the Reformation,” is that “Scripture interprets itself; the obscure texts are explained by the plain ones.” If something in Scripture is hard to understand, Scripture itself will shed light on it elsewhere. Sola Scriptura simply cannot survive without this principle, otherwise, Scripture would not be sufficient on its own. A final thing to note about Scripture’s perspicuity is that nothing can contradict its plain teachings. If Scripture appears at face value to be clear about something, and this reading is corroborated in other places, then the Church cannot contradict that reading and claim that its meaning is in fact unclear. The Church must clarify Scripture, not shroud it in confusion, or else she becomes no better than the Gnostic heretics, for St Irenaeus said of them:
When, however, they are confuted from the Scriptures, they turn round and… [assert] that they are ambiguous, and that the truth cannot be extracted from them by those who are ignorant of tradition.
Scripture, then, is the ground of our faith; it alone is God-breathed; it alone is infallible and supremely trustworthy, in fact, as God’s Word it upholds ‘truth’ itself. Moreover, Scripture is sufficient by itself for the knowledge of all that is important in religion, and, its teachings are clear and plain, able to be understood even by the unlearned. Nothing else can bind our conscience; nothing else can claim to be true in and of itself; nothing else is needed to be added to Scripture; nothing else is needed to explain Scripture’s most important teachings.
Based on these principles, if the question of whether one may religiously venerate images is of some importance – which it must be, for on the one hand Nicaea II anathematizes those who condemn the practice, and on the other, there is the risk that the practice is the peril of idolatry (Jon 2:8) – then Sola Scriptura guides us to approach Scripture with the belief that it contains the infallible, irreversible, authoritative, sufficient, and clear teaching on the matter. I hold that if Scripture is approached with these hermeneutical assumptions, then it can only be understood to condemn the veneration of images (see section 4 below).
2. The Church
As John Calvin says, “if the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist,” God’s Word is thus antecedent to the Church, and the Church exists because of it. While the Israelite Church existed before the written Word, the unwritten Word came first. The Lord’s Covenant with Noah, calling of Abraham, and self-revelation to Moses, all predated the OT Church and generated her existence. In the NT, the Church existed before the Gospels and Epistles were written, but she was founded on the written Word of the Prophets, and the unwritten Word of Christ and His Apostles (Eph 2:20).
The Church is therefore bound to Scripture, and Bavinck says: “the Reformation recognizes only a tradition that is founded on and flows from Scripture.” Consequently, the Church cannot ‘go beyond what is written’ (1 Cor 4:6) and her teaching must be thoroughly based on God’s Word, which is its only source. The Church is not commissioned to give the teachings of men, but the teachings of God, and these can only arise from Scripture. The Church is thus under the yoke of Scripture. Jewel said the Scriptures are how “God makes known his Will to us” and are “the foundation on which the Church of God is built…They are the most sure Rule by which we may Try whether it Wavers or Errs, and to which all Ecclesiastical Doctrine ought to be accountable.” If the Church has been found to teach contrary to Scripture, then she has erred, and like all assemblies of men, the Church can err and has erred (Article XXI).
The Church has a Divinely commissioned teaching office (Matt 28:20), and as part of that she has the duty of writing and formulating Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms. From her earliest days, the Church compiled the Didache and the (so-called) Apostles’ Creed. Indeed, without a Creed or Confession, she is no Church at all. Without doctrines and dogmas, or Creeds and statements of faith, total anarchy and disunity would ensue and the Church would have utterly failed to be a teacher, guide, and unifier. Sola Scriptura does not mean that the Church cannot have doctrinal teaching, only that the believer is bound to Scripture alone, and these teachings must conform to Scripture. We do not despise things like the Nicene Creed then, but uphold them with all due reverence because they have been found to be a sure guide to Scripture (Article VIII). Indeed, the Reformers themselves ushered in a glorious new standard of Confessional teaching, from the conciseness of the Thirty Nine Articles to the sweeping depth of the Belgic and Westminster Confessions.
However, the Reformers believed that in her teaching the Church had a ministerial rather than magisterial role, that is, the Church serves rather than orders our faith. What this means, as Matthew Barrett says, is that the Church’s teaching is simply “a tool meant to assist the believer in understanding Scripture’s meaning… a handmaiden to the biblical witness, rather than an authoritative voice governing Scripture.” Instead of governing Scripture, the Church is governing by Scripture. Scripture stands over the Church, rather than the Church standing over Scripture.
The Reformers taught that the Church’s teaching is not a “standardizing norm” that dictates and standardizes what Scripture says, rather it is a “standardized norm” that is dictated by Scripture. According to Luther, it is Scripture which is the norming norm, and the Church which is the normed norm. Therefore, J.I. Packer says that even Ecumenical Creeds can only “offer themselves as a guide to the interpretation of Holy Scripture,” meaning that the Church’s Creeds, Confessions, and pronouncements are not themselves the ground and object of our faith – only Scripture is – but they help us to understand what Scripture says. Packer continues, saying “what is denied, however, is that we may lawfully accept them in that capacity without first testing them by those very Scriptures whose substance they seek to set forth.”
Thus, the Church’s teachings, even her Creeds and Confessions, are always subject to revision and examination by Scripture, they are not infallible, they are not the oracles of God which no man can add to or take from, they are simply a guide and a map to those oracles. A map is always subject to its terrain, and if it becomes clear that the map is faulty and inaccurate, it must be changed and revised. Therefore Bavinck says the Church “listens attentively to the objections that may be advanced on the basis of God’s Word against its confession and examines them.”
This naturally means that the believer may indeed question the Church’s teaching (more on this below), with Bavinck saying the Church “does not coerce anyone… it leaves everyone free to confess otherwise and to conceive the truth of God in some other sense.” The Church does not lord herself over the believer, but serves him, and each believer is free to consider her service unhelpful. If a (local) church’s teaching is so contrary to how a believer understands Scripture that it hurts his conscience, he is free both to leave, and to call that church to revise its teaching. That being said, a church may well find that its teachings do not need revising, and if a believer cannot hold to the Confession of any given church, and that church finds no sufficient reason to amend its Confession, then that church is also free to send him out of its midst. If someone cannot hold to the Nicene Creed, then the churches which confess that Creed (such as the Anglican church), may indeed distance themselves from that person, and declare him to be a heretic. A church is allowed to maintain its identity, but it is also called to ensure that its identity remains a faithful reflection of its Maker and His infallible teaching. However, a church cannot bind our consciences, only Scripture can. While a church may stipulate that its members must show an outward assent to its Confession, it cannot force its members to agree with them in their inner hearts. A church is free to protect and preserve the purity of its teaching, and a believer is free to protect the purity of his conscience.
Another point to make about the Church is that she is not necessarily represented by an ‘Ecumenical Council.’ For starters, the Church is eternal, she lives on through the ages and is always present before God and so her teaching cannot be exhausted and closed shut by time. If the Church finds that she no longer agrees with someone she once taught in ages past, then she is no longer bound to that teaching and we cannot say ‘this is what the Church says,’ if she does no longer. Even what was once considered an Ecumenical Council cannot continue to bind the Church and enslave her teaching, for she is accountable only to God and His Word. By recognizing that she can err, the Church is free to change her mind. Indeed, this has often happened, with Church canons being rejected and those of local synods adopted. Hence, just as the Church was free to renounce the Council of Hieria (754 A.D.) so is she free to renounce the Second Council of Nicaea. Moreover, the Homilies reject the idea that ecclesiastical authorities, such as Bishops and Popes “are the chief heads and principal part of the Church” so that “whatsoever things [they] decree are undoubted verities.” The Anglican Formularies do not depict the Church as having an institutional, structural, and bureaucratic existence, but see her as an organic community of faith with a functional existence “in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly Ministered” (Article XIX). Therefore, not even Ecumenical Councils are above revision, and as Calvin says we are called to examine their circumstances, to inquire who attended and what their motivations were, and to test their decrees against Scripture.
When the Homily on the Peril of Idolatry comes to reject the rulings of Nicaea II, it was therefore absolutely within the rights of its writer (it is mostly an adaption of a work by Heinrich Bullinger) and the Church of England, to do so. The Homily finds the credentials of Nicaea II’s participants and presiding ‘Empress’ to be dubious, rightly points out that the Council was not accepted in the West (as Rev. Ben Jefferies has done an exceptional job of proving), and above all shows that it was not sufficiently based on Scripture and had faulty exegesis. In my previous article, I showed (and Fr. Mark Perkins even admitted to this, at least in its verbal sense) that Nicaea II’s pivotal claim that Scripture distinguishes ‘veneration’ from ‘worship’ was demonstrably false (so much for infallibility). If all it takes is some knowledge of Greek to prove that a Council had misinterpreted Scripture, and had hinged its arguments on that interpretation, then the Church and even the individual believer are free to reject its claims. To reject Nicaea II, however, is not to reject the Church herself. In my case, by rejecting Nicaea II, I am in fact affirming not only the teaching of the Anglican Church but also that of the wider Reformed Churches in general, and I see those Churches as having a far greater claim to represent the Church Catholic than a Council convened by an imposter, rejected by the West, and based on terrible Scriptural exegesis.
3. The Believer
Let us return to Martin Luther’s famous reply to the Diet of Worms, which is perhaps the definitive articulation of the Reformation’s position:
Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason… I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.
The irrefutable implication of this, indeed the logical conclusion to all that we have said thus far, is that in Protestantism, and under its doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the individual Christian does indeed become his own authority. This is often raised against Protestants as a complaint, and it is common for Protestants to deny it, but to do so is incorrect; the logic is clear, the conclusion undeniable. For Luther to have rejected the teachings of the Church, which had been officially established for centuries and all opponents of which had been declared as heretics, in favor of the “testimony of the Scriptures,” means that he placed his understanding of that testimony above the Church’s. The Church authorities Luther opposed would never dream of teaching something they thought was contrary to Scripture, and yet Luther claimed they had done just that.
One cannot say to another Christian ‘I stand with the Scriptures, you do not,’ without actually meaning ‘I stand with my interpretation of the Scriptures against yours.’ Indeed, Bavinck says “all that is objective can be approached only from the vantage point of the subject: the ‘thing in itself’ is unknowable and does not exist for us.” An appeal to Scripture in the midst of a debate will ultimately be an appeal to one’s subjective impression of it (even though they may trust that the Holy Spirit gives them a correct and objective impression and that by their participation in the Logos they can see the true logic of the Word). Therefore, while Scripture is the highest authority for the Christian believer, as it governs his life and beliefs, ultimately Protestantism does encourage him to be, for himself, an authoritative interpreter. Now, a believer may well have his mind changed by another; his initial understanding may be proved false, and he may come to have a new one. However, the believer would not adapt his interpretation if he was not sufficiently convinced. Moreover, even if someone assents to an authority higher than himself, such as the Anglican Formularies, it will naturally be because he already agreed with that authority, at least to a large degree. If one was raised to assent to that authority, the believer nevertheless must continue to choose to assent, and this will only be if he finds sufficient grounds to do so. Though again, this is not to say that the Holy Spirit does not have a hand in guiding the believer’s understanding, but under the Spirit’s guidance that understanding becomes the believer’s own.
While many other Christians may object to this principle, it must be pointed out that it is implicitly true not just for Protestants, because even if someone were to say: ‘we must submit to the Church,’ that only begs the question: ‘and who is this Church?’ Is it the Roman Catholic Church? The Anglican Church? The so-called ‘Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints’? Ultimately it is up to the individual to decide who he will follow. Even the most devout Roman Catholics I personally know, who submit to every teaching of the Magisterium, all at one time freely chose to submit, and they did this after having come to agree with most of its teachings. Why else would they submit? Who would follow a leader whose direction they thought was wrong? Even in the case of John Henry Newman, while he did say that it was only after assenting to Rome that he came to believe some of its doctrines which he previously rejected, and only then out of obedience, he nevertheless would not have assented to Rome in the first place had he not already come to accept a Romanist perspective on the Christian life in general. Perhaps as it regarded certain specific doctrines, Rome was the final authority for Newman, but he still remained his own master overall, for it was his own understanding that led him to assent to that authority.
Now, should a believer assent to a higher authority, such as the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, without finding sufficient reason to do so from the Scriptures, and if they submit to its teachings even when it might seem to contradict the Scriptures, then clearly it is that authority which is the object of their faith, and not God’s Word. The Church becomes antecedent to Scripture, and Scripture is seen to flow from the Church. In the eyes of Protestantism this is to reverse the appropriate order, for in that case the believer finds the fallible teachings of men to be more authoritative, or at least more trustworthy than Scripture, and must place the Word of God in submission to the word of men. One might retort that what appears to be the plain sense of the Scripture is incorrect, and that the Church has authoritatively interpreted it properly, but this is to deny the sufficiency of the Scriptures and make God’s Word reliant on man. To say that the Church is to be trusted over Scripture’s plain sense is to make Scripture less reliable than the Church, but God’s Word is ‘a lamp to my feet and a light to my path’ (Ps 119:105).
Luther’s example teaches us that we must follow what our conscience tells us Scripture says above what the Church says, for “it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” One may object that this principle will mean we can never have total certainty, but Bavinck points out that “the Reformation preferred a measure of uncertainty to a certainty that can be obtained only by an arbitrary decision of the church.”
Again, a believer’s understanding of Scripture can, and should, change over time and this will naturally be because of the influence of others. A believer may have initially thought that Scripture condemned the veneration of images, but after reading through the proceedings of Nicaea II and weighing its arguments he may have his perspective changed. However, if a believer, even after carefully reflecting on the arguments, still cannot help but see Scripture as plainly condemning images, then it is unwise to continue assenting to Nicaea II. This is the natural consequence in particular of the principle of Scripture’s perspicuity. The believer must tie his conscience to the plain sense of Scripture, rather than the convoluted explanations of the fallible Church. If by following the map of the Church the believer finds himself lost and confused, or in danger of falling from a cliff, then he must put the map away and create his own path; he must look around him and travel through the terrain as he sees it. Only God’s Word can make us take a leap of faith, not the words of men, for they are not to be totally trusted.
Thus, if a believer’s conscience is bound only to Scripture, this necessarily entails that he may, if he feels compelled, stand up to (what he thinks) is the entire Church. This principle is absolutely foundational for Protestantism, and to reject it is to stand outside and against the Reformation. Herman Bavinck said it well:
The Reformation asserted that a church, however venerable, can still err… It can bind a person in conscience only to the degree that a person recognizes it as divine and infallible. Whether it indeed agrees with God’s Word no earthly power can decide, but it is for everyone to judge solely for himself or herself. The Church can then cast someone out as a heretic, but ultimately that person stands or falls before his or her own master. Even the most simple believer can and may if necessary, Bible in hand, stand up to an entire church, as Luther did to Rome. Only thus the freedom of the Christian, and simultaneously the sovereignty of God, is maintained… It is Scripture, finally, which decides matters in the conscience of everyone personally.
The consciences of men like Jan Hus, John Wycliffe, and Martin Luther compelled them to reject the tradition and authority they previously adhered to because they could no longer harmonize them with how they understood Scripture, and Scripture demanded their (and our) assent far more than any Christian tradition.
When authorities like Nicaea I, or the Anglican Formularies, shed light on, explain, support, and strengthen my faith in and understanding of Scripture, then of course I continue to assent to them. If the Church’s map proves to be a reliable guide, one that warns me of danger, draws my attention to things I would otherwise not have noticed, and keeps me on the right path, then the map is to be praised and kept in my possession. Indeed, I will come to rely on the map above my own experience. If the map tells me not to follow a certain track, which seemed to me to be a shortcut, I will trust it, because it proved to be trustworthy. I wholeheartedly submit myself to the Nicene Creed, but I would not continue to do so if it did not enlighten and encourage the faith I already had in the Triune God revealed in Scripture. If the testimony of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, and His testimony in my regenerated heart as I read Scripture, and the testimony of the Church as she writes a Creed or Confession, are all found to be in harmony, then the Church’s testimony is to be believed. I assent to the Anglican Formularies, but I would not have chosen to if they did not reinforce and clarify my understanding of the grace of God that is revealed in the Bible. While I assent to a higher interpretive authority, I am still the final one, and so, if something like Nicaea II, or the Council of Trent, undermines, impairs, subverts, and weakens my faith in God’s word, then my conscience forces me to reject it.
All this being said, I do not want to give the impression that Christians should ever see themselves as lone wolves who do not need to be immersed in the community of faith. No Christian should cut himself off from the corporate body of Christ. No Christian should travel through the wilderness alone. When Luther realized that the Church had erred, he did not seek to start his own Church, nor did he run for the hills and become a one-man-Church. In fact, Luther may well have come to doubt himself had he not gained a massive following of Christians who claimed that he had opened their eyes to the truth of God’s grace. Our religion is not individualistic, but communal, and our doctrine should reflect that reality.
Moreover, no Christian should ever feel that the Church has totally erred; that every doctrine she teaches is false, and that she has completely lost sight of God Himself. While the Reformers rejected the Western church’s teaching on soteriological and ecclesiological issues, they did not doubt its teachings about the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, or even most ethical issues. The fact is, that while the Church may stumble, she will never fall, for the Gates of Hades shall not prevail against her (Matt 16:18). The map may be faulty, but it will never be completely inaccurate. If the map has absolutely no bearing on reality, then obviously you have picked up the wrong one and are at fault. Furthermore, while a Christian may feel that everyone else has fallen away, and he alone remains faithful to God and His word, this will never actually be the case, for God will always preserve a faithful remnant. While Elijah may have felt that he was the only true Israelite left, God had in fact kept seven thousand for himself (1 Kings 19:18 ; Rom 11:4). The Christian, therefore, is not permitted to say: ‘I reject the whole Church!’ for the Church is the cloud of witnesses guided by the Spirit. However, if convinced by Scripture the believer may indeed say ‘I reject this church’ or ‘I reject this council’ or ‘I reject these teachings’ – and do not all believers do this? Moreover, a believer may even reject what appears to be the whole Church, knowing however that it is not, and that God’s people have never vanished and never shall.
Interlude: To Reject an Ecumenical Council
Both the individual Christian and the Reformed and Anglican branches of the Church, are permitted to reject the authority and teachings of the Second Council of Nicaea. The believer may reject Nicaea II if even after careful study it continues to contradict his understanding of Scripture’s plain sense, or undermine his belief in Scripture’s sufficiency for the knowledge of true religion. The Church may reject Nicaea II because she is free to change her mind and is indeed called to do so since she is bound to the Scriptures and held accountable to them. If the Church has come to believe that her former teachings were contrary to God’s Word, she is compelled to retract them, or else she becomes a heretical, false church. It will not do to say that Ecumenical Councils are infallible and unchangeable, for this is true only of God’s Divine Word. As stated before, if one were to suggest that the pronouncements of Ecumenical Councils are in fact God-breathed, then the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate this fact and I for one believe it would be impossible to do so. Therefore, I do indeed reject Nicaea II, not only because I assent to a greater and more trustworthy authority: the Anglican Formularies and Reformed consensus, but also because I find it to plainly disagree with my understanding of the Divine revelation to which my conscience is held captive. Here I stand, I can do no other.
4: Scripture and the Veneration of Images
The doctrine of Sola Scriptura claims that Scripture contains the necessary, authoritative, sufficient, and clear teachings on how a Christian can serve God. If something is important to know, Scripture will be sufficient on its own for us to know it, and its teaching will be easily understood. Since the question of whether or not we can/should religiously venerate images appears to be an important one, we shall now approach Scripture presupposing that it will give us the sufficient and clear teaching needed to resolve the issue.
The NT never even implicitly teaches that the OT injunctions against venerating images have been lifted, meanwhile it explicitly says this about other OT laws. Not once is the use, construction, or veneration of religious images encouraged, and when images are mentioned, it is always negatively. There are, of course, several instances where the NT condemns ‘idols’ (1 Cor 10:14 ; 1 Thess 1:9 ; 1 John 5:21), but Fr. Perkins and Nicaea II have already decided that these do not count because it is only a specific type of image that those texts refer to, which all Christians in any case reject (images of false gods). I am not entirely convinced by this, but I will leave it aside anyway. However, one place where images themselves are condemned is in Romans 1:21-23 where those who ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man’ are spoken against. Related to St Paul’s claim about God, is our Lord’s words in John 4:21-24 that since God is spirit our worship of Him cannot be located, directed, or based on what is corporeal, which images necessarily are.
Regarding veneration, my previous article already discussed how Acts 10:25-26 condemns venerating and prostrating before Apostles, and how Revelation 19:10 condemns the same behavior shown to Angels. If these texts plainly forbid veneration to be shown to Apostles and Angels in person, then surely venerating and bowing before images of them is also to be forbidden.
I believe it is safe to say that at worst the NT witness is inconclusive (which means we must turn to the OT) about images, but is clear that religiously venerating what is not God is forbidden.
As for the OT, religious images are condemned in countless places, but again, Nicaea II and Fr. Perkins will happily retort that these are about ‘idols.’ However, Isaiah and Jeremiah’s condemnation of images would seem to apply to even images depicting YHWH Himself:
‘To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with Him? An idol! A craftsman casts it’ (Isa 40:18-20).
‘I am YHWH, that is My Name; My glory I give to no other, nor My praise to carved idols’ (Isa 42:8).
‘They are the work of the craftsman and of the hands of the goldsmith… they are all the work of skilled men. But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King’ (Jer 10:9-10).
The point here is the same as the one made by St Paul earlier: the immortal God cannot be represented by a lifeless image molded by our hands. An image is a finite, created, senseless object, confined to a small space, and thus, as both the NT and OT make clear, it cannot represent the Almighty. God is spirit, and we must worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:21-24), not through human creations that fail to reveal Him.
The clearest place where the OT speaks about images, however, is of course in Exodus, wherein we find the Ten Commandments, the second of which plainly and irrefutably condemns the veneration of any image:
‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything… You shall not bow down to them’ (Ex 20:4-5).
Now, this commandment, as I have previously stated, was never annulled by the NT. Moreover, the Anglican Formularies say that “no Christian man whatsoever is free from obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (Article VII), which category this commandment clearly is in. The Homily on the Peril of Idolatry, with this commandment in mind says that the OT laws:
… pertain no less to us Christians, then to them. For if we be the people of God, how can the Word and Law of God not appertain to us? Saint Paul alleging one text out of the old Testament, concludeth generally for other Scriptures of the old Testament as well as that, saying, Whatsoever is written before (meaning in the Old Testament) is written for our instruction (Rom 15:4) which sentence is most specially true of such writings of the Old Testament, as contain the immutable law and ordinances of God, in no age or time to be altered, nor of any persons of any nations or age to be disobeyed.
However, we now turn to the texts in the OT that could be deemed confusing, in that they seem to contradict the second commandment. I refer of course to God’s direction for the construction of images of Cherubim in the Tabernacle/Temple (Ex 25:18-20; 1 Kgs 6:27) and the bronze serpent in the wilderness (Num 21:8-9). The response to these texts is rather simple, and I will simply quote from the Homily:
If they object yet the brazen serpent which Moses did set up, or the Images of the Cherubims, or any other Images which the Jews had in their Temple, the answer is easy. We must in religion obey God’s general Law, which bindeth all men, and not follow examples of a particular dispensation, which be no warrants for us.
This point has already been made by Fr. Ben Jefferies, but it bears repeating. The second commandment is a general law which applies to all of God’s people, and seemingly for all of time, however, these texts were made to specific people at specific times for specific places. These directions cannot, therefore, be used to counter God’s universal commandment. Moreover, none of these images were directed to be venerated, and it is precisely the veneration of images that we are concerned with here. Moreover, in response to the veneration that was directed to the bronze serpent, King Hezekiah broke it in pieces (2 Kgs 18:4). Again, we have already seen how the Homilies declare that whenever in one place Scripture is hard to understand it is made clear by another passage. Thus, while the Temple images and bronze serpent may be called obscure mysteries, the principle of Sola Scriptura directs us to seek a clearer teaching elsewhere, and we naturally find that in the second commandment.
In conclusion, I believe we can safely and confidently say that if we are to approach these texts with the assumption that they contain a necessary, sufficient, and clear teaching on venerating images, then we cannot avoid the understanding that they condemn the practice.
Only in the fertile land of Holy Scripture do I seek to find the living waters of God’s truth. As I peer over the vista before me, beholding its mountainous heights, its low valleys, its nooks and crannies, I plainly see a path that will safely take me to the spring. However, one of the maps in my possession says to avoid this path and travail another, but upon reflection, it seems that this map is wrong, that it has misrepresented the landscape. I am under no obligation to follow it, for it is just a map, a mere creation of man, whereas the land is real and true; it is the very ground beneath my feet. Moreover, my own safety is at stake, and thus I am compelled to listen to my conscience and trust my experience. If I seem to be approaching a cliff, and every fiber of my being tells me to go no further, then I shall listen. I am not only free to do this, but obliged. Another map, however, one that I have come to trust as being ever reliable, tells me that the path I had spotted is indeed the right way, and so, I shall follow it, trusting in myself, and trusting in it. Moreover, I am not alone. I have others with me, others who see what I see, and so, we walk together. Might we still be wrong? Of course, for we are but men, but at least we walk with consciences that are clear and held captive to God alone, the God Who has spoken.
- An information of them which take offence at certain places of holy Scripture, I. ↑
- A Fruitful Exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture, I. ↑
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 1:597. ↑
- “Luther at the Diet of Worms, 1521,” in Luther’s Works, ed. George W. Forell and H.T. Lehmann (Philadelphia, PA: Concordia, 1958), 32:112 ↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge and Robert Pitcaim (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 2407. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:472. ↑
- An Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost, II. ↑
- John Jewel, An Apology, or Answer in Defence of the Church of England, VI, https://www.anglican.net/works/john-jewel-apology-answer-defence-church-of-england/ ↑
- A Fruitful Exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture, I. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:485. ↑
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 4:420. ↑
- All Scriptural quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV). ↑
- A Fruitful Exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture, I. ↑
- Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, IV.14, http://ofthelaws.com/book_1.html#14 ↑
- St Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, II.9. ↑
- Thomas Cranmer, “Preface to the Bible, 1540,” in The Work of Thomas Cranmer, ed. G.E. Duffield (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1965), 37. ↑
- A Fruitful Exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture, II. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:480. ↑
- Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, in vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 3.1.1 (ANF 1:414). ↑
- Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 69. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:493. ↑
- Jewel, An Apology, II. ↑
- Alister E. McGrath, “Faith and Tradition,” in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, ed. Gerald McDermott (New York, NY: Oxford University, 2010), 86 ↑
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 45. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 4:421. ↑
- Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45. ↑
- J.I. Packer, God has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1979), 117. ↑
- Packer, God has Spoken, 117. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 4:421. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 4:421. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, 4:432. ↑
- “An Homily Concerning the coming down of the Holy Ghost and the Manifold Gifts of the Same for Whitsunday,” II. ↑
- Calvin, Institutes, 2407. ↑
- Barrett, God’s Word Alone, 45. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:586. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:459. ↑
- Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, Prolegomena, 1:481. ↑
- Against peril of Idolatry, I. ↑
- Against peril of Idolatry, III. ↑
- A Fruitful Exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture, II. ↑