Thoughts on the Sufficiency of Scripture
What It Does and Doesn't Mean
My biographical message at the pastors’ conference this year was on Athanasius who was born in A. D. 298. So I spent a good bit of time studying the doctrinal disputes of the fourth century. The main dispute was over the deity of Christ. Arius (and the Arians) said that the Son of God was a creature and did not always exist. Athanasius defended the eternal deity of the Son and helped win that battle with the wording of the Council of Nicaea: “We believe in . . . the Son of God . . . of the essence of the Father, God of God, and Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”
One surprising fact that I did not expect to find was that the heretics protested most loudly over the non-scriptural language of the orthodox creed. They pointed out that the phrases, “of one essence with the Father,” and “one substance with the Father” were not in the Bible. The heretics demanded “no creed but the Bible” precisely so that they could use biblical language to evade biblical truth. For example, they would happily call Christ “Son of God,” and then argue that, like all sons, he must have had a beginning. So to my surprise one form of the doctrine of the “sufficiency of Scripture” was used to undermine Scripture’s truth.
This strategy of evading biblical truth by using only biblical language has been used over and over in the history of the church. For example, in 1719 over a hundred Presbyterian, Congregational, and Baptist ministers gathered in London to deal with the problem that some ministers, after reading Samuel Clark, refused to sign the Trinitarian creeds of their denominations. They had become essentially Arian. What was the key issue? “The technical issue was whether it was enough for ministers to promise to follow only the Scriptures” (Mark Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2003], p. 43). The Arians insisted on “no creed but the Bible,” or no language but Bible language. The vote was 57-53 against traditional Trinitarians. Again a form of the “sufficiency of Scripture” had been used to undermine the truth of Scripture.
There are many today who would demand “no creed but the Bible” the same way the Arians did. But we should learn from history that biblical language is not enough when it comes to defending the meaning of biblical language. R. P. C. Hanson explained the process like this: “Theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself” (R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy [Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1988], p. xxi).
What does this imply for the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture? That doctrine is based mainly on 2 Timothy 3:15-17 and Jude 1:3.
The sacred writings . . . 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 competent, equipped for every good work. . . . Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
In other words, the Scriptures are sufficient in the sense that they are the only (“once for all”) inspired and (therefore) inerrant words of God that we need, in order to know the way of salvation (“make you wise unto salvation”) and the way of obedience (“equipped for every good work”).
The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Scripture is all we need to live obediently. To be obedient in the sciences we need to read science and study nature. To be obedient in economics we need to read economics and observe the world of business. To be obedient in sports we need to know the rules of the game. To be obedient in marriage we need to know the personality of our spouse. To be obedient as a pilot we need to know how to fly a plane. In other words, the Bible does not tell us all we need to know in order to be obedient stewards of this world.
The sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need any more special revelation. We don’t need any more inspired, inerrant words. In the Bible God has given us, we have the perfect standard for judging all other knowledge. All other knowledge stands under the judgment of the Bible even when it serves the Bible. For example, the English language serves the Bible by making it accessible to readers of English. But even as English does this, it stands under the Bible and is governed by the Bible. So the English word “yes” cannot translate the Greek word for “no.” The Bible is sufficient to prevent that misuse of English.
In this way the Bible is served by our extra-biblical knowledge in many ways. For example, the word “ant” occurs twice in the Bible (Proverbs 6:6; 30:25). It is never defined. The Bible expects us to know what an ant is from our experience. But if we say that the lesson of the ant is that we should all be lazy, the Bible is sufficient to prevent that error.
So it is with language in doctrinal disputes. Non-biblical language serves the Bible by ruling out some meanings and including others. The word “trinity” and the phrase “one substance with the Father” are extra-biblical terms. But they contain essential biblical truth. To affirm with extra-biblical language that God is “one essence in three persons” (=trinity) and that the Son is “one substance with the Father” is more biblical than to use biblical language to call Christ God’s creature. The sufficiency of Scripture does not dictate the language we use to interpret the Bible; rather it governs the meaning of the language we use. For that it is wholly sufficient.
Submitted utterly to Scripture with you,