The Sufficiency of Scripture
Scripture is sufficient in that it is the only inspired, inerrant, and therefore final authority for Christians for faith and godliness, with all other authorities being subservient to Scripture.
The sufficiency of Scripture is a doctrine challenged on multiple fronts. Ever since the Reformation, Rome challenged Scripture’s sufficiency in claiming that an infallible tradition and papal magisterium was necessary to provide the correct interpretation of Scripture. In response, the Reformers asserted that Scripture is a sufficient authority for all things pertaining to faith and godliness, not needing to appeal to another authority. However, this does not mean that Scripture functions alone apart from any other source or authority; rather, all other authorities serve under Scripture, while Scripture rules over them as the final and inspired authority from God.
All Scripture Profitable
“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” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). So says Paul to Timothy, giving him every confidence that the Scriptures he has inherited not only are divine in their origin but sufficient for the ministry entrusted to him. Scripture’s sufficiency gives us reason for gratitude, gratitude because God has not only spoken but his divine speech is definitive, leaving his bride with a sure guide for faith and practice in the midst of a storm.
The Renewal of Scriptural Sufficiency
Scripture’s sufficiency, however, has been under fire ever since the Reformation. Rome challenged Scripture’s sufficiency, claiming that an infallible tradition and papal magisterium is also needed to provide the one, true interpretation of Scripture. This conclusion stems from their assumption that tradition is a second infallible source or conduit of divine revelation. With that claim, no longer is the Bible alone inspired, inerrant, and the church’s final authority. With the demise of sola scriptura sufficiency cannot stand.
But with the Reformation came a renewal of scriptural sufficiency. With a return to scriptural authority came the recovery of its sufficiency. For example, in 1561 those who penned the Belgic Confession confessed, “We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein.” In the next century, 1646 to be exact, those divines at the Westminster Assembly also wrote up a confessional statement and it too confessed sufficiency: “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 [Gal. 1:8–9; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Tim. 3:15–17].” Or consider the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which so helpfully captures the essence of sufficiency in a question and answer format:
Q: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A: The Scriptures principally teach, What man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
As seen in these confessional statements, sufficiency distinguishes the Protestant evangelical, who turns to Scripture as that which contains all that is necessary for salvation and godliness.
Extra-Biblical Sources? Interpretive Assistants vs. Lords
Does sufficiency mean all extra-biblical resources should be eliminated? No. To say it does is to confuse sola scriptura with nuda scriptura. Remember, sola scriptura does not preclude other authorities in the church (such as creeds, councils, church leaders, theologians, traditions, etc.). Rather, it is to say Scripture alone is our inspired, inerrant, and therefore final authority. While there may be many important authorities, they are all subservient to Scripture, which alone is God-breathed and without error, fully trustworthy and sufficient for faith and practice. Scripture alone is our magisterial authority; all other authorities are ministerial.
With that in mind, the Christian need not fear the use of extrabiblical sources. In fact, the Christian should have no hesitancy learning from, appealing to, and utilizing extrabiblical sources. Many of these may be gracious gifts that stem from God’s general revelation in the created order. Whether it be archaeology or philosophy, medicine or literature, mathematics or science, these are fruit from the tree of God’s common grace to humanity.
Nonetheless, we should naturally worry if any extrabiblical source claims superiority to scriptural truth or poses itself in opposition to biblical Christianity. As much as we appreciate any number of extrabiblical sources, they are maidservants to that authority which alone is inspired and inerrant: Scripture. When used rightly, extrabiblical sources become interpretive assistants, and what a great help they can be. But they should never turn into interpretive lords, making God and his word subordinate.
Sufficiency Matters for the Church
Sufficiency has real and serious implications for the church today. First, although Christians claim they believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, they often live like they don’t, prizing their experience instead of Scripture’s instruction. In faith and practice, too many Christians nod at what the Bible says, but politely set it aside to live their life how they think or feel is best. Sufficiency is affirmed doctrinally, but functionally it is experience that rules the day. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words are just as applicable today as in his day: The Scriptures are sifted “through the sieve of one’s own experience, despising and shaking out what will not pass through; and one prunes and clips the biblical message until it will fit in a given space, until the eagle can no longer fly in his true element but with clipped wings is exhibited as a special showpiece among the usual domesticated animals.”
Second, the church as a whole desperately needs to recover Scripture’s sufficiency. Too many pastors and their churches have adopted the culture’s consumeristic mentality. The Bible is not the priority but pragmatics. Who the church is and what the church does are not decided according to the Word of God but are determined according to the felt needs of the surrounding culture. Whatever will keep visitors coming back for more, whatever will give the appearance that the church remains relevant, these become the rule for worship and ministry. As a result, the church sells its soul to the culture, desperately trying to entertain to give those in the pew the experience they want.
This is all upside down. We gather each week because we are summoned by God himself and he has a word to share with us. Since this is God himself speaking to us in this word, his inscripturated, inspired speech takes center stage. It becomes the agenda of every song and sermon. Is this not why Paul could also command Timothy, “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and instruction” (2 Tim. 4:2)?
Without the Word, the church will not only starve but it will have nothing of lasting, saving value to offer the world anyway. God’s Word is a lamp in a dark world, lighting the path ahead (Ps. 119:93, 105), so that the Christian and the church alike know God and know how to live in his ways as his covenant people.
- Matthew Barrett, God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. See an author interview here and here.
- Michael Barrett, Twenty-one lectures based on God’s Word Alone
- Michael Barrett, Ten videos on the doctrine of Scripture
- Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin, Jr., eds., Thy Word Is Still Truth: Essential Writings on the Doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to Today
- Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading: A Theological Introduction to the Bible and Its Interpretation
- William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture
This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.