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The Sufficiency of Scripture

By R. K. McGregor Wright, Th.M., Ph.D.

Note: Words that appear in bold in the text are explained in the glossary at the end of the article. Terms that are defined are listed in the glossary in order of their appearance in the article.

I.  The Perfections of Scripture (that is, its principal characteristics) include its Unity, Necessity, Perspicuity, Objectivity, Authority, and Infallibility. We considered infallibility in the article, Inspiration and Inerrancy. We now turn to the Bible’s sufficiency.

By this term we mean that the Bible "is the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life," and that in this complete revelation "is either expressly set down, or necessarily contained in the holy scripture; unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men." This is the type of definition found in Chapter One of the Westminster (1646) and the Philadelphia (1742) Confessions.

II.  The Reformation was the time of definition for this doctrine in a clearer way than the Church had ever seen. The crisis of confidence in the Catholic Church’s authority was resolved by the Catholics at the Council of Trent (meeting from 1545 to 1563) by their decision to express the superior authority of the Church over the text of Scripture by adding several books of the Apocrypha to the Hebrew Old Testament.

The Protestants’ answer to this was to point out that we have the authority of Jesus himself for the canon (or list) of the OT books, for the Gospels themselves show that Jesus accepted the canon of the Pharisees without question, and only appealed to the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible. The Greek books called the Apocrypha have never been considered by the Jews to be on the same level as their Hebrew Scriptures. How odd that Trent did not dare to add to the New Testament! History provides no evidence at all of any attempt by the Early Church to add to the OT.

III.  Tradition is that highly variable and fragmentary body of doctrine and practice "handed down" to later generations. It includes the wide variety of liturgies of the many Eastern Orthodox communions, the entire body of Protestant systematic theology, and such Roman habits as genuflection before images, and the use of holy water to sanctify physical objects.

It includes the singing of Psalms in languages other than the original Hebrew, and the entire text of the documents of Vatican II. It includes the decision of missionaries to translate the New Testament into modern tongues, and the Roman teaching that the body of the virgin Mary was assumed up into Heaven without decaying. It includes the Baptists’ habit of dedicating babies without baptizing them, and the Roman prohibition of their priests to marry.

Of course, tradition is both necessary, and unavoidable. A Baptist’s practice of singing from a hymnbook is just as much a tradition as the Catholic’s use of the Rosary. The NT. does not mention either.

The question in the Reformation was not whether to abolish tradition or not, but which particular traditions to abolish as being inconsistent with the Bible. They therefore gave up bowing to images, claiming to convert the Lord’s Supper into the very body and blood of Christ, and forbidding nuns to marry. The Baptists gave up infant baptism too, claiming it was not to be found in the Bible.

IV.  The Question was not about the usefulness of traditions, but about their authority and necessity. The Catholics taught that many doctrines and practices are necessary for salvation which, not appearing in the Bible, are defined as being "of the Faith" by the infallible Magisterium of the Church. The Protestants answered that there was no infallibility to be had outside the Bible, as the history of Church Councils and traditions made clear enough.

V. The Proof of all this is in the Bible itself. St. Paul himself insists that all human traditions must conform to the texts of his own letters, thus showing what the final test for Truth was for the Apostles themselves. And in the classic passage on the Bible’s inspiration, Paul says that the Holy Scriptures are profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in right living. He then explains why this is so; they are able to make the "man of God" (that is, the bishop Timothy in particular,) fully furnished and completely equipped for every good work (2Tim 3:16).

At this point, the Protestant asks the Catholic to explain what spiritual furniture, and what necessary equipment, would be omitted from the competence of the Bible to supply? What good work is unprovided for? Surely this text is the most clear and comprehensive statement of the full Sufficiency of Scripture that any Protestant heart could desire. And no text contradicts it (2 Tim 2:13).

VI. Conclusion: No doctrine and no practice not sanctioned by the Bible, no matter how useful in itself, or how hallowed by age, can bind the regenerate conscience as being necessary for salvation.


Perfections — Those central characteristics of the Bible which define its unique nature as inscripturated revelation from God.

Perspicuity — Clarity, capacity to be understood clearly by the usual means of study.

Apocrypha — Lit., "hidden books" of some value to believers, but always kept separate from the canon of inspired texts. The OT apocryphal books are not even in Hebrew, the NT ones are in several languages, including Greek.

Canon — From the Greek original term for a measuring reed: a list, or standard of measurement or authority.

Liturgy — The formally prescribed and approved pattern of worship of a church service.

Genuflection — The practice of bending the knee in reverence before an honored person or object.

Rosary — A string of beads of varying number and design used to assist the memory when repeating a large number of similar prayers. The devotions accompanying the use of such an aid.

Magisterium — The teaching office of the Church of Rome; the authority of that office. Since 1870, the magisterium includes the Pope’s infallibility.

Councils — The gatherings of bishops and elders of the Church to settle issues of doctrine and practice in the Church at large. E.g. at Nicea in 325 ad. and the latest Roman council at the Vatican in 1963.

Suggested Reading

Westminster Confession of Faith. Found in Creeds of the Churches by John Haddon Leith and Creeds of Christendom by Philip Schaff.
William Goode. The Divine Rule of Faith and Practice, London, 1842 and 1853, in three volumes. This is a most thorough refutation of the Roman notion that the Bible cannot stand as the sufficient source of saving truth. The massive case is developed from the early church fathers down to the romanizing Oxford Movement of Goode’s own day. Hard to find; needs urgently to be reprinted.
Boettner, Loraine. Roman Catholicism, Edinburgh and New Jersey, often reprinted. Chapter IV discusses Tradition.
Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. I, P.182-3 refers to the Bible’s "completeness," as do most of the systematic theologies.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

See Re: Sufficiency of Scripture for a follow-up to the above article.

The above article originally appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1992.
It was posted on this website March 2, 1997.


Catholicism: The Scriptures

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