Tota Scriptura and its companion phrase sola Scriptura are ways of stating a belief in the inspiration, authority, and completeness of God’s Word, the Bible. When someone lays claim to sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”), he is stating that the Bible is the one-and-only rule for faith and practice, apart from tradition or any other human authority. When a person lays claim to tota Scriptura (“Scripture wholly” or “every part of Scripture”), he is saying that the entire Bible is equally inspired by God. Tota Scriptura is also called the plenary inspiration of Scripture.
Sola Scriptura, a term that came out of the Protestant Reformation, has a limiting effect in that it keeps people from adding to the Bible; tota Scriptura has an enlarging effect in that it keeps people from subtracting from the Bible. Sola Scriptura and tota Scriptura balance each other to keep us focused on the 66 inspired books of the Bible, nothing more and nothing less.
Tota Scriptura emphasizes that the Bible is to be taken as a whole. The complete canon is God’s Word, and we cannot pick and choose what parts of it to accept and what parts to reject. In Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian believers, he said, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:26–27, ESV). Note that Paul had discharged his duty before God by preaching the “whole counsel of God”; in other words, Paul preached tota Scriptura.
We all have our favorite passages in the Bible or preferred “go-to” spots in Scripture, but we cannot ignore the rest of God’s Word. Tota Scriptura prevents us from overemphasizing one part of Scripture over another and thus falling into false beliefs.
Some false teachers suggest that only the “red-letter words” (those spoken directly by Jesus Himself) are truly inspired. Others reject Paul’s epistles or throw out the book of Revelation or ignore the Old Testament. Still others divide the passages that deal with matters of faith from those that deal with matters of history or science—the Bible is accurate, they say, when it speaks of faith, but in matters of history or science it cannot be trusted. The problem with all of these views, besides the fact that they contradict the principle of tota Scriptura, is they set up man as the judge of God’s Word. Who exactly gets to decide what parts of the Bible are right or wrong? If we move away from tota Scriptura, we can all take scissors to the Bible and come up with our own text, relying on our own wisdom (or feelings or intuition or whatever).
We cannot say, “The Bible is God’s Word—” and then add, “—but this part is ‘truer’ than the rest.” Holding to tota Scriptura, we cannot downplay or detract from any part of the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, from the creation to the end of the world, God has given us His Word revealing His plan of salvation. Proverbs 30:5 says, “Every word of God is flawless,” not “some of the words” or “a great majority of the words.” Every word. That’s tota Scriptura.