Contra Anti-Sola Scriptura Arguments II-The Canon

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will often argue that their position must be correct because, if Scripture is sufficient, how could we know what the canon of scripture is. The problem with this view is manifold, but, we first of all must recognize some theological assumptions the Roman Catholic is making in arguing this point.

First, the assumption is that the canon itself is revelation. This is a huge mistake. The canon is not revelation itself, but it is a function of revelation. As Dr. James White likes to say, it is a “artifact” of revelation[1]. For example, I have written many blog posts and papers, and these consist of the canon of my writings. That canon exists merely because of the fact that I have written some things and not all things. In the same way, the canon of scripture exists because God has inspired some books and not all books. Thus, canon exists because we have inspiration, and is not, itself, revelatory.

However, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox will insist that you need it to be part of the church’s “infallible” revelation in order to know what the canon is. This is an awkward argument for the RC and EO indeed, because the church came into existence at a point in time. Even if they didn’t acknowledge this, it is still rather awkward, considering Jesus completely refuted the idea that the religious leaders of his day were infallible. Hence, the question which must be asked, first made popular by Dr. James White, is how would a Jew living 50 years before the time of Christ would know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were scripture [2]. Jesus very clearly held the Jewish people of his day accountable for knowing what scripture was [Matthew 22:29-33][3]. Yet, this was absolutely impossible given the arguments from RC and EO polemicists.

Worse than that, the documents of the church are far more voluminous than the scriptures, and it is difficult to understand how a RC or EO can say that they have infallible knowledge of all of the documents of their church-the church fathers, the church councils, the magisterium, and, for Roman Catholics, all of the Papal decrees and encyclicals. Also, for RCs, the canon was not dogmatically defined until April of 1546 at the council of Trent. Some RCs will argue that the councils of Rome, Hippo, and Carthage defined the canon, but they were simply provincial councils, and not binding on the whole church. Some RCs will argue that this doesn’t matter, because later Popes ratified these councils making them universally binding upon the church. The problem is that there are things that are found in these councils that are very damaging to the Romanist position, such canon 26 which says, “The bishop of the chief see shall not be called high priest, or chief of the priests, or by any such title [Ne primae sedis episcopus appelletur Summus Sacerdos, aut Princeps sacerdotum, aut ejusmodi aliquid]. If they say the Pope ratified these councils, they will have to say that he also ratified a document destroying the Papacy[4].

Another big problem for the RC appeal to Hippo and Carthage is that they did not have the same canon as Trent. Hippo and Carthage used the Septuagint in the Old Testament while Trent specifically mentions using the Vulgate. While they both cite 1 and 2 Esdras, these books were different between the Septuagint and the Vulgate. In the Septuagint, 1 Esdras consisted of apocryphal additions to Ezra and Nehemiah, while 2 Esdras consisted of Ezra and Nehemiah put together as one book. When Jerome translated the Vulgate, however, he made 1 Esdras the book of Ezra, 2 Esdras the book of Nehemiah, and 3 Esdras apocryphal additions to Ezra and Nehemiah. Hence, when the Council of Trent says that it recognizes the Vulgate books of 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras, it differs from Hippo and Carthage in not also containing 3 Esdras [1 Esdras in the Septuagint][5].

Another problem with the RC and EO view of the canon is the Christological controversies, such as the Arian controversy, were decided on the basis of scripture, but, even if we accept the argument from Rome, Hippo, and Carthage, this is long before the canons of these councils ever came out. For RCs, the problem is even deeper, as Athanasius came to the correct NT canon in his thirty-ninth festal letter long before any council [provincial or otherwise] put out a canon. The problem for the EO is that he did not come up with the same Old Testament canon.

In fact, the whole issue of the inclusion of the Apocrypha is a major problem for both the RC and the EO. William Webster has written an excellent article arguing that the Jews did not accept the apocrypha[6]. He has also pointed in two different articles [here and here] that both from the start of the church age until Jerome[7], and also from Jerome until the time of the Reformation[8], there were multiple church fathers and writers in every century who rejected the apocrypha, including Popes such as Gregory the Great, and even opponents of the Reformation at the time of the Reformation such as Cardinal Cajetan. Also, books such as Roger Beckwith’s The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church[9] goes into great detail in showing that the Jews did not accept the apocrypha as scripture. Hence, a very strong case can be made that the RC and EO canon of the OT is incorrect.

Now, we have shown that both the RC and EO claim to define the canon as being false, but, positively, how do we know what the books of the canon are? I think the answer is God’s covenant relationship with us. God has voluntarily condescended to us, and it is in that condescension that he has led us to the books he wants us to have. It must be stressed that because this is related to his covenant, it is for his purposes, and not the purpose of the church or anyone else. Dr. James White is certainly write when he says, “The foundation of the certainty of our knowledge of the canon is based upon God’s purposes in giving Scripture, not upon the alleged authority of any ecclesiastical body[10].”

In other words, our certainty of the canon is based upon God’s covenant relationship with his people to accomplish his purposes through and in them. Because God has a purpose he wants to accomplish in his people, he has lead his people to have what he wanted them to have. That is something, I would say, that is perfectly Biblical, and does not depend upon vesting some infallibility in the writings of the early church fathers.

[1]White, James R. Scripture Alone. Bethany House Publishers. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2004. pgs.101-103

[2]White, James R. A Response to an “Argument for Infallibility”. Alpha and Omega Ministries. Phoenix, Arizona. 2005-2006. Available at http://vintage.aomin.org/Porvaz.html.

[3]Ibid.

[4]Whitaker, William. Disputations on Holy Scripture. Soli Deo Gloria Publications. Orlando, Florida. 1588, 1849, 2005. p.40

[5]Webster, William. Holy Scripture, The Ground and Pillar of Our Faith; A Historical Defense of the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura. Volume II. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2001. 346-347

[6]Webster, William. The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha. Part 1: The Canon of the Jews. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2009 Available at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/Apocryphapart1.html

[7]Webster, William. The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha. Part 2: The Beginning of the Church Age to Jerome. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2009 Available at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/Apocryphapart2.html

[8]Webster, William. The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha. Part 3: From Jerome to the Reformation. Christian Resources. Battle Ground, Washington. 2009. Available at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/Apocrypha3.html

[9]Beckwith, Roger. The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church. William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1985

[10]White. Scripture Alone, p.107

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