A very busy college student who happens to find time to listen to the podcast, named William, also found time to write us this question. “Pastor John, I’m an undergraduate student studying English, Philosophy, Ancient Greek, and Latin. I hope to attend seminary and use my education to help others see the glory of Christ. But my Reformed roots are always pushing me to want to do it ‘by the Book.’ Though God’s word is sufficient and inerrant it does not encompass all knowledge. For example, we do not throw out the Law of Gravity just because Jesus never explained why apples fall from trees. So how do you navigate what to keep and what to get rid of? Say, if Aristotle makes some points about epistemology that the Bible doesn’t explicitly affirm but also doesn’t deny, is it okay for me to say it is true?”
The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, which he is alluding to in part, is not designed to discourage us from gaining knowledge from the natural world — knowledge that doesn’t come through the Bible, but comes from observation. It is not designed to discourage us from getting that kind of knowledge. Rather, the doctrine is designed to protect us from seeking or receiving more supernatural knowledge, more supernatural revelation. In other words, God’s word to us in Scripture does not need to be supplemented by more words of God from anyone claiming to be God.
The point is that the Scriptures are sufficient revelation from God to accomplish what the revelation was designed to do and does not need to be supplemented by any more revelation. So near the end of the New Testament, Jude says, “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). There is finality about God’s revelatory word through Jesus Christ and his apostles. There is a once for all deposit of truth. There is a completed, whole counsel of God. There is a faith once for all delivered.
The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is meant to safeguard the completeness of that revelation. It never was designed to prevent or discourage the use of our minds and our eyes and ears and hands to investigate God’s world and discover how it works so that we can put it to best use for the good of mankind.
In fact, the Bible itself explicitly commands us to learn from other sources besides the Bible. And the book of Proverbs is probably the best known for this, like this simple statement in Proverbs 6:6; “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” In other words, find an anthill and watch those critters and learn something about diligence in the summer so you don’t starve in the winter. This is just a simple illustration of how the ant is an aspect of God’s general revelation, not special or supernatural revelation, but natural or general revelation. God shows us things we need to know to use the world the way he intended for it to be used.
When God said in Genesis 1:28, “Be fruitful, Adam and Eve. Be fruitful and fill the earth. Multiply and fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion,” he knew that Adam and Eve would need to figure out the specifics of sexual intercourse.
Like, how are you going to multiply? He knew that in order to subdue and have dominion over nature they would need to observe the natural world, draw inferences from it, and formulate plans for how to make the best use of it for the good of mankind. Most of that knowledge will come from outside the Bible. Jesus, in fact, talks about people getting that knowledge. If you are a sailor and you see that it is red in the morning, sailor’s warning. If you see it is red at the night, sailor’s delight. He told the Pharisees: Look, you can judge world well, why don’t you judge the spiritual world as well as you do the external world? (See Matthew 16:1–3.)
So William’s question, then, becomes, rightly: When you read Aristotle or any philosopher or historian or mathematician or scientist or novelist or theologian or politician, how, he asks, do you navigate what to keep and what to get rid of? And I think the best way I can answer that, even though it is a very complicated issue if you come at from every angle, I think you can boil it down to a principle — and the best way for me to get at that principle would be to quote the Affirmation of Faith that we produced at Bethlehem Baptist Church over the years that I was there, and then Bethlehem College and Seminary is based on this Affirmation of Faith. The church is still based on it. Desiring God is based on it. And here are the first two paragraphs — they are short — of that affirmation of faith. And the second one addresses William’s question directly.
It goes like this:
We believe that the Bible, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments, is the infallible Word of God, verbally inspired by God, and without error in the original manuscripts.
We believe that God’s intentions, revealed in the Bible, are the supreme and final authority in testing all claims about what is true and what is right. In matters not addressed by the Bible, what is true and right is assessed by criteria consistent with the teachings of Scripture.
So you get the epistemological issues of truth and you get the ethical issues of what is right and wrong — those issues are assessed, whether it is from Aristotle or whoever. Let me say that last sentence again, because that is it. “In matters not addressed by the Bible, what is true and right is assessed by criteria consistent with the teachings of Scripture.”
So the practical effect of such a principle is to say to William as he studies English, Philosophy, ancient Greek, Latin — saturate your mind. This is for all of us now. Yes. Saturate your mind with the wide and deep truth and wisdom of Scripture so that you are equipped at every level to encounter with knowledge and to discern how the principles of Scripture and the truth of Scripture guide you in assessing what you are seeing. Keep yourself in a community of believers where other minds also, besides your own, provide guidance and ballast so that you are not alone in this process of assessment.