“Is the Bible sufficient?” This question lies at the heart of many Catholic-Protestant debates. A major roadblock to coming to agreement is that “sufficient” can be said of a thing in more than one way. Here I would like to explain two meanings: formal and material sufficiency. Grasping the distinction between these two types of sufficiency is critical to understanding the debate.
Form and Matter
The terms “form” and “matter” are used for a variety of subjects. Very broadly speaking, form picks out something general/universal and matter picks out something specific/particular. In philosophy, for example, one might say that the form of “treeness” accounts for a thing being a tree, while matter is the principle by which a single tree is that tree and not another tree. My matter makes me this man, not my form (otherwise – all appearances to the contrary – I would be “manness” itself. Then there would be no other men). In logic, form speaks of the connection between statements: good form means the argument is valid, bad form means it is invalid. We can see the form of an argument without knowing what it is about because we can use variables (e.g., “If A then B. A. Therefore B.”). The matter of an argument is the actual statements used in a particular argument. Once the form is “filled in” with matter we can tell if the statements are true or false (e.g., “If I am a professor then I am good looking. I am a professor. Therefore I am good looking.”).
In theology form and matter are also used to distinguish various principles. The Reformation is said to have Scripture as its material principle and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura as its formal principle. In this case, we have a particular material (the Bible) and it is understood as being in authority because of how the Reformation used it. The what and the how are differentiated according to form and matter. The Bible’s sufficiency as an authority is considered under these two aspects as well. The Protestant position on biblical sufficiency might be equivalent to “all that is necessary for our salvation from sin. . . . the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.”* When the Bible is said to be “sufficient,” however, we must ask, “Under which principle(s)?” Material sufficiency means that the Bible contains all the information one needs to learn the faith. That seems pretty easy to understand, for it is probably all that most people think of when they hear of the Bible being sufficient. But what about formal sufficiency? Here it would mean whether or not the Bible can be properly interpreted all by itself. That is the real debate.
I love Legos. Not only can you buy sets that allow you to build particular things (ships, houses, cars, movie scenes, etc), you can break the sets down and recombine pieces into brand new creations. The problem, however, is that since you can make all of these things with the same blocks, you often need instructions to make any one of them. Knowing, for example, how to combine the blocks in such a way that a fire truck results won’t help if you want to make a volcano. You might have all the blocks you need to make a Lego volcano it uses the same blocks as a fire truck, you still need something else to make one (namely, instructions). To put this in sufficiency terms: the Legos you have are materiallysufficient for either a fire truck or a volcano – but simply having the right blocks does not make them into either thing. Thus, the blocks alone are materially, but not formally sufficient for fire trucks and volcanos.
Instructions supply the formally sufficient principle. Of course having the instructions but not the right pieces would not work either. Only with both can these things be made. That is because the instructions are not materially sufficient (you can’t make a volcano out of words and images!). Now if Legos could only make volcanos, then they might be materiallyand formally sufficient for volcanos. But that would defeat the purpose of Legos. The fun comes in when you realize that Legos are materially sufficient for many things, but they are not formally sufficient for any of them. To put it simply: because Legos can make many things, they do not, by themselves, make any one thing. The blocks are materially sufficient for making many things – but without instructions, they lack formal sufficiency.
Now to the Bible. All Christians should believe that the Bible is materially sufficient to learn of the Christian faith, for that seems to be its purpose. But is it materially and formally sufficient? Some would argue that it is, perhaps based on verses that extol the Scriptures (such as Ps. 19 or 2 Tim. 3:16-17), and usually in opposition to groups with more authoritative tradition structures such as Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. But those who affirm the formal sufficiency of the Bible have a difficult time explaining the numerous disagreements and divisions among the very groups who make that claim (whether over so-called “secondary issues” or not). The latter groups would argue that the Bible has all the necessary material, but that it needs to get its form from the Church (i.e., it needs to be interpreted according to the Church).
Now it is clear that the Bible is interpreted in different ways. This is not to say that the Bible is 100% wide open for anybody’s interpretation (just like Legos cannot make anything!), but it’s got enough width to accommodate more than one interpretation in many cases. Since the Bible must be interpreted to function as an authority in the life of the believer, then some principle must be in play in order to make sure we get what we are supposed to out of it. Whatever that is (philosophy, science, theology, inspiration, angelic explanation) would be the formal principle(s). Understood this way, I would say that the Bible is not formally sufficient on its own. If it was, there would not be disagreement over its meaning (or at least not nearly as much).
It is not an attack on the “sufficiency of Scripture” to simply claim it is not formally sufficient. Only the appropriate sufficiency of a thing matters here. For example, it would be ridiculous to complain that a Lego instruction book is not sufficient to make a volcano. So only if the Bible is actually both materially and formally sufficient would it be wrong or demeaning to say it is only materially sufficient. It seems pretty clear from the Bible itself that more is required than the text alone (e.g., Lk 24:27; Acts 8:26-31; 17:1-3; 18:24-26; 2 Pet. 3:16). At the very least, knowledge of reality is needed – for words merely point to things in reality. So our understanding of reality will clearly affect our interpretation. This is just an issue with texts – not the Bible in particular. And it is not an issue that goes away just because a book is inspired.
P.S. What About Sola Scriptura?
Sola Scriptura is a principle of authority – not interpretation. The complaint that denying the Bible’s formal sufficiency raises the formal condition(s) over the Bible can be misguided – for the Bible only functions as an authority when read and interpreted, and since all interpretation is affected by formal conditions (contra “perspicuity“), it is simply being realistic to acknowledge it. Only if a formal principle is in error with regard to its “forming” of the biblical “material” would there be a problem. And when there is a problem (bad philosophy, heretical theology, mistaken science, etc.), it is theprinciple being used that is flawed, not the simple recognition of the need for one.