Thursday, January 15, 2009

Catholics and the material sufficiency of Sacred Scripture

A recent thread at FIDES QUAERENS INTELLECTUM, Epistemology and Ecclesiology, Pt II, has prompted me to provide a few quotations from Catholic authors concerning the material sufficiency of Sacred Scripture:

Evangelicals, of course, have generally followed the Reformation dictum of sola scriptura. The essence of this phrase has a long and interesting theological history and is, with nuances, accepted by many, if not most, contemporary Catholic theologians…

The conciliar decree is open to this interpretation [material sufficiency] inasmuch as Catholics believe that statements of ecumenical councils are providentially guided by the Holy Spirit. Yves Congar closes by noting that the proper way of summing up the relationship between Scripture and tradition as found in both the Fathers and the pre-Tridentine period is in the formula used by Newman and the nineteenth-century theologian, J. E. Kuhn: Totum in scriptura, totum in traditione.

While Congar and J. Geiselmann believe that Trent left the door open for the thesis of the material sufficiency of Scripture, Joseph Ratzinger stakes the same claim for the Dogmatic Constitution of Vatican II, Dei Verbum #9. This text is “…the product of the attempt to take into account, to the widest possible extent, the points made by the Reformed churches and [was] intended to keep the field open for a Catholic idea of sola scriptura…”[12] If these theologians are correct, and the majority of contemporary Catholic theologians surely agree with them, then Catholics, in their own way, could agree with the position that the entire truth of salvation is found in Scripture. (Thomas G. Guarino, “Catholic Reflections on Discerning the Truth of Sacred Scripture” in Your Word Is Truth, edited by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus, 2002, pp. 79 85, 86.)

[12] Joseph Ratzinger, “Commentary on Dei Verbum,” in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II, vol. 3, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler (New York: Herder & Herder, 1969) p. 192. Ratzinger notes here both his reservations and those of various Protestant commentators.

If we return to our text, we shall see that, following the stress on the unity of Scripture and tradition, an attempt is made to give a definition of the two entities. It is important to note that only Scripture is defined in terms of what it is: it is stated that Scripture is the word of God. If this makes clear the nature of Scripture, we can see from the detailed characterization of tradition, whose task it is to “preserve (it), explain it, and make it more widely know”, that it is not productive, but “conservative”, ordained to serve as part of something already given.

The next part of the sentence quo fit … hauriat is the result of a modus suggested by 111 fathers. They wanted, with small variations, something like the following addition: quo fit ut non omnis doctrina catholica ex (sola) Scriptura (directe) probari queat. Clearly, the problem of the material completeness of Scripture once more crops up here, the problem that had caused fierce debate in the Council in its first and third sessions. When the question was treated in the Theological Commission on 6 October 1965, a dispute flared up. Mgr. Philips, its secretary, made a conciliatory proposal, which met with no success, so that finally the idea of any addition of this kind was rejected. On 18 October, the President of the Commission, Cardinal Ottaviani, was given a letter written by Cardinal Cicognani at the request of the Pope, which, apart from a few improvements Chapter III, also stated that it would be desirable (magus opportunum) to have an addition at this point. The letter included seven textual suggestions, on which the Secretary of State commented in his letter: “His enim formulis ii etiam assensum ac suffragium praestaturi esse censentur, qui in maiore Concilii parte pollent.” After careful deliberation the Council decided on the third of the suggested formulations, which was probably the work of C. Colombo. It now stands in the text. From an ecumenical point of there can be no objection to it. H. Ott says: “Moreover, it is surely also true for a Protestant who has not forgotten the basis of the Reformation that we do not acquire certainty about God’s revelation only from Holy Scripture, but also through preaching and the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Actually, there would have been nothing to object to in the text of the 111 fathers, for no one is seriously able to maintain that there is proof in Scripture for every Catholic doctrine. The ecumenical difficulties of the text lie, as we have seen, in quite different points. Emotions had become attached to a point where they were completely superfluous. Furthermore, when one analyzes text calmly, it appears as a positive contribution towards the clarification of the problem of tradition. The function of tradition is seen here as a making certain of the truth, i.e. it belongs in the formal and gnoseological sphere—and, in fact, this is the sphere in which the significance of tradition is to be sought. (Joseph Ratzinger, “The Transmission of Divine Revelation” in Herbert Vorgrimler, ed., Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II - New York: Crossroad, 1989, Vol. 3, pp. 194, 195.)

I would like, however, to try in the last part of our reflections to bring forward certain reasons for our not needing to accept – not even from a Catholic point of view – a constitutive material function of tradition which goes beyond the testimony of the nature of scripture; that we can say conversely, therefore, that it is entirely possible to formulate a Catholic sola scriptura principle with regard to the Church’s deposit of faith, provided that we understand this in a Catholic sense and therefore understand it to involve also an authoritative attestation and interpretation of holy scripture by the living word of the Church and her magisterium, and an attestation of scripture itself and its authoritative interpretation which cannot be replaced by scripture itself. (Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations - vol. 6, p. 107.)

…we can admit Scriptura sola in the sense of a material sufficiency of canonical Scripture. This means that Scripture contains, in one way or another, all truths necessary for salvation. This position can claim the support of many Fathers and early theologians. It has been, and still is, held by many modern theologians. The decree of the Council of Trent, they hold, does not prevent one’s still holding this position, for it merely affirms that the revealed truths and the principles of Christian living which are wholly contained in the Gospel are conveyed by the traditions and by Scripture. (Yves Congar, Tradition & Traditions, p. 410.)

With respect to the material sufficiency of the Bible, the ecumenical rapprochement is still more striking. Dei Verbum, departing from the preconciliar schema “On the Sources of Revelation,” refused to affirm that there are “two sources” or that some revealed truths are contained in tradition alone. Instead the Constitution accented the living and dynamic character of tradition as the process of handing on the word of God, which is indivisibly present both in Scripture and in tradition (DV 7-10). On the other hand, the Council refused to demote tradition to a merely secondary position, as though everything had to be tested by the Bible alone as the final rule of faith. “It is not from sacred Scripture alone that the church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence” (DV 9).

Just as Vatican II broke with the standard Catholic two-source theory, so the Montreal Conference on Faith and Order, meeting almost simultaneously, showed a disposition on the part of Protestants as well as Orthodox to assert the primacy and indispensability of tradition as against the “sola Scriptura” position. The report depicts the prophetic and apostolic writings as sedimentations of tradition, and holds that even after the Bible became complete, the gospel continued to be transmitted in living tradition by the power of the Holy Spirit. “Thus we can say that we exist as Christians by the Tradition of the Gospel (the paradosis of the kerygma) testified in Scripture, transmitted in and by the church through the power of the Holy Spirit.” While recognizing that Tradition (with a capital “T”) is the word of God, Montreal pointed out that the particular traditions of different churches may be inadequate and even distorted. As the criterion for genuine Tradition it proposed “the Holy Scriptures rightly interpreted.” The report left unsolved the question how the Bible can judge tradition if its right interpretation depends, in part, upon tradition. The suggestion would seem to be that there is no purely objective norm that can deliver the interpreter from the responsibility to be faithful to the Holy Spirit, whose voice is to be heard in Scripture and Tradition together
. (Avery Dulles, “Scripture: Recent Protestant and Catholic Views”, Theology Today , April 1980, pp. 16-17.)

Grace and peace,


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