Book Review: Reclaiming the Sufficiency of Scripture, by Rob Rienow
Rob Rienow, Reclaiming the Sufficiency of Scripture. Randall House, 2012. 96 pages. $10.99.
Rob Rienow addresses two serious, common problems in his helpfully brief book, Reclaiming the Sufficiency of Scripture. The first is that too few people and churches believe the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. The second is that too many people and churches say they believe it but fail to practice it.
Rienow’s survey of church history and contemporary practice adequately defines and illustrates both problems. His reminders of the deceptiveness of the human heart demonstrate the folly underlying our assumption that we can improve on biblical truth and methods. His reflections on relevant biblical passages construct a positive alternative that I would love to be able to recommend to pastors and lay leaders.
Unfortunately, I cannot. Though the foundation of Rienow’s work is commendable, its weaknesses are significant enough that the book will either be unpersuasive or create new problems. Rienow’s proposal will create those new problems because it simply doesn’t take into account enough of the biblical data.
Rienow argues that the sufficiency of Scripture means we find in the Bible everything important about everything important (27). “We believe the Bible alone for every matter of faith and life” (23), and “God has spoken in his Word to every important matter of faith and life” (73).
To the contrary, the Bible actually says important things about important things, without saying everything that’s important about those things. In innumerable cases, we still have to figure out how to apply biblical principles to contemporary circumstances that Scripture does not explicitly address. Second Timothy 3:16-17 does not mean that Scripture explicates everything important about everything important. It cannot mean that, because other texts affirm that there are some pretty important things we need to comprehend that we will not find in the biblical text.
For instance, Peter tells us to live with our wives in an understanding way (1 Pet. 3:7). That’s a broad principle. Does it tell me how to live with my wife in an understanding way? No. In short, while living with my wife in an understanding way is surely one of life’s important obligations, what that looks like for me will surely look a bit different from what it looks like for you. As any married man will know, your wife and mine aren’t the same person. Deny that at your own peril. Our doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency needs to be able to account for such distinctions.
Or, to use another example, Scripture doesn’t speak explicitly to embryo adoption, gender reassignment surgery, and polka or anarcho-punk style worship. But surely it defines principles that are sufficient to shape and even direct our response. The biblical principles supply all the inspired revelation we need, even though they do not spell out all the data we need to reach wise conclusions.
At the same time, Scripture includes direct commands that may not directly apply to us, like those related to head coverings and hair length in corporate worship. The vast majority of today’s evangelicals understand that those passages do not apply to our situation in a one-to-one fashion, based on our understanding of today’s cultural symbols. Hebrews 5:14 explains that our powers of discernment need to be trained to distinguish between good and evil. That seems to imply a maturity of wisdom and judgment under the dominion of Scripture, yet a judgment that also takes other sources of knowledge into account.
So while Rienow is right to be concerned when religious leaders fabricate new laws and declare them to be a universal, objective standard of righteousness (33-34), we still have to be able to look at biblical commands and principles and make some judgment as to how they apply in diverse contexts.
It seems that Reinow has expanded the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture to say a bit more than it has meant in church history since the Reformation, and more than Scripture claims for itself. His argument implies that the things Scripture doesn’t specifically address do not matter, which has dangerous implications. A better understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture would need to embrace the uniqueness of Scripture as authoritative divine revelation without insisting that it contains every piece of information we need for spiritual maturity. As John Piper has explained, “The sufficiency of Scripture does not mean that the Scripture is all we need to live obediently. . . . The sufficiency of Scripture means that we don’t need any more special revelation.”
Rienow’s book could be quite useful for a broad range of potential readers if these matters were resolved. I would offer two suggestions. First, consider the implications of the doctrine for more issues than family-integrated ministry, which is where he spends a disproportionate amount of time. Second, supplement the biblical foundation with a few more fine distinctions, and perhaps a chapter on the ways in which Scripture is actually insufficient. With those two adjustments in place, the book might be a valuable resource. As it stands, its argument is just a little too off-target to justify a recommendation.