Archive for the ‘Material Sufficiency’ Category

Ratzinger, Material Sufficiency? (by David King)

June 2, 2010

(The following is a guest post by my friend, Pastor David King)

Cardinal, now Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, while commenting on the documents of Vatican II (article nine of Dei verbum), stated that “no one is seriously able to maintain that there is a proof in Scripture for every catholic doctrine.” See Joseph Ratzinger’s “The Transmission of Divine Revelation” in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), Vol. 3, p. 195.

When I quoted this some time ago (here), Mr. Waltz commented: “As for David’s isolated quote, he [Ratzinger] was dealing with interpretation (formal sufficiency) and not simply material sufficiency. David King clearly misspoke; but you know, everyone makes mistakes, and the bulk of his work/s should be judged on their OVERALL merit and content.” (link – that page seems to have been removed – here’s a cached page containing the quotation)

What I suspected then, concerning Ratzinger’s inconsistency on the question of material sufficiency, is now cleared up (I think) in the work, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, God’s Word, Scripture—Tradition—Office, Peter Hünermann and Thomas Söding, eds., Henry Taylor, trans. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005). Some of this material has been reworked from an earlier publication, namely, Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, Revelation and Tradition (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966).

Now, to be sure, I have always thought that our Roman disputants are themselves inconsistent on their affirmation of the material sufficiency of Scripture. But I think this later work by the man who is now Pope makes it clear that he does not affirm material sufficiency in any positive sense, and I did not (as Mr. Waltz charged) misspeak on this issue. I would encourage any Roman disputants to remain calm, at least until they’ve read the extended quote below.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI:

Geiselmann starts from a new interpretation of the Council of Trent’s decrees about the nature of tradition. Trent had established that the truth of the gospel was contained in libris scriptis et sine scripto traditionibus. That was (and is to this day) interpreted as meaning that Scripture does not contain the whole veritas evangelii [truth of the gospel] and that no sola scriptura principle is therefore possible, since part of the truth of revelation reaches us only through tradition. Geiselmann took up the point, already made by others, that the first draft of the text provided the formulation that truth is contained “partim in libris scriptis partim in sine scripto traditionibus”. Here, then, the doctrine of a division of truth into two sources (Scripture and tradition) was clearly articulated. The Council renounced the use of partim—partim, however, and contented itself with the simple conjunction et. Geiselman concludes from this that they had turned away from the idea of a division of truth into two separate sources, or had at least not explicitly defined it. And he further concludes that consequently even a Catholic theologian can argue the material sufficiency of Scripture and can also, as a Catholic, hold the opinion that Holy Scripture transmits a material sola scriptura thoroughly acceptable even for a Catholic—indeed, he believes he can show that this has much the stronger tradition in its favor and that the Council of Trent, likewise, intended to point us in this direction.

It is easy to understand how such a thesis could count on widespread agreement in view of the quite new opportunities for contact between Catholic and Evangelical Christians that it seemed to open up. [Here Ratzinger offers a footnote concerning how he and H. Fries, in another work, gave a survey of everyone who agreed in principle with Geiselmann] I hold it to be quite indisputable that it does indeed represent appreciable progress in objective terms. Nonetheless, as soon as one analyzes it somewhat more closely with respect to both its historical and its factual basis, a whole series of questionable points emerge that make it impossible to stop at that. In the second section, we will attempt a few remarks on the historical side of the problem; meanwhile, we turn directly to the problems of the subject itself, and any investigation of this will probably first of all produce the question: What does “the sufficiency of Scripture” actually mean? Even Geiselmann, as a Catholic theologian, cannot get beyond having to hold fast to Catholic dogmas, and none of them can be obtained by means of sola scriptura—not the early Christian dogmas of the former quinquesaecularis consensus, and still less the new ones of 1854 and 1950. What kind of meaning does talk about “the sufficiency of Scripture” still have, then? Does it not threaten to become a dangerous self-deception, with which we deceive ourselves, first of all, and then others (or perhaps do not in fact deceive them!)? In order to go on maintaining that Scripture contains all revealed truth, on one hand, and, on the other, to maintain that the 1950 dogma [which I pressed on Mr. Waltz repeatedly] is a revealed truth, we would have at least to take refuge in a notion of “sufficiency” so broadly conceived that the word “sufficiency” would lose any serious meaning.

This, however, opens up the second and really decisive question: In concerning ourselves with the idea of the “sufficiency” of Scripture, have we grasped the real problem involved in the concept of tradition at all, or are we lingering over a relatively superficial symptom of an issue that in itself lies much deeper? The introductory reflections from which we started should have made it clear that the answer to this question must clearly be Yes. The question of the sufficiency of Scripture is only a secondary problem within the framework of the far more fundamental decision that we glimpsed a little while ago in the concepts of abusus and auctoritas, and that thus concerns the relationship between the authority of the Church and the authority of Holy Scripture; everything else depends on how we understand that.

To make further progress, it will therefore be necessary to deepen our approach, not being preoccupied with such superficial implications as the sufficiency or insufficiency of Scripture, but presenting as a whole the overall problem of the mode of presence of the revealed word among the faithful. Then we can see that we have to reach beyond the positive sources of Scripture and tradition, to their inner source: the revelation, the living word of God, from which Scripture and tradition both spring and without which neither can be grasped in the importance they have for faith. The question of “Scripture and tradition” remains insoluble so long as it is not expanded to a question of “revelation and tradition” and thereby inserted into the larger context in which it belongs. In what follows, therefore, I should like to unfold the concept of tradition in a positive sense, on the basis of its inner impulse, in thesis form, without going into the details of possible arguments. I do this in the hope that some part of an answer to the Reformers’ question may be found in it and that the whole may thus prove to be a part of a conversation, the necessity of which is being recognized with increasing clarity on both sides.

See Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, God’s Word, Scripture—Tradition—Office, Peter Hünermann and Thomas Söding, eds., Henry Taylor, trans. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), pp. 48-51.

As he indicated, Ratzinger proceeds to offer another “thesis” than that of Geiselmann and others. Two things are clear, he does not affirm the material sufficiency of Scripture in any positive sense; and if his language is to be understood at all, he thinks that such a formulation misses the bigger point of what he calls “revelation and tradition.”

List of Things Necessary to Salvation

May 24, 2010

One objection that is occasionally addressed to the Reformed doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture, and also sometimes to the doctrine of the sufficiency, formal and material, of Scripture, is a request that we provide an exhaustive list of the doctrines that are necessary to salvation.

After all, we claim that all the things that are necessary to be known for salvation are clearly taught in Scripture. Some folks think this is an incredible claim unless we can provide a list of the necessary things. There are several rebuttals to this objection.

1) No one thinks the list itself is necessary to salvation

In other words, while one may need to know the essential doctrines, there is no requirement that one be able to distinguish the essential doctrines from the unessential doctrines. So, even if the Bible does somehow tell us which doctrines are essential, that list is not something that falls within the realm of the doctrine of perspicuity. Furthermore, if we reach the conclusion that the Scriptures do not provide such a list, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture would simply confirm that such a list is not necessary to the rule of faith.

2) We derive the doctrine of perspicuity from Scripture deductively

In other words, we reason from the fact that the Scriptures are able to make the simple wise and specifically in order to make a person wise unto salvation, that they consequently teach with sufficient clarity all that must be known for salvation.

3) An analogy to Medicine

The field of medicine provides an analogy. Suppose you have a drug that you realize cures some particular ailment, such as malaria. There is no reason you need to know which ingredients in the medicine cure you, you just need to eat the medicine. By analogy, you do not need to know which doctrines of Scripture are essential. You just need to believe what the Scripture teaches. If you do so, that should lead you to repent of your sins and trust in Christ alone for salvation.


Christians are required to believe all of the Bible. The canonical Scriptures are our rule of faith, and only the canonical Scriptures are our rule of faith. Adherence to the rule of faith is not the way that people are saved, but it is a Christian duty. It is through believing the gospel that the Bible proclaims that sinners are justified. Our inability to identify those points that are essential should simply prod us to study Scripture more intensively and seek by prayer and study to understand it more fully.

– TurretinFan

Thomas Aquinas, William Webster, and Scripture against Bellisario

April 13, 2010

Over in the comment box of the Beggars All Reformation blog, Bellisario has attempted to take on William Webster (source). Pastor Webster is not there to defend himself, instead Bellisario is responding to a blogger named Rhology.

Bellisario writes: “Scared of Webster! Are you serious?”

Of course Rhology’s serious that it seems that folks are afraid to deal directly with Webster/King’s three-volume work.

Bellisario continues: “His comments on Aquinas and Sola Scriptura are completely asinine.”

No, they’re erudite. I realize that is not a rebuttal, it’s just a declarative sentence with a colorful adjective. The point being made, however, is that Bellisario’s own criticism is in that form. See how fun it is to use adjectives rather than arguments? In point of fact, although Aquinas is mentioned, Aquinas occupies a relatively minor position in Webster/King’s work. Even if Webster’s comments on Aquinas were erroneous (they’re not … but let’s speak hypothetically), that would not seriously undermine that force of Webster’s work.

Bellisario further claims: “He needs to get an education before he starts taking on the writings of the big boys like Aquinas.”

New motto for Aquinas: “You can’t possibly know what he’s saying without an [unspecified – but certainly something that William Webster couldn’t possibly have] education.” Naturally, we should conclude that out of consistency, Bellisario has called off his own planned book on Aquinas and plans shortly to withdraw the few blog posts he’s made on Aquinas. Of course, he won’t – nor should he, at least not for the reason he’s suggested regarding Webster. The problem is his claim that someone needs some as-yet-unspecified education.

Bellisario continues on: “I refuted him some time ago on the subject, where he took Aquinas completely out of his historical context.”

No, Bellisario didn’t. He has exactly two blog posts that even mention Webster. The first one simply says: “I can assure you, it is nothing close to the Protestant flavor which guys like William Webster and others claim him to be.” Hopefully even Bellisario will recognize that this is not a refutation.

The second one is longer, but it simply indicates:

For instance, Protestant William Webster attempts to build a fallacious case against the Catholic Church by ignorantly attempting to frame Saint Thomas in a position contrary to current Catholic teaching, “The first was sola Scriptura in which the fathers viewed Scripture as both materially and formally sufficient. It was materially sufficient in that it was the only source of doctrine and truth and the ultimate authority in all doctrinal controversies. It was necessary that every teaching of the Church as it related to doctrine be proven from Scripture. It was necessary that every teaching of the Church as it related to doctrine be proven from Scripture. Thomas Aquinas articulated this patristic view when he stated that canonical Scripture alone is the rule of faith. Additionally, they taught that the essential truths of Scripture were perspicuous, that is, that they were clearly revealed in Scripture, so that, by the enablement of the Holy Spirit alone an individual could come to an understanding of the fundamental truths of salvation” (8.Webster) It appears that Mr. Webster does not understand the theological background to Saint Thomas’ writings, nor does it appear that he has ventured out very far in investigating the background and history surrounding Saint Thomas’ writings. To interpret Saint Thomas in this manner misses the main point of his work, and ultimately it shows a grave misunderstanding of Catholic teaching regarding the Scriptures. It was Saint Thomas intention as a university scholar to exhaust Sacred Scripture for every doctrine or teaching that could be implied from the literal text. Even when Saint Thomas could not explicitly find a text in Scripture to support an argument, he used philosophical reasoning to get him to where he wanted to go with Scripture. For instance Saint Thomas argues for the two wills of Christ based on Scripture, yet he has to use logic and philosophy to arrive at his interpretation, because the Scripture passages he uses are not explicitly clear. He demonstrates that the root of Monothelism was in the error of their logic, not in the use of Scripture. For Saint Thomas, Scripture was clear in this instance, only in using his tools of philosophy, logic and Patristic interpretation within the living Church, but Scripture standing on its own does not give us the answer. (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 4, Question 26)


How that series of assertions is supposed to be refutation is baffling. But let’s consider it:

Bellisario begins with his argument-by-adjective claiming that Webster’s case is “fallacious” and his attempt is performed “ignorantly.”

He then quotes Webster as saying: “Thomas Aquinas articulated this patristic view when he stated that canonical Scripture alone is the rule of faith.” But Webster’s claim is completely true (see here).

Bellisario doesn’t actually address that aspect of what Thomas Aquinas taught but instead alleges that Webster must be unfamiliar with Thomas Aquinas’ background and historical context. The only specific claim that Bellisario attempts to substantiate is: “He [Thomas Aquinas] demonstrates that the root of Monothelism was in the error of their logic, not in the use of Scripture. For Saint Thomas, Scripture was clear in this instance, only in using his tools of philosophy, logic and Patristic interpretation within the living Church, but Scripture standing on its own does not give us the answer. (Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 4, Question 26)”

That’s not what Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 4, Question 26 says, though. Check for yourself. At any rate, the translation to which I’ve linked provides no discussion corresponding to Bellisario’s assertion.

What does Thomas Aquinas say about Scripture? I believe the following comments should help to illustrate the fact that Thomas Aquinas believed in the perspicuity, sufficiency, and primacy of Scripture. While he may have been inconsistent in this, and while he sometimes seemed to have a very high view of church authority, nevertheless his view of Scripture is consistent with what Webster mentions briefly on one page of his book.

Notice how Thomas Aquinas affirms the sufficiency of Scripture in the following quotation:

According to Augustine in On Christian Doctrine 4:12 one skilled in speech should so speak as to teach, to delight and to change; that is, to teach the ignorant, to delight the bored and to change the lazy. The speech of Sacred Scripture does these three things in the fullest manner. For it firmly teaches with its eternal truth. Psalm 118:89: ‘Your word, O Lord, stands firm for ever as heaven.’ And it sweetly delights with its pleasantness. Psalm 118.103: ‘How sweet are your words to my mouth!’ And it efficaciously changes with its authority. Jeremiah 23:29: ‘Are my words not like fire, says the Lord?’

– Thomas Aquinas, Inaugural Lectures, Lecture titled “Hic Est Liber”

Another passage of Thomas on the sufficiency of Scripture:

He describes every abundance metaphorically through an abundance of food and drink. For if he pastures us, he is related to us as a shepherd to (his) sheep, who are nourished in two ways, namely by grass and water. With respect to the first, he says, He hath set me in a place of pasture, that is, fit for pasture where there is an abundance of grass. These abundances are the sacred writings of divine scripture and spiritual things: Ezechiel 34:14: …on green grass, and be fed in fat pastures… With respect to the second, he states, He hath brought me up on the water of refreshment.
And he says He has set, because the divine word does two things, namely it instructs beginners, and strengthens the accomplished. With respect to the first, he says, In a place of pasture. With respect to the second, he says, He has set me there. As for the second he says, He hath brought me up on the water of refreshment. This is the water of baptism: Ezechiel 36:25: I will pour upon you clean water etc.
Or, it is the water of the wisdom of holy scripture; which is certainly food and water, because it strengthens much and refreshes respectively: Ecclesiasticus 15:3: The water of wholesome wisdom to drink.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Psalm 22

Here is a dual affirmation of the sufficiency of Scripture and sufficiency of the Psalms (as in Athanasius’ letter to Marcellinus):

The material is universal, for while the particular books of the Canon of Scripture contain special materials, this book has the general material of Theology as a whole.
This is what Dionysius says, in book 3 of the Caelestial Hierarchy, The sacred scripture of the Divine Songs (the Psalms) is intended to sing of all sacred and divine workings.
Hence the material is indicated in what he says, in all his works, because he treats of every work of God.

And this will be the reason why the Psalter is read more often in the Church, because it contains the whole of Scripture.

– Thomas Aquinas, Introduction to the Commentary on the Psalms

Again, more on the sufficiency of Scriptures:

Therefore, all those things the knowledge of which can be useful for salvation are the matter of prophecy, whether they are past, or future, or even eternal, or necessary, or contingent. But those things which cannot pertain to salvation are outside the matter of prophecy. Hence, Augustine says: “Although our authors knew what shape heaven is, [the spirit] wants to speak through them only that which is useful for salvation. And to the Gospel of St. John (16:13), “But when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will teach you all truth,” the Gloss adds: “necessary for salvation.”

Moreover, I say necessary for salvation, whether they are necessary for instruction in the faith or for the formation of morals. But many things which are proved in the sciences can be useful for this, as, for instance, that our understanding is incorruptible, and also those things which when considered in creatures lead to admiration of the divine wisdom and power. Hence, we find that mention of these is made in Holy Scripture.

– Thomas Aquinas, Questions and Disputations on Truth, Question 12 (Prophecy), Article 2 (Reply)

Sufficiency again:

BEDE; Or mystically, he eats and drinks in the Lord’s presence who eagerly receives the food of the word. Hence it is added for explanation, You have taught in our streets. For Scripture in its more obscure places is food, since by being expounded it is as it were broken and swallowed. In the clearer places it is drink, where it is taken down just as it is found. But at a feast the banquet does not delight him whom the piety of faith commends not. The knowledge of the Scriptures does not make him known to God, whom the iniquity of his works proves to be unworthy; as it follows, And he will say to you, I know not whence you are; depart from me.

– Thomas Aquinas quoting the Venerable Bede in Catena Aurea at Luke 13:22-30

Notice the very high view of the authority of Scriptures here, and try to find Thomas saying anything remotely like this about anything other than Scripture:

CHRYS. But that it is true that he who hears not the Scriptures, takes no heed to the dead who rise again, the Jews have testified, who at one time indeed wished to kill Lazarus, but at another laid hands upon the Apostles, notwithstanding that some had risen from the dead at the hour of the Cross. Observe this also, that every dead man is a servant, but whatever the Scriptures say, the Lord says. Therefore let it be that dead men should rise again, and an angel descend from heaven, the Scriptures are more worthy of credit than all.

– Thomas Aquinas quoting Chrysostom in Catena Aurea at Luke 16:27-31

Notice here the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture:

CHRYS. He is speaking of spiritual drink, as His next words show: He that believes in Me, as the Scripture truth said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But where here does the Scripture say this? No where. What then? We should read, He that believes in Me, as said the Scripture, putting the stop here; and then, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water: the meaning being, that that was a right kind of belief, which was formed on the evidence of Scripture, not of miracles. Search the Scriptures, he had said before.

– Thomas Aquinas quoting Chrysostom in Catena Aurea at John 7:37-39

Treating the Scriptures as “the door” here and saying that any other way is the way of thieves comes awfully close to an explicit affirmation of sola scriptura.

CHRYS. Our Lord having reproached the Jews with blindness, they might have said, We are not blind, but we avoid you as a deceiver. Our Lord therefore gives the marks which distinguish a robber and deceiver from a true shepherd. First come those of the deceiver and robber: Verily, verily, I say to you, He that enters not by the door into the sheepfold, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. There is an allusion here to Antichrist, and to certain false Christs who had been, and were to be. The Scriptures He calls the door. They admit us to the knowledge of God, they protect the sheep, they shut out the wolves, they bar the entrance to heretics. He that uses not the Scriptures, but climbs up some other way, i.e. some self-chosen, some unlawful way, is a thief. Climbs up, He says, not, enters, as if it were a thief getting over a wall, and running all risks. Some other way, may refer too to the commandments and traditions of men which the Scribes taught, to the neglect of the Law. When our Lord further on calls Himself the Door, we need not be surprised. According to the office which He bears, He is in one place the Shepherd, in another the Sheep. In that He introduces us to the Father, He is the Door, in that He takes care of us, He is the Shepherd.

– Thomas Aquinas quoting Chrysostom in Catena Aurea at John 10:1-5

Notice here that the Holy Spirit is given credit for rendering the Scriptures perspicuous, as in the Reformed position:

THEOPHYL. Or, the Holy Spirit is the porter, by whom the Scriptures are unlocked, and reveal the truth to us.

– Thomas Aquinas quoting Theophylact in Catena Aurea at John 10:1-5

Notice that here Thomas endorses Chalcedon’s explanation of the fact that the great councils did not rely on their own authority but appealed instead to the authority of Scriptures.

The doctrine of the Catholic Faith was sufficiently laid down by the Council of Niceea: wherefore in the subsequent councils the fathers had no mind to make any additions. Yet on account of the heresies that arose they were at pains to declare explicitly what had already been implicitly asserted. Thus in the definition of the Council of Chalcedon it is said: “This holy, great and universal synod teaches this doctrine which has been constantly held from the beginning, the same which 318 holy fathers assembled at Nicaea defined to be the unalterable faith. On account of those who contend against the Holy Spirit, we confirm the doctrine delivered afterwards by the 150 fathers assembled at Constantinople concerning the substance of the Holy Spirit, which doctrine they made known to all, not indeed as though something were lacking in previous definitions, but by appealing to the authority of the Scriptures to explain what had already been defined against those who endeavoured to belittle the Holy Spirit.”

– Thomas Aquinas, Questions and Disputations on Power, Question 10, Article 4, Reply to 13th Objection

Notice the fact that Thomas uses “sole” here. It is not simply one way, but the only way.

The sole way to overcome an adversary of divine truth is from the authority of Scripture—an authority divinely confirmed by miracles. For that which is above the human reason we believe only because God has revealed it.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 9

The following is an example of Thomas explaining that Scripture serves as the standard by which we measure the teachings of even the doctors, even when acting in their magisterial role (note the reference to the seat of Moses). One point that someone opposed to Sola Scriptura might note here is that Aquinas seems, at least superficially, to treat the official teachings of the Church as being on a par with Scripture, even while suggesting that Scripture be used to judge doctors of the church. What specifically Aquinas means he does not explain, whether merely that the church conveys the rule of faith that is taught in the clear parts of Scriptures or that the church defines the rule of faith. Notice that “rule of faith” is singular, not plural.

It should be said that if the differing opinions of the doctors of Sacred Scripture do not pertain to faith or good morals, then the listeners can follow either opinion without danger. For in that case what the Apostle says in Romans 14:5 applies: “Let each abound in his own understanding.”

But in those matters that pertain to faith and good morals no one is excused if he follows the erroneous opinion of some teacher. For in such matters ignorance does not excuse; otherwise, those who followed the opinions of Arius, Nestorius and the other heresiarchs would have been immune from sin.

Nor can the naivete of the listeners be used as an excuse if they follow an erroneous opinion in such matters. For in doubtful matters assent is not to be given easily. To the contrary, as Augustine says in De Doctrina Christiana III: “Everyone should consult the rule of faith which he gets from the clearer texts in the Scriptures and from the authority of the Church.”

Therefore, no one who assents to the opinion of any teacher in opposition to the manifest testimony of Scripture or in opposition to what is officially held in accordance with the authority of the Church can be excused from the vice of being in error.

As for the argument on behalf of the contrary position, then, one should respond that the reason he first said “The scribes and pharisees sit upon the chair of Moses” was so that what he then added, viz., “Do everything and observe everything they tell you,” might be understood to apply to those things which pertain to that chair. However, things which are contrary to the faith or to good morals do not pertain to that chair.

– Thomas Aquinas, Questions Quodlibetales (Miscellaneous Questions), Book 3, Question 4, Article 2 (response)

The beginning portion of this quotation may sound encouraging for someone who is hoping that Thomas will deny Sola Scriptura. However, Thomas nevertheless affirms that “nothing is to be taught except what is contained, either implicitly or explicitly, in the Gospels and epistles and Sacred Scripture.” In other words, his initial comment is simply that the teachings can be implicitly and not only explicitly drawn from Scripture.

A second question arises from the words, a gospel besides that which we have preached to you. Therefore no one may teach or preach anything but what is written in the epistles and Gospels. But this is false, because it is said in 1Thessalonians (3:10): “Praying that we may accomplish those things that are wanting to your faith.” I answer that nothing is to be taught except what is contained, either implicitly or explicitly, in the Gospels and epistles and Sacred Scripture. For Sacred Scripture and the Gospels announce that Christ must be believed explicitly. Hence whatever is contained therein implicitly and fosters its teaching and faith in Christ can be preached and taught. Therefore, when he says, besides that which you have received, he means by adding something completely alien: “If any, man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book” (Rev 22:18). And “Neither add anything,” i.e., contrary or alien, “nor diminish” (Deut 12:32).

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, Lecture 2 on Chapter 1, at Galatians 1:6-10

I’ve included the following as being of interest for a few reasons. First, it is of interest because Aquinas is judging the fathers by the Scripture. Second, it is of interest because Aquinas affirms the inerrancy of Scripture. Thirdly it is of interest because it evidences a relatively low view of Peter as compared with some of the alternatives.

Thirdly, they disagree on the sin of Peter. For Jerome says that in the dissimulation previously mentioned, Peter did not sin, because he did this from charity and, as has been said, not from mundane fear. Augustine, on the other hand, says, that he did sin—venially, however—on account of the lack of discretion he had by adhering overmuch to one side, namely, to the Jews, in order to avoid scandalizing them. But the stronger of Augustine’s arguments against Jerome is that Jerome adduces on his own behalf seven doctors, four of whom, namely, Laudicens, Alexander, Origen, and Didymus, Augustine rejects as known heretics. To the other three he opposes three of his own, who held with him and his opinion, namely, Ambrose, Cyprian, and Paul himself, who plainly teaches that Peter was deserving of rebuke. Therefore, if it is unlawful to say that anything false is contained in Sacred Scripture, it will not be lawful to say that Peter was not deserving of rebuke. For this reason the opinion and statement of Augustine is the truer, because it is more in accord with the words of the Apostle.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, Lecture 3 on Chapter 2, at Galatians 2:11-14

The following is an interesting example of the fact that Thomas affirms that it is Scripture (not Nicaea) that forces us to deny the Arian error (contrary to the position taken by some modern Roman Catholics).

The Arians likewise attacked this truth by their errors, in confessing that the Father and the Son are not one but several gods; although the authority of Scripture forces [us? – translation reads “e” here, which is plainly wrong] to believe that the Son is true God.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Chapter 42, Section 24

The primacy of Scripture can be seen shining through in many places of Jerome’s writings, of which the following is but one example:

The fourth way [to overcome concupiscence] is to keep oneself busy with wholesome occupations: “Idleness hath taught much evil” [Sir 23:29]. Again: “This was the iniquity of Sodom your sister, pride, fullness of bread, and abundance, and the idleness of her” [Ez 16:49]. St. Jerome says: “Be always busy in doing something good, so that the devil may find you ever occupied.” Now, study of the Scriptures is the best of all occupations, as St. Jerome tells us: “Love to study the Scriptures and you will not love the vices of the flesh” [Ad Paulin.].

– Thomas Aquinas, The Ten Commandments, Article 12 – the Tenth (Ninth in modern Roman Catholic Counting – part of the Tenth in Jewish and Reformed Counting) Commandment

The form of “not … anything … unless” is just another way of wording the Sola Scriptura position that Thomas is advocating in the following quotation:

According to Dionysius, “We should not venture to say anything about God unless we can support what we are saying from Scripture.” Now, we do not find anything in Scripture that refers to a book of death as it refers to the book of life. Therefore, we should not affirm the existence of a book of death.

– Thomas Aquinas, Questions and Disputation on Truth, Question 7, Article 8 (“to the contrary” section)

The following quotation shows not only Thomas’ high view of Scripture, but also his view of its perspicuity, for it is given not only to the wise but also the unwise.

582 Let us first examine what she says, You, sir, have no bucket, i.e., no pail to use to draw water from the well, and the well is deep, so you cannot reach the water by hand without a bucket.

The depth of the well signifies the depth of Sacred Scripture and of divine wisdom: “It has great depth. Who can find it out?” (Ecc 7:25). The bucket with which the water of wisdom is drawn out is prayer: “If any of you lack wisdom, ask God” (Jas 1:5).

583 The second point is given at, Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this well? As if to say: Have you better water to give us than Jacob? She calls Jacob her father not because the Samaritans were descendants of the Jews, as is clear from what was said before, but because the Samaritans had the Mosaic law, and because they occupied the land promised to the descendants of Jacob.

The woman praised this well on three counts. First, on the authority of the one who gave it; so she says: our father Jacob, who gave us this well. Secondly, on account of the freshness of its water, saying: Jacob drank from it with his sons: for they would not drink it if it were not fresh, but only give it to their cattle. Thirdly, she praises its abundance, saying, and his flocks: for since the water was fresh, they would not have given it to their flocks unless it were also abundant.

So, too, Sacred Scripture has great authority: for it was given by the Holy Spirit. It is delightfully fresh: “How sweet are your words to my palate” (Ps 118:103). Finally, it is exceedingly abundant, for it is given not only to the wise, but also to the unwise.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, Lecture 2 on John 4, at John 4:11-14, Sections 582-83

In an interesting twist, Thomas appears to deny that the Old Testament Scriptures were perspicuous, but affirms that the Scriptures are now perspicuous. He also emphasizes the primacy and sufficiency of Scripture with his comment “especially the Scriptures.”

So he says, Lift up your eyes, look at the fields, because they are already white for the harvest, i.e., they are such that the truth can be learned from them: for by the “fields” we specifically understand all those things from which truth can be acquired, especially the Scriptures: “Search the Scriptures … they bear witness to me” (below 5:39). Indeed, these fields existed in the Old Testament, but they were not white for the harvest because men were not able to pick spiritual fruit from them until Christ came, who made them white by opening their understanding: “He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures” (Lk 24.45). Again, creatures are harvests from which the fruit of truth is gathered: “The invisible things of God are clearly known by the things that have been made” (Rom 1:20). Nonetheless, the Gentiles who pursued a knowledge of these things gathered the fruits of error rather than of truth from them, because as we read, “they served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). So the harvests were not yet white; but they were made white for the harvest when Christ came.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, Lecture 4 on John 4, at John 4:11-14, Section 649

The following discussion is an interesting discourse on the primacy of Scripture. Specifically it is the authority for believers. Thomas downplays the importance of Scripture for unbelievers, but does so on the specific basis that it is not helpful to them because they do not believe it.

In the second place, it does not seem that he should have been criticized for looking for signs, for faith is proved by signs. The answer to this is that unbelievers are drawn to Christ in one way, and believers in another way. For unbelievers cannot be drawn to Christ or convinced by the authority of Sacred Scripture, because they do not believe it; neither can they be drawn by natural reason, because faith is above reason. Consequently, they must be led by miracles: “Signs are given to unbelievers, not to believers” (1 Cor 14:22). Believers, on the other hand, should be led and directed to faith by the authority of Scripture, to which they are bound to assent. This is why the official is criticized: although he had been brought up among the Jews and instructed in the law, he wanted to believe through signs, and not by the authority of the Scripture. So the Lord reproaches him, saying, Unless you see signs and wonders, i.e., miracles, which sometimes are signs insofar as they bear witness to divine truth. Or wonders (prodigia), either because they indicate with utmost certitude, so that a prodigy is taken to be a “portent” or some “sure indication”; or because they portend something in the future, as if something were called a wonder as if showing at a great distance some future effect.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, Lecture 7 on John 4, at John 4:11-14, Section 685

The following is the classic passage where Thomas explicitly affirms that only the canonical scriptures are the rule of faith. This is the one that Webster had referenced.

Now John states that his Gospel is true, and he speaks in the person of the entire Church which received it: “My mouth will utter truth” (Prv 8:7). We should note that although many have written about Catholic truth, there is a difference among them: those who wrote the canonical scriptures, such as the evangelists and apostles and the like, so constantly and firmly affirm this truth that it cannot be doubted. Thus John says, we know that his testimony is true: “If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9). The reason for this is that only the canonical scriptures are the standard of faith. The others have set forth this truth but in such a way that they do not want to be believed except in those things in which they say what is true.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, Lecture 6 on John 21, at John 21:24, Section 2656

The efficacy (and consequently sufficiency) of Scripture is again affirmed by Thomas in the following quotation:

Now he mentions the benefits given by this gospel. It is useful for producing faith: these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Indeed, all Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, are for this purpose: “The beginning of the book writes about me” [Ps 40:7]; “Search the scriptures … it is they that bear witness to me” (5:39). Another benefit of his gospel is that it also produces the fruit of life, and that believing you may have life: the life of righteousness, which is given by faith ‑ “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4) ‑ and in the future, the life of vision, which is given by glory. This life is in his name, the name of Christ: “There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, Lecture 6 on John 20, at John 20:26-31, Section 2568

You will recall that I mentioned earlier that treating the Scriptures as “the door” and saying that any other way is the way of thieves comes awfully close to an explicit affirmation of sola scriptura. Here he expands on and reiterates the same point, emphasizing Scripture’s unique (behind Christ himself) role as door.

1366 According to Chrysostom, Christ calls Sacred Scripture the door, according to “Pray for us also that God may open to us a door for the word” (Col 4:3). Sacred Scripture is called a door, as Chrysostofm says, first of all, because through it we have access to the knowledge of God: “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures” (Rom 1:2). Secondly, for just as the door guards the sheep, so Sacred Scripture preserves the life of the faithful: “You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life” (5:39). Thirdly, because the door keeps the wolf from entering; so Sacred Scripture keeps heretics from harming the faithful: “Every scripture inspired by God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction” (2 Tim 3:16). So, the one who does not enter by the door is the one who does not enter by Sacred Scripture to teach the people. Our Lord says of such: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Matt 15:9); “You have made void the word of God” (Matt 15:6). This, then, is the mark of the thief: he does not enter by the door, but in some other way. [1]

He adds that the thief climbs, and this is appropriate to this parable because thieves climb the walls, instead of entering by the door, and drop into the sheepfold. It also corresponds to the truth, because the reason why some teach what conflicts with Sacred Scripture is due to pride: “If any one teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing” (1 Tim 6:3). Referring to this he says that such a person climbs, that is, through pride. The one who climbs in by another way, that man is a thief, because he snatches what is not his, and a robber, because he kills what he snatches: “If thieves came to you, if plunderers by night – how you have been destroyed” (Obad v 5).

According to this explanation, the relation with what preceded is made in this way: Since our Lord had said, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt,” the Jews might have answered: “We do not believe you, but this is not due to our blindness. It is because of your own error that we have turned away from you.” And so our Lord rejects this, and wishes to show that he is not in error because he enters by the door, by Sacred Scripture, that is, he teaches what is contained in Sacred Scripture.

1367 Against this interpretation is the fact that when our Lord explains this further on, he says, I am the door. So it seems that we should understand the door to be Christ. In answer to this, Chrysostom says that in this parable our Lord refers to himself both as the door and the shepherd; but this is from different points of view, because a door and a shepherd are different.[2] Now aside from Christ nothing is more fittingly called a door than Sacred Scripture, for the reasons given above. Therefore, Sacred Scripture is fittingly called a door.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, Lecture 1 on John 10, at John 10:1-5, Sections 1366-67

Contrary to Bellisario’s position, the opening chapter to Book 4 of Contra Gentiles makes clear that Scriptures (and not natural reason) are the source for all the points to be raised against the unbelievers in that book. While perhaps Aquinas elsewhere advocated something inconsistent with this approach, we would respectfully suggest that any idea that he thought that a doctrine could be proved without Scripture should itself be established from some clear statement by Aquinas in that regard, in view of his clear statements here.

And the manner of proceeding in such matters the words set down do teach us. For, since we have hardly heard the truth of this kind in sacred Scripture as a little drop descending upon us, and since one cannot in the state of this life behold the thunder of the greatness, this will be the method to follow: What has been passed on to us in the words of sacred Scripture may be taken as principles, so to say; thus, the things in those writings passed on to us in a hidden fashion we may endeavor to grasp mentally in some way or other, defending them from the attacks of the infidels. Nonetheless, that no presumption of knowing perfectly may be present, points of this kind must be proved from sacred Scripture, but not from natural reason. For all that, one must show that such things are not opposed to natural reason, in order to defend them from infidel attack. This was also the method fixed upon in the beginning of this work.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, Book 4, Chapter 1, Section 10

The next statement from Thomas is relatively less Reformed. You wouldn’t expect, for example, to hear R. C. Sproul write it. Nevertheless, notice that the area where Thomas allows for extra-scriptural rules are under two conditions: (1) that it not violate Scripture, and (2) that it is a custom – i.e. a way acting or behaving – not a doctrine.

Then when he says, If anyone, he silences the impudent hearers, saying: If anyone is disposed to be contentious and not acquiesce in the above reason but would attack the truth with confident clamoring, which pertains to contentiousness, as Ambrose says, contrary to Jb (6:29): “Respond, I pray, without contentiousness”; (Pr 20:3): “It is an honor for a man to keep aloof from strife.” Let this suffice, then, to silence them that we Jews believing in Christ do not have such a practice, namely, of women praying with their heads uncovering, nor do the churches of God dispersed among the Gentiles. Hence if there were no reason, this alone should suffice, that no one should act against the common custom of the Church: “He makes those of one outlook to dwell in their house” (Ps 68:7). Hence Augustine says: “In all cases in which Sacred Scripture has defined nothing definite, the customs of the people of God and the edicts of superiors must be regarded as the law.”

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Lecture 3 on Chapter 11, at 1 Corinthians 11:8-16, Section 620

The same kind of attitude is being expressed in this similar passage of Thomas’ works. Here Thomas is mentioning that there are details – matters of order – that are not necessarily expressed in Scripture. However, notice that Aquinas does not suggest that we should base our doctrines on these customs or matters of order.

Then a promise is made when he says: About other things, namely, which are not so perilous, when I come home very soon, I will give directions, namely, how to conserve them. From this it is clear that the Church has many things arranged by the Apostle that are not contained in Sacred Scripture: “The cities will be inhabited,” i.e., the churches will be set in order “by the sense of prudent men,” namely, of the apostles (Sir 10:3).

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Lecture 7 on Chapter 11, at 1 Corinthians 11:27-34, Section 708

The following passage provides a powerful testimony to the perspicuity of Scripture. Thomas explicitly affirms that there are some easy things for beginners, in addition to the more meaty portions of the Sacred Scriptures.

Then (v. 12b) he describes their situation with a simile. Therefore, it should be noted that sacred doctrine is, as it were, the food of the soul: ‘With the bread of life and understanding she shall feed him’ (Sir. 15:3) and in (24:29): ‘They that eat me shall yet hunger, and they that drink me shall yet thirst.’ Sacred doctrine, therefore, is food and drink, because it nourishes the soul. For the other sciences only enlighten the soul, but this one enlightens: ‘The commandment of the Lord is lightsome, enlightening the eyes’ (Ps. 18:9) and nourishes and strengthens the soul. But in bodily food there is a difference: for children make use of one food and the perfect of another. For children use milk as being thinner and more connatural and easily digestible; but adults use more solid food. So in Sacred Scripture, those who are beginners should listen to easy things, which are like milk; but the learned should hear more difficult things. Therefore, he says, you need milk, namely, as children: ‘As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile, that thereby you may grown unto salvation’ (1 Pt. 2:2); ‘I give you milk to drink, not meat’ (1 Cor. 3:2). And this is what follows, and not solid food, i.e., lofty doctrine, which is concerned with the mysteries and secrets of God, which strengthen and confirm.

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Hebrews, Lecture 2 on Chapter 5, at Hebrews 5:8-14, Section 267

Notice that the source of wisdom according to Thomas is Christ and specifically the word of Christ, Scripture. This again goes to the issue of sufficiency. It also supports the idea of Sola Scriptura indirectly. Consider whether you can find anywhere in all of Thomas’ writings him discussing the extra-scriptural teachings of the church or oral traditions as the source of wisdom. If you could, that would mean that we might have to reevaluate whether Thomas was being inconsistent or simply speaking hyperbolically here.

165. – Next (v. 16), he urges them to acquire wisdom, first, he teaches them about the source of wisdom, and secondly its usefulness.

166. – In order to have true wisdom, one must inquire into its source, and so Paul says, let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. “The source of wisdom is God’s word in the highest heaven” (Sir 1:5). Therefore you should draw wisdom from the word of Christ: “That will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples” (Deut 4:6); “He was made our wisdom” (1 Cor 1:30). But some people do not have the Word, and so they do not have wisdom. He says that this wisdom should dwell in us: “Bind them about your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov 3:3). For some, a little of Christ’s word is enough, but the Apostle wants them to have much more; thus he says, let the word of God dwell in you richly: “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything” (2 Cor 9:8); “Search for it as for hidden treasures” (Prov 2:4). He adds, in all wisdom, that is, you should want to know everything that pertains to the wisdom of Christ: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27); “The heart of a fool is like a broken jar; it will hold no wisdom” (Sir 21:17) [Vulgate].

167. – This wisdom is useful in three ways: for instruction, for devotion, and for direction.

168. – It instructs us in two ways: first, to know what is true; and so Paul says, as you teach. He is saying, in effect: this wisdom dwells in you so richly that it can teach you all things: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Secondly, this wisdom instructs us to know what is good, and so Paul says, and admonish one another, that is, encourage yourselves to do good things: “To arouse you by way of reminder” (2 Pet 1:1).

– Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Colossians, Lecture 3 on Chapter 3, at Colossians 3:12-17, Sections 165-68

I selected the following passage of one of many passages where Thomas affirms the perspicuity of certain texts of Scripture. I picked this one because it is on a subject that I think many folks today wouldn’t regard as especially clear, and further because it seems to have relation to the Thomist/Molinist debate. Finally, I picked it because it is an example of Thomas rejecting what may perhaps be the majority patristic view on the topic – while Thomas only mentions Origen by name he references “some people” which sounds suspiciously as though it might refer to many people euphemistically.

[1] Some people, as a matter of fact, not understanding how God could cause a movement of the will in us without prejudice to freedom of will, have tried to explain these texts in a wrong way. That is, they would say that God causes willing and accomplishing within us in the sense that He causes in us the power of willing, but not in such a way that He makes us will this or that. Thus does Origen, in his Principles, explain free choice, defending it against the texts above.

[2] So, it seems that there developed from this view the opinion of certain people who said that providence does not apply to things subject to free choice, that is, to acts of choice, but, instead, that providence is applied to external events. For he who chooses to attain or accomplish something, such as to make a building or to become rich, is not always able to reach this end; thus, the results of our actions are not subject to free choice, but are controlled by providence.

[3] To these people, of course, opposition is offered quite plainly by the texts from Sacred Scripture. For it is stated in Isaiah (26:2): “O Lord, Thou hast wrought all our works in us.” So, we receive not only the power of willing from God, but also the operation.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, Book 3, Part 2, Chapter 89, Sections 1-3

This passage provides a reasonably good statement of both the formal sufficiency and perspicuity (the doctrine that the things necessary for salvation are clearly stated in Scripture) of Scripture:

To restore man, who had been laid low by sin, to the heights of divine glory, the Word of the eternal Father, though containing all things within His immensity, willed to become small. This He did, not by putting aside His greatness, but by taking to Himself our littleness. No one can say that he is unable to grasp the teaching of heavenly wisdom; what the Word taught at great length, although clearly, throughout the various volumes of Sacred Scripture for those who have leisure to study, He has reduced to brief compass for the sake of those whose time is taken up with the cares of daily life. Man’s salvation consists in knowing the truth, so that the human mind may not be confused by divers errors; in making for the right goal, so that man may not fall away from true happiness by pursuing wrong ends; and in carrying out the law of justice, so that he may not besmirch himself with a multitude of vices.

Knowledge of the truth necessary for man’s salvation is comprised within a few brief articles of faith. The Apostle says in Romans 9:2 8: “A short word shall the Lord make upon the earth”; and later he adds: “This is the word of faith, which we preach” (Rom. 15:8). In a short prayer Christ clearly marked out man’s right course; and in teaching us to say this prayer, He showed us the goal of our striving and our hope. In a single precept of charity He summed up that human justice which consists in observing the law: “Love therefore is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:15). Hence the Apostle, in 1 Corinthians 13:13, taught that the whole perfection of this present life consists in faith, hope, and charity, as in certain brief headings outlining our salvation: “Now there remain faith, hope, and charity.” These are the three virtues, as St. Augustine says, by which God is worshiped [De doctrina christiana, 1, 35]

– Thomas Aquinas, Theological Compendium, Chapter 1 (appears to be repeated verbatim as the first chapter of both part 1 and part 2)

This passage is more tangential to our discussion. It highlights one of the reasons that the medieval period was as dark as it was: the priests who were conducting their liturgies in Latin didn’t even know how to speak it. Thomas rightly chides them for this, and insists that a knowledge of Scriptures is essential for a preacher. The implication is that Thomas would have disagreed with those modern Roman Catholics who try to argue that Christianity is not a religion of the book.

The necessity for priests devoted to the ministry of preaching is, furthermore, shown by the great ignorance prevailing in some places amongst many of the clergy, some of whom know not even how to speak in Latin. It is rare to find any who are conversant with the Scriptures. Yet a knowledge of the holy writings is essential to those who would preach the word of God. Hence if preaching be entrusted solely to parish priests, the faithful will be greatly the losers.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Impugnantes Dei Cultum et Religionem, Part 2, Chapter 3

One of the few places in Aquinas’ writings where he explores the boundaries between papal power and Scriptures is the following. In this passage, we see that the one thing higher than papal power for Aquinas is the power and authority of the Scriptures.

In answer to the second objection, the Pope, as we have already shown, does not, by giving to religious the privilege of preaching or hearing confessions, act contrary to St. Paul’s admonition; for these religious do not preach to another man’s people. It is not true to say that the Pope cannot alter any Apostolic decree; for the penalties pronounced against bigamy and against fornication among the clergy, are, by authority of the Holy See, sometimes in abeyance. The power of the Pope is limited only in so far that he cannot alter the canonical scriptures of the Apostles and Prophets, which are fundamental to the faith of the Church.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Impugnantes Dei Cultum et Religionem, Part 2, Chapter 3

This is similar to the passage above about the necessity of Scriptures for preachers. I’ve included it because it makes explicit the primacy of Scripture (“above all things”).

From all that has been said, we see then that it is advisable for religious [i.e. those in religious orders], and especially for preachers, to be learned, and that above all things they ought to have a good knowledge of Holy Scripture.

– Thomas Aquinas, Contra Impugnantes Dei Cultum et Religionem, Part 3, Chapter 4

A rare instance of where Thomas interacts with the decrees of Nicaea is the following. In the following, we see that Thomas explicitly denies that the council of Nicaea had higher authority than the Old Testament Scriptures. Instead, Thomas appears to assert only that Nicaea was right – a position similar to those of most Reformed folks.

Doubt also arises from the same letter where Athanasius says that “only the definition of the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, discerned in the spirit and not in the letter, is the unique and true possession of the orthodox.” Someone might interpret this as implying that the definition of the said Council enjoys greater authority than the letter of the Old Testament, which is absolutely false.

The text, however, must be read in the sense that through the said Council the true meaning of Sacred Scripture is perceived, a meaning which only Catholics possess, although the letter of Sacred Scripture is common to Catholics and heretics and Jews.

– Thomas Aquinas, Against the Errors of the Greeks, Part 1, Chapter 32

UPDATE: Here’s an alternative translation, which appears to be more faithful to the original Latin (thanks to Pastor David King for this update):

Thomas Aquinas 1225-1274: Doubt also arises from the same letter where Athanasius says that “only the definition of the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea, discerned in the spirit and not in the letter, is the unique and true possession of the orthodox.” Someone might interpret this as implying that the definition of the said Council enjoys greater authority than the letter of the Old and New Testaments, which is absolutely false.

The text, however, must be read in the sense that through the said Council the true meaning of Sacred Scripture is perceived, a meaning which only Catholics possess, although the letter of Sacred Scripture is common to Catholics and heretics and Jews. See the full translation of Aquinas’ Contra Errores Graecorum, provided by James Likoudis in his Ending the Byzantine Greek Schism (New Rochelle, NY: Catholics United for the Faith, 1992), Part 1, Chapter 32, p. 154

This concludes our somewhat extended examination of Thomas’ own comments on Scripture – its exclusive and primary place, its sufficiency, and its perspicuity. We can conclude from this at least that Thomas held to some form or kind of Sola Scriptura (broadly defined), even if it did not reach in him the purity it reached in other great thinkers, such as Calvin – and even if it did not reach the full extent of the definitions we find in the Westminster Confession of Faith or the like. As we noted above, he held a place for traditional customs that is probably a large place than Reformed believers would accept, and his view of the pope’s role in the church is not one that any Reformed believer would accept.

Bellisario concludes his comment with the following jewel: “Webster is a buffoon. Nothing to be scared of.”

That is more of the argument-by-adjective style we’ve noticed above. However, as we’ve seen from the discussion above, there is an abundance of evidence that supports what Webster said about Thomas Aquinas, even beyond the bare fact of the precise quotation that Webster’s comment is based on. It appears that Webster’s comments are consistent with the overall trajectory of Aquinas’ thought on Scripture.

One word of caution. Aquinas was not a fully Reformed believer. Not every point of his doctrine or ecclesiology lines up with Reformed theology. In fact, on many points that are not trivial his views are closer to those of modern-day Roman Catholics. One of the reasons, as William Webster has pointed out, is that Thomas Aquinas mistakenly relied on forged patristic writings (link to discussion). Incidentally, given his somewhat uncritical acceptance of forged documents, one ought to take his patristic quotations above with a grain of salt, and check them to verify their authenticity before citing the father that is allegedly being quoted. I have not checked all of Aquinas’ sources above, and consequently have simply cited them as Thomas – not as the father himself.

The above abundant evidence of Thomas Aquinas’ very high and exclusive view of Scripture, embodying some form of Sola Scriptura, should not be confused for a statement that Aquinas would have agreed with every last word of an extended Reformed treatise on the subject. It ought to go without saying that Aquinas was a fallible man, and we ought to recognize his fallibility. He may well also have been an inconsistent man. We see inconsistency all around us today, and even though Thomas Aquinas’ study was extensive, he is not immune from being inconsistent.

– TurretinFan

P.S. I anticipate but hope against the following non-rebuttals: (1) the same accusation already made against Webster vainly brought against me, namely that the above compilation represents ignorance or unfamiliarity with the Thomistic corpus; (2) that the quotations above are “cut-and-paste” (obviously, one cuts and pastes quotations – otherwise one is paraphrasing, not quoting — the above represents more than a simple cut-and-paste on several levels); (3) that “Catholics accept what Aquinas said but that doesn’t equate to Sola Scriptura” (Aquinas is not being consistent with the modern Roman Catholic view. Furthermore, the seeming bulk of Aquinas’ writings indicate his view that Scripture’s authority is even higher than the highest church authority. While Aquinas may additionally have believed that the ecumenical councils necessarily did not err, Aquinas seems not to have given them the same authority as Scripture – the one possible straw upon which an opposite conclusion might be built is addressed above.)

Athanasius to Marcellinus: How Sufficient are the Psalms?

March 16, 2010

Athanasius wrote a letter to Marcellinus regarding the Psalms (full text). Athanasius wouldn’t have fit into post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism very well for a lot of reasons, but one reason is his comment in this letter: “the knowledge of God is not with [the heathen and the heretics] at all, but only in the Church.” Vatican II stated: “In the first place amongst these there are the Mohamedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind.” (Lumen Gentium, 2:16).

Bigger than that, however, the letter is a testimony to Athanasius’ very non-Romanist views of Scripture. It’s also a testimony to the same views of Athanasius’ friend whom Athanasius relies on extensively throughout the letter so that is sometimes hard to say which part is originally Athanasius and which part is originally the work of his elderly friend.

Private Possession of Copies of Scripture

It’s interesting to note that Athanasius points out that the old man who told about the Psalms did so while holding in his hands his own copy:

I once talked with a certain studious old man, who had bestowed much labour on the Psalter, and discoursed to me about it with great persuasiveness and charm, expressing himself clearly too, and holding a copy of it in his hand the while he spoke.

There is a popular myth spread by Rome’s apologists today that folks of ancient times were too poor to have their own copies of Scripture and too illiterate to read it, even if they could own a copy. These sorts of comments from the ancients help us to see that the picture of ancient literacy and possession of Scripture was not quite as bleak as Rome’s apologists like to suggest.

Scriptures Open to Individual Study

Athanasius’ substantive comment begins:

Son, all the books of Scripture, both Old Testament and New, are inspired by God and useful for instruction [2 Timothy 3:16], as it is written; but to those who really study it the Psalter yields especial treasure.

Before we even get to the substance we can note how Athanasius (adopting his old friend’s words – his old friend calls him “son”) understands 2 Timothy 3:16 to be referring not only to the Old Testament Scriptures but also to the New Testament Scriptures. This isn’t a surprising interpretation, but it is an interpretation that contradicts the erroneous position taken by many contemporary Roman Catholics who try to say that Paul was referring only to the Old Testament Scriptures.

The substance here is that the Scriptures, but especially the book of Psalms, yields a treasure those who really study it. After a brief passage on the canon of Scripture (which we discuss below under the issue of the canon), Athanasius explains:

Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some those of all the rest.

Athanasius comes back to this garden theme toward the end of the letter as well, when Athanasius writes:

So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need.

Notice how individual this metaphor is. Each individual person can go into the garden and get from it whatever help he thinks he needs.

It gets yet more individual after the discussion of how Scripture interprets Scripture, which we discuss below. The more individual part is that the Psalms describe you, the reader:

And, among all the books, the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given. Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.

Notice how he says not simply that the Psalter is like a picture, but almost as though it is a mirror: it is a picture of you the reader. In it, you the reader learn about yourself.

The idea is not simply that the church can extract good medicine from this garden for you, or interpret the picture for you. Instead, Athanasius and the old man insist that the individual can pick out his own cure from this medicine chest:

Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.

After some commentary on the sufficiency of the Psalms (which we discuss below), Athanasius and the old man re-emphasize the individual’s ability to learn from the Psalms to his own advantage:

In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

Thus, there is a theme that the individual needs to read and apply the words of the Psalms to his life.

There is also a theme presented in the letter that the Psalter is something that the individual is supposed to make his own:

And herein is yet another strange thing about the Psalms. In the other books of Scripture we read or hear the words of holy men as belonging only to those who spoke them, not at all as though they were our own; and in the same way the doings there narrated are to us material for wonder and examples to be followed, but not in any sense things we have done ourselves. With this book, however, though one does read the prophecies about the Saviour in that way, with reverence and with awe, in the case of all the other Psalms it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.

It’s interesting to note in this selection that it is not simply that the reader can start to internalize and take personally the Psalms, but that this is (according to Athanasius and the old man) an intended purpose of the Psalm – one of the reasons for which it is written.

After some brief Scriptural demonstration, Athanasius continues to emphasize how the Psalms are intended to be read, understood, and taken personally by the individual reader:

For he who reads those books is clearly reading not his own words but those of holy men and other people about whom they write; but the marvel with the Psalter is that, barring those prophecies about the Saviour and some about the Gentiles, the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up. Not as the words of the patriarchs or of Moses and the other prophets will he reverence these: no, he is bold to take them as his own and written for his very self. Whether he has kept the Law or whether he has broken it, it is his own doings that the Psalms describe; every one is bound to find his very self in them and, be he faithful soul or be he sinner, each reads in them descriptions of himself.

I’m not sure one could express a more individual understanding of the text than that. Yet Athanasius follows this passage with another of the same kind. In this instance he finally uses the mirror metaphor:

It seems to me, moreover, that because the Psalms thus serve him who sings them as a mirror, wherein he sees himself and his own soul, he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction. Sometimes it is repentance that is generated in this way, as by the conscience-stirring words of Psalm 51; another time, hearing how God helps those who hope and trust in Him, the listener too rejoices and begins to render thanks, as though that gracious help already were his own. Psalm 3, to take another instance, a man will sing, bearing his own afflictions in his mind; Psalms 11 and 12 he will use as the expression of his own faith and prayer; and singing the 54th, the 56th, the 57th, and the 142nd, it is not as though someone else were being persecuted but out of his own experience that he renders praise to God. And every other Psalm is spoken and composed by the Spirit in the selfsame way: just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.

The use of the mirror metaphor is a great way to show that the individual is to look to the Scripture, since a mirror is the sort of thing that is distinctively individual – one doesn’t ask his friend to look in the mirror for him – the mirror is specifically a tool for self-help.

After a very detailed explanation of how the Psalms can be applied to various occasions, Athanasius notes:

Such, then, is the character of the Book of Psalms, and such the uses to which it may be put, some of its number serving for the correction of individual souls, and many of them, as I said just now, foretelling the coming in human form of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Notice that in the quotation above, the individual is made explicit.

We see this same theme of individual benefit in Athanasius’ argument as to why the Psalms must be sung:

But we must not omit to explain the reason why words of this kind should be not merely said, but rendered with melody and song; for there are actually some simple folk among us who, though they believe the words to be inspired, yet think the reason for singing them is just to make them more pleasing to the ear! This is by no means so; Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate, and it is rather for the soul’s own profit that the Psalms are sung.

Furthermore, Athanasius insists that one cannot sing the Psalms simply to amuse oneself but specifically to learn from them:

Well, then, they who do not read the Scriptures in this way, that is to say, who do not chant the divine Songs intelligently but simply please themselves, most surely are to blame, for praise is not befitting in a sinner’s mouth. [Sirach 15:9] But those who do sing as I have indicated, so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them.

Then Athanasius continues with the repetition of the garden metaphor (already discussed above) and he accompanies that with a summary of the preceding admonition that the Psalms have whatever we need for any occasion:

So then, my son, let whoever reads this Book of Psalms take the things in it quite simply as God-inspired; and let each select from it, as from the fruits of a garden, those things of which he sees himself in need. For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man. For no matter what you seek, whether it be repentance and confession, or help in trouble and temptation or under persecution, whether you have been set free from plots and snares or, on the contrary, are sad for any reason, or whether, seeing yourself progressing and your enemy cast down, you want to praise and thank and bless the Lord, each of these things the Divine Psalms show you how to do, and in every case the words you want are written down for you, and you can say them as your own.

The final words of the letter re-emphasize that the investigation of Scripture is properly and fruitfully an individual task:

And so you too, Marcellinus, pondering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the meaning of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-bearing saints who spoke them at the first.

We should also agree with Athanasius that of course the Spirit’s guidance is not an optional component, as much as we have not specified that guidance above.

Scripture Interprets Scripture

One interesting point that Athanasius (and the old man) makes is that the Psalter is almost a stand-alone Bible. However, Athanasius is quick to point out that the Psalter must be interpreted harmoniously with the rest of Scripture because they have a common author, namely the Holy Spirit:

My old friend made rather a point of this, that the things we find in the Psalms about the Saviour are stated in the other books of Scripture too; he stressed the fact that one interpretation is common to them all, and that they have but one voice in the Holy Spirit.

The single voice is the explanation, of course, for the single common interpretation. After some Scriptural proof, the old man (and Athanasius with him) concludes:

You see, then, that the grace of the one Spirit is common to every writer and all the books of Scripture, and differs in its expression only as need requires and the Spirit wills.

This provides a slightly different twist on the comments above, in that it indicates that one may simply find the same thing expressed in different terms in the different books.

Sufficiency of Scripture

One of the points that the old man and Athanasius make is that the Psalter provides the final component and makes the rest of Scripture sufficient to the man of God:

Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin. Repentance, for example, is enjoined repeatedly; but to repent means to leave off sinning, and it is the Psalms that show you how to set about repenting and with what words your penitence may be expressed. Again, Saint Paul says, Tribulation worketh endurance, and endurance experience, and experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed [Rom 5:3, 5]; but it is in the Psalms that we find written and described how afflictions should be borne, and what the afflicted ought to say, both at the time and when his troubles cease: the whole process of his testing is set forth in them and we are shown exactly with what words to voice our hope in God. Or take the commandment, In everything give thanks. [1 Thess 5:18] The Psalms not only exhort us to be thankful, they also provide us with fitting words to say. We are told, too, by other writers that all who would live godly in Christ must suffer persecution;[2 Tim 3:12] and here again the Psalms supply words with which both those who flee persecution and those who suffer under it may suitably address themselves to God, and it does the same for those who have been rescued from it. We are bidden elsewhere in the Bible also to bless the Lord and to acknowledge Him: here in the Psalms we are shown the way to do it, and with what sort of words His majesty may meetly be confessed.

In other words, the entire Bible tells us how to live, but the Psalter shows us more clearly the way to fulfill the commands found throughout Scripture. The conclusion sentence talks explicitly about the ability of the Psalter to be sufficient, namely to meet the reader’s needs:

In fact, under all the circumstances of life, we shall find that these divine songs suit ourselves and meet our own souls’ need at every turn.

Another place where Athanasius makes the sufficiency point is in this comment:

For I think that in the words of this book all human life is covered, with all its states and thoughts, and that nothing further can be found in man.

It’s hard to be more sufficient than “nothing further can be found” – he might as well have said, “this is as good as it can possibly get.”

As strong as that statement of sufficiency is, the sufficiency of Scripture gets even more underscored by Athanasius’ insistence on the unadorned Psalms:

There is, however, one word of warning needed. No one must allow himself to be persuaded, by any arguments what-ever, to decorate the Psalms with extraneous matter or make alterations in their order or change the words them-selves. They must be sung and chanted in entire simplicity, just as they are written, so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us, yes and even more that the Spirit, Who spoke by the saints, recognizing the selfsame words that He inspired, may join us in them too. For as the saints’ lives are lovelier than any others, so too their words are better than ever ours can be, and of much more avail, provided only they be uttered from a righteous heart. For with these words they themselves pleased God, and in uttering them, as the Apostle says, they subdued kingdoms, they wrought righteousness, they obtained promises, they stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, waxed mighty in war, turned to flight armies of aliens, women received their dead by resurrection. [Heb 11:33-36]

The ideas that their words are “better than ever ours can be” is a great way of showing that the Scriptures themselves, standing alone, are sufficient.

Finally, Athanasius gets explicit – even using the word “sufficient”:

For God commanded Moses to write the great song [Deut 31:19] and to teach the people, and him whom He had appointed leader He bade also to write Deuteronomy, to have it ever in his hand and to meditate unceasingly upon its words [Deut 17:18-19]; because these are sufficient in themselves both to call men’s minds to virtue and to bring help to any who ponder them sincerely.

Notice that it doesn’t just say “sufficient” leaving open the option of sufficient materially but not formally, but it even goes so far as to remove an doubt by saying “sufficient in themselves.”

The parting words of the letter confirm the same thing:

And so you too, Marcellinus, pondering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the meaning of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-bearing saints who spoke them at the first.

Notice how positive Athanasius is: he says not simply that Marcellinus “may” be able to grasp the meaning, nor does Athanasius qualify the quest by whether Marcellinus adheres to the unanimous consent of the fathers or the guidance of an infallible magisterium. Instead, Athanasius insists that if Marcellinus has the Spirit he will, by intelligent study, grasp the meaning of each of the Psalms.

Scripture as a Teacher

Athanasius, as noted above, refers to the Scriptures as a teacher:

Briefly, then, if indeed any more is needed to drive home the point, the whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life.

Athanasius even goes further and compares Scriptures a teacher to mere human teachers:

Never will such a man be shaken from the truth, but those who try to trick and lead him into error he will refute; and it is no human teacher who promises us this, but the Divine Scripture itself.

Thus, for Athanasius, the Scriptures themselves are a teacher and the best possible teacher.

Scripture as the Rule of Faith and Life

Athanasius is very plain about this aspect of Scripture:

Briefly, then, if indeed any more is needed to drive home the point, the whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life.

Notice how he treats the Psalter as almost filling in what would be a gap in the rest of Scripture. With the Psalms, the Scripture is a thorough and sufficient teacher of virtue and true faith.

Christ Himself is in Scripture

Sometimes Rome’s apologists like to use the metaphor that the Church is Christ’s body to emphasize the Church’s authority. Athanasius makes an even stronger claim about Scripture:

On the other hand, daemons fear the words of holy men and cannot bear them; for the Lord Himself is in the words of Scripture and Him they cannot bear, as they showed when they cried out to Christ, I pray you, torment me not before the time.

Notice that Athanasius claims that “the Lord Himself is in the words of Scripture,” which is as strong a claim as one can make about them.

Canon of the Old Testament

The old man’s canon of the Old Testament only ends up referring to the canonical works:

Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message: the Pentateuch, for example, tells of the beginning of the world, the doings of the patriarchs, the exodus of Israel from Egypt, the giving of the Law, and the ordering of the tabernacle and the priesthood; The Triteuch [Joshua, Judges, and Ruth] describes the division of the inheritance, the acts of the judges, and the ancestry of David; Kings and Chronicles record the doings of the kings, Esdras [Ezra] the deliverance from exile, the return of the people, and the building of the temple and the city; the Prophets foretell the coming of the Saviour, put us in mind of the commandments, reprove transgressors, and for the Gentiles also have a special word.

Furthermore, the old man ends up excluding the Apocrypha (deutero-canonical books) fairly plainly by (after discussing only the canonical works) stating:

You see, then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all.

Of course, the canon of the Old Testament is not the main point of the letter, and consequently there is no explicit discussion of the topic.

Unsurprisingly, one apocryphal part of one book is mentioned: “as when Daniel relates the story of Susanna …” and the Septuagint (or similar related Greek translation) title of the Psalms are referenced “if you want to know how Moses prayed, you have the 90th … .” There’s also an allusion to Sirach 15:9 (“Praise is not seemly in the mouth of a sinner, for it was not sent him of the Lord.”) as noted above.

Penal Substitution

It is interesting to note that the old man (Athanasius adopting his words) explains that the atonement, and particularly penal substitution, is set forth in the Psalms:

For He did not die as being Himself liable to death: He suffered for us, and bore in Himself the wrath that was the penalty of our transgression, even as Isaiah says, Himself bore our weaknesses. [Mt 8:17] So in Psalm 138 we say, The Lord will make requital for me; and in the 72nd the Spirit says, He shall save the children of the poor and bring the slanderer low, for from the hand of the mighty He has set the poor man free, the needy man whom there was none to help.

It’s interesting that he even brings Isaiah into the discussion. I’ve left the editorial bracketed citation to Matthew 8:17.

That’s not the only place that Athanasius mentions this theme – he repeats it slightly later on:

This is the further kindness of the Savior that, having become man for our sake, He not only offered His own body to death on our behalf, that He might redeem all from death, but also, desiring to display to us His own heavenly and perfect way of living, He expressed this in His very self. It was as knowing how easily the devil might deceive us, that He gave us, for our peace of mind, the pledge of His own victory that He had won on our behalf. But He did not stop there: He went still further, and His own self performed the things He had enjoined on us. Every man therefore may both hear Him speaking and at the same time see in His behavior the pattern for his own, even as He himself has bidden, saying, Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart. [Mt 11:29] Nowhere is more perfect teaching of virtue to be found than in the Lord’s own life. Forbearance, love of men, goodness, courage, mercy, righteousness, all are found in Him; and in the same way no virtue will be lacking to him who fully contemplates this human life of Christ. It was as knowing this that Saint Paul said, Be ye imitators of me, even as I myself am of Christ. [1 Cor 11:1] The Greek legislators had indeed a great command of language; but the Lord, the true Lord of all, Who cares for all His works, did not only lay down precepts but also gave Himself as model of how they should be carried out, for all who would to know and imitate. And therefore, before He came among us, He sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms; in order that, just as He revealed Himself in flesh to be the perfect, heavenly Man, so in the Psalms also men of good-will might see the pattern life portrayed, and find therein the healing and correction of their own.

Notice how Athanasius indicates that Christ both serves as penal substitute (“He … offered His own body to death on our behalf”) but also as example of the godly life.


This letter of Athanasius has value for a variety of reasons. For example, included in the letter are some very detailed and at-length suggestions for times and occasions upon which to sing the various psalms. This is of great practical value to those planning worship, either their own worship or corporate worship.

Athanasius’ letter also has value for providing insight into many aspects of Athanasius’ view of Scripture:

  • the practice of private possession of Scriptures,
  • individual study of the Scripture and the fruitfulness of such study,
  • the self-interpretation of Scripture,
  • the sufficiency of Scripture,
  • the magisterial role of Scripture,
  • Scripture as the rule of faith and life,
  • Christ himself being “in” Scripture, and
  • the canon of the Old Testament.

Athanasius’ letter even provides some insight into Athanasius’ view of the atonement. The discussion on the atonement even provides some discussion related to the doctrine of penal substitution.

In all, the letter is a very rich work. I hope that the reader of this article will not content himself with my report above, but will follow the link I have provided and see for himself not only that I have reported Athanasius accurately, but that I have not provided the full treasure that this letter offers.

– TurretinFan

Aquinas: Rule of Faith ("sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei")

December 29, 2009

Thomas Aquinas’ expression, “sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei” at first glance sounds a lot like the Reformation maxim that the rule of faith is only the canonical scripture.

Here’s an English translation of the relevant portion:

It should be noted that though many might write concerning Catholic truth, there is this difference that those who wrote the canonical Scripture, the Evangelists and Apostles, and others of this kind, so constantly assert it that they leave no room for doubt. That is his meaning when he says ‘we know his testimony is true.’ Galatians 1:9, “If anyone preach a gospel to you other than that which you have received, let him be anathema!” The reason is that only canonical Scripture is a measure of faith. Others however so wrote of the truth that they should not be believed save insofar as they say true things.

Latin text:

Notandum autem, quod cum multi scriberent de catholica veritate, haec est differentia, quia illi, qui scripserunt canonicam Scripturam, sicut Evangelistic et Apostoli, et alii huiusmodi, ita constanter eam asserunt quod nihil dubitandum relinquunt. Et ideo dicit Et scimus quia verum est testimonium eius; Gal. I, 9: Si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Cuius ratio est, quia sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei. Alii autem sic edisserunt de veritate, quod nolunt sibi credi nisi in his quae ver dicunt.”

And here’s the citation: Thomas Aquinas, Lectures on the Gospel of John, ed. P. Raphaelis Cai, O.P., Editio V revisa (Romae: Marietti Editori Ltd., 1952) n. 2656, p. 488.

This is not an attempt to construe Aquinas as a modern-day Reformed believer (or even a “Protestant” as unhelpful as that category is). Such an allegation would be anachronistic. However, this citation does show that it is equally (if not more-so) anachronistic to view Aquinas as sharing the beliefs of modern-day Roman apologists. In short, his view of Scripture may not be precisely the same as ours, but it is also not the same as that of Rome, in an important way.

The usual response to this sort of citation from Aquinas is exemplified by the response provided by Phil Porvaznik (link) who deflects from the text in question to another place in Aquinas’ writings that he thinks is inconsistent with Sola Scriptura. While such an approach may help to prove what we already concede (namely that Aquinas is not simply a modern-day Reformed Presbyterian), it does not answer the crucial question, what did Aquinas mean by “sola canonica scriptura est regula fidei” (“only canonical scripture is [the/a (Latin lacks articles)] rule of faith”)? Can any of the Roman Catholics reading answer that question positively (i.e. by refraining from telling us what Aquinas is not saying but rather by telling us what Aquinas is saying)?

What is interesting is that this is not the only time Aquinas speaks of the rule of faith. Here’s another place, first an English translation:

Or, wanting to show those speeches that are completely outside of the Scriptures, it said: If they will say to you: Here, and in the desert, do not depart from the rule of the faith.

Latin text:

Vel eos sermones qui sunt omnino extra Scripturam ostendere volens, dixit si dixerint vobis: ecce in solitudine est, nolite exire, de regula fidei.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea, Commentary on the Gospels, at Matthew 24:23-38 (Lectio 6 in Matthew 24), quoting (apparently with approval) from Origen.

Additionally, we may note another such reference (again English first):

Objection 1. It would seem that it is unsuitable for the articles of faith to be embodied in a symbol. Because Holy Writ is the rule of faith, to which no addition or subtraction can lawfully be made, since it is written (Deuteronomy 4:2): “You shall not add to the word that I speak to you, neither shall you take away from it.” Therefore it was unlawful to make asymbol as a rule of faith, after the Holy Writ had once been published.

Reply to Objection 1. The truth of faith is contained in Holy Writ, diffusely, under various modes of expression, and sometimes obscurely, so that, in order to gather the truth of faith from Holy Writ, one needs long study and practice, which are unattainable by all those who require to know the truth of faith, many of whom have no time for study, being busy with other affairs. And so it was necessary to gather together a clear summary from the sayings of Holy Writ, to be proposed to the belief of all. This indeed was no addition to Holy Writ, but something taken from it.

Latin text:

Ad nonum sic proceditur. Videtur quod inconvenienter articuli fidei in symbolo ponantur. Sacra enim Scriptura est regula fidei, cui nec addere nec subtrahere licet, dicitur enim Deut. IV, non addetis ad verbum quod vobis loquor, neque auferetis ab eo. Ergo illicitum fuit aliquod symbolum constituere quasi regulam fidei, post sacram Scripturam editam.

Ad primum ergo dicendum quod veritas fidei in sacra Scriptura diffuse continetur et variis modis, et in quibusdam obscure; ita quod ad eliciendum fidei veritatem ex sacra Scriptura requiritur longum studium et exercitium, ad quod non possunt pervenire omnes illi quibus necessarium est cognoscere fidei veritatem, quorum plerique, aliis negotiis occupati, studio vacare non possunt. Et ideo fuit necessarium ut ex sententiis sacrae Scripturae aliquid manifestum summarie colligeretur quod proponeretur omnibus ad credendum. Quod quidem non est additum sacrae Scripturae, sed potius ex sacra Scriptura assumptum.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 1, Article 9

Here’s another:

1. It seems that you should not combine the articles in the symbol. In fact all the faith is taught in a comprehensive manner with Sacred Scripture. So it was unnecessary to compose the symbol.

2. The symbol is proposed as a rule of faith, whose action is consent. Now, only the Apostles and Prophets must be granted this honor, which is that all they have said is believed to be true, as St. Augustine asserts. So after the Apostles’ Creed one should not draw up other symbols.

Reply to 1. It was necessary to collect in a single text the various truth transmitted in various places of the Sacred Scriptures so that the faith would be more readily at hand.

Reply to 2. The Fathers who have published other symbols after the Apostles have not added anything of their own, but added what they excerpted from the Holy Scriptures. Now, since in that symbol of the Apostles there are some difficult things, the Nicene Creed was published, which exposes more fully the faith about certain items. Since then some truths were contained in those symbols in implicit form, it was necessary to give an explanation upon the rise of heresies, and so was added the symbol S. Athanasius, who especially set himself against the heretics.

Latin Text:

Ulterius. Videtur quod articuli non debuerunt colligi in symbolo. Quia tota fides sufficienter per sacram Scripturam instruitur. Ergo superfluum fuit symbolum condere.

Praeterea, symbolum proponitur ut regula fidei, cujus actus est assentire. Sed, sicut dicit Augustinus in epistola 19 ad Hieronymum, solis apostolis et prophetis est hic honor exhibendus, ut quaecumque dixerunt, haec ipsa vera esse credantur. Ergo post symbolum apostolorum non debuerunt alia symbola fieri.

Ad primum ergo dicendum, quod oportuit ea quae in diversis locis sacrae scripturae tradita sunt, in unum colligi locum, ut fides magis in promptu haberetur.

Ad secundum dicendum, quod patres qui alia symbola post apostolos ediderunt, nihil de suo apposuerunt; sed ex sacris scripturis ea quae addiderunt, exceperunt. Et quia quaedam difficilia sunt in illo symbolo apostolorum, ideo ad ejus explanationem editum est symbolum nicaenum, quod diffusius fidem quantum ad aliquos articulos prosequitur. Et quia quaedam implicite continebantur in illis symbolis, quae oportebat propter insurgentes haereses explicari; ideo additum est symbolum athanasii, qui specialiter contra haereticos se opposuit.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary upon [Lombard’s] Sentences, Book 3, Distinction 25, Question 1, Answer 1, Quaestiuncula 3, arguments 1-2 and answer to arguments 1-2

And again:

4. In the symbol, the faith must be exposed that extends to all believers. But, not all believers have come to believe in God, but only those who have a formed faith. Therefore he seems to say badly: “I believe in a single God,” and because he has a shapeless faith, saying this, sins by lying.

Reply to 4. In the symbol is propounded to us the rule of the faith, to which all must come. But they do not have only to reach the action of shapeless faith, but also the action of formed faith. However, he who, having shapeless faith, recites the symbol, does not sin, because he says this in the person of the Church.

Latin Text:

Praeterea, in symbolo debet exponi fides quantum ad omnes credentes. Sed non omnibus credentibus convenit credere in Deum, sed tantum habentibus fidem formatam. Ergo videtur quod male dictum sit: credo in unum Deum; et quod habens fidem informem, hoc dicens peccet mentiendo.

Ad quartum dicendum, quod in symbolo proponitur nobis regula fidei, ad quam omnes debent pertingere. Non autem debent pertingere solum ad actum fidei informis, sed etiam ad actum fidei formatae, et ideo ponitur in symbolis actus fidei formatae. Nihilominus habens fidem informem, dicens symbolum, non peccat: quia hoc dicit in persona Ecclesiae.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary upon [Lombard’s] Sentences, Book 3, Distinction 25, Question 1, Answer 2, Argument 4, and reply to 4

And here:

3. The Sacred Scripture is the rule of the faith. But, in the Scriptures of Old Testament the Trinity was not explicitly mentioned. Therefore it was not necessary [to believe in the Trinity] in order to believe.

Reply to 3. Since it was not necessary that all be explicitly known in the Old Testament, the mystery of the Trinity was not formulated manifestly, but veiled, so that the wise can understand.

Latin Text:

Praeterea, sacra Scriptura est regula fidei. Sed in Scriptura veteris testamenti non fuit mentio expressa facta de Trinitate. Ergo non erat necessaria ad credendum.

Ad tertium dicendum, quod quia non erat necessarium ut explicite omnes cognoscerent, ideo non fuit positum mysterium trinitatis manifeste in veteri testamento, sed velate ut sapientes capere possent.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary upon [Lombard’s] Sentences, Book 3, Distinction 25, Question 1, Answer 2, Quaestiuncula 4, Argument 3, and reply to 3

Finally, again, first in English:

Objection 3. Further, Athanasius was not the Sovereign Pontiff, but patriarch of Alexandria, and yet he published a symbol which is sung in the Church. Therefore it does not seem to belong to the Sovereign Pontiff any more than to other bishops, to publish a new edition of the symbol.

Reply to Objection 3. Athanasius drew up a declaration of faith, not under the form of a symbol, but rather by way of an exposition of doctrine, as appears from his way of speaking. But since it contained briefly the whole truth of faith, it was accepted by the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff, so as to be considered as a rule of faith.

Latin text:

Praeterea, Athanasius non fuit summus pontifex, sed Alexandrinus patriarcha. Et tamen symbolum constituit quod in Ecclesia cantatur. Ergo non magis videtur pertinere editio symboli ad summum pontificem quam ad alios.

Ad tertium dicendum quod Athanasius non composuit manifestationem fidei per modum symboli, sed magis per modum cuiusdam doctrinae, ut ex ipso modo loquendi apparet. Sed quia integram fidei veritatem eius doctrina breviter continebat, auctoritate summi pontificis est recepta, ut quasi regula fidei habeatur.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 1, Article 10

Recall again that the challenge to the Roman Catholic reader is to tell us what Aquinas meant by saying that the canonical scriptures alone are a/the rule of faith.

To make the Roman Catholic’s job easier, here are some important negative points that I’ll present so that the Roman Catholic can focus on the positives:

1. Aquinas wrote in Latin, so while we might be tempted to insert “the” before “rule of faith,” the sense of “the” can only be implied.

2. In the first quotation above, the Scriptures are not being contrasted with the proclamations of ecumenical councils or ex cathedra papal statements (the latter category wasn’t really yet in existence in Aquinas’ time). Thus, Aquinas is not specifically and directly speaking to the supremacy of Scripture over conciliar and papal documents, as such.

Finally, here are some additional quotations from Aquinas, which – while they don’t expressly use the expression “rule of faith” — help to inform the discussion.

First, some explanation of what the expression “canonical” with reference to Scripture meant to Aquinas:

If you wish to know whether a doctrine be erroneous, he shows this by three things. First, if it be against ecclesiastical doctrine. And therefore he says, If any man teach otherwise, namely, than I or the other Apostles. Gal. 1:9: If any one preach to you a gospel, besides that which you have received, let him be anathema. For the doctrine of the Apostles and prophets is called canonical, since it is like a rule for our intellect. And therefore no one ought to teach otherwise. Deut. 4:2: You shall not add to the word that I speak to you, neither shall you take away from it. Apoc. 22:18: If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book.

Regarding the second he says, and consent not, etc. For the Lord Jesus came to give testimony to the truth. Jn. 18:37: For this I was born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. And therefore He was sent by the Father as a doctor and teacher. 1 Mach. 2:65: Give ear to him always, and he shall be a father to you, etc. And therefore whatever does not conform to their words is erroneous. 1 Kg. 15:23: It is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey. And he says, sound, because in the words of Christ nothing is corrupt, nothing false, or perverse, since they are words of divine wisdom. Prov. 8:8: All my words are just, there is nothing wicked nor perverse in them. They are right to them that understand, and just to them that find knowledge.
Regarding the third, it says in Prov. 6:20, My son, keep the commandments of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother. Whence he says, and to that doctrine which is according to godliness, namely, ecclesiastical doctrine. This godliness is through the worship of God. Tit. 1:1: According to…the acknowledging of the truth, which is according to godliness.

Latin text:

Si vis scire, quae doctrina sit erronea, hoc ostendit ex tribus. Primo si sit contra doctrinam ecclesiasticam. Et ideo dicit si quis aliter docet, scilicet quam ego et alii apostoli, quantum ad primum. Gal. I, 9: si quis vobis evangelizaverit praeter id quod accepistis, anathema sit. Doctrina enim apostolorum et prophetarum dicitur canonica, quia est quasi regula intellectus nostri. Et ideo nullus aliter debet docere. Deut. Iv, 2: non addetis ad verbum quod loquor vobis, neque auferetis ex eo. Apoc. Ult.: si quis apposuerit ad haec, apponet deus super illum plagas scriptas in libro isto.

Quantum ad secundum dicit et non acquiescit, etc.. Nam dominus iesus venit, ut testimonium perhibeat veritati. Io. Xviii, 37: in hoc natus sum, et ad hoc veni in mundum, ut testimonium perhibeam veritati. Et ideo missus est a patre sicut doctor et magister. i mac. Ii, 65: ipsum audite semper, et ipse erit vobis pater, etc.. Et ideo erroneus est quicumque non acquiescit sermonibus eius. I reg. Xv, 23: quasi peccatum ariolandi est repugnare, et quasi scelus idololatriae nolle acquiescere. Et dicit sanis, quia in christi sermonibus nihil est corruptionis, nihil falsitatis, vel perversitatis, quia sunt sermones divinae sapientiae. Prov. Viii, 8 s.: iusti sunt sermones mei, non est in eis pravum quid neque perversum. Recti sunt intelligentibus, et aequi invenientibus scientiam. quantum ad tertium, prov. Vi, 20: conserva, fili mi, praecepta patris tui, et ne dimittas legem matris tuae. Unde dicit et ei quae secundum pietatem est doctrinae, scilicet ecclesiasticae. Haec pietas est per cultum dei. Tit. I, 1: secundum agnitionem veritatis, quae est secundum pietatem.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 1 Timothy, Chapter 6, Lecture One.

Thomas Aquinas similarly asserts that Scripture’s ultimate effect is to lead men to perfection, by teaching men not only the things necessary for salvation but also for supererogation (see, there’s an example of Thomas not being a Reformed theologian, we deny that there are such things as works of supererogation). The text is interesting at least from the standpoint of material sufficiency:

Its ultimate effect is that it leads men to perfection. For it does good not in whatever manner, but it perfects. Heb. 6:1: Let us go on to things more perfect. And so he says, That the man of God may be perfect, since a man cannot be perfect unless he is a man of God. For something is perfect which lacks nothing. Therefore, then is a man perfect when he is furnished, that is, prepared, to every good work, not only for those which are necessary for salvation but also for those which are of supererogation. Gal. 6:9: And in doing good, let us not fail.

Latin Text:

Ultimus eius effectus est, ut perducat homines ad perfectum. Non enim qualitercumque bonum facit, sed perficit. Hebr. C. Vi, 1: ad perfectionem feramur. Et ideo dicit ut perfectus sit homo dei, quia non potest homo esse perfectus, nisi sit homo dei. Perfectum enim est, cui nihil deest. Tunc ergo homo est perfectus, quando est instructus, id est, paratus, ad omne opus bonum, non solum ad ea quae sunt de necessitate salutis, sed etiam ad ea quae sunt supererogationis. Gal. Cap. Ult.: bonum autem facientes, non deficiamus.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on 2 Timothy, Chapter 3, Lecture three.

Finally, Aquinas that while other arguments from probability can be made, the proper authority for holy teaching is the canonical Scripture:

Yet holy teaching employs such authorities only in order to provide as it were extraneous arguments from probability. Its own proper authorities are those of canonical Scripture, and these it applied with convincing force. It has other proper authorities, the doctors of the Church, and these it looks to as its own, but for arguments that carry no more than probability.

For our faith rests on the revelation made to the Prophets and Apostles who wrote the canonical books, not on a revelation, if such there be, made to any other teacher. In this sense St Augustine wrote to St Jerome; Only to those books or writings which are called canonical have I learnt to pay such honour that I firmly believe that none of their authors have erred in composing them. Other authors, however, I read to such effect that, no matter what holiness and learning they display, I do not hold what they say to be true because those were their sentiments.

Latin text:

Sed tamen sacra doctrina hujusmodi auctoritatibus utitur quasi extraneis argumentis et probabilibus. Auctoritatibus autem canonicae Scripturae utitur proprie, ex necessitate argumentando. Auctoritatibus autem aliorum doctorum Ecclesiae, quasi arguendo ex propriis, sed probabiliter.

Innititur enim fides nostra revelationi apostolis et prophetis factae qui canonicos libros scripserunt, non autem revelationi, si qua fuit, aliis doctoribus factae. Unde dicit Augustinus in epistola ad Hieronymum; Solis eis Scripturarum libris qui canonici appellantur didici hunc honorem deferre, ut nullum auctorem in scribendo errasse aliquid firmissime credam. Alios autem ita lego ut, quantalibet sanctitate doctrinaque praepolleant, non ideo verum putem quod ipsi ita senserunt.

Citation: Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part 1, Question 1, Article 8

Any takers for the challenge? (Remember, the challenge is to tell us what Aquinas does mean, not what he doesn’t mean.)


Aquinas and the Formal Sufficiency of Scripture

December 25, 2009

I’ve previously noted Aquinas’ apparent [FN1] view of the primacy of Scripture (link) as well as other comments from Aquinas on themes generally related to Sola Scriptura (link). The following quotation, however, comes close to expressing not only the material sufficiency of Scripture, but also the formal sufficiency of Scripture.

Thus in Holy Writ no confusion results, for all the senses are founded on one — the literal — from which alone can any argument be drawn, and not from those intended in allegory, as Augustine says (Epis. 48). Nevertheless, nothing of Holy Scripture perishes on account of this, since nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense which is not elsewhere put forward by the Scripture in its literal sense.

– Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 1, Article 10

I suspect that Aquinas’ reference is to:

For what else is it than superlative impudence for one to interpret in his own favour any allegorical statements, unless he has also plain testimonies, by the light of which the obscure meaning of the former may be made manifest.

– Augustine, Letter 93, Chapter 8, Section 24 (This letter is numbered 48 in some of the older collections, for example, this one)

That’s a slightly less strong wording than Aquinas uses. In any event, there are two interesting things that Aquinas says: (1) it is improper to argue from an alleged spiritual sense, rather than from the literal sense; and (2) everything necessary for salvation cannot only be found in Scripture but it can be found in the relatively clear, literal parts (not simply in the less clear allegorical parts).


[FN1] There is reason to think that some of the analysis in the Primacy post may be mistaken. For now, we’ll leave it at simply apparent, until we have more time to review the evidence behind the objections.

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