Thursday, August 21, 2008

Authority, Authority, Authority, Part II

2) The sola Scriptura position appears to have been reached by post hoc rationalization.

In my previous post, I discussed the difficulty I have in articulating a principled distinction between the Biblicist position and the confessional Reformed position vis-à-vis subjective interpretations of scripture. In this post I will consider another intellectual difficulty I face in remaining in the confessional Reformed camp.

Even if there is a principled distinction between the Biblicist and the confessional Reformed methods of interpreting Scripture, the latter position still seems to require post hoc rationalization to conclude that all revealed truth has been inscripturated into 66 books in the Bible.

Notice the two integral claims of the confessional sola Scriptura position, that a) all revealed truth has been inscripturated, and b) our confessions have the proper listing of books (i.e., canon). These are the sine quibus non of the Reformation -- that is, without these two claims being true, the Reformers would be mere dissidents, with no unifying claim to the possession of truth or authority. If these two truth-claims are to be the foundation of the believer's authority structure, binding his conscience above all else, they must be demonstrable and supportable. If they cannot be demonstrated, or are unsupported, then the entire system fails for want of authority to bind the conscience.

Complete Inscripturation.

To maintain the reformational position, the confessional Reformed must be able to articulate that God's revelations of absolute truth have been completed (i.e., have ceased), have been recorded in writing, and are to be reliably found no where else but the Bible. I have previously described why I see circularity in this position. Briefly stated, the critique with which I wrestle goes something like this: only Scripture contains revealed truth, but the claim that 'revealed truth is only in Scripture' is itself not in Scripture, so that claim is not a revealed one. The confessional Reformed may respond that this is a problem only for the Biblicist view. They may say (though I disagree that this is the Westminster Confession-al position) that their claim is actually that the early Church was reliable to determine truth, and it determined that only what is in the Bible is revealed truth, so that claim is reliable.

However, the early Church was far from clear on this matter of revealed truth having been completely inscripturated (see my reply to Keith Mathison's claim about this seminal matter here). Scripture itself seems to point in another direction (e.g., 2 Thes. 2:15, "So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings [traditions] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter."). The irony, then, is that complete inscripturation is the opposite conclusion of what one might reach from a plain reading of Scripture.


The Canon Question seems like a deeper example of the problem of necessary extra-biblical truth claims in the sola Scriptura paradigm. Obviously, the 66-book canon is not revealed within a book of the Bible, so one must look to an external, or extrabiblical source of truth to determine which books contain revealed Truth.

When I first heard the Catholic critique of sola Scriptura, I was intrigued by the claim that without a visible Church possessed of divinely-granted authority, the canon could not reliably be defined. My intrigue turned to dismay when I could not get a uniform answer from Reformed pastors and scholars as to why we have the 66 books we have. I was not dismayed that there were no answers, but rather that there were a variety of theories explaining why the 66-book canon is right. That rationales have been derived from a common conclusion (i.e., our particular 66 books) evidences post hoc rationalization.

Here are various rationalizations of the common conclusion with which I am familiar:

  1. Our 66 books are in the Bible because the inward work of the Holy Spirit bears witness in “our” hearts (WCOF).

  2. Our O.T. books are those which were accepted by the Jews in Hebrew in the early Church era.

  3. Apostolic authorship determines N.T. canonicity.

  4. Our N.T. books are those which received widespread acceptance by the early church, which was divinely reliable in its conclusions until the 4th century.

  5. Under the Lutheran variant of #4, we have a homolegoumena (universally accepted books) for establishing dogma , and an antilegoumena (disputed books, e.g., Jude or Revelation) to corroborate disputed dogmatic claims.
I believe that each of these variants has problems and inconsistencies (i.e., that each one might not reach the same 66-book conclusion under its own terms if strictly applied). However, the larger point to make here is that the use of a plurality of rationales (justifications) evidences that a bedrock reformational truth-claim (that our 66 books contain revealed truth and none others) -- the only truth-claim able to bind the Protestant's conscience -- is reached through post hoc rationalizations. Why is it that we can debate infant baptism under the terms of sola Scriptura, but not debate whether Jude belongs in the Scripture's corpus? Why is the meaning of communion open for discussion, but not the placement of Ecclesiastes in Holy Writ? What is the principled distinction between a debate over the truth of a doctrinal matter, and a debate over the truth of the listing of canon?

If the rationale that informs us that we have 66 books containing the complete inscripturation of God's revelations cannot bind our consciences (because there isn't one rationale at all), then neither can the conclusion. And if the conclusion can't bind our consciences, then the matter of canonicity seems like Protestant fair game for debate.

(To be continued...)


Joseph said...

Our 66 books are in the Bible because the inward work of the Holy Spirit bears witness in “our” hearts (WCOF).


Our O.T. books are those which were accepted by the Jews in Hebrew in the early Church era.

What faith did they have in the Early Church and their selection of the canon if they abandon the Septuagint for the Jewish (not Christian) canon that didn't come about until almost a century after Christ was crucified? Was the selection of OT books by the very anti-Christian Jewish leadership more reliable than Our Lord's or His Apostles who quoted from the Septuagint? Post Crucifixion Jews over Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church? Church authority extended to the Sanhedrin during the Early Church era?

Apostolic authorship determines N.T. canonicity.

This one is interesting. Is the person who gave you this argument aware that he/she is arguing for apostolic Tradition and/or apostolic succession? Luke and Mark were not Apostles, yet no one will deny that their Gospels are inspired. So either their books are considered apostolic because there was some sort of apostolic charisma given to them by the Holy Spirit through the Apostles or the Gospels were written solely on the oral tradition of the Apostles themselves... or both. Either way, it sounds more like an argument for Catholicism than it does for Protestantism.

Our N.T. books are those which received widespread acceptance by the early church, which was divinely reliable in its conclusions until the 4th century.

If by "until the 4th century" you mean "until the end of the 4th century", then this is a contradiction because the Church in the 4th century determined that the Old Testament contained 73 books. So which Early Church is this person talking about? This would also mean that whoever told you this would feel comfortable with devotions to Mary and would be quick to name her the Mother of God, since that was also dogmatized in the 4th century.

If by "until..." you mean "the Early Church was reliable until the end of 399 A.D.", then the dogma of the Blessed Trinity must not be reliable and there would be no reason for any Reformed communities to recite the Nicene Creed (which they do).

It's also interesting that you chose Scripture from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, Chapter 2. If you read the whole chapter you'll see that, in context, St. Paul is delivering this instruction to the Christians at Thessalonica so that they may be equipped to avoid being fooled by the false teachings of antichrists (and eventually, the Antichrist). It is a very serious directive. Either trust and obey my (Apostolic) authority (implied) and hold to our (the Apostles) oral and written traditions or you are in danger of being fooled by the Antichrist.

In several places in St. Paul's epistles, he remarks how his teachings, and the teachings of the other Apostles, are not their own but are revelations from God. So, then, are not the oral traditions passed on by them not revelations from God? Or does it only count if they somehow made it into the canon?

Joseph said...

end of 399 A.D.

Oops. I meant 299 A.D. Sorry.

Joseph said...

That got me thinking... if the Scriptures tell us to hold fast to Apostolic Authority, Apostolic Traditions, and the Epistles. Then Sola Scriptura tells us that Sola Scriptura cannot be the sole binding authority over Christians. Not only is the concept of Sola Scriptura nowhere to be found in the Scriptures themselves, but it seems to be inherently denied by them (or at least permits the believe in extra-biblical revelation and authority).

Thos said...


Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your criticisms of the various rationales, and as I noted, I realize there are arguments that can go back and forth for each one. I was attempting with this particular post to highlight the very curious fact that we have a *plurality* of rationales at all. I generally agree with your criticisms of the particular rationales as well.

In terms of sources for these rationales: I should have been more clear about them. These are not just theories I have heard (passive voice), but are all rationales posited by reformational confessions, apologists, scholars and theologians. I discussed these in some old posts, and can dig up source citations if you like. Primarily, my information on these rationales came from Reformed Confessions, from Prof. R. Laird Harris of Covenant Theological Seminary (PCA), from apologist William Webster ("The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha", sold by the PCA book vendor -- he is pastor of a Reformed Baptist church, but apparently is not a seminary graduate), and Keith Mathison. These rationales are not novel to the reformational movement; I think this has been an open question since the beginning.

I agree with your point on Scripture telling us to follow text and oral tradition. The response goes something like this: the epistles of the Bible were telling early Christians how to behave, and once the 'Church' determined that revealed truth had been fully inscripturated, the meaning of those passages was cauterized in some sense. So we're supposed to know from the extrabiblical historical turn of events that now we only follow written revelation. But that, of course, involves an extrabiblical determination.

Peace in Christ,

Jason Stellman said...


I just want to say that I do feel the force of your critique (which I am sure you can tell), and I appreciate your participation over at De Regnis Duobus.

I realize we've covered this ground before, but it just seems clear from Galatians that, whatever the similarity between apostolic and post-apostolic authority, there is clearly a hierarchy when it comes to the kind of authority Paul demands, and the kind of authority that makes demands on him. In other words, even Paul labored under the authority of the gospel.

Now if that is the case, then something like the Protestant Reformation is not as scandalous as you make it out to be. If it is the gospel itself that defines the ministry rather than the other way around, then it is possible for a once-favored church like Rome to no longer be recognizable as such (look at what the unbroken succession of priests from Aaron to Caiaphas became over the course of time).

If that happens, the absence of a direct succession from key-holders to key-holders is less problematic, right?

If Jesus' sheep hear his voice, and further, if that promise applies to others besides priests, then we may need to dispense with this hermeneutic of suspicion which tells us that a sincere believer can't figure out what the gospel is without someone telling him.

And by the way, it grieves me that, throughout your journey, no Protestant has been able to make a case for why you should stay.

Thos said...

Pastor Stellman,

I am truly honored to have you read through my post and share your views as a brother and teacher of the Bible. Thank you.

Let me reflect on this dichotomy you mentioned: Paul makes demands of people using his own authority, but is at the same time under the authority of the gospel, right? I think the Protestant position maintains that Paul was both under the gospel and capable of formally teaching a false gospel. Therefore, when he or any later “authority” fell into this formal error, the believer was beholden to the gospel, and not to the teacher in error. But couldn’t Paul both be under the gospel’s authority, and preserved by the Holy Spirit in his teachings? What of the promise of the preservation by God (I will be with you always, even until the end of the age)?

I am not so certain that the gospel itself defines the ministry, but would like to hear more. Christ’s ministry was not from the Gospel, but was from God the Father, as all authority on earth and in Heaven was given to him from the Father. Likewise, Christ commissions the Apostles Himself, and they receive the Holy Spirit (twice!) to set out on their ministry. I believe this commissioning and ordination defines their ministry (which is to preach the gospel, i.e., make disciples of all nations, to baptize, etc.).

I too would like to dispense with a hermeneutic of suspicion (mine is stronger – skepticism). But I see equal skepticism. The Protestant is skeptical that any visible Church could be forever preserved from formally teaching a false gospel. The Catholic is skeptical that a believer can figure out the gospel without someone telling him. I liked your analysis of Jesus’ sheep hearing his voice, and agree with it. Perhaps the Catholic is rather skeptical that a believer can figure out a different gospel than the one they allege to have maintained since the time of Christ. They might agree with us that a believer being taught something bogus by his bishop or priest (which is possible, even in their paradigm) might know that he is receiving something other than the “Catholic” faith. But that wouldn’t necessarily mean he could set about ordaining a bishop of his own, especially if the principle is true that a bad officer does not nullify the office.

Your interest in my struggle means a lot to me. I have had one pastor in particular take a great deal of time for me, and I’ve read some very bright Reformed scholars, so I’ve never meant to say that I’ve been left in the dark. Rather, I realized that, at the end of the day, no one was answering or addressing the questions I kept asking (that I have had posed to me by a Catholic friend). I took that as a sign that there were no good answers (so either Catholics are right, or there just are no knowable good answers for men).

Peace in Christ,

Rene'e said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rene'e said...


I removed my last post, I have been praying for the grace of humility and charity and I think the Lord is listening.

I am sorry.


Thos said...


I appreciate your discretion and thoughtfulness for the sake of charity that led you to remove that last comment. To be honest, I don't remember with particularity what you said, and have not pulled it up from my inbox, so my opinion is fairly neutral about whether removing it was needed. I doubt it was needed, so am particularly happy that you chose to err on the side of caution (charity). May the Lord allow me the same judgment.

Peace in Christ,