02.04.19

Prolegomenon: On Authority and Sufficiency

Any theology that counts itself “biblical” must begin with stating its understanding of the Bible. Since what may be known about God is plain in His creation (; ), we could attempt a theology that starts with general revelation. But such an effort would be fraught with conjecture and have no objective basis for testing truth claims.

So, the Bible provides the appropriate beginning place for any Christian theology. And any Bible-believing theology will hold some important distinctives.

For instance, Bible-believing Christians believe the Bible to be fully inspired. God breathed out the Scripture () and the Holy Spirit carried along holy men of old in order to preserve His thoughts (). The inspiration of the word of God did not diminish the personalities, tendencies and abilities of the human authors. Nor did those authors distort God’s message and meaning as they recorded the scripture. Nor is the doctrine of inspiration a later invention by religious zealots and hucksters. With self-awareness, the prophets pronounced, “Thus says the Lord.” The apostles equated their preaching with God speaking, saying, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (; emphasis added). They also regarded their writings as scripture, as Peter does when he classifies Paul’s letters with “the other Scriptures” (). We believe the 66 books of the Bible to be the divinely inspired word of God.

A Bible-believing theology of the Bible also holds to the Bible’s inerrancy. In the original autographs, the Bible is without error. “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (). The word is pure because God is pure. For, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” () Scribal and copyist errors can be discerned using the voluminous manuscript evidence available. But such errors never occur on any essential Christian teaching and actually increase our confidence in the Bible’s transmission since we can observe and study any departures in the manuscripts across languages, cultures, times, and places.

Bible-believing Christians believe the Bible, being fully inspired and inerrant, is also authoritative. As is often said, “The Bible is the final rule in all matters of life and doctrine.” Indeed, the Bible views itself in those terms. God repeatedly calls Israel to “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you” (; passim). Life in the New Covenant begins with “obeying the gospel” (; ; ) and continues with “the obedience that comes from faith” (). We are with trembling reverence to humble ourselves beneath God’s word (), finding life in it () and expressing love to God in obeying ().

Bible-believing Christians also maintain that the word of God is sufficient for knowing God and living in a manner that pleases God. The seminal text is where the apostle Paul writes: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” By the scriptures we are made increasingly wise, even beyond our teachers (; ). All that we need to know in order to serve God we find in His word.

What the inspiration, inerrancy, authority, and sufficiency of the Bible means for justice pursuits is that our definitions, understandings, practices and pursuits of justice should be framed and filled by the Bible. As God’s servants, we are not at liberty to seek after other sources of instruction that we place over or even on par with the Bible. Though we may certainly gain a great deal from other sources, we do not vest final allegiance to them, and we must test them all by the Scriptures.

Whither Authority and Sufficiency?

But in some circles there are troubling signs that some of the Bible’s doctrinal distinctives may be in danger. The threat is not so much a formal doctrinal retreat as a practical abandonment. We see this with both the authority and the sufficiency of the Bible when it comes to practical matters of justice, mercy, equity, righteousness, and love.

The abandonment of the Bible’s authority and sufficiency happen in at least two directions. Some folks run away; some folks back away.

It’s easy to tell when a person runs away from the Bible. But we might not notice a person backing away. Some self-described theological conservatives see theological progressives and liberals as running from the Bible. Something in the Bible is outright rejected. Another philosophy gets inserted rather than biblical theology. Then self-described theological conservatives say, “They’re running away from the Bible.” Indeed, some people are.

However, just as people can run from the Bible, people can also back away from the Bible. Take, for example, the same self-described theological conservative who says, “You’re running from the Bible.” Oftentimes the next thing that person says is, “The Bible doesn’t say anything about this or that.” The theological conservative thinks they’re still defending against the person running from the Bible. But, in fact, they’ve just declared the Bible’s functional insufficiency. Then, if the theological conservative goes on to cite their political party platform or their favorite writer/commentator instead of the Bible, they’ve backed away a second step—all the while thinking of themselves as defending the Bible or the truth.

Their strategy for defending the Bible functionally (not necessarily formally) abandons the sufficiency of the Bible. This is clear when we remember that the Bible says that it is sufficient to thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work (). The Bible does not have a verse for everything we face in the world. There’s no verse on tax rates. There’s no verse on foreign policy postures. There’s no verse on whether to buy a vacation home. There’s no verse on whether the husband or the wife should take out the trash (Hint: it’s the kids!). 

However, we believe that in the whole counsel of scripture we have enough teaching from God to know how to live for God in every area. We may have to debate specific tax rates or whatever. But for the Christian, that debate should be a biblical, exegetical, and theological debate that shows the Bible’s sufficiency for life and doctrine.

The Bottom Line

It’s not enough to merely declare a position or perspective is “biblical” only to then go our merry way with other ideas. We need to actually make our positions demonstrate their fidelity to the Bible. We need to recognize that the hard work of mining the Bible for our stances is what, in fact, proves we functionally or practically hold to the authority and sufficiency of scripture.

To be sure, there are other ways of knowing. But there’s only one way of knowing surely. That’s by taking the whole counsel of God as the sum and substance of our world and life view.

19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

12 Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
13 Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (ESV)

1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— 12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 13 I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 27 and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 29 They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them. (ESV)

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (ESV)

21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (ESV)

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17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (ESV)

through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,

Romans 16:26

26 but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— (ESV)

All these things my hand has made,
and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
he who is humble and contrite in spirit
and trembles at my word. (ESV)

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15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (ESV)

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (ESV)

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16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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