Material vs. Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


By request; excerpts from my paper, The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Church Fathers (Particularly, St. Athanasius and the Trinity): 
Catholic apologist Mark Shea: 

Material sufficiency means that all the bricks necessary to build doctrine is there in Scripture. However, it also teaches that since the meaning of Scripture is not always clear and that sometimes a doctrine is implied rather than explicit, other things besides Scripture have been handed to us from the apostles: things like Sacred 
Tradition (which is the mortar that holds the bricks together in the right order and position) and the magisterium or teaching authority of the Church (which is the trowel in the hand of the Master Builder). Taken together, these three things -- Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium -- are formally sufficient for knowing the revealed truth of God. 

. . . those who hold to the formal sufficiency of Scripture warn darkly that setting Scripture in the context of Sacred Tradition will inevitably put Scripture under the Church. The fear, in fact, is that to admit the revelatory nature of Sacred Tradition will necessarily subjugate Scripture to merely human agendas. 

(in Not by Scripture Alone, edited by Robert A. Sungenis, Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Pub. Co., 1997, chapter 4: "What is the Relationship Between Scripture and Tradition?," 169-210; quote from 181-182)

The [Trinity] can be proven from Scripture, indeed (material sufficiency), but Scripture Alone as a principle was not formally sufficient to prevent the Arian crisis from occurring. In other words, the decisive factor in these controversies was the appeal to apostolic succession and Tradition, which showed that the Church had always 
been trinitarian. The Arians could not appeal to any such tradition because their christology was a heretical innovation of the 4th century. 

The Arians thus appealed to Scripture Alone. And that is the point Catholics make about this. The Arian formal principle was deficient, so that they could appeal to the Bible Alone and come up with Arianism (just like Jehovah's Witnesses do today). If they had held also to an authoritative Sacred Tradition, this could not have happened because the "tradition of Arianism" was 

We claim that apostolic Tradition is necessary along with Sacred Scripture. This was the patristic principle, and how they invariably fought the heretics. The biblical arguments provided the "meat" of their arguments, but in the end they would appeal to the Tradition of "what had always been believed everywhere by everyone" (St. Vincent of Lerin's dictum -- the Commonitorium where this comes from is also the most explicit exposition of development of doctrine in the Fathers, and Newman's starting-point). 

Edwin Tait, an Anglican, wrote (in substantial agreement with the Catholic view): 

Of course the Fathers thought that they could prove their view from Scripture. They also thought that the historic communion of bishops in succession from the Apostles, gathered in Councils (with Rome playing some role, which I don't want to debate here), could be counted on to interpret Scripture correctly. The whole sola scriptura debate only became possible when a sizeable number of influential Christians began proclaiming that the bishops gathered in Council, in communion with Rome, had seriously erred in interpreting Scripture over a period of several centuries. Of course both sides can appeal to the Fathers, because the Fathers never thought of Scriptural sufficiency and the authority of the Church/Tradition as being at odds.

I agree wholeheartedly. The last sentence is key. This is the "both/and" outlook of the Apostles, Fathers, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and historic Anglicanism. Many Protestants, however, feel an immediate, logically- and biblically-unnecessary need to dichotomize the two. Entire books are written about the Fathers' supposed belief in sola Scriptura, when in fact they are merely expressing their belief in material sufficiency of Scripture, and its inspiration and sufficiency to refute heretics and false doctrine generally. It is easy to misleadingly present them as sola Scripturists if their statements elsewhere about apostolic Tradition or succession and the binding authority of the Church (especially in council) are ignored. But a half-truth is almost as bad as an untruth (arguably worse, because in most instances the one committing it should know better). 

I think one could definitely argue that trinitarianism is not crystal-clear and explicit in Scripture. This follows from the historical fact that trinitarianism in all its Chalcedonian fullness was the end-result of a process that took over 400 years. That is not insignificant. 

So at the very least we can all agree, I think, that the above paragraph is a true one. It is simply history. If Chalcedonian trinitarianism and the Two Natures of Christ, etc. were explicitly biblical notions then the theology of same would have been fully-developed by maybe 150-200 A.D. (?) or perhaps even earlier. 

But is Scripture sufficient to refute Arianism on its own (which is a different question)? I think so. Nevertheless, I think it is also true that if a person was in a hypothetical situation where they knew absolutely nothing of Church history, Christian theology, and precedent in how these 
doctrines were and are thought about and derived from Scripture, and was tossed a Bible, that modalism (aka Sabellianism) and Arianism might seem as "plausible" to them as trinitarianism seemed. After all, the Trinity is not an easily-grasped doctrine, and it is not immediately accessible to human reason. It is a revelation and mystery which must ultimately be accepted in faith (not to undermine its scriptural proofs). 

So, while wholeheartedly agreeing with you that the case can be made by Scripture, I think we fool ourselves if we don't recognize the role of Tradition and precedent as a strong influencing factor in how we all think. Most of us have grown up in cultures and/or households where 
trinitarianism and the Deity of Christ was taken for granted. It was the air we breathed. 

But if one grew up in a secular context or was completely ignorant of historic theology, sure, I could see how they could grab a Bible and conclude that it taught Arianism or modalism (which is quite a bit more subtle). Of course, I agree that this would be an opinion based in ignorance of 
the totality of Scripture teaching and proper exegesis and hermeneutics and lack of understanding of difficult passages where commentary is most helpful. But one could still do it. 

In fact, I know this to be the case from my experience in my own life, and in my dealings with Jehovah's Witnesses. They approach Scripture with a typically liberal, rationalistic mindset whereby they make certain assumptions; e.g., "that three cannot equal one" (which is certainly mathematically or geometrically true but -- as it turns out -- not applicable to the nature of God). 

Actually, to be technical, trinitarianism doesn't assert 3=1, but a different proposition: "God is a Being such that He subsists in three Persons yet remains one God." We're not saying that God has three personalities and one at the same time or that He is three gods-in-one, or three gods and one God at the same time. JW's, though, will say ridiculously assert that trinitarianism entails a "three-headed god." They can't even describe the doctrine correctly. 

Arianism is obviously a distortion of what I would call the "intellectual/theological imagination." It is an inability or unwillingness to follow biblical, incarnational mystery where it leads one in revelation. But they do it, and they do it by the millions. And these poor deluded souls are firmly convinced that they are reading Scripture properly. I know; I've witnessed to scores of them. 

The other example is from my own life. I grew up as a very nominal Methodist. Of course, Methodists are trinitarians, but I knew next to nothing of theology. I was so ignorant at age 17 that when I was watching a movie about Jesus with my older brother (by then an evangelical 
Christian convert), I was shocked when he said that Jesus was God. I replied, befuddled, "no, he's the son of God." Then my brother had an evangelistic opportunity to share some basic Christian christological theology with me. That's how ignorant I was. 

In other words, if one knew very little about theology, they could easily go to the Bible and (just like the JWs) see the verses about Jesus being the son of God (and speak in terms of "we're all sons of God," etc.) or where He says "My God and your God" or "the Father is greater than I," and many other similar passages, it would appear at first glance that He is lesser than God, or at least lesser than God the Father. And that is Arianism. JW's will use a verse like Revelation 3:14, where Jesus calls Himself "the beginning of the creation of God" (KJV). You can see how they would distort that and think it proves Jesus was created. This is the sort of thing that all heretics have done throughout history. 

. . . with regard to the Fathers, all that is necessary [to show that they deny sola Scriptura] is to verify the following three propositions as held by a particular Father: 

1) The Bible is authoritative and binding. 
2) The Church's teaching is authoritative and binding. 
3) Sacred Tradition is authoritative and binding.

If you establish that someone believes these three things, it is impossible to attribute a belief in sola Scriptura to them, because in that view, the Bible (and the individual conscience) has the final authority over both Church and Tradition (Luther at Worms is the classic picture of this and the assertion in his very act and stance of the principle), with ostensible grounding -- supposedly 
-- always in the "clear" teaching of the Bible. 

The Protestant view essentially removes the word "binding" from #2 and #3. I think it's as simple 
as that. The Fathers viewed the three legs of the stool as of a piece, working together, and not contradictory in reality, because God would not allow them to be. That's where the faith part comes in. 

The Catholic position accepts the material sufficiency of Scripture (which was also the Fathers' position). But Catholics and the Fathers rejectformal sufficiency of Scripture, which is the Protestant rule of faith, or sola Scriptura. 

Binding Church authority, is a practical necessity, given the propensity of men to pervert the true apostolic Tradition as taught in Scripture, whether it is perspicuous or not. The fact remains that diverse interpretations arise, 
and a final authority outside of Scripture itself is needed in order to resolve those controversies. This does not imply in the least that Scripture itself (rightly understood) is not sufficient to overcome the errors. It is only formally insufficient by itself. 

I write entire books and huge papers citing nothing but Scripture. It doesn't mean for a second that I don't respect the binding authority of the Catholic Church or espouse sola Scriptura. St. Athanasius made some extensive biblical arguments. Great. Making such arguments, doing exegesis, extolling the Bible, reading the Bible, discussing it, praising it, etc., etc., etc., are all well and good (and Catholics agree wholeheartedly); none of these things, however, reduce to or logically necessitate adoption of sola Scriptura as a formal principle, hard as that is for some people to grasp. 

Protestant Church historian Heiko Oberman wrote: 

As regards the pre-Augustinian Church, there is in our time a striking convergence of scholarly opinion that Scripture and Tradition are for the early Church in no sense mutually exclusive: kerygma, Scripture and Tradition coincide entirely. The Church preaches the kerygma which is to be found in toto in written form in the canonical books. 

The Tradition is not understood as an addition to the kerygma contained in Scripture but as the handing down of that same kerygma in living form: in other words everything is to be found in Scripture and at the same time everything is in the living Tradition. 

It is in the living, visible Body of Christ, inspired and vivified by the operation of the Holy Spirit, that Scripture and Tradition coinhere . . . Both Scripture and Tradition issue from the same source: the Word of God, Revelation . . . Only within the Church can this kerygma 
be handed down undefiled . . . 

(The Harvest of Medieval Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1967, 366-367)

Lutheran Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan also essentially concurs: 

Clearly it is an anachronism to superimpose upon the discussions of the second and third centuries categories derived from the controversies over the relation of Scripture and tradition in the 16th century, for 'in the ante-Nicene Church . . . there was no notion of sola Scriptura, but neither was there a doctrine of traditio sola.'. . . (1) 

The apostolic tradition was a public tradition . . . So palpable was this apostolic tradition that even if the apostles had not left behind the Scriptures to serve as normative evidence of their doctrine, the church would still be in a position to follow 'the structure of the tradition which they handed on to those to whom they committed the churches (2).' This was, in fact, what the church was doing in those barbarian territories where believers did not have access to the written deposit, but still carefully guarded the ancient tradition of the apostles, summarized in the creed . . . 

The term 'rule of faith' or 'rule of truth' . . . seems sometimes to have meant the 'tradition,' sometimes the Scriptures, sometimes the message of the gospel . . . 

In the . . . Reformation . . . the supporters of the sole authority of Scripture . . . overlooked the function of tradition in securing what they regarded as the correct exegesis of Scripture against heretical alternatives. 

(The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 of 5: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 115-117, 119; citations: 1. In Cushman, Robert E. & Egil Grislis, eds., The Heritage of Christian Thought: Essays in Honor of Robert Lowry Calhoun, New York: 1965, quote from Albert Outler, "The Sense of Tradition in the Ante-Nicene Church," 29. 2. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3:4:1)

Protestant polemicists William Webster, David King, and other people intent on anachronistically reading Protestant doctrine and formal principles back into the Fathers, tend to ignore or minimize or de-emphasize passages where Fathers speak of the binding authority of Church or Tradition/Council, because those things disprove the contentions they are trying to make, viz., that the Fathers accepted sola Scriptura.