In What Sense is Scripture Sufficient? (Part II)

In What Sense is Scripture Sufficient? (Part II) April 3, 2023

Codex Vaticanus B, 2Thess. 3,11-18, Hebr. 1,1-2,2


In a previous post, the question was raised as to whether or not Scripture is sufficient.  Although the concept of the sufficiency of Scripture is one that is arguably most associated with the Protestant notion of Sola Scriptura (rejected by the Catholic Church), it was said that Catholics could indeed agree that Scripture is sufficient.  This of course presupposes that a distinction be made between what has been called the material sufficiency of Scripture, – a view approximating that of many Early Church Fathers – and the formal sufficiency of Scripture.  The latter is essentially the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Having said this, it remains in the present post to unpack these terms.


Material Sufficiency of Scripture

According to Catholic Answers apologist Jimmy Akin:

“The claim that Scripture contains or implies all the [basic] data for theology is known as the material sufficiency of Scripture, and it is a perfectly acceptable position for Catholic theologians to hold (cf. Yves Congar’s work Tradition and Traditions), so long as one does not move to the position of claiming that Scripture is so clear that one does not need Apostolic Tradition or the Magisterium to interpret it — a position known as the formal sufficiency of Scripture, which is identical with the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura. Thus a Catholic can say that Scripture gives one all the [equipment] one needs for theology, just not the background one needs to use the [equipment].”

The above is more or less what St. Vincent of Lérins affirmed in the second chapter of his Commonitory, as cited in the previous post.  To reiterate, he allowed that Scripture was “sufficient of itself for everything”, yet he insisted at the same time that “it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.”  This meshes with the comments of J.N.D. Kelly, who noted that the general attitude amongst the Early Church Fathers towards the question at hand was that “[i]f Scripture was abundantly sufficient in principle, tradition was recognized as the surest clue to its interpretation….”  This approximates the concept of the material sufficiency of Scripture.

The distinction that Akin makes above zeroes in on another term associated with Sola Scriptura, namely, what is called  the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture.  As he explained, if one takes the position that that neither the teaching authority of Catholic Church nor Tradition are necessary for properly interpreting Sacred Scripture, then they are arguing for formal sufficiency, which the Catholic Church rejects.


Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

Finding a concise definition for this concept has proved to be elusive, and there may or may not be a monolithic understanding of what this means among Protestants.  Nonetheless, there are some general observations that can be made.  According to Barry Cooper, “the sufficiency of Scripture also means that Scripture itself is sufficient to interpret Scripture”.  He goes on:

“Their [i.e. the Protestant Reformers’] point was that, in contrast to the Church’s teaching, we do not need an infallible church in order to understand what Scripture says about salvation and what we must do to honor and please the Lord. People don’t require the Pope or the Church or Church tradition to tell them, definitively and infallibly, what Scripture means. Or to put it another way, only Scripture can interpret itself infallibly and only the teaching of Scripture can bind the conscience.”

From the above, we can see that the role that that Catholic Church has traditionally assigned to the Magisterium and Tradition in properly interpreting Scripture is denied.   Cooper is echoed by Protestant Apologist Matt Slick: “The Scriptures themselves declare that they are sufficient in and of themselves for us to know and establish spiritual truth. Therefore, we do not need the Roman Catholic Magisterium and sacred tradition.”  Thus Akin seems to hit the nail on the head above when he pointed to the acceptance (or rejection) of the Protestant understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture as being the cleaver that divides the notions of the formal and material sufficiency of Scripture.

One verse that is commonly utilized by Protestants to argue for formal sufficiency is 2 Timothy 3:16.  Given this, and having established that the so-called perspicuity of Scripture is where the real disparity between the two positions is evident, it remains in a third post to discuss 2 Timothy 3:16 and to elaborate on the idea of perspicuity.






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