In conversation there can often be a difference in “what a word means” and “how a word is used.” What matters to Webster’s dictionary is what a word means. What matters in a real conversation is how a word is used.
Here is simplistic example. In my generation of being a teenager you could observe this distinction in the way we used the word “cool.” If you use a thesaurus to get synonyms for the word cool, you’ll find entries such as: cold, chilly, nonchalant, or unruffled. The literal use of the word cool refers to either a temperature or a disposition.
However, we functionally used the word to mean things like awesome, impressive, or breathtaking. Generations before and after us did the words: knarly, far-out, wicked, radical, or my teenager’s current favorite “yeet.” Other than being annoying to our parents and English teachers this isn’t a big deal.
In theological conversations a similar phenomenon is happening with the word “sufficiency” particularly when it is applied to the usefulness of Scripture and counseling (my niche). Sufficiency is being used to reference a myriad of qualities of Scripture; often within the same conversation. From my experience, the debates that emerge around the concept of sufficiency frequently break down when the various synonyms for sufficiency are used interchangeably.
My hope in this article is to reflect on six of the most common connotations of sufficiency in hopes that clarity on these related concepts advances the quality and character of conversations around sufficiency.
1. Sufficiency: Scripture Is Complete
This is the classic use of the term “sufficiency of Scripture” by systematic theologians. For most of church history this is what was meant by the term. Sufficiency-as-completeness means “we have all the divine words God intended to give on any particular subject.” Stated simply, God is finished providing special revelation and we do not need an external rubric for interpreting the Bible; therefore, what we have in the Bible is the totality of what God intends to say through sacred text.
Sufficiency-as-completeness negates the claim that someone has “heard from God” in a manner that would allow them to contradict Scripture with divine authority. For counseling purposes, this use of sufficiency would mean that God has, in the Bible, provided all the inerrant, verbal guidance He intends to give for helping relationships, problems in living, emotions, relationships, mental health, etc.
2. Sufficiency: Scripture Is Adequate
This is the Duct Tape use of the term “sufficiency of Scripture.” Sufficiency-as-adequacy means that it is possible to get a task done using the Bible. This use of the term sufficiency makes no claim to exclusivity. For example, just because Duct Tape is sufficient to repair a broken item does not mean that Gorilla Glue is not also effective for the same repair task.
When sufficiency-as-adequacy becomes part of a debate around Scripture and counseling, it can often because one or both persons have assumed that the adequacy of A negates the adequacy of B. The logic can be, “If you think A is adequate for this task, then you must believe that B is useless.” An either-or debate emerges when a goodness-of-fit assessment would be more appropriate.
For example, “If you think [Bible study] is adequate to resolving anxiety, then you must believe [breathing exercises] are useless,” or vice versa. There is no reason for these two approaches to be mutually exclusive. It may be the during math test breathing exercises are the best-fit because they are not a cognitive distraction and during a quiet evening at home Bible study is a better fit because it keeps the individual cognitively engaged.
3. Sufficiency: Scripture Is Relevant
This is synonym for sufficiency speaks to the breadth and depth of subjects addressed in Scripture and seeks to assess how directly Scripture speaks to each of those subjects. When discussing the relevance of Scripture, we’re asking the question, “Does Scripture speak to [topic] and, if so, in what way?” We can ask this question about morality, marine biology, meaning of life, interpretation of historical events, politics, and every other subject matter.
When sufficiency-as-relevance becomes part of a debate, we are asking a question of overlap. In effect, we’re asking, “How much does the content of Scripture overlap with the subject being discussed?” The way Scripture speaks to the questions of marine biology is going to be different than the way it speaks to the morality of human cloning.
When tension emerges around sufficiency-as-relevance, it would be most helpful for each person to ask, “In what ways do you see Scripture speaking to this subject? How do you feel l am misapplying or under-utilizing Scripture in my approach?” Scripture can speak to a given subject by command, example, clear principle, inference, or extension of a theological implication. If our disagreement is about “how” Scriptures speak to a subject rather than “if” it speaks to a subject, it can significantly change the tone of a conversation.
4. Sufficiency: Scripture Is Primary or Authoritative
This connotation for sufficiency is making the strongest claim yet. It asserts the primacy and finality of Scripture. Sufficiency-as-authoritative claims that Scripture is right and normative in everything it addresses. Further, Scripture should be the first place we start in discerning the questions that will guide our thinking. To say that Scripture is authoritative is to refuse to give another source of knowledge equal weight in our thinking (note: “equal weight” is not the same as saying “any weight”).
When sufficiency-as-authoritative becomes part of a debate it is usually because one person believes the other person is negating a biblical command or principle in the conclusion they are drawing. When this is the case, the most effective response would be, “How do you reconcile your position/choice with [biblical text]. These seem in tension to me. I see three possibilities: (a) there other biblical texts I need to consider, (b) you think I am misapplying this text to the subject we’re discussing, or (c) something has more weight in your thinking on this subject than the Bible. Which of those do you think best explain our differences?”
5. Sufficiency: Scripture Is Powerful
If adequacy was the Duct Tape connotation for sufficiency, then powerful is the dynamite connotation. Here the potential transformative impact of faith, belief, and obedience to Scripture is the focal point. Often debates in this realm are either misguided arguments about relevance (see above), or a conversation caught up in the possibility-probability conundrum.
An example of the possibility-probability conundrum would be the addict who gets saved and never abuses their substance of choice again. As a possibility, we would rejoice in this testimony. As a probability or declaration of how God usually works, we would not affirm this as normative.
Similar to a previous point, the power of one thing does not imply the lack of power of another. The power of Scripture does not imply the lack of power in a friend’s example to motivate change, the sobering reality of death to reset priorities, or the power of changing patterns of thoughts to influence emotions.
6. Sufficiency: Scripture Is Exhaustive or Exclusive
The final connotation is the one that most who advocate for the sufficiency of Scripture deny holding, but still seems to come into debates on the subject. Here the question is how detailed and extensively does Scripture speak to every question we may face in life? It is commonly said in biblical counseling circles that the Bible was not intended by God to be an encyclopedia that offers a proof text to our every concern.
However, in discussions on sufficiency-as-exhaustive there is a wide variance of opinion on the degree of authoritative inference that can be drawn from the worldview of Scripture to address questions the Bible does not directly address. The partisan tensions that emerge over the exhaustiveness of Scripture can erase the good will that should have been able to be built over large areas of agreement about the completeness, adequacy, primacy, authority and power of Scripture (areas in which evangelicals agree).
“Scripture as exhaustive” is where differences emerge on the relative importance of subjects like using biofeedback to alleviate anxiety versus taking an exclusively faith-based approach, or exposure therapy approaches to lighten the effects of post-traumatic stress versus exclusively looking for ways to increase an individual’s faith response in moments of distress.
Utilization of these techniques are often implied to be a denial of sufficiency because they are not in the Bible. However, this conclusion is only accurate if sufficiency means exhaustive-exclusive and would imply that special revelation (the Bible) is in competition with general revelation (effective common grace approaches). The consistent testimony of Scripture is that general revelation is harmonious with but incomplete without special revelation.
My goal in this article was not to declare where every Christian ought to stand on each of these synonyms for sufficiency. Neither was my goal to provide an interpretive key by which it could be discerned how each of these synonyms best apply to every potential life struggle. Those are fascinating conversations I love to participate in but are beyond the scope of this brief article.
My goal was much more humble. Instead, my goal was to advance the discussion about the sufficiency of Scripture by clarifying the multiple connotations frequently given to the word sufficiency. My hope is that this can alleviate tensions that emerge when one word is used with several meanings in the same conversation.
Will this alleviate all tension? Absolutely not. There are real and important differences that exist. But if we remove tensions that emerge from the inconsistent use of language, we should be able to communicate more effectively about these differences. If, after reading this article, you can…
- …identify when the term sufficiency is being used with each of these six references,
- have the conceptual categories to clarify the various usages of sufficiency, in order to
- have a more fruitful conversation with someone at a different point on the sufficiency spectrum…
… this article has accomplished all that it set out to do!