One common criticism of the doctrine of sola scriptura is that it relies on a “list of books” or table of contents that is not contained in scripture. One way to put this objection is the following: if all doctrine or the “rule of faith” is contained in scripture alone and the list of books or the table of contents of the canon is a doctrine, then one would expect logically that this list be in scripture. But since the list is not in scripture, sola scriptura is self-defeating. Put differently: if all doctrine is contained in the sixty-six book canon and the table of contents or list of books is a doctrine, then the table of contents or list of books must be contained in the sixty-six book canon. Since the list of books is not in the sixty-six book canon, sola scriptura fails.
This is a fair objection, and the way many Protestants present sola scriptura opens them up for the effectiveness of this objection. But I think that this is a misunderstanding of sola scriptura.
The canon, as the “list of books,” is no more inspired than the number of parables in the gospels. The number of parables is a consequence of the parables being inspired, but the number is not inspired. In the same way, the “list of books” is not inspired; it is a consequence of the receiving or “hearing” of scripture by the church. Yes, the Church had a fundamental role in recognizing scripture, for they are the ones who “hear” and recognize the voice of Christ (Jn. 10:27); and the Church, as the receiving body, codified what they heard in the form of a canon. So the canon is a consequence of the church hearing and receiving scripture. As I say below, the canon is a consequence of the principle of sola scriptura.
Take this example. In the old days, military leaders in battle would send “runners” or adjutants to communicate their orders to their subordinate commanders. The subordinate commanders would receive these messages and know that they are from their superior commander because they recognize something about the messages (say the handwriting, the content, a seal, the context or maybe the carrier). These messages are received by subordinate commanders as legitimate not on the basis of some prepared message index but for reasons inherent in the messages themselves or the context in which they are presented. They didn’t follow an index, but a principle: accept and obey all correspondence from your superior officer. After the battle or the war, various people would compile the messages and assign them identification titles or numbers. They would make a table of contents. This was, in fact, done for all correspondence during the American Civil War. So now when one wants to study Civil War correspondence, they can go to these volumes and their lists.
The same type of thing happened with scripture: the texts were received as scripture and later codified in the form of the canon. Sola Scriptura is simply the following: the sole rule of faith is contained in texts that have been received as scripture. It is only a consequence of this principle that one can say that all doctrine must come from the sixty-six book canon. The doctrine of sola scriptura is not about a list of books, but the principle that all doctrine must come from scripture. In other words, all heavenly doctrine must come from a certain type of revelation, namely, inscripturated divine communication. The codification of the canon as a list of books is subsequent to the receiving of texts as scripture, not prior to it; and saying that the rule of faith is contained in the sixty-six book canon of scripture presupposes this codification as subsequent.
Just as the list of correspondence was not needed to both receive and codify the Civil War correspondence, neither did the Church need a table of contents to receive a text as scripture and compile the canon. So, again, sola scriptura is not a doctrine that says “all doctrine must come from the sixty-six book canon.” Though this statement is true, it is a consequence of applying the principle of sola scriptura, namely, that all doctrine must come from inscripturated divine communication. The common objection described in this post fails because it fails to understand sola scriptura as a principle. Any talk of lists and canon is subsequent to exercising the principle.