Material Sufficiency of Scripture and Sacred Tradition

It is my understanding that we have a single deposit of faith (divine revelation) delivered from the Word of God himself (Jesus) to his apostles during life and secondarily from the apostles - after his death and resurrection - under divine inspiration, which is preserved in the life of the Church chiefly through the apostolic succession of the episcopacy under two modes: written Sacred Scripture and unwritten Sacred Tradition, with the Magisterium being the authoritative interpreter of the deposit.

I’m having difficulty, however, in fathoming how some Catholics - including Catholic theologians of note (such as Yves Congar and it is claimed a number of the Fathers) - arrive at a belief in the “material sufficiency” of scripture, even as they admit that it still forms a subsection, albeit the most singular and primary subsection, of the Church’s Tradition.

As I understand their thinking in this regard, it is held that Scripture and Tradition both contain the fullness of divine revelation “in total”, with the Tradition acting as the inspired interpreter of the former (i.e. ensuring that it is orthodox), such that one can say everything ‘sufficient’ to salvation can be found in Scripture alone. This is in contrast to the Partim-Partim approach that was most favoured around the time of the Council of Trent and defended by St. Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, which holds Scripture and Tradition to be co-equal modes of authority deriving from the one deposit of faith, both of which contain ‘constitutive’ doctrines that are essential for salvation - such that Scripture would not be “materially sufficient” in this interpretation, because Tradition preserves oral teachings not found in Scripture.

Doubtless, the ecumenical advantage of the ‘material sufficiency’ theory is not lost on me (in finding common ground with our Protestant brethren) - but I honestly struggle to view it as a tenable proposition in and of itself.

On the contrary, I personally think there are truths of the faith - including substantial truths of the faith - which are neither explicit nor even reliably implicit in Scripture but which the Church has held from Apostolic times to be authoritative teaching.


Some of the Marian dogmas (for example the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin) would be obvious examples but one could even contend that the Trinity constitutes such as well: contemporary biblical scholarship, as in from the late Larry Hurtado, has convincingly argued that the New Testament evidences a “binitarian worship pattern” in a Triadic discourse, in which the Father and Jesus are both worshipped as ‘God’ (yet distinct from one another i.e. ‘persons’ in the later Nicene terminology) whereas the Spirit does not really feature so much in the NT texts as a recipient of worship (even as God is spoken of 'Triadic-ally" to include the Spirit):

(1) The NT reflects a dyadic devotional pattern , in which God and Jesus feature as the programmatic recipients of devotion, especially corporate worship-devotion; but (2) there is a clear triadic shape to the God-discourse reflected in the NT.

An example would be 1 Corinthians 8:6 “for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

As you can see, explicit worship is offered here towards the Father ‘from’ whom all things are and to the Son ‘through’ whom all things are, whereas the Holy Spirit is described as the agent of the divine indwelling, the one who spoke through the Prophets etc. but not so much the recipient of cultic worship.

Yet, the early Fathers testify to Trinitarian worship practice, including of the Third Person, which depens and grows in understanding over time, until defined at the various ecumenical councils. Consider the Ascension of Isaiah, a Jewish-Christian text written in the late first of early second century, in which it is stated that the inhabitants of the sixth heaven sing praises to “the primal Father and his Beloved Christ, and the Holy Spirit”, each of the Three Persons being worshipped and glorified.


According to the scholar Loren T. Stuckenbruck: “Ascension of Isaiah constitutes our earliest evidence of worship being rendered to the Holy Spirit alongside Christ and God the Father…the worship of the Holy Spirit is an extension of the binatarian devotion [in the New Testament]”. N.T. Wright, the famous Anglican scholar, likewise notes:

Mostly, when worship is either discussed or evidenced in the New Testament, the Spirit is not mentioned, and mostly when the Spirit is mentioned, worship is not. There are obvious exceptions, such as 1 Corinthians 14. But when we look at the great references to worship, or the great examples of worship, such as the hymns in Revelation 4 and 5 or the poems in Philippians 2 or Colossians 1, the Spirit seems conspicuously absent. Perhaps, after all, the apparent scholarly lacuna reflects, even if accidentally, a gap in the early Christian writings themselves…Again and again the worship offered in the Book of Revelation appears binitarian, praising God and the Lamb, and only gradually do we understand what becomes clear near the very end, that the Spirit is at work within the church, enabling the worshipping church to be the worshipping church

I could cite other important doctrines which, in judgement at least, appear to have been preserved outside the written witness of Sacred Scripture in the broader Sacred Tradition of which the New Testament is a substrata (but not the ‘total’ compendium of the deposit, in and of itself). One could argue that Trinitarian worship practice is implicit in Scripture - but can we say the same for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin? The doctrine that divine revelation terminates with the death of the last apostle?

In this respect, I cannot understand how material sufficiency is tenable - does not the very dependency of the Bible on the interpretative ‘tradition’ of the Church, which the advocates of material sufficiency of scripture concede, betray an admission of the fact that it is not by itself “sufficient” but rather requires ‘supplemental’ teachings that elucidate the teachings it contains? How can anything dependant upon something outside of itself possibly be “sufficient”?

Tradition precedes and exceeds Sacred Scripture (indeed we know about the scriptural canon from Tradition), even as Sacred Scripture is the surest repository of the substance of the Tradition delivered from the Apostles, IMHO.

Jesus’ Scriptures are what we realize as ‘the Old Testament’

The Gospel – as it occurred via Jesus -
began before Sacred Apostolic Tradition…

it was followed by Oral Preaching
and then put into Written Form

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