Material sufficiency and the Biblical canon


#1

I’ve often heard Catholic apologists talk about the ‘material sufficiency’ of the Bible, affirming that the Bible holds everything that we need, explicitly or implicitly, for our salvation. This is of course opposed to formal sufficiency, found within sola scriptura which says everything needed for our salvation is clearly and explicitly given, and no interpreter is required.

Anyway, I have two questions regarding this:

  1. How far back does this belief in material sufficiency go? I’ve read that Cardinal John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) accepted it. I think Cardinal Newman is the earliest I’ve heard though. I believe this position of material sufficiency is taken by Catholic apologists in order to account for the wealth of early church fathers that seem to account for at least some degree of sufficiency found in scripture. But is a ‘material sufficiency’ view found in any of the Catholic councils, particularly Trent for example? Can we find material sufficiency in the teachings of the earlier theologians like St Thomas Aquinas?

  2. How does the material sufficiency view account for the canon of scripture? The Biblical canon is one of the main Catholic arguments used against sola scriptura. However, if we are to take a position of material sufficiency regarding scripture, then can’t the same argument be used against us? If the Bible contains all we need, explicitly or implicitly, for our salvation, surely we need the Biblical canon in there? If not, then doesn’t that destroy any argument against sola scriptura which uses the Biblical canon?


#2

It’s not a Catholic dogma, if that’s what you are asking. It is a claim that is acceptable for theologians to hold. Jimmy Akin’s article here references Yves Congar’s book Tradition and Traditions for more info.The claim that Scripture contains or implies all the basis 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 equiptment one needs for theology, just not the background one needs to use the equiptment.


#3

Hope this is a start for you:

mark-shea.com/tradition.html

And the book by the same author:amazon.com/Authority-Evangelical-Discovers-Catholic-Tradition/dp/0879738510


#4

Thanks for the responses guys.

Still waiting for an answer to question 2) now. :slight_smile:


#5

I think first you have define what you mean by 'Sola Scriptura" because there are different definitions and different degrees within them.

What I would call the radical understanding is that the Bible is all we need and we need no other interpreter or source of information for salvation apart from the Bible. While this view may be held by mainline Evangelicals and even some Pentecostal groups it is not what the phrase originally meant.

When Luther said Scripture Alone what he meant was that in matters of controversy the word of Scripture (being infallible and inspired) would be believed over councils and Papal decrees. Now quite apart from his disagreement with the Pope Luther did not hate the Church, and he had no notion of private interpretation and declared those who said they needed only the Spirit’s leading to understand the Bible to be ecstatics and little better than pagans.

So to your answer I think any orthodox person would say that all we need for salvation is found in Scripture because the Gospel is the power of God unto the saving of all who will believe. And the Gospel is not hidden in the Bible. Jesus, born of a virgin, suffered under Pilate, lived a sinless life, died an innocent death for our sins, rose for resurrection and will return for His Church. These are truths a child could understand from the Bible.

As to the question of Biblical canon it is really one of authority. Modern day evangelicals do not deny the canonization of Scripture because of an allergy to Rome, they do so because they will have no one to be authority over them at all. I tell my friends of the sweetness of bowing before the Altar of God and receiving the Priest’s blessing and the Bread and Cup from him and they stare at me like I’ve popped my cork.

In short I think your question is asked amiss. There is no thought in the Bible anywhere of God’s love toward us or the ministering of His grace toward us or the means of that grace coming to us apart from authority, and so it should come as no shock to a thinking person that God would use authoritative means to collect what He meant us to know. After all He used the Apostles to write letters, he didn’t pick some guy selling dates in the market. No! He chose those whom Christ had chosen to speak His words and He does so today. And those who refuse to accept THAT authority will certainly not accept the authority of Scripture being handed down authoritatively from authoritative means by an authoritative God.

God Bless


#6

That’s a very extreme form of sola scriptura–what some modern Protestant apologists dismissively call “sola scriptura.”

The more traditional, classic Protestant position (as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance) is that “a due use of the ordinary means” is sufficient to give us clarity on all necessary points of doctrine.

I would argue that “formal sufficiency” is really “material sufficiency” minus a confidence in the authority of the Church. The heretical aspect of sola scriptura, in other words, does not consist so much in what is affirmed about Scripture (though Reformed Protestants do often make flawed claims about Scripture, such as that it is self-attesting and self-interpreting) but in what is denied about the Church.

Anyway, I have two questions regarding this:

  1. How far back does this belief in material sufficiency go? I’ve read that Cardinal John Henry Newman and Pope Benedict XVI (then Cardinal Ratzinger) accepted it. I think Cardinal Newman is the earliest I’ve heard though. I believe this position of material sufficiency is taken by Catholic apologists in order to account for the wealth of early church fathers that seem to account for at least some degree of sufficiency found in scripture

Material sufficiency–i.e., that all necessary doctrine is found in Scripture–is indeed affirmed by several of the Fathers. I believe that Augustine both affirms and denies it, in different places. He’s often annoying like that:shrug:. Actually, his apparent inconsistency points to the fact that the Fathers didn’t think about this in terms of Scripture vs. tradition. Augustine can quite easily say in one place that Scripture contains all doctrine and in another say that infant baptism doesn’t need Scriptural evidence because it’s part of tradition (it’s notable that the Fathers are most likely to appeal to extra-Scriptural tradition on liturgical issues).

But is a ‘material sufficiency’ view found in any of the Catholic councils, particularly Trent for example?

Trent certainly does not affirm it. It appears at first glance to deny it, but it uses the formula “et . . . et” (both/and) rather than “partim . . partim” (partly/partly). I believe that the latter was used in an early draft and then changed, but perhaps I remember wrongly. So Trent leaves a door open for material sufficiency, while appearing to affirm a “two-source theory.”

Can we find material sufficiency in the teachings of the earlier theologians like St Thomas Aquinas?

It’s pretty standard among the scholastic theologians, actually. They are academics, treating Scripture as the ultimate theology textbook, although of course they read Scripture within the limits laid down by the Church. (See Aquinas, ST I, Question 1, especially article 10, reply to objection 1).

A very influential account of medieval views on this point is that of Heiko Oberman, a great Protestant scholar who was the teacher of my own doctoral advisor. Oberman distinguished between what he called “Tradition I” (holding to material sufficiency, with tradition as the interpreter of Scripture) and “Tradition II” (holding to a two-source theory, in which Scripture and Tradition are two distinct sources of revelation). He argued that T1 was held by the theologians and T2 by the canon lawyers, for the most part. (Something that people who aren’t scholars of medieval church history often don’t realize is that canon law was an independent discipline, which in the Middle Ages tended to bear primary responsibility for issues of ecclesiology and church authority.) I think that this generally holds up, although Oberman does need to be used with caution on these matters due to his strong Protestant bias (seen best in his essay “Quo Vadis, Petre,” a rather testy response to Vatican II–his reading of the Fathers in that essay is typical Protestant propaganda and I find his take on Irenaeus particularly unconvincing). Oberman’s ideas have more recently been taken up by the Reformed author Keith Mathison, who is the originator of the sola scriptura/solo scriptura distinction which you will often find Reformed apologists making.


#7
  1. How does the material sufficiency view account for the canon of scripture? The Biblical canon is one of the main Catholic arguments used against sola scriptura. However, if we are to take a position of material sufficiency regarding scripture, then can’t the same argument be used against us? If the Bible contains all we need, explicitly or implicitly, for our salvation, surely we need the Biblical canon in there? If not, then doesn’t that destroy any argument against sola scriptura which uses the Biblical canon?

This is an interesting argument. I think it highlights the basic problem with the whole “material sufficiency” concept. On the one hand, material sufficiency purports to be a doctrine of “sufficiency,” which appears to draw a line between Scripture and other sources. But it’s a pretty vague concept, at least as Catholics use it. What does it mean for something to be “contained” in Scripture? In this particular case, I think the best response would be that 2 Timothy 3:16 (the famous “God-breathed” passage) contains the actual “doctrine” in question, namely the authority of Scripture. Which books, precisely, are included in the phrase “all Scripture” used in that passage–that would be interpretation, for which we need the Church. At that point, are we really talking about sufficiency? I don’t know, and I for one don’t care. I think what matters here is that Catholics do not overreact to Protestantism to such an extent as to deny the centrality of Scripture for Christian theology. This is what worries me about claims like “Catholicism isn’t a religion of the Book” or “Catholics created the Bible and got along fine for centuries without it.” This just doesn’t square with how the great saints and Doctors of the pre-Reformation Church talked about Scripture. It’s an unhealthy overreaction to the Protestant denial of Church authority.

I think that “material sufficiency” might best be restated as something like “all doctrine is rooted in Scripture, so that there is no doctrine for which Scripture is irrelevant.”

Dei Verbum is, of course, the key document here. It speaks of Scripture and Tradition flowing into each other. I used to find this language too loose, but I now think it’s just right. The language of “sufficiency” is problematic because it implies that Scripture is somehow self-contained. But Scripture, to function as Scripture, has to be read with eyes steeped in the Tradition. And similarly, the Tradition, to function as the Tradition, must always be centered on Scripture.

Edwin


#8

Jimmy’s article above suggests that those who believe in material sufficiency still believe there is a need for an exterior Magisterium in order to interpret, and presumably to identify the canon. In other words, now that the “material” has been revealed through Tradition, that canon does contain that which is needed for salvation, if understood properly. That’s where it differs from hardcore sola scriptura which cannot account for the canon without appealing to the Tradition it mistrusts.


#9

Thanks for the great answers, makes more sense now.


#10

I wrote this a while ago:

How can we affirm material sufficiency AND that the Canon is not in the Bible? If all Catholic dogmas are implied or explained in Scripture, and the 73-Book Canon is a Catholic dogma, then it must be at least implied in the Bible, right?

Mm…look at it this way. In material sufficiency, the Magisterium is here to bring out more clearly what is already present in Scripture. Take the Book of 2 Chronicles. It is Scripture; but it is not Scripture because the Church says so. The Church takes the Book, and states clearly what it does not state itself: that it is Scripture. That is not putting something on it that isn’t there. It is applying to it a name that is proper to itself. So material sufficiency can be upheld, as opposed to partim-partim, and the necessity of the Church for knowledge of the Canon proclaimed.


#11

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.