6 Ways to Abuse the Sufficiency of Scripture
Twice in the last few months, I’ve encountered the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture touted as a remedy against using illustrations, humor or contextualization in sermons. I’ve also encountered using this doctrine as a support for the word-for-word ESV Bible, in Jon Nielson’s “How to Study the Bible” (which I heartily recommend otherwise).
Now, I’m not into gimmicks, and I love my ESV Bible. But I’m starting to get the feeling that prominent voices are taking scripture’s sufficiency further than the Bible and common sense allows. Here’s what the doctrine of the Bible’s sufficiency DOES mean:
“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 (Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6).”
In other words, the doctrine of the sufficiency of scripture states that we need no more special revelation from God. Here’s what it doesn’t mean:
1. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for contextualization. Why does Paul quote Greek poets when he’s talking to Gentiles? Why did he become like a Jew to reach the Jews and a Gentile to reach the Gentiles? Is it because he didn’t believe in scripture’s sufficiency? No! He believed Scripture was absolutely sufficient to be wise unto salvation – but he also, wisely, contextualized his ministry approach and created “ethos” with the people among whom he preached.
2. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for translation. Nielson’s book states that the ESV is the best Bible, because it gives us the text word for word, unlike the other versions, which are only an “interpretation” of the text. But his is simply not correct. Every single English version of the Bible is an interpretation; the particular phrase that Nielson makes use of in John 11:6 – “So when he heard that Lazarus was ill…” is not even a word for word translation! If it were, it would read: “Therefore as,” which doesn’t make English sense. It had to be interpreted before it’s translated into understandable English, just like every other text. Nielson’s absolutely right in saying the actual words of the text matter – but he is mistaken to imply that those actual words are in the ESV Bible. Like any translation, only the interpreted meaning of the translators are present.
3. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for illustration. Nielson claims that because scripture is sufficient, “We can say goodbye to the need we sometimes feel to ‘supplement’ the Bible with stories, experiences, or related news clips. Of course, illustrations are not always bad; we need to remind ourselves that the Bible – God’s powerful Word – is enough to engage people, convict them, and speak to their hearts in a powerful, saving way.” The doctrine of sufficiency does not teach that the Bible engages, applies, and explains itself, in an “unmediated” fashion (Nielson’s word). If that were true, why don’t we stand up every Sunday and read the Bible then leave without preaching? Why not in Greek and Hebrew, for that matter? God’s word is not a magic spell book – the words have NO power unless they are brought, through a mediator, into the heart language of the people to which they are speaking. That includes actual language, along with the “stories, experiences, or related news clips” people understand and with which their hearts resonate.
4. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for deduction. The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of abortion. It’s not explicitly forbidden, but we can deduce from “good and necessary” consequence that it’s wrong because of the Bible’s emphasis on the sanctity of human life. We can also deduce that God is trinitarian, and plenty of other essential principles for godly living. Muslims will argue that because the Bible doesn’t explicitly say “Jesus is God,” it’s not true. Others in the Christian realm have made the same mistake by stating that “because the Bible doesn’t explicitly forbid something, it must not be wrong.” Both of these approaches are an abuse of scripture’s sufficiency.
5. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for incarnational ministry. The Bible’s sufficiency does not mean that people need no personal relationship with those who preach it – it doesn’t mean there’s no need for salt and light in the world. It doesn’t mean that we can sit and read our Bibles and preach all day and expect to change the world without getting off our pews and showing the world Christ’s love. As my pastor said the other night to our church: “We are all translating the Bible through the way we live our lives.” Emphasizing the preached word against serving the needy and living in community is translating scripture for people, and that wrongly.
6. It doesn’t mean there’s no need for other illumination. John Frame rightly points out that in order to understand the Bible in the first place, we need general revelation of the Greek and Hebrew languages, grammar, logical syllogisms, etc. In other words, in a way, general revelation is necessary before the special revelation of scripture. The Bible doesn’t teach us what we need to know about science, or communication, or math, or our spouse – if we believe it is sufficient to teach us about all these things, we’re abusing the doctrine of sufficiency. The Bible is sufficient to make us wise to salvation, and that ought to be sufficiently sufficient.