Growing up “fundamentalist,” I was taught that the Bible was sufficient, complete and eternal. That “not one jot” could ever be changed or expanded, and that all the answers to all of life’s questions could be found in the (King James) scripture we were given. I was taught that one of several reasons all Catholics were going to Hell was that they had a slightly different canon than ours. I was taught that any effort to look outside the Bible—for example therapy, or yoga, or even reading horoscopes for entertainment—was sinful and wrong.
Of course, these same churches would pick and choose which parts of the Bible to attend to, but that is an article for another day.
Today, I belong to the United Church of Christ. A church that believes, as best expressed in its 2004 identity campaign, that “God is Still Speaking.” We often use the Gracie Allen tagline, “never place a period where God has placed a comma” as shorthand for the theology that underlies this idea. Obviously, both can’t be true.
Rules of Engagement
One of the problems I’ve noticed in the ongoing dialogue between evangelical and progressive Christians is that we always seem to be talking past each other. We don’t start with the same values or assumptions, so we can’t have a fair and reasonable debate. I want a fair and reasonable debate. So here, laid out as clearly as I can, are a few basic ground rules, or hermeneutic assumptions, I intend to follow in this deep dive into the Doctrine of Sufficiency of Scripture:
1) I will treat sufficiency doctrine with respect, and stay focused on its basic tenets.
I do have admitted “baggage” that has more to do with the practices of the church of my youth than with its theology. I also have strong emotions around theological issues that have nothing to do with sufficiency. In this column, I will set those aside, and turn my gaze fairly and justly to only the issue at hand.
2) Whether or not the Biblical canon is sufficient for all of life, it is certainly sufficient for this debate.
I will not look to theologians outside of scripture. I will not raise mine up or tear theirs down. I will accept that a productive dialogue here can only come from within the Biblical canon.
3) I will accept all scripture as holding equal value.
I personally wrestle with Paul and Moses. I believe Christians should follow Christ and resolve all apparent conflicts by privileging his words and actions as revealed in Gospel. But I recognize that not all Christians believe this way. So, for the purposes of this article, all scripture is created equal.
4) I will take all scripture at face value.
I will not sidestep real issues by challenging authorship or claiming metaphor or otherwise dismissing any scripture without genuine textual analysis and reasons that rise from the text itself.
The Evidence for Biblical Sufficiency
There are a number of Biblical references to the completeness and sufficiency of the Biblical canon. I have listed below in order of appearance the eight most common and compelling. I have not included commonly mentioned verses that point only to the worth of scripture, and not its completeness.
- Deuteronomy 4:2 – “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the Lord your God that I give you.”
- Deuteronomy 12:32 – “You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it.”
- Psalms 19:7 – “The law of the Lord is perfect […].”
- Proverbs 30:6 – “Do not add to his [God’s] words, or else he will rebuke you, and you will be found a liar.”
- Matthew 5:18 – “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”
- Galatians 1:8 – “But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!”
- Revelations 22:18-19 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city […].”
The Evidence Against
While there are many Biblical references to the Bible’s own insufficiency, most are arguable and easily explained away. The strongest scriptural argument for the idea that God is still speaking comes from a series of statements by God and by Jesus regarding the revised and evolving covenants between God and God’s people:
- Jeremiah 31:31-34 replaces “the covenant I made with their [the house of Israel and Judah’s] ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of Egypt” with “a new covenant” written “on their hearts.”
- Jeremiah was one of the major prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Christ was explicit in claiming he came to “fulfill” these prophets (Mt. 5:17).
- The Hebrew (original autograph) word translated here as “covenant” is berith, which is the kind of covenant found in a will or testament. It requires “the death of the one who made it” (He. 9:16-17). When God appeared incarnate and was crucified by man, this berith was realized.
- Shortly after his crucifixion, Christ returned to articulate terms which closely resemble those Jeremiah prophesied:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you (Jn. 14:15-17).
- This is why the author of Hebrews calls Christ, “the mediator of a new covenant” (He. 9:15; cf. Ti. 2:5).
- There are numerous examples throughout scripture of Christ rejecting, revising or reframing scripture, especially laws around ritual and purity, that came before him. Perhaps most important, recorded in one way or another in every Gospel, is the clarifying assertion that all laws and all prophecy “hang” on love of God and neighbor (Mt. 22:37-40; cf. Mk. 12:29-34; Lk. 10:26-28, Jn. 13:34-35).
- In other words, “the word of God is living and active” (He. 4:12).
This is an honest controversy. How can the word of God be both an unchanging, finished product and an ongoing revelation? What work can the Holy Spirit do if the canon is already closed?
I can think of several possible resolutions:
John of Patmos referred to “this book.” It’s quite a stretch to imagine he meant anything more than the Book of Revelation, as the canonical Bible did not exist at the time he wrote those words. Deuteronomy 4:2 is a matter of Moses commanding obedience to him (not God) specifically for the tribe of “Israel” (v. 1), “in the land you are about to enter and occupy” (v. 5), for the explicit purpose of “show[ing] your wisdom and discernment to the peoples” in order to get praise (v.6). Deuteronomy 12:32 is in the context of a speech about idolatry. In fact, every one of these scriptures has a context that can be easily discerned by reading what comes before and after it, and by taking the words at face value.
Galatians was written shortly before Matthew, and therefore could not possibly have meant no more Gospels were to be written. Deuteronomy predates all but Job and the first 5 books of the Bible. If nothing could be added, that would mean 61 books, including all four Gospel accounts of Jesus, would be heresy. Even Revelation, chronologically the latest book in the Bible, was written at the end of the first century CE, some three hundred years before the Christian canon even began to come together.
Without getting into extra-biblical arguments of who wrote what, God used imperfect vessels as prophets, apostles, and other creators of scripture. Moses, for example, was punished severely by God because he misrepresented God to the people of Israel (Num. 20:7-12; cf. Ps. 106:33, Deu. 32:51-52). Paul readily admitted the knowledge he was passing on in his letters was imperfect (1 Cor. 13:12). The others, as humans, were presumably similarly flawed (John 5:39-41). To imagine that any one person’s words—no matter how inspired—should be taken as infallible is a patently un-Biblical principle. Of the passages quoted above supporting the doctrine of scriptural sufficiency, only one, Matthew 5:18, is attributed to God or Christ rather than a purely human speaker.
Any fair reading of the long arc of the Bible shows that Christ changes everything. In him, the law and the prophets and fulfilled. Through him, a new covenant is begun. Christ’s message and mission was to clarify and focus the Christian gaze on purely beatific love. Through his words and his example, he lifted up the oppressed, and confronted those who like the scribes and the pharisees relied on the Law, and not on the basic Christian principles of love, grace and inclusion. Any reading of the complete Bible that is not framed by and interpreted through this basic Christian understanding is missing the entire point.
In the end, there are a few verses that appear on the surface to point to Biblical sufficiency, but the context, timelines, sources and basic message of the risen Christ show that (a) Christ is still rising, (b) the Spirit is still speaking, and (c) we, the covenanted people of God, already have within each of us the Good News that Christ came to bring.