Scripture as Supreme and Infallible Judge of Controversies and Interpreter of Itself (Part 1)

We have now arrived at the twentieth question offered in Turretin’s treatment of Bibliology. Here he asks about the Scripture as the final and infallible judge of controversies in the church as opposed to the Scripture + Church Tradition or the Scriptures + the Magisterium. As you can imagine Turretin’s treatment is extensive so it’s going to take a couple posts to present his thoughts on this point. That said, let us begin with Turretin’s framing of the question. He writes,

“…the question concerns only the supreme and infallible judgment by which everything must necessarily stand or fall – whether this belongs to the Scriptures themselves (as we hold) or to some man or assembly composed of men (as the papists maintain).”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 20, Sec II.

Turretin goes on to admit that there are certain types of judges, judges with varying degrees of authority and autonomy. He divides these judges into three types.

“First is the supreme and autocratic (autokratorikos), which judges by legislative and absolute authority after the manner of the higher prince, which enacts laws and from which there is no appeal.”

Turretin, Institutes, Second Topic, Q. 20, Sec III.

“Second is the subordinate (hyperetikos) or ministerial, which interprets the laws after the manner of a public minister.”

Turretin, Institutes, Second Topic, Q. 20, Sec III.

“Third is an idiomatic (idiotikos) or private, which both from the laws and from their interpretation judges in the way of private discretion.”

Turretin, Institutes, Second Topic, Q. 20, Sec III.

Turretin is not here concerned with the latter two. His emphasis falls on the first. Are the Scriptures (or God speaking in them) the supreme autocratic judge “from which there is no appeal?” Now of course, Turretin is not here addressing those of our day and age. He is addressing the Roman Catholic apologists of his time and particularly their assault on the Scripture as supreme judge of controversies and interpreter of itself. That said the correlation between then and now does bear striking similarities.

Turretin writes,

“The question is not whether the Scriptures are the rule and standard of controversies. This the papists do not object to, at least they appear to be willing to hold it, although what they give with one hand they take away with the other, arguing their obscurity and imperfection.”

Turretin, Institutes, Second Topic, Q. 20, Sec IV.

How many times have you and I heard some evangelical textual scholars say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh, yes, the Scriptures are the rule and standard.” only to say ten minutes later, “Well the true text is either in the text or apparatus.”? Note also that for Turretin an assault on the perspicuity and perfection of Scripture is an assault on the canon – the rule, the standard. Turretin it not responding to intactness of the gospel message over the whole warp and woof of the Bible. The Roman Catholics weren’t making that argument.

Turretin is responding to the Roman Catholic argument that the Greek and Hebrew are incurably imperfect and obscure. This is the current argument of the evangelical textual critic. The Bible still has imperfections and the CBGM is going to save us or maybe we can’t be saved. Turretin would demur. And why? Because the Spirit of God speaking in the word of God is the supreme autocratic judge regarding the words of Scriptures and the controversies surrounding those words.

The admittance of I John 5:7 is a controversy in the church and has been in the past. How are we to settle the controversy? By yielding to the Holy Spirit speaking through His words. The admittance of the long ending of Mark is a controversy in the church and has been in the past. How are we to settle the controversy? By yielding to the Holy Spirit speaking through His words. The admittance of the women caught in adultery is a controversy in the church and has been in the past. How are we to settle the controversy? By yielding to the Holy Spirit speaking through His words.

These and many other textual disputes are indeed controversies within the scope and jurisdiction of the authority of the Holy Spirit speaking through His words. If the story of the woman caught in adultery is the Holy Spirit’s words, He will speak to us through them. In such a way the Holy Spirit reveals Himself to be the supreme autocratic judge having absolute authority to judge all controversies even biblical textual controversies. I mean, in the end, the words at the center of the controversy are either the Holy Spirit’s or they are not. If they are, only God can judge righteously by speaking through them to the saint, and no amount of “in my professional opinion based on the evidence” can subdue God’s righteous judgement concerning His words. Such impious attempts are both immoral and doomed to fail.

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