Scripture And The Protestant Principle

By Robert F. Turner

The “authority of the church” is undoubtedly the basic point of difference between Roman Catholicism and classic Protestantism, with both Luther and Calvin agreeing that God rests His authority in His Word. But both theologians had accepted another basic tenet which cast doubt upon their “authority.” In his book, “Pattern of Authority,” Bernard Ramm discusses this matter in great detail, and explains: “(1) The human reason had come under certain darkening effects from sin; and (2) being fully persuaded by human reason the believer would still have but human faith.” Ramm says, “The truer Protestant principle is that there is an external principle (the inspired Scripture) and an internal principle (the witness of the Holy Spirit).” This allows their principle of authority to fit their concept of inherited depravity and its solution, the direct operation of the Holy Spirit. But it argues that the Word given by the Holy Spirit was meaningless unless the hearer or reader also had the indwelling Spirit to enlighten and enable one to understand truth.

Ramm quotes James Orr as “I believe the Holy Spirit in the community of God’s people (to interpret truth, rt) may fitly be described as the primal heresy — the heresy of all heresies — in the Christian Church.” In that case, I must be one great heretic, for I believe the Holy Spirit’s initial work in inspiring chosen messengers was adequate, and that the inspired word is understandable to all who will search the Scriptures, desiring truth. Most of my brethren believe this also, but it may be that we do not sufficiently grasp the significance of this great truth, and how it sets us apart from the greater part of our Protestant neighbors. For that reason, we need to consider Scriptures used to justify the position they have taken on this subject.

Almost all who argue the case begin with 1 Corinthians 2:14, “Now the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged.” They say, “There it is, as you can see. ” But I must reply, “If I can see that passage, I can see others, and your proposition fails.” There is no way the evangelical can logically offer scriptural proof for anything, for if one does not have this “spiritual enlightenment” he cannot understand God’s word, and all who do have it must “see” alike if God’s truth is indeed unified. On the other hand, if we are to look at this passage in its context — letting the Scriptures explain the Scriptures — we will come up with a very different conclusion.

The context for this matter begins in chapter one. “For the word of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God” (v. 18). Here, two classes of people hear the same message. One treats it as foolishness, for “the world through its wisdom knew not God” (1:21). When the message of the cross is measured by human wisdom, judged on the basis of what conforms to human wisdom, it is rejected. Another class, just as human, believes the message and is saved. For details, follow the context into the second chapter. Paul says he came not with worldly wisdom, but “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:4-5). Notice it is “your faith,” the faith of humans. Faith is the acceptance of evidence, an action on man’s part. But some men believe, some do not The difference is not that God gives “faith” to some, and withholds it from others. The difference is in man’s attitude and standards of judgment.

Paul came “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” “confirming the word by the signs that followed” (Mk. 16:20; Heb. 2:4). He proved the source of his message to be from heaven, by miraculous sings of confirmation. We no more need further confirmation of the message, than we do of the fact of Christ’s resurrection. These things are written that we may believe (Jn. 20:30-31), and when we read we can perceive Paul’s understanding received by inspiration (Eph. 3:2f). The believers are those who accept the message on the bassi of its divine source; while the disbelievers, trusting only human wisdom for confirmation, call the gospel foolishness.

Now, continue to follow Paul’s message to the Corinthians. He says God must reveal His truth (the things of God) by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:11). But he does not say all hearers (or readers) must have the Holy Spirit. The “we” and “us” of verse 12, are seen to be the speakers (or writers) of verse 13. “We” (the apostles, inspired men) received, and so speak. Compare the Ephesians passage, “as it hath now been revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (3:5); or “that ye should remember the words which were spoken before by the holy prophets, and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Pet.3:2). There is nothing here to suggest the hearer must have the Holy Spirit, but one who would claim to be a messenger from God must obtain heaven’s truths by inspiration, not by human wisdom. It is well, at this point, to note that today’s teachers only pass on that which the apostles and prophets had revealed unto them (2 Tim.2:2).

The context of the disputed passage clearly distinguishes the “natural” man from the spiritual, on the basis of the standard he trusts for judgment. If Paul is referring to would be “speakers” he says those who trust in worldly wisdom can not be true spokesmen for the things of God. Things of God can come only by inspiration, and that eliminates all but the Apostles and Prophets. If he refers to hearers who can not know things of God, it is because they will accept only that which their worldly wisdom approves hence, the gospel is foolishness to them. In both cases, spiritual truths transcend the physical realm, and must come from God by way of revelation. The so called “Protestant Principle” and those who accept it make a big mistake, here and in John 14, 15, 16 relative to the Comforter, by assuming or applying generally, that which was a specific promise made to Apostles and Prophets of the first century (cf. Luke 24:48-49).

Guardian of Truth XXX: 21, pp. 647-648
November 6, 1986