As far back as the late medieval period, men such as John Wycliffe (c. 1329–1384) and Jan Hus (1373–1415) called the church of their day 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 Christian's 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 (2 Tim. 3:16–17). As the Word of God, the Scripture is pure truth without any assertions of error (Prov. 30:5). Thus, Luther said, quoting Augustine, “I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant” (What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed. Ewald M. Plass [St. Louis: Concordia, 1959], 1:87).
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 (1 Thess. 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 (Ps. 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 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 of interpretation, therefore, belongs to the entire community of Christians, not just to Peter and his reputed successors in Rome. While tradition aids interpretation, the true, spiritual meaning of Scripture is its natural, literal sense, not an allegorical one, unless the particular Scripture passage being studied is clearly allegorical in nature.
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 (Rom. 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 Gospel, or contained in the epistles or Acts of the Apostles... let this divine and holy tradition be observed.” Cyprian argued, “What obstinacy is that, or what presumption, to prefer human tradition to divine ordinance, and not to observe that God is indignant and angry as often as human tradition relaxes and passes by the divine precepts.” Cyprian warned, “Custom without truth is the antiquity of error” (Epistle 73.2–3, 9).
The Reformation brought a renewed emphasis upon the Bible’s sufficiency as special revelation in opposition to Roman Catholic claims to supplement the Bible with additional revelation passed down in tradition. Calvin said, “All our wisdom is contained in the Scriptures, and neither ought we to learn, nor teachers to draw their instructions, from any other source” (Commentary on 2 Tim. 4:1). The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.6) offers a helpful summary of the doctrine: “The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men.”
The sufficiency of Scripture is, however, limited to the Bible’s purpose in revealing truth for our salvation, faith, and obedience (Ps. 19:7–11; John 20:31). The doctrine does not assert that the Bible is sufficient to guide all human activities in every respect, except in the most general way. The Bible does not claim to be a comprehensive encyclopedia of everything. Instead, it gives us “the words of the wise” so “that thy trust may be in the Lord” (Prov. 22:17, 19). The Holy Scriptures “are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). It is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (v. 16). Other matters must be governed by “the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed,” such as “Whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
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 rejected, but welcomed as a means that the Holy Spirit has provided in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11–13). However, they are subordinated to the Bible in such a way that they have authority to direct our faith and obedience only insofar as they faithfully reproduce and apply the teachings of Scripture. The principle of Scripture alone, rightly understood, does not mean the church of any given time or place operates by the Bible alone without reference to the traditions of the church through the ages. Rather, the sola of sola Scriptura means that the Bible alone is the fountain and touchstone for all authoritative teaching and tradition. This point especially needs to be emphasized in an ahistoric contemporary culture that emphasizes radical individualism and personal liberty. As Peter warns, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20).
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 divine 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 an help in both” (21.4).
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 (1 Thess. 1:5). The Westminster 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; 1 Cor. 2:9–12).” However, this does not reduce the Bible to a dead letter. The Word and the Spirit are inseparable (Isa. 59:21; John 6:63), for the Spirit directed the writing of the Bible Word (2 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; Eph. 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 20:30; 21:25). God revealed some things to the apostles that He forbade them to report to the church (2 Cor. 12:4; Rev. 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 any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures” (art. 7). All our activities, though serving many legitimate earthly purposes, should be done for God’s pleasure, but the public worship of the church is performed in God’s special presence for His pleasure as the sacrifices of His royal priesthood offered in His living temple (1 Peter 2:4–5, 9). Therefore, in the worship and witness of the church as the church of God, the sufficiency of Scripture implies and confirms the regulative principle: we must worship as God has commanded, not according to human ideas of worship, neither adding nor subtracting from His Word (Deut. 12:30–32).
This is not to say, however, that we must have biblical warrant for every incidental detail of our worship. The Westminster 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 (1 Cor. 11:13–14; 14:26, 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 (Deut. 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 (Deut. 4:6–8). The Bible closes with a warning not to add to or take away from the book (Rev. 22:18–19; cf. Prov. 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 fall, and His spoken word was sufficient to bring our first parents to repentance and faith in the coming Savior. God added to His word progressively over time through His servants the prophets, but forbade men to add or subtract anything according to their own ideas. Through Moses, God initiated the writing or “inscripturation” of His word, He Himself writing the ten commandments on tablets of stone. At every point in redemptive history, the word of God, spoken or written, was sufficient for His people’s needs at that time. With the apostles and New Testament prophets, God completed His special revelation. Today the Bible is the only Word of God that the church possesses.
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 (Isa. 8:20). Tradition cannot be added to the Bible as a distinct source or repository of divine revelation. Isaiah, the Lord Jesus, and the apostle Paul all unite to warn against doctrine or practice based merely on “the precept of men,” “the tradition of men,” or “the commandments and doctrines of men” (Isa. 29:13; Mark 7:6; Col. 2:22).
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 shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee” (Mic. 6:8a). The Bible is sufficient for evangelical 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 (Heb. 1:1–2).
Christ performed this work of revelation during His earthly life, and brought it to fulfillment in the ministry of the Spirit through His apostles. The Lord Jesus said to them that the Comforter “shall teach you all things” (John 14:26). Christ promised the Spirit would “shew you things to come” (John 16:13). The “all things” and “all truth” in view is certainly not all possible knowledge about everything, but consists of the full revelation of the Father’s will for our redemption, accomplished in Christ (vv. 14–15). These promises, originally given to the apostles, pertain especially to the apostolic ministry of the Word that was distilled in the New Testament writings. They do not give warrant for new revelations that add to the Bible, for the Spirit “shall not speak of himself,” or go beyond Christ, but, Christ said, “he shall glorify me,” and “shall take of mine, and shall shew it unto you” (vv. 13–15). Therefore, in the apostolic documents of the New Testament, together with the Old Testament, we have the “all things” and “all truth” which God has willed to reveal in Christ, for our time and for all time to come.
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 God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:15–16). Even when taught to children, the Bible is “able” to lead them to wisdom and salvation. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, the Bible is also sufficient for the church and its ministries. A “man of God” in biblical parlance is God’s prophet (Deut. 33:1; 1 Kings 13:1–10; 17:24), but here, a preacher of the Word (2 Tim. 4:2; cf. 1 Tim. 6:11). Paul said that God’s servant is fully equipped for “all good works,” the whole ministry required of him by God, because the Bible is “profitable” or useful for all those works. We find the same Greek phrase here translated “all good works” (pan ergon agathon) a little earlier in this epistle: “If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work” (2 Tim. 2:21). Just as a holy life qualifies a man morally for ministry, so the Bible qualifies him with the full revelation of truth needed to feed the flock of God. This is all the more striking when we remember that Timothy had listened to Paul’s preaching for years (2 Tim. 2:2; 3:10), but when Paul neared death, he did not tell Timothy to rely primarily upon his memories of Paul’s words, but to rely on the Holy Scriptures. Having the written Word is even better than fallible memories of an apostle’s teaching, even if you heard an apostle with your own ears. Peter bids his readers take heed to the written Word of God because, as “the word of prophecy,” it is “more sure” than his own testimony as an eyewitness of Christ’s transfiguration in the mount (2 Pet. 1:16–21). Thus Paul proceeded to tell Timothy, “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2).