God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters
Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters. Five Solas. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016. pp. 402. $24.99, paperback.
In celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming in 2017, many churchman will be considering different ways to highlight Reformation doctrines and practices in sermons, Sunday School curriculums, conferences, presbytery meetings, etc. These churchman will also be looking for resources to aid them in these endeavors. The Reformers’ cry of sola Scriptura will be an issue that many churchman will consider highlighting. As I will conclude below, Matthew Barrett’s God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture: What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters is an excellent resource for this sola.
Given the 500th anniversary, Zondervan is in the midst of publishing the Five Solas series. Barrett not only wrote one of the books; he is also the editor of the series. Three of the books are now published: Schreiner’s Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, VanDrunen’s God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life, and Barrett’s God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. The remaining two are expected soon: Trueman’s Grace Alone: Salvation as the Gift of God and Wellum’s Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior. All of the authors are in the conservative Reformed tradition, with two Presbyterians and three Baptists.
Matthew Barrett teaches systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London. He is also the executive editor of the online Credo Magazine. Theologically, he is clearly in the conservative Reformed tradition. Barrett happens also to be a credo Baptist and sympathetic to Gentry/Wellum’s progressive covenantalism; however, these two points do not materially affect the conclusions relative to one who is favors infant baptism and has a traditional- Reformed covenantal understanding.
Barrett’s God’s Word Alone has three major sections. One is historical and considers the doctrine of sola Scriptura from the Reformation to modern day. The second major section is a redemptive-historical analysis of the Bible’s presentation of God’s Word. The third major section presents four traditional attributes of Scripture and responds to contemporary denials of those attributes.
The historical section emphasizes the Reformation, although it does include the Enlightenment and 20th and 21st century liberal/evangelical battles over the Bible. This section includes short summaries of many issues and people that are good, quick references for anyone using this book as a resource. Some examples include Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Council of Trent, “autonomous reason,” Deism, Spinoza, Reimarus, Wellhausen, Ritschl, Barth, Warfield, C. Hodge, Machen, Fuller Seminary, Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, postmodernism, postconservatism, and Enns.
As part of the solution to the current crisis over biblical authority, Barrett advocates the Reformed “self-authenticating nature of Scripture and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit” (p. 145). Here, Kruger and Bavinck are referenced often. He concludes the crisis section by advocating current Evangelicals “to return to the old paths of Hodge, Warfield, and Machen to combat challenges not only from without but from within” (p. 114).
Within this historical section, I especially appreciated Barrett’s clear explanation of sola Scriptura in distinction from both the Trent Roman Catholic view and the nuda Scriptura (naked Scripture) view. “Sola Scriptura means that only Scripture, because it is God’s inspired Word, is our inerrant, sufficient, and final authority for the church” (p. 23, italics removed). Barrett is quick to point out that this does not mean the Bible is our only authority, it is our only “chief, supreme, and ultimate authority” (p. 23). There are other secondary authorities. “Church tradition and church officials play a ministerial role, Scripture alone plays a magisterial role” (p. 23, italics his).
Concerning the Roman Catholic view, following Oberman, Barrett believes that two views of Scripture and tradition existed throughout church history. “Tradition 1” is in essence sola Scriptura and was the primary view of the patristic church. That is, tradition is useful but does not trump Scripture. “‘Tradition 2’ is the view that divine revelation has not one but two sources: Scripture and ecclesiastical Tradition” (p. 46, italics his). According to Barrett, this view gained steam from AD 1100 on and was the position taught by the Roman Catholic church during the Reformation. In addition to contrasting sola Scriptura with the “Tradition 2” Roman Catholic view, the Reformers also had to distinguish their view from nuda Scriptura. This is the “no creed but Christ” view, which was promoted by various radical reformers and still exists today. This view denigrates the use of any tradition, even if used as a secondary authority.
God’s Word in Redemptive History
The second major section of the book is an impressive discussion tracing the “word of God” and God’s speaking throughout redemptive history. Barrett connects God’s Word to the Trinity, covenants, creation, and redemption. In addition, he presents many angles of God’s Word used progressively through the OT and NT. He well notes that the expression “word of God” and God’s speaking are much broader than the written word of God. In addition to the Scripture, the Word refers to God’s power, his oral speech, content of revelation, Trinitarian personal presence, Jesus Christ, gospel message, and apostolic preaching (pp. 164-65).
In this redemptive-historical section, Barrett often footnotes Vos, Warfield, Swain, Frame, Schreiner, and Gentry/Wellum. It is clear that he is guided by a healthy Reformed sense of covenants and redemptive history. In fact, two of the chapter titles in this major section include “God Speaks Covenantal Words” with one covering the OT and the other, the NT.
Given the broad use of the expression “word of God,” Barrett shows the many connections of this broad use (and reality) to the written word of God. Not the least of which is that “the doctrine of Scripture is inherently located within the doctrine of God” (p. 271, italics removed). He is clear that for us in our redemptive-historical period “the triune God communicates through the permanence of the Scriptures” (p. 220).
Scriptural Attributes and Contemporary Denials
The third major section of the book looks at four traditional “attributes” of Scripture: authority (inspiration), truthfulness (inerrancy), clarity, and sufficiency. Each section begins with a brief explanation of the attribute, followed by a vigorous Scriptural defense of it. Then modern denials of the attribute are presented and rebutted. In the rebuttal sections, Reformed creeds and theologians are often used.
In the authority/inspiration section, Barrett argues for verbal and plenary inspiration. He ties biblical authority to a high view of inspiration. “To reject inspiration is to abandon the authority of Christ and the apostles as our doctrinal authorities, for they themselves taught this doctrine [inspiration]” (p. 262). Barrett well nuances divine accommodation and Calvin’s comment about God’s lisping to us as children.
Barrett’s chapter on truthfulness/inerrancy of Scripture is an excellent presentation of the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. Following Feinberg, he gives eight caveats as to what inerrancy does not mean (p. 268). He articulates the relationship between truth and precision. He argues that inerrancy and sola Scriptura are linked. “It was because popes could and did err and because councils could and did err that Luther came to realize the supremacy of Scripture [which could not err]” (p. 288). Hence, the sole infallible and ultimate authority was Scripture. Barrett includes two pastoral issues. The first connects “no inerrancy” to “no assurance” (pp 297-99). The second argues that any form of partial inerrancy elevates man above God because man chooses which texts of Scripture to follow. He concludes that “while belief in inerrancy does not determine whether one is a Christian or not, it is crucial to the Christian faith” (p. 301).
In the clarity/perspicuity section, Barrett presents the many Scriptural texts that affirm and simply assume that God’s Word is effectual and clear (e.g., Isa 55:10-11, Deut 6:6-7, 30:11-14). One interesting argument for clarity is considering the “audience the biblical authors had in mind,” including the uneducated, occasionally children, church members as opposed to scholars, and non-religious Gentiles (p. 314). Once making the argument for clarity, Barrett adds proper caveats using WCF 1.7 as his guide.
In the final attribute chapter, sufficiency is discussed. Here, WSC 3 and WCF 1.6 are Barrett’s guide. He affirms general revelation, but notes it was not intended to save. Extra biblical sources, such as creeds and archaeology, are useful if considered subordinate to Scripture. Barrett complains that many Evangelicals overplay sufficiency and really have a nuda Scriptura view. Concerning the opposite error, he also argues against aspects of modern Roman Catholic permutations of the Tradition 2 view.
In this book’s forward, Albert Mohler Jr. states, “Matthew Barrett’s God’s Word Alone is a faithful restatement of the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura” (p. 15). I heartily agree, but would even go a step further. This book is not simply a restatement of this historical doctrine, but it is also a robust biblical defense of it. Further, this book itself mirrors the doctrine of sola Scriptura— Scripture is considered the final authority for this doctrine, while at the same time, the Christian tradition is judiciously mined to aid in better understand the doctrine.
From my perspective, this book has several outstanding features: (1) A clear explanation of sola Scriptura in contrast to (a) the Roman Catholic elevation of Tradition to be equal to Scripture (Oberman’s “Tradition 2”) and (b) nuda Scriptura. The emphasis on the problems with nuda Scriptura is needed in the broad Evangelical world as some in principle affirm it (e.g., Churches of Christ) and others functionally operate this way (e.g., including supposedly confessional churches). (2) The significant use of Scripture to defend the doctrine of sola Scriptura and the four attributes of Scripture. (3) The impressive covenantal/redemptive-historical analysis of the “word of God” and God’s speaking in Scripture. (4) The many useful two-to-three page analyses of various issues and people from the Reformation to modern day.
As the reader has probably surmised by now, my views of sola Scriptura match Barrett’s. For me, it was heartwarming to read someone who has so many views similar to mine but was not exactly from my Reformed Presbyterian world.
For the churchman preparing for some Reformation events in 2017, this book is an excellent resource. Although this is a fairly large book with 402 medium-sized pages, the format allows one to “dip in” at many points to be re-reminded of various issues and people, both historical and modern. Given the relatively low price, I highly recommend that churchman purchase this book.
Robert J. Cara
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte