Formal Sufficiency of Scripture: Introduction (Guest Series)

Formal Sufficiency of Scripture
Stated and Examined from Scripture and the Fathers, with scholarly confirmation regarding the Fathers’ views.

The Scriptures are the Word of God. Their purpose, among other things, is to bring people who read them to a saving knowledge of God – to bring them to faith in God and repentance from sin.

John 20:31 But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

They accomplish this purpose, as it is written:

Isaiah 55:11 So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

Scripture, the fathers, and the Reformers all agree that the Scriptures are able to thoroughly furnish the man of God:

2 Timothy 3:16-17 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.

Indeed, the Scriptures themselves illuminate the reader:

Psalm 119:105 Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

And the Scriptures are capable of educating even those who lack mental sophistication:

Psalm 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple.

This sufficiency of Scripture is hard to deny. Nevertheless, those who follow Rome sometimes try to affirm what they term “material sufficiency,” while denying what they call “formal sufficiency.”

These terms, as such, are not terms that are especially ancient. For example, one does not find a theologian like Thornwell, Dabney, or even Hodge talking about the “formal sufficiency of Scripture.” That’s just not the way they expressed themselves.

Whether the exact expression “formal sufficiency” is an invention of Roman theologians is hard to say for sure. Nevertheless, one influential theologian that brought in the term to distinguish the Roman position from the reformed position was the Roman cardinal Yves Congar.

Congar explained what he meant this way:

Personally, I find no difficulty, and not a little joy, in discovering there the positive affirmation that Scripture contains, at least in the form of suggestion or principle, the entire treasury of truths which it is necessary to believe in order to be saved (provided there is an adequate presentation of the Gospel message).

To say that, in the sense in which the Fathers and the medieval theologians held it, does not in any way amount to a profession of the principle of Scriptura sola demanded by the Reformers. They were reacting against a sovereignty of the Church’s power, more precisely of the papal power, over the word of God contained in Scripture, a sovereignty which they considered exorbitant, as indeed it would have been if in fact it had corresponded to the image they had formulated of it. It was with the intention of restoring the sovereignty of God alone that they presented that of Scripture as exclusive. In order to do this effectively, they affirmed the sufficiency of this Scripture, not uniquely in a material sense, that is to say as the object quod creditur, but in a formal sense, that is to say as the means whereby we know, the constitutive light by which we understand, the principle of the rule of faith, in short, using scholastic terminology, as the object quo. Not only was the whole of faith contained in Scripture, but the Christian, benefiting from the interior witness of the Holy Spirit, could find it there.

Yves M.-J. Congar, Tradition and Traditions: An Historical and a Theological Essay (London: Burns & Oats, 1966), pp. 116-117.(bold emphasis added).

In another place Congar provides a similar definition:

The doctrine that has just been presented is that of all the Fathers of the Catholic tradition, as much in the East as the West. It denied in the Protestant theory of the sufficiency of Scripture, expounded systematically in the Protestant Orthodoxy of the beginning of the seventeenth century. According to this theory, Scripture possesses by itself and in itself, that is, without needing the addition of any other principle, the qualities of a real sacrament of salvation, or rather of saving faith. It possesses authority, making it recognized and developing it unaided; it possesses efficacy, being the principle—and for some the sole—means of Grace; it contains all that is necessary for the Christian; it is clear, explaining itself without help and needing nothing besides itself to make known God’s thoughts.

Yves Congar, The Meaning of Tradition (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1964), pp. 87-88. (bold emphasis added)

While we may disagree with Congar’s view of the fathers, and while we may feel that some further distinctions and explanations are necessary to help explain the difference between the Reformed and Roman positions, Congar’s position provides a helpful illustration of the contemporary Roman position – and its view of the Reformed position.

Yves Congar was a cardinal, but Sean Patrick is a layman of the same church. Sean recently challenged Pastor King to discuss the fathers and sola scriptura, particularly the issue of whether any church fathers held to the formal sufficiency of Scripture.

Sean worded his challenge this way:

Not one father taught the formal sufficiency of scripture. Full stop. If you disagree here is your chance. Tell me which fathers taught the formal sufficiency of scripture. … By the way, can you name one church history scholar . . . who conclude[s] that any father taught that scripture was formally sufficient?

(source)

Subsequently, while waiting for this challenge to be met, Sean posted a blog article of his own. In his blog article, Sean wrote:

… 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.)

(source)

You may notice that in the comments above, we had observed that Cardinal Congar’s view might need a little refinement – Sean’s needs a lot of careful qualification. It’s not so much that he’s headed in the completely wrong direction, but his statement “the church is not needed to interpret scripture” is sufficiently vague that it can be easily misunderstood.

There is always a concern in this sort of challenge that the Roman advocate will define the meaning of material and formal sufficiency from his own perspective, and in doing so will essentially be asking us to advocate something we don’t actually advocate. Now, to be sure, scholars can and do often differ, but the challenge is simply to name one father and one church history scholar. Nevertheless, he may move the target of “one” by either dismissing all of the ensuing witnesses, and/or insisting on more (i.e., others) in addition to these which we shall list.

In the same comment box with the challenge Sean also provided his definition:

Formal Sufficiency and Material Sufficiency:

For Scripture to be materially sufficient, it would have to contain or imply all that is needed for salvation. For it to be formally sufficient, it would not only have to contain all of this data, but it would have to be so clear that it does not need any outside information to interpret it.

Now please tell me which fathers taught that scripture was formally sufficient.

(source)

Of course, we do not let others decide for us what we mean when we affirm that Holy Scripture is formally sufficient. It is important to understand what the Reformed mean and thus believe with respect to the formal sufficiency of Holy Scripture. We define formal sufficiency in the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

6. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

7. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

9. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.

(From Chapter 1 of the WCF)

Thus, we differ from Sean’s assertion regarding the meaning of formal sufficiency, because he fails to include in his definition the necessity of the work of the Spirit of God, apart from which no man is ever converted to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is presupposed by all members of the early church *who* affirm the principle of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture with respect to those things necessary for the salvation of men. We should note, however, that Congar – at least sometimes – is more careful.

The formal sufficiency of Holy Scripture, as set forth by the Westminster Confession (although the Westminster confession does not use the expression “formal sufficiency”), defines it in the context of the need for “the inward illumination of the Spirit of God,” that “all things necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word,” that “a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them, and that “the infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself. The 17th century Reformed theologian, Francis Turretin, explains further how the concept of formal sufficiency (the doctrine of Scripture’s perspicuity) is to be understood…

Francis Turretin (1623-87):

As to the state of the question, observe: (1) The question does not concern the perspicuity or the obscurity of the subject or of persons. For we do not deny that the Scriptures are obscure to unbelievers and the unrenewed, to whom Paul says his gospel is hid (2 Cor. 4:3). Also we hold that the Spirit of illumination is necessary to make them intelligible to believers. Rather the question concerns the obscurity or perspicuity of the object or of the Scriptures (i.e., whether they are so obscure that the believer cannot apprehend them for salvation without the authority and judgment of the church—which we deny).

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), 2.XVII.ii, p. 143.

Francis Turretin (1623-87):

The question is not whether things essential to salvation are everywhere in the Scriptures perspicuously revealed. We acknowledge that there are some things hard to be understood (δυσνόητα) and intended by God to exercise our attention and mental powers. The question is whether things essential to salvation are anywhere revealed, at least so that the believer can by close meditation ascertain their truth (because nothing can be drawn out of the more obscure passages which may not be found elsewhere in the plainest terms).

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), 2.XVII.v, p. 144.

Francis Turretin (1623-87):

The question does not concern the perspicuity which does not exclude the means necessary for interpretation (i.e., the internal light of the Spirit, attention of mind, the voice and ministry of the church, sermons and commentaries, prayer and watchfulness). For we hold these means not only to be useful, but also necessary ordinarily. We only wish to proscribe the darkness which would prevent the people from reading the Scriptures as hurtful and perilous and compel them to have recourse to tradition when they might rest in the Scriptures alone.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), 2.XVII.vi, p. 144.

Francis Turretin (1623-87):

The question then comes to this—whether the Scriptures are so plain in things essential to salvation (not as to the things delivered, but as to the mode of delivery; not as to the subject, but the object) that without the external aid of tradition or the infallible judgment of the church, they may be read and understood profitably by believers. The papists deny this; we affirm it.

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., Vol. 1 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1992), 2.XVII.vii, p. 144.

Bauckham offers the following summary.

Richard Bauckham:

The notion of the formal sufficiency of Scripture does not, of course, mean that Scripture requires no interpretation at all—a notion which anti-Protestant writers have frequently and easily refuted, thus missing the real point—but that it requires no normative interpretation. Protestant interpretation of Scripture employed all the ordinary means of interpreting a text, especially the tools which humanist scholarship had developed for interpreting ancient texts, and respected the views of theologians and exegetes of the past as useful, but not normative, guides to understanding Scripture. The real difference between the classic Protestant and the classic Roman Catholic views lies in the Protestant rejection of the view that tradition, expressed in the teaching of the magisterium, possesses a binding authority against which there can be no appeal to Scripture. Behind this difference lies, on the one hand, the Reformation’s originating experience of a rediscovery of the Gospel in Scripture apart from and in contradiction to the teaching of the contemporary church, and, on the other hand, the Roman Catholic trust in God’s promise to maintain his church in the truth.

See Richard Bauckham’s chapter, “Tradition In Relation To Scripture and Reason,” in Benjamin Drewery and Richard J. Bauckham, eds., Scripture, Tradition, and Reason, A Study in the Criteria of Christian Doctrine, Essays in Honour of Richard P. C. Hanson (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), p. 123.

Or as Bavinck has expressed it…

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921):

The doctrine of the perspicuity of Holy Scripture has frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented, both by Protestants and Catholics. It does not mean that the matters and subjects with which Scripture deals are not mysteries that far exceed the reach of the human intellect. Nor does it assert that Scripture is clear in all its parts, so that no scientific exegesis is needed, or that, also in its doctrine of salvation, Scripture is plain and clear to every person without distinction. It means only that the truth, the knowledge of which is necessary to everyone for salvation, though not spelled out with equal clarity on every page of Scripture, is nevertheless presented throughout all of Scripture in such simple and intelligible form that a person concerned about the salvation of his or her soul can easily, by personal reading and study, learn to know that truth from Scripture without the assistance and guidance of the church and the priest. The way of salvation, not as it concerns the matter itself but as it concerns the mode of transmission, has been clearly set down there for the reader desirous of salvation. While that reader may not understand the “how” (πῶς) of it, the “that” (ὅτι) is clear.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, Prolegomena (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 477.

We may also add that the Westminster Confession of Faith is not the only Reformed confession to make this kind of claim. The Belgic Confession states:

Article 5: The Authority of Scripture

We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith.

And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them– not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God.

For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.

Article 7: The Sufficiency of Scripture

We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it. For since the entire manner of service which God requires of us is described in it at great length, no one– even an apostle or an angel from heaven, as Paul says– ought to teach other than what the Holy Scriptures have already taught us. For since it is forbidden to add to or subtract from the Word of God, this plainly demonstrates that the teaching is perfect and complete in all respects.

Therefore we must not consider human writings– no matter how holy their authors may have been– equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else.

For all human beings are liars by nature and more vain than vanity itself.

Therefore we reject with all our hearts everything that does not agree with this infallible rule, as we are taught to do by the apostles when they say, “Test the spirits to see if they are of God,” and also, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house.”

Article 30: The Government of the Church

We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.

By this means true religion is preserved; true doctrine is able to take its course; and evil men are corrected spiritually and held in check, so that also the poor and all the afflicted may be helped and comforted according to their need.

By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church, when such persons are elected who are faithful and are chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy.

Perhaps the great theologian John Owen sums it up well:

Protestants suppose the Scripture to be given forth by God, to be unto the church a perfect rule of that faith and obedience, which he requires at the hands of the sons of men. They suppose that it is such a revelation of his mind or will, as is intelligible unto all them that are concerned to know it, if they use the means by him appointed to come unto a right understanding of it. They suppose that what is not taught therein, or not taught so clearly, as that men who humbly and heartily seek unto him, may know his mind therein, as to what he requireth of them, cannot possibly be the necessary and indispensable duty of any one to perform. They suppose that it is the duty of every man to search the Scriptures with all diligence, by the help and assistance of the means that God hath appointed in his church, to come to the knowledge of his mind and will in all things concerning their faith and obedience, and firmly to believe and adhere unto what they find revealed by him. And they moreover suppose that those who deny any of these suppositions, are therein, and so far as they do so, injurious to the grace, wisdom, love, and care of God towards his church, to the honour and perfection of the Scripture, the comfort and establishment of the souls of men, leaving them no assured principles to build their faith and salvation upon.

Now from these suppositions, I hope you see that it will unavoidably follow, that the Scripture is able every way to effect that, which you deny unto it a sufficiency for. For where, I pray you, lies its defect? I am afraid, from the next part of your question, ‘Has it ever done it?’ that you run upon a great mistake. The defect that follows the failings and miscarriages of men, you would have imputed unto the want of sufficiency in the Scripture. But we cannot allow you herein.

The Scripture in its place, and in that kind of cause which it is, is as sufficient to settle men, all men, in the truth, as the sun is to give light to all men to see by: but the sun that giveth light doth not give eyes also. The Scripture doth its work, as a moral rule, which men are not necessitated or compelled to attend unto or follow. And if through their neglect of it, or not attendance unto it, or disability to discern the mind and will of God in it, whether proceeding from their natural impotency and blindness in their lapsed condition, or some evil habit of mind contracted by their giving admission unto corrupt prejudices and traditional principles, the work be not effected; this is no impeachment of the Scripture’s sufficiency, but a manifestation of their weakness and folly.

Besides, all that unity in faith that hath been at any time, or is in the world, according to the mind of God, every decision that hath been made at any time of any difference in or about religion in a right way and order, hath been by the Scripture, which God hath sanctified unto those ends and purposes. And it is impossible that the miscarriages or defects of men can reflect the least blame upon it, or make it esteemed insufficient for the end now inquired after. The pursuit then of your inquiry which now you insist upon, is in part vain, in part already answered.

In vain it is that you inquire ‘whether the written word can settle any man in a way that neither himself, nor present adherents, nor future generations shall question:’ for our inquiry is not after what may be, or what shall be, but what ought to be. It is able to settle a man in a way, that none ought to question unto the world’s end: so it settled the first Christians. But to secure is that none shall ever question the way whereinto it leads us; that it is not designed for, nor is it either needful or possible that it should be so: the oral preaching of the Son of God, and of his apostles, did not so secure them whom they taught.

The way that they professed, was everywhere questioned, contradicted, spoken against, and many, after the profession of it, again renounced it: and I wonder what feat you have to settle any one in a way that shall never be questioned. The authority of your pope and church will not do it: themselves are things as highly questioned and disputed about, as any thing that was ever named with reference unto religion.

If you shall say, But yet they ought not to be so questioned, and it is the fault of men that they are so: you may well spare me the labour of answering your question, seeing you have done it yourself.

And whereas you add, ‘or with as much probability dissent from it either totally or in part, as himself first set it,’ when the very preceding words do not speak of a man’s own setting, but of the Scriptures settling, the man only embracing that what settleth and determineth. It is answered already; that what is so settled by the Scripture, and received as settled, cannot justly be questioned by any.

And you insinuate a most irrational supposition, on which your assertion is built, namely, that error may have as much probability as truth. For I suppose you will grant, that what is settled by the Scripture is true, and therefore that which dissents from it must needs be an error; which, that it may be as probable indeed as truth (for we speak not of appearances, which have all their strength from our weaknesses), is a new notion, which may well be added to “your many other of the like rarity and evidence.

But, why is not the Scripture able to settle men in unquestionable truth? When the people of old doubted about the ways of God wherein they ought to walk, himself sends them to the law and to the testimony for their instruction and settlement; Isa. viii. 20. And we think the council of him, who cannot deceive nor be deceived, is to be hearkened unto, as well as his command to be obeyed. Our Saviour assures us, that if men will not hear Moses and the prophets, and take direction from them for those ways wherein they may please God, they will not do whatsoever they pretend from any other means, which rather approve of; Lukexvi. 29.31.

Yea, and when the great fundamental of Christian religion, concerning the person of the Messiah, was in question, he sends men for their settlement unto the Scriptures; John v. 39. And we suppose that that which is sufficient to settle us in the foundation, is so, to confirm us also in the whole superstructure. Especially considering that it is able ‘ to make the man of God perfect, and to be thoroughly furnished unto all good works ;’ 2 Tim. iii. 16, 17.

What more is required unto the settlement of any one in religion we know not; nor what can rationally stand in competition with the Scripture to this purpose; seeing that is expressly commended unto us for it by the Holy Ghost, other ways are built on the conjectures of men. Yea, the assurance which we may have hereby is preferred by Peter, before that which any may have by an immediate voice from heaven; 2 Pet. i. 19.

And is it not an unreasonable thing, now for you to come and tell us, that the Scripture is not sufficient to give us an unquestionable settlement in religion? Whether it be meet to ‘hearken unto God or men,’ judge you.

For our parts, we seek not for the foundation of our settlement, in long uncertain discourses, dubious conclusions and inferences, fallible conjectures, sophistical reasonings, such as you would call us unto; but in the express direction and command of God. Him we can follow, and trust unto, without the least fear of miscarriage. Whither you would lead us we know not, and are not willing to make desperate experiments in things of so high concernment.

John Owen, Works, Volume 18, A Vindication of the Animadversions on Fiat Lux, Chapter VI

(to be continued)

Note: David King is the prime mover and shaker on this series, but I (TurretinFan) have done a significant amount of editing. So, please blame me for any errors that have crept in, while giving credit to Pastor King for the hard work that went into it.

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63 Responses to “Formal Sufficiency of Scripture: Introduction (Guest Series)”

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  63. PeaceByJesus Says:

    This is a helpful page i found in seeking input for a debate.

    Scripture (as alone being the wholly God-inspired transcendent, testable, substantive body of Truth) alone is the supreme and sufficient standard, formally providing the assured Truth of God for salvation and growth in grace, and materially for discernment of Truth (thus a canon), reading, understanding and applying, etc. said Truth.

    For while its perspicuity is such that one can (not necessarily will) be saved and grow in grace by access to it alone via the Truth that it formally, yet God gives more grace thru what Scripture formally provides, not only for salvation in most cases, but as needed for the maturity it calls the believer to, including tested virtue.

    A man on an island can be saved by reading scripture alone and grow in grace thereby, but most need a “Phillip” to help them with the former, and even growth in Christ-likeness requires interaction with (often hard-to-love) believers, and external input from others in the body of Christ.

    But not anything added to Scripture as equal, including binding beliefs requiring implicit assent, based upon the novel and unScriptural premise of ensured perpetual magisterial infallibility as per Rome (and basically in primary cults).

    It was/is convicting preaching of the Word (which paradoxically is typically missing in Catholicism which contends for church-ministered grace) that has often worked to effect growth in my case (more needed), and I can read something like Psalm 23 and get much out of it, but if i understand how shepherding is done then i can get much more out of it.

    Then there is Holy Spirit anointing via the laying on of hands, and the refreshment of our spirits by meeting other believers, and the iron sharpening iron (that often follows).

    Thus while Scripture being the Truth standard for obedience and testing Truth claims (sola prima) should be clear (and incontestable), the sufficiency aspect needs to be better defined, while the Roman alternative of sola Roma is nowhere seen.

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