Should We Use Only The Words Of Scripture

In Our Articles And Confessions of Faith?


John Gill



It is strongly pleaded that articles and confessions of faith, in which men are to agree, should be expressed in the bare words of the sacred Scriptures, and that nothing should be considered as a fundamental article that is matter of controversy: as to the latter, if that was admitted, there would be scarce any article at all left us to believe; for what is there almost that is believed, but what is controverted by some, nor any passage of Scripture brought in support of it, but the sense of it is called in question, or perverted? For as Clemens of Alexandria says, "I do not think there is any scripture so happy as to be contradicted by none." As to the former, that we are to be tied up to the bare words of Scripture concerning any doctrine of faith delivered in them; though we ought to entertain the highest esteem of the words of Scripture, and have the greatest value for them, as being clothed with such majesty, and having such an energy in them, which the words that man's wisdom teacheth have not; yet our sense of them cannot be expressed but in words literally varying from them; and it should be settled what is meant by bare words of Scripture, whether of the original text Hebrew and Greek, or of any translation, as English, &c.; if the words of a translation, a man cannot be sure that this always does express the sense of Scripture, especially in passages difficult and controverted; if of the original, then both he that makes the confession, and they to whom it is made, ought to understand Hebrew and Greek; and even every member of a church where a confession of faith is required in order to communion; and if this is to be made in the bare words of Scripture, be it in the words of a translation, without an explanation of their sense of them in other words, it might introduce into a Christian community all sorts of errors that can be named, which would be utterly inconsistent with its peace, concord, harmony, and union: moreover, to be obliged to express ourselves only in the words of Scripture, would be:

1. To destroy all exposition and interpretation of Scripture; for without words different from, though agreeable to, the sacred Scriptures, we can never express our sense of them, nor explain them to others according to the sense we have entertained of them; and though no Scripture is of private interpretation, or a man's own interpretation, so as to be obliging on others, yet by this means it will become of no interpretation at all, private or public, of a man's own or of others. It is indeed sometimes said that Scripture is the best interpreter of Scripture, and which in some respects is true; as when for the better understanding of a passage of Scripture another more clear and explicit is set unto it and compared with it, and which serves to throw light on it, and give a clearer discernment of it, and of its true sense; but then that light, discernment, and sense, cannot be expressed but in words literally different from them both.

2. To be obliged to express ourselves about divine things in the bare words of Scripture, must tend to make the ministry and preaching of the word in a great measure useless; for then a minister of the word would have nothing else to do but to repeat or read some select passages of Scripture relating to any particular subject, or collect a string of them, which refer to the same subject, and deliver them without attempting any illustration of them, or making use of any reasonings from them, to explain or strengthen any point of doctrine contained in them; so that the people in common may as well in a manner stay at home and read the Scriptures in their private houses, as to attend on public ministrations. Surely the apostle Paul, "when he reasoned out of the Scriptures, opening and alleging that Christ must needs have suffered and risen again from the dead, and that this Jesus whom he preached was Christ," Acts 17:2-3, must in these his reasonings, explanations, and allegations, use his own words; which, though they accorded with the Scriptures, must literally vary from them out of which he reasoned, and by which he elucidated and confirmed his arguments concerning the messiahship of Jesus, his suffering of death, and resurrection from the dead: and though he said no other as to substance than what Moses and the prophets said concerning Christ, yet in words different from theirs. According to this scheme all public ministrations must be at an end, as well as all writing in defense of truth and for the confutation of errors, yea,

3. This must in a great measure cramp all religious conversation about divine things, if not destroy it. To what purpose is it for them that fear God to meet frequently and speak often one to another about the things of God and truths of the gospel, if they are not to make use of their own words, to express their sense of these things by them? And how in this way can their Christian conferences be to mutual edification? How can they build up one another in their most holy faith? How can weaker and less experienced Christians receive any advantage from more knowing and stronger ones, if only they are to declare their sense of things in the bare words of Scripture?

4. Indeed, as Dr. Owen says , if this is the case, as it would be unlawful to speak or write otherwise than in the words of Scripture, so it would be unlawful to think or conceive in the mind any other than what the Scripture expresses: the whole of what he says on this subject is worth repeating: "To deny the liberty, yea the necessity hereof (that is, of making use of such words and expressions, as it may be, are not literally and formally contained in Scripture, but only are unto our conceptions and apprehensions expository of what is so contained), is to deny all interpretation of the Scripture, all endeavors to express the sense of the words of it unto the understandings of one another, which is, in a word, to render the Scripture itself altogether useless; if it is unlawful for me to speak or write what I conceive to he the sense of the words of Scripture and the nature of the thing signified and expressed by them, it is unlawful for me also to think or conceive in my mind what is the sense of the words or nature of the things; which to say is to make brutes of ourselves, and to frustrate the whole design of God in giving unto us the great privilege of his word."

5. In this way, the sentiments of one man in any point of religion cannot be distinguished from those of another, though diametrically opposite; so an Arian cannot be known from an Athanasian; both will say in the words of the Scripture, that Christ is a created God, of a like but not of the same substance with his Father; the other that he is equal with him, of the same nature, substance and glory: and he that believes the latter, surely it cannot be unlawful to express his belief of it in such words which declare the true sense of his mind. So a Sabellian or Unitarian and a Trinitarian, will neither of them scruple to say in Scriptural terms what Christ says of himself and his Father, I and my Father are one; and yet the former holds, they are one in person or but one person; whereas the latter affirms, that they are one in nature and essence, but two distinct persons ; and surely it must be lawful so to express himself, if this is the real sentiment of his mind. A Socinian and an AntiƱsocinian will join in saying Christ the Word is God, and that he is the only begotten of the Father, and the only begotten Son of God; and yet the one maintains that he is only God by office, not by nature, and that he is the only begotten Son of God by office or by adoption ; when the other believes that Christ is God by nature, and that lie is the Son of the Father by natural and eternal generation, being begotten by him. It is necessary therefore they should make use of their own words to express their sentiments by, or how otherwise should it be known that they differ from one another? And indeed this seems to be the grand reason why it is urged with so much vehemence, by some, that only Scripture words and phrases should be made use of, that their erroneous tenets may not be detected and exposed; for as a learned man has observed, such as cavil at the formulas (of sound doctrine used by the orthodox), and plead they should be very short, and composed in the bare words of Scripture, "eos aliquid monstri alere", these nourish and cherish some monstrous notion, as the experience of all ages testifies. And sometimes such persons take detached passages of Scripture from different places, and join them together, though they have no connection and agreement with each other; and such a method Irenaeus observes the ancient heretics took, who made use of passages of Scripture, "that their figments might not seem to be without a testimony; but passed over the order and connection of the Scriptures, and loosened the parts of truth as much as in them lay;" and who fitly compares such to one who should take the effigy of a king made of jewels and precious stones by a skilful artificer, and loosen and separate them, and of them make the form of a dog or a fox.

6. It does not appear that those men who are so strenuous for the use of Scripture phrases only in articles of religion, have a greater value for the Scriptures than others; nay, not so much; for if we are to form a judgment of them by their sermons and writings, one would think they never read the Scriptures at all, or very little, since they make such an infrequent use of them: you shall scarcely hear a passage of Scripture quoted by them in a sermon, or produced by them in their writings; more frequently Seneca, Cicero, and others; and it looks as if they thought it very impolite, and what might serve to disgrace their more refined writings, to fill their performances with them : and after all, it is easy to observe that these men, as the Arians formerly, and the Socinians more lately, carry on their cause and endeavor to support it by making use of unscriptural words and phrases; and therefore it is not with a very good grace that such men, or those of the same cast with them, object to the use of words and phrases not symbolically expressed in Scripture; and the rather, since the Arians were the first that began to make use of unscriptural phrases, as Athanasius affirms. The Athanasians had as good a right to use the word (greek) as the Arians (greek), and thereby explain their sense and defend their doctrine concerning the person of Christ, and his equality with God, against the latter, who introduced a phrase subversive of it; and the Calvinists have as good authority to make use of the word satisfaction in the doctrine of expiation of sin and atonement for it, as the Socinians and Remonstrants have for the use of the word acceptation, whereby they seek to obscure and weaken it. Words and phrases, though not literally expressed in Scripture, yet if what is meant ant by them is to be found there, they may be lawfully made use of; as some respecting the doctrine of the Trinity; of these some are plainly expressed, which are used in treating of that doctrine, as nature, Gal.4:8; Godhead, Col. 2:9; Person, the person of the Father, and the person of Christ, Heb. 1:3, IICor 2:10 and 4:6; and others clearly signified, as essence, by the name of God, I am what I am, Exod. 3:14; the unity or divine persons in it, John 10:30; a Trinity of persons in the unity of essence, 1 John5:7; the generation of the Son by and of the Father, Psalm 2:7, John 1:14, 18; and others respecting some peculiar doctrines of revelation, concerning the state of men and the grace of Christ; as the imputation of Adam's sin to his posterity, Rom. 5:19; and the imputation of righteousness, i. e. of Christ's to them that believe, which is nearly symbolically expressed in Rom.4:6; and the imputation of sin to Christ, who was made sin, i. e. by imputation, 2 Cor. 5:21. And the satisfaction of Christ for sin, in all those places where it is signified that what Christ has done and suffered in the room and stead of his people is to the content of law and justice, and God is well pleased with it: and these are the principal words and phrases objected to, and which we shall not be prevailed upon to part with easily. And indeed, words and phrases, the use of which has long obtained in the churches of Christ, and the sense of them is well known, and serve aptly to convey the sense of those that use them; it is unreasonable to require them to part with them, unless others, and those better words and phrases, are substituted in their room and such as are proposed should not be easily admitted without strict examination; for there is oftentimes a good deal of truth in that saying, "Qui fingit nova verba, nova gignit dogmata"; He that coins new words, coins new doctrines; which is notorious in the case of Arius; for not only Alexander, his bishop, charged him with saying, with- out Scripture, and what was never said before, that God was not always a father, but there was a time when he was not a father; and that the Word was not always, but was made out of things that were not; and that there was a time when be was not a son : but Eusebius', a favourer of his, also owns that the inspired writings never used such phrases,(greek), that Christ was from nonentities, from things that are not, i. e. was made out of nothing; and that there was a time when he was not; phrases, he says, they had never been used to.

Should We Use Only The Words Of Scripture In Our Articles And Confessions Of Faith? Complete Body of Doctrinal and Pricatical Divinity. John Gill. Baker Book House. 1978 from the edition issued in 1839 by Tegg & Co. Vol I. Pages xii to xvi.