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Sunday, March 20, 2011

What does it mean to say that Scripture is materially sufficient but not formally sufficient?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

Question:  What does it mean to say that Scripture is materially sufficient but not formally sufficient?      

Here is a question that lies at the heart of the disagreement between Catholicism and the rest of Christendom and that which fueled the Protestant Reformation:  Does Scripture contain ALL that is necessary for our salvation?

The Catholic can answer:  yes, Scripture contains all the truths necessary for our salvation. On this we can agree with our Protestant brothers and sisters.

But this must be understood with some nuance.

The Catholic may proclaim:  "Scripture is materially sufficient, but not formally sufficient."

"For Scripture to be materially sufficient, it would have to contain or imply all that is needed for salvation. For it to be formally sufficient, it would not only have to contain all of this data, but it would have to be so clear that it does not need any outside information to interpret it.

Protestants call the idea that Scripture is clear the perspicuity of Scripture. Their doctrine of sola scriptura combines the perspicuity of Scripture with the claim that Scripture contains all the theological data we need.

It is important to make these distinctions because, while a Catholic cannot assert the formal sufficiency (perspicuity) of Scripture, he can assert its material sufficiency, as has been done by such well-known Catholic theologians
."  source  One such theologian who supports this view is Pope Benedict XVI.   However, it must be noted that this "material sufficiency of Scripture" paradigm is not THE "official" Catholic position, only a position that a Catholic may hold.  So while this view is supported by our pope, since he is speaking as a theologian, and not as pope, this position is not binding on all Catholics.

However, one area in which this "material sufficiency of Scripture" position is problematic is in several truths which we (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) believe which are not found in Scripture, either explicitly or implicitly, namely:
  • the canon of Scripture (that is, the list of books which belong in the Bible).  The Bible did not come with a table of contents.  This was discerned by the Catholic Church in the 4th century.
  • the belief that public revelation has ended.  Not stated explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
  • the belief that there will be no more apostles.  Not stated explicitly or implicitly in Scripture.
While we are permitted to hold the "material sufficiency of Scripture" position, we must also assert that some theological truths must be drawn from Sacred Tradition, the oral proclamation of God's Word.  Indeed, the entire Catholic faith was complete and entire before a single word of the New Testament was ever written down.  It subsisted, fully and completely, in the Word of God--Jesus Christ, and was delivered, once for all, to the Apostles.  Thus, the kerygma, or the proclamation of the Gospel, existed before the New Testament was ever committed to a manuscript.  

Therefore,  Scripture AND Tradition are 2 modes of God's revelation. That is, Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione ("All is in Scripture, all is in Tradition")--not either/or but both/and.

Finally, a bit more on the Protestant dogma of sola scriptura--the belief that the Scriptures alone are materially sufficient for theological truths.  Sola Scriptura proclaims that there is no authority outside of Scripture required in interpreting or discerning its meaning.
(Here we echo some previous apologetics discussions.)

Clearly the paradigm of sola scriptura is untenable, for one needs a Church--an outside authority--to proclaim what actually IS Scripture.  Unless someone (that is, the Catholic Church) discerned that, say, the Gospel of Mark was inspired but that the Gospel of Thomas was not, Christians today would have no idea what was part of God's revelation and what was simply an early Christian manuscript. See
this list of the multitude of early Christian texts--some which the Church discerned to be inspired, and some which the Church rejected.  In other words, Scripture ALONE cannot be the sole authority, because someone else--not Scripture--had to proclaim what belonged in the canon (or list) of books of the Bible.

Again, this belief of sola scriptura is NOT found in the Bible, thus it is a self-contradictory, self-refuting proclamation.

Secondly, history has borne out the sad fruits of this sola scriptura paradigm--it simply doesn't work.

  • If the Bible alone is all that's required why are there over 30,000 different understandings of what this Bible proclaims?  How "perspicuous" (clear, lucid) could it be if one can't even agree on what 1 Peter 3:21 means?  (Does Baptism save you?  Is it a sacrament or an ordinance?  Must it be done as an infant or at the age of reason?  Must one be baptized in a river or at a font? By sprinkling or immersion?   These are just a few of the differing doctrines Christians hold on this one verse!)
  • If the Bible alone is all that's required, why are there Protestant seminaries?  Why are there Protestant Bible studies?  Wouldn't sola scriptura advocates simply need to pick up their Bible, and, guided by the Holy Spirit, come to an understanding of its meaning?  
  • And why doesn't the First Baptist Church on Main St have the same beliefs as the Church of the Nazarene on Maple Dr if they're both reading the very same Bible?
So, while a Catholic can say that Scripture contains references to all that is necessary for our salvation, Scripture alone (without Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium) fails as a theological truth.

"It is not from Sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws its certainty about everything that has been revealed. Therefore both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence"—Dei Verbum, Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Vatican II, Pope Paul VI, 1965.

For more in-depth study visit these websites:
"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15

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