Sufficient for What? Four Aspects of the Doctrine of Scripture’s Sufficiency

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Writing about Sola Scriptura in his book Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer notes that the reformation principle of Scripture Alone “implies the sufficiency of Scripture” (114). But then he asks and important question: “Sufficient for what?” What does the sufficiency of Scripture promise? And what does it mean?

To that question, he gives four answers—one negative and three positive. Here they are in abbreviated form.

  1. Scripture is not sufficient for anything and everything that it may be called upon to do or describe.
  2. “Scripture is sufficient for everything for which it was divinely inspired. ‘[My word] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it’ (Isa. 55:11).”
  3. “Scripture is materially sufficient (‘enough’) because God has communicated everything we need to know in order to learn Christ and live the Christian life: ‘all things that pertain to life and godliness’ (2 Pet. 1:3).”
  4. Scripture is formally sufficient, which means when it comes to interpretation “Scripture interprets Scripture” so long as the interpretive community (i.e., the church) relies upon all the means of grace created by the Holy Spirit.

Understandably, these four answers need further elucidation, and in his chapter on “Scripture Alone,” Vanhoozer explains each point that I have abbreviated above. Here are a few quotes and explanations to help round a sufficient doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency.

Four Aspects of Biblical Sufficiency

1. Sufficiency Caricatured 

Introducing the topic, Vanhoozer asserts that Scripture is not sufficient for everything. He writes,

To say “Scripture is sufficient for everything—stock market investments, leaky faucets, clogged arteries—is to saddle it with unrealistic expectations, and eventually to succumb to naïve biblicism and the quagmire of pervasive interpretive pluralism.” (114)

Sadly, many have taken the Bible to address everything in creation. But this only creates more problems than it solves. Instead of overpromising what the Bible can do, we should read the Bible and learn what it says it can do.

2. Sufficiency Simpliciter 

If the Bible does not say that it is sufficient for everything, it does say what it is sufficient for—namely knowing God in Christ and how to live by faith in the promises of God.

Scripture is sufficient for everything for which it was divinely given: “[My word] shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). These verses help us see what sufficiency means and does not mean. The Bible is sufficient for the use that God makes of it, not for every use to which we may want it put. In John Webster’s words: “Scripture is enough. This is because Scripture is what God desires to teach” [Domain of the Word, 18]. Scripture is “enough” to learn Christ and the Christian life. (114)

Indeed, this is the simple answer to the question of what Scripture is sufficient for. However, Vanhoozer presses deeper to explain what “enough” means.

3. Material (or Doctrinal) Sufficiency 

Going beyond the basic statement that Scripture is enough, Vanhoozer states,

Scripture is materially sufficient (“enough”) because God has communicated everything we need to know in order to learn Christ and live the Christian life: “all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pet. 1:3). Article VI of the Church of England’s Thirty Nine Articles makes exactly this point: “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.” The material sufficiency of Scripture excludes any possibility of Scripture needing an external supplement in order to achieve the purpose for which it was sent. The Westminster Confession forbids adding any new content to Scripture, “whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men,” thereby echoing statements in Scripture itself, such as Revelation 22:18: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described this book.” What God has authored is adequate for his communicative purpose: “Scripture is materially sufficient for the bearing of propositional content (the presentation of Jesus Christ as the means of salvation) and for the conveying of illocutionary force (the call or invitation to have faith in him)” (Timothy Ward, Word and Supplement, 205). (114–15)

In short, the Bible reveals everything necessary for knowing God and living before him (Coram Deo). Still, there is something else and Vanhoozer shows us that a full doctrine of Scripture must consider another kind of sufficiency—namely, one that grapples with the interpretation of Scripture, and not just its doctrinal content.

4. Formal (or Interpretive) Sufficiency 

Acknowledging the difficulty of interpretation and the criticisms leveled against Protestants, especially those who ignore their confessional heritage, Vanhoozer states that material sufficiency does not “authorize its own interpretation, or to adjudicate between rival interpretations” (115). That is, affirming that Scripture contains all that is necessary for life and godliness is not the same thing as stating that all who read Scripture are sufficient to interpret correctly. We are not, and this is why many will criticize the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura.

In response, Vanhoozer digs in and demonstrates what David Wells calls “the courage to be Protestant.” Going back to the Reformers and approach to Scripture, he argues for a formal or interpretive sufficiency in Scripture, but one that will move beyond the pages of Scripture to the ongoing ministry of the Spirit. Here’s how begins,

There is, therefore, second, the question of Scripture’s formal sufficiency, and this concerns the authority by which Scripture is interpreted. For the Roman Catholic Church, the interpretive authority is the magisterium. Rome decides what churches elsewhere must believe hence, Roman catholicity. It is this second sense of sufficiency that is of special interest to us. (115)

This second aspect of sufficiency is more difficult to formulate and requires, therefore, more explanation—more than I can adequately outline here. In fact, demonstrating the need for careful thought on this matter, Vanhoozer dedicates a whole section to the analogy of Scripture (“Scripture interprets Scripture”) and he follows that with a helpful discussion on the place of tradition in biblical interpretation. (Biblical Authority after Babel, 115–17,118–22). On another day, I will pick up the discussion of Scripture and tradition, but for now let me wrap up with a couple quotes on the way Scripture is formally sufficient. Vanhoozer first explains,

The burden of my discussion will be to argue that Protestants, in addressing the problem of interpretive authority, have retrieved the unabbreviated principle of true catholicity [i.e., the Protestant Church is truly catholic], according to which the church is present where the gospel is rightly proclaimed in word and sacrament. To anticipate: God in his grace has given his children the church—a fellowship of saints; a teaching ministry; a tradition of interpretation; a table of communion—as a means of grace, a precious external aid in the proper reception of his Word. Because the church is a creature of the Word—the preached gospel of God’s grace—we must say that canonicity generates and governs catholicity: “Wherever that gospel is taken seriously there is the Church” (P. T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments). (115)

In other words, a right understanding of biblical sufficiency does not mean an individual with his Bible is able to interpret the Bible by himself. Rather, God intends for the materially sufficient Word to be interpreted by a Spirit-filled Church.

Pressing Deeper into Scripture by Way of the Spirit

Here’s the point: Any kind of “Bible and me” Christianity does not match the Protestant Reformation, nor the Bible’s own emphasis pastors and teachers leading the church (Eph. 4:11–12) or the place of the church in evaluating the message of its teachers (Gal. 1:6–9). In short, the sufficiency of Scripture does not pass to the individual interpreter, even if that interpreter is saturated with Scripture.

Just consider the fact that unless an individual is fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, he must rely on the translation of the Bible into his language. And even if he is fluent in the original languages, this too came from others. Multiply this reliance on others across twenty centuries and seven continents and it is clear, God intended for the church to read Scripture with the church and in dependence on those who have gone before us. Yes, Scripture interprets Scripture, but the Spirit, who indwells his church, not just isolated individuals, also leads the church.

To say “Scripture interprets Scripture” is to say more (but not less) than “The parts interpret the whole and the whole interprets the parts” and “The parts that are less clear must be read in light of those that are more clear.” These are crucial principles, but they apply to the interpretation of any text. We must be careful not to let “Scripture interprets Scripture” become an excuse for naïve biblicism [i.e., Bible and me Christianity]. The Reformers never meant to imply that the Bible does not need human interpreters. To be sure, the Bible itself provides textual clues and directions for putting the pieces of the canon together in the right order and in the right sense; but, it is one thing to say that Scripture provides the overarching metanarrative and hermeneutical framework for understanding its parts, and quite another to say that the Bible alone authorizes or adjudicates between rival interpretations. The Bible does not run by itself apart from the Spirit, who speaks in it and illumines readers. Scripture’s sufficiency is not simply a formal textual property. Even the demons believe in general hermeneutics. (116)

From this, I can imagine that some individuals would despair of any chance to find a genuine meaning of Scripture. And this is why some retreat to Roman Catholicism or some other magisterial or fundamentalist tradition. But there is another way, and it is the Protestant alternative to letting the Church dictate the meaning of Scripture. If Scripture is living and active because the triune God is living and active, then we can have confidence that the Spirit is even now building his church with his Word, leading his people into the truth (1 John 2:27), and that he is doing so with every means of grace that he himself has brought into being. As Vanhoozer puts it,

When we examine further what Scripture says about this economy [i.e., the ongoing work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit], we will see that Scripture is sufficient to play its designated part as the supreme authority of theology, but again, not alone or independently of the Holy Spirit, or of the church and its teaching ministry. “Scripture interprets Scripture” is therefore a truism not about texts in general but about one particular text—the Bible and its place in the economies of revelation and redemption. For the Reformers, it is the Spirit speaking Christ in the Scripture, in the context of the household of God, who finally authorizes an interpretation, not an external magisterium [Roman Catholicism] or an internal revelation [mysticism]. (117)

This is the Protestant doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. While it may strike some as too dependent on tradition (i.e., historical creeds, confessions, etc.), I would argue that such disavowal of tradition with a lower-case ‘t’ reveals an unhealthy, individualistic approach to Scripture that finds its roots in the Enlightenment, not the Reformation. If you read Luther, Calvin, or any other Reformer, they were glad to cite human authorities that rightly submitted themselves to Scripture. They abhorred the way the Church had idolized itself and positioned itself over Scripture, but they were never seeking to reject the ministerial authority of the creeds and confessions and other doctrinal teaching. We would do well to imitate them and to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture in all the ways that Scripture intends. We should also avoid asking Scripture to do more than it promises, or to falsely assume that we by ourselves are capable of rightly dividing the doctrinally sufficient Word of God.

On this point, Kevin Vanhoozer has helpfully parsed the doctrine of biblical sufficiency. He has shown what it does and does not mean, and we should continue to press into the Scripture with confidence not in ourselves to interpret its meaning, but with confidence that the Spirit will lead us into all truth by all the means of all the people and institutions he himself has created and is now directing.

Scripture is truly a living and active Word and it takes a living and active God to interpret it rightly. Thankfully, the people of God made alive by the Spirit are given everything we need for life and godliness—both in the Scriptures and in the Spirit. Indeed, we do not need to pit one against the other, but in rightly approaching God’s Word, we need more than ourselves to enjoy all that God has given for life and godliness.

To that end, let us pick up the Bible and read and let us do that with prayer and the people of God. For all of these things are gift from the Lord and we need all of them to know him and to walk in his ways.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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