The debate over sola Scriptura is often framed as a question of whether the fullness of revelation is Scripture or Scripture plus Tradition. But the Bible points us to the fullness of revelation, and it doesn’t look like this:
|Vincent Van Gogh, Still Life with Bible (1885)|
Rather, the fullness of revelation looks more like this:
|Albrecht Altdorfer, Crucifixion (1516)|
In other words, the fullness of revelation isn’t the Bible or Tradition, but Jesus Christ. That’s the clear teaching of Scripture. For example, the Letter to the Hebrews begins (Heb. 1:1-3a):
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.
So we received portions of revelation before through the prophets. This certainly includes the Old Testament, but (at least from a Catholic perspective) wasn’t confined to written revelation. Rather, this revelation occurred in “many and various ways.” And now that partial revelation has come to its perfection, not in the New Testament, but in Jesus Christ Himself.
Scripture and Tradition tell us about God. Jesus Christ is God, and “is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). If we have seen Him, we have seen the Father (John 14:9): what further revelation could we want or hope for?
For this reason, while we can speak of Scripture and Tradition as the (lowercase-w) word of God, Jesus is the Word of God (John 1:1-5):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The Word of God, in the strict sense, isn’t an it, like the Bible, but a He. And He is the Light of the World (John 8:12) enlightening the sin-darkened world.
And this Word is infinitely larger than any book, even the Bible. The Bible acknowledges as much. St. John ends his Gospel by reminding us (John 21:25), “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.“
With this in mind, consider how St. Jude calls us to contend for “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). That obviously isn’t referring to the New Testament, which wasn’t yet complete. Rather, the fullness of the faith is revealed in Christ, and predates the New Testament. Before a word of the New Testament is written, the fullness of the faith has been revealed. Catholics refer to this as the “Deposit of Faith,” and it’s clearly taught by Scripture.
This might seem like a small point, but it’s not: if you think of revelation and Scripture as interchangeable, it’s easy to fall into the error of thinking that revelation occurs when the New Testament authors write things down. In that case, New Testament revelation doesn’t really happen until a few decades after Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven.
That position would suggest that after having seen the glorified Christ live, die, and rise again, we still need something else. Mormonism holds this position more-or-less openly, while sola Scriptura Protestantism can sort of stumble in that direction. But if Hebrews 1:1-3 and Jude 3 are right, we aren’t waiting for any new revelation after the coming of Jesus Christ. Now that He has fully revealed Himself, we’ve encountered God Himself. There’s nothing that can follow that reveal.
I think that this is a more productive way of approaching the question of sola Scriptura. It’s not a question of whether the Bible or the Bible and Tradition is the Word of God. It’s question of whether the Bible or Jesus is. And if Jesus is the Word of God, and He reveals Himself fully to the Apostles, how do the Apostles then spread that revelation?
That doesn’t end the debate, of course: someone could still hold that the Apostles only transmitted that revelation in writing (despite six of the Twelve never writing anything, and the words of 2 Thes. 2:15 otherwise). But it at least clarifies it. The Catholic position isn’t that Scripture and Tradition are the fullness of revelation. It’s that Jesus Christ is the fullness of revelation, and that the faith that He reveals to us is transmitted by both Scripture and Tradition. Vatican II describes Jesus as the fullness of revelation in these words:
In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will (see Eph. 1:9) by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature (see Eph. 2:18; 2 Peter 1:4). Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God (see Col. 1;15, 1 Tim. 1:17) out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends (see Ex. 33:11; John 15:14-15) and lives among them (see Bar. 3:38), so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realized by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and the salvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation. (2) [….]
Then, after speaking in many and varied ways through the prophets, “now at last in these days God has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). For He sent His Son, the eternal Word, who enlightens all men, so that He might dwell among men and tell them of the innermost being of God (see John 1:1-18). Jesus Christ, therefore, the Word made flesh, was sent as “a man to men.” (3) He “speaks the words of God” (John 3;34), and completes the work of salvation which His Father gave Him to do (see John 5:36; John 17:4). To see Jesus is to see His Father (John 14:9). For this reason Jesus perfected revelation by fulfilling it through his whole work of making Himself present and manifesting Himself: through His words and deeds, His signs and wonders, but especially through His death and glorious resurrection from the dead and final sending of the Spirit of truth. Moreover He confirmed with divine testimony what revelation proclaimed, that God is with us to free us from the darkness of sin and death, and to raise us up to life eternal.
It’s an easy mistake to make to think of revelation as ending with the death of the last Apostle, but really, revelation ends (in the sense of achieving its perfection) in the life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ. He is the Word spoken by the Father, and there is nothing more to say.