Friday, January 23, 2015

Suffiency and the Bible

From the November 2011 E-Block.

There is a doctrine called the sufficiency of Scripture (SoS) that is generally formulated as saying that in the Bible, God has given a revelation that gives mankind everything that is necessary to live a godly life. In one sense this is certainly true, but there is an abusive form of this doctrine that mirrors the abuse of sola scriptura, and the doctrine of perspicuity: namely, an abuse in which external defining contexts -- things which help us interpret and understand Scripture and what it means -- are excluded under the premise that Scripture is "sufficient" as is to relate the truths that we need. 

The refutation of this abusive form of SoS is as straightforward as it is for the abuses of the other doctrines: Namely, Scripture is written in certain languages (initially, Hebrew and Greek); Scripture itself does not teach us these languages; hence, Scripture cannot ever be regarded as "sufficient" in the overarching way the abusers of the doctrine proclaim. Indeed not even a KJV Onlyist can escape this conundrum; the Scriptures also do not teach us English! The moment this one exception to sufficiency is engaged, the floodgates open to any and all valid defining contexts external to Scripture, and it becomes utterly impossible to declare that Scripture is self-attesting and self-authenticating to this extreme extent. 

A related abuse may be expressed as follows: God’s holy and perfect word can never be scrutinized for accuracy and truthfulness by corrupt, wicked men. In other words, man cannot criticize the Bible and put God "in the dock." But how is this the case, practically speaking? First of all, if men recopied Scripture, changing only a few words and replacing them with synonyms so that it became their own production, it is a product of men; how is it that the derivative work can be scrutinized, but the former cannot be? Moreover, many of the claims of Scripture are far from transcendent: If Scripture says that a certain city was beside the Jordan River, and neither archaeological evidence nor literary evidence testified to this, but testified that this city was on the coast of the Mediterranean, then what in "corrupt, wicked man" is causing this reputed truth to be missed? Are they simply not able to read maps or find pottery because they are too evil? It is manifest that such claims as that, "man is too evil to judge the accuracy of Scripture" result in either absurdity or else contrivance (e.g., no evidence is found for the city because it just so happened that all the evidence washed away; or every other piece of literature promulgated the same error putting the city elsewhere). Such a viewpoint is simply not honest, and endangers faith needlessly. (It will do no good to further suggest that doubters are themselves wicked for not accepting the truth of the city's location as revealed by the Bible; such merely sets the contrivance one step further away.) 

A related rationalization is that Scripture nowhere calls upon men to test it for truth, so we have no right to do so. This is plainly false. While there is no direct statement that says, "test Scripture," the Deuteronomic prophet test clearly invites an evaluation of ALL prophetic productions to ascertain which is true and which is not. From this it is apparent that even true prophetic oracles were expected to be judged against the evidence to see if they were true. At the same time, it is invalid to argue that Scripture must speak explicitly to an issue for us to make a decision. This reasoning is the sort used by the Church of Christ to exclude musical instruments, on the grounds that Scripture nowhere explicitly states they may be used. It is also clearly a case of modern, low context readers assuming that Scripture is itself a low context document; when in fact, Scripture was written in a high context setting, in which much is related not explicitly, but is taken for granted. The only alternative is to contrive the convenience that Scripture just happened to be a low context, explicit production isolated in a world in which is was surrounded by high context persons and documents -- and this is too obviously a case of presuming modern values imperialistically, remaking God's Word in our image. 

In contrast, there is a more reasonable form of SoS that declares that Scripture is deemed sufficient only in certain specific aspects -- for example, how to live life, and how to be godly. Such a view will readily admit that categories such as language involve things beyond which Scripture speaks, and will also admit (if consistently held!) other defining contexts. The unreasonable version of SoS, however, will put the matter in stark, combative terms: Either you think Scripture is sufficient for ALL areas, or you place yourself in a position of judging God and usurping His authority. It is hard to take this seriously as anything more than a vain threat intended to polarize and avoid the issues rather than engage them head on. 

Now what is SoS in relation to apologetics? The SoS extremist will say that Scripture is sufficient to persuade men of the truthfulness of the gospel, and thereby deny the value of evidential treatments. Here as well will be added in the loaded language of, "men are too depraved to know the truth," and "appeal to evidence gives men autonomy that belongs to God," points dealt with above. Beyond this, however, it is evident that while Scripture may be sufficient in broad outlines in this respect -- as what we might call the "final answer" after a long line of argumentation and reasoning -- it cannot be regarded as sufficient in addressing details and variations. Scripture affirms that Jesus existed, and that is the end of the argument; but it will not give us any reason to suppose that Annals 15.44 is not a forgery. 

There is then an argument of SoS extremists that is essentially ad hominem: Those who seek to use reason and arguments to convince others of the truth of Christianity are seeking to take credit for what they do and are showing a lack of trust in God. Such arguments may approach the matter from a strong Calvinist perspective and will involve some of the same interpretive assumptions as Calvinism. As such, we will leave them aside for the time being when we will do further study on Calvinism; suffice to say for now that my earlier studies found insufficient grounds for such interpretations, and that ad hominem renditions which accuse others of pride or lack of trust have no place in serious discourse. Such accusations are just as readily turned around -- and are just as readily provable. 

In the end, again, the idea that with SoS as expressed in the extreme, we are "contributing" something to God's Word -- which should need nothing contributed to it -- fails at the simplest level: God's Word is given to us in languages used by humans. To that extent, how did humans not "contribute" to God's Word being relayed to men? Unless one is prepared to argue that the Hebrew and Greek languages were somehow designed by God --an outlandish proposition unsubstantiated by any evidence -- then the SoS extremist is trapped. They will say everything human is tainted by sin; well, Hebrew and Greek, then, are tainted by sin. The fall has distorted human nature and intellect beyond the ability to receive God's will; well, human intellect designed the Hebrew and Greek languages. As with similar arguments with sola scriptura and perspicuity, extreme SoS collapses under the weight of a most fundamental contradiction.


  1. This article makes great points. Sometimes SoS is obnoxious. The Total Depravity card just stifles discussion and research. I agree with C.S. Lewis when he said if we're totally depraved, we should have never found out we're totally depraved. That we know this means we aren't so depraved as to at least know that! But if we know this, why can't we know other things? Great points! The Bible is written in a language. We can interpret the language. The language was written in a social context. The Context Group is interpreting the social context. I really have no clue why some think we make ourselves the judge over truth when we do this? What does this even mean? Are we that same judge when I claim to know I'm totally depraved too? Sheesh.

  2. Did you hear about this by the way? Pretty cool!

  3. My first look at it -- we'll see how it goes. Evans isn't normally one to go overboard.

  4. If you wanted (I don't know what's on your plate), but it'd be cool if you did a critique of Isaac Newton's view that the world would end in 2060 A.D., which might be in the same spirit as Blood Moon Lunacy. Do you want to do this for an upcoming blog? Thanks! Here's a link: