A Short Defense of Sola Scriptura

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 must expect that scripture contains this list. 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 of parables 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. 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 (e.g., 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, people would compile the messages and assign them identification titles or numbers for reference and study. That is, 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 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. Again, the codification of the canon as a list of books is subsequent to the receiving of texts as scripture, not prior to it. Hence, when one claims that the rule of faith is contained in the sixty-six book canon, he is presupposing this list as subsequent to the reception of texts.

Just as the list of correspondence was not needed both to 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.

30 thoughts on “A Short Defense of Sola Scriptura

  1. That’s thought-provoking, but the basic problem still remains, I think: How can you authoritatively refer to Scripture, as divinely-revealed authority, without an authoritative basis for the book you are referring to actually being divinely inspired? If the canon of Scripture is “a fallible list of infallible books,” then isn’t it possible that the book you are referring to isn’t actually infallible? What authority, then, does your claim actually have, if there is no concrete basis for its authority? Either the listener subjectively accepts the book and the claim as authoritative (or he could, for that matter, reject it), or else he must refer to some other authority to verify the acceptability of the book: the agreement of trusted Christians whom the listener believes to have been divinely guided, which is in fact what the canon of Scripture is.

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    1. …. Or the third option, of course, is that he depends on his own subjective judgment whether the book is divinely inspired — which is not any basis for church authority, but is ultimately the path that sola scriptura demands.

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      1. Joseph, let’s start from the beginning. Paul writes a letter. That letter is sure apostolic testimony; that letter is regarded as Scripture by the first people who receive it, and others. Then Paul writes a second letter; that second letter is received as Scripture by those who receive it. The two are collected together and received as Scripture by others to whom it is distributed. Paul writes a third letter, etc….

        There is no need for an “infallible list” of infallible books. And that lack of a need for an infallible list continues as each new New Testament document is produced.

        This is not conjecture. This is how the Scriptures were written and produced and conceived. See Michael Kruger’s work “Canon Revisited” for a great deal more detail on this process.

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        1. Sure, John, that’s very nice and clean-cut — when Christians are all in agreement that Paul wrote a letter. But when the very initial assumption is in doubt — or when a letter claiming to have been written by Paul or some other Apostle, is under suspicion of being spurious — what then? What about the books of the New Testament that were genuinely in doubt, like Jude, 2 Peter, Revelation? Even today, many, even Protestant scholars hold 2 Peter to be pseudipigraphical, and many scholars doubt that Paul wrote Ephesians or the Pastoral Epistles. So again — should anyone accept arguments from those books as authoritative? And on what basis?

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          1. Start from the beginning again. You beg the question on the phrase “genuine doubt”.

            For, who first expressed “genuine doubt” as to God’s word. There is no question that the books you’ve listed as “spurious” were “genuinely received”. Consider 2 Peter. In the year 68 AD, nobody cared that some day, “Protestant scholars” would consider Ephesians or 2 Peter to be pseudepigraphical. These documents existed, they were received as from the Apostles, and there was not any question about whether or not they were authentic. They were Scripture, and no list was needed.

            Who began raising “genuine doubt”. And is that doubt “genuine”? Even so, does that work stop being Scripture in the face of the “genuine doubt”?

            So first of all, agree with me that your question is not a metaphysical one. It is an epistemological one.

            Second, look at the “genuine history” of 2 Peter. According to Kruger (p. 271), Richard Bauckham most found a reference to 2 Peter in the apocryphal “Apocalypse of Peter” (c. 110). Justin Martyr cited it in his Dialogue with Trypho in 150 AD. Irenaeus and Hippolytus seem to have cited it. Clement of Alexandria wrote a now-lost commentary on it.

            So, where does the first “genuine doubt” come from? Can you produce it for us? And, does that first “genuine doubt” affect the metaphysical status of the work as a genuine Apostolic letter?

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            1. Further to that, at what point does the first “genuine doubt” incur the need for an “infallible list” or “infallible certification”? When and where in history do you first place that requirement upon God?

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            2. In the year 68 AD, nobody cared that some day, “Protestant scholars” would consider Ephesians or 2 Peter to be pseudepigraphical. These documents existed, they were received as from the Apostles, and there was not any question about whether or not they were authentic. They were Scripture, and no list was needed.

              Yes, you’re exactly right: the question is epistemological. How do you know that “in the year A.D. 68, nobody cared” that 2 Peter would someday be in doubt? How do you know that the letter was even written in A.D. 68? There is no concrete, historical mention of that letter’s existence until the time of Origen in the third century — and he questioned its authenticity, as did Eusebius later in the same century. It is not mentioned in the Muratorian Fragment or other early testimonies to the canon. This is “genuine doubt,” expressed by the very earliest testimonies we have to the reception of the New Testament. At best, then, we can say that many early Christians were either unaware of, or unsure of, that letter. This is not any basis for the absolute certainty (“They were Scripture, and no list was needed”) you are espousing. If no list was needed, then why did anyone in the Church ever see the need to produce such lists? And why were such lists not all, immediately, in uniform agreement?

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  2. How do you know that “in the year A.D. 68, nobody cared” that 2 Peter would someday be in doubt?

    They just didn’t. Have you never read any ancient history?

    How do you know that the letter was even written in A.D. 68?

    Peter is known to have died before 67 AD. You know, in Rome?

    There is no concrete, historical mention of that letter’s existence until the time of Origen in the third century — and he questioned its authenticity,

    You are factually wrong with this — you seem not to have read my revious comment.

    It was cited in 110 ad, it was cited by Justin in 150 ad, it was cited by Irenaeus (180) and Hippolytus (220). Further to that, Origen did not question it, he simply noted that some people did. (Origen, by the way, held a 27-book New Testament canon (the same ones we do) in his own lifetime).

    It is not mentioned in the Muratorian Fragment or other early testimonies to the canon.

    It was cited a number of times as Scripture. See above.

    This is “genuine doubt,” expressed by the very earliest testimonies we have to the reception of the New Testament.

    On the other hand, the need for someone to certify the canon wasn’t even brought up until the 5th century (Augustine).

    At best, then, we can say that many early Christians were either unaware of, or unsure of, that letter. This is not any basis for the absolute certainty

    Perhaps you can point us to early citations requiring the need for absolute certainty. You have none. Why should I (or anyone) even care about your need for absolute certainty? The early church did not.

    If no list was needed, then why did anyone in the Church ever see the need to produce such lists?

    Why were there no so-called “infallible” lists until Trent in the 15th century? What could this mean other than that Rome was seeking to assert itself in ways that it had never asserted itself before?

    And why were such lists not all, immediately, in uniform agreement?

    Why were there Gnostics? Why were there Arians?

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    1. Peter is known to have died before 67 AD. You know, in Rome?

      So you presume a priori that Peter actually wrote the thing. How do you know?

      You are factually wrong with this — you seem not to have read my previous comment.

      “Concrete, historical mention” means a verifiable, documentable reference to the document — and there is none before Origen. This is fact. Possible allusions in other late, apocryphal documents (yes, A.D. 110 is late) does little to advance a claim of apostolic origin. Neither the Apocalypse of Peter nor the other authors you mention actually refer to the document.

      Perhaps you can point us to early citations requiring the need for absolute certainty.

      You are the one making absolute claims, John, not the early Church — in which a number of early authors who addressed the canon either did not include the full list we have today, or admitted uncertainty about one or more books. I am asking you where your certainty comes from. If the canon of Scripture was so self-evident to the early Church that it demanded no formalization, again, why were the earliest lists incomplete, and why did authors note uncertainty about books into the third and fourth centuries?

      Peace and grace to you, John.

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      1. So you presume a priori that Peter actually wrote the thing. How do you know?

        This is the point: it was received as such by the earliest church. The fact that it was “disputed” is a function of its having been accepted by most. It was not in the “rejected” category (i.e., of a later date than the Apostle’s lifetime).

        “Concrete, historical mention” means a verifiable, documentable reference to the document — and there is none before Origen. This is fact.

        You seem to have no idea about the historical transmission of texts. Taking my response from Kruger, I gave you five different citations prior to Origen, in which the document was cited as Scripture (that is what it means to have been “received”. There were only so many documents written.

        Based on the way that early documents were copied and distributed, 2 Peter’s citation in a document that was written in 110 AD shows that it had been distributed as Scripture. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t say “2 Peter” in that document, the same way that Luke 4:18-19 not saying “I’m quoting Isaiah 61” doesn’t exclude the fact that Jesus was citing Isaiah.

        It was recognized as Scripture.

        You are the one making absolute claims, John, not the early Church

        I am not making “absolute claims”. I’m saying (again following Kruger) that the early church did recognize the authority of the apostolic documents. This statement is based not only the internal characteristics of the document but the early provenance and the wide distribution at an early date.

        The fact that no “list” was produced makes no difference … we know with certainty that the Gospels and Paul’s letters were collected in discernible canonical groupings, and that these groupings were, from the beginning, recognized Scripture.

        That there were “disputes” later on is going to be inevitable. But keep in mind that the “disputes” today on what you call the “disputed” books are not based on the same reasons that some books were “disputed” in the early centuries.

        Most of the “critical” scholarship today which “disputes” 2 Peter or the Pauline authorship of some letters stems from F.C. Baur in 1864, and his desire to posit theological conflict between Hebrew and Hellenistic “parties” in the early church, along with a Hegelian “synthesis”. Baur did not start with the texts; he started with his Hegelian idea and worked backward.

        And you are doing the same thing: you are starting with the Roman claim to authority, and working backward from there.

        That’s why I stress: start from the beginning. Understand the process by which these things came about. That will yield actual history. Citing a prominent Oxford historian of the 20th century, “People who do not know their history are liable to be fooled.”

        I’m suggesting that you (and Roman Catholics everywhere) have been fooled.

        Check out this link for further explication on this topic:
        http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2012/05/attention-roman-catholics-sola.html

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        1. I really do not want to argue with you about the canonicity of Second Peter. I personally accept it as authentic and canonical. But you are the one making absolute, categorical claims — despite your own assertion that the canon is a “fallible list of infallible books” — that Second Peter is an infallible book. How do you know? And doesn’t that claim — that the canon is a “fallible list” — admit the possibility that it isn’t?

          This is the point: it was received as such by the earliest church … accepted by most. … It was recognized as Scripture.”

          This is exactly what I am talking about. How do you know? You are making absolute, historical claims here. I am asking you how you know these things so absolutely. Yes, you are citing evidence — but the evidence is neither absolute, nor certain, nor does it support what you are claiming it supports, the apostolic authorship of this letter. Even if every quotation you refer to is exactly what you claim it is, it at best dates the letter to the turn of the second century, and verifies that one author at that time, who himself wrote a pseudepigraphical book in the name of Peter, had read it. How do you know, from this, that it was written by the Apostle Peter? How do you know how the earliest Christians, as a whole, received it?

          You seem to have no idea about the historical transmission of texts. Taking my response from Kruger, I gave you five different citations prior to Origen, in which the document was cited as Scripture (that is what it means to have been “received”. There were only so many documents written.

          I’ve told you before, John, that I really don’t appreciate your condescending and disparaging tone to me. I have a master’s degree in history, from a reputable and accredited academic institution. I worked hard for it. It doesn’t make me an expert, but I think it does entitle me to a little more respect that “you seem to have no idea about the historical transmission of texts.” I do know one or two things about it.

          One thing I do know is that there is a vast difference between a work being named and declared by an author to be acceptable as Scripture, or a concrete testimony to apostolic authorship, and vague, possible quotations and allusions that (a) may or may not actually be quotations from the source in question, and (b) may or may not be an acknowledgement of that source’s authority for the author. These are not “citations”: a citation is when an author informs us directly of the source of a quotation or authority, for example, “As the Apostle Peter attests,” “According to the second epistle of Peter…” As you are well aware, ancient authors didn’t often do this. Unless the author tells us exactly what material he is citing, and exactly what he thinks about it, we are left as historians to infer and speculate. The citations you give to historians as Kruger are just exactly that: subjective interpretations of possible quotations by ancient authors.

          As a primary example, let’s examine the so-called “citation” to 2 Peter in the Apocalypse of Peter:

          (This quotation from Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 9, ed. Menzies. I have included the editor’s footnotes in brackets.)

          … many of them will be false prophets [False prophets. Cf. Matt. 7:15; 24:5, 11. Cf. Pastor of Hermas, Mand. xi.], and will teach divers ways and doctrines of perdition: but these will become sons of perdition [Sons of perdition. Cf. 2 Peter 2:1–3; 3:7, 16; 2 Thess. 2:3, and Ep. of Lyons and Vienne, Euseb. H. E. v. 1.]. And then God will come unto my faithful ones who hunger and thirst and are afflicted and purify their souls in this life; and he will judge the sons of lawlessness [Purify their souls. Cf. 2 Peter 1:18. Sons of lawlessness. Cf. Pastor Herm. Vis. iii. 6.]. And furthermore the Lord said: Let us go into the mountain [Mountain. Cf. 2 Peter 1:18.]

          And that’s all. Only a few phrases considered to be possible points of contact with 2 Peter: Not a direct quotation of any verse or even part of a verse, but a word or words that seem similar enough to lead the subjective editor to believe the author might have read or been influenced by 2 Peter as a source. Or he might have read something else — perhaps, concerning “sons of perdition,” John 17:12. Or perhaps both this source and 2 Peter were influenced by the same other source (e.g. other passages of Scripture). Or perhaps the author of the Apocalypse of Peter (not Peter), who wrote that book pseudepigraphically in Peter’s name, also wrote the second epistle attributed to Peter. All of this is the stuff of scholarship for historians and textual critics. These are matters of speculation, not absolute fact.

          The sources I consulted conclude that neither Justin Martyr nor Irenaeus quoted from 2 Peter. Certainly they did not “cite” it. So again, all of this is a matter of subjective textual analysis. Again, only “concrete, historical mention” of a book is definite.

          I’m saying … that the early church did recognize the authority of the apostolic documents.

          To that matter, some also accepted the authority of the Apocalypse of Peter, as did the Muratorian Fragment, and other documents like the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas — why don’t we? You claim “the early church,” as a monolithic entity, accepted “the authority of the apostolic documents”? All of them? All together? And nothing else? Once again, “the early Church” did not all, universally, monolithically agree on what documents to recognize as “apostolic.” Different churches recognized the authority of different sets of “apostolic documents,” even up into the third century. And yes, they did make lists of them. These lists do make definite claims of what these authors and communities accepted and did not accept as Scripture, in the very context of what you insist did not exist and was unnecessary: the need the discern and understand as Christian communities what to accept and what to reject as scriptural authority. This was neither definite, not certain, nor self-evident for these early Christians. Here are several very handy tables of some of those witnesses [1], [2], [3]: I am sure you have access to others.

          The fact that no “list” was produced makes no difference … we know with certainty that the Gospels and Paul’s letters were collected in discernible canonical groupings, and that these groupings were, from the beginning, recognized Scripture.

          But lists were produced — and the lists were not consistent. Why were lists produced, if no list was necessary; if everything was so easily discernible? Why were these lists not consistent with one another?

          That there were “disputes” later on is going to be inevitable.

          I really am not interested in modern disputes. I am concerned with the development of the canon in the early Church. But again, you’ve said, and other Reformed authors have stated, that the canon is a “fallible list of infallible books.” Does that not admit the possibility that the list is imperfect and might contain books that are not infallible? Otherwise it seems to be an empty claim: If every book on the list is definitively authoritative, then what is it about the list that is “fallible”?

          And you are doing the same thing: you are starting with the Roman claim to authority, and working backward from there.

          I don’t think I’ve made any reference to Roman claims of authority.

          Grace and peace to you, John. I really wish we could reclaim a more civil tone here. I am doing my best to be charitable to you: I would really appreciate the same consideration. We are, despite what you maintain, brothers in Christ seeking after the same goal, the grace of Christ and the Heavenly Jerusalem.

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          1. Joseph,

            You are acting like an atheist or a Moslem, not like a Christian.

            What I mean is, because (I presume) of your need to offer the Church of Rome as the only true solution to the problem of doubt about the extent and the meaning of Scripture, you act as if no other source could possibly give any assurance. So you argue like a Moslem or an atheist, trying to debunk the New Testament, and then step in and offer the Church of Rome as a sort of deus ex machina to solve the problem.

            But, of course, you cannot know that the Church of Rome gives true certainty unless you either assume it, thus begging the question, or else engage in just the sort of historical analysis that you dismiss coming from a Protestant.

            You are assuming without proof the essentially-unverifiable doctrine that the Holy Spirit keeps Rome from error, while refusing to accept the much more verifiable historical analysis offered by Mr. Bugay.

            You may not acknowledge that this is your approach, but it is.

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            1. Again, Alan, I don’t think I’ve made a single reference to the Church of Rome here — as a solution or source of anything. And I’m not trying to “debunk” or “dismiss” anything: as I’ve said, I fully accept and embrace the full canon of Scripture which Christians have agreed upon for centuries. I’m simply questioning the evidence being offered in support of the claims being made here, that the canonical books of the New Testament were simply recognized as apostolic and scriptural from the very start and no definition or clarification of the canon of Scripture was ever necessary. If this claim and its evidence are valid, then answering questions about them should be no problem.

              What I’ve stated here is only the facts: various Christian communities into the third and fourth centuries did not have a single, consistent canon of the New Testament, but disputed some books we now consider canonical and included others we no longer consider canonical. Is there any “verifiable historical analysis” that reconciles the claim that “no canon was ever necessary; Christians recognized Scripture for what it was” with the documented fact that actually, no, Christian communities were not in agreement about what Scripture and what was not for at least several centuries — then I would very much like to hear it.

              Christ’s Grace and peace be with you.

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  3. According to your website, you’re Catholic. So unless you’re a “cafeteria Catholic,” you believe the Bible has the right books because your Organization says so.

    And how do you know they’re right? Organizations have been known to lie (or be sincerely mistaken), you know. Presumably you didn’t just flip a coin before joining Rome.

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    1. I trust Crossway Bible Publishers and the ESV. They would not lie to me. :)

      Why are you trying to make this about the Catholic Church? This thread is about sola scriptura and the canon of Scripture. Isn’t the whole thesis that the Catholic Church has nothing to do with it?

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      1. Richard, it’s because we know infallibly that you are Roman Catholic, and that the canon issue is always the last-stand issue for Roman Catholic apologetics.

        Oscar Cullmann wrote a book about Peter in 1952, and nobody challenged his work on Peter. Instead, “one argument especially is brought forward: scripture, a collection of books, is not sufficient to actualize for us the divine revelation granted to the apostles”.

        There is no other “anti-Protestant” argument for Roman Catholics. It is clear what you are doing.

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        1. John, I still haven’t brought up the Catholic Church and have no intention at all of doing so. You are the ones who keep bringing it up. I am not interested in discussing the Catholic Church, Catholic claims, or Catholic apologetics at all: I am interested in your defense of your position (I was actually more interested in the original poster’s position, and would love to get back to it, but we seem to have left that far behind).

          Now can you answer the questions I have asked, without changing the subject or trying to attack me?: If, as you say, the apostolicity and divine inspiration of each of the canonical New Testament documents was immediately clear to all believers, such that no clarification or definition was ever necessary, why is it that in fact we see various Christians for several centuries doing exactly that, attempting to clarify, and questioning the authenticity of several books, and giving testimony to understandings of the canon of the New Testament that either lacked now-canonical books, added non-canonical books, or otherwise were not in agreement on the matter? How do we get, historically, from this lack of agreement to the agreement we eventually after the fourth century? And no, I am not presupposing or demanding any particular answer (“It’s the Catholic Church!”) nor am I interested in beating you over the head with any such: I am honestly and genuinely interested in your answer to that question as a Protestant.

          Grace and peace be with, John.

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          1. Everything I’ve written here is taken from Kruger’s “Canon Revisited”. His point is not that we know these things with certainty, but that the best scholarship provides good evidence that the things he is saying are very probable, and the accumulation of the evidence, we Protestants are justified to believe that these things are true. He never says that we know these things, or can prove them with certainty.

            Kruger’s stated purpose is to respond to “the narrow question of whether Christians have a rational basis (i.e., intellectually sufficient grounds) for affirming that only these twenty-seven books rightfully belong in the New Testament canon. Or put differently, is the Christian belief in the canon justified (or warranted)? The answer is an unqualified “yes”.

            So if you are genuinely interested in studying these things, I’ve written extensively on Triablogue, and Kruger has written much more on his own blog site.

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            1. Thank you for the polite response. I appreciate it a lot.

              I should read more of what you’ve written, then. Again, I am more interested in positive statements and defenses of the Protestant position than in anti-Catholic polemics. A lot of what I have read on your blog before has been pretty heavy on the polemic. But at least one of the links you gave above looks very interesting. I also want to read Kruger’s book. What do you think of some of the other popular works on the subject, such as those by F.F. Bruce, Bruce Metzger, or Norm Geisler? Are there any others you would recommend?

              Grace and peace to you, John.

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  4. “…the apostolicity and divine inspiration of each of the canonical New Testament documents was immediately clear to all believers, such that no clarification or definition was ever necessary…”

    We obviously don’t say that. Straw man.

    Getting back to you. Your position in this comment thread is one of skepticism. I want to know if you are as skeptical as you present yourself here. If Protestant arguments don’t establish the truth of the Bible, then either you, Joseph Richardson, do not know that the Bible is true, or else you know that it is for another reason.

    To put it another way: Your arguments here only have merit if human effort cannot know that the Bible is true, in which case we need something like the Catholic solution to the dilemma: that a divinely-authorized authority tells us that the Bible is true.

    To put it yet another way: Any knucklehead can be skeptical, but is skepticism really valid? Maybe the skeptic is really sinfully refusing to acknowledge reality. Maybe he’s just inventing pseudo-objections.

    I don’t respect debaters who won’t put their cards on the table. John Bugay and I are Sola Scriptura Protestants. What are you?

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    1. “…the apostolicity and divine inspiration of each of the canonical New Testament documents was immediately clear to all believers, such that no clarification or definition was ever necessary…”

      That seemed to be what John was arguing above, so if I was misunderstanding, then I apologize. I have no interest in fighting straw men.

      I don’t respect debaters who won’t put their cards on the table. John Bugay and I are Sola Scriptura Protestants. What are you?

      You’ve already looked at my blog, so you know who I am and what I stand for.

      Grace and peace be with you.

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  5. Joseph,

    From what I’ve read of the comments (and I haven’t read all of them) you haven’t presented an argument directly against the original post. If you did, please repeat it. My post is not a comprehensive defense of sola scriptura. It attempts to show through clarification that one common objection fails. And, to my knowledge, it does not rely on any novel claims. My question is, then, assuming that nothing I’ve presented is novel to sola scriptura and that my assumptions are true, is my argument sound? If so, then the specific objection is defeated. Of course, you can disagree with premises. But my point is that if my argument relies on basic sola scriptura premises, then the objection described in the post is not a problem for sola scriptura. There might be problems with the premises, but those rely on different objections.

    Thanks, by the way, for taking the time to comment. Since I’m in the middle of the end of my semester, I may not have time for any detailed response. I’m overloaded as it is, and this post was somewhat a cut-and-paste from something I actually said to you a while back.

    God bless,

    Stephen

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    1. Hi Stephen. It was really only my first comment that was directed to your original post, and it was more of a question than a solid argument against it. And I understand your busy-ness. I’m at the end of my own semester. What are you studying or teaching?

      In the course of the conversation with John above, I did think of a couple of other things relevant to your argument. To pursue your analogy of military correspondence (as an historian of the American Civil War myself): Yes, of course the collected correspondence of the armies of the Civil War is not infallible, and yes, it’s very much authoritative for historians. But Christians believe — and the doctrine of sola scriptura especially demands — that the Bible is an entirely different sort of collection. Saying the collection itself is not infallible can have all sorts of unintended consequences — not least of which, as I suggested to John above, it admits the possibility that spurious documents were mistakenly collected, that some contents were corrupted, that others were lost. These are all very real problems for documentary historians of military correspondence or any other documentary corpus: We don’t know that what we have of the official correspondence of the armies is complete, or that every element is authentic and unaltered. We always admit the possibility that some document is spurious, or that some lost order or misdirected letter might be located and challenge what we think we know.

      It seems to me that the claims Christians make about Scripture do not admit the possibility of it being an “fallible” collection. Any other documentary historian can make authoritative claims based on the documents we have, on the good-faith belief that they are genuine and complete; but any such claims are always open to question and revision. But when Christians make claims based on Scripture, though, they assume that by virtue of what Scripture itself is, their claims are authoritative on their face. And as I raised in my initial question: If you admit that the collection of Scripture was itself not inspired (that is, not infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit), then you allow the possibility that any member of the canon could not actually be inspired Scripture, that one or more uninspired books could have been mistakenly added or inspired ones left out. This is what I’ve always understood by the claim that the canon is “a fallible list of infallible books,” and it’s always been a bit baffling to me. This isn’t consistent with the type of authority that especially sola scriptura demands Scripture have, or with the claims Christians make about it and from it: That any appeal we make to Scripture rests unquestionably on an infallible authority. And how can a Christian make such a claim, presuming that the book he is appealing to is infallible, without some authoritative basis for claiming that the book is correctly included in the canon of Scripture? What is to keep a Christian today from dismissing any claim made from 2 Peter or Ephesians on the belief that those documents are not inspired, or some Neo-Gnostic from insisting on the authority of the Gospel of Thomas or any other “lost” text, which was incorrectly excluded from the canon of Scripture — if we don’t believe that the canon we have is itself authoritative? How can Scripture itself (let alone “Scripture alone”) be an infallible authority, if any claim we make about the canonicity of any given book is left open to question?

      Grace and peace be with you, Stephen!

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  6. Joseph,

    You acknowledge that you’re Catholic which means, I presume, that you believe what Rome teaches. Including what she teaches about the Bible.

    You claim that Catholicism has nothing to do with the current discussion, that you’re just asking us to validate our claims. But your Catholicism colors your understanding of things. The only good reason to reject our view of the matter would be if the Catholic answer were better. But if it isn’t, we’re “stuck” with a Protestant analysis of things.

    I don’t know enough about you to know for sure if this is what you’re doing, but I’ve known (in the Internet sense) a number of people who are highly intelligent and educated, so that they know all the arguments and counter-arguments, and the result is paralysis of the intellect. They can’t choose what to believe. And so they rely on the Roman Catholic Church to break the logjam. They can know it’s true because Rome says so.

    But then their knowledge is only as good as Rome. In order for Rome to be fully trustworthy, her own self-description has to be true: that she received authority from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, that the Holy Spirit guards her against errors, and so on. But how can you know that all this is true? It seems to me that if the truth of the Bible is doubtful, the truth of Rome is more doubtful. To whom can you look to validate Rome?

    You keep asking “How do you know?” That’s an important question, but it doesn’t have a glib answer. At least not a glib answer that’s valid. Scripture is the Word of God and therefore the highest authority because God inspired it. But divine inspiration is not a public act that can be validated by the usual processes of historical or scientific investigation. The way we can know that Scripture is the Word of God is not something that can be summarized in a simple, emotionally-satisfying way. Yes, we have to rely on the testimony of Christians who have gone before us, but we have to avoid tempting mistakes which most Catholics make:

    We can know that the Bible is the Word of God, not because Rome made it so by its official decrees (as many Catholics seem to believe), nor just because you can believe what Rome says. These mistakes give Rome more power and authority than she really has. Instead, the (lower-case) church has, through the centuries, studied the matter (and not just in the academic sense), and she reports her findings.

    In this respect, the Church is like a scientist rather than a legislature. The Catholic view is that the Church is like a legislature in that it has the authority to make certain documents into Scripture, or at least the authority to require you to believe that the Bible is Scripture. But the correct view is that the church testifies to a reality which she herself did not make, and in this respect she is like a scientist. And just as a scientist cannot validate a theory in a few short sentences, we cannot know that the Bible is true just by citing an authority. The Bible IS true, but there is no simple proof.

    How could it be otherwise? Man cannot validate the Bible by already knowing the truth about everything it says and then checking the Bible to be sure that it didn’t miss anything. And man cannot just have a conversation with God and get it all straightened out. If God inspired Scripture, we cannot just watch it happen and then know that it’s true. And no human authority has the standing to validate such a transcendent fact.

    There is, of course, a wealth of concrete, historical information that bears on the question of the truth of the Bible. But, as there always is, there is also a wealth of information that seems to cast doubt. Therefore the Christian needs faith, the ability to hold on to what he has good reason to believe in the face of the doubts that always arise.

    In the case of the Bible, the seeming weakness of the evidence is, in one sense, easily explained: the passage of time erased many of the details and manuscript copies, so that we are not left with a paper trail that a Twentieth-Century scholar would regard as proving the case beyond any reasonable doubt. But God has left enough evidence that those who have faith can see the working of God despite the many red herrings that are always thrown up.

    PS: About that phrase “fallible collection of infallible books:” I don’t know very much about the reasoning behind the choice of that particular phrase, but I do know this: It doesn’t mean that we’re not sure we have the real Bible. Not being sure we have the real Bible implies logically that we’re not sure that the Bible we have is infallible, which Protestants don’t believe. Therefore Protestants do not believe that there is uncertainty about whether we have the real Bible.

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