Is Scripture Sufficient?

By Sean Patrick 

There are some Protestant apologists who are making the claim that the early church fathers taught that scripture was sufficient. Some of them are careful to admit that the sufficiency taught by the fathers is a material sufficiency but some of them are asserting that the fathers taught that scripture is formally sufficient.

What does a Catholic say to that? A Catholic can affirm that scripture is materially sufficient but cannot affirm that scripture is formally sufficient.

So what is the difference between material and formal sufficiency? For scripture to be materially sufficient, it would have to contain (explicitly or implicitly) all that is needed for salvation. Many Catholic theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict 16th) and St. John Henry Newman agree that scripture is materially sufficient.

On the other hand, for scripture to be formally sufficient, it would not only have to contain all that is needed for salvation, but it would have to be so clear that it does not need any outside information to interpret it (e.g. the church is not needed to interpret scripture.)

When one encounters a Protestant apologist asserting that a father taught the formal sufficiency of scripture it is very important to remember what that father taught about the relation of the church to scripture. It is simply a fact that if we are talking about the sufficiency of scripture for any given church father, not taking into account that father’s teaching on the church is a fatal error because what formal sufficiency claims is that there is no need for the church to interpret scripture.

The following is a brief survey of several fathers speaking explicitly about the relation of the church to scripture. Note: These are some of the same fathers who are being quoted by some Protestant apologists in an effort to prove that they taught the formal sufficiency of scripture:


“Let us note that the very tradition, teaching, and faith of the Catholic Church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, was preached by the Apostles, and was preserved by the Fathers On this was the Church founded; and if anyone departs from this, he neither is nor any longer ought to be called a Christian.” – Letter to Serapion of Thmuis, 359 A.D..

Hilary of Poitiers

“They who are placed without the Church, cannot attain to any understanding of the divine word. For the ship exhibits a type of Church, the word of life placed and preached within which, they who are without, and lie near like barren and useless sands, cannot understand.” – On Matthew, Homily 13:1 (A.D. 355)

Vincent of Lerins

“Here perhaps, someone may ask: Since the canon of the Scripture is complete and more than sufficient in itself, why is it necessary to add to it the authority of ecclesiastical interpretation? As a matter of fact, we must answer Holy Scripture, because of its depth, is not universally accepted in one and the same sense. The same text is interpreted different by different people, so that one may almost gain the impression that it can yield as many different meanings as there are men. Novatian, for example, expounds a passage in one way; Sabellius, in another; Donatus, in another. Arius, and Eunomius, and Macedonius read it differently; so do Photinus, Apollinaris, and Priscillian; in another way, Jovian, Pelagius, and Caelestius; finally still another way, Nestorius. Thus, because of the great distortions caused by various errors, it is, indeed, necessary that the trend of the interpretation of the prophetic and apostolic writings be directed in accordance with the rule of the ecclesiastical and Catholic meaning.” – Commonitory for the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith 2 (A.D. 434).

For a more detailed account of the Catholic Church and Her relation to Holy Scripture please read our article Solo Scriptura, Sola Scriptura and the Question of Interpretive Authority.