The Necessity of Scripture

In Doctrine of Scripture, Francis Turretin, Turretin's 21 Questions by Chris ThomasLeave a Comment

QUESTION 2: Was it necessary for the word to be committed to writing? Affirmative.

I. Since in the preceding question we have proved the necessity of the word, in this one the necessity of Scripture, or the written word, is argued against the Roman Catholics. For, just as to establish more easily their traditions and unwritten teachings, and the authority of their supreme pontiff, they strive earnestly to denigrate the authority of Scripture, they also try, in more ways than one, to disparage its necessity. They call it useful for the church, but not necessary, as Bellarmine argues in De Verbo Dei, book 4, chapter 4. Cardinal Hosius even utters such blasphemy as to say, “It would have been a better situation for the church if no Scripture at all had ever existed,” and Valentia says, “It would have been more convenient had it not been written.”

 

II. With regard to the state of the question, let it be noted that “Scripture” may be understood in two ways–either materialiter with regard to the teaching transmitted, or formaliter with regard to the writing and form of transmission. In the first sense we regard it to be simply and absolutely necessary, as said above, so that the church can never live without it. But in the second sense, which is here under discussion, we acknowledge that it is not absolutely necessary on God’s part because, just as he taught the church by the spoken word alone for two thousand years before Moses, so, if he had wished, he could have taught it later the same way. But

[Scripture] is necessary hypothetically on account of the divine will, since it seemed good to God, for weighty reasons, to commit his word to writing. For this reason [Scripture] has, by divine ordinance, been made so necessary that it pertains not only to the well-being of the church, but to its very being, so that now the church cannot exist without the Scripture. Therefore, God is not bound to the Scripture, but has bound us to it.

 

III. The question, therefore, is not whether the writing of the word is absolutely and simply necessary, but whether it is necessary secundum quid on account of the hypothesis; not for every age, but for the present age and circumstances; not in relation to God’s power and freedom, but in relation to his wisdom and to the economy of his dealing with the human race. For, just as in the economy of the natural order parents change their manner of dealing with their children as these grow older, so that infants are first directed by the spoken word, then by the voice of a teacher and the reading of books, and finally are freed from the guidance of the teacher and learn on their own from books, so the heavenly Father, who instructs his people as the head of a family (Deut. 8:5), taught the church, when it was still young and childish, by the spoken word, the most simple form of revelation. Then, as it began to mature and was established under the law in its early youth, he taught both by the spoken word, because of continuing childishness, and by writing, because of the beginnings of maturity, until the apostles’ time. But when [the church] had reached adulthood, under the gospel, he wanted it to be satisfied with the most perfect form of revelation, that is, the written light. Therefore, Scripture is necessary not only by the necessity of a commandment, but also by the hypothesis of the divine economy, which God wanted to be varied and manifold in the different ages of the church (Eph.3:10).

 

IV. The distinction between the word as written and as unwritten has arisen because of this process. This is not, as Roman Catholics hold, the division of a genus into species, as if the written word differed from the unwritten, but it is the division of the subject into its accidents, because the same Word is always involved; it was once unwritten, but now has been written. It is therefore called “unwritten,” not with respect to the present, but to past time, when God chose to teach his church by a spoken word, not by writing.

 

V. Although God formerly spoke to the fathers “in many and various ways” (Heb. 1:1), sometimes by an audible voice, sometimes by internal and nonsensory action, sometimes in dreams and visions, sometimes taking the appearance of human form, often using the ministry of angels and other appropriate means, yet the teaching was always the same, and was not changed either by the form of revelation and transmission or by changing times.

 

VI. Three [needs] in particular support the necessity of Scripture:

  1. the preservation of the word
  2. its defense
  3. its proclamation.

It was necessary for the written word to be given to the church to be theĀ  fixed and changeless rule of faith of the true religion, which could thus more readily be preserved pure and whole in spite of the weakness of memory, the perversity of humanity, and the shortness of life; more surely defended against the frauds and corruptions of Satan, and more readily proclaimed and transmitted not only to people who were scattered and separated from one another, but to future generations as well. As Vives reminds us (De causis corruptium artium 1), “By letters all the arts are preserved as in a treasury, so that they can never be lost, although transmission by hand is uncertain.” “Divine and marvelous is this blessing of letters,” says Quintilian, “which protects words and holds them like a deposit for an absent person.” Nor are the statutes and edicts of kings and commonwealths inscribed in bronze or posted in public places for any other reason than that this is the surest means of preserving them in their original form, and of proclaiming throughout the ages matters which it is important for people to know.

 

VII. Although before Moses the church did without the written word, it does not follow that it can do so now, for the situation of the infant church of those days, which did not yet form a numerous body, was very different from that of the present church, which is established and of large size. The church of former times differed from that of later days: in it the unwritten word could more easily be preserved because of the longevity of the patriarchs, the small number of covenant people, and the frequency of revelations (even if many of them underwent corruption). But in another age, when human life had been shortened, and the church was not limited to one or another family, but had increased to a very large company, and
the divine oracles were more rarely given, another form of governance was called for, so that this sacred commonwealth was ruled not merely by the spoken word, but by written laws.

 

VIII. Although some individual churches may have been without the written word of God at some
particular time, especially when they were first established, they were not without what was written in the
Word of God, which certainly sounded in their ears through human ministry; nor did the church as a
whole lack the Scripture.

 

IX. The Holy Spirit as helper (epicorhgia), by whom believers are to be taught by God (Jer.31; John
6:43[45]; I John 2:27), does not make the Scripture any less necessary, because (1) he is not given us
to bring new revelations, but to impress the written word on our hearts, so that the Word can never be
separated from the Spirit (Isa.59:21). The Word acts objectively; the Spirit, efficiently. The Word strikes
the ears externally; the Spirit lays bare the heart, internally. The Spirit is the teacher; Scripture is the
teaching that he gives us. (2) The words in Jeremiah 31 and I John 2:27 are not to be understood
absolutely and simply, as if it were no longer necessary for believers, under the new covenant, to use the
Scripture; if this were so, there would have been no point in John’s writing to them. But they are to be
understood in a relative sense, because, on account of the greater abundance of the Holy Spirit under the
new covenant, believers were not to be taught in so burdensome a form as through the primitive and
undeveloped elements of the old. (3) Jeremiah’s promise will receive its complete fulfillment only in
heaven, where, on account of the brilliant vision of God, there will no longer be need for the ministry of
Scripture or of pastors, but everyone will see God directly, face to face.

 

X. It is not true that the church was preserved without Scripture during the Babylonian captivity, for
Daniel is said to have perceived, from the books, before the end of the seventy-year period, the number
of the years (Dan. 9:2), and in Nehemiah 8:2, Ezra is said to bring forth the book of the laws, not to write
it anew. IV Esdras [II Esdras] 4:23, being apocryphal, proves nothing. Even if Ezra gathered the sacred
books into one corpus, and corrected the careless errors of scribes, it does not follow that the church had
completely lacked Scripture [in his time].

 

XI. There is no evidence for Bellarmine’s assumption that, since the time of Moses, any from other nations
who have been led to the true religion had tradition only, and lacked Scripture, for if any became
proselytes, they were instructed thoroughly in Moses and the prophets, as the single example of the
eunuch of Queen Candace in Acts 8 [26-39] proves adequately. Nor was Scripture completely unknown to
the Gentiles, especially after it was translated into Greek in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus.

 

XII. Christ therefore is our only teacher (Matt. 23:8) in such a way that the ministry of Scripture is not
excluded, but is included of necessity, because he now speaks to us in it only, and builds us up through it.
Nor is Christ opposed to Scripture, but to the false teachers of the Pharisees, who ambitiously pretended
to the magisterial authority that belongs to Christ alone.

 

XIII. Although formally Scripture has no personal value for illiterates, who cannot read, nevertheless it
serves materially for their instruction and edification, inasmuch as the teaching which goes on in the
church is not taken from any other source.

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