What is the Rule of Our Faith? - Thomas H. Skinner, Jr.

“God is His own interpreter.” — William Cowper

Thomas Harvey Skinner, Jr. (1820-1892) was the son of the senior T.H. Skinner (1791-1871), who was a founder of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Both men were prolific writers; the elder Skinner was a New School Presbyterian, while his son was Old School. For a time the younger Skinner pastored the First Presbyterian Church of Honesdale, Pennsylvania (pictured). In 1859, a controversy erupted in that church over what was to be the rule of the Christian’s faith. It was asked whether the Bible alone should be the rule of our faith, or a rule of our faith, in conjunction with subjective “reason.”

The controversy, sadly, resulted in Rev. Skinner’s departure from the congregation, but in a powerful Farewell Address to his flock, he clearly explained his minority position, describing his conviction that “the Bible is the word of God, the only rule of faith and practice” as the “citadel of the Christian religion…This is the Protestant formula.”

And on another vital point, the interpretation of the Scripture, the determinative authority as to what the Scripture does say and does mean, what say our excellent [Westminster] standards? They teach us that the Bible interprets itself; that God is His own interpreter; that if God has not made His truth plain, so plain, that in all important matters, the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein, man cannot help His Maker; that "God's own word must be as intelligible as any human interpretation of it." So our standards emphatically declare. Hear them on this subject: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is" — what, my hearers? — reason? conscience? common sense? No, no. "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and, therefore, when there  is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture, (which is not manifold, but one,) it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture." Oh, that God would give you grace to see the deep, vital necessity there is for contending for this truth, and make you all satisfied with God's own simple word, which shines in its own light, and is its own ornament and glory and defence. For, as has been eloquently said [by Charles Hodge], "If men bring their torches around this pillar of fire, the sacred light goes out, and they are left to their own guidance, and then the blind lead the blind." 

Rev. Skinner went on to minister to other Presbyterian churches and to serve as a professor at Northwestern (now McCormick) Theological Seminary. According to his obituary, which appeared in the July 1892 issue of The Presbyterian and Reformed Review and was authored by John DeWitt, towards the end of his life Skinner was given a new position at the seminary, specially created for him, called the “Chair of Divinity.” “For two years he performed his duties, lecturing during the first half of each seminary session on the ‘Rule of Faith.’” So important was the Protestant analogy of faith to Skinner that he made it the special focus of his seminary instruction to the very end of his life. In an age of reason, it was the very rock upon which he stood.