On the Sufficiency of Scripture

Just as we speak about the various attributes of God, so too we can speak about the various attributes of Scripture. Thus we can speak about the authority of Scripture, or the perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture. As to the latter, see here: billmuehlenberg.com/2010/12/01/on-the-perspicuity-of-scripture/

Another attribute of Scripture is its sufficiency. Numerous definitions and affirmations of this – both old and new – can be cited here:

“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.” John Piper

bible3“The sacred and divinely inspired Scriptures are sufficient for the exposition of truth.” Athanasius

“Scripture contains all the divine words needed for any aspect of human life.” John Frame

“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

“We ought carefully to examine whether the doctrine offered us is conformable to Scripture, and if not, to reject it. Nothing must be added to the inspired words of God; all that is outside Scripture is not of faith, but is sin.” Basil of Caesaria

“The Bible contains all the extant revelations of God, which he designed to be the rule of faith and practice for his Church.” Charles Hodge

“The Bible is sufficient for the church’s life and work. It is able to draw unbelievers to Christ, to enable me to grow in godliness, to provide direction to my life and to go beyond myself and beyond the church to transform and revitalize all of society.” Tim Challies

“Surely it is the books of the Lord on whose authority we both agree and on which we both believe. Therefore, let us seek the church. There let us discuss our case in the Scriptures. . . . Let those things be removed from our midst which we quote against each other, not from divine, canonical books but from elsewhere.” Augustine

“The finality of Scripture, if it has any meaning, demands that those who profess commitment to Christ and the church in its collective capacity, direct all thought, activity, and objective by this Word as the revelation to us of God’s mind and will.” John Murray

“You have Scripture for a master instead of me; from there you can learn whatever you would know.” John Chrysostom

The late, great Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer used to speak about the Bible and truth in terms of having “true truth,” “sufficient truth” and “exhaustive truth”. What Scripture offers us is fully truthful, but it is not exhaustive truth. It does not tell us everything one can possibly know. But it offers us sufficient truth: all that we need to know.

Thus I will not find in the Bible any specific information about how I should best paint my house, what I should cook for tonight’s dinner, or which new smartphone is the best to buy. But what I do need to know is found in the Bible, and even if modern day specifics are not mentioned there, general principles most certainly are.

Therefore if I want to think Christianly and biblically about something like embryonic stem cell research (which involves killing a very young human being) I can appeal to biblical principles such as the sanctity of human life and the commandment not to murder, etc.

And even with theological truth, we do not have all the details we might want to have. But we have enough. As Carl Trueman explains:

The Scriptures are sufficient for a specific task: they reveal who God is, who man is in relation to him, and how that relationship is to be articulated in terms of worship.
Even with this definition, however, we need to be precise concerning the nature of this sufficiency. In some areas, the Scriptures are sufficient for teaching principles but not for providing specific details. For example, while they clearly teach that the church should gather for worship on the Lord’s Day, they do not specify precise times and locations. Neither my local congregation nor the time of our services are mentioned anywhere in the New Testament. Scriptural sufficiency is not jeopardized by this lack; Scripture was never intended to speak with precision to such local details.

All this is not to imply that there is a deficiency on the part of Scripture. With the Bible we won’t know everything possible there is to know, but we do find there exactly what we must know. What we have is all we need. There is no more need for further special revelation. There are no more books of the Bible that are forthcoming.

But we have sufficient instruction in all these areas. What God intended for us to know he has already revealed to us. As we read in Deuteronomy 29:29: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

An important New Testament passage on this is of course 2 Timothy 3:15-17: “and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 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.”

Scripture provides us with all we need for salvation and godly living. While Scripture gives us a sufficient account of truth, it is not an exhaustive account. That there is much more that God can say and do is found in passages such as the following:

John 20:30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.

John 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

But his revelation is sufficient for what we need. Another way of looking at this is to note the various times we find warnings in Scripture about adding to or taking away from God’s Word. A few clear texts on this include:

Deuteronomy 4:2 Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.

Deuteronomy 12:32 See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.

Proverbs 30:5-6 Every word of God is flawless;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

1 Corinthians 4:6 Paul warns the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written.”

Revelation 22:18-19 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

So the canon of Scripture is now closed and the Word of God is complete. It remains however to look at a few questions that may arise here. For example, does that mean that God can no longer speak to us today? Well, it depends on what you mean by that.

God can speak by his Spirit to us in illuminating or affirming what is already in his Word, but new inspired, canonical revelations are another matter. God can speak also through general revelation, and help guide his children in various ways. But again, that is not the same as the inspired, inerrant revelation as found in the Word of God.

As Kevin DeYoung puts it, “So, yes, God still speaks. He is not silent. He communicates with us personally and directly. But this ongoing speech is not ongoing revelation.” More of course can be said about how we might understand prophetic utterances today and so on, but further articles will have to deal with such matters.

Indeed, all this will likely just open up various cans of worms, with many just waiting to pick another theological fight here! Clearly other big issues arise here, but they will have to wait for other articles to do them justice. Thus I will not here take comments on things like the Apocrypha and the like. Please wait until I do a piece on such matters thanks.

And of course the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture is very closely connected to the Reformed principle of sola Scriptura. A separate article will be needed on this as well, including the place that Protestants do have for things like tradition and so on. So any keen Catholic who wants to get into some big, juicy debates on such matters is also advised to wait until I address such issues more specifically.

Here I simply wanted to affirm the vital truth that in Scripture we have all that we need for matters of salvation and the Christian life. That is sufficient.

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7 Replies to “On the Sufficiency of Scripture”

  1. Great piece Bill, thanks, and absolutley agree with you.

    I will look forward to your thoughts on the Apocrypha. At its least it is a very important part of Jewish history. It is clearly the model for the anti-christ and I find it fascinating that the Altar of Pergamon, the seat of Satan which is now in Berlin, is connected to Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Hellenistic Greek kings of the Seleucid Empire, whose cruelty is given much mention in these books.

  2. There was a time when it was unnecessary to write on a topic such as this. However today, when so many consider the Word of God to be at best one valid option, and at worst, a fairytale, we need to emphasize that the revelation of Scripture is indeed sufficient. Let us always live our lives in the understanding and acknowledgement of this truth.

  3. Hi Bill,

    Thank you, I’m from the Philippines and have subscribed to your articles for over two years now. I am also thankful that you keep past articles from years back readily available.

    Maybe on your next piece, or here in the comments, can you also write about:
    – Closure of Canon – I’ve wondered what would be the impact, if for example, the two other Corinthian letters that are lost, suddenly surfaced?

    – In the ~30 years from the time Jesus ascended to heaven, before or while the NT books were being written, what Scripture (aside from the OT) did the people have to refer to? **This was raised to me by a Catholic priest I was talking to some months ago, and I admit I was not prepared with an answer (we were on the subject of oral tradition)

    Pat

    p.s. I am saving up for the book you mentioned recently (The Importance, Authority, Trustworthiness of Scripture, 2016). Thank you for all your recommended readings

  4. Paul Washer deals with the Sufficiency of Scripture in his excellent sermon ‘Ten Indictments to the church’. The first indictment was a practical denial of the sufficiency of Scripture. He says:

    When you come to believe as a people that the Bible is inspired, you have only fought half the battle, because the question is not merely “is the Bible inspired?” i.e., is it inerrant? The major question following that, which must be answered, is this: Is the Bible sufficient, or do we have to bring in every so-called social science and cultural study in order to know how to run a church? That is the major question! Social sciences, in my opinion, have taken precedent over the Word of God in such a way that most of us can’t even see it. It has so crept into our church, our evangelism, and our missiology that you barely can call what we are doing “Christian” anymore. Psychology, anthropology, and sociology have become primary influences in the churches.
    Many years ago when I was in seminary, I remember a professor walked in and started drawing footprints on the blackboard. And as he marched them across the blackboard, he turned to all of us and said only this: “Aristotle is walking through the halls of this institution. Beware, for I hear his footsteps more clearly than those of the Apostle Paul, the team of inspired men who were with him, and even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.”

    David Clay,
    Darwin, NT

  5. Thanks Pat. Two very brief answers:
    1) We believe that God has guided the process of canonisation, so it is quite likely that the books we have are the books we are meant to have.
    2) They had the OT and whatever early epistles and gospels were circulating at the time. Obviously it took a while for the entire NT canon to be affirmed and recognised, but they were using the early texts from early on.
    We had a number of documents circulating in the early 40s eg, so the New Testament was likely written between about 10 to 60 years after the death of Christ.

  6. True scripture was recognised immediately: see 2 Peter 3:16 where he refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture.

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