As far back as the late medieval period, men such as John Wycliffe (c. 1329–1384) and Jan Hus (1373–1415) called the Church to return to Scripture. When challenged by hostile church officials, Hus answered his opponents, “Show me… better out of the Scriptures, and I will forthwith recant!” Hus’s devotion to Sola Scriptura cost him his life, for it compelled him to attack the principles on which the medieval Church based its authority.
Beginning with Martin Luther (1483–1546) and Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), and continuing in men such as John Calvin (1509–1564) and John Knox (c. 1514–1572), the Reformers developed Hus’s emphasis on Scripture to promote a recovery of the great teachings of the Bible. Sola Scriptura, at its heart, was an assertion of the sufficiency of the Bible for the faith and practice of the Church.
In the Smalcald Articles, Luther wrote, “The Word of God—and no one else, not even an angel—should establish articles of faith” (Part 2, Art. 2, Sec. 15). The Geneva Confession (1536/37) declares in its first article, “For the rule of our faith and religion, we wish to follow the Scripture alone, without mixing with it any other thing which might be fabricated by the interpretation of men apart from the Word of God; and we do not pretend to receive any other doctrine for our spiritual government than that which is taught us by the same Word, without addition or reduction, according to the command of our Lord.”
The principle of Sola Scriptura explains why the Reformers accepted some parts of Roman Catholic teaching, but not others. They believed that Christ, as the only Head, rules His Church by His Word and Spirit. The authority of Scripture is thus absolute—the authority of Christ Himself—not an authority derived from or accorded to it by the Church. Calvin said that Scripture is as authoritative as if we heard God’s “living words” from Heaven with our own ears (Institutes, 1.7.1) and so Christians should be governed by its promises (Institutes, 3.2.6–7) and the Church should be wholly subject to its authority (Institutes, 4.8).
The principle of “Scripture Alone” arises out of the unique properties or attributes of the Bible as the Word of God. Since Scripture is God’s written Word, we cannot pass judgment on Scripture; rather, Scripture passes judgment on us. As God’s Word, the Bible is the only book characterized by infallibility and inerrancy. Every word of every sentence is there by God’s determination (2nd Timothy 3:16-17). As the Word of God, the Scripture is pure truth without any assertions of error (Proverbs 30:5). Thus, Luther said (quoting Augustine), “I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant”.[i]
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Bible has full authority to rule our consciences, for it comes to us resonating with the words, “Thus saith the Lord.” This authority is not dependent upon the testimony of mere men, or the judgment of the Church, but arises from the certainty produced by the Spirit, who bears witness to the Word (1st Thessalonians 1:5). Calvin emphasized the self-authenticating character of the Bible. This teaching holds that the Bible’s witness is confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit in the believer’s heart (Institutes, 1.7.2–5).
As the revelation of the only wise God, the Scripture is not obscure, but perspicuous, meaning that its sense is clear and can be understood (Psalm 119:105). With the Spirit’s illumination to overcome our native blindness, the Bible both authenticates itself and interprets itself. It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the true expositor of the Bible, enabling “not only the learned, but the unlearned” to use Scripture to interpret Scripture and so “attain to a sufficient understanding [of it]” (Westminster Confession, 1.7, 9). The key
The fact that the Bible is the written Word of God, supremely authoritative and self-authenticating, unfailingly true in all that it declares, clear in its doctrines, and made efficacious by the Spirit’s work, implies that the Bible is uniquely sufficient as God’s special revelation to us today. Recovering the Word of God means releasing the power of God (Romans 1:16). As this Word of Power, we can look to Scripture to transform and renew our minds as an instrument of the Spirit of God. That power must be manifested in our lives, our homes, our churches, and our communities.
Biblical Sufficiency Defined
The doctrine of the sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures teaches that “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary” for saving faith and the Christian life is revealed in the Bible. Therefore, the preaching, teaching, and counseling ministries of God’s Church are the ministry of the Word of God. There is no need or warrant to base our doctrine or directives on anything else, even if enshrined in Church tradition. When an early bishop of Rome based an argument on tradition, Cyprian (c. 200–258) responded with this rule: “If, therefore, it is either prescribed in the
The Reformation brought a renewed emphasis upon the Bible’s sufficiency as
The sufficiency of Scripture is, however, limited to the Bible’s purpose in revealing
Biblical Sufficiency Clarified
The Bible’s sufficiency should also not be understood to exclude the use of the Church’s helps, such as her many teachers past and present, and the writings produced by them. These are not to be
Nor is it right to appeal to the decisions of the Church’s synods and councils as if they were as authoritative as Scripture. In Roman Catholicism, much is made of the decrees of the “Ecumenical Councils” of the ancient Church, as though the authority of such assemblies were infallible and absolute. The Westminster Assembly of Divines did not reject the decisions of these bodies outright, but sounded a warning: “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore, they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as
The Bible’s sufficiency as revelation should also be carefully distinguished from its efficacy. The efficacy of the Word of God comes from the present activity of the Holy Spirit working with the Word (1st Thessalonians 1:5). The Westminster Assembly of Divines wisely added the following qualification to the definition cited above: “Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word” (John 6:45; 1st Corinthians 2:9-12). However, this does not reduce the Bible to a dead letter. The Word and the Spirit are inseparable (Isaiah 59:21; John 6:33), for the Spirit directed the writing of the Bible Word (2nd Peter 1:20-21), and the Word is the great instrument of the Spirit for accomplishing His work in us and in the world (John 16:7-11; Ephesians 6:17). We must always remember, however, that the Spirit is sovereignly free, working when and where and how He pleases (John 3:8), as He uses and applies the Word, whether to harden the wicked or draw sinners to Christ.
The sufficiency of the written Word of God does not mean that the Bible contains all special revelation granted throughout redemptive history. Our Lord Jesus Christ did many things that are not written in the Gospels (John 20:20; John 21:25). God revealed some things to the apostles that He forbade them to report to the Church (2nd Corinthians 12:4; Revelation 10:4). However, the Bible does contain all things that God willed to function as the rule of faith and obedience for His people.
Though the sufficiency of Scripture informs all of life with respect to how to please God, it has special relevance for the sacred activity of the Church and its officers. The Belgic Confession says, “Since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for
This is not to say, however, that we must have biblical warrant for every incidental detail of our worship. The Westminster Assembly of Divines again clarified, “There are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed” (1st Corinthians 11:13-14; 1st Corinthians 14:26; 1st Corinthians 14:40). The regulative principle must be nuanced: The Bible is sufficient to direct us in regard to the elements, content, and character of our worship, but provides only general guidance with regard to things merely circumstantial to it.
Biblical Teaching on Scripture’s Sufficiency
Negatively, we find the sufficiency of Scripture asserted in the prohibitions against adding to or taking away from God’s Word (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Word of God, as it exists in each stage of redemptive history, is sufficient to be the wisdom and righteous law of God’s people (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). The Bible closes with a warning not to add to or take away from the book (Revelation 22:18-19; Proverbs 30:5-6).
We recognize that the Word of God as revelation predates the Bible, for God spoke to mankind in the Garden of Eden. His spoken word was prior to His written word. God spoke to Adam, Eve, and the serpent after the
As the written Word of God, the Bible issues an oft-repeated warning against drawing spiritual wisdom from any other source. All claims to know God’s will for us today must be tested by Scripture, as the prophet Isaiah admonished (Isaiah 8:20). Tradition cannot be added to the Bible as a distinct source or repository of divine revelation. The Prophet Isaiah, the Lord Jesus, and the Apostle Paul all unite to warn against doctrine or
Positively, the Bible bears witness to the completeness and finality of its revelation. The Bible is sufficient for moral instruction. Even before the coming of Christ, the prophet could say, “He hath [showed] thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee” (Micah 6:8). The Bible is sufficient for repentance and salvation. When He spoke of the rich man in hell and Lazarus with Abraham in heaven, the Lord Jesus presented the rich man as denying the sufficiency of Scripture. He asked Abraham to send a man back from the dead to warn his brothers, but when Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them,” the man in hell objected, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.” In other words, the rich man claimed that the Bible was not enough; men need to see miracles. The answer of Abraham in Christ’s parable is startling: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:27-31). If God’s Word is rejected, then no miracle will suffice to convince them. How much more is God’s revelation full and complete now that God’s Son has come in the flesh (Hebrews 1:1-2).
Christ performed this work of revelation during His earthly
Paul deduced the sufficiency of Scripture from its nature as a “God-breathed” document. He said to Timothy, “From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of
Paul said that God’s servant is fully equipped for “all good works,” the whole ministry required of him by
[i] What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass [St. Louis: Concordia, 1959], 1:87
Joel R. Beeke (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) has written over one hundred books. He is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as well as the editor of Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, the editorial director of Reformation Heritage Books, the president of Inheritance Publishers, and vice president of the Dutch Reformed Translation Society.