“The Only Rule of Faith and Practice”
by Glenn Conjurske
“The Bible, I say, the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants.” So wrote William Chillingworth in 1637, and since that day the expression has been quoted and gloried in by Protestants everywhere. It ought to be gloried in, if it is true. But is it true? Was it ever true? Or was it only an empty boast, like that of the ancient Jews?
—-“The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these!” —-a claim which certainly ought to have been true, but which was overthrown by the practice of those who made it.
That the Bible only ought to be the religion of Christians is not likely to be doubted by many who actually are Christians. The principle is undoubtedly sound as far as it goes, though it is certainly not sufficient to state the whole truth. The Bible ought to be the rule not of the religion only, but of the life of Christians. Christianity is not merely a religion, but a way of life. The Bible does not refer to Christianity as “this religion,” but “this way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, etc.), and “this life” (Acts 5:20). And neither is this likely to be disputed. Almost all evangelical Christians acknowledge the Bible as their “only rule of faith and practice,” and most of them have embodied words to that effect in their creeds and doctrinal statements. And in this they are no doubt generally sincere. But alas, the “practice” gives the lie to the professed “rule.”
If the Bible only ever was the religion of Protestants, whence came clerical vestments and clerical titles, feasts and fasts and holydays, godfathers and godmothers, confirmation, wedding rings, crosses and bowings, liturgies and prayer books? Whether they came from paganism or popery, the world, the flesh, or the devil, it is clear enough they did not come from the Bible. Such sort of things the old English Puritans objected to, till at length they were driven out of the protestant Church of England. Many of them refused to take any position in that body in the first place, since such a position would require them to submit to things which they knew were unscriptural. William Chillingworth himself was such a one, refusing the position which was offered to him in the Church of England, because he could not in good conscience subscribe to its doctrinal articles, nor agree to use its prayer book.
But to come closer to home, if the Bible only is the religion of evangelical and fundamental Christians today, whence come the clerical titles of “Reverend” and “Doctor”? Whence come the observances of Christmas and Easter? Whence come games and contests and prizes, “sword drills” and “Bible quizzes.” Whencesoever they came, it was not from the Bible.
Yet I would not pretend to think that those who profess such a principle, and yet practice such things, are anything but sincere. The obvious contradiction between the profession and the practice does not necessarily stem from insincerity, but from ignorance
—-ignorance of the actual contents of the Bible, ignorance of the evil origin or the evil tendency of many of their practices, and above all, ignorance of the proper meaning and extent of the principle which they profess. If we bring up Christmas or Easter, wedding rings, or clerical titles, we shall be told, “Though the Bible does not prescribe such things, neither does it proscribe them. Though we are not bidden to do such things, neither are we forbidden. Therefore we are free.” Thus the principle that the Bible is our only rule of faith and practice is contracted to a narrow sphere, and we are left for the most part free to do as we please —-free to follow the world in whichever of its heathen practices happen to suit our will and our whims, so long as we suppose that we have no direct commandment of God against us.
But there is more to come. However the principle itself must be vitiated by such a view of things, the practice is almost always worse than the principle. This is due to ignorance of the Bible, or unbelief in its contents. It often happens that while people smugly contend that such and such things are not forbidden in the Bible, the real fact is that those very things are forbidden in the Bible explicitly and repeatedly. And if not explicitly forbidden, they may be disallowed by the principles of truth which the Bible teaches. And here, by the way, lies an unsuspected danger of the wrong principle. The man who knows himself obliged to carefully follow the Bible will naturally be very careful to know the Bible. The man who thinks himself at liberty to follow his own wisdom may be insensibly overtaken with a degree of carelessness about the Bible. It never rises to the place of ascendency over his mind which rightfully belongs to it. He remains too much in ignorance of its substance and its spirit. He does not feel deeply enough the need to know it. He has a superfical acquaintance with proof texts, but of the deeper principles of the book, and the ways of God which are contained in it, he remains largely ignorant.
It is not my intention, however, to deal in this article so much with the deficient practice of the modern church, as with the defective principle which is largely responsible for the default in practice. More than twenty years ago I was visited by a representative of an evangelical publisher whose principles I could not approve. In the course of our conversation he expressed the following sentiments: There are two principles upon which we might act, the first being that we may do only what is warranted by Scripture, and the other being that we may do whatever seems good and prudent to us, so long as we do not transgress any commandment of Scripture. To this I immediately replied, “I will stand on the first.” “Then,” said he, “you will become less and less effective.” This conversation plainly delineates the difference between the principle of most of the modern church
—-and most of the ancient church also —-and the principle which I wish to defend in this article, and which I hope to prove from the Scriptures themselves.
Moses was commissioned of God to build a tabernacle, but not one detail of that tabernacle was left to his own wisdom or prudence. God first took him up into the mount for forty days, and showed him a pattern of every detail, and then “Moses was admonished of God when he was about to make the tabernacle: for, See, saith he, that thou make all things according to the pattern shown to thee in the mount.” (Heb. 8:5). Now it is a remarkable fact that in quoting this admonition from the Old Testament the Spirit of God adds this word “all things,” for it is not to be found in Ex. 25:40, from which the verse is quoted. Earlier in the same chapter, however, in the ninth verse, the Lord had said a similar thing to Moses: “According to all that I shew thee, after the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all the instruments thereof, even so shall ye make it.”
All of this makes it perfectly plain that Moses had no right either to add to the things shown to him in the pattern, nor to subtract from them. He was to follow the pattern exactly in “all things.” And God further commanded, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” (Deut. 4:2). And again, “What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.” (Deut. 12:32). Such Scriptures are often quoted as prohibitions to add to or take from the written words of Scripture, and though I have no quarrel with that, it is certainly not all that God intended by these words. The prohibition (as is very obvious in Deut. 12:32), does not refer merely to the words written in the book of God, but to the practice of the people of God. They are forbidden in their practice to add to or diminish from the things commanded by the Lord. The word of the Lord, in other words, was to be their “only rule of faith and practice” in the broadest and strictest sense. But the principle generally acted upon in the modern church completely overthrows the first half of this prohibition. They hold themselves bound indeed not to omit to do anything which God has enjoined, but free to add to it whatever they please.
What would have been thought of Moses if he had determined, for whatever reason, to make an additional altar for the tabernacle, other than those which God had showed him in the pattern? What if he had determined to add another court to the tabernacle, to meet some supposed need of the people? Would God have winked at this? What if he had determined to add another feast day or two to those which God had commanded him? Would not the whole evangelical church today condemn such an act as highly presumptuous? What is the use of the divine pattern, if Moses may add to it as he sees fit? And yet the same people who would regard it as highly presumptuous for Moses to add anything to the Levitical worship, count themselves perfectly free to add whatever they please to the pattern of Christianity which God has given, and will hold to their additions with the same tenacity that they do to the pattern itself, and defend the things which have been added five hundred, a thousand, or fifteen hundred years after the pattern was given, as though in so doing they were earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints.
Yet when it suits their own doctrine or practice, they know very well how to adopt the true principle. Only let someone try to introduce infant baptism into their churches, and they will immediately point out that it cannot be of God because there is neither precept nor example for it in the Bible. And you may be sure that they will not be moved the breadth of a hair by the argument that the Bible nowhere forbids infant baptism. Thus they must give up their own principle in order to maintain their practice. Yet if they have ever spent two minutes in honest thought on the subject, they must know very well that there is just as much support in the Scriptures for infant baptism as there is for Christmas or Easter. They are probably aware too that infant baptism, along with the observances of Lent, Christmas, and Easter, all came to us from exactly the same source. They all came from the pagan Church of Rome. But whether they know whence they came or not, they certainly do know that they did not come from the Bible. How is it that they will reject infant baptism and Lent, on the ground that they are the mere inventions of men, which are nowhere taught in the Bible, while they receive Christmas and Easter, and contend that it makes no difference that they are not taught in the Bible, as long as they are not forbidden by it? Alas, here we have dug down to the real roots of the matter, and have found them to be self-pleasing and lukewarmness, using the Bible merely to support what we do, or please to do, with but little concern as to whether our practices have the sanction of God or not, and indifference as to whether the principle for which we stand is the truth, or error, or both.
But though there is certainly no excuse for such a course, it may be that there is a reason for it. The opposing principles of which I write have been in operation for a long time. Nearly half a millennium ago, when the Reformers came out of the Church of Rome, some of them stood upon the true principle for which I contend, and others of them upon the false principle which I oppose.
Martin Luther stood on the wrong side of the question. “Towards the close of his life, in 1542, (10th November,) he writes to Spalatin: `With respect to the elevation of the host, do what you think fit; I would not have people chained down by arbitrary rules in indifferent matters; this is what I have always said, and what I always shall say to those who weary me about this question.”’
Expediency was Luther’s principle, and he had no conception of regulating all things according to the pattern of Scripture, as all of the following will plainly indicate: “Thus he writes on the 11th January, 1531: `Although ceremonies are not necessary to salvation, yet they produce an effect upon rude and uncultivated minds. I refer principally to the ceremonies of the mass, which you may retain, as we here, at Wittemberg, have done.’
“`I condemn no ceremony,’ he writes on 14th March, 1526, `which is not contrary to the gospel. We have preserved the baptistry and baptism, with this difference, that in the ceremony we make use of the vernacular tongue. I permit images in the temple, and the mass is celebrated with the accustomed rites and in the same costume as formerly; and here, again, the only difference is, that we sing some hymns in German, and that the words of consecration are in German. Indeed, I should not have abolished the Latin mass at all, or have substituted the vernacular, in celebrating it, had I not found myself compelled to do so.’
“`You are about to organize the church in Koenisberg: I entreat you, in the name of Christ, to make as few changes as possible. You have in your neighbourhood several episcopal towns, and it is not desirable that the ceremonies of our new church should vary in any marked degree from the old ritual. If you have not already abolished the Latin mass, do not abolish it, but merely introduce into it a few German hymns. If it be abolished, at all events retain the old order and costumes.’ (16th July, 1528.)”
Luther was the first of the Reformers, and exercised a great influence over the Reformation throughout Europe, including England. Thus the Reformed churches of Europe were clad in popish garments from the day of their birth, by the retention of numerous pagan and semi-pagan practices, including feasts and fasts and saints’ days and holidays and clerical vestments and titles. It was this state of things which gave birth to the Puritan movement in England
—-a movement which sought to purify the half-reformed Church of England by purging out of it such remnants of popery. The things in particular which the Puritans objected to are listed by Neal as: the sign of the cross in baptism, godfathers and godmothers, confirmation of children, kneeling at the sacrament, bowing at the name of Jesus, wedding rings, the wearing of the surplice, and other ceremonies. It is almost amusing to read such descriptions as the following of the English Reformation: “From the first the changes were sweeping and radical. The statute of the six articles and all other bloody statutes against Protestants were repealed. The communion in both kinds was restored, and the stone altars were replaced by wooden tables. Romish ceremonies, such as the use of candles in Candlemas, ashes in Lent, and palms on Palm Sunday, were all done away with.” —-the whole crew seemingly perfectly oblivious to the fact that the Candlemas, the Lent, and the Palm Sunday were every bit as Romish as the candles, the ashes, and the palms.
On the other side of the question were Menno Simons and the Baptists, or Anabaptists, as they were then called. Where Luther would only consent to disallow what he conceived to be against Scripture, Menno over and over condemns everything which is without Scripture, as well as that which is against it. The statements of Menno on this theme are the very antithesis of Luther’s. “Therefore all things which they instituted and practiced as holy worship without the command of God, or against it (notwithstanding it was in honor of the living God who had so gloriously led their fathers and them from the land of Egypt), was nothing less than open idolatry, spiritual whoredom, perfidy, degeneracy, blasphemy and an awful abomination, as we have above briefly shown the reader from the prophetic Scriptures. God is a God who does not need our aid and offerings, because he has made all things. Mine, he says, are the cattle, upon a thousand hills. What then can I offer? He will take no other sacrifices than those alone which are commanded in his holy word.” Once more, “All doctrine which is contrary to his word or without his command, is vain, such as, in the papal church, purgatory, false promises, differences in places, in victuals and in days, pilgrimages, false sacrifices, &c. Again, in the German churches, the availability of infant baptism.”
Both of these principles have thus been at work in the church since the Reformation, and though they were strongly marked and distinct at that time, the intervening centuries have served to muddle and mix them. Fundamentalists today, though they do not all call themselves Baptists, are very largely baptistic, and have inherited some important doctrines and practices from the old Anabaptists. But by a long course of mixture they have also inherited much from the other Reformed churches, and thus indirectly from the church of Rome. In some matters they have certainly gone back from the ground occupied by their Baptist forefathers, and capitulated to the compromised position of the other churches. This is evident in such things as the observance of Christmas, which was disallowed by the whole Baptist community in America as late as a century and a half ago. And it is a very telling fact that when evangelicals today wish to defend the old ground occupied by the Anabaptists, they will stand firmly for the Anabaptist principle, rejecting such things as Lent and infant baptism because they are not taught in the Bible; but when they wish to defend the ground which they have inherited from half-Romish Reformed churches, they will immediately capitulate to the ground of expediency, and contend that everything is allowable which is not explicitly forbidden by the Bible. It is high time they get on one side or the other.
If Moses had chosen to adopt a course of expediency in those things not explicitly forbidden by the Lord, he could no doubt have given very plausible reasons for it. “The needs of the people”
—-“the needs of modern man” —-“to reach the masses” —-“to hold the interest of the young people.” This of course puts those who oppose such a principle into an odious position. They quickly gain the reputation of being carping and captious, cranky and critical, for standing against so many things which appear to be innocent, or which seem likely to do good, and which are practiced by good men with good motives. But no matter about that. Let them study to show themselves approved unto God, whatever man may think of them. God calls them to be faithful to the sacred deposit committed to them. “And the things which thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” (II Tim. 2:2). Thus is the sacred deposit handed down, and there is no allowance whatever for the adding of one jot or tittle —-whether of clerical vestments and titles, or “Christian holidays,” or stage plays or church steeples —-to “the things” which belong to that deposit, any more than Moses could claim the right to add to “the things” contained in his pattern.
And after all, those who plead so much for expediency may not be such noble souls as we might wish they were. It is not usually superfluous zeal or superior wisdom which brings all of these innovations into the house of God, but conformity to the world. They are not usually brought in by a Moses, whose communion is with God, and whose eye is upon the pattern of God, but by an Ahaz, whose communion is with the heathen, and whose eye has been taken by another pattern. “And king Ahaz went [not to the mount of God, but] to Damascus, [not to meet God, but] to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and saw an altar that was at Damascus: and king Ahaz sent to Urijah the priest the fashion of the altar, and the pattern of it, according to all the workmanship thereof. And Urijah the priest built an altar according to all that king Ahaz had sent from Damascus… And when the king was come from Damascus, the king saw the altar, and the king approached to the altar and offered incense thereon. And he burnt his burnt offering and his meat offering, and poured his drink offering, and sprinkled the blood of his peace offerings, upon the altar.” (II Kings 16:10-13). This was mere conformity to the world, and I seriously doubt that many Christians could be found who would contend that such worship was acceptable to God. Yet the same kind of conformity to the world is found in their own churches, from splendid and extravagant weddings and funerals, to Christmas celebrations, to baseball games and fashion shows, and yet they remain as complacent as Ahaz was, and as ignorant as he was that such offerings are not acceptable to God.
“What’s wrong with it?” seems to be the only question they know how to ask. To this I answer, What if neither you nor I shall ever understand “what’s wrong with it” till we drop this robe of flesh and rise to seize the everlasting prize? “Now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” (I Cor. 13:12). God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and his ways are not our ways, but as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s ways and thoughts higher than our ways and thoughts (Is. 55:8-9). The fact that we cannot see anything wrong with certain things proves nothing at all. The wisest of us see but in part.
The supposed good that is to be done by such things is no excuse for unfaithfulness to the sacred deposit. Moreover, faith is compelled to reckon that the ways of God are not only higher than man’s, but better, and that therefore the most good, and the least harm, will be done precisely by scrupulous faithfulness to the pattern which God has given. Your real and spiritual effectiveness, in other words, will be just in proportion to your faithfulness
—-though you may build a great deal of wood, hay, and stubble without it. Those who conform to the ways of the world may rear a loftier edifice than those who adhere to the pattern of God. Worldliness appeals to the worldly, and fleshly expedients appeal to the flesh. The man who refuses such things may have less of apparent success, but there is another day coming, in the which the last shall be first, and the first last —-in the which every man’s work shall be tried by fire, and everything which is not according to the pattern of God will be reduced to smoke and ashes.
Ahaz further “brought also the brasen altar, which was before the Lord, from the forefront of the house, from between the altar and the house of the Lord, and put it on the north side of the altar” (vs. 14), “and king Ahaz cut off the borders of the bases, and removed the laver from off them; and took down the sea from off the brasen oxen that were under it, and put it upon a pavement of stones” (vs. 17). Thus alteration followed quick on the heels of innovation, as it usually does, for those who are so little committed to following the divine pattern that they will lightly add to what God has prescribed, are usually also so heedless or so ignorant of it that they will also lightly set it aside wherever they please, likely all unaware that that is what they are doing.
This is the precise state of things in the modern evangelical church. The Bible is not yet overthrown altogether, but there is very widespread ignorance of its principles, and even of its contents, among those who profess to follow it. The effects of that ignorance are bad enough in themselves, but when alongside of that ignorance we find also a universal weakening and compromising of the fundamental canon which determines the place of authority with which the Bible is to speak in the Church, it is no wonder that we find the modern church of God so far departed from the pattern of New Testament Christianity. The Bible is NOT “the only rule of faith and practice” in the modern churches
—-not in the soundest and most fundamental of them. The wisdom of man and conformity to the world vie with the Scriptures of God for that place, and in many churches it would be difficult to see how the Bible could even be claimed as the highest rule, to say nothing of “the only rule of faith and practice.” Oh! for some prophets of God, who will call his wandering sheep back to the solid rock of “THUS SAITH THE LORD”!