On the Sufficiency (and Insufficiency) of Scripture
I have taken a few different preaching courses, usually because I was training at either a school or a church and they didn’t take credit from the ones I already had. Through these courses, I’ve learned about a few different approaches to writing sermons, but two common things have shown up in all of them:
- Each focused on the importance of expository preaching and proper understanding of scripture, and
- Every one of them urged us to include some form of practical application.
That second one is really what I want to focus on today, because it’s relevant to the ongoing, and now polarizing, arguments happening in Baptist circles (especially SBC) about the use of secular theories like Critical Race Theory. But first, a brief introduction to the situation as it stands right now.
I have covered some aspects of this issue already in two articles published last year, “The Failure of Integration” and “Controversy.” For those who have not read those and are not familiar with the debate, the basic summary is that the SBC last year approved a statement that affirmed the use of secular theories such as Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality by SBC churches as long as they were used under the guidance of the Bible. A number of Baptist voices have consistently and vocally condemned this move, claiming that permitting Godless ideologies to fester in the church undermines the gospel and directly contradicts belief in the sufficiency of scripture. A split has begun in the SBC, though they insist that is not their intention, with the formation of the Conservative Baptist Network.
This network, which has begun to establish its own regional chapters that broadly align with the state-level associations of the SBC, is “committed to seeing the SBC function biblically — efficiently and strategically — believing Convention entities and leadership are accountable to and encouraged by the autonomous, local churches that cooperate together.” They believe that part of this goal requires the rejection of social justice programs and ideologies and the support of patriotic behaviors. As this network continues to pressure the SBC to recant the article approved last year, they have found support in a letter cosigned by the presidents of the SBC seminaries which also called for a rejection of Critical Race Theory. Citing this direction of the SBC, multiple pastors, often of largely POC congregations, have spoken out on social media about why their church is either leaving the SBC or remaining a fighting part of the denomination.
The problem is that the logical foundation given for the behavior of the CBN and its allies does not actually contradict the text of the article in question. What was adopted by the SBC in the 2019 meeting was a statement that secular ideologies were useful as tools, but only so far as they can be used under the authority of the Bible. That is, anywhere these ideologies contradict scripture, they must be considered wrong. Which, of course, perfectly fits the claim that the Bible is sufficient and supreme in all matters of life. The people within the SBC now being denounced as rejecting the gospel have, almost to a man, affirmed the sufficiency, inerrancy, and supremacy of scripture, just as the CBN wants. They even mean the same thing when they make those affirmations. Because, I would argue, the CBN is somewhat misrepresenting itself when it claims that the sufficiency of scripture requires the rejection of secular ideas.
Sufficiency in Application?
Let’s take a moment to consider these bullet points from the CBN website, which appear in this exact order and phrasing:
- The Network affirms the inerrancy, supremacy, and sufficiency of the Bible in all facets of life and application.
- The Network affirms religious liberty and encourages Christian individuals and churches to influence the culture by engaging in the public policy process and demonstrating their patriotism.
I submit to you that the concept of engaging in political processes, religious liberty (as we now understand it), and demonstrating patriotism are alien concepts to the contents of the Bible. None of these concepts actually appear in scripture, and there is a very limited degree to which they can even be inferred from scripture. We are called to respect governing authorities and pray for our leaders, and told to be above reproach in our behaviors toward our government, and we are shown consistently that the gospel was not spread by the early church through coercion or political power. But this does not require anything more of us than to respect laws where they are just and to pray for people in power to know and glorify God in their work and to not use the government to enforce Christianity. The authors of the Bible had no concept of public participation in the functions of the government, as none of the governments in their world operated that way. And they certainly give no indication of anything we would today call patriotism; in fact, most of history did not include anything resembling our modern idea of patriotism. It’s a fairly recent development born out of the same (largely secular) ideals that fueled the American Revolution. And while we can certainly show that Christians should not rely on government power to carry out evangelism, there is nothing in that to suggest that the government has to give us freedom to evangelize.
That is, on the front page of their own website, a network whose sole purpose for existing centers on the rejection of all secular ideologies, they affirm a secular ideology. At least, they affirm the use of a secular ideology to inform their application. Which is hardly surprising.
The fact is, we all know that the Bible is not the only source of information we need to practice the right application. Some of the very same people now championing the CBN on the grounds that the Bible is fully sufficient for “all facets of life and application” taught me how to access other streams of information to inform some facets of our life and application. In fact, when I used Intersectionality as part of a final paper in a class taught by the new leader of one CBN regional network, my work was praised for seeing opportunities for church service that would not have been obvious otherwise.
As I noted in the introduction, every form of preaching training I’ve taken, some from members of the CBN, noted that the application portion of a sermon had to take the concept of the Bible passage and see what it looks like in practice today. And this always required additional information; information on context, on immediate needs and resources, on the lifestyles and limitations of the sermon’s initial hearers, for starters. All of this information comes from somewhere other than the Bible. The Bible, in that regard, is understood as not sufficient for every facet of application; it must be paired with an extrabiblical understanding of the situation to which it is being applied. The Bible is, of course, supreme in this usage — regardless of what is understood about the community, the application must not contradict the Bible and must rightly apply the specific Biblical concept being called upon — but not alone.
Applying concepts like Critical Race Theory is really no different. It tells us something about the context we’re speaking into, and this gives us information on proper application. It does not overpower or replace the gospel, it tells us a bit about what it will look like for the gospel to engage with people in certain circumstances. If it is correct in its descriptions, then it tells us about the specific relationships communities around us have with each other and specific places in those relationships where the gospel can bring healing; if it is not correct, it tells us at least the way many people around us view those same relationships, and therefore the things they will look to the gospel to solve in their own lives. Is that not useful to us?
The Bible will tell us a great deal about the heart of sin that manifests in the lives of people and the systems those people create, but it does not give, nor does it claim to give, an exhaustive list of every single effect that sin will have in the lives of people. It gives broad categories, of course, such as hatred and infidelity, and it gives a handful of specific instances. It tells us to love our spouses in a way that honors God, but we have to see for ourselves that this includes avoiding domestic abuse, because that specific form sin can take is not spelled out directly. On the other hand, it tells us to be above reproach in our dealings with governing authorities, but we must think of that in a specific way informed by other sources to conclude that it means pledging allegiance to a flag (and people like myself who view that practice as idolatrous must think of it in a different way and be informed by other sources, as well), because that specific expression of the concept is not spelled out in scripture. So why is it that when people say “here is a sociological system that looks at a specific expression of sin and how it manifests, perhaps we could use that to inform the way we apply the gospel to this sin,” such outside influence is anathema to the sufficiency of scripture?
I have this teenage son. There are a number of behaviors and habits that we’re trying to address with him, most of which are because they cause problems for other people in the household. When the problems are shown to him, he has a tendency to say “sorry” and then walk away without making any change to his behavior. I’ve begun explaining to him that this makes his apology worthless. I don’t need to hear that he’s sorry he chose to play video games when he was supposed to be feeding rabbits who are now hungry. The rabbits don’t need an apology. What I need is a change in behavior that helps us keep up with household tasks; what the rabbits need is food.
When I began to acknowledge the ways that my behavior to my ex were abusive, she was happy to have the apology and affirmation of that wrong done to her. But part of what gave her the chance to heal was the concrete steps of me no longer being present and abusive. What ensured my wife wouldn’t suffer the same abuse was not my word that what I’d done was wrong, it was the concrete steps I took to examine my behavior and its roots, give myself to God to be made new, and seek and accept help in recognizing and avoiding harmful behaviors and phrasings.
There is never a circumstance where someone who has been hurt or wronged only needs an apology, or an acknowledgement of problems. There are times when said acknowledgement or apology is necessary, sure, but never alone. What is always needed, whenever someone has been wronged, is concrete steps to make things right. It is action that makes things right. It was action taken by Christ that reconciles us to the Father. It is action that changes the world around us, that changes our impact on the lives of others, that changes the suffering people face.
“The Network strongly believes in a just society for all based on biblical truth, opposing racism and sexism in all forms,” the CBN website states. Which is good. These are good words to say. But what do we do about it? The claim that the gospel is sufficient for the problem is half true, in that it is absolutely correct but the sentence cannot end there. The gospel is the only thing that can bring true, lasting, healthy change, but it is not just the gospel spoken that brings that change. It is the gospel applied through action. The gospel does not remove racism simply by being said out loud, but by taking root in a person’s heart and changing the way they act toward other races. But dare to suggest to the CBN that something must actually be done about racism, that social justice is nothing more than attempts to actively do something about racism, and they take a step back and claim that if we would just preach the gospel, all would be made right. Then, in the preaching of that gospel, they would show they know better than their own claims by adding a practical application at the end, because the gospel in action is necessary.
The gospel is sufficient. Our desire to say it without living it is not. Let us never confuse one of these statements for the other.