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The Sufficiency of Scripture: From Biblical Word-Views to Reformational Worldview
By Kevin J. Vanhoozer
If all truth is God’s truth, as Arthur Holmes was fond of saying, does it follow that all truth is in the Bible, or is it enough that all truth be biblical in the sense of not contradicting what the Bible says? At stake is the sufficiency of Scripture. Protestants agree that the Bible tells us everything we need to know in order to have saving faith and lead a godly life—to be a Christian—but is the Bible alone (sola Scriptura) a sufficient basis for a Christian worldview?
Perhaps the first thing that comes to the mind of twenty-first century men and women is how insufficient Scripture is for such a time as this. For example, the Bible says little or nothing about climate change, systemic racism, or the dozens of genders (and counting) with which people now identify. All three issues are influencing contemporary culture and affecting how many people now view the world.
The second thing that comes to mind when people think of the sufficiency of Scripture is self-sufficiency, which is to say Biblicism—the belief that the Bible stands alone, on its own. Christian Smith deconstructs biblical self-sufficiency by arguing that it is not good for the Bible to be alone (i.e., without interpretive authorities, magisterial or ministerial, that tell us what it means), for “On important matters the Bible apparently is not clear, consistent, and univocal enough to enable the best-intentioned, most highly skilled, believing readers to come to agreement as what it teaches.”
A distinction may help clarify both thoughts. Scripture is materially sufficient because it provides what one needs to know about the gospel in order to respond with saving faith. Scripture is formally sufficient because it provides enough context to serve as its own interpreter. This Reformation claim does not mean that readers can safely ignore catholic tradition or the inner witness of the Spirit, only that the whole of Scripture provides a canonical context for reading each text, and that what is clear in one part helps makes the obscure parts more intelligible.
Further conceptual clarification comes by asking whether we should parse Scripture’s sufficiency in terms of sources, resources, and/or norms. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral mentions Scripture, experience, reason, and tradition as ingredients in doing theology, though without necessarily specifying their respective roles. Reason does the heavy lifting in Deism, but other approaches to theology favor experience, while still others draw primarily from tradition. All four may be in play, but it helps to distinguish between a source from which one derives information, a resource that helps one to process that information, and a norm to which the information must measure up in order to be deemed acceptable or true.
Today main challenges to Scripture’s material sufficiency are two: the vast amount of scientific knowledge of the natural world, and the vast amount of knowledge we now have about the world of the ancient Near East in which the biblical authors lived, and which limited their horizons. I believe we can continue to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, but in a chastened manner, acknowledging that Scripture is a sufficient source of information in some domains of knowledge, but not necessarily others. The sources, resources, and norms in the domain of astronomy—or molecular biology, architecture, and electrical engineering—are to some extent different than those in the domain of theology.
Competent readers of Scripture need to be alert to which domains a particular biblical text is or is not authoritatively addressing. For it is possible to hyper-extend the sufficiency of Scripture by, say, assuming it provides answers to every question we might ask of it. The Reformers never thought the Bible ought to be the exclusive source in every domain of knowledge (e.g., rocket science). Many topics partake of “mixed domains”: both Genesis and the Human Genome Project have something to contribute to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Yet Scripture is sufficient to serve as the creaturely medium of divine discourse: just these texts have been set apart as Holy Scripture, adequate for the purpose for which they are given. That purpose is to provide diverse word-views on God’s plan “to sum up all things in Christ” (Eph. 1:10), his living Word become flesh (John 1:14).
The Bible is ordinary discourse about divine action in the world—the extraordinary in the ordinary. In Isaiah 55:11 the Lord says the word that goes out of his mouth will accomplish the thing for which he sent it. That purpose is not to cure cancer, show the way to Mars, or eliminate crabgrass from your lawn. The Bible is not a substitute for scientific observation or voyages of discovery. Its purpose is much grander. Scripture’s primary purpose is not to add to our stockpile of information but, rather, to provide the overarching and ultimate framework for making sense of everything we know and are still learning. Scripture is sufficient both for making wise unto salvation (its “home” domain) and for furnishing control beliefs that structure and orient our thinking about and living in the world in general (all other domains).
Al Wolters’s still valuable Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview made this point years ago. He defined a worldview as “the comprehensive framework of one’s basic beliefs about things” and went on to identify it with the biblical story of creation, fall, and redemption, a way of looking at reality through the “corrective lens” of Scripture. To paraphrase his argument: the biblical story, expressed not only in narrative but in other literary forms as well, is sufficient to serve as the Christian control story, the cognitive framework or conceptual map that orients and guides both faith and life.
We can restate this in terms of Charles Taylor’s key term “social imaginary.” A social imaginary is a storied (and controlling) way of thinking. It is that taken-for-granted framework communicated by the metaphors and narratives people see through and live by. The sufficiency of Scripture is best understood as providing everything Christians need to know to inform, reform, and transform their social imaginary. It is not that the Bible provides the data for every academic discipline, but that it provides the metaphors and underlying story of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation that enables us to emplot any and all kinds of data into that bigger story.
Here, then, is my thesis: through its varied word-views and overarching story, whose key is Christ, Scripture is sufficient for enabling us to perceive reality, including human beings, in ways that resist reductionism. Stated more positively: Scripture makes it possible for us to view the world, and ourselves, as created beings sustained, upheld, and destined for fellowship with God. Furthermore, Scripture is sufficient to enable academics (and everyone else) to locate their disciplinary discoveries in the big biblical picture, and thus to imagine the world that Scripture imagines. In sum: Scripture’s unified story is sufficient to fund an evangelical social imaginary, enabling its readers to imagine reality as it actually is, as cohering in Christ, and for seeing Christ as the ground, grammar, and goal of created reality (Col 1:16-17). As to that created reality, any number of academic disciplines may serve as helpful sources and resources for faith’s search for understanding, but Scripture alone is enough to generate and govern the social imaginary in which we live, move, and have our human being.
Sufficient unto a Christian worldview are the biblical word-views thereof.
 Arthur F. Holmes, All Truth Is God’s Truth (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979).
 Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Way of Reading Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2012), 25 (emphasis original).
 Albert Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 96.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 5.
— Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Ph.D., Cambridge University) is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously he served as Blanchard Professor of Theology at the Wheaton College Graduate School (2009-2012) and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1990-98). He is the author of a dozen books, including The Drama of Doctrine, Remythologizing Theology, and Biblical Authority after Babel. His most recent book is Hearers and Doers: A Pastor's Guide to Making Disciples through Scripture and Doctrine.
(*The views expressed in the articles and media linked to do not necessarily represent the views of the editors of The Worldview Bulletin.)
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