Sola Scriptura and the Canon Revisited: Guest Post by Adam Blauser

As I have gotten involved in dealing with Roman Catholicism and sola scriptura, I have found two things very interesting. First of all, there is a grossly simplistic view of meaning in language amongst many Roman Catholic apologists. Many of them will be willing to destroy human language in order to argue against sola scriptura, borrowing from men like Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish to argue that we cannot know which interpretation of scripture is correct. It is amazing to be able to cite deconstructionists making parallel arguments to Roman Catholic apologists.

Second, what I am realizing more and more is that the logical conclusion of these arguments appears to be a deification of the church. Things that we as Protestants answer by pointing back in faith to God are things that Roman Catholics answer by pointing back to the church. For example, we as Protestants believe that we can know what certain texts mean because both the author and the interpreter are created in the image of God [Genesis 1:26-27], and must live, move, and have our being in him [Acts 17:28]. Thus, we are like God, and must relate to him on a daily basis whether in rebellion or in submission. Thus, we can understand the world of the author, because we see his world by looking through the lens of our mutual relationship to God himself. The Roman Catholic, however, goes back to the church, and expects the church to provide allegedly infallible knowledge as to what the scriptures say. Hence, where the Protestant trusts in God, and his creative purposes, the Roman Catholic apologists trusts in the church’s alleged infallibility. It puts the church in an impossible place of trying to play God.

I have dealt with that argument before extensively, and I will not go back over it. My main point is to show how our ending points are different-God and the church. This is also the case when it comes to the canon of scripture, an argument that is usually pulled out by Roman Catholics along side the argument from the interpretation of scripture. Just recently, Chris Bolt of Choosing Hats, linked to a discussion he had with a Roman Catholic, and the response of a Protestant turned Roman Catholic, turned skeptic. He asked me if I would reply to the skeptic by the name of Jeremiah Bannister, and in so replying, I have came to the very same conclusion. Ultimately, how you answer the canon argument is going to show where your faith really is-in God and in the church.

Of course, the motivation for skeptics using the canon argument is quite different from a Roman Catholic. While a Roman Catholic will use the canon argument to try to show that faith in God and his word is ultimately insufficient, and we need to likewise have faith in the church, the skeptic likewise uses the argument to show that faith in God and his word is insufficient, but suggests that we must, instead, have faith in our own autonomous reasoning. In reality, we have three competing “gods” here: The Triune God of scripture, the Roman Catholic Church, and autonomous human reasoning. It believe this is the framework in terms of which we must understand the objections raised by Mr. Bannister.

The substance of his post begins:

People familiar with my work over the years are aware of my studies in presuppositionalism, both as a Calvinist and as a Roman Catholic. For those unfamiliar with my work, I’ve made a number of contributions to the debate between Protestant presuppositionalists and Roman Catholics. Whether dealing with the canon of scripture, ecclesiology, hermeneutics, dogma, morality, or apologetic methodology, my tactic has remained the same: fight fire with fire. In short, turn the table, asking “by what stanard?” to those who insist their worldview or interpretation of any given issue is the true and, consequently, binding interpretation of the text or tradition.

Of course, the main problem is that God himself must be the ultimate standard. This is where we part company. As someone who, as far as I can tell, used Van Tillian argumentation as a Roman Catholic, I don’t believe this was adequately understood. Unless God is the ultimate standard, then you are left on nothing but sinking and sliding sand. There is no way of knowing without God as the standard. That is why I believe that taking Roman Catholic arguments to their logical conclusion leads to the very kind of postmodern ideas that we can find in the Roman Catholic academy today. The church cannot be the standard of anything, because it is finite. Man, including church fathers, cannot be the standard of anything, because man is finite. Only God is the standard. It is only his power and his authority that can handle the weight of the foundation of questions about the nature of knowledge.

He continues

The Roman Catholic, on the other hand, is arguing that the canon hasn’t always been in place and that an entity (i.e. the pre-Great Schism Catholic church) formally decided on the canon, and did so in such a way that was binding on all people at all times and in all places. Moreover, the Roman Catholic would argue that Protestants, lacking such an authoritative entity enabled to make formally binding decisions on such matters, would be left unable to explain “by what standard” their personal conviction regarding the canon ought to be considered binding in any meaningful way upon the conscience of anyone at any time and in any place.

Of course, we do have such an entity, and that is God himself. What is being confused here is the notion of *revelation* with our *recognition* of that revelation. I think the answer to the question of canon is God’s covenant relationship with us. God has voluntarily condescended to us, and it is in that condescension that he has led us to the books he wants us to have. It must be stressed that because this is related to his covenant, it is for his purposes, and not the purpose of the church or anyone else. Dr. James White is certainly right when he says, “The foundation of the certainty of our knowledge of the canon is based upon God’s purposes in giving Scripture, not upon the alleged authority of any ecclesiastical body[1].”

In other words, our certainty of the canon is based upon God’s covenant relationship with his people to accomplish his purposes through and in them. Because God has a purpose he wants to accomplish in his people, he has lead his people to have what he wanted them to have. That is something, I would say, that is perfectly Biblical, and does not depend upon vesting some infallibility in the writings of the early church fathers. Thus, our knowledge of the canon does not depend upon the infallibility of the church, but the infallibility of God and his providence. The church [not the Roman Church] came to the correct canon, not because it is infallible, and not because it could not have erred using the methodology it did, but because God had a purpose in leading his people to what he wanted them to have.

Bannister continues:

First, the analogy doesn’t fit. Let’s begin by pointing out the obvious: God didn’t “write” sacred text in the same way Bolt has written his works. God is said to have inspired people to write. At times, people wrote of themselves, their experiences and beliefs. At other times, scribes wrote of the experiences, dreams, personal dispositions, private conversations, beliefs and practices of others–and these often occurring hundreds or even thousands of years predating the existence of the author. In short, a pretty heft claim made on a mind-boggling number of optimistic assumptions.

Of course, the problem with this statement is that it ignores what the scriptures themselves say:

2 Peter 1:21 for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

The Greek term φερω is a common word that every first year Greek student knows, and it means simply “to bring.” In other words, these men were *brought along* by the Holy Spirit to write what they had written. Hence, the analogy still applies. Did God do that with every author of every book? No, he did not. Hence, the point still remains that *at the point of writing* canon exists, since, God chose to inspire some books and not other books.

Second, and connected with the first, authenticity was often difficult to confirm. We can fast forward here to the New Testament era of the 1st century–admitting an early date. The fear of forgery was prevalent; so much so that the apostle Paul took precautionary measures meant to assure his readers that letters were in fact from him. We see evidence of this when he provided his own handwriting in II Thessalonians 3:17. Even then, forgery remained a very real threat… unless we suppose no one already writing as Paul (or plotting to write as Paul) had the idea or wherewithal to forge handwriting.

Of course, the problem is that, if Paul not only wrote letters in his own hand, but also traveled around to these various churches, then, obviously, anyone attempting to make a forgery out of Paul’s writing would have been found out, because we could identify, with Paul’s own words, what he had written and what he had not. It would have been suicide to do this during the time period of the eyewitnesses. Hence, although forgeries might have had some credibility centuries after the eyewitnesses, doing so during the time period of the eyewitnesses would have been completely ineffective, not only because you would have their handwriting, but because they were still alive, you could ask them if they said these things.

Even so, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose the books in the bible (either Catholic or Protestant) are in fact authentic, written by those they’re commonly attributed to.

This leaves us with a predicament, and a predicament understood full-well by early Christians. By what standard are Christians to decide upon which books were inspired and which ones weren’t. This was a very serious problem. They had no printing press, after all, and there were various threats to authenticity posed by time, translation and travel. Moreover, the apostles appointed bishops in various locations. Many of these early church fathers were held in high regard, and a number of them wrote epistles to various churches. We can point to the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, Clement in Rome, and Polycarp. There were also early texts that Christians relied upon, like the Didache, particularly on matters concerning liturgy.

Of course, although people held the Apostolic Fathers in high regard, I am unaware of anyone who considered canonizing the Apostolic Fathers. I do believe Clement of Rome was considered, but I am unaware of anyone considering the letters of Ignatius as canon. As far as the standard we should use, I am sure that was debated over time as well. And yet, Athenasius, in his 39th Festal letter, still gives us the same New Testament canon that we have today, and long before any alleged “authoritative” proclamation. Could it be that God was leading and guiding his people to have what he wanted them to have? Again, all of this argumentation Bannister is using points to an unguided, and undirected process, which a skeptic must assume. If God has directed not only the books used for consideration, but the standards used, and how those standards changed over time, then, obviously, we can be certain that the conclusion that the church as a whole eventually came to was the result of God’s providence. However, if you assume an undirected, unguided process, then I guess one must conclude that there is no way of knowing.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that not all Christians knew of various texts currently enshrined in the New Testament. It’s not like they could text or email one another. Adding insult to injury, many of the texts currently contained in the New Testament canon were disregarded by church fathers. This led to a diversity of canons. Interestingly enough, Eusebius points to the Apocalypse as one such book in question–odd given the centrality of the book in modern American Christianity. At bare minimum, there was a problem.

Of course, this is what one would expect if the recognition of the canon was something that took place slowly over time. Yet, before the canon was settled, people were still defending the deity of Christ on the basis of the scriptures at the council of Nicaea. Is it just possible that God was directing this process even then? Again, all of this is a problem if there is no God who is leading his people to have the writings he wants them to have for his own purposes. Yes, if you assume a random process unguided and directed by God, then I guess you could assume anything is possible. Of course, you also have to give up knowledge, ethics, logic, science, and the rest.

Anyone familiar with early church history and the canon controversy, as Bolt insists he is, would connect the dots between the lack of a canon and the urgency of officially dealing with the issue by a collective council. As such, it ought not be any surprise that this happens to be facts on the ground and in the record.

Of course, that would have only happened if people believed that the church was the foundation of our knowledge. Again, the very fact that it took the church so many years and so many debates means that they believed that they were *not* the standard. They had faith that God would lead them to have what he wants them to have. The early church, although they believed they had authority, did not believe they had the right to simply give an ipse dixit that everyone must accept. They had a derived authority, one based on the scriptures themselves, and hence, they needed to discover what the scriptures were, by relying upon the providence of God. Again, only if you assume that your God is human reason or that your God is the limited, finite church would you ever come to such a conclusion as this.

But this doesn’t only pose a problem for his belief that everyone knew it from the beginning; it poses a serious problem to the issue of self-attestation. It seems so simple now, nearly 2,000 years after the fact, to take for granted that there is a canon (or only a few canons) accepted by most Christians around the world. But the bible didn’t come to us on a cloud, magically in one piece. Quite the contrary! As Protestants know full-well, it took nearly 1,500 years for the issue to be officially cleared up by Luther & Co., and with no “miracles accompanying” necessary. Of course, this only occurred after the first botched attempt by Luther, going a book too far. Sorry, St. James.

Of course, the canon was recognized in the church long before Luther [compare, for example, Luther and Jerome]. While debates continued, most people just left the canon the way it was. The more people questioned the canon, the more the veracity of the canon stood up. Also, the notion that Luther removed James from the canon is far more complicated than Bannister suggests. James Swan, whose expertise is in the life of Martin Luther, has written a huge post debunking the notion that Luther tried to remove James from the canon. Such a statement ignores the history of the time of the Reformation, and the context of Luther more specifically.

At the heart of this issue, though, is how this same problem prevails today, particularly for those adhering to sola scriptura via self-attestation. The question is, “by what standard?” By what standard is anyone’s interpretation of the text relevant to an organized canon (not yet compiled at the time of the writing in question) binding on any conscience other than their own? By what standard/authority is their belief regarding self-attestation of the canon binding on everyone at all times and in all places? By what standard/authority is their conviction concerning what’s interpreted in (and of) isolated statements in (and of) individual books binding on the whole of the canon or on the collective of self-identified Christians? By what standard/authority may one condemn another for not recognizing self-attested inspiration and inerrancy within each and every jot and tittle of each and every book? In short: Do Protestants arguing for sola scriptura via self-attestation have an internal mechanism wherein and whereby any authoritative declaration may be rendered regarding the one and only true interpretation of any given text or, more importantly, regarding which books must be (or must not be) considered part of a unified canon? And if so, by what standard/authority is this binding on anyone, at any time and at any place?

Of course, as we have already said, the authority upon which these questions rest is the all sovereign God. The scriptures, on numerous occasions, state that God is working out his purposes in this world, and even state that, when evil men come into the flock, we are to go back to the scriptures. Furthermore, one should also note that the early church was not without the scriptures, even if they had not recognized all of the books of the New Testament as scripture. They still had the Hebrew Bible. It was this, and the books that were immediately recognized as scripture [such as Luke (1 Timothy 5:18) and the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16)] which, not only provided the basis for their doctrine, but, I am sure, also guided them in understanding which other books were scripture as well.

Bahnsen and Van Til were correct to point out that all reasoning is, to one degree or another and to one extent or another, circular; they were also quite right that some circles are vicious. Interestingly enough, neither of these men recognized the viciousness of their fideistic (and quasi-gnostic) circle when dealing with the canon of scripture. So much for the full enchilada, Dr. Bahnsen… and better luck next time, C.L. Bolt.

Of course, what is interesting is that it is Roman Catholicism that is extremely gnostic, because they are saying that we need their “secret knowledge” to understand the scriptures. The notion of scripture and tradition as two sources of authority can be traced right back to Gnostic thought. Also, just as Bahnsen said, our reasoning begins with *God.* Unless God is the foundation of our knowledge and our reasoning, then we are left with Gnostic-like thought at best.

That is why I said earlier that both the skeptic and the Roman Catholic apologist are using this argument in service to different gods [autonomous human reason and the church respectively], but they are, nonetheless, using the same argument to take God away as the ultimate standard of all things, and put, in its place, the God *they* want us to follow. Yet, both of these gods are limited and finite. How then do we have knowledge of anything? Greg Bahnsen and Francis Schaeffer showed that you couldn’t get knowledge simply beginning from yourself, and I have pointed out that the Roman Catholic reliance upon the church will logically lead to postmodernism as well. The main root problem is the finitude of the foundation upon which each is building.

Now, let me say a little bit more about the foundation of Roman Catholicism in dealing with these questions. The Roman Catholic claims we must accept the infallibility of the church in order to know what the canon is. This is an awkward argument for the Roman Catholic indeed, because the church came into existence at a point in time. Even if they didn’t acknowledge this, it is still rather awkward, considering Jesus completely refuted the idea that the religious leaders of his day were infallible. Hence, the question which must be asked, first made popular by Dr. James White, is how would a Jew living 50 years before the time of Christ know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were scripture [2]. Jesus very clearly held the Jewish people of his day accountable for knowing what scripture was [Matthew 22:29-33][3]. Yet, this would be absolutely impossible given the arguments from Roman Catholic polemicists.

Worse than that, the documents of the church are far more voluminous than the scriptures. It is difficult to understand how a Roman Catholic can say that they have infallible knowledge of all of the documents of their church-the church fathers, the church councils, the magisterium, and all of the Papal decrees and encyclicals. Also, for Roman Catholics, the canon was not dogmatically defined until April of 1546 at the council of Trent. Some Roman Catholics will argue that the councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage defined the canon, but they were simply provincial councils, and not binding on the whole church. Some Roman Catholics will argue that this doesn’t matter, because later Popes ratified these councils making them universally binding upon the church. The problem is that there are things that are found in these councils that are very damaging to the Romanist position, such canon 26 which says, “The bishop of the chief see shall not be called high priest, or chief of the priests, or by any such title [Ne primae sedis episcopus appelletur Summus Sacerdos, aut Princeps sacerdotum, aut ejusmodi aliquid]. If they say the Pope ratified these councils, they will have to say that he also ratified a document destroying the Papacy[4].

Another big problem for the Roman Catholic appeal to Hippo and Carthage is that they did not have the same canon as Trent. Hippo and Carthage used the Septuagint in the Old Testament while Trent specifically mentions using the Vulgate. While they both cite 1 and 2 Esdras, these books were different between the Septuagint and the Vulgate. In the Septuagint, 1 Esdras consisted of apocryphal additions to Ezra and Nehemiah, while 2 Esdras consisted of Ezra and Nehemiah put together as one book. When Jerome translated the Vulgate, however, he made 1 Esdras the book of Ezra, 2 Esdras the book of Nehemiah, and 3 Esdras apocryphal additions to Ezra and Nehemiah. Hence, when the Council of Trent says that it recognizes the Vulgate books of 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras, it differs from Hippo and Carthage in not also containing 3 Esdras [1 Esdras in the Septuagint][5].

Another problem with the Roman Catholic view of the canon is the Christological controversies, such as the Arian controversy, were decided on the basis of scripture, but, even if we accept the argument from Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, this is long before the canons of these councils ever came out. The problem is even deeper, as Athanasius came to the correct NT canon in his thirty-ninth festal before any clearly identifiable council [provincial or otherwise] put out a canon.

In fact, the whole issue of the inclusion of the Apocrypha is a major problem for the Roman Catholic. William Webster has written an excellent article arguing that the Jews did not accept the Apocrypha[6]. He has also pointed in two different articles [here and here] that both from the start of the church age until Jerome[7], and also from Jerome until the time of the Reformation[8], there were multiple church fathers and writers in every century who rejected the Apocrypha, including Popes such as Gregory the Great, and even opponents of the Reformation at the time of the Reformation such as Cardinal Cajetan. Also, books such as Roger Beckwith’s The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church[9] goes into great detail in showing that the Jews did not accept the Apocrypha as scripture. Hence, a very strong case can be made that the Roman Catholic canon of the OT is incorrect.

I would say that the main issue with Roman Catholicism is idolatry. It is the idolatry of the church that leads to the gross and blatant idolatry of prayers to Mary and the Saints, indulgences, the treasury of merit, statues of Mary and the Saints, worshiping the bread of the Eucharist as God, and other things that we as Protestants find so shocking. Yet, these same arguments can be used by another kind of idolator; an idolator that things that he does not need to begin his reasoning from God and his word. However, in each of these cases, the idolatry will lead you down a pit to relativism. You have existentialists, and you have liberal Roman Catholics. Each of these groups may seem radical; however, they are simply taking their idolatry to its logical conclusion. When you try to build on anything other than the Triune God of the scriptures, you will ultimately and finally always end up in total relativism.

[1]White, James R. Scripture Alone. Bethany House Publishers. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2004. p.107

[2]White, James R. A Response to an “Argument for Infallibility”. Alpha and Omega Ministries. Phoenix, Arizona. 2005-2006. Available at http://vintage.aomin.org/Porvaz.html.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Whitaker, William. Disputations on Holy Scripture. Soli Deo Gloria Publications. Orlando, Florida. 1588, 1849, 2005. p.40

[5]Webster, William. Holy Scripture, The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith; A Historical Defense of the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura. Volume II. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2001. 346-347

[6]Webster, William. The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha. Part 1: The Canon of the Jews. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2009 Available at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/Apocryphapart1.html

[7]Webster, William. The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha. Part 2: The Beginning of the Church Age to Jerome. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2009 Available at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/Apocryphapart2.html

[8]Webster, William. The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha. Part 3: From Jerome to the Reformation. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2009. Available at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/Apocrypha3.html

[9]Beckwith, Roger. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1985


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