The Sufficiency of Scripture

©David Peterson (2009)

1. Scriptural sufficiency in a postmodern world

Protestant Christians have traditionally affirmed four things about the Bible:

a. inspiration,

b. infallibility,

c. supreme authority

d. sufficiency for bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

But over the last two centuries there has been a progressive decline in such beliefs.

First there was the problem of what is now called modernism.  This was a movement that attempted to subject the great bulk of Western intellectual and religious traditions to ‘the canons of scientific reason’.  This prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries and led to the undermining of scriptural authority by various methods of historical and literary criticism. Many contemporary theological books reflect this viewpoint.

Postmodernism is a term that is used to describe a new way of thinking that has radicalized that whole approach.  This late-20th century development challenges the supremacy of scientific reason and speaks of many ‘truths’ – many ways of understanding the world and interpreting the Bible.  In a sense, all views are now acceptable, and every interpretation is valid.  ‘The Truth’ increasingly means ‘what is right for me’.

In such a context, how can we talk about the sufficiency of Scripture for knowing the character and will of God?  How can we know which interpretation is right?  How can we respond to people who say they believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture yet interpret it very differently?

Throughout church history, some have focussed on the need for tradition to supplement, or even interpret Scripture.  Many have emphasised the need for reason to modify and reapply what Scripture teaches.  Some have taken experience as a source of new revelation or have allowed it to influence the way they interpret the Bible.  Postmodernism suggests that each and every one of these approaches is valid.

But we cannot be satisfied with such solutions, because of what the Bible teaches about itself (see The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture), and because of what the formularies and confessions of historic Protestantism teach about the character of the Bible and the way it is to be used in Christian ministry.

2. The sufficiency of Scripture according to 2 Timothy 3:15-17

A.         Sufficient for salvation

Paul reminds Timothy:

how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15-17 NIV)

The claim that the Old Testament can make you ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ is consistent with the teaching of Jesus himself (e.g. Lk. 24:27, 44-9; Jn. 5:39-40).  It is also consistent with the pattern of preaching recorded in the early chapters of Acts.  Paul himself explains the gospel with constant reference to the Old Testament and its promises.

The writings of both Testaments converge on the figure of Jesus and on the revelation of God as Trinity, which comes to us through him.  When we meet God through the Scriptures, their authority is confirmed for us experientially, in a direct and personal way.

More specifically, Scripture as a whole provides a wisdom about salvation that is contrary to ordinary human thinking about religion.  It shows us why we all need salvation and insists that God is the only one who can provide it.  Salvation is not possible by doing good works or by being religious, as most people imagine, but only through faith in Christ and what he has accomplished for us.

The sacred writings that form the canon of our Bible are sufficient for salvation since they enable us to know Christ as the only Saviour and Lord of all and make it possible for us to turn to him in repentance and faith.

This means that the Bible should play an essential part in all genuine evangelism, whether we offer people portions of Scripture to read for themselves or we teach it to them publicly or one to one.  Especially the Gospels are a good way of introducing people to the living Lord Jesus!

Not every part of the Bible will be as clear and useful for evangelism as some others.  But however we convey biblical teaching to unbelievers, we may be assured that the holy Scriptures are sufficient to make them ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’.

We may need to answer various questions and seek to persuade them.  We will certainly need to pray for the Holy Spirit to give them understanding and to soften their hearts.  But we can be confident in the sufficiency of the Scriptures to convert people. Indeed, we must beware of downplaying the Scriptures in our evangelistic efforts, giving the impression that we have little trust in the effectiveness of God’s word to convict and change people, whether young or old.

At the same time, we must avoid thinking that we have to prove the inspiration and authority of Scripture as a preliminary to effective evangelism.  Our aim should simply be to introduce people to the Lord Jesus in and through the Scriptures.  Of course, there will come a time when the character of biblical inspiration and authority is questioned.  Paul gives some guidance in the very next verse about the way we can respond.

B.         Sufficient for Christian life and ministry

The character of Scripture as ‘God-breathed’ makes it ‘useful’ and thoroughly effective for a range of things beyond salvation through faith in Christ: it is useful ‘for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’

Scripture provides sound doctrine and convicts heresy.  It also corrects improper behaviour and educates positively in righteousness.  It will therefore fully equip Timothy as ‘the man of God’ for the work that has been given to him.  In the Pastoral Epistles, ‘man of God’ appears to be a technical term for Timothy as a Christian leader (cf. 1 Tim. 6:11).

2 Timothy 3:17 actually indicates that the ultimate purpose of Scripture’s inspiration is to provide knowledge and direction for Christian ministry. So Scripture is sufficient for Timothy’s work as an evangelist, as a corrector of false teaching and as an enabler of Christian growth.  The usefulness of Scripture flows out of its inspiration.

But the expression ‘thoroughly equipped’ implies sufficiency, not just usefulness.  Nothing else is needed to make Timothy effective in his ministry.  By implication, nothing else will be necessary for the believers to whom he ministers.

In contemporary terms, this must mean that the Bible will play an essential part in all genuine Christian ministry.  It will be the basis and reference point for all doctrinal and ethical debates.  It will be the means of refuting error.  It will be the essential tool for equipping the saints for the work of ministry and for promoting Christian maturity (cf. Eph. 4:11-16).

It will be the inspiration for God-honouring prayer and praise, determining what we do when we meet together.  It will guide the counsellor, the church planter and the denominational leader who wants to glorify God and promote his agenda in the churches.  It will be at the centre of theological education, not just one subject amongst many, but determining the way other subjects are taught and ministers are prepared for their task.  We would promote a godly revolution in our churches if we took 2 Timothy 3:15-17 seriously!

3. The sufficiency of Scripture according to Hebrews

When we affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, we must include in our thinking the idea that God has fully and finally spoken to us through his Son.  This is precisely the way the writer of Hebrews puts it:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son (Heb. 1:1-2 NRSV)

So the sufficiency of Scripture is linked to who Jesus Christ is as the ultimate revelation of God and his will.  Even though someone may come later and claim to be a prophet like Mohammed, what he says cannot be believed if it contradicts what was revealed by the Son of God himself.

The sufficiency of Scripture is also linked to the fact that we are living in ‘the last days’ before Christ returns.  This means that God has given us all we need to know to be faithful until the end of history.

Hebrews 2:3 goes on to warn that we cannot escape God’s judgement if we neglect the message of salvation which was ‘declared at first through the Lord’ and ‘attested to us by those who heard him’.  It is clear from this verse that the final revelation given through the Son is mediated by his chosen witnesses.

Here we have the beginning of the concept of a New Testament.  Those who were divinely authorized to explain the significance of the Christ event, eventually put their witness into a written form.

Hebrews has a strong theology of God continuing to speak to his people under the New Covenant through the prophetic Scriptures.  They have been fulfilled in Christ, who has brought every promise and provision of God to perfection (e.g. Psalm 8 in Heb. 2:5-9).

The writer feels compelled to draw out the meaning of what Christ has done and to warn and encourage his readers on this basis.  But the whole focus of the book is on responding to what God has already said and done in Christ, not on new revelations (e.g. Psalm 95 in Hebrews 3-4).

4. The Sufficiency of Scripture in Protestant Confessions

A. Anglican

The Thirty-nine Articles

Article 6 echoes 2 Timothy 3:15 in declaring the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for salvation:

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary for salvation.

This was a fundamental principle of the Reformation in 16th century Europe, because the Church had taught and practised the view that Scripture was not sufficient, but had to be supplemented and interpreted by the traditions which the Church possessed and preserved (e.g. Purgatory, the transformation of the bread and the wine in the Mass into the body and blood of Christ).

This principle of Scriptural sufficiency was designed to deliver God’s people from spiritual tyranny, setting them free from the necessity to believe in anything that could not be established from Scripture.[1]

Anglican churches were established all over the world on the basis of this teaching.  But now some Anglican leaders are saying it no longer applies.  We can only be united by accepting our differences of opinion!

The Anglican ordination vow

The Book of Common Prayer service for the ordination of priests asks this of the candidate:

Are you persuaded that the holy Scriptures contain sufficiently all Doctrine required of necessity for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ?  And are you determined out of the said Scriptures to instruct the people committed to your charge, and to teach nothing, as required of necessity to eternal salvation, but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture?

This ordinal formed the basis for ordination services around the world and is meant to unite Anglicans in the plain teaching of the Bible.

Scripture the supreme authority in every area

You will sometimes hear it said that the Prayer Book articles and ordinal only bind Anglicans to believe in the sufficiency of Scripture for salvation.  By implication, many secondary issues are excluded.  However, it is important to notice the extent to which Scripture is the supreme authority in regard to other matters, in at least eighteen of the articles.

The three creeds are to be received and believed ‘because they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture’.  The doctrine of the Church is also tested by and made subject to the word of God.  Certain doctrines are condemned because they are contrary to Holy Scripture.  The doctrine of the sacraments and questions of church order and discipline are formulated on the basis of Scripture.  Even questions about the relations of Church and State are discussed in the light of Scripture.

If we are to be faithful to the doctrinal standard and practice of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal, we should be constantly re-assessing and reforming ourselves in the light of holy Scripture.  It is the historic Anglican way of doing theology to make Scripture the final court of appeal in every matter.

Scripture’s sufficiency for salvation has to do with doctrinal and ethical matters.  The exposition and application of Scripture in the local church should therefore be the outstanding characteristic of contemporary Anglican ministry.

B. Free Church

The Westminster Confession

The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. (1.4)

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (1.7)

C. Conclusion

The infallibility, authority and sufficiency of Scripture is related to the character of our God – his trustworthiness, sovereignty and wisdom.

Scripture is not intended to provide knowledge about every field of study or interest, but only the knowledge that God wants us to have for our salvation, growth to maturity in Christ and effectiveness in ministry to one another and to an unbelieving world.  The sufficiency of Scripture lies in its ability to do just that.

5. Scriptural sufficiency applied

I mentioned previously that there are broadly three ways in which the sufficiency of Scripture has been challenged – in connection with tradition, reason and experience.  I want to examine these in turn, but first to say a little more about the sufficiency of Scripture to make us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ (2 Tim. 3:15).

A. Salvation and the uniqueness of Christ

This has tremendous relevance for one of the most fundamental debates going on amongst professing Christians today: is Jesus Christ the only way to eternal salvation?

Salvation through any sincerely held belief?

Postmodernism has revitalised the age-old question about truth in other religions and about the genuineness of any sincerely held belief.  Religious tensions in the world today make some Christians insist that we stop talking about the uniqueness of Christ and abandon any attempts to evangelise people of other faiths.

Sometimes the biblical teaching about Christ as the only way is totally dismissed.  Sometimes it is modified so that genuine believers in other religions are said to have ‘implicit faith’ in Christ, even though they do not acknowledge him.  Sometimes special exemptions are argued by liberal scholars (e.g. faithful Jews and Muslims are treated as being saved because they are ‘children of Abraham’).

Much could be said about this issue.  I simply want to remind you that our claim about the sufficiency of Scripture will really put us to the test on this point.  Here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, we may be tempted to give into the spirit of the age.

Acts 4:12 in context

Key texts in any debate must be carefully explained in their contexts.  Take Acts 4:12 as an example:

There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. (NRSV).

This is directed to the rulers and elders of Israel, who had seen the Lord Jesus and heard him teach.  They had witnessed the healing of the crippled man in Christ’s name, but were seeking to prevent Peter and John from preaching him to the people.

There are no exceptions to this claim, even for the audience of Jews on the Day of Pentecost.  All must repent and be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38-9).

Indeed, salvation in ‘the name’ of Christ implies a knowledge of the significance of his name and actually calling upon him as Lord and Christ for the salvation proclaimed (cf. Acts 2:21, 36).  There is no possibility that a vague faith in God will do.  Now that Christ has come, we must identify him as the only saviour

B. Doctrine, Scripture and tradition

Traditions evaluated by Scripture

The issue of tradition as a supplement to Scripture or even as a key to the interpretation of Scripture was at the heart of the Reformation in the sixteenth century.  The Reformers did not abandon every tradition, but maintained some because they were seen to be consistent with Scripture.

In the case of Anglicans, these included the practice of infant baptism, and episcopal government.  But they argued that even well-established traditions must be constantly re-evaluated in the light of Scripture.

So, for example, the way we practice the Lord’s Supper needs to be reviewed continually in the light of Scripture, and the way in which episcopacy is exercised in many contexts needs to be reformed in the light of Scripture.    We must be careful about reading Scripture in the light of our Anglican tradition or allowing our tradition as it has developed to have ultimate authority.

The Church as ‘a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ’

When the Reformers taught that Scripture is supreme over the Church, they meant that every belief and practice should be evaluated in the light of Scripture.

Articles 20 of the Anglican Articles states that the Church is ‘a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ’.  This does not mean, as some have argued, that the Church has the authority to read the Bible in a new way for a new generation, since the Church ‘gave birth’ to the Scriptures.  The Church itself was born through the preaching and teaching of the apostles, which was based on what we call the Old Testament.

Apostolic teaching was soon written down and recognised as New Testament Scripture.  Apostolic writings were regarded as inspired by God and authoritative. The public reading of Scripture, as the basis for teaching and exhortation in the churches (1 Tim. 4:13), came to include the documents we now know as the New Testament (e.g. Col. 4:16). Obedience to apostolic instructions became a measure of true discipleship (e.g. 2 Thes. 3:14-15).

When church traditions were given an equal status or allowed to determine the way Scripture was interpreted, errors and divisions emerged amongst believers.

Nothing contrary to ‘God’s word written’

Article 20 insists that:

The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith; and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture that it be regugnant to another.

You will recognise the importance of this principle in debates that we are having at the moment, for example about homosexuality.  It is ‘God’s word written’, in all its complexity and with all its perspectives, that must be properly evaluated.

A passage like Romans 1 cannot be taken to speak with a different voice from the Bible’s teaching about homosexuality elsewhere, as if the Bible contained many theologies and conflicting ethical judgements on this subject.  I will have more to say about this shortly.

In this connection, the Westminster Confession affirms that:

The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly. (1.9)

The fallibility of church councils

Human attempts to explain and apply the Bible’s teaching will always be fallible.  Article 21 states that even General Councils of the Church may err because not all the participants ‘be governed with the Spirit and Word of God’.

Nevertheless, the challenge to any synod or committee must always be to gain a holistic view of Scripture on any topic and ultimately to sit under its authority, no matter how difficult that may be in the current climate.

So if we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, this does not mean that we can do without creeds or councils or liturgies or traditions.  It does mean that Scripture is supreme and that we are called in each generation to re-examine and re-apply its teaching with honesty and humility, being willing to live by it ourselves and calling others to do the same.

C. Reason, Scripture and Ethics

Using our minds

Human reason has an important part to play in the process of interpretation and application.  God wants us to use our minds to ‘understand what the will of the Lord is’ (Eph. 5:17).  He wants us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, ‘so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Romans 12:2).  So theology is a rational discipline.

However, faith goes beyond reason, and has ‘access to truths and insights of revelation, which reason could not hope to fathom or discover unaided.  Reason has the role of building upon what is known by revelation, exploring what its implications might be.’[2]

The problem comes when human reason is allowed to be the supreme authority and sit in judgement on Scripture.  This has been the dominant approach since the so-called Enlightenment Era of the 18th century, particularly when scientific research appears to contradict Scripture.

For example, in ethical matters, such as the homosexuality debate, we are often told that medical and psychological evidence should lead us to reassess or move on from scriptural teaching.  But even if we could be sure about why homosexual behaviour develops, does this change the fact that Scripture says it is against the will of God?

Yielding to divine revelation

Revelation does not dishonour reason, but honours it by appealing to it with evidence, for to the spiritual, enlightened mind the Scriptures make a constant appeal.’[3] However, when the evidence has been examined, reason must yield to the superior authority of divine revelation.

This applies as much to the New Testament testimony about the resurrection of Jesus as it does to the teaching about eternal judgement and Jesus being the only way of salvation.

Sometimes, those who submit to revelation on these key issues still have problems submitting in other areas – particularly with respect to the Bible’s moral and social teaching.  They want to be compassionate towards those who think differently (they are sensitive to the culture) and they want to incorporate everyone into the Church (they don’t want people to be excluded on moral and social grounds).

But the holiness of God demands that we take his standards seriously.  We are not free to change what God teaches and we must call everyone to repentance in the light of his self-revelation as the Holy One.

On issues such as euthanasia, we are told that the Bible has little to say and that we should make up our minds on the basis of contemporary evidence and argument.  The apparent sophistication of our age makes people dismissive of biblical teaching on ‘modern problems’.

But in all such matters, we must search the Scriptures for specific insight and for a general framework to inform our thinking.  Only then will we be able to evaluate current perspectives effectively.

Dealing with a variety of scriptural interpretations

Postmodernism has encouraged interpreters to believe that a variety of scriptural interpretations on a given topic is possible.  God does not speak with one voice in Scripture and the perspectives and insights of individual commentators elicit a breadth of meaning for current application.

So, for example, Walter Bruegemann, the Old Testament scholar has said:

The great new fact of interpretation is that we live in our pluralistic context, in which many different interpreters, in many different specific contexts representing many different interests, are at work on textual (theological) interpretation.  The old consensus about limits and possibilities of interpretation no longer holds.

Bruegemann rightly argues that interpretation is no longer done by a small group of scholars in the West, but interpretive voices and their very different readings of the texts come from many cultures in all parts of the globe, and from many sub-cultures even in Western culture.[4]

Insights from various cultures and sub-cultures can open our eyes to new perspectives on Scripture (e.g. liberation theology or feminist theology).  But these insights can be so driven by the concerns of the culture that they distort biblical teaching or focus on only one aspect of a biblical passage or theme.

When Bruegemann goes on to say that ‘consensus about limits and possibilities of interpretation no longer holds’, he is simply giving way to Postmodernism, and abandoning the attempt to read Scripture as an inspired and unified whole.  The implication is that God is not powerful enough to reveal his will in Scripture in a clear and discernible way.  All we can hear are confusing human voices in the different strands of Scripture, reflecting on what the will of God might be.

Quite often, this approach involves an approach to biblical texts that shows little regard for literary or theological context. Brueggemann himself acknowledges that in each of these rival interpretations there is in fact ‘a vested interest, which may be highly visible or hidden.[5]

Does this mean that there are no ways in which we can determine the original intention of the human authors?  Is no interest-free interpretation possible?  Does it mean, then, that God speaks to his people with different voices?  Does he really want the Church to have conflicting views on important matters such as sexual ethics?  Does he want the Bible to be manipulated to endorse varying opinions?  Does the old Reformation belief that the Church may not expound one place of Scripture so that it contradicts another have no significance any more?

God’s character and purpose

Those who are committed to a biblical view of the sufficiency of Scripture cannot rest with the postmodern solution.  As we have already noted, the sufficiency of Scripture is linked to the character and purpose of God in communicating with us.

He does not say to his people, ‘Seek me in vain’.  As Isaiah 45:19 declares:

I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’  I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right. (Is. 45:19 NIV)

Those who believe this must give themselves energetically to discover the way different scriptural passages on a given topic can be read together, to reveal the mind of God.

So Biblical Theology is an important discipline for us to recover.  This is the attempt to read the Bible holistically, seeking to discover how the various parts fit into the developing whole.

D. Experience, Scripture and the Holy Spirit

Experience as a resource for theology?

The idea that experience provides a foundational resource for Christian theology emerged very early in church history and has surfaced many times since.  It is an obvious characteristic of the post-modern era.

Some scholars argue that the Bible is merely a collection of human responses to the experiences of Israel and the early Church.  On this view, contemporary experiences may be just as valid as the biblical experiences as a way of knowing God and his will.

However, if there is such a thing as special revelation from God in Scripture, this must provide ‘a framework within which the ambiguities of experience may be interpreted.’[6]

A positive role is given to experience in the thinking of great theologians such as Augustine and Luther.  Yet Luther himself demonstrates how unreliable experience and feelings can be as guides to the presence and purpose of God.

For example, Luther points out that the disciples at the time of the crucifixion must have felt that God had abandoned them.  The Jewish authorities doubtless felt that God had vindicated their opposition to Jesus.  But if they had understood the Scriptures and believed the predictions of Jesus, they would have known what a mighty act of salvation God was accomplishing through those tragic events.

So the immediate experience of the disciples was not a true guide to the will of God.  They had to wait to see how Scripture was being fulfilled in their midst.

An escape from reason and Scripture?

In the nineteenth century, many theologians regarded experienced-based theologies as providing an escape from rationalism, or from difficulties relating to the particular claims of Christian revelation.

We need to be aware that postmodernism encourages many to adopt similar solutions today.  When experience becomes an independent source for our knowledge of God, it challenges, contradicts or ignores the revelation that God has given for all his people throughout time in the canon of Scripture.

At a popular level, this problem surfaces when people seek God’s guidance through feelings, or convictions, or events in their lives.  It surfaces when people make moral judgements on the basis of their experience of another person or situation.

For example, someone at a conference on the biblical teaching about sexuality said to me, ‘I am challenged by what you say, but I cannot condemn someone I know who is living in a homosexual relationship, because he is such a kind and considerate Christian.  I would rather be right with my friend and wrong with the Apostle Paul.’

New revelations by the Spirit?

Bible-believing Christians have been particularly divided over the issue of contemporary prophetic revelations.  Is God really in these phenomena and what is their significance?

Paul expects that God will continue to ‘reveal’ to his people the implications of the gospel for their lives (e.g. Phil. 3:15; Eph. 1:17).  Such a disclosure might come through a prophetic ministry, during a Christian meeting (1 Cor. 14:30), or through quiet reflection on the contents of the apostle’s letters.

This work of the Holy Spirit has traditionally been called illumination, rather than inspiration, because it involves a better understanding of the revelation given to all in Christ, not new revelation in the sense of something unprecedented (cf. 2 Cor. 4:6).

Indeed, Paul makes an important distinction between his prophetic authority as an apostle of Christ and the authority of the prophets ministering in the church at Corinth.  He says:

‘Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.  Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.’ (1 Cor. 14:37-8 NRSV)

The content and style of prophetic ministry in the congregation is to be tested by the definitive, written word of the apostle, which has the status of ‘a command of the Lord’.  Scripture must be supreme in assessing both public and private ‘revelations’.

Just because people claim to be prophets, it does not necessarily mean that they have a true word from the Lord.  Everything said by those claiming to be prophets and teachers today must be tested against the once-for-all revelation of God given for all his people in every age in the Canon of Scripture.

The word ‘canon’ means ‘rule’.  The Canon of Scripture is the collection of books agreed by Christians to be inspired by God in a way that no other books are inspired.  Together they are the rule or standard for understanding the character and will of God. Those who set themselves against this rule reject God’s authority, promote false teaching and divide the Church.


The sufficiency of Scripture is a necessary doctrine because of the Bible’s own teaching in three areas:

1. Teaching about the character of God himself.  God is trustworthy, sovereign and wise.  He is able to communicate clearly and definitively to his people through his human agents and their written words.

2. Teaching about humanity.  We are rebellious and anxious to suppress or distort the truth in our own interests.  Without a sufficient word from God, we are left to our own devices and the inevitable corruption that follows.

3. Teaching about the Church. True Christian unity and faithful witness to Christ can only be found in confessing and living out ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 4; cf. Eph. 4:1-6).  This has been preserved for all generations of believers in the Canon of Scripture.  When the sufficiency of Scripture is doubted or denied, God’s purpose for his Church is impeded (cf. Eph. 4:12-13).

[1] A belief in the sufficiency of Scripture rescues us from the tyranny of human traditions, the sinfulness of human reason and the fallibility of human experiences. This topic is covered in much greater depth by M. D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word: The Clarity of Scripture, New Studies in Biblical Theology 21 (Downers Grove: Intervarsity; Nottingham: Apollos, 2006).

[2] A. McGrath,  Christian Theology: An Introduction (2nd ed., Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 213.

[3] W. H. Griffith Thomas, Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles (5th ed. rev.; London: Church Book Room, 1963), 124.

[4] W. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 61-62.

[5] Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 62.

[6] McGrath,  Christian Theology, 227.


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