If memory serves correctly, I’ve heard John MacArthur speak in person on seven occasions. On at least three of those occasions, he specifically affirmed his conviction of the sufficiency of Scripture. And since two of the other occasions were part of a three-lecture series on “The Unintended Consequences of Non-Expository Preaching,” he was clearly advocating the concept even if he didn’t specifically articulate it.
In light of that conviction, I read with interest and a churning mind his recent post, “How To Enjoy Bible Study,” on the Pulpit Magazine blog. In the second main portion MacArthur outlines four major areas of “distance” that we must overcome if we are to understand the message of the Bible—language, culture, geography and history.
My question is this: If we have to understand things about culture, geography, and history in order to understand the Bible fully, can we really say we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture? Obviously, language distance is an obstacle to understanding the text itself, but if we have to master a knowledge base external to the text in order to interpret the text, then is Scripture really sufficient in and of itself to provide all that is necessary to bring the man of God to full completion? If previous generations did not possess our modern grasp of ancient culture, history, and geography, then did God really give them all things that pertain to life and godliness?
I believe the answer to those questions is no.
That doesn’t mean I’m equipped to argue against MacArthur’s hermeneutical approach. In a debate with him or pretty much any professor of hermeneutics, I’d get resoundingly shredded. But I am making two points. First, there are some who are fully capable of making the case that the authors/Author of Scripture gave us everything we need in the text of Scripture itself in order to interpret Scripture. Second, we can’t say that we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture if we have to study archeology and extra-biblical ancient history and culture in order to understand it.
The reality is that this isn’t solely a John MacArthur issue. Far from it. It isn’t a fundamentalist/evangelical issue. It isn’t even a dispensational/covenant issue. I recently perused the program of this fall's ETS Annual Meeting, and it's chock full of papers being presented on how to interpret Scripture in light of extra-biblical culture, geography, and history.
Rather, what I'm talking about is a foundational question of how we interpret the text of Scripture that cuts across all of these party lines. It seems to me that it’s a question worth considering. For example, does this modern hermeneutic that requires investigation into ancient culture, geography, and history fit the nature of the text? Does a close examination of the text give us reason to believe that the biblical authors intended to give later readers all the data they would need to interpret the text? What is the historical precedent for extra-biblical investigation as a grid for interpretation of the inspired text? How did NT authors read the OT? For that matter, how did later OT authors read earlier OT authors? Simply put, these are questions I believe we’ve largely neglected, to our hermeneutical detriment. For a couple examples of people wrestling with these issues, check out the series on OT hermeneutics and preaching OT narratives here, and read the section on text vs. event in this book.
Whether or not you agree with their hermeneutics, a conclusion seems unassailable to me. When we say we need things outside the text to understand the text, we can no longer claim to hold a consistent position of affirming the sufficiency of Scripture.