Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

Jordan Cooper posted a brief guide to Lutheran systematic theology texts, which gave me the bright idea of doing the same! Cooper’s list is limited to conservative Lutheran texts. I will do the same for Reformed, but with a slightly broader range of options in the (constantly-debated) Reformed identity.


Reformed Theology, R. Michael Allen. This is the Reformed entry in T&T Clark’s “Doing Theology” series. I can do no better than quote John Webster’s blurb on the back cover: “Clear, calm and illuminating, this book offers a loving and generous commendation of the classical Reformed tradition of doctrine and spiritual practice.”

Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century, ed. Arthur Cochrane. The French Confession, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, and many more. The appendix includes the Heidelberg Catechism and the Barmen Declaration.


Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, John Webster. Deceptively short, these two volumes will teach you how to think like a Reformed theologian, with all of the right instincts and necessary subtly.

On the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God, Ulrich Zwingli. This is one of my favorite Reformation treatises. The volume includes Bullinger’s Of The Holy Catholic Church.

Commentary on Hebrews, John Calvin. Because it’s Calvin and because it’s Hebrews — enough said.

An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, Auguste Lecerf. I recently revisited this volume, and I was thoroughly impressed once again. Lecerf was a French Reformed theologian, who followed closely to Calvin and Bavinck. In 2009, I did a blog series on Lecerf: “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics.”

Christian Foundations, Donald Bloesch. This is Bloesch’s seven-volume systematic theology. Even though the number of volumes may be intimidating, this is a rather accessible ST. Bloesch’s heart was always for the church, strengthening her members with solid theology.

The Christian Doctrine of GodThe Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, and The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Emil Brunner. This is Brunner’s three-volume Dogmatics series. Brunner’s theology is guided by a personalist metaphysics, which he taught as uniquely derived from Scripture.


The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin. There are a couple options for Calvin’s final Latin edition from 1559. The McNeil edition, with Ford Lewis Battles translating, is the most commonly cited among scholars. The older Beveridge translation is still a favorite among many, now in a nice one-volume edition from Hendrickson, with new typeset. I sometimes prefer the Beveridge translation (or even the older John Allen translation), though I typically use Battles.

The Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1541 French Edition, John Calvin. Shorter and more accessible, this is worth considering. It is Robert White’s new translation of Calvin’s first French edition of his Institutes. I have read portions of it, and I am very impressed by the clarity of White’s translation. Of course, I have not compared it to the French, and there is also McKee’s translation to consider.

Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin. The final master theologian at the Genevan academy, founded by Calvin. Turretin is the culmination of Reformed Orthodoxy, through all of its battles against Remonstrants and Catholics and Socinians and other rascals. “Elenctic” means “serving to refute.” This was the standard theology text at Old Princeton, used by Charles Hodge, before Princeton got lazy and dropped Latin.

Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck. Written in Dutch in the early years of the 20th century, it took long enough for this to get translated into English! Bavinck presents a masterful synthesis of the scholastic Reformed tradition. Throughout, he frequently makes contrasts with the mainline liberalism of the 19th century, especially Hegel. Compared to either Calvin or Barth, Bavinck’s exegesis can be rather thin — but that is my only complaint.

Church Dogmatics, Karl Barth. You can spend your whole life reading Barth, and you will still be repeatedly stunned at this achievement. Alongside the tireless devotion of his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, Barth labored lovingly in this marvel of devotion to God and his church.

Studies in Dogmatics, G. C. Berkouwer. I love Berkouwer! In the English translation, this amounts to fourteen volumes. I own all of them in hardback, because a blessed soul was selling the set for a great price. Berkouwer is always a studious and fair student of theology.

Foundations of Dogmatics, Otto Weber. For reasons unknown to me, Weber’s Foundations is scarcely ever referenced in contemporary theological writing. It was translated by Darrell Guder (Fuller, PTS) and published by Eerdmans. The reason for its neglect is perhaps, in part, due to its incredible density and technical skill. Moreover, since Weber is usually lumped with Barth, people prefer to just read Barth, who wrote more than enough for the average student to consume. Nonetheless, Weber is impressive and worth consulting.

Incarnation and Atonement, T. F. Torrance. These are Torrance’s dogmatics lectures from Edinburgh. The latter volume is now only in paperback, as far as I can tell, unless you buy used. Torrance is, in many vital respects, a disciple of Barth, with whom he studied in Basel; but, he also has his own interests and expertise. Torrance’s range of competence is astonishing: from patristics to physics.


Notable Mentions

Dogmatic Theology, William G. T. Shedd. This is my favorite ST from an American Calvinist in the 19th century. He reminds me of Bavinck — clear and precise prose — though it is not quite as wide-ranging as Bavinck’s ST or as engaged with liberal modernity.

The Christian Faith, Michael Horton. Alongside his four-volume Covenant series, beginning with Covenant and Eschatology, Horton has made some impressive contributions to Reformed theology in America. Among those who are revitalizing Reformed scholasticism of the 17th century, Horton is the best and most accessible. He treats his opponents fairly and charitably.

Remythologizing Theology, Kevin Vanhoozer. Vanhoozer is a Presbyterian theologian at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As I have told others, he is probably the best American theologian right now. This volume is his first foray into real dogmatics, after several years of impressive writing in hermeneutics and epistemology. Welcome to theology proper, Professor Vanhoozer!


Image above: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

series index

July 16, 2009

I gathered the links for the seven posts on “The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics” onto a single page, with proper citation:

Click here

If I were more industrious I would gather them into a single Word document or pdf, which would be a good idea for printing out.

Lecerf - Reformed Dogmatics

series index

Here, finally, is the last part of this series, which is largely a reproduction of Auguste Lecerf’s treatment of the canon in his Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. As I said in the first post, I’m doing this in order to make some of Lecerf’s work available to the public, without spending $50+ in order to acquire his Introduction. For those who find his work germane to their own interests or research, you should buy the book. Among contemporary theologians, Lecerf’s approach to the canon and ecclesial authority is congenial with that of John Webster in his Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch, sharing many of the same emphases though expanded in the latter (such as, doctrine of God systematic relations, sanctification, “economy of grace,” et cetera). Webster’s book is a vital addition to anyone’s study of these issues from a Protestant — especially Reformed — perspective.

Here are the closing pages of chapter 10, “The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament,” which I’ve reproduced in its entirety beginning with part 4.


The existence of the New Testament is thus the first fact. But it may be asked, especially by those who do not believe that the Church has any right to impose its authority on the Word of God: whence does this canon derive its sanction? To this question we reply with another fact, one in the spiritual order, which is attested immediately by our knowledge. When the Church tells us that God speaks in the New Testament as He spoke formerly to His elect people in the Law and the Prophets, she has no difficulty at all in making us feel the reality of her assertion. In order to convince us of this, she can send us with confidence to meditate on the teaching which it contains: no Christian can fail to be touched by the divine character impressed upon it and reflected by it.

This immediate sense of the presence of a divine revelation, of a message which awakens confidence in the heart of the believer, is surely a manifestation of the testimony of the Holy Spirit. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me” (John 10:27). But among this number are some who still remain outside the faith of Protestantism, or who fancy themselves to be “progressive thinkers,” when they are merely reverting to the proto-history of Protestant dogmatics, to the primitive stage of Luther and Zwingli. Calvin, who had himself experienced this sentiment, declares that the divinity of Scripture may be recognized as one distinguishes the sweet from the bitty, the white from the black [Inst. I, vii. 2]. But the gifted exponent of the doctrine of the witness of the Holy Spirit, by his more penetrating analysis, distinguished another fact to which  he was, we believe, the first to give theological expression because he was the first to see that in that way alone the Christian consciousness could be guaranteed a truly formal rule which would deliver it alike from the tyranny of clerks and from the aberrations of individualist subjectivism.

Read the rest of this entry »

John Calvin

See parts one, two, three, four, and five.

This continues Lecerf’s argument for the necessity of the Church and the trustworthiness of her testimony (such as related to the canon) under certain conditions relative to the doctrine of God, establishing the objective ground for the subjective witness of the Holy Spirit. If you have not read any of these posts, then go back and read part five, where his arguments really begin. This is solid stuff and very interesting. All in all, I think it helps to establish a compelling vision (hermeneutic) for reading the history of the Church and the purposes of God.


But it is important to render to the Church that which belongs to the Church, and to the Holy Spirit that which belongs to the Holy Spirit. To the Church, it belongs to teach.

It it through her that the Reformers learnt the existence of Holy Scripture, the New Testament, the Redeemer, the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the heavenly Father. These men were not, therefore, tabulae rasae, nor did they wish to make a tabula rasa of the past. They based their teaching upon the Catholic Christianity in which they were born, and were content to abide in it.

To the Holy Spirit it belongs to teach with certainty of faith those who understand the teaching of their particular Church, which latter remains, in spite of it all, a supernatural fact, and certain of whose teachings, for example, the articles of the Creed, the inspiration of Scripture, the canon of the New Testament, are the affirmation of divine facts and teachings. These spiritual realities, being transcendent to reason and the senses, can only be known in this sense by means of faith which is a supernatural organ, and the faith which believes on the authority of God is the testimony of the Holy Spirit whose mark of origin it bears.

What gave, and gives, in the eyes of orthodox Protestants an importance of the first order to the unanimous testimony of the Church concerning the canon of the New Testament, is the fact that God produces in their religious consciousness the certainty that the existence of the Church is a divine fact. And He produces this certainty by the very preaching of the truth which is already a word of God, as such, susceptible of being sealed in the hearts of the faithful before they have read the Scriptures. This Scripture of the New Testament is given them by their particular Church, the only one that they know directly, basing itself on the consensus of Christian antiquity which, triumphing over previous hesitations, settled its contents at the councils of Hippo Regius and Carthage in the 4th century. The slight deviations of certain heretical communities (Monophysites), or of particular teachings, on these points of detail, are insignificant in the presence of such impressive agreement. By the consent of the Church, our Reformers and their immediate disciples and successors were brought to feel a profound respect for the venerable documents which constitute the New Testament.

But they could not, legitimately, even before their separation from Rome, establish a certitude of divine faith relative to the universal Church, in the sense in which the Tridentine Fathers willed that it should be received, namely, with a respect equal to the word of God, because this tradition does not respond to the required criterion: quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum. [The Vincentian Canon, circa A.D. 450]

This tradition in their eyes had been “believed” practically “everywhere” and “by all,” but they knew very well that it could not command the epithet “always.” Calvin, as an exegete, was not ignorant, for example, of the difficulties which had been experienced by the Epistle to the Hebrews or 2 Peter in gaining admission to the canon, and he was familiar with most of the reasons which can be urged against the attribution of these epistles to the authors assigned to them by tradition. And Luther knew as much about this matter as his brilliant successor.

They could not legitimately base this faith on the decision of an infallible oecumenical council, for the excellent reason that, to their knowledge at least, no oecumenical council had sanctioned the canon in detail. The Council of Trent did so, indeed, but this was either after the death of the Reformers or several years after they had consummated their rupture with Rome. And when the Council of Trent, assembled, there were reasons which, in their eyes, as in ours, disqualified it from meriting the title oecumenical.

Finally, they could not have based their faith on the decision of a pope speaking ex cathedra, even supposing one to have existed. The Vatican Council had not yet assembled, and it was not until 1870 that Roman Catholics knew that it was de fide that such decisions must be considered articles of faith.

Is this equivalent to saying that Roman Catholics at the time of Luther and Calvin were unaware of the existence of the New Testament? Certainly not. Those who were sufficiently instructed knew this fact perfectly well and indeed it was in the New Testament that Luther found the word which delivered him from the terrors which assailed his conscience. He had been told that God spoke through this book. He heard and believed, he knew henceforth by a direct experience that his teachers had not deceived him in this matter. It was in this way that the testimony of the Holy Spirit was engraven on his soul.

But one difficulty presented itself to which, under the pressure of the moment, they had to find a reply. It was in the reforming book itself that their adversaries sought for weapons with which to defend the errors from which the Reformers were delivering the Church. To the sola fide of Luther was opposed the Epistle of James. Zwingli, condemning the invocation of angels, was shown the angel in the Apocalypse causing the prayers of the faithful to ascend to heaven in the smoke of incense.

From such difficulties, the importance of which was exaggerated, the first two Reformers saw no other way of escape than to distinguish in the teaching of Scripture between that which is, and that which is not, canonical. Zwingli’s criterion was the glory of God; Luther’s, the plan of salvation. Without wishing it, as their subsequent attitude to the illuminati showed, this was to introduce subjectivism into the heart of the formal principle of the Reformation. Great honour has been paid to them on this account, but, for our part we deplore this stupid error of the pioneers of the Reformation. We would not throw a stone at such men, however, for they rendered too great services to peace of conscience and purity of worship for us to do aught but honour their memory.

They were not able, however, to see clearly the testimony of the Holy Spirit in all its fullness. It was given to the courageous and balanced genius of Geneva to visualize the situation as a whole. He had, of course, the immense advantage of succeeding Zwingli and Luther and of being able to gauge the extent of the danger with which “fantastic spirits” menaced the future of the Reformation.

Following the example of our Reformer, we start with these two immediately verifiable facts: there exists a New Testament, recognized by the Roman Church, in whose bosom the Reformers were born, as given by divine inspiration; which, moreover, must be received, on the confession of that Church, as testimony of the Occident is corroborated by that of the Oriental Churches, abstracting as to points of detail from certain heretical communions.

We are aware, of course, that in the case of the deuterocanonical books of the New Testament this agreement ws not established at first glance. The formation of the canon, as we know it, was the result of a slow and gradual process, the practical conclusion of which was demonstrated at the synods of Hippo and Carthage.

This process may be represented in the following manner. First, the Churches read in public the writings which their leaders and people acknowledged as prophetic or charismatic by reason of their apostolic origin or, in default, of their antiquity and utility; in other words, of their intrinsic value as historic witnesses or as instruments of edification. Several of these writings no longer figure in the present canon: those alone remaining by a constant tradition. In the second class were those which could not be rejected without offending the piety of which they were the objects on the part of brethren whose feelings in the matter had a right to be respected. Presumed apostolic authority, mediate or immediate, was doubtless an important factor, but not until after A. D. 265 did it become a conditio sine qua non. The proof of this is to be seen in the fact that Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, who died in that year, simply to humour the sentiments of men whom he respected, sought to safeguard the canonicity of the Apocalypse by attributing it to another John than the Apostle.

The consensus in question is thus the conclusion of an historic process, but henceforth nothing can prevent it from being what it is. The individual scholar may indeed ascertain that in this canon there are secondary parts less firmly attested by the external critique than the others. But he must acknowledge that the mass is cemented and that it has been proposed finally for the acceptance of the Church, which has recognized, and recognizes, that God has spoken to her in and through this Holy Scripture.

In regard to this social fact, nothing can be changed: the Church has received the canon of the New Testament as it is today, in the same way as the Synagogue had bequeathed to it the Hebrew canon. The canon cannot be remade for the simple reason that history cannot be remade. The Council of Trent had an humiliating experience in regard to this question when it wanted to add the Apocrypha to the Hebrew canon.

Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1981), pp. 324-328

zwingli preaching

This post continues a series on Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics.

See parts 1 (intro), 2, 3, and 4

Here, finally, begins Lecerf’s main argument — arguing, once again, for a mediating position between liberal subjectivism (canon within a canon, et cetera) and Roman Catholic infallibilism (canon as derivative from inscrutable ecclesiasticism, et cetera). The former is correct to maintain the primacy of the material content of the canon (Christ) and the Holy Spirit’s witness thereto, but the latter is correct to maintain the necessity of the Church, ordained by Christ for the economy of the Holy Spirit, working corporately (not just individually). Moreover, a responsible attention to historical reality, in the Church’s acceptance of the canon, reveals neither the subjective immediacy of the liberals nor the fixed and secure ecclesiaticism of the Romans.


Among Protestants, the apologetico-historical school, even when orthodox, seeks to establish the canon by the historical critique. This method leads to a cul-de-sac. It can only produce a conjectural knowledge, reserved for an intellectual élite, for whom faith is not enough.

Le Clerc’s line of argument in the 18th century, resumed independently by Ritschl in the following century, possesses an undeniable value from a human point of view. It is certain that, in order to rediscover original and authentic Christianity, we must trace it to its source, or at least to an epoch in which the tradition concerning Christ was still living; certain too that, to say the least, the undisputed writings of the New Testament which form the core of the Christian canon, satisfy this need in a large measure.

But, for fidelity in the transmission of original texts, we are almost entirely dependent on the witness of the Church of the 2nd century; and, as our Lord left us no writings, speculative criticism must attempt to disentangle His authentic teaching from the modifications which may have been made in it by the thought of the men of the first Christian generations. The true Protestant canon, according to Eugene Menegoz, must be the word of Christ, “our only Master.” The trouble is that this canon is historically impossible to determine in any strict sense. History, by itself, without a religious axiom, can give the Protestant no authority distinct from his own “private opinion.” Finally, the simple will have to be content with the Professoren Christus among many and various personifications.

As to the canon of the New Testament, properly speaking, it is represented as a late creation of the episcopate in response to the initiative of the heresiarch Marcion who was the first to entertain the idea of one. In actual fact, there is only one primitive Christian literature, which has been constituted a closed canon by the Church, with the intention of forming a pendant to the Jewish canon of the Old Testament and giving ancient catholicism a firmer base on which to build its tradition and its regula fidei than the allegorical exegesis of the sacred books of the Jews.

In order to establish this role of the episcopate in the creation of the canon, use is made of a text of Origen [Proemium Lucae] according to which “the money-changers expert in the testing of currency” have not admitted — according to an alternative reading, have not examined minutely — all the numerous gospels extant, but have received only “the four” that we possess. “The Church of God,” he concludes, “prefers these four to the exclusion of all the others.” It is generally admitted that the criterion employed was the supposed mediate or immediate apostilicity of the document.

We will not discuss the question whether Origen’s “money-changer assayers” are intended to represent the bishops, as Julicher would have it. This seems doubtful in view of a text of his Commentary on Matthew (25: 27); also from the fact that, in his Proemium Lucae, he attributes to the ancient people “the gift of discernment of spirits”; and, finally, because he believed that in his own time there survived certain rare Christians endowed with this gift. Now, he could not have been ignorant that the number of bishops was considerable at the time when he wrote. We do not deny that at a given moment the criterion of apostolicity was applied to the disputed writings. We would merely observe that there are texts and facts which go to show that these writings were often received for religious motives and regarded as canonical, even though it was recognized that they were not of apostolic origin. Finally, a leading critic has confessed that it is impossible to do more that make conjectures concerning the factors which concurred in the formation of the canon. [Adolf Harnack, Lehrb. d. Dogmengeschichte, p. 343]

How much more solid, at first sight, appears the thesis proposed by Rome. The Roman Catholic knows no hesitation concerning the list of canonical writings. The contours of his New Testament are delimited precisely by the infallible authority of the Church, in accordance with the decisions of the ecumenical councils of Florence and Trent. Unfortunately, the infallible authority of the Church is, as we have seen, a colossus with feet of clay. An authority decides nothing unless it has previously been received. If the canon of the Word of God rests on the decision of the Church, upon what then does the authority and infallibility of the latter rest? The Tu es Petrus is in the Gospel by Matthew. Let us propose for a moment that it proves what Rome would have it prove. How am I to know that the Gospel by Matthew is inspired, canonical, and a rule of faith?

Even if we abstract from this preliminary objection, how strange it is to suppose, with the Roman system, that there can be an authority superior to the Word of God, necessary to legitimize that Word in the minds of believers. It is extremely improbable that a text immediately and totally inspired by God could not be received unless it had previously been authenticated by certain men, supposed indeed to be infallible but admitted to be uninspired.

If we are to have a canon other than our own subjectivity, we must put ourselves in the position of the Reformers, and indicate as the means of recognizing it, not the hesitant authority of the critic, or the juridical authority of the Church, but the unanimity realized practically at the end of the 4th century of the Christian era and confirmed by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the hearts of the faithful.

Roman controversialists exult and imagine us to be very embarrassed when they object that the Reformers and the first Protestants could not have known that the canon of the New Testament was correct and complete by any other means that the infallible authority of the Roman Church form whom they received its sacred pages. But this triumph would be of brief duration if these polemists agreed to regard these things as they happened in reality, instead of remaining in the clouds of speculation.

The Reformers and the first Protestants were certainly Christians, and Christians living under the Roman obedience, more or less defined, in imperial Germany, Gallican France and an England in which the ties with Rome had been loosening even before the reign of Henry VIII. Properly speaking, it was from their respective national Churches, more strictly from the local Churches in which they had grown up, that they received the principles and elements of Christianity, including the teaching on the existence of Holy Scripture and of a Biblical canon.

Although the state of these Churches was unsatisfactory in the extreme, they were still “Churches,” diseased branches, indeed, but still in some sense branches of the tree which in another figure is called the mystical body of Christ. When they taught, among desolating errors, some point of divine truth, they were able by its means to bring forth souls to the life of faith. Their teaching, in the measure in which it was subject to the Word of God, showed Christ and His Word; conformed itself to that Word, could be, and was, effectively sealed in the hearts of true believers by the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

Auguste Lecerf, An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics (Baker, 1981), pp. 321-324

Una Baptist_Nashville

This continues a series on Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. This post, part 4, deals with the authority issue: “How can you know that the present canon is the Word of God?”

See part 1 (intro), part 2, and part 3

“The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament” is the title of chapter 10, excerpted below. In the preceding chapters, Lecerf has been clearing the way, dealing with preliminary issues/objections that may arise: the attitude of rebellion vs. submission, the apostolic character of the Reformation, the inspired nature of scripture, etc. Now he offers a formal proposal for considering the authority of the canon, against subjectivist Liberalism and infallibilist Romanism. The preceding chapter ended with the question, “How can you know that the present canon is precisely this Word of God which you need and who guarantees to you its authority?”


To the question which concludes the preceding chapter, Calvin, followed by the confessions of La Rochelle, the Netherlands and the Waldensians, replies, “Without doubt, by the unanimous voice of the Church, but especially, in the final and supreme analysis, by the testimony and inner persuasion of the Holy Ghost.”

It is the unanimous consent of the Church which informs us of the fact that there is a canon of Scripture to which she submits, and it is the Holy Spirit who seals this affirmation of the Church in the hearts of the faithful by His creative testimony of faith.

“This is the principle which distinguishes our religion from all others, namely, that we know that God has spoken to us and are certainly assured that the prophets have not spoken of themselves but as organs and instruments of the Holy Spirit; that they have merely declared what they received from on high. Whoever therefore would profit by the Holy Scriptures, let him decide in the first place that the Law and the Prophets have no doctrine at all which has been given by the will or desire of men but only that which has been dictated by the Holy Spirit. If it is asked how we can know this, I reply that to doctors as well as to disciples God declares and manifests that he is their author by the revelation of the same Spirit.” [Calvin, Com. on 2 Tim., iii, 16]

This reply has been criticized. We are told that Calvin must have confused the religious fact of Christian experience, which hears the voice of God here and there in Scripture, with purely scientific questions arising from history and criticism, such as the integrity of the texts and the conditions under which the canon was decided.

This criticism is only possible if one loses sight of the double signification of the term “canon.” Empirically, and abstracting from all question of principle, by the term “canon of the Bible” is understood the list of books of which it is composed. It is thus that there are two canons of the Old Testament: the Hebrew canon received by Protestants and the canon called Alexandrian received by Catholics. This means that certain writings of the Old Testament which figure in the Alexandrian list are absent from the Hebrew list. Thus, if we ignore the canons of certain heretical Oriental Churches of no importance and lacking any spiritual insight, it may be said that there is one canon of the New Testament for Christendom.

On the other hand, the term “canon” may be invested with a dogmatic significance. If the Bible be regarded as divinely inspired, its canon will possess a normative authority. From this it follows that the term canonical is susceptible of two different meanings. It may signify divine and normative, as in the Confession of La Rochelle, and it may signify transmitted by the Church and recognized by her as forming part of the list of the authentic writings of the Bible.

In the second acceptation, it is perfectly evident that the testimony of the Holy Spirit does not inform us what constittues this list, nor the number, title, authenticity and extent of the works which compose it. In this sense Bavinck admits that the Holy Spirit does not pronounce on canonicity of such and such a document. [Geref. Dog., I, p. 642, s. I54]

Here we have a purely historical question which must be resolved according to the methods of critical science. In order to ascertain what books a Church recognizes as canonical, we must ask, in the first place, not the Holy Spirit but the Church.

Theologians of the 17th century like Quenstedt and du Moulin willingly admit that the catalogue of canonical books — the canon in the second acceptation of the term — is not “an article of faith superadded to the others which are contained in Scripture.” One may have saving faith while not knowing distinctly the number of the canonical books, or not accepting them in their entirety. It would be absurd to suggest that the Nestorians will all be damned for this reason.

When, therefore, it is a question of determining canonicity in the scientific sense, there is no other way except by experimental enquiry and the internal and external critique, in the literary sense. This is the process which Calvin employs in his commentaries on the antilegomena of the New Testament (the writings whose authenticity identified with canonicity was disputed in the churches and by the doctors of the first centuries of our era). In this matter he makes use of critical liberty, apart from which there can be no scientific knowlege, and he is obliged to observe that the writings of these books cannot always be attributed to the authors which tradition assigns to them, or at least that this attribution may be uncertain.

But it is none the less true that Calvin and the Reformers accepted the canon of the New Testament as the Councils of Hippo Regius and of Carthage had received it and as the medieval Church which they were engaged in reforming has transmitted it to them. Did they thus show themselves to be slaves of tradition which might be rightly regarded as merely some wretched product of the human mind? It is here that, in Reformed dogmatics, the function of the testimony of the Holy Spirit makes its appearance, being applied to the canonicity of the sacred books in the purely religious sense. The subject of the present chapter and of the two following is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

This inspired Scripture which orthodox Protestantism makes the external principle of its theology is divided into two parts called the Old and New Testaments. Each of these parts consists of a body of writings composed by different secondary authors at different times and originally independent of each other. Not until long after they were written were they included in a single list called the canon. It was thus that the Jewish canon first made its appearance; then the canon of the books of the New Testament.

We will now discuss these two canons separately, because their authority is not established in the same way, for the Christian; the testimony of the Holy Spirit reaching us more immediately in the one case than in the other.

[Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics, pp. 319-321]

to be continued…

Westerkerk by van der Heyden

See part 1 (intro) and part 2

In chapter 8, Lecerf dealt with the parallel between the Reformation and the advent of the Christian Church within the Synagogue. The main ancillary point made was that humility and submission, not pride and arrogance, were vital to the Reformation mindset. In chapter 9, partly excerpted below, he starts to deal more with the dogmatics of the “formal” and “external” principle of the Reformation: the authority of the canon alone within the life of the Church. Much of this chapter is taken up with the inspiration of scripture, with Lecerf taking a traditional line, though modified by the “organic” approach of the Dutch school at the time, namely Bavinck. Plenary inspiration is affirmed, though this does not require historical exactitude on accidental matters, since God can be in “full control” and allow such non-dogmatic errors. The other concern in this chapter is the subjectivism of the neo-Protestant (liberal, Ritschlian) and neo-orthodox (dialectical, Barthian) theology. Lecerf’s doctrine of inspiration and his critique of the subjectivist schools are very similar to those found in Concise Reformed Dogmatics (P & R Publishing, 2008).

I only have three excerpts from this chapter below — those parts which are of greater interest to the authority issue, which is not given a positive construction until the next chapter. These excerpts will give you a good idea of where he is going.


It is the Church, by means of her members acting in their respective vocations of parents, teachers and ministers, which places the soul of the child in contact with the verities of the faith and it is from her that he receives the supreme rule of faith and practice which is the canon of Holy Scripture. In the absence of the testimony of the Church, the catechumen would not even know that this canon existed as an established fact concerning which there can be no further dispute.

In acknowledging the Church’s primary role in transmitting the canon of Holy Scripture and introducing the individual to the faith, we are not making a strategic retirement to new positions, the original ones having been rendered untenable owing to enemy pressure. We remain, on the contrary, firmly fixed in the positions which our Reformer occupied from the beginning. [Inst. I, vii. 3.]

Calvin had nothing in common with the “fantastics” of his time whose radical individualism aimed at putting a sort of private inspiration above the authority of Scripture, confounding the promptings of their consciousness with the testimony of the Holy Spirit. [Ibid., 9]

For him, it is indeed from the Church, the guardian of the Scriptures, that the believer receives their text and contents. But the neo-Protestantism of today, like that of his time, objects to the identification of Scripture with the Word of God. It opposes to the religion of the letter “the religion of the spirit,” and it agrees with Rome in claiming that the canon of the New Testament is a creation of the Church. The limits of the canon of the New Testament having been determined, it is claimed, by the authority of the Church, orthodox Protestantism is held to be inconsistent in rejecting her infallible authority, on the one hand, and, on the other, in accepting the exclusive and closed list of the canonical books of the New Testament which rests equally and solely on the same authority.


This is what we would say on the subject: every intellectual worker worthy of the name has something which for convenience we will call “a mysticism.” He may even have two: a religious mysticism, a profound devotion to the person of Christ, for example; and a cultural mysticism, such as adherence to the positivist principle in science, to subjectivist and evolutionary humanism, to the doctrine of universal mechanistic determinism; in brief, to scientific conformism. Sentimentally, intellectually and in every other respect, criticism has gained as a result of the humanist ideology of the 18th and 19th centuries, so that “modern” man — “modern” let it be understood in the already historical and traditional sense of the term — if he wishes to remain or become religious, can no longer give his religion the hyperphysical and transcendent foundation of the affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed: prophecy and miracle, in the sense of a special divine intervention in the causal series of events, appear to him as radical impossibilities. He is compelled to distinguish carefully between the faith of confidence and the faith of belief in “sacred history,” which reflects a manner of thinking that his ideology forces him to consider out-of-date. Thus it is in the believer’s subjectivity that he must seek the foundations of his religious life. Neo-Protestant theology thus betrays its connection with the philosophical psychologism dominant in the mid-19th century in France.


We do not deny that God inspired other writings than those which constitute the canon. Some have been lost, and obviously we need not concern ourselves with them now. If they were rediscovered, we should not know for certain that they had been intended to serve as a rule of faith for us and we could only receive their doctrine by measuring it against the authority of the canonical books. There may be some which survive to this day. It is possible that the Epistle of Clement of Rome may be among the number, or some other writing of the Apostolic Fathers which has figured in the canon of the New Testament and of certain particular Churches. But the fact that these writings have been eliminated from the canon of the Church universal under the pressure of historical circumstances which are under divine control shows us that it was not the intention of providence to give these documents the role of faith and life for all the centuries but only for the time during which they were imposed on the acceptance of certain Churches.

[p. 318]


See series index

Auguste Lecerf’s Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics deals with the formal principle of the Reformation — the authority of scripture alone — in six chapters, of which I will excerpt from the first three:

8. Christian Dogmatics must be Protestant

9. The Formal and External Principle of the Reformed Faith

10. The Testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Authority of Scripture: The Canon of the New Testament

The subsequent chapters deal with the canon of the Old Testament (ch. 11), the unity of the Church (ch. 12), and the primacy for dogmatic loci of the formal principle (ch. 13).

Chapter 8, partially excerpted below, deals with the “protest” in evangelical dogmatics of the Reformation and its parallel with the infant church of the apostles.


For the Reformers, there was no question as to whether the Church, the visible institution, was of divine origin; nor even whether, under certain conditions, it was infallible and indefectible. On these two points Calvin gives as categorical an affirmative as Luther. Neither the one nor the other had the least doubt as to the divine institution of the ministry of the Word and of the sacraments.

They did not deny that the Church had authority in matters of faith and discipline. Normally, the Christian cannot be conceived to the life of faith except in the bosom of the mother of the faithful, which is the Church. On her teaching and authority he depends all the days of his life.

In referring to churches subject to the yoke of error and superstition, Calvin declares that they are still churches, for this reason, among others, that “the Lord wondrously preserves in them a remnant of His people, however scattered they may be.” (Inst. IV, ii. 12.) By this very circumstance the efficacy of Christ’s promises is assured. He is with His ministers when they teach, even if their teaching is tainted with ignorance or error. He is even with an unfaithful preacher, when he prevents any but the elements of truth contained in his defective preaching from entering into the souls of the faithful. The example of the conversion of Mere Angelique of Port Royal furnishes a striking proof of this.

When evil grows in the Church to such an extent that it becomes unfit as an institution to fulfil its function, God can if it please Him, raise up by an extraordinary vocation such men as Calvin calls evangelists and we call Reformers. He thus re-establishes, in sufficient clarity and purity, the proclamation of the evangelical message and the administration of the sacraments.

As to the formal principle of Protestantism, Scripture as the unique source and rule of faith and life, it is justified scientifically by a verification which is based on historical evidence.

It is evident that Christianity, confronted by the Synagogue, could only make good its claim to be the succession Church of ancient Israel by basing itself on the very principle which became the formal principle of the Reformation when confronted by the Church of Rome. In relation to the Synagogue and the Sanhedrin, the primitive Church was in exactly the same position as the Reformed Church in relation to the Papacy and the Council.

Christianity is formally a Protestantism opposing legitimist and traditionalist Judaism. Because Judaism has been vanquished and the centuries have rolled away, Christians of the sacerdotalist type have forgotten all this. But they would not be here to oppose Protestants with their legitimist prepossessions, that is to say, the preliminary legitimist question, under pretext that the Protestants have broken with legitimate authority; they would not be here, we say, if our Lord and His disciples had not adopted the same attitude toward the priesthood of Jerusalem as Luther and Calvin later adopted toward the priesthood of Rome.

What is the precise point which formally distinguishes historic Protestantism from Rome and Constantinople? It has already been said that there is no question of denying to ecclesiastical authority the right of declaring its sentiments and of judging in matters of religious controversy, provided it takes for its supreme rule the Word of God. Still less is it a question of encouraging the pride of private individuals by giving them the right to base themselves on their autonomous reason or sensibility, in order to reject that which is confessed by the representative Church.

The question is just this: when the representative Church — which is not necessarily to be identified with the Church pure and simple — claims in an arbitrary fashion to place her authority or her “tradition of the elders” on the same footing as the Word of God, does her decision bind before God the consciences of the members of the Church?

In other words, if a believer refuses to accept the instruction of an ecclesiastical tribunal, out of respect for the Word of God, is he necessarily and a priori a proud man? The Roman Church says “Yes”; the Reformed, “No.”

In support of her affirmation, Rome cites certain well-known passages of Scripture: the famous Tu es Petrus (Matthew 16:18) and the not less celebrated Dic Ecclesiae (Matthew 18:17). But in so doing she encloses herself in a vicious circle. For, on the one hand, it is claimed that the private individual can only judge of the sense of Holy Scripture by basing himself on the infallible authority of the Church; while, on the other hand, texts of Scripture are quoted to him in order to prove this assertion. Thus an appeal is made to the judgment of the individual to decide, in his independence, the sense of Scripture which is is claimed that the representative Church alone has the right and power to judge.

But we need not insist on this point. Let us note simply what has happened historically since the foundation of Christianity (of the Christian Church, we grant, despite the denials of certain neo-Protestants). At the time when our Lord exercised His “irregular” ministry, there existed a Church by divine right: the Synagogue. Rome will not dispute this. The regular authorities of this Church were able to base their authority on a passage of the Old Testament as clear as those texts of the New Testament invoked by Rome, namely, Deuteronomy (17: 8-13).

In this passage we read that, should difficult questions arise, the priest and the judge must decide, and that if anyone, through pride, refuses to submit to his sentence, he must be cut off, that thus the people may be preserved from presumption.

Now, He whom we recognize as the Christ was condemned in the place which the Lord had chosen, as the text of the Law prescribes (Deuteronomy 17:8), by the priest and the judge, for having followed the example of the most faithful prophets of the Old Testament, who had judged that theirs was not a case of resistance through pride.

Unless we condemn the infant Church, which no Christian could think of doing, it must be acknowledged that there are, in fact, cases in which resistance to the regular ecclesiastical authority does not imply a revolt through pride; that there are some cases in which private individuals, like the fishers of Galilee, were obliged in conscience to make appeal from the sentence of the priests to that which impressed their minds as the faithful interpretation of the prophecies of Scripture.

(pp. 294, 296-8)

Auguste Lecerf, with Sergius Bulgakov (middle) and Fritz Lieb (right) in 1933.

Auguste Lecerf, with Sergius Bulgakov (middle) and Fritz Lieb (right) in 1933.

series index

This post begins a series on the formal principle of the Reformation (sola scriptura) as presented in Auguste Lecerf’s An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics. I’ve covered this issue before with P. T. Forsyth’s discussion in The Person and Place of Jesus Christ:

The Canon: A Protestant Account

The Canon: A Protestant Account, pt. 2

Auguste Lecerf (1872-1943) was a French Reformed pastor and professor at the Protestant Faculty of Theology, University of Paris. The preface to An Introduction to Reformed Dogmatics has this description of his work:

In 1930 a visitor knocked at Professor Lecerf’s door and introduced himself with these words: “Some friends of mine, hearing that I was passing through Paris, have advised me to come and see you. M. Lecerf is a unique personality, they say, he is in fact the last of the Calvinists and when he dies the type will be extinct. So whatever happens, do not fail to pay him a visit.” When God called his servant home in 1943, he had seen the divine blessing upon his labours. Far from being the sole defender of a lost cause, he had become the leader of a living movement, which was rapidly and irresistibly reversing all the positions of the once prevalent modernism. Practically all the young people coming out of the Theological Faculties of France and Geneva were declaring themselves Calvinists. (S. Leigh-Hunt, preface, p. 7)

Lecerf was indeed a fully confessional Calvinist, unlike many of the other renewers of the Reformation (e.g., Karl Barth) who adapted Reformed principles but reformulated key doctrines, notably on scripture and election. His affinities are more with Bavinck than Barth, and so we see Bavinck, along with Calvin, in most of the footnotes. His Introduction was part of a larger project covering the whole system of Reformed theology, but, unfortunately, he died before it could be completed. As such, we have a volume dealing with the foundations of Reformed dogmatics. Epistemology and the question of sources (authority) is the content.

This blog series will proceed with excerpts from Lecerf and with little commentary. He is a clear writer. I’m offering this largely because his Introduction is fairly expensive and is not available to read online. I also desire to see this Protestant principle actually understood and articulated in online discussions, which often devolve into an interchange of fantastic ignorance and arrogance.

As will be seen, Lecerf is concerned in maintaining the objectivity of the Protestant principle of authority. The Bible judges the Church, to be sure, but the Church does not then become an abstraction, supplanted by the individual’s faith. The Church is the field for the economy of the Holy Spirit as the reconciling agent of the Risen Lord. As such, the God who commissions and oversees (as with all things) the heralds of his Gospel and the chroniclers of his Word is the God who elects and redeems in the life of the Church. But, this Gospel that is the raison d’être of the Church does not originate or find its fulfillment in the continuing life of the Church; rather, the Gospel is antecedent to the ministry of the Church and forms the content of this ministry. As the Church takes course, she is ever-dependent on the unique revelation of this Gospel. The Christ-event, and the old covenant community and prophecies that prepared the way, is where the Church finds her salvation. The recognition of a canon of scripture is the recognition of this salvation. It is the conscious placement of the Church under this rule. Thus, the Church does not sanction the rule; rather, the Rule sanctions the Church. If the Church takes the position of the absolute under which the scriptures are made subject, then the Church effectively replaces scripture with herself. This is what the Reformers faced, and so they began to set aright the Bible and the Church as distinct.

Whether the Catholic believes, understandably, that this is folly and dangerous, he or she can at least recognize and appreciate the conscience-bound purposes of the Reformers and their heirs today. Both sides have a compelling and coherent thesis to offer, within a narrative of God’s providence, so let us go ahead with information in hand and humility in the heart.