Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Catholic View Of The Material Sufficiency Of Scripture

I’ve been thinking about a statement that Roman Catholic blogger Nicholas Hardesty recently made about Cyril of Jerusalem:

The point is that I don't see "solo" or "sola" in the paragraphs from Cyril's Lectures that you cited. I think that a balanced look at how he viewed both the authority of Scripture and the authority of the Church shows that he is speaking of the material sufficiency of Scripture, not its formal sufficiency.”

For some, it might be strange to hear a Roman Catholic affirm the material sufficiency of Scripture. The idea that the Scriptures are “materially sufficient” simply means the entire content of revelation is in the Scriptures, or that divine revelation is contained entirely in Scripture. That is, all the doctrines Christians are to believe are found in the Bible. Catholic advocates of this view would include John Henry Newman and Joseph Ratzinger, and Yves Congar.

This sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Why in the world do Catholics and Protestants bicker about Scripture when we both believe the same thing? Well it isn’t that simple. Along with affirming totum in Scriptura, Catholics who maintain material sufficiency also hold “Tradition” likewise contains the entire content of revelation: “totum in traditione”. Thus, two vehicles carry God’s special revelation in total: Scripture and Tradition. Both are infallible in the Catholic view.

To my understanding, this is not the official view of the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, it is one acceptable view within their sect. The other would be the view that part of God’s special revelation is contained in the Scripture, and part is contained in tradition. This would be the partim-partim view. In this view, the Bible is “materially insufficient”. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states of those who hold this view, “Neither tradition nor Scripture contains the whole apostolic tradition. Scripture is materially (i.e., in content) insufficient, requiring oral tradition as a complement to be true to the whole divine revelation” [Source: New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) Vol 14, p.228].

The obvious irony is that on such an important basic concept of the exact location of all and the extent of all divine revelation, Roman Catholics can’t tell you with certainty to what extent and where it is completely. Trent’s wording that addresses this is vague enough to allow for either material sufficiency (including complete infallible tradition), or the partim-partim view. Thus, some Catholics may hold partim-partim, pleading with you to accept the entirely of God’s revelation, or another may hold to the materially sufficient view, pleading with you to accept that all the doctrine contained in the Bible that gradually grew and is understood more fully as history progresses. Both of these views though require one added ingredient: an infallible magisterium that can infallibly define and infallibly interpret God’s revelation for you. In the partim-partim view, the infallible magisterium can tell you with certainty what infallible extra-biblical tradition is and can interpret the Bible for you. In the material sufficiency view, the infallible magisterium can tell you what doctrines are contained explicitly and implicitly in Scripture and Tradition, as the biblical revelation grows and develops. They can interpret these truths for you.

Both views come with a set of problems. For the partim-partim view, James White has pointed out, “Aside from the fact that the passages cited from the Bible do not support the entire concept of extrabiblical revelation in the form of oral traditions, the Roman apologist cannot demonstrate the existence of this kind of tradition in history. The novel concepts that have been made dogma in later years were not in any way a part of the record of the early Church. Though Roman Catholic historians view the writings of the early Fathers as a witness to this tradition, those writings present the single most telling objection to this theory concerning the oral traditions. It is not possible to defend the idea that such doctrines are directly, actually, historically, apostolic in origin” [Source: James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996), 78].

The Roman Catholic who holds to the material sufficiency of Scripture also faces difficulties. He usually states something like “the content of divine revelation is found explicitly and implicitly in Scripture.” His task is little like the children’s game Where’s Waldo Now: he has to prove to you that such things like the Immaculate Conception, the Bodily assumption of Mary, Papal Infallibility are contained in the Scriptures. Ask him to show you in the Bible where it is implicitly or explicitly taught that the Pope can only make infallible proclamations on doctrines having to do with faith and morals.

The Romanist material sufficiency view solves the problem the partim-partim view has: there is no need to historically trace and verify such non-Biblical concepts the like the Immaculate Conception, the Bodily assumption of Mary, or Papal Infallibility. That these concepts can’t be found in early tradition is no longer a problem, for the Romanist material sufficiency view holds that the seeds of these doctrines are found in the Bible and Tradition. The problem though raised for this view is the biblical proof offered for particular doctrines. It’s interesting (and sad) to watch the extremes that Roman Catholic apologists will go to to prove a non-Biblical doctrine from the Bible. For example, Patrick Madrid find’s Mary’s Immaculate Conception foreshadowed in Genesis 1, and finds parallels between Mary’s Immaculate Conception and the Ark of the Covenant.

So what about Roman Catholic blogger Nicholas Hardesty’s point about Cyril of Jerusalem? Indeed, Cyril believed in the material sufficiency of Scripture. We can also agree that Cyril probably believed in apostolic tradition as well, but this tradition was nothing else than the same material contained in the Bible. It was not extra-biblical material like that said to be contained in Tradition by those who hold the partim-partim view. Cyril exhorts his pupils to memorize that which he is to teach them. He then says in 5:12-

So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed, and commit it to memory; but at the proper season expect the confirmation out of Holy Scripture of each part of the contents. For the articles of the Faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. And just as the mustard seed in one small grain contains many branches, so also this Faith has embraced in few words all the knowledge of godliness in the Old and New Testaments. Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them an the table of your heart.”

The “traditions” he is giving them is a recitation of the Creed. According to Cyril, The Creed finds its sole substantiation in the Scripture. The Creed is based solely on the Scripture. Thus, the Creed is only authoritative in how closely it conforms to Scripture.

I can also agree with Nicholas that Cyril believed there was a teaching magisterium within the early church. Sola Scriptura never denies the office of pastor/teacher. The church is described as the “pillar and supporter of the truth”- it not the final arbiter of the truth. The “pillar” holds something up- that is, the truth- but she (the church) is to remain subservient to it. Note Cyril’s words:

Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures” [Source: NPNF2, Vol. VII, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture IV.17].

Now mind not my argumentations, for perhaps thou mayest be misled but unless thou receive testimony of the Prophets on each matter, believe not what I say: unless thou learn from the Holy Scriptures concerning the Virgin, and the place, the time, and the manner, receive not testimony from man. For one who at present thus teaches may possibly be suspected: but what man of sense will suspect one that prophesied a thousand and more years beforehand? If then thou seekest the cause of Christ's coming, go back to the first book of the Scriptures” [Source: NPNF2, Vol. VII, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture XII.5].

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