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.
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.
- Scripture is not sufficient for anything and everything that it may be called upon to do or describe.
- “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).”
- “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).”
- 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.