The Sufficiency of Scripture: By What Standard?

by John Thompson, April 3, 2003

This message is an expansion of the NCFIC Confession Article I “Scripture is Sufficient,” which states:

We affirm that our all-wise God has revealed Himself and His will in a completed revelation — the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments — which is fully adequate in both content and clarity for “everything pertaining to life (salvation) and godliness (sanctification)” including the ordering of the church and the family (2 Pet. 1:3-4; 1 Tim. 3:15).

We deny that God’s people should treat His Word as inadequate for church and family life by supplementing His completed revelation with humanistic psychology, corporate business models, and modern marketing techniques.

As it was in the days of the judges, the kings and the prophets, so it is in our day: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine on the land, not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather for hearing the words of the Lord’” (Amos 8:11).

In recent history, the Bible has faced attack both from without and from within. It is no surprise, of course, that the unbelieving world would assault God’s Word in an effort to destroy the God who holds them accountable. It is likewise understandable that the cults — Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, etc. — would add to, subtract from, and cleverly twist the Scriptures to fashion a God of their own making. But how does the church — even the most conservative and faithful — do violence to Scripture and thus bring a famine in the land for God’s Word?

Make no mistake: the ultimate matter in question is the authority of Scripture — and Scripture’s God — over our life and our opinions. Is there an authoritative God who guides and governs His creatures with an authoritative standard, or are we left to our own imaginations and devices? Does the Bible really speak with authority about how to order our families, how to rear our children, how to conduct church, and a host of other issues including abortion, euthanasia, evolution, homosexuality, bioethics, divorce, politics, and even debt? If so, then where God speaks, it is man’s duty to hear and to obey.

The world’s — and, sadly, the church’s — effort to avoid the authority of God’s Word over our lives has taken various forms over the past hundred years. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was the inspiration of Scripture that was attacked. Are the words of the Bible the very words of God and therefore authoritative? During the middle years of the past century, the inerrancy of Scripture was assailed. Is the Bible completely without error, even with regard to science and history, and thus authoritative? But over the latter part of the previous century and continuing today, the assault has broadened to include the sufficiency of Scripture. Does the Bible contain all truth necessary to please God in our personal life, our family life, and our church life, or must we supplement it with humanistic psychology, corporate business models, and modern marketing techniques?

Don Kistler, in sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible, declares that we have fallen once again for the ploy of Satan who began this assault on the sufficiency of Scripture when he questioned in Genesis 3:1, “Hath God said?” And Eve, replying that God had told her not to eat or touch the forbidden tree, added to God’s Word. Dr. John MacArthur’s Sufficiency of Scripture lectures warn that the Evangelical (and Fundamental and Reformed) churches have been duped into believing that marketing techniques are required to build the church, entertainment is needed to communicate the Gospel, psychology is essential to solve people’s problems, and social theory must redefine the role of women and homosexuals in the church. After all, the Bible was written thousands of years ago during the time of man’s ignorance of modern science and thought. Most pastors would deny the charge that they don’t really believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. But as Vision Forum president Doug Phillips insightfully explains, “Most Christians today live as practical humanists.”

The Problem — autonomy

As stated above, the ultimate issue in question is the authority of the Bible over our lives. Who is in charge? Who gets the final word? And the way that men (even saved but sinful men) avoid God’s authority is through autonomy: a self-determination that pursues self-sufficiency * producing *self-rule. It may not be an “intentional” self-determination — indeed we may be unthinkingly swept along by the influences of our culture — but the outcome is the same: a self-sufficiency (in place of God’s sufficiency through His Word) that results in self-rule.

Those who have sidestepped (even inadvertently) the authority of a fully sufficient Bible have strayed in two opposite directions. The Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and authoritarian cults have wrongly given autonomy and final authority to the Church. Our knee-jerk response is to think this error is surely not to be found in our camp. But think again. Even some Fundamental and Reformed churches have drifted into an authoritarian church polity that speaks “almost infallibly” whenever the pastor preaches or the church leadership decides an issue. In place of sola Scriptura they have substituted sola ecclesia resulting in an autonomous church.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who, in reaction to an authoritarian church, have skirted a fully sufficient Bible by giving autonomy and final authority to the individual’s conscience and reason. They assert that every believer has the unfettered right to interpret the Scriptures not only for himself but by himself. Interpretation, according to this view, is strictly an individual matter. In place of sola Scriptura they have substituted SOLO Scriptura (a term coined by Douglas Jones of Credenda/Agenda), resulting in a privatized religion, theological chaos, false doctrines, endless schisms, and thousands of denominations. As Keith Mathison rightly concludes in his scholarly treatise, The Shape of sola Scriptura, “most Protestants have adopted a subjective and individualistic version of sola Scriptura that bears little resemblance to the doctrine of the Reformers” (p. 14). Historically, this viewpoint came to us not from the Reformers (such as Luther and Calvin) but from those who were known as the Radical Anabaptists (or Radical Reformers). In reaction to the Roman Catholics making the Church a law unto itself, the Radical Anabaptists made the individual a law unto himself.

With few exceptions, solo Scriptura — the autonomy of individual conscience and reason — is the perspective that underlies both the consumer-driven mega churches and the leaderless house churches. Most mega churches use solo Scriptura to justify everything from church rock bands to female worship leaders. And many house churches use it to hide from any form of church authority. But as Mathison warns, “Anarchy is not the cure for tyranny. The autonomy of the individual is equally as dangerous as the autonomy of the pope or of the Church” (p. 153).

The Solution — sola Scriptura

If the final authority for our doctrine and practice is neither the autonomous Church nor the autonomous individual, then by what standard are we to believe and live? Biblically and historically, the answer is sola Scriptura, rightly defined.

Sola Scriptura literally means “Scripture alone.” In How God Wants Us to Worship Him, Dr. Joe Morecraft defines sola Scriptura as “the comprehensive and completed revelation of the will of God for us by which we can be thoroughly equipped for every good work … such a complete, perfect, eternal, all-embracing, and all-sufficient revelation from God that it will never need amendment, correction, or supplementation” (p. 10). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), one of the most influential statements of belief ever written, gives its understanding of sola Scriptura in these words: “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.” (WCF, 1:6).

The above definitions of sola Scriptura are firmly grounded in the Bible as is obvious from a reading of several pertinent passages:

2 Tim. 3:16-17 — “All Scripture is inspired (breathed out) by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate (sufficient, competent), equipped for every good work.”

2 Pet. 1:3-4 — “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life (salvation) and godliness (sanctification), through the true knowledge (in the Bible) of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises (in the Bible), so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature (conformed to Christ), having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust.”

1 Tim. 3:15 — “I write so that (the purpose) you will know how one ought (must) to conduct himself in the household of God (church life and order), which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.”

1 Cor. 4:6 — “Now these things (vv. 1-5), brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us (Paul’s and Apollos’s faithful example) you may learn not to exceed what is written (with human innovation), so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other (caused by pride in opinions).”

Deut. 4:2 — “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.” (Cf. also Deut. 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19.)

Psalm 19:7-9 — “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.”

Isa. 55:11 — “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it (needs no supplementation)”

The Essential Elements

Bible scholars often divide the doctrine of sola Scriptura into several theological elements, such as its inspiration, infallibility, completeness, finality, perfection, perspicuity, normativity, hermeneutical context, and authority. In this summary article we cannot expand upon each of these essential elements. However, for an adequate understanding of sola Scriptura we need to briefly explore several of them.

In sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship, Brian Schwertley explains that the Westminster Confession’s censure against “new revelations of the Spirit” is teaching two essential elements: the completeness and the finality of Scripture. The revelatory process ceased with the sixty-six books in the Old and New Testaments which contain exactly what God wanted us to have. Our Lord told His disciples that, after His ascension, He would send the Holy Spirit who would guide them (the disciples present) into ALL the truth (John 16:7,13; 14:26). These were the men who, under the supernatural inspiration of the Holy Spirit, would finalize the writing of the New Testament. Paul said that when the “perfect” comes (i.e., the completed New Testament revelation), prophecy and other modes of revelation would cease (1 Cor. 13:8-12). It is a fact of history that divine revelation did cease when the last Apostle died. So, with a complete and final revelation in hand, where should we look to find the mind and will of God for His people? Not to modern-day prophecies, nor to signs and wonders, nor to inner promptings and experiences, but to Scripture ALONE!

A third vital element of sola Scriptura, the perfection of Scripture means that the Bible is fully sufficient for its God-ordained purpose, namely, “that the man of God may be perfect (competent), thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:17). But what good works — only “religious” works? Such a question arises from the common but false dichotomy between sacred and secular. From God’s point-of-view, all of life is religious and to be pursued for His glory (1 Cor. 10:31). Consequently, nineteenth-century theologian A.A. Hodge wrote that the Scriptures teach a perfect system of doctrine and all the principles which are necessary for the practical regulation of the lives of individuals, churches, and communities. Cornelius Van Til in his Defense of the Faith agrees: “The Bible … stands before us as that light in terms of which all the facts of the created universe must be interpreted.” Indeed, there are no areas of ethical neutrality in the universe. Even in matters where the Bible does not speak directly, such as structural engineering and rocket science, it does speak indirectly. All of life is to be lived for God’s glory, and even the most mundane activities are to be conducted according to the general principles of God’s Word. As Colossians 2:3 affirms, “In [Christ] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Schwertley, 14-16).

A fourth necessary component of sola Scriptura is its perspicuity or clarity in its core and essential doctrines. Psalm 119:105 declares, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” A lamp or a light illumines the path of life which the Christian is called to walk. Even a child can understand basic Bible truths as did Timothy: “from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures” (2 Tim. 3:15). So, the average believer is able to understand Scripture’s basic meaning and message. And the more difficult passages must be interpreted in light of the clearer ones — Scripture interprets Scripture.

The Hermeneutical Context

Thus far, this description seems oddly supportive of the solo Scriptura of the Radical Anabaptists. But it is not, because of a fifth crucial element. The great theologian Charles Hodge (father of A.A. Hodge above) explains in his Systematic Theology about the essential hermeneutical (interpretational) context for sola Scriptura: “If the Scriptures be a plain book, and the Spirit performs the functions of a teacher to all the children of God, it follows inevitably that they must agree in all essential matters in their interpretation of the Bible. And from that fact it follows that for an individual Christian to dissent from the faith of the universal Church (i.e., the body of true believers), is tantamount to dissenting from the Scriptures themselves…. Protestants admit that there is a common faith of the Church which no man is at liberty to reject and which no man can reject and be a Christian…. The common consent for which Protestants plead concerns only essential doctrines, that is, doctrines which enter into the very nature of Christianity as a religion” (1:114-115). So, although Scripture is our sole infallible authority, we must interpret it within the boundaries of the so-called “ecumenical” (meaning universally held) creeds, such as the Apostles and Nicene creeds which faithfully express the fundamental doctrines of the New Testament. Indeed, the Reformers considered agreement with these creeds as necessary for a genuine Christian profession, and rightly so since the creeds define the essential doctrines of orthodoxy which all the cults deny.

A second application of hermeneutical context is this: We should, in humility, evaluate ALL of our biblical interpretations (not just essential doctrines) in light of the historical debates and conclusions of the true church. Why is this necessary? As Michael Horton affirms in Here We Stand (edited by Boice and Sasse), “With Isaiah I must confess, ‘I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.’ As if my own ignorance and folly were not enough, I belong by divine providence to one of the most superficial, banal, and ungodly generations in history and am bound to be negatively shaped by my context in ways that are different from other saints in other times and places. Fearful of our own weaknesses in judgment and blind spots due to our own acculturation, we go to Scripture with the wider church, with those who have confessed the same faith for centuries…. It is infinitely easier to distort the Word of God when we cut ourselves off from the consensus of other Christians across time and place” (p. 107). Thus, “Scripture alone” does not mean “me alone.” sola Scriptura requires every individual believer to interpret the Bible FOR himself but NOT BY HIMSELF. Otherwise, autonomous conscience and reason become the final and infallible authority rather than the Word of God itself. By divorcing the Spirit-inspired Word of God from the Spirit-indwelt people of God (the wider church both past and present), the individual becomes a law unto himself. And because of our finiteness of mind and our depravity of soul, that will be a poor law indeed.

A good example of the hermeneutical context of sola Scriptura is found in Acts 17:10-11 — “The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” Notice that Paul does not come to Berea and tell them each to go home and determine for himself and by himself the true interpretation of Scripture. Instead, the Scriptures were read, examined, and debated (cf. 17:2) by the Bereans day by day as a group, with an Apostle of Christ present (Mathison, 162).

The Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 provides another instance of this necessary hermeneutical context, especially if we care about preserving the unity and peace of the body of Christ: “The apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter…. And all the multitude … were listening to Barnabas and Paul…” (vv. 5,12). The Apostles did not tell every individual believer to take their Bibles and decide by themselves whether the Judaizers were correct. On the contrary, they gathered in a council as a body and discerned the truth together in the presence of all (Mathison, 245). The biblical principle seems to be: the larger the doctrinal issue, the larger the hermeneutical context should be (wider church involvement). Personal issues may be decided through personal conscience and judgment with obvious benefit from “a multitude of counselors” (cf. Rom. 14:1ff). But corporate issues must be resolved through the corporate conscience and judgment of the church.

But what are conscience-stricken believers to do when, after both scriptural and historical investigation, they believe the modern church has erred, and grievously so? Puritan scholar Francis Turretin in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology answers: “If they think they observe anything in them worthy of correction, they ought to undertake nothing rashly or disorderly and unseasonably, so as to violently rend the body [of Christ], but to refer the difficulties they feel to their church and either to prefer her public opinion to their own private judgment or to secede from her communion, if their conscience cannot acquiesce to her judgment. Thus they cannot bind in the inner court of conscience except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God which alone has the power to bind the conscience” (3:284).

So What?

One of my former professors emphasized the importance of personal application whenever the Bible was taught. He called it the “so what?” So, what difference will the doctrine of sola Scriptura make in your life?

First, embracing sola Scriptura will radically alter your attitudes. It arouses profound gratitude to God for His rich supply to His children of “everything we need for life and godliness.” It inspires confidence in the Word of God as the complete, perfect, all-embracing, and all-sufficient revelation from God that it will never need amendment, correction, or supplementation. It begets humility regarding your own opinions and a deep suspicion toward your autonomous conscience and reason. It produces admiration and appreciation for the larger body of Christ in other times and places and the documents (creeds, confessions, catechisms, commentaries) which they have labored to leave for our understanding and benefit. And finally, it encourages submission to Scripture’s God who alone has ultimate authority in your life — the One who is in charge and who gets the final word.

A second difference that sola Scriptura will make involves your relationships. Toward church leadership, it removes any fear of authoritarian rule since you now understand that BOTH the individual believers and the church leaders are subordinate to the sole infallible authority of God’s Word interpreted within the hermeneutical context of the universal church. And in place of that fear it instills a proper respect for God-ordained church authority and teaching which Christ has gifted to His church as an aid and blessing for understanding and implementing His truth. Toward your brethren, it provides you a new role and responsibility to contribute to the edification of the saints since you are part of their hermeneutical context, and they are part of yours. God designed a participatory church, even when it results in some kindly disagreement! One of the great lessons of church history is that God has used theological controversy to corporately sanctify His church as each Christian “contends earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Many crucial doctrines have been clarified and purified through respectful debate in the hermeneutical context of the universal church. Indeed, this is the very reason why God allowed controversy in the church at Corinth: “For there must also be factions (opinions) among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Cor. 11:19). Yet to avoid the disunity of the Corinthian church, we must handle our opinions with abundant humility and grace.

A third difference that sola Scriptura makes is a transformation in your trust. Your conviction and confidence is no longer in psychology, social theory, corporate business models, or modern marketing techniques, but rather in the fully sufficient Word of God. For personal life, family life, church life — indeed, for ALL of life: vocational, political, community, etc. — the comprehensive principles, precepts, practices, and prudence of the Word of God is your safe and sure guide. No longer will you live life as a practical humanist, but rather you will approach all issues “epistemologically self-conscious” since there is no moral neutrality in the universe.

Fourth, and most importantly, sola Scriptura will bring about a revolution in your reading, studying, and living of Scripture. Knowing now the incredible life-changing resource that God has put into your hands, you will develop a specific plan to read and study the whole Bible through, listen to the Bible on tape, listen to sermons on tape, help your spouse and children read and study more, memorize God’s promises that help you escape the corruption of the world, pray through the Scriptures asking God for help in applying them, write specific applications that God wants you to do, meditate on special portions of God’s Word, remove those things from your life that quench your thirst for Scripture, and get involved in a church where God’s Word is faithfully taught as “the complete, perfect, all-embracing, and all-sufficient revelation from God that will never need amendment, correction, or supplementation.”

As it was in the days of the judges, the kings, and the prophets, so it is in our day: there is a famine in the land for the Word of God. But like food to a starving man is the spiritual plenty of God’s fully sufficient Word. “How sweet are Thy words to my taste! Yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103).


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