MacArthur’s Mistakes: Psalm 19 and the Sufficiency of Scripture

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Introduction

In his article “The Sufficiency of Scripture,” John MacArthur states that,

Psalm 19:7–9 is the most monumental and concise statement on the sufficiency of Scripture ever made. Penned by David under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, these three verses offer unwavering testimony from God Himself about the sufficiency of His Word for every situation . . .

The article was written in the context of calling Christian reliance on psychology into question, but MacArthur argues against this by asserting that Scripture all by itself is sufficient for all things – “for every situation.” This is implied throughout the article and reiterated in the conclusion:

Contrary to what many are teaching today, there is no need for additional revelations, visions, words of prophecy, or insights from modern psychology. In contrast to the theories of men, God’s Word is true and absolutely comprehensive. Rather than seeking something more than God’s glorious revelation, Christians need only to study and obey what they already have. Scripture is sufficient.

While it is true that no psychological theory or further revelation is needed to understand God’s Word (as nearly all Christians agree), MacArthur’s 1:1 equation of “God’s glorious revelation” and “Scripture” is questionable, and there are several issues with his use of this Psalm to argue this “total sufficiency” position.

God’s Law and God’s Word

First, Psalm. 19:7-9 is speaking of God’s Law – not Scripture in general. There is more to Scripture than God’s Law (which was originally spoken – not written, and could have remained so forever), so they are not necessarily the same thing. Here is what it actually says in the translation MacArthur cites (NASB):

The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.

None of the subjects in this passage is Scripture – yet that is the subject of MacArthur’s alleged proof. Rather, the subject of every phrase concerns God’s Law. Even though God’s Law is found in Scripture, that does not make the two wholly equivalent. There is plenty of Scripture that does not express God’s Law (e.g., poetry or the recounting of historical events). The only way the argument can be made to appear sound is for MacArthur to expand the words’ definitions and add his own commentary to those expanded definitions (e.g., “fear” is a synonym for “God’s Word”???).

Second, even if the subject of each phrase were Scripture, David’s descriptions (“perfect,” “sure,” “right,” “clean,” and “true”) do not equate to “sufficient.” Again, the only way the argument can be supported is by substituting MacArthur’s commentary for the plain text. When taking the passage at face value, these verses do not point to Scripture in general, nor to the total sufficiency of Scripture.

Third, what David said when he wrote this Psalm had to be true at the time he wrote it – but all Scripture had not yet been written yet. Following MacArthur’s argument, the Old Testament (which was unfinished at the time) must have been “sufficient for every situation.” But was it? Where does the OT (even after completion) explain the gospel message or reveal the church? Where does Scripture explain how we should view stem cell research or what kinds of music to listen to? Where, in fact, does Scripture indicate its own table of contents?

Scriptural Sufficiency

Now, Paul speaks of “the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle,” showing that God’s revelation consisted in more than just what was written down (cf. John 16:1-1221:25). If this remained the case after the closing of the canon (the denial of which is often assumed although the Bible nowhere teaches this – even Psalm 19), then it is at least possible that more than the written portion of God’s revelation is needed to attain the kind of “absolutely comprehensive” sufficiency that MacArthur seems to have in mind.

We know Scripture is sufficient in some way for some things (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16), but “sufficiency” can be said of a thing in more than one way. At the very least there are formal and material notions of sufficiency. In the same way that ingredients can be materially sufficient for making pancakes without being formally sufficient (e.g., having ingredients does not mean having pancakes), the Bible can be materially sufficient for the faith without being formally sufficient. The Bible might have the material we need for “all things that pertain unto life and godliness,” but we need to do something with it in order to achieve formal sufficiency (e.g., read it, understand it, live it).

Conclusion

It seems that the “most monumental and concise statement ever made” on Scriptural sufficiency requires more extrapolation than it should (MacArthur’s commentary was 17x longer than the passage itself!). This, plus the amount of disagreement over the teachings of Scripture between people committed to it as God’s revelation, seems to evidence the fact that while the Bible is certainly sufficient in some sense, more is needed to attain the kind of complete sufficiency MacArthur affirms. What that additional factor is another issue (MacArthur’s commentary, perhaps?) – but that something more is needed has certainly not been disproven from this passage.

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One thought on “MacArthur’s Mistakes: Psalm 19 and the Sufficiency of Scripture

  1. The curious thing that MacArthur also doesn’t seem to address adequately, if at all, is that at David’s time there were a number of books that were considered scripture which now no longer exist. If we had in our possession all the visionary, prophetical, and historical, works that once existed and were quoted and/or referenced or otherwise cited by the writers of the historical books and Pentateuch, our Bibles would have been much thicker.

    So, if David’s comment could be quantified by the number of books, would not our Bibles today be less sufficient and more deficient than that of the earlier day, or would it be the other way around? Why or why not? And, would a Bible be more deficient with the omission of the deuterocanonicals or containing them, as did the Bibles of the early Jews and Christians before the scribes of Jamnia (Yabneh) worked toward fixing the canon to nearly what present-day Judaism considers sufficient? I often wonder what MacArthur’s thoughts would be on that subject if he ever gave any sufficient thought regarding that.

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