Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Reply to C. Michael Patton on "Sola Scriptura", Part Five (The Canon)

By Dave Armstrong (11-18-08)

This paper responds to Part Seven of Michael Patton's multi-part series in defense of sola Scriptura. His words will be in blue.

* * * * *
The next argument against sola Scriptura:

Without the infallible declaration of the Church, there would be no way of knowing what books belong in the canon of Scripture. Since there is no inspired canon of Scripture, the “Scripture alone” is not even enough to establish what Scriptures are truly Scripture. Therefore, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is self-defeating.

This is true.

Huh? Did I read that right? Is Michael conceding that sola Scriptura is self-defeating? That's a rather odd thing for any proponent of a position to say about it. I've been catching misery from folks like Reformed grad student Kevin Davis for saying the same thing, and then I come in today and see this from Michael. One has to appreciate the humorous irony of it.

I am looking on page 23 of my Bible and it has the list of books. The books all together number 66, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. This is often referred to as the “canon” of Scripture. “Canon” (Gk. kanon) means “rule” or “measuring rod.” The canon of Scripture is the collection or a “rule” of books that Christians believe belong in the Bible. There are some variations among Christian traditions concerning the number of books. The Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches all use different canons (as well, some eastern churches will vary still). The Catholic and Orthodox include a group of books in their Bibles referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (”second canon”) or, as Protestants would call it, the “Apocrypha” (although the Orthodox church is not quite as settled upon the status of the Apocrypha).

No particular reply . . .

The question How do you know what books belong in the Bible? is a significant one indeed and presents, what I believe to be, the most persuasive argument against sola Scriptura that there is.

It's good to respect the arguments of one's opponents. That means they will be seriously considered. I appreciate Michael's respectfulness towards Catholics throughout this whole discussion. The comparison to mentally ill people below is a rare exception to the rule (but I do find it highly amusing, so I don't mind much).

The Catholics and Orthodox will normally refer to the establishment of these books as part of the canon by fourth century councils. Catholics would further refer to the teachings of the council of Trent (1545-1563) which dogmatically and infallibly declared the current Catholic canon (including the Apocrypha) as being authoritative.

I would do that, yes.

I believe that the 66 books of the Protestant canon belong in the Bible,

I agree.

no more no less.

This is where it goes wrong. There are seven additional books that Protestantism decided to discard (along with many other doctrines), in the teeth of early Church history and longstanding tradition. 

I believe that all 66 books are inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Yet the list on page 23 of my Bible is not part of the canon. In other words, the list itself is not part of the inspired word of God. I am using the New American Standard Bible, but it is the same in any version of any language. Even the NET Bible does not have an inspired list—even in the footnotes! There is no early Greek or Hebrew manuscript that solves the problem either. Therefore I have a potential difficulty. Since do not believe in an infallible human authority that has determined what books belong in the Bible, how can I be certain what books belong in the Bible and still profess sola Scriptura?

Good statement of the difficulty. Michael certainly feels it. The question is whether he can come up with an acceptable, reasonable solution.

It would seem that the Scripture alone is not sufficient to establish the Scripture alone!! Do we have an fallible canon of infallible books?

It was R.C. Sproul who first made the claim that Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books.

Sproul popularized the phrase, yes (example from one of his books). He is not the first to do so, however. Orestes A. Brownson, the famous American convert from Protestantism, wrote around the year 1877:
How, then, can the professor maintain that Protestants have, in the Scriptures, an infallible rule of faith? No fallible rule suffices for infallible faith. 
(The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, p. 430)
The United States Catholic Magazine and Monthly Review was grappling with the same issue way back in 1846. Liberal Congregationalist theologian Horace Bushnell wrote in an 1862 work:
We are also obliged to admit that the canon was not made by men infallibly guided by the Spirit; and then the possibility appears to logically follow that . . . some book may have been let into the canon which, with many good things, has some specks of error in it.
These sources and others that argued in like fashion are where Sproul received his notion. The difficulty in the Protestant position has been critiqued and acknowledged for a long time, and it has a great deal of force, as Michael freely concedes.

A fallible canon of infallible books? What good is that? Catholics often jest about the seemingly ironic situation in which advocates of sola Scriptura find themselves. Catholics claim that they, due to their belief in a living infallible authority, have an infallible collection of infallible books, and that we are just borrowing from them!

Well, of course Protestantism has "borrowed" every true Christian doctrine there was from the Catholic Church, because Protestantism didn't exist until 1517. That includes Holy Scripture itself (minus the seven disputed books). This is not even an arguable point. It's a self-evident truth. Many Protestants have been uncomfortable with this, and try to either ignore it or rationalize it away by a variety of methods, but it is the plain historical fact.

Not only this (as an aside), but what about interpretation? Not only do Protestants not believe in an infallible authority to dogmatize which books belong in the Bible, but they don’t believe in an infallible authority to interpret the Bible. Therefore, we can take this to the next level. Protestants have a fallible interpretation of an fallible canon of infallible books. Ouch! Sounds like it is time to convert to Catholicism, eh?

That would be one feasible solution to the difficulty, yes. :-)


Not so fast. In the end, this is an issue of epistemology. Epistemology deals with the question “How do you know?” How do we know the canon is correct? How do we know we have the right interpretation? Assumed within these questions is the idea of certainty. How do you know with certainty? Not only this, but how do you know with absolute certainty?

The question that I would ask is this: Do we need absolute infallible certainty about something to 1) be justified in our belief about that something, 2) to be held responsible for a belief in that something. I would answer “no” for two primary reasons:

It is proper to answer "no" to this, generally speaking. In Christian matters, however, infallibility and the certitude of faith are good things, not a bad things. They prevent errors and heresies from sprouting and spreading. They support the importance and high value of truth itself.

1. This supposed need for absolute certainty is primarily the product of the enlightenment and a Cartesian epistemology. To say that we have to be infallibly certain about something before it can be believed and acted upon is setting the standard so high that only God Himself could attain to it. Outside of mathematics and analytical statements (e.g. a triangle had three sides), there is no absolute certainty, only relative certainty. This does not, however, give anyone an excuse or alleviate responsibility for belief in something.

Sure; again, I have no problem with that, but it becomes an extremely complex discussion. It comes down to what one means by faith and the certitude that is attainable in faith (here I would highly recommend Cardinal Newman's Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent: very tough reading but a feast of riches). Faith is not reducible to philosophy. Faith is faith! It goes beyond reason without being contrary to it. And so "absolute certainty" in some rationalistic or Cartesian sense may be questioned, but it doesn't follow that we can have no solid ground with regard to the doctrines of the Christian faith, or that we must ditch all certitude whatever, because we're not playing the 17th-18th century rationalistic game.

The problem under consideration is not one on the merits of rationalism. I agree with Michael that secularist rationalism and so-called "Enlightenment" philosophies miss the mark. The problem is, rather, how a canon runs contrary to sola Scriptura, as already noted. Michael's -- and every Protestant's -- task is to reconcile the canon with the notion of no infallible authorities outside of Scripture itself. It is an internal difficulty they have to resolve, whatever they think of the Catholic alternative. How will Michael do this? Well, we'll see (as always, in these dialogues, I am answering as I read, so I don't yet know where he goes with his reasoning). His solution will not be in appealing to the extremity of rationalistic philosophy, since Catholics don't disagree with him on that score. He'll have to come up with something else.

For example, I believe that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. I prepare each day with this belief in mind. Each night, I set my alarm clock and review my appointments for the following day, having a certain expectation that the next day will truly come. While I have certainty about the sun rising the next day, I don’t have infallible certainty that it will. There could be some astronomical anomaly that causes the earth to stop its rotation. There could be an asteroid that comes and destroys the earth. Christ could come in the middle of the night. In short, I don’t have absolute infallible certainty about the coming of the next day. This, however, does not give me an excuse before men or God for not believing that it will come. What if I missed an early appointment the next day and told the person “I am sorry, I did not set my alarm clock because I did not have infallible certainty that this day would come.” Would that be a valid excuse? It would neither be a valid excuse to the person who I was supposed to meet or to God.

That's all well and good, but unfortunately it is a non sequitur, as no one would disagree with it. The problem remains for the Protestant, who is accepting the authoritative word of a Catholic council, even considered apart from the question of infallibility (not even an ecumenical one), confirmed by a pope: whose authority and very office they also deny, to determine the parameters of infallible Scripture, without inconsistently appealing to what they consider fallible, purely human authority. Playing games with words and philosophical, epistemological concepts won't get that job done; sorry.

We have a term that we use for people who require infallible certainty about everything: “mentally ill.” Remember What About Bob? He was mentally ill because he made decisions based on the improbability factor. Because it was a possibility that something bad could happen to him if he stepped outside his house, he assumed it would happen. There are degrees of probability. We act according to degrees of probability. Simply because it is a possibility that the sun will not rise tomorrow does not mean that it is a probability that it won’t.

Well, this is a desperate attempt to paint his theological opponents as fools and even mentally ill. I think it is probably the low point of his entire series of defenses. But I can hardly become angry or offended over this because, as I noted above: 1) it is quite funny, and 2) it also illustrates the bankruptcy of his defense, to resort to such a gross caricature and straw man of the view opposed to his own. Clever, funny, sure, but it doesn't accomplish the fundamental task that is his burden to achieve, in defending sola Scriptura over against this effective counter-argument.

The same can be said about the canon and interpretation of Scripture. Just because there is a possibility that we are wrong (being fallible), does not mean that it is a probability. Therefore, we look to the evidence for the degree of probability concerning Scripture.

Because of this uncertainty and serious flaw in their own system, there are liberal Protestants today who are acting consistently upon this flaw and calling for a re-opening of the canon issue. Neither R.C. Sproul nor Michael nor any Protestant can give a solid reason why they should not do so. And that is certainly a consideration serious enough to cause them to re-examine their first principles, including sola Scriptura.

2. The smoke screen of epistemological certainty that seems to be provided by having a living infallible authority (Magisterium) disappears when we realize that we all start with fallibility. No one would claim personal infallibility. Therefore it is possible for all of us to be wrong. We all have to start with personal fallible engagement in any issue.

God likes truth and certainty. He wants us to have it: the certitude of faith. He liked it so much that He oversaw the Jerusalem Council, which made a decision that was described as having been confirmed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Yet Protestants would have us believe that no such thing is possible, while Catholics follow the biblical model and continue to believe in Spirit-guided councils (and popes). What gives? I think any Christian can trust Holy Scripture and the early Church to give us the truth of how certain God wanted us to be. But it is almost an obsession lately with Protestants, that uncertainty and de facto theological relativism is fashionable, trendy; even desirable

Therefore, any belief in an infallible living authority could be wrong.

Could be. If one follows Mormon prophets or Jehovah's Witness elders, they will miss the mark and be in trouble. But it could just be that if one finds the true, divinely-established authority, it could be right, too, and God's will for His Church and His people, rather than (in the final analysis) groping around blindly in the dark, without proper authority and guidance.

As Geisler and MacKenzie put it, “The supposed need for an infallible magisterium is an epistemically insufficient basis for rising above the level of probable knowledge. Catholic scholars admit, as they must, that they do not have infallible evidence that there is an infallible teaching magisterium. They have merely what even they believe to be only probable arguments. But if this is the case, then epistemically or apologetically there is no more than a probable basis for Catholics to believe that a supposedly infallible pronouncement [either about the canon or interpretation of the canon] of their church is true” (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, p. 216).

Trying to find a difficulty in the Catholic position is not the solution to internal Protestant problems. I'd be happy -- delighted -- to defend our positions, in another context, but I won't give Michael a pass in not properly defending his, by switching the topic over to Catholics: which is a very common Protestant polemical tactic. Often this succeeds in getting the pressure off the Protestant, but not ever when I am around to point out the fallaciousness and "dialogical impropriety" of it.

But we could make another observation about this form of "logical sleight-of-hand" argument, in direct response. We can turn the tables on this and show that it is fallacious and a self-defeating argument in the first place. I'm surprised that Norman Geisler (a brilliant apologist) didn't anticipate the following response. Here we go:

If Geisler, Michael, and Protestants want to shoot down all infallibility as an illegitimate philosophical concept or basis of certainty (real or imagined), and to adopt the course of undiluted epistemological skepticism, they are free to do so. The only problem is that they themselves proclaim and believe in faith, in the infallibility of Scripture. That raises further thorny difficulties:
1) There either is such a thing as infallibility or there is not.

2) The Catholic has enough faith and reason to believe in an infallible, inspired Scripture and an infallible Church.

3) The Protestant has enough faith to believe in an infallible, inspired Scripture but not enough faith to believe in an infallible Church.

4) Yet the canon issue requires an infallible Church to achieve an infallible canon, which is necessary in order to believe in an inspired, infallible Scripture (because in order to have an infallible Scripture to believe in in the first place, one must know what it is).

5) In order to resolve the difficulty, some Protestants opt for the skeptical path of denying that anyone (Protestant or Catholic) can know with certainty that anything is infallible.

6) But to do that is to also say that Scripture cannot be infallible, since it is included in the category of "things which are, or are purported to be, infallible".

7) But #6 nullifies #3, which in turn is a key plank of the Protestant rule of faith of sola Scriptura; therefore sola Scriptura falls along with any supposed infallibility, including that of the Bible.

8) Ergo, this entire argument from skepticism about infallibility proves too much, with the Protestant eventually required to forsake an infallible Scripture, and the man-made, unbiblical notion of sola Scriptura along with it.

9) In conclusion, the argument completely fails, and the Protestant will have to find another in response to the Catholic "canon argument."
The Protestant could argue (I believe this is the course Sproul himself takes) that God specially protected the Catholic Church in the late fourth century, in proclaiming a canon. Apart from dubious plausibility, and no outside confirming evidence (it is pretty much an argument from wishful thinking or arbitrary exceptions to a supposed rule of "no infallible church" in order to bolster an already false belief), questions immediately arise: "if infallibility applies in this instance, why not in others?"

We could look at, for example, the crucial issues of Christology that arose in the first six or seven centuries of the Church. Were councils infallible also when they proclaimed those doctrines (considered by Protestants to be profoundly true)? If they say yes, then they are now confronted with two major areas where the Church was infallible, and two exceptions to their supposedly universal rule.

If they argue, on the other hand, that the Church wasn't infallible when working through Christological doctrine, then they have to demonstrate how something that is profoundly true is supposedly not infallible. In other words, by what criterion do they say something is true, but at the same time, definitely or certainly not infallible? For an infallible Church making a true proclamation looks exactly the same as a non-infallible Church getting it right by happenstance or hook or crook or "luck" or whatever it was that caused it to get something right.

Moreover, if the Church was right about Christology, what about things like original sin (which is not found in the Nicene Creed), or iconoclasm, or any number of things? For that matter, what distinguishes these doctrines from those that Protestants do not accept, such as various Marian doctrines, penance, purgatory, the papacy, the sacrifice of the Mass, the real presence, baptismal regeneration, the communion of saints, and on and on?

And what is to distinguish the Church's decree on the canon which included at the same time the deuterocanonical books also? Now the Protestant has to say that the Catholic Church was 90% infallible (66 out of 73 books) and 10% fallible. And there is, of course, no basis to make that determination. Church fathers disagreed about biblical books for 400 years (though not greatly so). No one was on any firmer ground than anyone else. The Church had to have the final say. And the same subjective, no-way-to-resolve issues was true of Protestantism from the beginning.

Thus, we see that there are a host of problems, any way that the Protestant attempts to resolve the difficulty. None of them are remotely satisfactory let alone plausible or superior answers to the simple, elegant, true, biblical, historical Catholic position on authority and the canon and the Bible and tradition.

Here is a graph to illustrate what I mean: [see chart-image]

This means that we are all floating in the same river, just different boats. Catholics (Dual-Source Theory) have a fallible belief about an infallible authority;

Hardly. As I have already pointed out a number of times, the Jerusalem Council as described in Scripture, is a crystal-clear instance of infallible Church authority. Therefore, since Scripture is infallible (Michael and more "conservative" Protestants agree), Catholics do not have a fallible belief about infallible authority, but clearly an infallible belief about infallible authority, and Michael and Norman Geisler, where he gets this argument, are both wrong. That's self-consistent; it's based on clear and explicit Scripture, which is more than we can say about Protestants in the present conundrum.

Advocates of sola Scriptura have a fallible belief about an infallible authority. Both authorities must be substantiated by the evidence and both authorities must be interpreted by fallible people.

What is this evidence that the biblical books are what they are? Of course it is not presented. The Protestant could argue (and some have argued) that the books are self-attesting an self-authenticating. That raises additional problems.

In the end, what is the difference? Advocates of sola Scriptura just cut out the infallible middle man.

I believe I have shown that there is a huge difference. Our view is self-consistent, plausible, and biblical. The Protestant view in this regard is internally inconsistent, implausible, and insufficiently biblical.

Do advocates of sola Scriptura have a fallible collection of infallible books? Yes. We concede such.

Then that directly undercuts one of the key planks of sola Scriptura:
1) There is only one infallible authority: the Bible (sola Scriptura).

2) The canon was determined by a process that (according to Protestantism) was not infallible.

3) Therefore, it is a completely questionable authority, that holds no force, by the stated internal criteria of sola Scriptura.

4) Yet Protestants don't question the authority; they accept it (and even grant it, practically speaking, a de facto infallibility), which is contrary to #1.

5) Therefore, a completely non-infallible (i.e., according to #1) and non-biblical process is made the basis for which the Protestant rests his belief as to what is and is not Scripture (except for the 10% of the books -- 7 out of 73 --, regarding which he dissents from the conciliar decision).

6) It follows that knowledge of infallible Scripture rests in large part on fallible tradition.

7) But Protestants would rather choose the course of despair and philosophical skepticism and claim that it doesn't matter, since no one can be certain of infallibility.

8) This completely undercuts #1.
And on and on it goes. It is a vicious logical circle, in more than one way. But Protestant manage to live with it. The only way out of it that I can see, is to do one of three things:
A) Ditch sola Scriptura or greatly redefine it.

B) Question the closed nature of the canon.

C) For most Protestants -- being very reluctant to opt for either A or B --, the only remaining course is to (arbitrarily) posit a temporary infallibility of the Church, which raises another host of issues of logic, analogy, and application, briefly outlined above.
When all is said and done, all of our beliefs are fallible and therefore subject to error.

Which would include the Bible itself (!!!). So now Michael, in his desperate radical skepticism, has directly gone after Scripture: hung by his own words. He starts out defending Scripture as the only final, infallible authority, only to end -- quite ironically and surprisingly --, not even accepting its infallibility. It would have been better to not set out defending sola Scriptura at all. When one tries to bolster up a self-defeating proposition, this is how it ends: in complete failure.
And indeed, this is the history of Protestantism: a continual process of splitting and of a view of the Bible that logically ends up in liberal skepticism.

But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error. We have to appeal to the evidence to decide. God would [probably] accept nothing less.

Michael's evidence has been examined and found wanting. I trust that any open-minded reader can see this. If someone thinks otherwise, then I challenge them (you!) to make sure Michael or any other Protestant comes and gives us all a solid counter-argument to my own. And if they don't do so, then I challenge you to ask yourself why that is: why, if the Protestant position is so evidently superior, virtually no one can or is even willing to defend it confidently in all particulars against all comers? No one is more aware of this deficiency in their defenses against critiques, than an apologist like myself. I see it (or I should say, don't see their defenses that should be made) all the time, and I have for 18 years. In many respects, when it comes to Protestant self-justifying rationale in this vexed area of authority and the rule of faith, the emperor is naked. I'm one of those folks who is bold and brash and presumptuous enough to tell the proverbial "emperor" that he is naked.


Mark T said...

This is great stuff, Dave!

I've been reading a dialogue going on over at anti-Catholic Ken Temple's blog...he and Sam (somebody-or-another) are ridiculing Muslims for utilizing "Roman Catholic" arguments for the Canon of Scripture. A Catholic gentlemen named Williams is doing a great job of pointing out the sola scriptura argument for establishing canon but of course Ken does his usual antics of dodging and avoiding the real meat of the dialogue and then creates all kinds of strawmen to support his claims.

Ken and Sam point to the Koran itself as PROVING the Canon of Jewish Scripture which apparently goes against the Catholic Argument.

My question would be this: How can the Koran point to the Canon of Jewish scripture since the Koran wasn't written until after the Jews had established an official canon, which didn't occur until after Christianity established it's canon? Am I missing something here?

thanks and God Bless

Dave Armstrong said...

Don't try to look for logical consistency in Temple or Swan. That would be a LONG wait! Conserve your energy. LOL

Mark T said...


Well, based on everything I've seen in their arguments, I concur with your statement.

I was mainly writing to ask if the basis of my question is/was historically correct, as it would contradict what they are saying.

Pretty sad when truth stares them in the face and they chose to ignore it, though.

God bless and thanks!

Dave Armstrong said...

I have no particular thoughts on your question . . . Never thought about it.