An Insufficient Understanding of “Sufficiency,” Part I

In harmony with Scripture, we Protestants confess that Scripture is “sufficient”[1] and that Christ is “sufficient.”[2] I have noticed these past few years that in our circles these affirmations frequently exhibit the quality of moralism. That is, they perform as statements which activate great emotion within us, but fail to ground the emotion in serious substance. They become statements that say more about our (superficial) piety toward God’s Word than they do about the messy details of our daily lives in God’s world.

There are a number of ways that this could be illustrated.

For one, our typical statements about “sufficiency” frequently take almost entirely negative spins. The “sufficiency” of Scripture is frequently defined and defended as a denial of the erroneous concept of “tradition” that is held by Roman Catholicism. “Scripture plus nothing!”, we often retort to Catholics who are offering us what we consider to be a mess of mere human pottage masquerading as divine truth. Other times, Scriptural “sufficiency” is portrayed as a denial that in some area X of our lives, it is impermissible, nay, even impious, to consult sources other than Scripture for wisdom. “Scripture plus nothing!” we indignantly retort to other Christians who advocate the serious study of non-biblical books as a means to gain some understanding of our world. It is the same with the “sufficiency” of Christ, which is usually defined and defended as as a denial that anything other than simple, unadorned faith in Christ has any significant place in our lives. “Christ plus nothing!”, we rail at psychology, philosophy, history, literature, science, politics, and the like.

Before I object to these popular portrayals of “sufficiency,” let me note that there are some very important truths in these denials.

For instance, when we say that Scripture is “sufficient,” what we mean to say is that in terms of finding out about our condition before God and what can be done about it, nothing other than Scripture is required. Other things might conceivably say some good things about those topics, but we do not need those things in order to know what is true about ourselves and God. We do not need those things because Scripture is sufficient. This is certainly a wholesome principle, and one with which I agree most heartily.

Likewise, when we say that Christ is “sufficient,” what we mean to say is that in terms of gaining access to the Father, of having our sins forgiven, nothing other than God-given faith in Christ and Him crucified for us is required. We do not need priestly mediators or sacraments or psychological theories or philosophical axioms or an acquaintance with the Great Books of the Western World or anything else in order to get and know that we have acceptance in the eyes of a holy God. We do not need these things because Christ is sufficient. This is also a wholesome principle, and one with which I agree most heartily.

However, as I have been critically observing[3] the Reformed world for the past 5 years or so, it has become increasingly clear to me that on the backs of these noble truths there have come to be grafted some very deleterious errors. A great many Reformed people operating in contexts as diverse as conversations at the local coffee shop, Sunday School classes, sermons, seminary classrooms, and Internet discussion fora have come (I presume mostly innocently), to distort the practical ramifications of these grand Reformation ideas even when they get the verbal definitions of them correct.[4]

I have observed ministers and laymen from a variety of denominations talk as if there is little to no point in a Christian seriously engaging any written works other than the Bible. To be sure, the Christian may read other works – these ministers and laymen do not outright forbid such. However, to their way of thinking, the only reason to read these other works is to find fodder to laugh at the stupidities of non-Christians, foils against which to measure the Grand, Comprehensive, and Omnicompetent principles of what they call “the Christian worldview.”[5] To actually seriously study works other than the Bible, as if one might find some gems of truth scattered throughout them, is a fool’s errand, and only distracts attention from the only reliable source of authority that we have: the Bible.

Thus, to bring this home to myself, I have frequently been the target of denunciations from Christians of diverse denominational backgrounds that take the form of “Why don’t you have more biblical exegesis on your blog? Don’t you care about what the Bible says?” The only answer I can give is, “Of course I care what the Bible says. I just don’t think that a Christian has to justify everything he does with biblical prooftexts, because the idea that Scripture is ‘sufficient’ does not mean that Scripture is the only thing worth looking at.” It is a distinction that has often been lost on my critics, and their charges against me have played an integral role in bringing me to realize how the Reformation idea of Scriptural “sufficiency” has come to be abused in our day.[6]

Likewise, I have observed ministers and laymen from a variety of denominations talk as if there is little to no point in a Christian engaging in “merely worldly” activities, for it is only “preaching the Gospel” that changes individual men and so, by extension, changes a whole culture. In this paradigm, only regeneration counts. The thing itself that is regenerated does not count, except in the negative sense of just sitting there so that it can get regenerated. Only inner change truly counts. External change is superfluous to what is really important – namely, “spiritual” things. Some go so far as to suggest that the best way to change our culture is for us to strive to get our worship on Sundays in the church right, since worship is “spiritual warfare” and only “spiritual warfare” counts in God’s eyes.

There are several ways to approach these errors in order to show that they are, in fact, errors, and that they do not belong in our thought processes as we meditate on the idea of “sufficiency.” To me, the best place to begin, since we are dealing in all these cases with Greek words translated into English, is to inquire what the English word “sufficient” means. In English, “sufficient” means “adequate” or “equal to the end proposed.” If an army is said to be “sufficient” for the defense of a country, that army is “enough” for the purpose of defending the country. The army is “equal to the end proposed.” If I have “sufficient” money to cover the groceries in my cart, then I have “enough” money to walk out of the store having paid for all that is in my cart. The amount of money I have on my person is “equal to the end proposed.” It is “sufficient.”

This seems simple enough. In fact, it seems so simple that one may wonder why any further reflection is needed. Further reflection is needed because, as was just said, “sufficient” may be defined as “equal to the end proposed.” In the two examples just given, ends were proposed – defending the country, and buying the groceries in my cart. Are these the only ends that could be proposed at any time? Of course not. Are the ways in which these ends were stated the only ways they could be stated? Again, of course not. We could, for instance, envision a different war in which the present army is not sufficient to defend the country, or a shopping trip in which I place so much in my cart that the money in my wallet is not sufficient to cover it.

In other words, the word “sufficient” is not just a word that we say, not just what Francis Schaeffer once called a “connotation word.”[7] A “connotation word” is a word of which the hearers think they know the meaning because it arouses pragmatic or emotional sympathies within them. However, upon closer analysis, it turns out that the connoted meaning of the word is nebulous, and that only an illusion of communication is taking place because the word either has no real intellectual content or else is being filled with different intellectual content by each hearer. Thus, the substance of what “sufficient” means has to be spelled out in concrete detail, lest our invocation of the term be merely a pious abstraction. The real-world value of the word “sufficient” is directly related to the end which is proposed. Propose a different end, and what was a moment ago “sufficient” may no longer be so.

Now what does all this mean for our Protestant affirmations that Scripture and Christ are sufficient for us? I will take up this topic in my next post.


Notes

1. The locus classicus for this idea is 1 Timothy 3:16, which says that Scripture is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” Jesus frequently castigated His opponents for adding to or distorting the Scriptures by adhering to mere traditions of men (Matthew 15; Mark 7).

2. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, we find out that God’s grace is sufficient for us. Ephesians 1:3 says that we have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Colossians 2:10 tells us that we are “complete” in Christ.

3. I have been Reformed myself since late 1996, so what I am doing here is an “internal critique,” not a hostile external attack. What I mean by “critically observing” is taking 1 Thessalonians 5:21 seriously by “examining all things carefully” so that I can “hold fast to that which is good.” Examining “all” things does not mean all things except your own faith.

4. Of course, not all Reformed people are guilty of these errors. When speaking of a large, diverse array of individuals, it is not wrong to use generalizations even though there are many individuals to whom the general truth does not apply.

5. I hope shortly to do a post or two on the problems that are inherent in thinking of Christianity as a “worldview,” and of ourselves as “worldview thinkers.”

6. Other things have played integral roles in this realization, as well. For instance, numerous books and articles by such Reformed worthies as those who run the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, along with R.C. Sproul, Leland Ryken, and many others, have pointed out the poverty of contemporary Evangelicalism’s – including much of the Reformed world – approach to the created world.

7. See this excerpt from Schaeffer’s The God Who Is There. The term “connotation word” is defined and explained about halfway down, but it would be worthwhile to read the whole excerpt for context.s

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