An Insufficient Understanding of “Sufficiency,” Part II

To see what the word “sufficiency” properly means, we need to look at the ends that are in view, and this takes us back to the definitions of the “sufficiency” of Scripture and of Christ given above. For the end of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (1 Tim. 3:16), Scripture is “equal to the end proposed.” Far be it from me ever to say otherwise!

But what if we proposed the end of being a proficient auto mechanic, or a successful insurance salesman, or a competent lifeguard, or a successful novelist or an architect or a computer engineer? Is Scripture “sufficient” for these ends? Not according to Scripture itself it isn’t! Scripture says a great deal about doctrine and godly living, but it says nothing about how to attain these sorts of “mundane” ends. Thus it follows that we may say without any impiety at all that Scripture is quite literally “insufficient” for the attainment of certain ends. Scripture is fully sufficient for the attainment of the end at which it aims – teaching Christian truth and training in righteousness – but it is not sufficient for ends at which it does not aim.

Once again, this seems pretty straightforward. Very few Protestants, likely, would have a problem with what has been said so far. There are some Protestants out there, however whose “simple” piety about the Bible entirely overwhelms their rational thinking ability. A while back, some rather “screechy” and unkind rants were put forth on the Internet about two articles by Protestant academics[1] who said that Scripture was “insufficient” for certain mundane ends such as the ones I have mentioned above. The authors of these rants were apparently unable to emotionally get past the use of the word “insufficient” as an adjective attached to the noun “Scripture,” and their thoughts on the two articles in question were consequently, merely emotional vitriol presented as simple God-fearing piety that all simple God-fearers should wish to emulate. I take it, though, that most Protestants – even many with whom I would disagree about some other important matters – understand and agree with the points I have thusfar made in this series. What then, is the point of even talking about this subject?

The point is that although not all who have an insufficient understanding of “sufficiency” are screeching ranters, they are also as a general rule not very careful thinkers. For several reasons, much confusion exists in Reformed discourse about “sufficiency.” What are these? Let me list just three that seem most prominent.

For one, the term “sufficiency” is often defined in opposition to extreme errors (such as Roman Catholicism’s concepts of “tradition” and Magisterial authority. A term defined in opposition to an extreme error is likely to simplistically embrace the other extreme error. Many Reformed advocates of the “sufficiency” of Scripture are driven by their severe hostility to “Romanism” to embrace a notion of the Bible’s authority that is all-expansive and unquestionable: to even hint that significant truth might be found outside the pages of the Bible – whether in pagan writers, old Christian writers, or even modern non-Protestant writers – is seen by many as a nefarious attack on the clarity of God’s Word and the knowability of (all) truth by means of its teachings.

Second, emotional connotations associated with the Bible’s “sufficiency” are often allowed to do the conceptual work and stipulate the practical applications of it. In discussions about modern scientific theories, for instance, modern Protestants as a whole still labor under the disastrous rhetorical and intellectual after-effects of the Scopes Trial of 1925. There, as our popular culture has it, the Bible met Science in open conflict and went down in flames. Today’s “Bible only” advocates of the “sufficiency” of Scripture thus often readily reject appeals to Science in favor of “what the Bible plainly says” – a phrase which, more often than not, turns out to be a synonym for “what my untrained and unsophisticated mind thinks of as ‘the face value’ when it reads simple black-and-white words on a page.”

Third, the sense that most modern Protestants have of being culturally marginal, of being “underdogs for Truth,” of being always only a few steps away from being radically persecuted by “Them,”[2] readily creates an intellectual laziness and sloppiness toward complicated issues of human experience. For almost a century we have retreated from serious engagement with our culture in terms of mastering “Western culture” before trying to figure out how to present the Gospel in its context.[3] Uninterested in “worldly” things, we have over the last century or so simply surrendered the cultural ground to the unbelievers – whose increasing cultural influence we paradoxically then claim to despise, since it presides over the sad demise of the West.

Since we are as a general rule profoundly uneducated in the basic history and substance of our own culture, we find ourselves ill-equipped to deal with that culture.[4] The Bible, by contrast, is something we feel we have mastered. Grasping its message is so much simpler than getting grounded in philosophy, literature, political theory, art, original languages, and the rest of the traditional Liberal Arts curriculum. We don’t understand Plato and Aristotle and Cicero and Augustine and Boethius and Aquinas and Calvin (really, we don’t want to understand them), but we do understand the Bible.

For us, then, it is so much easier to go flipping through the pages of the Bible for answers whenever we have a question. What gets lost in our Bible page-flipping is, unfortunately, a due consideration of the logic about the relationship of sufficiency to different ends. Some ways that this works out in real life:

We don’t ask whether the Bible was given for the end of telling us all truth. We just assume that the Bible is a self-contained manual of epistemology, and expend all our cultural energy trying to develop a stark antithesis between “what the Bible says” and what “They” (the unbelievers) say.

We don’t ask whether the Bible was given for the end of grounding modern scientific inquiry. Many modern Protestants just assume that it was, and use the “sufficiency” of Scripture as a divine underwriting of self-justifying and self-contained scientific research programs. In their haste to oppose the errors that “They” (the unbelievers) are foisting upon us in the name of Science, these Protestants seem to forget that empirical science is always a revisable matter, and that he who marries today’s science – even by way of negative reaction – will be tomorrow’s widower.[5]

We don’t ask whether the Bible was given for the end of spelling out a complete political theory that is universally valid – a political system that is good in any nation, anywhere, at any time. We just assume that is such, and expend all our cultural energy trying to get prayer back into the public schools, the Ten Commandments hung back on the wall of the Supreme Court, and the “autonomy” of the U.S. Code replaced with the “theonomy” of the last three books of Moses.

In these ways and more, the classical Protestant teaching of the “sufficiency” of Scripture has come to be abused in our day. Although the idea is often stated correctly – say, “Scripture is equal to the ends for which it was given” – the specific applications that we often connect with the idea of Scriptural “sufficiency” demonstrate that we do not actually understand our own doctrine.

In the next post, I will provide some specific evidence that this accusation is true.


1. See T. David Gordon (The Insufficiency of Scripture) and J.P. Moreland (How Evangelicals Became Over-Committed to the Bible and What Can Be Done About It). I leave it to the reader to go looking for the “screechy” non-replies, if he or she so wishes.

2. The “Us vs. Them” mentality of modern Protestants is everywhere present, particularly in our political discourse, where we are always complaining about the latest dastardly deeds of the “secular humanists” (or equivalent terms), who are always nefariously attacking our precious faith because they hate Christ and His truth. While there is a measure of truth to this feeling – Jesus did say that if the world hated Him, it would hate us – that truth has been exaggerated into a mentality of suspicious and reactionary hostility toward all that comes from outside our narrow confines.

3. I am here speaking of the loss of the traditional Liberal Arts, the foundations of “Western culture,” in public (and private Christian) education which began to take place early in the 20th century and continued throughout. This curriculum was the foundation of all education in the Western world from the time of the ancient Greeks all the way up to our own intellectually-myopic age. The loss of the Liberal Arts as the basis of public education has had incalculable negative effects on not only unbelieving culture, but on the Christian view of the world as well.

4. A lot of us even fear that culture, for every time we turn around it seems to be generating some new dastardly attack on “Truth.” Sometimes fear is a good thing, helping us to avoid something that genuinely will hurt us. Many other times, though, fear is a crippling reaction that draws us away from our duty to take action against the threat. Our modern Protestant cultural fear is of this latter type.

5. There is a difference between believing the Genesis account of creation (as I do), and dogmatically embracing the various scientific research programs that go under the label “creationism” in popular discourse. Even where biblical exegesis seems very straightforward, empirical science, as an inductive discipline, is nearly always debatable. Many self-described “creationists” fail to grasp the complexities of relating God’s Word to God’s world, and so wrongly tie the infallibility of the former to the fallibility of our investigations of the latter.

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