When I first began in full-time ministry I remember thinking that it would be important for me to spend significant time studying apologetics, especially the defense of the Bible. This was an unexpected blessing in so many ways. The most substantial blessing was that my faith was strengthened to cling to the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Of course, I found myself more equipped to defend the Bible against those who sought to undermine its authority. While I enjoyed many evangelistic opportunities, I was not, after all, primarily an apologist. I was a pastor in a local church.
As I reflect over the last 10 years it is striking that most of my defense of the Bible does not have to do with its truthfulness but its sufficiency. And further, the context for these discussions has been among professing Christians. Does this surprise you? The more I talk with other pastors the more I find this to be true: the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is under attack both explicitly and implicitly.
The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture simply means that the Bible is enough. The Scriptures contain “all of the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting him perfectly, and for obeying him perfectly.” (Systematic Theology, Grudem,) p. 127. You can see this doctrine taught in passages like 2 Tim. 3:16-17 and Psalm 19:7ff.
Most evangelicals don’t often have issues with the first of these 3 spheres that Grudem lays out. Salvation is revealed to us “outside in” not “inside out”. We hear, understand, and believe the gospel—that external word. However it is the other two that become more difficult to nail down.
Here are 3 common attacks upon the sufficiency of Scripture over the years.
The dangerously deceitful but nevertheless authoritative “Lord Feeling.” Let’s say that someone wants to do something—even something good like be a pastor—and they encounter objections from members of the congregation. What do they do? Well, they have to evaluate the objections. Should one listen to those who know him best? Should they evaluate his character and gifting of ministry? Yes, it would seem so. There must be some evaluation of a man’s character and gifting for ministry (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1). But let’s say that the perspective pastor does not like the answer he is given so he packs up and moves down the road to another church to pursue the ministry. Instead of feeling like submitting to the biblical authority he submits to “Lord feeling”. He feels like doing something else. What does this say about his view of the sufficiency of Scripture? It would seem to indicate that he is not fully on board with this doctrine.
“Yeah, I’ve decided not to do that.” Let’s say that someone has conflict with another church member; they are sideways with one another, as is apt to happen in a context where there are a bunch of sinners. Upon discussion with Joan, Sally opens up and says that she really has something against Barbara. Joan asks if it is sin and suggest that Sally go an talk to Barbara. In response Sally says that she does not want to go and talk with her and instead decides to distance herself and eventually leave the church. Even when pressed with what the Bible says, the professing Christian decides to do what she wants to do instead of what the Bible says. Instead of trusting and obeying God and his word she submits to her own word. I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “It’s not the unclear passages in the Bible that give me such a problem, it’s the clear.” The sufficiency of scripture teaches us that we are a people under authority. We don’t make the laws but obey them.
The unmeasurable and devastating emotional blackmail. Have you ever been guilty of this? I know that I’ve been on both sides of this. It goes like this: we think that people are not loving enough or gracious enough or kind enough. We say things like, “I am not feeling loved, appreciated, or valued.” These words weigh a lot because there is pain and there is a propensity to sin. In other words, we often hurt others and feel hurt ourselves. However, we need to be very careful that we are not elevating a subjective standard that is far beyond anything that Scripture gives us. John Piper makes this distinction, “Not feeling loved and not being loved are not the same. Jesus loved all people well. And many did not like the way he loved them.” We have to be very careful that the Bible is the standard and not some extra biblical, undefinable, subjective standard. Calling it “emotional blackmail” Piper goes on to say,
Emotional blackmail happens when a person equates his or her emotional pain with another person’s failure to love. They aren’t the same. A person may love well and the beloved still feel hurt, and use the hurt to blackmail the lover into admitting guilt he or she does not have. Emotional blackmail says, ‘If I feel hurt by you, you are guilty.’ There is no defense. The hurt person has become God. His emotion has become judge and jury. Truth does not matter. All that matters is the sovereign suffering of the aggrieved. It is above question. This emotional device is a great evil. I have seen it often in my three decades of ministry and I am eager to defend people who are being wrongly indicted by it.
How does this undermine the sufficiency of Scripture? It does so because the Bible gives us the basis for interpreting what loving behavior actually is. There is fruit that corresponds with love. And sometimes it doesn’t make us feel very good.
These are just three ways in which the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture are commonly attacked in churches. We could go on to talk about biblical decision-making vs. evangelical mysticism; fasting from the Bible; ignoring the community of the word; and countless other examples.
The bottom line is that while we may often say that the Bible is sufficient we far too often shelf sola scriptura for what I labeled sola experienca. Sola experienca does not promise to sanctify anyone–in fact it only stirs up division. When we trade out sola scriptura for sola experienca we not only lose the power to sanctify but the essence of what it means to live as a Christian. On the other hand, the Christian worldview drives us to an external word—not only for conversion but also sanctification. This external word is the Bible. It is remains as sufficient as it is authoritative.