Form and Matter
The terms “form” and “matter” are used often in philosophy for a variety of references. Very broadly speaking, form picks out something general/universal and matter picks out something specific/particular. So, 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, and 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. Therfore B.”). The matter of anargument 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.
Believe it or not, this is not the only form and matter issue with regard to the Bible. The Bible’s sufficiency as an authority is considered under these two aspects as well.
The Bible and Bisquick
Sola scriptura might be said to be the idea that the Bible alone is sufficient to learn the faith. 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 something like “the Bible is sufficient to learn the faith.” But there is an additional issue: formal sufficiency. This has to do with whether or not the Bible can be properly understood by itself. Here I think an analogy is helpful.
I’ll use Bisquick.
I love Bisquick. If you have a box of the stuff, plus some milk, a few eggs, and some cooking oil you’ve got batter that can be made into anything from pancakes to biscuits to waffles to cakes. It’s like magic. The problem, however, is that since you can make all of these things with the same ingredients, you need recipes to make any one of them. Knowing how to combine the ingredients in such a way that pancakes result won’t help if you want to make waffles. Pancakes and waffles are materially the same, but they differ formally. Recipes supply the formally sufficient principle for waffles. Note that recipes are not materially sufficient, however – for you can’t make a waffle out of words! Now if Bisquick could only make waffles, then it would be materially and formally sufficient for waffles. Therefore, Bisquick batter is materially sufficient for either pancakes or waffles, but it is not formally sufficient for either. Recipes are the formally sufficient principle needed to use the material (Bisquick batter) appropriately.
Now to the Bible. All Christians should believe that the Bible is materially sufficient to learn the 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 2 Tim. 3:16-17), and usually in opposition to groups with more authoritative tradition structures such as Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox. But these have a difficult time explaining the very real divisions (whether over so-called “secondary issues” or not) among the very groups who make the claim that the Bible is formally sufficient (what is often called “perspicuity“). 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).
So that’s the debate.
Is the Bible Sufficient?
This article was mostly written to make the formal / material sufficiency distinction clear. If you are interested in what I think, I would say that in the same way that Bisquick batter can be formed into pancakes or waffles, the Bible can be interpreted in different ways. This is not to say that the Bible is 100% wide open for anybody’s interpretation (just like Bisquick batter cannot make anything you might want to eat!), 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 as much). Further, 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.
This does not, however, mean that any given formal condition or conditions is right, however. Choosing between them leads into a whole other discussion. All I wish to point out here is that if some conditions exist for properly interpreting Scripture that are not found in Scripture itself then it cannot be formally sufficient. What formal conditions are required is still up for debate.
Two Additional Considerations
Is the Bible Insufficient?
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 recipe book is not sufficient to make a waffle. Of course paper and ink are not (materially) sufficient for making batter! 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. If not, then it is simply being accurate.
What About Sola Scriptura?
It is also not an attack on Sola Scriptura, for Sola Scriptura is a principle of authority – not interpretation. The complaint that denying Scripture’s formal sufficiency raises the formal condition(s) (e.g., philosophy, the Church, or science) 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, 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 the principle being used that is flawed, not the simple recognition of the need for one.