by Leland Ryken
Basic to religious belief is the question of what constitutes the authority for belief. Historically there have been three main views of what constitutes the ultimate authority: the Bible, church tradition, and human reason, either alone or in combination. The Puritans, following the lead of the Continental Reformers, claimed Scripture alone as the final authority for religious belief. "The rule according to which conscience is to proceed, " wrote Cotton Mather, is "what God has revealed in the Sacred Scriptures." "This is the glory and sure friend of a church," added John Lightfoot, "to be built upon the Holy Scriptures...The foundation of the true church of God is Scripture."
To claim Scripture as the only final authority is, of course, to reject the other options. This is exactly how the Puritans understood the issue. According to Joseph Caryl, the truth or falsity of religious statements cannot be tried "by that which is usually called Antiquity: but by that which transcends all human antiquity, customs, counsels, and traditions (though all those may contribute some help), the Word of God." "Pin not your faith upon men's opinions," wrote John Owen; "the Bible is the touchstone." How important was this view of sola Scriptura to the Puritans? The "popish error of tradition," wrote Robert Baillie, "shakes not one or two, but all the ground-stones of Protestant reformation."
The Puritans rested on the Bible alone as the final authority because they believed it to be the inspired Word of God. In a sense different from what could be claimed for any other book, God the Holy Spirit was regarded as the author of the Bible. "Think in every line you read that God is speaking to you," said Thomas Watson. John Eliot, minister and missionary to the Indians from the church of Roxbury, Massachusetts, asserted that "the writings of the Bible are the very words of God." For John Owen, "The whole authority of the Scripture...depends solely on its divine original origin...The Scripture hath all its authority from its Author." 
If God is the author of the Bible, theorized the Puritans, it is a reliable guide that cannot deceive a Christian. Edward Reynolds spoke of the entire Bible as "being written by the Spirit of truth, which cannot lie nor deceive." John Lightfoot asserted, "All that the holy writers have recorded is true (and no falsehood in the Scripture, but what is from the error of scribes and translators)."
The Puritans' line of reasoning on biblical authority is impeccable: if God is the author of Scripture, it cannot lie, and if it does not deceive, it must be inerrant and infallible. The Puritans did not hesitate to apply either word to the Bible. In keeping with Luther's view that "Scripture...have never erred" and Calvin's conviction that the Bible is "the infallible rule of...truth," Samuel Rutherford declared, "The Word of God...is infallible." "Only those could set down the rule of faith and conduct," stated William Ames, "who...were free from all error because of the direct and infallible direction they had from God." According to Richard Baxter, the apostles wrote "without errors," and for John Owen the Bible was a "stable, infallible revelation of [God's] mind and will."
It is customary in Christian circles today to ascribe the inerrancy of the Bible to the original manuscripts only and to acknowledge the presence of scribal errors in the Bibles that we possess. This distinction can be traced back at least as far as the early Protestants. According to Richard Capel, for example: "The translators and transcribers might err, being not...indued with that infallible spirit in translating, or transcribing. The Scriptures in their translated copies are not free from all possible corruptions." John Lightfoot stated that "no error or contradiction is in it, but what is in some copies, by the failing of preservers, transcribers, printers, or translators."
It is not hard to determine where the Puritans stood on the question of inerrancy that has so preoccupied twentieth-century apologetics. Believing the Bible to be God's Word, the Puritans naturally regarded it as being without error. But to say that the Bible is infallible does not end the matter, as the current debate over limited inerrancy has shown. In what areas is the Bible authoritative? Only in matters that speak directly to salvation? Or does the Bible speak infallibly to all of life? The Puritans made it clear how far they extended the authority of the Bible.
To begin, Scripture is the authoritative standard for testing religious truth. It is "the touchstone that trieth all doctrines," "the judge and determiner of all questions and controversies in religion," "the rule according to which we must believe." Thomas Cartwright believed that the Bible teaches "all things pertaining to the kingdom of Heaven, whether in matters of doctrine or government," while for John Gough it was a "touchstone to try all doctrines by."
The Puritans extended biblical authority to matters of morality as well. They viewed Scripture as "sufficient to govern all our actions all our actions by," "the perfect system or frame of laws to guide all the moral actions of man." "To me it is a wonder," exclaimed Samuel Rutherford in the heat of debate, "that the Old and New Testament, which containeth as exact system and body of morals...should not be the only rule of all morals." William Ames called the Bible "a perfect rule of faith and morals."
According to the Puritans, the Bible also governs ecclesiastical issues. Thomas Cartwright started a revolution in the Church of England when he declared that "the Word of God containeth the direction of all things pertaining to the church." William Fulke asserted that "the church of God...ought to be directed in all things according to the order prescribed...in his holy word." William Ames made it clear that "no observance can be continually and everywhere necessary in the church of God...unless it is contained in the Scriptures."
To say that the Puritans regarded the Bible as an infallible guide in the areas of doctrine, ethics, and church practice is to state what everyone probably expects of them. The controversial issue in our day is whether the inerrancy and authority of the Bible extend any further than this. For the Puritans, to limit the authority of the Bible to narrowly "religious" issues would violate the principle that all of life is religious.
When the Puritans spoke about the authority of the Bible, they made it open-ended instead of constantly limiting it to matters pertaining to salvation. "There is not a condition into which a child of God can fall," wrote Thomas Gouge, "but there is a direction and rule in the Word, in some measure suitable thereunto." Richard Sibbes concurred: "There is not anything or any condition that befalls a Christian in this life but there is a general rule in the Scripture for it, and this rule is quickened by example, because it is a practical knowledge." For Cartwright the Bible "contains the direction of...whatsoever things can fall into any part of man's life."
Within such a framework, it is not surprising that the range of issues to which the Puritans applied biblical principles and proof texts is an ever-expanding list. According to William Perkins, the Bible "comprehendeth many holy sciences," and when he began to list them, they included "ethics...economics (a doctrine of governing a family)...politics (a doctrine of the right administration of a common weal)...academy (the doctrine of governing schools well)." According to another source, the Bible is so broad in its application that all subjects "in schools and universities" can be related to it.
In thus applying Scripture to all of life, the Puritans did not simplistically expect to find specific rules that they could literally or directly follow. What they found was general principles that could be translated into contemporary situations or applied in general ways to various disciplines of thought. George Gillespie conceded that for many of his beliefs "no express Scripture will prove it," but he believed that the principle underlying a given belief was a "necessary consequence" of biblical data.
Ultimately the best index to how the Puritans viewed biblical authority is to observe how they actually applied Scripture. They quoted proof texts and biblical models on virtually every topic—economics, government, family, church, life, sex, nature, education, and many others. Did the Puritans embrace limited or full inerrancy? Their practice, as well as their theory, made Scripture the rule for all of life.
For people who do not share this conviction that the Bible is an infallible authority, the perennial charge has always been "bibliolatry" [worshiping the Bible]. The charge is actually frivolous. Everyone claims some authority for his or her beliefs. To hold the Bible as the ultimate authority did not mean that the Puritans worshiped the Bible. Increase Mather wrote, "But though we ought to reverence the blessed Bible above all other books, yet we may not worship it, but the author of it only."
Excerpted from Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan,  1990), 140-143.
 A series on the relationship between authorship and authority can be found here.
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