Sufficiency of Scripture

Most basically, to say that Scripture is “sufficient” is to say that it is able to fulfill the purposes for which it was written. But not surprisingly, this simple idea becomes complicated because it is hard for Christians to agree on what the purpose of Scripture actually is. So, as we investigate the issue of Scripture’s sufficiency, we will begin by looking at Scripture’s purpose in relation to its sufficiency. Next, we will address some common misunderstandings of sufficiency, and finally we will speak about the popular but mistaken idea that Scripture is silent on certain matters.

Purpose

With regard to the relationship between Scripture’s sufficiency and purpose, it will be helpful to look again to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which contains a very good summary of this idea in chapter 1, section 6. The Confession states the matter this way: 

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

The Confession rightly concludes that Scripture’s purpose is manifold. It mentions that the Bible was written to teach us how to glorify God, to bring men and women to salvation, to instruct believers regarding the content of their faith, and to guide us in Christian living. These ideas of the Bible’s purpose come from Scripture itself. 

For instance, the Bible teaches in many places that Scripture has been given to us in order that we might glorify God by obeying his commands. One place this can be seen rather clearly is in the covenant curses in Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 28:58-59, Moses pointed out a striking correlation between obedience to the written commands of God and the glorification of God. 

If you do not carefully follow all the words of this law, which are written in this book, and do not revere this glorious and awesome name — the Lord your God — the Lord will send fearful plagues on you and your descendants… (Deuteronomy 28:58-59).

The Bible is designed to teach us how to glorify God, and it is sufficient to accomplish this purpose. Scripture contains all the standards that we need to know to glorify him.

Regarding “man’s salvation, faith and life,” Paul instructed Timothy to remain steadfast in his study of Scripture in order to gain these benefits that Scripture was designed to deliver. In this context, in 2 Timothy 3:15-17, Paul explicitly taught the sufficiency of Scripture. He wrote these words in verse 15:

The holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).

When Paul said that Scripture is “able” to make us “wise for salvation” he meant that by studying the Bible, we can learn the things that are necessary for us to know if we are to be saved. Paul believed this to be true because he knew not only that the Bible was powerful, as we saw earlier in this lesson, but also that it was designed to provide these specific benefits. Because the Bible is able to accomplish this purpose, it can rightly be called sufficient for salvation. 

In much the same way, Scripture is also sufficient for “faith.” Look again at Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:15. Paul said that “the holy Scriptures … are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” The content of saving faith is revealed in the Bible as the means through which we are justified and receive our salvation from God.

Finally, the Bible is sufficient to guide us through “life,” the ongoing practice of our saving faith in Christ. Paul’s well known statement in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 make this clear:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Besides being intended to bring us to faith in Christ for our salvation, Scripture is also intended to prepare us for “every good work” — not just for some good works, but for every good work. Because it is intended to prepare us for “every good work,” and because it is powerful to accomplish its intended function, it is right to say that Scripture speaks sufficiently about every good work. If we rightly understand the whole Bible, then we will know God’s standards sufficiently to make proper determinations about any given ethical issue, as long as we also have a sufficient understanding of the persons and the situation.

Now, understanding the sufficiency of Scripture for life raises a serious question: How can any book, even one as large as the Bible, cover every conceivable moral problem, equipping us for every good work? Well, in truth, the Bible does not address every conceivable moral issue directly. Scripture speaks directly only to a limited number of issues in life, such as the fundamental content of our faith, and our basic responsibilities toward God and other people. But in so doing, Scripture lays down principles that we can extend and apply beyond the specifics mentioned in the Bible. This is why the Confession distinguishes between what is “expressly set down in Scripture” and what must be deduced from Scripture by way of “good and necessary consequence.” In all cases, however, Scripture provides us with the information we need in order to discover God’s ethical standards.

The last point we should note in the Confession’s explanation of the sufficiency of Scripture is the qualification that Scripture is complete, so that:

… nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.

Scripture contains all the norms we need as Christians. Human traditions and authority structures, such as civil and ecclesiastical governments, are to be obeyed for the Lord’s sake, but they are never to be counted as absolute or ultimate norms. And insofar as these institutions require obedience to human norms that are not found in Scripture, the Christian has freedom to disregard these norms. The decision to follow or not to follow human norms must be guided by Scriptural norms, and human norms will always be defied when they conflict with biblical norms.

We see this demonstrated in Scripture time and again. For instance, in Jesus’ day the established Jewish leadership allowed moneychangers and vendors in the temple area. But when Jesus saw this, he became angry and drove them from the temple because the human leadership had allowed violations of scriptural norms within the temple grounds. We read this account in Matthew 21:12-13:

Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there… “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers'” (Matthew 21:12-13).

Jesus rightly understood that Isaiah 56:7, which he quoted, revealed the biblical norm that the temple was to be dedicated to prayer. But the Jewish leadership had permitted the temple grounds to be profaned by secular transactions. Jesus’ condemnation that they were making the temple a “den of robbers” is actually incredibly strong. That phrase is drawn from Jeremiah 7:11, where it refers to idolaters and violent criminals who pay lip service to God at his temple. By his actions and words, Jesus demonstrated that following any human law or tradition is sinful when the human norm contradicts Scripture. 

In every case, Scripture is sufficient to establish all moral norms. The ethical ordinances of men, however, are valid and binding only insofar as they echo biblical norms. But when human norms contradict biblical norms, the Christian is obligated to defy them.

With a proper understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture in mind, we should now turn our attention to some common misunderstandings of the Bible’s sufficiency. 

Misunderstandings

We will group these misunderstandings into two fairly general categories: first, views that overestimate Scripture’s sufficiency; and second, views that underestimate Scripture’s sufficiency. Let’s begin with views that overestimate Scripture’s sufficiency.

Typically, those who overestimate the sufficiency of Scripture have very strong commitments to the Bible. But they frequently lack proper commitments to general and existential revelation. As a result, they wrongly believe that they can properly apply Scripture to ethical questions without having much knowledge, if any, about specific situations and people. They believe that making ethical decisions is as simple as reading the Bible and obeying it. But in reality, before we can obey or apply the Bible, we must also know something about the people and situations to which we are applying it. God has provided us with this information in general and existential revelation. If we ignore these other forms of revelation, we are ignoring the tools he has given us for interpreting and understanding Scripture. 

But not all errors are based on overestimating the Bible’s sufficiency. Many more errors come from underestimating it. This error generally appears as an insistence that the Bible is sufficient to guide us only in limited areas of life, that it gives us moral instruction only on certain topics. For instance, Thomas Aquinas argued that general and existential revelation are sufficient to teach many moral principles, and that Scripture supplements this knowledge by giving us information regarding those subjects that natural and existential revelation do not cover, such as the way of salvation. In recent years, others have argued that the Bible does not address matters such as so-called monogamous homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia.

As we have seen, however, either through explicit or implicit teaching, the Scriptures provide us with a comprehensive system of ethical norms. In this sense, the Bible’s sufficiency is unlimited when it comes to revealing the will of God for his glory, and our salvation, faith and Christian living. General and existential revelation also contain some of these norms, but they contain no additional norms beyond those found directly or indirectly in Scripture. Now, it is important to stress once again that Scripture does not explicitly or exhaustively comment on every detail of life. We have a great need for the information that general and existential revelation communicate

The point is simply that the Bible speaks sufficiently to every area of life, so that our true duty toward God is always an application of Scriptural norms. 

Silence 

At this point, we should address what is perhaps one of the most common ways that well-meaning Christians underestimate the sufficiency of Scripture: the popular but mistaken idea that Scripture is silent on certain matters. Specifically, Christians frequently teach that some issues of life are morally “indifferent” because Scripture does not provide us with sufficient information to know God’s will on these matters. Historically, these have been known as “adiaphora.” This typical position has been that indifferent things are neither right nor wrong in and of themselves. 

For example, the church fathers taught that eating meat was neither right nor wrong, and during the Reformation, Martin Luther applied the term “indifferent” to certain Roman Catholic forms of worship that he felt were neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. Although many people throughout the history of the church have held to such positions, this position actually runs contrary to the teachings of Scripture. To be sure, the Bible does not comment directly on many aspects of life, but it also denies that anything is morally neutral. For example, whereas theologians speak of impersonal objects as indifferent or “neutral,” the Bible speaks of them as being good. We find this principle first in Genesis one, but even after the Fall of mankind into sin, Paul still insisted that everything was good. As he wrote in 1 Timothy 4:5-6:

Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:5-6).

Paul spoke specifically about food in this context, but the principle is far broader, extending to all creation, just as God himself proclaimed at the end of the creation week. For this reason, even impersonal objects are not “indifferent”; they are good.

Some theologians have also applied the term “indifferent” or adiaphora to choices between two or more good options. They have suggested that when all the choices are good, then Scripture is indifferent as to which we choose. But Scripture teaches that God blesses some good choices more than he blesses other good choices, and that Scripture sometimes praises one good option over another good option. 

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 7:38, Paul wrote:

So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better (1 Corinthians 7:38).

Now, it should be noted that scholars are not agreed as to the precise circumstances Paul addressed here. But his words are clear enough to demonstrate that marrying and not marrying were both good options, and that not marrying was the better option. In this sense, the Scripture is not really “indifferent” even when we have to choose between good options. Rather, Scripture always has much to say about our actions. Even if we were to find a situation in which the Bible praised two options equally, it would still be misleading to suggest scriptural indifference on the matter, as this would seem to imply a sort of moral neutrality regarding the decision. And Scripture never takes the position that anything is morally neutral.

You will recall that in our first lesson, we defined “good” as being that which receives God’s blessing, and “evil” as that which does not receive his blessing. By this definition, aspects of human beings and their lives are either good or evil; nothing and no one is indifferent or neutral. Either God blesses or he does not — there is no middle ground. If he blesses, it is good; if he does not bless, it is evil.

That being said, it is true that there are some words, thoughts and deeds that are good in some situations, but evil in others. For example, sexual relations within marriage are good, but sexual relations outside marriage are evil. But this does not mean that sexual relations in and of themselves are neither good nor evil. Rather, they are good, just as God created them to be good. But unmarried partners misuse sexual relations so that in their situation such relations are evil.

Finally, some theologians use the category of adiaphora to cover matters where we cannot determine what choices are good or evil. But because we know that the Scriptures touch on every aspect of life, at least indirectly, we must not treat matters about which we are uncertain as indifferent. It is true that we often feel as if we cannot know which particular choices, thoughts, actions, or attitudes are good and which ones are evil. But such situations occur not because God’s word is insufficient, and not because the Bible takes a neutral stance, but because we fail to recognize or to understand how to apply the truth that the Bible has disclosed.

This failure to reach an ethical judgment may take any number of forms. As you remember, the biblical model for making ethical decisions may be summed up in this way: “Ethical judgment involves the application of God’s Word to a situation by a person.” We must act on a proper understanding of our moral standard, our goals, and our motives, or to put it another way, on normative, situational and existential concerns. Failure to reach a proper ethical judgment can be caused by a failure properly to assess any of these perspectives. We may fail because we overlook or misunderstand the passages of Scripture we are dealing with. We may fail because we overlook or misunderstand the situation associated with the ethical question. And we may fail because we overlook or misevaluate the existential and personal aspects of a matter. In all cases, when we cannot come to a firm conclusion on an ethical decision, it is not proper to conclude that God has not revealed the information necessary to make the decision. And it is not proper to say that the matter is indifferent, that there is not a right course to follow. Rather, we must continue to read, study, pray and investigate the question, doing the best we can with our provisional judgments, but reserving final judgment until the normative, situational, and existential issues become clear



Categories: Theology

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