The Sufficiency and Insufficiency of Scripture

There are certain situations and aspects of our earthly lives about which we may find general principles in the Bible, but require general revelation and wisdom, as well.

At the same time, this paragraph also speaks to the insufficiency of Scripture, that there are some circumstances which are to be ordered by the light of nature (general revelation), Christian prudence (wisdom), and the general rules of the word of God (special revelation). “The insufficiency of Scripture” may sound like a dangerous phrase, but all that is meant by that is simply what the confession teaches at this point: that there are certain situations and aspects of our earthly lives about which we may find general principles in the Bible, but require general revelation and wisdom, as well.

 

Our present adult Sunday school class is called “The Word of God Written” (a phrase borrowed from the Westminster Confession of Faith denoting an alternative name for “Holy Scripture” – WCF 1:2).

Over the past two weeks, we have been introducing this very important topic by studying the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith entitled “Of the Holy Scripture.” Audio recordings and copies of the handouts from this Sunday school series are available online.

General and Special Revelation

The Westminster Confession of Faith begins teaching and summarizing the doctrines taught in Scripture, by first establishing the doctrine of the Scripture itself:

WCF 1:1   Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation: therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God’s revealing His will unto His people being now ceased.

 

According to this opening paragraph of the confession, there are two kinds of revelation which we receive from God: general and special: “the light of nature” (general revelation) and “the Holy Scripture” (special revelation). And, in keeping with the teaching of Scripture (especially in places like the first two chapters of Romans), the Westminster Confession reminds us that one of these is insufficient to the knowledge of God and of His will which is necessary for salvation, but the other is sufficient for such knowledge.

That is to say, God reveals certain things about Himself (His goodness, wisdom, and power) through general revelation – in creation and providence – but this revelation is only enough to leave men condemned and without excuse. And, special revelation – Holy Scripture – is most necessary to obtain the knowledge of God and His will in order to obtain salvation. This is what we mean when we speak of “the sufficiency of Scripture.” General revelation is “not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation,” but Scripture is (WCF 1:1).

The Sufficiency of Scripture

The Westminster Confession elaborates on this point concerning the sufficiency of Scripture a bit later in the same chapter:

WCF 1:6  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: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the word; and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.

 

This paragraph speaks to the sufficiency of Scripture as containing all things necessary for God’s own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life. And, this paragraph speaks of the necessity of the inward illumination of the Spirit of God in order for a person to understand what is revealed in the Word of God.

The Sufficiency and Insufficiency of Scripture

At the same time, this paragraph also speaks to the insufficiency of Scripture, that there are some circumstances which are to be ordered by the light of nature (general revelation), Christian prudence (wisdom), and the general rules of the word of God (special revelation). “The insufficiency of Scripture” may sound like a dangerous phrase, but all that is meant by that is simply what the confession teaches at this point: that there are certain situations and aspects of our earthly lives about which we may find general principles in the Bible, but require general revelation and wisdom, as well.

Conclusion

We had a stimulating discussion in our Sunday school class about the sufficient and insufficient nature of Scripture, what it all means, and how this understanding is helpful for our daily lives. For further reading on this topic, I recommend two complementary articles. The first is written by Carl Trueman and is entitled, “The Sufficiency of Scripture” (you may find it online here). The second is by T. David Gordon and is entitled, “The Insufficiency of Scripture” (you may download the article here (this hyperlink opens to a downloadable online Word document)).

It may seem odd to say that these two articles with opposite titles are complementary, but they are. They both address the sufficiency and insufficiency of Scripture, what that means, and why it’s important to understand these things.

I’m looking forward to this adult Sunday school class on “The Word of God Written” as we learn not only why the Scripture is sufficient (and necessary) for salvation, but also a bit of the history of how we got the Bible and why we may trust it.

Peter M. Dietsch is pastor of Providence PCA in Midland, Texas. This article first appeared on his church website and is used with permission.