Duns Scotus on the Nature of Scripture

Duns Scotus occupies an important place in the history of the doctrine of Scripture. Muller says:

Duns Scotus must be credited with the development of a clearly defined doctrine of Scripture, the basic divisions and arguments of which provided a structural and doctrinal foundation for the arguments of later theologians, including the Protestant orthodox. Scotus assumed that knowledge of the heavenly goal and of the means necessary to its attainment was beyond the grasp of the viator(pilgrim, literally, “someone on the way” LK) in his natural condition. Natural reason could not attain to saving truth. Revelation is, therefore, necessary. Scotus located these truths of revelation in Scripture and in the tradition grounded upon Scripture and the apostolic faith (p. 47).

The question that Scotus wanted to answer was whether nature was perfect or not, and therefore whether revelation was necessary or not. He came to the conclusion that nature was not perfect (p. 48).

What follows then is a discussion of the material sufficiency of Scripture in the theology of Scotus. His words are: “sacra scriptura sufficienter continet doctrinam necessariam viatori,” from Ordinatio, prol., q. 2, n. 14, quoted by Muller, p. 50. This is translated as follows: “Sacred Scripture sufficiently contains the necessary doctrine for pilgrims.”

Muller does not address whether Scotus held to a formal sufficiency (that Scripture is clear on all essential doctrinal points). The evidence is ambiguous as to the exact place that tradition and church had. On the one hand, he clearly believed that all necessary doctrine for pilgrims is contained in scripture. On the other hand, he did not view “Scripture as sufficiently clear to be interpreted apart from the church’s tradition” (p. 50). Furthermore, he did not believe that Scripture was the sole norm of doctrine. Beside the authority of Scripture stands the authentic Fathers and the Church of Rome. What is not clear here is whether he viewed the authority of the fathers and the church to be equal to that of Scripture, or whether he viewed them as subordinate but nevertheless important. Given that he held that the substance of the faith comes equally from Scripture and church, he would probably lean in the Romanist direction. The Protestant orthodox would later agree with his position on the material sufficiency of Scripture, while disagreeing with his position on tradition and the church.

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3 Comments

  1. James Dean said,

    June 10, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    LINK 1

    LINK 2

    LINK 3

    Sample:
    ‘Richard claimed that the Lombard had no authority (i.e. from the Fathers) to support his position. Scotus declares that, on the contrary, he had the authority of the Church, which is the greatest of all authorities, for as Augustine says, “I would not believe in the Gospel unless I believed in the Catholic Church”. And just as the Church has declared which books are to be held as authoritative in the canon of the Bible, so also she has decreed which books, among all the books of the doctors of the Church, are to be held as authentic – just as in the canon! – and after the authority of the canon of Scripture itself there cannot be found any writing given so much authority by the Magisterium as that of Master Peter.”

  2. James Dean said,

    June 10, 2010 at 12:36 pm

    Correction on LINK 3

  3. lee faber said,

    June 15, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    It’s a bit late to comment perhaps, but elsewhere in his Ordinatio, I think in his discussion of the filioque but I could be wrong (anyway, I’ve encountered basically the same formulation several times), Scotus is pretty clear that at least councils and scripture are on the same authoritative level. He says that the same spirit that breathed the scriptures inspired and inspires the council fathers.


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