Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dialogue: Are All the Biblical Books Self-Evidently Inspired and Canonical? (vs. Ken Temple), Part One

By Dave Armstrong (6-21-06)

My Baptist friend Ken Temple has kindly responded to my previous paper on this topic (actually part of my upcoming book, The One-Minute Apologist) point-by-point. This is my counter-reply. His words will be in blue. My past words (mostly from the previous post being replied to by Ken) will be in purple.

* * * * *

Here we go again! One of Dave's favorite topics, dealing with the canon of Scripture, and church authority.

Not really. It's just that it is so central to Protestant-Catholic differences and comes up so often that I must deal with it a lot, as part of my apologetic task. So I'm a bit weary of it, generally-speaking, as I tend to get bored with things upon excessive repetition.

Let's see if this is such a great apologetic piece for Christianity. Your intention seems to be to cast doubt the Evangelical Protestant position,

Insofar as any Protestant position contends what I am disputing: i.e., that all biblical books are supposedly self-evidently canonical and inspired, so that authoritative Church proclamations on canonicity were unnecessary. Many Protestant Bible scholars would dispute that (I shall cite some, such as F.F. Bruce: one of the very best, whose words appeared in the original post), so here one must generalize as usual.

but you actually end up hurting Christianity as a whole (Both Evangelical and Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) more by the way you treat this subject.

Hardly. But go ahead and make your case and I'll show how my argument does no such thing. I believe that it simply faces historical / literary reality.

We know which books are inspired and belong in the Bible by reading them
Biblical books are self-attesting, so no church is needed to determine the biblical canon.

The position is stated in a simplistic and popular way, but it should not be that limited and simplistic.

Since the book from which this was taken is precisely intended to be a relatively "simplistic" presentation to a popular audience of Catholic beliefs, one would fully expect the brief titles of standard two-page sections to be a bit "simplistic and popular." By nature, such statements cannot possibly contain nuanced, complex, qualified, fleshed-out information, but I shall argue that my statements are not untrue or inaccurate.

Indeed, the challenge of summarizing Catholic doctrines in two pages was difficult in that I had to constantly be on guard that I was not over-generalizing. This type of writing does not come naturally to me. My natural tendency is to explain in depth, as much as necessary (as presently). But of course this long dialogue can be an apologia for the short capsule presentation. I think that is a helpful method for good apologetics: present the brief - almost catechetical - position paper, and then defend it at the length necessary to dispose of objections (i.e., for those who have them; the rest can save the time of reading the further treatment). Therefore, I am most grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to do that.

Better: "We have confidence and moral certainty about the canon of Scripture by the combination of many facts, historical, theological, internal evidence in the books themselves, and external evidence from history and the church, and this confidence is confirmed by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, who gives assurance, confidence, and peace to His people. "

Yeah, right. This exactly illustrates why your demand is impossible: I was instructed to offer these two lines as introductory summaries of objections (mostly from Protestants, throughout the book). So right off the bat, I cannot magically turn two lines into your four. Secondly, as usual, you are all over the ball park so that you have not properly narrowed the subject matter. My book is all about doing just that, so that each point of contention can be concisely defended. The reader will note that my subject here is not (technically) simply "the issue of the canon." Rather, it is about one specific argument that Protestants have used for canonicity: internal evidence in terms of how the books present themselves. So "external evidence" and the "testimony of the Holy Spirit" was not even being discussed: those are distinctly separate subjects that I couldn't possibly include in a two-page treatment. In fact, the subjects of "the Church and the canon" were more specifically addressed by two other sections, entitled "The Catholic Church thinks that it created the Bible" and "The Catholic Church added illegitimate books to the Bible much later in history."

There are indeed several internal biblical evidences of inspiration and canonicity, yet (despite this fact), there were many differences in the early Church regarding biblical books. Many now-accepted books were questioned,

Only 7 out of 27 were questioned or doubted or struggled over for a time. 7 out of 27 does not qualify as "many". These seven are: Hebrews, James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation.

Again, you place too much irrational demand on necessarily generalized language. You want to emphasize those books which were controversial for a much longer time (I agree; no one could disagree about that), but my statement is not simply referring to those, but to all disputes over books. Hence, you ignore the fact that even Paul's books were disputed by at least two major early figures, or at least not introduced as "Scripture" per se.

For example, we have no positive evidence that St. Justin Martyr (d.c. 165) regarded Philippians, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, or Philemon as biblical books. The same is true of the last three named books, with regard to St. Polycarp (c. 69 - c. 155). 1 Peter was not considered canonical in the period from 30-160, and was first accepted only by St. Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 200) and St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 215). The same is true of 1 John, which was also first accepted by St. Irenaeus. It was still being disputed by a minority in the "late" period of 250-325 (as was 1 Peter). The Book of Acts was scarcely known or quoted in the period of 30-160, and only gradually acccepted from 160 to 250. St. Irenaeus, Origen, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria do not expressly state that Philemon is canonical, in the period between 160 and 250. He also seems unaware that 2 Timothy is part of Holy Scripture.

All of the information above was originally obtained (for my first book) by exclusively Protestant sources: New Bible Dictionary, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, and From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible, by Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix. I didn't even use F.F. Bruce or Brooke Foss Westcott at that time, but those books in my library, devoted to the canonicity of the Bible, can surely be utilized to further defend my assertions, if challenged.

That is significant difficulty (from prominent Church figures) in determining the canonicity of no less than eight more books of the New Testament, making the grand total of 15 books out of 27, or a majority. Therefore, my bare generalization above is quite valid and accurate. All of this supports my contention that it is not simply an easy matter of reading all the biblical books and "knowing" that they are inspired and canonical from internal evidence alone. Church authority was required, and that is my ultimate contention here. I am opposing Protestants who foolishly maintain that Church authority was not necessary in the establishment of the canon.

You are looking at this issue like the person who looks at a glass and says, "it is half empty", rather than "half-full".

This is not a matter of optimism vs. pessimism (I'm naturally quite the optimist, by the way), but of historical reality. We can't play games and pretend that things are something that they are (and were) not. That makes skeptics of Christianity regard us as simplistic, gullible fools. A rational, intelligent approach to the issue of the canon demands that we acknowledge the complexity of the process (and, I would say, the necessity of Church authority in some sense, even from a Protestant perspective). I've yet to meet an atheist who despises the use of the mind and proper historiographical analysis of Christianity. They may strongly disagree with conclusions arrived at but they won't frown upon such a use of the mind.

Try to focus on the positive historical evidence for the inspiration and reliability of the Scriptures.

That wasn't my purpose in this paper; rather, it was to critique one wrongheaded approach that many Protestants take on the canon issue.

By focusing on only them, and not affirming the great evidence that there was almost unanimous consensus over the four gospels, Acts, and the epistles of Paul, you miss the great emphasis of history and the wonderful opportunity to witness to the skeptics, atheists, Muslims, and Jehovah's witnesses about the great unity and agreement that we all have over the canon, even though we confess the historical process of settling those few books took some time to work out.

Again, this wasn't the purpose of my book. As with most of my books, it was directed mainly towards Protestant critiques and misunderstandings of Catholicism: to assist Catholics who need to better understand these disputes and to be equipped to counter them, and to help non-Catholics better understand the biblical and rational basis for our beliefs. I can't write every book that I create for all people. As it is, I devoted two books to a general Christian audience (no Catholic distinctives whatever in them), and one specifically to atheists and other skeptics (Mere Christian Apologetics and Christian Worldview vs. Postmodernism, respectively). I write differently depending on the target audience. So your critique here is a non sequitur. It entirely misses the mark.

. . . and many non-biblical books were thought to be canonical.

You play into the desires of the modern Gnostics and modern scholars like Elaine Pagels, who want to say that the Gnostic Gospels were true and good and teach about the "real Jesus" (in their opinion), and they claim that they were pushed out by persecution and force by a male-dominated clergy and those that had the power, like claiming that Constantine and the bishops had political power to "get rid of the other Gospels and books".

This is utterly ridiculous; I don't "play into" anything. Every nutcase and irrational person out there can take and distort anything they wish (including the Bible itself), bit it doesn't follow that the thing itself was the cause. The cause lies in the person with irrational and false beliefs. I deal with the liberals and the skeptics in other web pages. I wrote a book half-devoted to liberals (as well as anti-Catholics). You act as if everything a Christian writes has to be directed to the broadest possible audience. But this is unreasonable. As an apologist, I have to deal with specifically Protestant (or Orthodox) complaints against Catholicism, and also with secular / atheist complaints about (or distortions and misunderstandings of) general Christianity. I do both (and several people have noted that not many Catholic apologists do both things)

(Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, the so called, "Epistle of Barnabas", the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Wisdom of Solomon is only five that you have listed below. Five hardly qualifies as "many".) Sounds like Dan Brown's claim that 80 gospels were thrown out by Constantine! You inject doubt and skepticism by a bad use of the word "many" and over-play the historical struggle.

Here we go again with silly arguments about one word. If you don't like five, let's add some more: I also mentioned "apocyphal materials" in St. Justin Martyr's Gospels. The Acts of Paul was accepted by Origen, and appeared in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Arabic translations. The Gospel of Hebrews was accepted by St. Clement of Alexandria. 1 and 2 Clement and Psalms of Solomon were included in the Codex Alexandrinus from the early fifth century. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History, 3, 16) tells us that 1 Clement had been read in many churches. The Epistle to the Laodiceans, known to be a forgery by St. Jerome, was included in many Bibles from the sixth to fifteenth centuries; even reappearing in 16th-century German and English Protestant Bibles.

Norman Geisler informs us that The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians is part of the "New Testament Apocrypha," a classification of books which he describes as those which had been "accepted by a limited group of Christians for a limited time but never gained very wide or permanent recognition" (Ibid., pp. 121,124). He includes the Seven Epistles of Ignatius as well.

You want more? Okay; according to F.F. Bruce (The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), The Preaching of Peter was "regarded highly" by St. Clement of Alexandria (p. 194). Bruce also noted the apparently docetic work, Gospel of Peter:

In the second century it was read and appreciated by Christians who were disposed to take it at face value as composed by Peter. Even Justin Martyr appears to quote it in one place.

(p. 200)
Bruce states that St. Clement of Alexandria even quoted from the "thoroughly gnostic" Gospel according to the Egyptians "not once but four times" (p. 189), explaining that "Clement can take a gnostic saying which it ascribes to Jesus and give it an ethical reinterpretation which could give no offence to anybody." The same father (exercising what Bruce calls "hospitality") approvingly cited Traditions of Matthias and Sibylline Oracles (p. 191). He also quoted uncanonical sayings of Jesus, known as agrapha.

So that is twenty more books which some prominent figures regarded (or possibly regarded) as canonical or inspired, making a total of twenty-five now (which I think amply qualifies for a description of "many"). Moreover, in other contexts where it is appropriate, I make the exact same generalization that you do. For example, in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism, when I start writing about the canon, I state: "Although indeed there was, roughly speaking, a broad consensus in the early Church as to what books were scriptural, . . ." So I start out agreeing with the general Christian proposition of broad consensus, but then I explain exactly where I diverge from the Protestant approach:

. . . nevertheless, enough divergence of opinion existed reasonably to cast doubt on the Protestant concepts of the Bible's self-authenticating nature, and the self-interpreting maxim of perspicuity (see Appendix One). The following overview of the history of acceptance of biblical books (and also nonbiblical ones as Scripture) will help the reader to avoid overgeneralizing or oversimplifying the complicated historical process by which we obtained our present Bible.

(p. 19)
There was virtually no struggle over the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles of Paul from the very earliest times that it would have been possible to have any evidence of any kind of "collection of books".

This is not true, as stated, as I have shown. It is substantially but not completely true, as regards the Gospels and Paul's letters. But it is not true of the Book of Acts, which was either not known or not cited by St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius, Papias, and the Didache (all prior to 150 A.D.). St. Justin Martyr, St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen all cite or allude to it, but do not specifically refer to it as canonical or inspired Holy Scripture. This is hardly consistent with a scenario of little doubt or "virtually no struggle" over its canonicity (not to mention the Average Joe reading it and immediately discerning that it is Scripture without having the benefit of previously received Christian tradition and a current-day Bible).

Even 2 Peter 3:16, written by the apostle Peter himself, gives strong evidence that most of the NT had already been collected into some kind of "canon" in many places. This is very early since this had to be in 65-67 AD, before he was martyred.

I must confess that I am completely baffled as to how you surmise that this passage provides "strong evidence" of your assertion. At best, it's a great circular "argument" though (as most "arguments" bolstering sola Scriptura or this view of canonization that you espouse, are). All we can determine from this is that Peter considered Paul's letters (i.e., those of which he was aware) to be Scripture. We don't know how many or which he was talking about. Since we don't know that, we can make no informed judgment as to whether "most of the NT" was effectively canonized at this early date.

Even if we assume that which we cannot really hope to know: that Peter knew of all 13 of Paul's letters which are in the NT, that is only 13 out of 27 books (not even a majority), so that your use of the word "most" is literally inappropriate and groundless (unlike my reasonable use of the word "many" which you make a big deal of: much ado about nothing). You might say that you weren't referring to numbers of books, but the total sum of NT writing.

Okay, if we play that game, then let's count pages in my RSV Bible. The NT portion runs from pages 1171 to 1514, or 344 total pages. The Pauline epistles are from p. 1361 to p. 1454, or 94 total pages. By my calculator-assisted math, that amounts to a percentage of a mere 27%: hardly "most" of the NT (it's not even a third)! So, nice try. I'm afraid you'll have to do a lot better than this. The four Gospels alone add up to 148 pages, whch is more than one-and-a-half times more volume than Paul's letters. And you think you have nailed me on supposedly illegitimate overgeneralization?!

By injecting the word, "many", for the doubts over true books, and over other books that were eventually not included, you give the enemies of all of Christianity (including Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and E. Orthodoxy) one of their favorite areas to attack.

Having made a rather silly, foolish argument about "most," now you start in on me again about my reference to "many" apocryphal NT books. But I showed above that 25 of these were seriously considered by orthodox Christians and major patristic figures. Since there are 27 NT books, calling 25 other considered books "many" is quite permissible, I submit. I've already dealt with your ludicrous charge that I am in cahoots with the enemies of Christianity by giving them ammo for their false judgments of same. This simply doesn't follow; it's a logical fallacy. One never cavorts with or causes error in telling the truth.

You do not hurt the real Evangelical Protestant position, which is much more nuanced and careful that what you have written,

As I've noted; otherwise I couldn't cite scholars like Bruce and Geisler against silly (but unfortunately widespread) positions held by many lay Protestants. This is what you don't understand. I have no beef with much of Protestant NT scholarship. I love F.F. Bruce (always have). Norman Geisler is one of my favorite Protestant apologists and greatly influenced my own apologetics. I am writing against silly popular notions that Catholics have to contend with, and are influenced by. On the other hand, I wouldn't be too quick to underestimate how a certain anti-ecclesiastical prejudice remains a strong motif of evangelicalism.

Accordingly, many Protestants (even some of the scholars) remain highly uncomfortable with the obvious fact that the canon was most certainly proclaimed and acknowledged (not created!) by a Church council. That's because, for Protestants (particularly evangelicals, the emphasis is always on the Bible itself (hence the internal biblical evidence that you - and many evangelicals like you - emphasize; hence my paper, dealing with that). You do this yourself. It's plain for one and all to see. And you do it to such an extent that you have to accuse me of aiding enemies of Christianity when I simply argue from history rather than just the Bible.

Then there is the by-now standard false charge that I am caricaturing evangelicalism. I've done no such thing. I'm simply opposing some false ideas. I don't even mention the word Protestant in this paper, let alone individual denominations that I am critiquing. And I end by citing a well-known Protestant scholar in agreement. There are lots of Protestants who fall into the errors I critique, and there are also lots who do not. I make no judgment on relative numbers in the paper. I don't need to, because it is an examination of false ideas about canonicity, not a survey of religious sociology.

but you actually hurt Christianity itself more than build a case for the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Not at all, as shown . . . if anyone is doing that (though I don't personally believe this about you), it would be you, because of your trying to make out that the history of canonization was far less complex than it actually was.

Dan Brown's book, The Da Vinci Code, the apostate scholars who have no real faith in Christ like John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, and the late Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar, Muslims, Atheists, Secular skeptics, and Jehovah's Witnesses all use the historical facts that a few books were doubted and questioned and yet they expand the numbers and exaggerate; and they combine that with the fact that Athanasius' canon list was 367 AD, and they combine that with misunderstandings and falsehoods about the council of Nicea in 325 and Constantine, (which was not about the canon of Scripture, but about the Deity of Christ, and the Deity of Christ is clearly taught way before that in John 1, Col. 1, Heb. 1, and Phil. 2 and other non-canonical books like Ignatius' letters, written in 117 AD); and they say general statements like, "The Bible was not even around until 325 or about 400 AD", etc., "so how can you trust it?"

Then why don't you spend your time and energy refuting those real and serious errors that adversely affect or (potentially) reflect upon all Christians, rather than trying in vain to refute my solid arguments? None of that crap has the slightest thing to do with my paper or my position on this. They could do the same distortion with F.F. Bruce's book, so what do you recommend: banning that book because enemies of Christianity butcher it for their own ends? I guarantee that he presents infinitely more complexity of canonization than I do in my bare "popular"-style summaries.

Of course, we would have to ban the Bible, by the same token, because it has surely been abused more than any book in history. If there were no Bible, many cults which misinterpret it (JWs being a prime example, and I have done very extensive research on them, dating back to the early 80s and my evangelical days) might not have even begun. So let's get rid of it! This is the end result of your fallacious "logic": "throw the baby out with the bathwater" . . . All these people don't have the slightest understanding of development of doctrine (just as many Protestants and Orthodox do not, either). But that is a completely separate issue.


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