The four attributes of Scripture
A closer look at the sufficiency, clarity, authority and necessity of Scripture.
04 FEBRUARY 2017 · 10:20 CET
Sola Scriptura, the formal principle of the Reformation, means that the Bible is the supreme norm of faith and conduct for the people of God.
There is no other book like the Bible. As the evangelical preacher J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) put it: “Let us boldly maintain, in the face of all gainsayers, that the whole of the Bible is given by inspiration of the Holy Ghost –that all is inspired completely, not one part more than another – and that there is an entire gulf between the Word of God and any other book in the world”.1
In our days, we would do well to go back and unearth the buried principle of Sola Scriptura. It is sad to observe how in some Protestant circles preaching has become entirely sensational devoid of any biblical content i.e. “Dream big dreams!”, “Something mighty is coming!”, “Discover the champion within you!” and a long etcetera.
Then in other quarters biblical preaching has been smoothen over in the name of political correctness. What counts for many preachers is getting on well with folk (especially with the mayor or the local government).
But many times such sucking up leads to the loss of the preacher’s prophetic voice as he doesn’t wish to offend anyone. Then, there is the liberal wing of the church, which has no interest in anything the Bible teaches except a false love based on humanistic principles.
So now would be a good moment to hone in upon the importance of Scripture for the evangelical people and to recall the chief attributes of the written Word of God. It’s quite easy to learn the four attributes of Scripture off by memory if we keep the acrostic S-C-A-N in mind. The S refers to the sufficiency of the Word; the C to its clarity; A to the authority of Scripture; and the N to its necessity. Let’s unpack them in alphabetical order.
The Bible is the authority of authorities for Protestants. It is so because Scripture claims to be the inspired Word of God. The beloved apostle Paul commented that, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Although it’s true that Paul was alluding to the Old Testament when he penned 2 that verse, now that we have the whole canon, we can apply the same apostolic conviction to the books of the New Testament as well. The whole Word has been given to us by God’s breath.
Even if the Bible is the Word of God in the ontological and objective sense of the term, it is impossible to accept the testimony of Scripture without the inner working of the Spirit of God in one’s heart. In Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) words, “No man can understand a jot of Scripture if he has not the Spirit of God. [...] The work of the Spirit is indispensable for us to understand Scripture in its entirety and its parts”.
John Calvin (1509-64), somewhat younger than Luther, wrote in much the same spirit, “For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.
The same Spirit, therefore, who spoke by the mouth of the prophets, must penetrate our hearts, in order to convince us that they faithfully delivered the message with which they were divinely entrusted”.
The Reformers were completely convinced of the great need of the Spirit of God to read Scripture correctly. We believe the same. Given that the Spirit is the inspirer of the Word of the Lord, we are also persuaded of its infallibility (it cannot err) and its inerrancy (it does not err).
In spite of the fact that infallibility and inerrancy are modern-sounding words, the history of the church bears witness to the reality that, conceptually speaking, they were always warmly embraced by God’s servants throughout the post-apostolic age.
As early as the epistle of Clement to the Corinthians (first century), the pastor writes, “Look diligently into the scriptures, which are the true sayings of the Holy Spirit. You know how nothing unjust or corrupt has been written in them” (1 Clement 45:2-3).
As well as Clement, we could quote other similar statements from the quills of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine, etc.
The church of the Lord has always gloried in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
Protestants also confess their belief in the perspicuity of Scripture, that is, its clarity. The idea behind this concept is that the central message of the Bible is so clear that it is easy to understand. Of course there are enigmatic passages in the Word which are more difficult to interpret, nevertheless, its main message can be understood by just about anyone.
Although we will never be able to fully comprehend the great love with which the Lord has loved us, this does not mean that we cannot grasp the message of the Gospel. If we preach the Good News of salvation to a child of four or five years old, he (she) will be able to understand us without too much trouble.
In fact, in certain parts of the Bible, we are told to teach the Word to children (Deuteronomy 6:6-7) and to those who are “simple” (Psalm 19:7; 119:30). So the Word is obviously clear!
Why, then, do some not see the clear light of Scripture? Perhaps it is due to the fact that they have not been regenerated by the power of the Spirit of God. The natural man cannot accept the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:14) so he will refuse to take heed to the Word.
Others may lack faith or have a hardened heart (Luke 24:25) and some could be in error or lack understanding (Galatians 2:11-15). But all in all, the central course of Scripture is clear, perspicuous and straightforward.
In a recent doctrinal study upon Scripture, I asked the brethren in my congregation, “Why do you think the Bible is necessary?” Their answers were spot on. “We need the Bible to accept the Gospel, to grow in holiness and to know the will of God”.
If we didn’t have the Bible, how would we come to hear the Gospel? If God had decided to use oral tradition instead of a book, the Gospel message could have died out after the first few generations of believers passed away. Thanks to the Lord that we have an objective book which we can consult to find out more about the expiatory work of the Saviour, Jesus Christ.
As well as hearing the Gospel, the Bible helps us to grow in sanctification. As Christ stated in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”.
If we go for a month without eating, we will feel weak and without strength. In the spiritual sphere, how can we be strong in the Lord if we do not feed every day from the blessed book of God?
And how else could we know the will of God were it not for the Bible? Since we have the Scriptures as our objective foundation, we can test every teaching by the Word. If a false prophet came to minister in our congregation, how would we know he was an emissary of the devil were it not for the Word of God? The Scriptures are essential for a church to maintain her spiritual health.
We hear the voice of God as we read the Word. If someone says, “I want to hear the voice of God!” Tell him (her), “Read the Bible!” If he (she) replies saying, “No, no! I want to hear the audible voice of God!” Hit back with, “Read the Bible out loud!” The Bible is necessary to know God’s will.
Lastly, we come to the sufficiency of Scripture. The Bible is sufficient for us to know everything God wants us to believe regarding faith and conduct. The Word is sufficient to transform our erroneous thinking and conduct. It is sufficient for each and every area of life, even for the emotional realm.
In each step of redemption history, the Word has always been more than sufficient. Although Moses did not have a copy of the New Testament, the Word was sufficient for him to know God’s will and to walk in it.
The same could be said of Abraham, Noah and even going back as far as Enoc and Adam. The Word of God is utterly sufficient. It always has been and it always will be.
In the light of our study, let us draw some practical conclusions to sum up.
Firstly, always seek for guidance in the Bible when you have doubts with respect to any doctrinal or ethical matter. Secondly, never add to or take away from Scripture. Thirdly, never elevate any dream, vision, desire or church project to the same level as the authority of the Word. Fourthly, never ever accept any anti-biblical counsel or advice (whoever your counsellor may be). Fifthly, love, kiss, hug and treasure the Word as the gift of gifts. Sixthly, give thanks to the Lord for every biblical preacher you come across and pray to Him to lift up a multitude more of them in our day and age.
1 RYLE, J.C., Warnings to the Churches (Banner of Truth: London, 1967), p. 63.