“God told me” and the Sufficiency of Scripture
I was dumbfounded (a pretty rare occurrence). This fellow had just told me that his supervisor had assigned him the task to make a master-plan for a new church plant, and that when he prayed about it God told him just to use the words of Jesus. Let me be clear. He said that God told him that in his planning for this new church, he was only to consult, reflect upon, quote the words of Jesus.
This fellow was a full-time employee of a Christian organization. He was evidently himself a Christian. Unlike other employees of this organization, he also had a Masters of Divinity. And that from an evangelical seminary. He had been then, we are to assume, carefully trained in the Bible and theology. We should also assume that he had provided credible and helpful leadership to a local church somewhere, if he was now in the very responsible position that he was in. And it was this person who stood there and told me in all sincere piety and simple trust that God told him only to consult the words of Jesus when planning for a new church.
If you’ve ever seen those old Keystone Kops movies where all of these circa-1910 cops with high, rounded hats and billy-clubs come rushing in to a scene in an over-crowded car, get out, rush around, and then all converge on the same point, creating mayhem and humor, you have some idea of what it felt like was going on in my brain as I listened to this friend. Except for the humor. “Jesus only mentioned the church explicitly twice!” I thought. “There are more than 20 other books in the New Testament that were composed as letters to churches to instruct them!” I thought. “How did you get this responsibility?” I thought. “What did they teach you at seminary?” I thought. “How did God tell you?” I thought. “What else has ‘He’ said?” I thought.
There were more. I said nothing, partly out of surprise, partly out of fear of what I might say. After a few more brief questions and rambling answers, I decided to say something simple about how there were other books in the New Testament that Christ’s Spirit had inspired particularly for the direction of churches, and that I hoped he would consider them as well, and then I made a quick exit. I hoped my awkwardness wasn’t evident.
It was exchanges like this one—many of them—over the last few years that has encouraged me to consider afresh the importance of the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. This doctrine was a keystone in the Protestant Reformation. One of the principal disputes between Rome and the Reformers was whether God had promised that He would continue to provide inspired, unerring instruction through Peter and his successors. Rome said that that’s what Jesus taught in Matthew 16. The Reformers denied this, saying that, instead, the Scriptures themselves were sufficient for our instruction, albeit with the Holy Spirit’s illumination of our minds. They taught that the Scriptures would be perspicuous—that is, clear—and sufficient. Matters important to us would be reasonably clear, not obscure. And the Scriptures taken as a whole would suffice for our needs for divine guidance. Many other issues are related, but the one we’re considering is simply that the Scriptures are sufficient.
While evangelical Protestantism as a whole has continued to teach this—flanked by the claimed authority of the Roman church and tradition on the right, and by the subjective claims for the authority of each person’s “inner light” by the Quakers on our left—there has grown up within evangelicalism another thought. More in our piety than in our written theology, there has grown up the idea that God’s Word written must become God’s-Word-to-us-personally by some sort of powerful encounter with it or its meaning. This isn’t conceived of in tomes of divinity, as Neo-Orthodox theologians like Karl Barth developed it, but in simple, regular practice. I think of another friend who attended an evangelical student fellowship, where for two hours the students sang and prayed earnestly and pleadingly that God would speak to them, all the while with their Bibles lying there closed on their seats. This is the problem that “God told me” piety brings for the sufficiency of Scripture. And where we pastors and elders do not understand that Scripture is sufficient, we cannot be surprised if our church members, in sincere search for the truth, wander off to Rome on the one hand, or liberal subjectivism on the other looking for some kind of sufficient authority. Mormons particularly exploit evangelical weakness on this issue of being uninstructed about Scripture’s sufficiency.
This issue is of vital concern to us as pastors, particularly as pastors who realize the centrality of Biblical exposition to our ministry. An understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture is the context in which we assert, maintain and practice the centrality of Scripture in the life of the church.
Twenty years ago, in the midst of the flurry of writing about the inerrancy of Scripture, little was being written about the sufficiency of Scripture. It appeared in writings about the Reformers’ views of Scriptures. So you could read R. C. Sproul’s fine essay, “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism,” in The Foundations of Biblical Authority, ed. James Montgomery Boice (Zondervan, 1978), pp. 101-119. More recently, Wayne Grudem has written a largely fine chapter on the Sufficiency of Scripture in his Systematic Theology. The final few pages are dedicated to practical applications of the doctrine, and in them is much wisdom. He clearly asserts that “when we are facing a problem of genuine importance to our Christian life, we can approach Scripture with the confidence that from it God will provide us with guidance for that problem,” (p. 131).
More recently still, Timothy Ward has written a careful piece considering traditional claims to the sufficiency of Scripture in light of contemporary hermeneutical issues, “The Diversity and Sufficiency of Scripture,” Paul Helm & Carl Trueman, eds., The Trustworthiness of God: Perspectives on the Nature of Scripture (Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 192-218. Don Kistler has edited a more popular volume Sola Scriptura (Soli Deo Gloria, 1995) in which John MacArthur has a clear chapter on “The Sufficiency of the Written Word,” (pp. 151-183). The Banner of Truth has once again served us well by bringing out a whole volume on the topic by Noel Weeks entitled simply The Sufficiency of Scripture (1988). And David King and William Webster have recently collaborated to bring us a three-volume set which defends the thesis that the early church fathers believed and taught that the Scriptures were authoritative and sufficient (Holy Scripture: The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith, 3 vols., (Christian Resources, 2001).
On the 9Marks website, we now offer you another resource, coming at this from the other direction, so to speak. We are looking at this challenge not from formulations of the doctrine of Scripture. (For that vital work, see the books and articles cited above.) We, rather, are considering this issue from the perspective of the average Christian, wondering how they should know God’s will. It’s very often here, in the culture of your congregation that the sufficiency and therefore the centrality of Scripture is first, and most thoroughly, and most disastrously undermined. So, we asked our own Greg Gilbert to review a number of works (there are many more out there) currently published on this question of knowing the will of God. We hope that you find them of some help. Feel free and reprint them in your church newsletter, perhaps in a series. Simply give credit and refer to the 9Marks website address.
If we are going to be committed to centering our shepherding on feeding the sheep and leading them by God’s Word, then we had best be able to consider what it means that the Scriptures are sufficient. We need to know, consider, explain, and teach that the Scriptures are sufficient. I know they are. God told me: “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 Timothy 3:16–17).