Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Sufficiency of Scripture

What does it mean to say that we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture? The term is common enough that it warrants definition. Inerrancy and infallibility are commonly discussed, sufficiency a bit less so. As far as theological battles go, it's deeply tied to the other two, and so isn't as hot a point of contention. For our lives, however, it's just as important.

If Scripture is sufficient then the Bible says everything it means to, and what it doesn't say, it means not to say. When tied to infallibility, it means that structure and grammar, affirmation and negation, and even the topics chosen (yes, including Leviticus) are all important. It means that the Bible is enough for all the ways we need Scripture. Sufficiency complements infallibility and inerrancy: nothing needs to be taken away from the infallible and inerrant word of God, and nothing needs to be added to the sufficient word of God.

Belief in the sufficiency of Scripture has real, practical consequences for our Bible study. For example, if Scripture is sufficient, we should take from each passage only its own implications. God intended John 3 to be a conversation on belief, with consequences for our beliefs about justification, but Romans 8 to be an extended discussion on justification with implications for our believing. The story of David and Goliath is not about overcoming our mortal enemy, debt (or any other you can name), by standing up to it and being courageous; it's about God's anointed one coming to the rescue. When we read Scripture, we should take it to mean exactly what it says, and nothing else. Let the Scriptures speak as God intends them to, and do not force them to speak to topics they don't address.

How do we apply our belief in Scripture's sufficiency? By humbling ourselves as we come to His words. We come asking what the passage says. Then, after we have a good grasp on what it says, we may begin to ask what it means. Finally, having taken the time to do these well, we can ask how to apply that meaning to our lives. In all of this, the Word itself has primacy. Our emotions don't: they have to submit to what God says. When we look at interpretations and applications, they need to come out of the passage's content, not out of our circumstances.

I don't mean to say that there are not times when God speaks to us deeply through secondary or tertiary applications of a passage. I do mean to say that we ought to let Scripture mean what it says. For example, if I am reading Lamentations, I should recognize it as a dirge for all the calamities that overtook Israel for her sins. I should not make it an allegory for my daily ups and downs in the workplace. There may be some applications to my life, but they're not direct unless I'm witnessing the violent and wrathful judgment of God on everything I've ever known and held dear. When America is burning from sea to shining sea, cannibalism is rampant, and I am not only the only man willing to speak truth but also getting thrown in a pit to die for it, then I might find myself empathizing with Jeremiah. Not before. God certainly speaks through that passage, even to our (much smaller!) travails, but our understanding needs to be grounded in what it says, not in what we feel. He doesn't need our emotions to somehow fill in the gaps in the things He could have meant by the passage. If Scripture is sufficient, there are no gaps - He said everything He meant to say.

>Another trouble many of us have is that we jump immediately to the final step. "Life Application" is a good thing - good enough that I think failing to ask how to apply Scripture to our lives leads us down the road of academic abstractions that profit very little if at all. However, moving to application without good observations and interpretations is also a recipe for failure. Why? Because we can't have good applications without having good interpretations, and good interpretations rest on good observations. We must know what the passage says before we can have any idea what it means, and we must know what it means before we can derive any response.

I've also noted a tendency in myself and others to think that interpreting Scripture (finding out what it means) and applying it (finding out how it works in my life) are the same thing. They're not. Part of the trouble here is phrasing: "What does that mean?" and "What does that mean to you?" are very similar questions. Appropriately, though, they mean two very different things.

The process of approaching Scripture with its sufficiency in mind is straightfoward enough: Observation --> Interpretation --> Application, always in that order. How do we practice it? Let's return to Lamentations for an example, briefly looking at the book as a whole.

I observe how brokenhearted Jeremiah was for his people, even when they were attacking him. I observe how deeply full of wrath God was, and how patient to hold back such great anger for so long. I observe that the destruction visited on Judah and Jerusalem was very great. I observe that the depravity of man came bubbling up and was revealed in all its horror. I observe that God's greatest condemnation was for prophets and priests claiming His authority for their false teaching.

Then I begin to interpret. God hates sin - deeply, violently, angrily. He hates it so much that He would righteously visit incredible violence and terror on people rather than allow them to continue in it. He punishes sin - slow to anger He may be, but when His anger is kindled it is fierce and terrible. I thus also interpret that sin is more awful than I yet realize. I interpret that Jeremiah was so filled with God's love for his countrymen that, though he agreed that God's judgment was just, he was rightly grieved for their destruction. I interpret that God's salvation was Jeremiah's great hope for himself and for his people.

Then I apply: I recognize the evil of my own sin and depravity. I recognize that, quite literally, there but for the grace of God go I. I recognize that it is from those depths of sin and that depth of God's wrath that I have been saved. I recognize that I need a deeper love of my fellow believers and my fellow Americans and my fellow humans - a love that is like Christ's. I recognize that I need more gratitude for the salvation God has so mercifully granted me.

And all of those things come from the passage. Those are meaningful, real applications to my life. But they are drawn from the content of the passage, not imposed on it from my circumstances. To be sure, they may speak more or less loudly to my current situation. Sometimes it's the most tertiary applications that speak the loudest. God works that way, meeting us where we are and drawing our hearts after Him. For our part, we need to be faithful to treat His word with honor and respect. We need to remember its sufficiency. God has spoken, and His words are enough.

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