“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 – NASV)
Today, we will address another specific attack on Sola Scriptura (by Catholics and others), one that acknowledges a somewhat higher level of the sufficiency of Scripture. It goes like this:
ARGUMENT #6 – WE BELIEVE IN THE “MATERIAL” SUFFICIENCY OF SCRIPTURE, BUT NOT ITS “FORMAL” SUFFICIENCY. MATERIAL SUFFICIENCY MEANS THAT THE BIBLE HAS ALL THE MATERIAL IN IT TO TEACH ALL THE RIGHT DOCTRINES. BUT FORMAL SUFFICIENCY MEANS IT WOULD HAVE TO BE IN THE RIGHT FORM, THAT IT WOULD HAVE TO BE CLEAR ENOUGH FOR ANYONE TO UNDERSTAND IT. BUT SINCE THERE ARE SO MANY DIVISIONS AND DISAGREEMENTS AMONG THOSE WHO PRACTICE SOLA SCRIPTURA, IT IS OBVIOUS THAT WE NEED AN INFALLIBLE MAGISTERIUM TO PROPERLY INTERPRET THE BIBLE FOR US. SO, SCRIPTURE IS ONLY “MATERIALLY SUFFICIENT” AND NOT “FORMALLY SUFFICIENT.”
For the record, not all Catholics believe in the “material sufficiency” view, but many do. A commonly used example of material sufficiency is that the Bible can be compared to a pile of bricks to be used to build a house. All the “parts” are there, but they are not in the right order and, by themselves, they can only lay there… they can’t put themselves in place. A master bricklayer must put them in place to properly build the house. In a similar manner, they say Scripture has all the “parts,” but lacks the ability to “build” its doctrine since it can’t interpret itself, so we need someone with special authority to correctly interpret the contents of Scripture. And apparently, the “infallible” Catholic Magisterium is the only one who has this authority. At least, that’s the argument they use.
These Catholics would tell us that Scripture is insufficient since it’s in the “wrong form” to be used by itself as a Rule of Faith, and because of that, using Scripture alone will cause confusion and division, like we see in Protestantism. They say Scripture is not laid out in a “formalized” or “systematic” manner as you might find in a catechism, for example. Maybe so. But then, in what “form” should Scripture be? How does one determine that it is in the wrong form? God, the Father, never said this. Jesus Christ does not say this. No, it is man who makes this false claim.
We believe that the reader should be very hesitant to suggest that Scripture is in any way insufficient as a rule of faith. Especially in light of the evidence we shared in Parts 1 through 5 of this series of articles which have previously addressed several other common Catholic arguments. And the weakness of each of these arguments has already been demonstrated. Scripture is indeed sufficient as a Rule of Faith.
So, why do (some) Catholics believe that the Bible is only materially sufficient? It’s because this is all about a supposed NEED for “infallible certainty.” That’s what this argument is all about… creating the need for an “infallible” entity (the Magisterium) to provide “infallible certainty” for its members, causing an unbiblical dependence on the Magisterium.
But this “wrong form” argument is just an insulting deception to allow other “infallible” sources to enter into the picture (for the post-apostolic church).
We don’t need INFALLIBLE certainty when interpreting the Bible. Infallible certainty is God’s domain, not man’s. But God can (and does) give us sufficient certainty in Bible interpretation.
Here is an article on that topic:
And if the presence of divisions means that one’s rule of faith is in the wrong form, couldn’t we say that the Magisterium and Tradition are also in the wrong form, since many Catholics are also confused about statements from their own Magisterium, and since there are surely divisions within the Catholic Church, as well? If disagreements are a problem for the Protestant rule of faith, then why would they not also be a problem for the Catholic rule of faith?
Concerning disagreements and squabbles in the church, it is interesting that when Catholics argue amongst themselves, they’ll call it “freedom to interpret.” But when they find disagreements in Protestantism, they’ll call it “divisions.”
For more on Sola Scriptura and divisions, see this article:
Now, of course church leaders do have a role in teaching, interpreting and expounding on Scripture, but the members also have a responsibility. They are also expected to grow into maturity. God does not expect us to stay dependent on the leaders for everything. We shouldn’t expect them to do all the doctrinal studying, and then spoon-feed the rest of us like babies for the rest of our lives. If the church leaders / Magisterium are teaching their members to be dependent on THEM (the leaders), then those leaders are NOT fulfilling their biblical responsibility to equip the saints (Ephesians 4:11-15).
God expects all of us to study and learn to “rightly divide the Word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Must a church member just give up and turn all responsibility over to some (supposedly) infallible leader(s) just because a certain passage is hard to understand? No, he should continue to prayerfully study and learn. We all need help interpreting now and then, but we have no biblical reason to believe in an infallible human leader (or organization) who must interpret for us.
Again, God expects His children to hear, read, study and understand the Scriptures. There are many, many examples of the common people being expected to understand Jesus’ words. Here are just a few:
- People in general (Luke 20:17)
- People in the synagogue (Luke 4:21; Acts 17:2, 11)
- The public (John 7:38)
- The multitude (Matt. 15:10; Mark 7:14, 16; John 7:42)
- The five lost brothers of the rich man (Luke 16:27-29)
- The Reader of Scripture (Matt. 24:15; John 19:24, 28, 36, 37; Revelation 1:3)
- The local Christian churches who received letters / epistles from the Apostle Paul (e.g., the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, etc.)
- “Whosoever” and “He that has ears to hear”-- used many times in the gospels and Revelation (e.g., Matthew 7:24; Luke 6:47; Mark 4:9; Luke 14:35; John 5:24; Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). When Jesus said, “Whosoever…”, He didn’t mean “only the leaders.”
Once again, all these were expected to heed the words of Scripture. They were held accountable to know and understand Jesus’ words. There will be no one on Judgment Day who will be able to say, “But God, there are so many disagreements out there about the Bible… it just wasn’t quite clear enough, so I trusted in the Magisterium.” No, every single person will be accountable. And it will be that same Word that will judge us on the last day (John 12:48). No one can escape that accountability.
It is foolish to compare Scripture to a lifeless, disorganized “pile of bricks.” The author of Hebrews tells us that the Word of God is “quick [living] and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword…” (Hebrews 4:12), and the apostle Paul calls it “God-breathed,” and a source that equips one for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Jesus Christ tells us:
- “My words shall not pass away…” (Matthew 24:35)
- “He that rejecteth Me and receiveth not My words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. (John 12:48)
- “… he that heareth My word… hath everlasting life…” (John 5:24)
- “But if ye believe not his [Moses’] writings, how shall ye believe My words?” (John 5:47)
- “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.” (John 6:63)
Hardly the language of an “insufficient” rule of faith. The essence of these words of Jesus gets clouded and choked out by the concept of “material sufficiency.” This is ample reason to reject it.