In What Sense is Scripture Sufficient? (Part III)

In What Sense is Scripture Sufficient? (Part III) May 8, 2023





In the previous post, some advancement was made towards answering and juxtaposing the contrary concepts of the material and formal sufficiency of Scripture.  It was stated that while the former is a position that could be held by Catholics, the latter is a view closely associated with Sola Scriptura.   As such, it is more or less the Protestant view on the authority of Sacred Scripture.[1]  Also in the previous post and with the assistance of Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, it was argued that one idea that helps to differentiate material from formal sufficiency is the Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity (i.e. clearness) of Scripture.  Thus, any view on the sufficiency of Scripture that includes the idea that it is perspicuous (in the Protestant understanding), is to be rejected by Catholics, as Akin indicated.  It remains then in the following article to define what is meant by perspicuity.


Defining the Term:


The perspicuity of Scripture might be defined as, to borrow Akin’s words, “the position of claiming that Scripture is so clear that one does not need Apostolic Tradition or the Magisterium to interpret it”.  As he notes, this is contrary to Catholic teaching.  We might add that it is a position explicitly denied in our citation of St. Vincent of Lerins, as well as by the Early Church Fathers in general as indicated by J.N.D. Kelly’s survey of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition in their writings through the fourth century.  Here are a couple of definitions from Protestant/ Evangelical authors:


  • The clarity of Scripture means that the Bible is written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 108.)


  •  “A third sense of sola Scriptura is the clarity of the Bible (sometimes called its perspicuity). This means that the average believer can understand the Scriptures and lead a life of obedience to God.  People do not need some interpreter to tell them what is true” (Robert Saucy, Understanding Christian Theology, 127.  Italics mine).


From the above, we can gather that the traditional roles played by the Catholic Church and by Sacred Tradition in the interpretation of Scripture are rejected as necessary.  That is not to say that Protestant theologians mean to argue everything in Scripture is equally clear.  On the contrary, the more careful ones recognize that is not the case.  Thus, according to Grudem: “We must admit therefore that not all parts of Scripture are able to be understood easily”.  This can be known both experientially and by the very words of Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. What is more, he notes, historical controversies in Church History bear witness to the fact that Scripture is not so clear so as to eliminate the possibility of disparate interpretations.[2]  As we have seen in the first post, the latter was a point driven home by St. Vincent Lérins over 1500 years ago.  Agree as they may on this particular view, one major area of departure is how Grudem and Vincent (and Catholics by extension) move beyond this interpretive standoff.

For Grudem, it is primarily the sincerity of the seeker joined by the aid of the Holy Spirit, and the utilization of interpretive skills such as exegesis and hermeneutics, which allow for those more confusing passages to be interpreted properly by the individual believer.[3]  On the contrary, Vincent’s prescription was “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”.  As Catholic author Thomas Guarino notes, “the theologian of Lérins strongly emphasizes the material sufficiency of Sacred Scripture, with tradition as a necessary interpretive aid because of wonton and continual misrepresentations”.[4]  That is not to say that Vincent necessarily denied what is offered by Grudem, especially the aid of the Holy Spirit (though he would affirm as do Catholics that He is active also in the teaching authority of the Catholic Church).  It is that what Grudem offers simply isn’t enough to get Christians past the interpretive impasses that have arisen throughout Church History, those that exist now, and that inevitably will continue to do so.

So then, having defined the perspicuity of Scripture, we will discuss 2 Timothy 3:16 in the context of the sufficiency of Scripture, and bring this set of posts to a conclusion.  To those who have been following, my apologies for the delays and I hope to get this next one out sooner.



[1] There are some Protestants out there, especially Anglicans it seems, who claim to hold to what has been termed Prima Scriptura.  From what I have gathered anecdotally, they are the exception to the rule, and it should be recalled that Sola Scriptura was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 105.

[3] Ibid.  107-109.

[4] Thomas Guarino, Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine, 2.

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