The Insufficiency of Scripture

There have been books about the “sufficiency of Scripture”, but yesterday as I was reading the Bible I happened across a verse which testifies to the insufficiency of Scripture. 2 John 12 reads:

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

How are we to understand this Scriptural witness to Scripture’s own insufficiency in certain respects? Of course, most of us will agree that the author of this letter did not think of himself as writing Scripture. Be that as it may, the church has included this letter in its canon, and some readers would go so far as to ignore the author’s voice and claim to hear only the voice of God. For such readers, this verse presumably is to be taken as an expression of God’s desire that readers of the Bible not become so focused on it that they fail to realize that personal interaction is better than communication via writing.

For other Christian readers, this presumably serves for us too as a reminder that personal interaction is more important than interacting with writings – even writings in the Bible. There are some things that personal relationships can accomplish that reading often cannot. We find it easy to persuade ourselves that writings (whether the news, a letter from a spouse, or texts in the Bible) mean what we deeply hope they mean, even when their plain sense would not seem to support it. But “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Other people who challenge us are often harder to tune out – although that doesn’t prevent us from trying.

For those of us who are at times tempted to focus too much attention on the Bible, or to believe that it contains all the answers and solutions to all problems, this verse is a helpful reminder that an author of a letter that is now part of Scripture thought some things were better said face to face – that there were things that could not be accomplished as well or as effectively or simply as joyfully through written words as through personal interaction.

The Reformation sola scriptura notwithstanding, I think most Christians including most of the Protestant Reformers would have agreed that in this important sense, “Scripture alone” is not enough. And yet if there is something that characterizes much contemporary North American Christianity, it is the lone Christian reading the Bible in private.

And so, to my blog readers, I close by saying that I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use pixels and bytes. It would be far better to talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

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  • Wouldn't this just raise the question, "insufficient in what?"This verse says that John had more to say than what he wrote. That's great, but is that information that has not already been disclosed or just stuff that John would like to personalize to be more effective and immediate.

  • I'm not sure that it's evidence for Scripture's insufficiency, but there is truth in the idea that focusing too intently on the written word can be an impediment to faith and unity in the church.I'm thinking of 1 Timothy 6:3-5If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.and Titus 3:9 9But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.Paul's comments seem so relevant to me when I read arguments on blogs, especially when they are defined by the interpretation of a single word or phrase.The amount of meaning some people can squeeze out of a sentence is truly astounding.

  • Great post, James! Nice closing. Provocative as usual! 🙂

  • On the other hand, Paul used means to communicate to his churches, instead of telling others about their lack of 'spirituality'….So, he "cared" at least to respond in writing, and not ignore what others were doing that he thought was wrong…Have you ever had a letter that was unresponded to?

  • "Sufficiency of scripture" is one of those phrases like "sola scriptura" that has become loaded with assumed meaning. Some in my tradition (United Methodist) have taken such phrases to mean that there is nothing outside of the Bible that we need to know about anything, which is pretty silly and doesn't take seriously what the Bible really is: ancient documents written by people who are now dead about a living God.Those who are being ordained in the UMC are asked a series of questions that come straight from John Wesley, one of them being "do you believe that the Scriptures containeth all things necessary for salvation and that it is the sufficient rule for both faith and practice?" Over time we have discovered this to mean that the Bible is a sufficient starting point, but we dare not end there. If Christianity is a living tradition we dare not assume that God finished speaking in the first century.

  • I close by saying that I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use pixels and bytes. It would be far better to talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.Just sos you know. I don't kiss on the first date.

  • Much food for thought in this post and in the following comments.I think it's safe to say that we need more than *just* the bible in order to live Christian lives with God, but that does not reduce the importance of the bible at all.It simply means we need to *add* to our knowledge and instruction gained from the bible in order to have completeness.

  • KCharles

    Scripture alone is not enough."Would someone please teach me how to read? I wish to know what is in this book I hear so much about. I can be read to from the pages in verse and song, and I seem to understand. But I feel I am missing something unspoken. I ama slave and my master forbids me to hear the words because he says I am sinful. What am I to believe? Will someone tell me who knows what is in these scrolls that brings peace and solace to your hearts? I want to be free, like you."

  • I like your post. I don't know if I would give this verse (or the similar ending of 3 John) credit in revealing Scripture as insufficient, but I would say that it falls in line with Scripture being a part of an ongoing narrative, and not our whole narrative.

  • James,As you know, I've been thinking about and reconsidering the whole "biblical inerrancy" deal. I've come to despise that term and am currently adopting "biblical adequacy" (not sure if anyone else has come up with that phrase), a position in which one believes the Bible is adequate to do what Paul says it's adequate to do (2 Tim 3:16-17). Is this compatible with "biblical insufficiency"? I'm thinking "yes," but I figured I'd run it by you. 😉

  • Thanks for all the comments. I was of course being intentionally provocative in the way I expressed things. I'm glad to see so many picked up on where I was trying to go with this."Biblical adequacy" sounds like an interesting way of putting things – I'll be interested to know what kind of feedback you get on it.The way I usually try to put it is that I try to be "Biblical" in the sense of not only listening to the statements of Biblical authors (whether about the Bible itself or about other subjects) but also paying attention to the evidence of what the Biblical authors were doing when they wrote these things, and the evidence in the Bible itself about the nature of Scripture. Surely that is more "Biblical" than paying attention to the former while ignoring the latter? 🙂

  • Anonymous

    The reformation terms "sola scriptura", etc. need to be understood in their context, which was againt the RCC claims of Sacred Tradition being required to understand Scripture and the unwashed not being able to understand it, so leave all interpretation to them.Scripture itself says it appears foolish to the unsaved. One needs the Holy Spirit to begin to understand it. And context is crucial, esp. cultural context, as that supplies the unstated assumptions that are simply assumed unless otherwise stated.Don Johnson

  • Annonymous,I have to disagree Strongly with you in regards to the Holy Spirit "understanding" Scripture in opposition to Church Tradition. Scripture ITSELF is the Protestant Tradition.Luther translated Scripture into the German language, so it could be assessable to the "common person", instead of "mindlessly" following priests' "gibbering Latin" in their masses. His intent was to protect the masses from being taken advantage of by the RCC.The Church Fathers used philosophy to "interpret" scripture, as to his real meaning….For instance,God's existance, God's character, the divinity of Jesus…how is that understood? But, this was not the only doctrine that was "developed" by the Church Fathers, as every creed is a "formula" of belief and has "reasons" why these creeds are "sanctioned" by the Church, which is the discipline of theological reflection. These philosophical reflections used Greek understandings of the 'world", therefore, some of the doctrines of the Church are not based in our modern paradigm of understanding…nor are Scriptures written within a modern paradigm, as they were written with ancient understandings of the world. This is not to say that there is no "truth" in Scripture, but that scripture is bound within its historical context, until it is re-interpreted into modern understandings. It really is no different than bringing a cultural understanding to bear upon the text…conservatives adhere wholeheartedly to interpreting the text into other languages, but hesitate at the suggestion that scientific language also must bear upon scripture to be understood in scientific ways…

  • Wow, great support for the "Non Sola Scriptura" Crew.But the author of 2 John did not have YouTube or Skype. And so, Dr. McGrath, please share with use beyond pixel and bytes and leave us a few videos of your talks or wonderings ! We'd love it !With tones, pauses and expressions, we have a much better chance of catching what you mean — maybe even more than you'd like ! Smile.