The Doctrine of the Sufficiency of Scripture has many implications for all of theology. In this position paper I will address one that is often forgotten. As Wayne Grudem puts it, this doctrine teaches us that “Scripture contained all the words of God He intended His people to have at each stage of redemptive history, and now it contains all the words of God we need for salvation, for trusting Him perfectly, and for obeying Him perfectly ”. However, in light of this, I will argue that this doctrine does not in any way negate the need of preaching and preachers “for salvation, for trusting Him perfectly, and for obeying Him perfectly”, but instead these (preaching and preachers) are instituted and called for by Scripture and are closely related to the doctrine of its sufficiency. I will demonstrate this through an exegetical study of various key biblical passages, such as Romans 10 and Acts 8, by pointing to the role of the Holy Spirit in aiding the preacher and illuminating the sinners mind and by trying to understand and biblically refute opposing views of this doctrine and of the offices of preaching and of preachers, views such as (1) the insufficiency of Scripture for salvation, (2) the uselessness of modern sermons and pastors, and (3) salvation by dreams or visions. I believe this topic to be of great importance given the fact that mankind has a tendency to alienate itself from the authorities that God puts over it, and at the same time to look for different sources from where to draw its spiritual nourishment, other than the Word of God, thus churches and pastors becoming despised, and God’s Word being marginalized.
Positions on the Issue
Before I go on mentioning some of the views that are different than my position, I want to make very clear what I will not be defending in this paper:
I will not be defending the fact that a person who has never come into contact with a clergyman cannot be saved. My understanding of the New Testament tells me that every Christian can be a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus, through their preaching bring others to salvation in Jesus. I will not be defending the fact that a person who has never walked into a church cannot be saved. The thief on the cross was not given this chance, and yet he was saved. Last, I will not be defending the fact that if someone does not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture he cannot be saved. I wish everybody would believe in this doctrine and I believe people can lead others astray when they do not believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, but that does not automatically disqualify them from salvation. Anyway, this is a topic for another day.
Perhaps the most different position than my stance on the issue is the Roman Catholic view of Scripture and its sufficiency (or lack thereof), its view of the institution of the papacy, the roles of their priests in administering the sacraments, and especially the role of the Church in the formation of Scripture and salvation of the individual. The Eastern Orthodox view is also very similar, with the exception of the institution of the papacy. This position can almost be seen as an exaggeration of my view, and for this reason I think it should be mentioned.
When an evangelical talks to Roman Catholics about the sufficiency of Scripture, he will very quickly be confronted by them with the argument that the Church was the one that put together the canon of Scripture and she was the one that used its God given wisdom in knowing which books to choose . Thus Scripture cannot be sufficient since it is relying on the Church to be formed. Also, a long and supposedly uniform tradition will be mentioned, one that goes back to the apostles to whom Christ has given authority to bind and to loose even in matters of doctrine. The continuous aspect of revelation will be argued as well, that is the pope speaking for Christ, and other possible new revelation. Furthermore, because of these things, salvation should be understood in light of the Church , in light of the tradition, and yes, in light of the Scripture as well. Thus, in order to be saved one must receive the traditional sacraments that are only to be administered in the context of the Church, that is, by a clergyman . In support of these views, Roman Catholics will point to Jesus giving the keys of the kingdom to the apostle Peter (Matthew 16:18,19) arguing that he was to be succeeded by other bishops like him , they will point to Matthew 16:19 and 18:18 saying that the Church has power to forgive or not forgive sins, to Church fathers like Cyprian and others who said that there is no salvation outside the Church , to arguments from the apocryphal books that the Church with its authority has deemed to be also authoritative, and not least they will point to their long lasting tradition with different councils that supposedly thought the same things.
Later I will comment more on these issues, but for now I want to point to the fact that I too want to ascribe worth and importance to the Church, to some of the offices in the Church, to the Church fathers and to some of their teachings. This can be deduced from my very thesis: I am writing to show that preaching and preachers are necessary even in light of a sufficient Scripture. Nevertheless, I will not do this at the expense of the sufficiency of Scripture.
Another opposing view to my thesis is the one expressed by Frank Viola and George Barna in their book “Pagan Christianity”. The main point that these two authors are making in this book is that the Church in our present modern day is not what it used to be in the first century. We strayed a long way from that model being influenced by different philosophies and religions and cultures, and the result is something that looks nothing like the Church of the Apostles . For proving these claims they point to the church buildings that are supposedly a new addition to the Church being influenced by the Greco-Roman temples, they point to the order of worship in our churches which, they say, is heavily influenced by paganism and Judaism, they point to some of our traditions that we undeniably have, they point to the music in our churches, the salaries of the pastors, to tithing, to the incorrect administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, again, all of them being heavily influenced by pagan ideas and deprived of their meaning. Most importantly to our discussion though, they point to the preaching of the Word of God through sermons and to the preachers themselves of whom they say are not scriptural ideas in the way we practice them today.
The dissension on this point with my position comes with regard to the necessity of the regular preaching of the Word of God, and the necessity of preachers or pastors. Writing about these matters, they ask rhetorically:
How can a man preach a sermon on being faithful to the Word of God while he is preaching a sermon? And how can a Christian passively sit in a pew and affirm the priesthood of all believers when he is passively sitting in a pew? To put a finer point on it, how can you claim to uphold the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura (“by the Scripture only”) and still support the pulpit sermon? […] the pastoral office has stolen your right to function as a full member of Christ’s body. It has distorted the reality of the body, making the pastor a giant mouth and transforming you into a tiny ear. It has rendered you a mute spectator who is proficient at taking sermon notes and passing an offering plate.
Just as we see in this section of their book about the preaching of the Word of God, these two authors claim that it was never meant to be a cultivated form of speech (possessing a specific structure) delivered regularly by the same person to an audience that passively listened to it, just as most of our evangelical churches do it today. Rather it was an active participation, prophets speaking spontaneously rather than studying in advance, being open to participation from those who heard, and all of these things occurring not regularly. In support of this view, the two authors point to the supposed irregularity of Jesus’ preaching (all though most of the accounts in the Gospels find Him teaching something to someone, even when performing miracles), they point to the preaching of the apostles that was, again, supposedly sporadic, delivered on special occasions, without a structure and dialogical rather than monological, and they point to the irregular gatherings of the early Church (although it was probably more often than we gather today). Also, to show the roots of Christian preaching today, they point to the Greek culture with their different famous orators. Fully aware of the charge of Paul to Timothy to preach the Word, the two authors dismiss this by claiming it is incumbent to every part of the body to teach one another.
As for preachers and pastors, this book claims that they are a product of history and tradition, not of the early Church. They vehemently oppose the office of the pastor or any other clergy position, pointing to verses that teach the priesthood of every believer.
As we can clearly see, these positions, though affirming the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, render the preaching of the Word of God to be almost useless, and it speaks even harsher about the office of pastor.
The last opposing view to my thesis is the idea that God can salvifically speak to unchristian people in dreams or visions. Although this is not a position that a lot of serious scholars (if any) embrace, it is nonetheless a very widely accepted view and dangerous to the understanding of the sufficiency of Scripture and it especially minimizes, if not completely denies, the necessity of preachers and of preaching.
Trying to defend this position biblically, one would most likely point to the fact that God is almighty and that He can do whatever He wants, even speak to someone in a dream or in a vision, and do so in a way that communicates the gospel of Jesus Christ to the person receiving this dream. Also, God does desire to be worshiped by all peoples, so why would He not advance His kingdom in such a way? Furthermore, they would argue, God is all loving, not wanting people to die in their sins, and thus He would choose to share the gospel in this manner with those that are in need of it. From a practical standpoint, these people would argue that God can do through dreams what we people cannot do through our missions, and so all the unreached peoples of the world still have a chance to inherit eternal life in spite of our inability to take the gospel to them yet. It also “saves” Christianity of its negative claim that people who do not hear about Jesus will go to hell. In support of these views, people would point to passages in Scripture about God’s almightiness, to passages in which God has talked to people through dreams and visions, and, of course, to the verses that tells us that God is unchanging in His attributes concluding that He still acts in the same way.
I believe such a view is totally unbiblical, and I will argue later why. For now though, I want us to see the implications this view has for the necessity of the preaching of the Word and of preachers: if God does reveal salvific messages to people in need of the gospel, then there is not a need for preachers of the gospel. We can rely totally on God and since we know He is sovereign, we trust He will do a marvelous job at bringing these people to faith through these means.
Support for the Sufficiency of Scripture and for the Offices of Preaching and Preachers
As I have mentioned before, I do not argue for an absolute necessity of the office of preachers for the salvation of a person. If a lost person wants to be saved, 1 Timothy 2:5 makes it clear that there is one mediator between God and man, and that is not the clergyman, but Jesus Christ, the one who gave Himself as a ransom for all. For a person to come to understand this, the Scripture should be sufficient because it is clear on this matter (and it is clear in general), and it also has power to transform the mind of the reader and save him.
The New Covenant makes it very clear that there is no longer a designated place where God can hear our prayers (John 4:21), and this applies also to our prayers for salvation and forgiveness. Furthermore, it makes it clear that God hears our prayers directly; we do not need a human to intercede for us as in the Old Testament. Christ has entered once and for all on our behalf into the Holy of Holies with His own blood (Hebrews 9:24), and now God wants to have a personal relationship with His creatures. They can all draw near to the throne of grace with confidence because Christ is our High Priest. Thus I would argue to my Roman Catholic friends that even having the office of priest is totally incompatible with the New Covenant and even blasphemous since that person is assuming a role that only Jesus is performing now. Everything from the incense that the wise men brought at Jesus’ birth to His death in Jerusalem of all places, tells us that He is the only mediator and the only priest of the New Covenant (that is if we do not consider the priesthood of every believer, which is entirely different than what Christ did and is).
As far as the Sufficiency of Scripture goes I would argue to the Roman Catholics, who believe in an almighty God, that if God is almighty indeed then He has the power to control and direct the putting together of the canon of Scripture. The fact that He used the Church to do so does not mean that the Church should now go ahead and think it has authority in repeating such acts, or to issue new God-spoken words; it simply means that God has worked through her for her own good at one point in history in that way. For this reason, she should be humbled.
Now, having stated all these, I want to move forward and look at the different biblical reasons for why we do need preaching and preachers anyway:
I believe the best biblical argument for this position comes from Romans 10:14-17. Paul’s main point in this passage is the fact that salvation comes through believing in the gospel of Jesus. In order to hear this gospel though, one must bring it to a lost person, and that is why Paul is asking rhetorically “how are they to hear without someone preaching?”. The implied answer is “they cannot hear”. In the most basic sense we could reduce this “preaching” to someone dropping a Bible from a plane on an island where someone finds it, reads it and believes it, thus being saved. Although this is exaggerated for the sake of the argument – most of the times it happens that the preacher goes and talks to the lost person on the island – the lost person on the island needed the “preacher” to drop the Bible from the plane so that he can read it and believe it. There would be no salvation for that person on the island without that “preacher” “preaching” to him by dropping the Bible. This translates into more literal and more likely scenarios where missionaries go as preachers to preach the gospel to people who have never heard it before, making it possible for them to hear, believe and be saved. In this sense, those people, who never heard the gospel before, need the missionaries to preach it to them. Now, do they need them absolutely? Of course not, someone could throw a Bible from the plane as I’ve argued before, or they could find a message in a bottle with the gospel written in it, or, as it happens in North Korea, the South Koreans might send some hot air balloons and drop gospel tracts to them. What they do need absolutely though is someone to take the initiative – I will call this the preacher – and somehow make it possible for the gospel to get to them – I will call this preaching.
Because of this passage (Romans 10:14-17), I would argue that this is the only way anyone can ever get saved. Not only does this passage imply that no one can hear the gospel without one that is sent to preach it (and by this I mean a human being), we also see this in the practice of the Church of the New Testament: for example, in Acts 8 we see an angel of God coming to Philip and telling him to go after the chariot that was before him. Doing so, Philip finds an Ethiopian, preaches the gospel to him from Isaiah 53, and the Ethiopian gets saved. Why did the angel not go himself and preach the gospel to him? Furthermore, in Acts 16 we see that Paul receives a vision that tells him to go to Macedonia and preach to the Macedonians. Why did the vision not appear to the Macedonians directly and tell them the gospel? I suggest that this is because God did not mean for the gospel to travel that way, but through humans. If this were not so, there would not be a need for the great Commission, the Church would not need to spend so much time and resources on global missions, and the missionaries would not need to risk their lives to bring the gospel to unreached peoples. God would simply send His angels who would do a much better job than us anyway.
Leaving salvation aside for now, Grudem’s definition of the sufficiency of Scripture continues saying that the Bible is sufficient “for trusting Him perfectly, and for obeying Him perfectly”. This being true, we know that not all Christians have the same maturity. Some do not trust or obey Him as much as others, and God designed the Church in such a way that stronger parts of this body would help weaker parts. One of the ways that they are helping the weaker ones is by making this Scripture, which is sufficient to trust and obey Him perfectly, be more easily understood by them. This is what preaching and preachers are all about.
Objections to my positions
To the position I have expressed about the putting together of the canon of Scripture, the Roman Catholics might bring up the fact that the process in which the Scripture was put together seems to have been very chaotic. Some of the books nearly made it in while others were left out after being nearly put in. Although I believe we do have the real canon today, and I would argue this historically, I would also argue that even if some of the books that were inspired by God were left out, it is still better to risk by not having all of God’s words, than to risk by having words that are not God’s be considered as His. In the first scenario, you just do not get all the knowledge and the blessings that could come from the book left out, while in the second one you will end up with damnable heresies.
George Barna and Frank Viola, objecting to my position of the necessity of the office of pastor and preacher, would probably bring up different real life scenarios where preachers have manipulated entire nations through their sermons, and caused unimaginable evil in the name of Christ. They would also point to the thousands of formal churches and their buildings that suck up a lot of money and to their payed pastors who are spending lavishly on their own desires. Although all of this is true and has been true of different scenarios, this does not mean that we get to ignore the Scripture’s teaching on such matters altogether. Just because some Christians who affirm some of the same truths as us are being hypocrites at the same time, this does not mean that all of us are like that. And if we are hypocrites, this would not be incumbent on the model of the Church we find in the Bible, but on us.
People objecting to my position on salvation being followed only after someone has been sent to preach the gospel, and not by them hearing the gospel through visions or dreams, might bring up the fact that world-wide there are many people who claim to have had dreams about Jesus, and that was their turning point. Furthermore, they would give the apostle Paul as an example of a person being saved after a vision. To them I would argue that Paul was one of the Apostles, so he needed Christ to preach to him in order to be an Apostle. As far as the people that have dreams of Jesus today, I would say that there is no way to test that. Also, even if they did hear the name Jesus in a dream, I think these people will come to church afterwards to hear the gospel and grow. So, dreaming that dream does not mean the gospel is being preached to them, it just opens them up to the gospel.
Through this assignment, I hope to have clearly presented the need for preaching and preachers in light of the sufficiency of Scripture while also offering a clear picture of how ideas that deny this doctrine stray from the truth.