Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Does John MacArthur Really Believe in the Sufficiency of Scripture?

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.


Mark Perry said...

Ben, I'm not sure exactly how to respond here, but I think you may be overlooking a few things. Would you say that a knowledge of language is necessary to understand the Bible? If so, would you agree with me that the Bible is not a primer in learning to read and understand Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic?

I think that when we speak of the "sufficiency of Scripture," it is not the sufficiency of understanding the Scripture, but rather that the Scripture is completely sufficient for faith and practice. In other words, the Bible is all we need to live and believe in a way that is pleasing to God. This presupposes an understanding of what Scripture means, which in my view is synonymous with the intention of the author. This requires a knowledge of the context.

Keith said...

Interesting thoughts. Here are some quick thoughts in response:

If we admit that we must learn the language of the Bible in order to interpret the Bible, and if we accept that the language of the Bible is contained in the Bible (therefore consistent with the sufficiency of Scripture), then why would it not be consistent to argue that the culture, geography, and history of the Bible is contained in the Bible (therefore also consistent with the sufficiency of scripture)?

That's a pretty poor sentence, so let me try a different approach . . . If we can allow the use of Hebrew and Greek grammars to help us learn the Biblical languages (the grammars being extra biblical), then why not allow the use of extra biblical histories and atlases?

Still not a great bit of communication, but the best I can do for now.

I would guess that MacArthur would say that someone who read only a translated Bible carefully would also be able to interpret sufficiently to understand the Bible's major outline of Creation, Fall, Redemption as well as the way to receive redemption. I think he's just saying it can be easier to learn those things and more with external helps.

For example, guys like C.S. Lewis could sit down with Homer and learn Greek without much problem. Most of us though are helped greatly by using some teaching/learning aides. They aren't essential (thereby not threatening sufficiency of scripture) but they are helpful.

Anonymous said...

Chris Anderson linked to a message on Sermon Audio by Peter Masters that addresses a similar topic. The message is here:

I did a summary of it here:

Sorry I don't know how to do links right in the blogger comment window!

Anyway, I think that there is an error in assuming we must know all the historical, cultural, scientific, data in order to understand the Scriptures. For one thing, it is impossible to get there - we can never know all the data currently available, and even if we did, new research would bring new data... not to mention the arguments about what the current data mean. Just read BAR, you will see that there are conflicting interpretations all the time.

At the same time, culture and archaeology etc are helpful in furthering our insight. I would agree that they aren't the be all and end all they are made out to be.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...

As I noted briefly in my comments above, the language distance is an internal issue to the text. The text consists of language. It would be impossible to compose a text without language, would it not?

On the other hand, it is possible to compose a text that is self-contained--one that does not demand a knowledge of history, culture, or geography external to the text in order to understand the text.

It does seem that the lines between language and culture are a bit blurred at times. Whether a particular combination of words constitutes a piece of linguistic information or a piece of cultural information may not always be distinct. I do think that geographical and historical information is more distinct from linguistic information, which is essential to the nature of text.

My question to you would be, how can the Scripture be sufficient in and of itself for faith and practice if we don't know what to believe or do without extra-biblical information about culture, history, and geography? The inescapable implication is that God would not have given us in the text everything we need to determine what we believe and do.

Finally, your reasoning is circular. You're asserting that we need context to determine authorial intent, which determines meaning. But merely asserting this to be the case doesn't make it so. In other words, you possess a presupposition that God didn't inspire the text in such a way that it contains within itself all the necessary markers to te correct interpretation.

I'm not even going to attempt to provide an authoritative argument against your presupposition, but I've provided a couple places for you to find arguments worth considering. I've not met a person yet who has considered these hermeneutical issues seriously who has not benefited from the process.

Ben said...

My previous comment was to Mark, by the way.


I'm trying to avoid delving into a defense of the hermeneutic to which I'm referring folks, focusing instead on making the point that the traditional grammatical-historical-cultural-geographical hermeneutic contradicts the sufficiency of Scripture.

That said, for the purpose of clarity, I'm not suggesting that geography, culture, and history are irrelevant to interpretation. I am arguing that we ought to at least stop and ask the question whether the Bible contains within itself all the culture, geography, and history that we need to interpret it. We need to recognize our presuppositions. Many if not most or all of us have adopted a presupposition that we need information God chose not to include in the text in order to interpret the text. That presupposition may or may not be correct, but we better know why we hold it if we're going to operate based on it.

Robert said...

Sufficiency is almost as loaded a word as relevant, but I think there is an underlying truth in MacArthur's point. To get at what I think he's trying to say, I'm going to reference Cultural Literacy by Ed Hirsch. He made the point that just knowing the language isn't enough to comprehend what you are reading. To use his example, take a newspaper article about the result of an appeals court case dealing with a lawsuit filed against the Department of Agriculture. Even if you know every English word used, it still doesn't make sense without a base of knowledge that you as the reader must bring to the article. Full comprehension pre-supposes and requires that you already have at least a vague familiarity with the courst and the Executive branch of our government.

I think MacArthur is making the same kind of argument. Can you fully understand the image of Christ returning for the church without knowing the Jewish wedding customs? Can you fully get the 23rd Psalm without knowing how shepherds deal with sheep? Can you grasp the horror of the cross without knowing its history in the Roman world?

This is not to say that you cannot live a godly, holy, dedicated life solely by reading what's in the English Bible. Is the Scripture "all things that pertain to life and godliness" without knowing the culture and archeology of the Bible? I'd say absolutely yes. But there are still things that can be gained by knowing the extra-biblical background that adds layers to what we read.

Ben said...


1. I don't disagree with Hirsch on that point, but the Bible is different from any other book in that it is inspired by God. By using Hirsch's analogy, we're presupposing that the Bible is like other books.

2. By "fully understand," do you mean "understand everything that can be known" or "understand everything that the author intended to be known"? Again, this approach presupposes that we're supposed to know everything, or at least as much as possible. It discounts the possibility that the text contains all that is needed for interpretation.

3. How do we know for sure that there is something to be gained? As Don pointed out, sometimes extra-biblical authorities contradict one another. Are we saying that it's impossible that God gave us all we needed within the text?

4. Again, don't dismiss these possibilities because I'm a bad articulator of them. My point is that we need to be aware of the possibilities and that we're contradicting the sufficiency of Scripture when we import external data. We need to face up to that fact and not dismiss it because we don't like it.

Keith said...

As one who thinks that cultures produce language and languages produce cultures, and who also thinks that culture and cultural context is very important. I still have no trouble in also thinking that the Bible does contain all we absolutely need for faith and practice. It is sufficient in that way.

Nevertheless, to argue that it is all we can make use of (I know you are not yet advocating for that but just asking people to think about this hermeneutical issue) would be to argue against preaching.

Preaching itself is more than what is contained in the text. If it weren't, it would be called reading.

Ben said...


Concerning preaching, I don't think anyone construes the sufficiency of Scripture to mean that we don't need anything other than the text. ("Just read the Bible. That's all you need.") We need the church. We need preaching. The reason we know we need them is because the text tells us we need them.

Concerning culture, I'm not discounting all elements of culture from interpretation. You may have read my discussion of language and culture (insufficient, of course, given that I'm a fundamentalist ;-) ) above, which acknowledges some level of agreement with your point. But I think we should consider whether the text contains the cultural clues that we need to get to the authorial intent of the text.

Off the top of my head, Boaz as the "near kinsman" (I believe is the wording) comes to mind. I don't know if this is a good example of something that has hermeneutical significance or not, but earlier texts may well give us all we need to know about kinsman-redeemers to interpret this text, without delving into cultural background data external to the text. So the cultural setting might be significant, but what it significant and/or necessary might be found within the canon, and what is extraneous might be excluded.

Brendan S said...

Ben: But there are still things that can be gained by knowing the extra-biblical background that adds layers to what we read.

I don't think "layers" is quite inclusive enough. Extra-biblical and non-canonical along with archaeological, anthropological, and historical background data actually are sometimes the means to be able to get at authorial intent and subsequently how to actually interpret what the author intended.

Ben said...


1. Robert said that, not me.

2. You're presupposing that external data helps us identify authorial intent without defending that presupposition. The seventh (longest) paragraph in my original post addresses a few of many questions that we need to answer before we settle comfortably into that presupposition.

3. I realize this is a paradigm-shaking hypothesis.

4. Once again, my primary point is that we can't say we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture if we really don't. It's kind of a clash of presuppositions. Which do we hold more dearly--our hermeneutic or our view of Scripture? One of them has to go.

Keith said...


I think you may be assuming that I am coming at this adversarially. I am not. I think you raise a legitimate question. Just wanted to participate in the discussion.

I actually believe that the Bible does contain within itself the necessary cultural indicators. We can understand the Bible sufficiently on its own terms. We don't absolutely NEED to know more about Bible era culture (as long as we can get ahold of a translation or we know Hebrew and Greek).

Again, though, saying what I just said, doesn't mean that other information should be prohibited. Other information, while not absolutely essential, exists and is useful. Sola Scriptura never meant that Scripture was the only authority. It meant that scripture alone was the infallible authority/the highest authority.

Now, regarding preaching, I will have to argue with your reasoning. By the definition of "sufficient" that you are suggesting, preaching is not necessary. Reading it alone would suffice.

Your position can be attacked from two different directions: (1) "Sure the Bible directs certain people to preach, but that is not a call for preachers at all times. Now that the canon is closed, we don't need new preachers. We just need good readers. I'm a strict cessationist when it comes to preaching!" (I don't buy this argument by the way)
(2) The Bible tells us we need culture just as clearly as it tells us we need preaching. (I do buy this argument)

Again, I'm not seeing this as a two sided debate but as several guys trying to come to better understanding of truth.

In fact, when you write: "Which do we hold more dearly--our hermeneutic or our view of Scripture? One of them has to go," I think you are leaving out at least one additional logical option. Surely it could also be possible that our understanding of our hermeneutic and/or our view of scripture may be inadequate. As our understanding increases/improves we may discover that these views do actually harmonize.

Robert said...

Yes, the Bible is inspired, but the readers are not. Reading skills do not improve because of the subject matter, nor do the tools that help us comprehend what we read. (Although I would agree if you wanted to argue that the Holy Spirit guides readers to the truth of the Word...don't know if you do, just would agree if you did!) The Bible is most definitely not like other books, and I don't mean to imply otherwise.

The inspired authors were writing primarily to immediate readers--using their shared cultural knowledge as a point of reference. (ie when Paul talked about the body of death in Romans, the church at Rome knew the penal practice of shackling a murderer to a corpse, but that very vivid illustration of truth is not in the Scripture.) That's the kind of thing I'm talking about by "fully understand."

I wouldn't agree that it contradicts the sufficiency of Scripture to study history and culture. But taken to extreme the position you're describing becomes similar to the ultra-KJVO position that there's no point in studying Hebrew or Greek. I want to know as much as I can about the Word. But I certainly don't want to add to it or question its sufficiency.

And I think you've articluated a very interesting and thought-provoking question quite well.

Ben said...


I wasn't taking anything adversarially. Hope I didn't come across that way myself.

You make some points that need further discussion. I'll be back tomorrow.

Ben said...


How is additional cultural information helpful? Do you mean that it makes preaching more colorful? How do we know that importing data from outside the text does not actually obscure the authorial intent?

When you talk about the history of Sola Scriptura, one important question to ask is what kind of hermeneutic was used by those who've advocated it throughout church history. To what degree were the pre-moderns interested in extra-biblical information influencing their understanding of the text?

Thanks for the clarification of your point on preaching. I think I misinterpreted you. My mistake--you weren't unclear. I think the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture is that the text contains all the revelation we need for life and godliness. Preaching is not new revelation; it's explanation of existing revelation. (Well, at least it ought to be, but who am I kidding?) What I keep coming back to is that if we presuppose that we need extra-biblical information to interpret the text, we are saying that there is non-inspired information, or revelation, if you will, that we need to interpret the text.

Finally, the point in your last paragraph is well taken

Larry said...


Are you sure you are properly representing the sufficiency of Scripture? I don't think sufficiency means that nothing else is necessary, such as cultural or historical understanding. At least I have never understood it that way.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Sola Scriptura point and the Reformation, that is a big point that Masters makes in the message I linked to above. He says that our emphasis on the grammatical/historical method is weakening Sola Scriptura.

It does seem that most of us posting here agree that what we need is balance - the extra-biblical sources do help our understanding but they are perhaps not the be-all and end-all that they are popularly conceived as.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


KJVO??? Ouch, you really know how to hurt a guy! Obviously, I'm going to argue that there's a huge difference since I'm saying we need to look carefully at the text in the original languages to the very best of our ability. I'm saying look at the text, not at one manifestation of the text in English. KJVO is completely on the opposite side from me since they say ignore the texts that were directly inspired in favor of what were created by uninspired man. (Granted, some are re-inspirationists or functional re-inspirationists.)

I think you raise some crucial questions about authors and readers. I'll be real honest about the fact that I believe that meaning is grounded in authorial intent. That's a presupposition I have about language. Once we've established that, it comes down to our understanding of inspiration. I'm not going to say I've got that all figured out, but I'm open to the possibility that divine authorial intent is not precisely equivalent to human authorial intent. I think this passage gives some evidence to that fact.

That doesn't mean I believe texts can mean what they never meant. I don't. But it does mean that the Bible is one book, and there is only one Author whose stamp of authorial intent is on the entire book. In other words, there is a coherent message to the whole canon of Scripture, and no human author saw that one coherent message fully from his immediate vantage point.

Ben said...


I've tried to address that question in the comments above, but perhaps I'm not capable of expressing myself well enough. I'll try again from a different angle.

I think this is a fair assessment of MacArthur's approach: Premise 1: We need to interpret the Bible correctly, since within it we find all we need for life and godliness and for raising up the man of God to spiritual maturity. Premise 2: We need extra-bibilical cultural, geographical, and historical information to interpret the Bible accurately.

The problem with these premises, as I see them, is that they are contradictory. The Bible cannot be all we need if we need information external to the Bible to interpret the Bible. We can't have a sufficient Scripture if Scripture depends on other uninspired data for its interpretation.

I'm not claiming to be representing sufficiency as it has been understood by our modern mindset. Rather, I'm raising some questions about whether our modern understanding of sufficiency is consistent with our modern understanding of hermeneutics.

It's possible that our understanding of sufficiency is deficient. Definitions are not arbitrary. The definition of sufficiency is only valid to the extent that it corresponds to reality. If our understanding of sufficiency isn't consistent with our heremeneutic, then one or both need to be modified if consistency is a goal we want to achieve.

Ben said...


It's uncanny how similar some of the things Masters is saying are to the discussion here. It's particularly amusing hearing his ridicule of the "new evangelical" hermeneutic, which is really the hermeneutic fundamentalists employ as well.

Masters identifies some of the same problems that we've discussed here, and he gets close to their historical origins. All issues worthy of consideration

I'm with Masters to that point. However, I'm not open to his contention that we need to spiritualize texts. I suspect that this approach will become quite arbitrary, as many of us have no doubt observed on many occasions while seated in pews. I'm sticking with a literal interpretation of the text.

In any case, I'm about halfway through and have been able to listen only without full attention. I intend to give it full attention eventually.

Robert said...


You make an excellent point regarding the true Author of Scripture and its internal unity as a result. (And sorry about the KJVO thing...well, at least a little.) And His intent is the only one that matters.

From the time I can remember, part of my dad's bedtime ritual with us, and subsequently mine with our kids was to repeat "The Bible is God's Word; whatever the Bible says is so." I believe the Bible always means what it says. I guess the only real difference is in determining how best to properly understand/interpret what the Bible says.

I still am not convinced that it harms the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture to bring other learning to bear on understanding what it means. I will say (admit?) that many people are using outside sources to change what the Bible rather clearly says/means because they don't like the implications. And in your critique of that, I would wholeheartedly concur.

Bob Bixby said...

Ben, I haven't read the comments and counter-comments, but are you confusing sufficiency and perspicuity?

JMAC would agree that the Bible is perspicuous and therefore sufficient to essential truth, but I am not sure I follow your view that the insistence for a external studies for deeper understanding contradicts that doctrine.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I noticed that Masters' take skewers the fundy view also. I am with him to a point, but I can't quite get to the spiritualization approach. I think it might come from Covenant Theology on Masters' part.

However, I do think he makes some excellent points concerning interpretation, especially the point that the entire Scriptures were conceived in the mind of God "in a flash" (I think he says) regardless of the time it took to reveal them through men.

It is distressing to me when commentators so humanize the Word that it becomes merely a matter of human forms and human constructs that somehow connect with divine truth. We perhaps flirt more with neo-orthodoxy than we know.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Sojourner said...


I'll go ahead an take this a step further. I believe that archaeology can actually detract from the author's intent and cause us to err in interpretation.

For one thing, how do we know that we are interpreting the archaelogical evidence correctly? If we err there, then we will certainly mess up in application.

Secondly, what if we dig up something that is completely biased? If 1,000 years from now, someone wants to learn about Jews from 1932-1950, what if they dig up a bunch of Nazi materials from that time period. Will that cloud their understanding of their culture and why they did certain things?

And if your point that a knowledge of certain historical things are necessary to interpret Scripture, then it is certain that those who went before us could not be as certain on the meaning of the text is disturbingly true. I just don't buy it.

Ben said...


Perhaps there's some overlap with perspicuity, but I definitely think the root of the issue I'm addressing gets to sufficiency. I think one could argue for perspicuity without sufficiency or sufficiency without perspicuity, but I haven't thought about it that much.

Ben said...


I completely agree. If I hadn't made that point previously, I should have.

Masters makes a great point in the link Don provided of how what he calls the "new evangelical hermeneutic" abandons the reformation hermeneutic in its incomprehensible commitment to treat the Bible like any other book.

We absolutely must consider the possibility not only that extra-bibilical information doesn't help, but also that it could lead us down the wrong path. I can't emphasize enough how worthwhile it would be to consider the chapter on text vs. event in the book linked in the original post.

I wish I could delve into this more. But has anyone else been frustrated both by the oft-arbitrary spiritual hermeneutic of covenant theology and the dispensational tendency to relegate the OT either to a documentation of Israel's history or to a series of narratives to be moralized? This approach provides a way out. And it maintains a consistent, literal approach to the text.

David T. said...

What you are saying in this article reminds me of KJVOists when they say that those who use modern versions don't have a Bible.
If any prerequisite for understanding the Scriptures is seen as a challenge to the sufficiency of Scripture then it is impossible for Scripture to be sufficient.
Fundamentalists, while extolling the written word, do not factor in the main prequisite of God's Holy Spirit as co-authoritative with Scripture. It is why fundies are so schismatic and argue over crap like this, and also over versions.
A comprehesive theology of the Spirit is absolutely necessary to have an accurate theology of the written word, and this is fundamentalism's achilles heel, IMHO.

Chris Anderson said...

It always makes my day when people end a fairly harsh criticism with "IMHO." That's great.

Ben, IMHO, you're out of your mind. :-)

I think the authors of Scripture assumed that their immediate readers understood basic facts of geography, culture, measurement, etc. -- all of which were common knowledge in their immediate settings but are not now. For example, when Scripture mentions a journey from one location to another, the direction, terrain and distance may effect the meaning of the text, though they are not specifically described in Scripture and -- in my case -- must be looked up in an extra-biblical atlas. But that doesn't effect the sufficiency of Scripture.

The same could be said for measurements. Writers assumed their readers would understand what a "cubit" was. Yet, the Bible doesn't define it, as far as I can tell. The same thing is true of monetary measurements: the difference between "talents" and "denarii" is crucial to our understanding of Matthew 18:23-35, yet Scripture doesn't communicate what the amounts are. It doesn't need to; it assumes that readers will know. That's how communication works. Since we are 2 millennia removed and the amounts are not known to us -- either from common knowledge or from the text of Scripture -- we need help understanding the measurements to understand the text. And we get that help from extra-biblical sources.

There are other examples. The point is, I don't see how something that assists our understanding of the text effects the doctrine of sufficiency. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I think Mark Perry's comment makes a lot of sense...especially the second paragraph.

BTW, I think the idea that we interpret Scripture in many ways as we do other books has a lot of merit.


Ben said...


IPMHO (In Peter Masters' Humble Opinion), you are a new evangelical and a quasi-liberal when you say that we ought to read the Bible like any other book.

Perhaps the difference between you and me on the points you raise is not as great as it appears. More later.

Chris Anderson said...

Call me a quasi-liberal if you must, but NEVER call me a new evangelical!!!