Colloquy 5/20 – The Very Words of God: Formal And Material Principles of Scripture

Papyrus 66 is a near complete codex of the Gospel of John, and part of the collection known as the Bodmer Papyri. It is very early; second century, I believe. It ties in to this discussion on the difference between what are know as the formal and material principles of scripture. It goes back to what we believe about the authority of scripture:

5. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE REGARDING THE NATURE AND AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE?  — I believe that the Bible is the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God.  As stated in the Lutheran Study Bible, “The Lord Does Not Lie.” And also, “the Bible is the Holy Scripture because God the Spirit gave to his chosen writers the thoughts that they expressed and the words that they wrote.” I love the words of the Apostle Peter: 2 Peter 1:21 (ESV)For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.  The Bible is the very Word of God, given to man through the vehicle of written language.  It consists of different genres and was written by different authors, but Christ is the central figure in the whole Bible, as it is written: John 1:45 (ESV) – Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”


John 5:46 (ESV) – For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me, and John 5:39 (ESV) – You search the Scriptures because You think that in them You have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.  

The Bible is our guide, manual, playbook and blueprint for all matters pertaining to life and godliness. The books of the Bible contain God’s love letters to his wayward children.  The Bible is a repository of redemptive history.  However, there is a distinction between the formal and material principles of the Bible. 

5a.  WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE “FORMAL” AND “MATERIAL” PRINCIPLES OF THE BIBLE? — I will start with a statement from the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church on this matter: “The Gospel and Holy Scripture (Material and Formal Principles) — We believe, teach and confess that the Gospel of the gracious justification of the sinner through faith in Jesus Christ is not only the chief doctrine of Holy Scripture and a basic presupposition for the inter­pretation of Scripture, but is the heart and center of our Christian faith and theology (material princi­ple). We also believe, teach, and confess that only “the Word of God shall establish articles of faith” (SA, II, ii, 15), and that “the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged” (FC, Ep, Rule and Norm, .) (formal principle). The Gospel, which is the center of our theology, is the Gospel to which the Scriptures bear witness, while the Scriptures from which we derive our theology direct us steadfastly to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.— What does this mean? Basically, if there is a “precipice” upon which all of scripture stands, or a “hierarchy” of scripture in anyway, it is that the “chief article” of scripture so to speak is the Gospel, and the Gospel message that we are justified by faith (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus).  This is the material principle.  The formal principles of the Bible mean that our theology derives from only the other scriptures, and all of our theology should be Christology, really.  Or at least all of our theology should be clearly Christocentric, leading us Christ, and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins.  For we are not theologians of glory; but of the cross. “We at the AALC believe in the plenary (full inspiration) of scripture:The AALC believes and confesses that the Bible, as a whole and in all its parts, is the inspired Word of God. In theological terminology, the AALC believes in the plenary inspiration (full inspiration) of the Scripture. This is based on the Bible’s clear testimony regarding itself (II Timothy 3:16, II Peter 1:20-21, I Corinthians 2:13). Because the Bible is fully inspired, we find support for our Statement of Faith in the clear testimony of the church fathers (Ireaneus, Clement of Rome, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr). The infallibility of Scripture is clearly taught by Augustine. Luther consistently holds to the position of the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture.

For me, this distinction between formal and material principles of the Bible ties into the proper distinction between law and gospel.  For example, we would have to understand that today, we should not seek to sacrifice animals, or stone unruly children to death.  All these things are Law; Christ is the fulfillment of the Law.  These passages of scripture inform us, and they teach us about Christ, but since we live in a post-resurrection world, we filter all of our understanding about the Bible through the cross.  Everything before Jesus was foretelling His Advent; everything after Jesus in the Bible is commentary on Jesus.  We don’t have to adhere to strict dietary laws that are given in the Old Testament, nor do we have to commit ourselves not to working on the Sabbath.  However, rest is good, and having a regulated diet is good, but these things are not obligatory.  Again, we have to re-emphasize that the primary source of faith for the post-resurrection Christian is the Gospel (formal principle).  Our theology, which is simply commentary on the life and work of Christ, is the material principle of scripture.  And speaking of formal and material principles of scripture, we will now turn to the doctrine of justification, the doctrine upon which the very essence of Christianity stands or falls.  Stay with us for the next discussion question. Blessings!

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