The Sufficiency of Scripture
Imagine this scenario in your local church:
A 70-year-old Christian man (who has never been married) and an 18-year-old Christian woman (who has never been married) want to marry each other. You immediately assume that, with such a large age gap, surely there’s something fishy going on here. Maybe she’s a “gold-digger” who just wants to get his money when he dies. Maybe he’s a creep who just wants to marry some “pretty young thang” to impress his friends. But, after you investigate the situation, you find out that they really do love each other and there are actually no underlying sin issues.
Is it weird? Yep. Is it unwise? Perhaps. But is it sinful? Can you forbid them from getting married?
Not if you believe in the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.
What is the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, you ask? For now, we’ll give an abbreviated definition (which we’ll expound in a second):
To say that Scripture is sufficient is to say that the Bible contains everything we need to know to follow God.
Why does this matter?
Before looking at what exactly this doctrine means and what it doesn’t mean, we need to highlight why this discussion is of the utmost importance for our day and age.
In different seasons and contexts, the various characteristics of Scripture are in need of particular preservation and defense. When the canon of Scripture is attacked, we need to promote a robust defense of the canonicity of Scripture--and likewise when the doctrines of the authority or inerrancy of Scripture are confronted or criticized. Yet, by and large, those characteristics of Scripture are generally understood and embraced in evangelical churches.
And yet, it seems that the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture finds itself in particular peril of being denied within these same churches. If the enemy cannot enter through the closed doors of authority or inerrancy, then he will attempt to make his way through the unlocked windows of sufficiency.
Let’s explain why that should alarm us.
There is always a tendency to expand or restrict God's Word. The early Church heretic, Marcion, took a scalpel to scrolls to remove parts of Scripture that he found offensive or unseemly. The United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson, did the same thing with his copy of the Scriptures, by removing all the passages which seemed to challenge his deist worldview. While few modern Christians would actually consider physically tearing out pages or passages from their Bibles, we sometimes have no problem simply ignoring those parts of Scripture with which we disagree. Passages on predestination, divine wrath, sexuality, gender roles, and so forth often offend us or are culturally inconvenient; thus, these passages are readily neglected, denied, or distorted.
Meanwhile, many of the more theologically conservative churches face the opposite temptation. Rather than narrowing God's Word, we expand it. Like the Pharisees and the wall of tradition built around the law, Christians can be guilty of binding consciences to human customs rather than divine commands. This is the case when churches teach that all drinking of alcohol is sinful or unwise, or that tattoos are inherently immoral, or that Christians are bound today by Mosaic Law regulations like a Sabbath or tithe.
But if we believe in the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, then we cannot add to or take away from God’s Word. Rather, we should uphold it, proclaim it, submit to it, and obey all that it commands (explicitly or implicitly).
What is The Sufficiency of Scripture?
The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture contained all the words of God he intended his people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and that it now contains everything we need God to tell us for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly. (Wayne Grudem)
Theologian John Frame says something similar:
Scripture contains all the divine words needed for any aspect of human life.
What does that mean, exactly?
Basically the idea is: there is nothing that God requires you to know or do that is not addressed in Scripture either explicitly or implicitly (by logical implication).
The Bible teaches this at several points:
2 Timothy 3:14-16 - But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Notice that this text says that if you simply have the Bible, you have all the information God requires you to know to live your Christian life. It is all you need to be “complete” and fully equipped for “every good work.” There is not one thing that God requires you to know or do that is not in the Bible. That is sufficiency.
Psalm 119:1 - Blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord!
Notice that this text equates being blameless (that is, perfect in God’s sight) with simply obeying his Word (which is synonymous with his law in Psalm 119). That is sufficiency.
Deuteronomy 12:32 - Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.
Notice that this text says that God’s word is so perfect that to take away from it or to add to it is sin. That is sufficiency.
Matthew 15:9 - "in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
Notice that this text condemns those who add restrictions or commands where the Bible does not. It says that man-made rules are “vain” worship. It is saying that the Bible is all you need to know what doctrines to believe. That is sufficiency. Other examples could be given, but we think you get the point.The Westminster Confession of Faith helpfully defines sufficiency 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. Nevertheless we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word.” (1:6a)
Clarifications about Sufficiency
First, let’s look at what this doctrine does not mean:
- Sufficiency does not mean that the Bible contains everything you want to know.
- Sufficiency does not mean that the Bible contains everything which might be helpful to practically accomplish some secular goal (like fixing your leaky faucet, making a pepperoni pizza, or buying your first home, etc.).
- Sufficiency does not mean that sources such as philosophy, reason, history, and church tradition are useless (these things are not additional sources of revelation, but are helpful to the degree that they rightly summarize Scripture).
- Sufficiency does not mean that we will perfectly obey everything in the Bible (because we are sinners).
Now let’s look at what it does mean:
- Sufficiency does mean that there aren’t any other books on equal level with Scripture (Koran, etc.).
- Sufficiency does mean that God doesn’t require us to believe anything not written in Scripture or covered under a general rule of Scripture.
- Sufficiency does mean that nothing is sin that is not forbidden by Scripture explicitly or by the broader implication of another rule in Scripture.
- Sufficiency does mean that no modern charismatic “prophecy” is on an equal level with Scripture.
- Sufficiency does mean that, though experience and practical wisdom can be helpful, they are not needed to minister to others or yourself.
- Sufficiency does mean that the authority of churches, preachers, leaders, elders, denominations, councils and creeds only extend insofar as they are correctly interpreting and applying scripture.
So, in a nutshell, the Bible does not contain everything you want to know. The Bible does not contain everything you think you need to know to practically reach some secular goal. But it does mean that the Bible contains everything that God requires you to know and do – that is sufficiency.
Putting it to the test
Most Christians wouldn't admit to denying the sufficiency of Scripture. In fact, many don't even know that they do, but the devil’s in the details. Very few professing evangelicals would dare to alter Scripture by physically adding to or subtracting from it; and yet, we are always in danger of subtly and spiritually doing just that. So, let’s walk through some questions to see if we really believe in sufficiency:
Does the Bible contain everything God requires you to know about cancer? Take a minute to think about the question. Now, you may want to say, “No.” But the answer is actually, “Yes!”
Notice that the question is not, “Does the Bible contain all the information that you need to know to medically succeed in treating cancer?” The answer to that question would indeed be, “No.” If your oncologist never studied medicine, find a new doctor no matter how much they’ve studied Scripture. But, what God requires of that oncologist is that they study and labor to the glory of God, not rip off or deceive their patients, treat their patients the way they would want to be treated, etc. And God’s Word sufficiently equips your oncologist with what they need to know that He requires.
As for a Christian suffering from cancer, what does God require? That he pray for encouragement and/or healing, that he believe in the reality of the resurrection, that he trust and hope in the promises of God, etc. But, other than that, God doesn’t require that he know much about cancer to live a faithful Christian life.
Does the Bible contain everything God requires you to know about performing an oil change on your car? You may want to say, “No.” But again the answer is actually, “Yes!”
Notice that the question is not, “Does the Bible contain all the information that you need to know to practically succeed in changing the oil in your car?” The question is, “Does the Bible contain everything that God requires you to know about oil changes?” The answer to this is yes. God does not require you to know hardly anything at all about oil changes. You are required to be a good steward, do all to the glory of God, not throw the old oil in your neighbor's yard, etc. and that's about it when it comes to oil changes.
So, if that is true about cancer and oil changes, let’s think through some more relevant and challenging questions:
- Does the Bible alone contain all the information you need to know to minister to someone who is same-sex attracted, even if you are not?
- Does the Bible alone contain all the information you need to know to minister to people of other races or genders even though you don’t share their gender or race?
- Does the Bible alone contain all the information you need to know regarding how to counsel someone who has gone through some experience that you haven’t (divorce, death of a family member, debilitating illness, etc.)?
- Does the Bible alone contain all the information you need to know regarding how to think about politics?
If you uphold the biblical doctrine of sufficiency, then the answer must be, “Yes.”
“Let us use great caution that neither our thoughts nor our speech go beyond the limits to which the Word of God itself extends…without inquiring about him elsewhere than from his Word. And let us not take it into our heads either to seek out God anywhere else than in his sacred Word, or to think anything about him that is not prompted by his Word, or to speak anything that is not taken from that Word.” (John Calvin)