A fallible canon?

I have always been puzzled by a claim I’ve often heard from sola-scripturists: that the canon of Scripture, though constituting the sole infallible rule of faith, was only fallibly established as a canon. The latest instance of an argument for that claim, to be found at the ever-reliable Reformed site Parchment and Pen, only reinforces my puzzlement. I think everybody ought to be puzzled—including and especially philosophers.

All the historical evidence suggests that it took the Church several generations, culminating in the Marcionite crisis of the 140s, to develop something like a fixed, universal canon of both the Old and the New Testaments. The book of Revelation was considered disputable well into the fourth century, and the Orthodox churches even now don’t use it in their liturgies. Moreover, the canon that was fixed juridically by the Council of Nicaea in 325 finally coalesced in the 4th and 5th centuries, yet wasn’t formally defined until the Council of Florence a milllenium later,  contained what later came to be called the “apocrypha” or “deutero-canonical” books, inasmuch as those were included in the Septuagint OT that the New Testament itself quoted. And yet, well over a millennium later, Luther and the Protestant Reformation confidently dropped them from the canon! Now I can understand somebody’s saying that Christians must regard the canon set at Nicaea so developed as an infallible rule of faith because it was effectively endorsed as such by the full, infallible authority of the Church exercised at an ecumenical council. That is essentially St. Augustine’s position, and I would go so far as to argue that it’s logically implied by the teaching of the Catholic Church herself (cf. Dei Verbum, section 10 ff.) I can also understand somebody’s saying that the canon is not an infallible rule of faith, any more than the teaching authority of the Church herself is. That’s what liberal Christians of all churches say. What I have never been able to understand— and which is why I’ve never found conservative Protestantism intellectually plausible—is how one can regard something called “Scripture” as an infallible rule of faith, but not regard any extra-scriptural judgment about what counts as Scripture as itself such a rule, or at least as bolstered by such a rule other than Scripture. Frankly, that position leaves me dumbfounded.

Apparently the author of the Pen-and-Parchment post, C. Michael Patton, is willing to return the compliment. Note first how concludes his post:

Do we have a fallible collection of infallible books? Yes, I believe we do. When all is said and done, all of our beliefs are fallible and therefore subject to error. I am comfortable with this. But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error. We have to appeal to the evidence to decide.

So, it’s always possible that Patton and his co-believers are wrong about the infallibility of Scripture, but not probable. Apparently, he thinks as much because he thinks the only alternative is, well, crazy:

…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:

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…..We have a term that we use for people who require infallible certainty about everything: “mentally ill”…..

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

So here’s Doc Patton’s diagnosis: under the influence of Descartes and the (so-called) Enlightenment, some people have got this crazy idea that one must have “absolute certainty” in order to be “justified” in believing something; therefore, Catholics in particular think we need a source of such certainty beyond our fallible selves, such as “a living infallible authority,” in order to be justified in believing that Scripture is an infallible rule of faith. Now if that were the Catholic argument, it would certainly merit its own entry in the DSM. Although the conclusion follows from the premise, the premise itself is nutty; actually believing it would indeed, as Patton observes, get you into the entertaining mess depicted in the Bill Murray movie What About Bob? But does Patton really expect anybody to believe that adhering to the Catholic conception of infallibility can only be motivated by Bob’s error? At least Jack Chick does Catholics the courtesy of calling them willing instruments of Satan.

The way to knock down this strawman is to invoke an easily made distinction and cite an easily discoverable fact. That will in turn reframe the issue here into something truly interesting, so that I can explain what I find so odd in Patton’s position.

First, nobody believes that, outside purely formal disciplines such as logic or mathematics, “absolute” epistemic certainty can or ought to be attained by human effort. “Absolute” certainty, as Patton uses the term, seems to mean something like “logically immune to doubt,” which would rule out all but logical truths. Even in the philosophy of logic and mathematics, there’s due fudging about what ‘absolute’ might mean in such a context, and I’m not sure what it would mean in any other philosophical context. But the present context is not just any philosophical context.

Theologically, the Catholic Church teaches this about faith:

Since human beings are totally dependent on God as their creator and lord, and created reason is completely subject to uncreated truth, we are obliged to yield to God the revealer full submission of intellect and will by faith. This faith, which is the beginning of human salvation, the catholic church professes to be a supernatural virtue by means of which, with the grace of God inspiring and assisting us, we believe to be true what He has revealed, not because we perceive its intrinsic truth by the natural light of reason, but because of the authority of God himself, who makes the revelation and can neither deceive nor be deceived. (Vatican Council I, Decree De Fide Catholica, Chap. 3)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (¶1814) says: “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself.” Throughout the CCC, such faith is said to bestow “certainty” about this or that matter, such as certainty that God loves us.

Now in DV ¶10, Vatican II says the following about how the content of divine revelation is to be identified (emphasis added):

Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

Therefore, regardless of how certain the certainty of faith is said to be, logically or phenomenologically, neither the content nor the virtue of faith is a product of human effort. It is not human opinion, and so one cannot decide whether to accept the gift of faith by evaluating the content thereof as though it were human opinion. One can only decide to accept the gift of faith by deciding which authorities to accept as that of God. Just what the authorities are for Catholics, and how they are interrelated, has been indicated by the above.

A mistake many people make is to approach the decision of faith just like any other complex epistemic decision.  One gathers the facts as one can, weighs the possibilities and probabilities, and decides, on the basis of some rough-and-ready set of explicit and tacit criteria, what one is justified in believing and how certain one might be justified in being about it. That suffices for scientific investigation and many other common forms of human inquiry. But in matters of faith, it only takes one so far. Ordinary human reasoning and judgment can bring one to the edge of that stream, but it cannot make one drink. The decision of faith can and ought to be reasonable, in the sense of not violating the most basic canons of rationality; but there is no procedure by which one can reliably assess, by reason alone, the relative probability that such-and-such media record or otherwise hand on a definitive revelation by a “God who can no more deceive than be deceived.” If, per impossibile, there were such a procedure, then the assent of “faith” it motivated would not only be one’s mere opinion, ever-revisable in light of further data; it would also be no more than assent to a set of opinions about something called “divine revelation,” not to divine revelation itself.

Now Mr. Patton is quite right in assuming, tacitly, that the question is which authority to accept, such that if we choose to accept it, we are choosing to accept an infallible rule of faith that identifies the content of divine revelation rather than mere human opinion. Where he starts going wrong is by talking as though such a question is to be answered just like any other one posing a complex epistemic challenge. That he presents a form of lunacy as the only alternative to his view is a maneuver which easily turned back by quoting the truth. The inherent problem with Patton’s disturbingly common view is that it renders itself otiose—and that’s the main sign that he’s incorrectly matching methodology to subject matter.

What I mean by “renders itself otiose” can be conveyed by the question: what good is it to say that the Protestant canon is “probably” infallible as a rule of faith? If all one means is that, according to one’s own best judgment, the Protestant biblical canon is an incontestably reliable guide to the content of Christian faith, an unbelieving professor of religious studies could happily say the same. But if one speaks as a believer, the matter is far more difficult. For one thing, the Protestant canon is a truncation of the canon set at Nicaea by the Church prior to Luther. By the Protestant principle itself, Luther was not infallible; so why should his truncated canon be identified as “the” infallible one, as opposed to the traditional one? The only answer I’ve ever heard from sola-scripturists is that Luther had good arguments for excluding from the OT those books which the rabbis excluded at the Council of Javneh (circa 100 CE). But that still leaves us with the fact that one cannot appeal to sola scriptura to decide what belongs in the biblical canon. That decision remains a matter of opinion, which defeats the purpose of citing “Scripture” as an “infallible” rule of faith. If it’s up to some clever scholar to determine what does and does not belong in the canon, of what use is it to have a canon as a rule of faith—never mind a (probably) infallible one.

Now if one wants to say,as a believer, that the Protestant canon is “materially sufficient” for conveying the content of the faith God wants us to have, that can be defended as a theological opinion.  It happens to be an opinion I share. But we’re still just in the realm of opinion. What people like Patton want to say is something stronger: that Scripture alone is the only inerrant rule for identifying the content of the faith God wants us to have. The problem is that if Scripture alone is the only inerrant rule of faith, then the proposition that it is the only inerrant rule of faith is not an inerrant rule of faith, and hence is merely opinion rather than an article of the faith God wants us to have. As such, it signifies a resolution not to accept any extra-scriptural authority, such as Tradition or the Magisterium, as an infallible rule of faith. Famously, there remains no authority to resolve, in a manner commanding the assent of faith, disputes about the interpretation of Scripture. There remain only various proposals and schools of thought for doing so. So even assuming, as does even the Catholic Church (cf. DV ¶11), that Scripture is both divinely inspired and in some sense inerrant, Scripture alone only affords us raw material for developing various opinions about the content of divine revelation. That’s just what the imposing array of Protestant denominations presents to us.

That array is so old and well-established that nobody seems to find it odd anymore. But I find the Pattonesque version of sola scriptura odd in this respect: his pristinely Protestant effort to defend the purity of divine revelation against the arrogance and accretions of fallible men only ends up making it impossible to distinguish between divine revelation and the opinions of fallible men. That’s why he ends up admitting only probabilities not certainties, and thus opinions rather than articles of faith. But that neither illuminates the content nor conveys the joy of the gift of faith. It is the arrogant refusal of fallible men to accept that other men might have been granted a divine power and office that he and those of like mind have not been granted.

63 Responses

  1. Interesting critique.

    So do you believe you have infallible certianly about the Canon of Scripture?

    If not, then are you saying you are just taking the church’s word about it by faith?

  2. Mr Patton:

    So do you believe you have infallible certianly about the Canon of Scripture?

    The phrase “infallible certainty” is ill-formulated and misleading. I am certain that the Nicene Tridentine canon is divinely inspired and inerrant, but I cannot and do not claim infallibility; hence I am not “infallibly” certain. The only people in the Church who can teach infallibly are those who exercise the Magisterium, and only when they do so with their full authority. When a believer assents to what they thus teach, he is believing what God guarantees to be true, and thus what is objectively certain. But there can be degrees of such assent, and thus degrees of subjective certainty. The virtue of faith needs development. The more developed it becomes in a believer by divine grace, the greater the believer’s state of certainty.

    …are you saying you are just taking the church’s word about it by faith?”

    I do take the Church’s word for it. That is essential to the assent of faith as I’ve presented it. And it’s reasonable as well as faithful. On the Catholic understanding, the books comprised by the New Testament was written by men with with divinely given authority over the Church; the question which books do and do not belong in the New Testament was settled by those who inherited the teaching authority of those men, i.e. the bishops. The Old Testament means at least what the apostolic authors of the NT, and their successors the bishops, agree it means. That’s why I reject Marcion and accept the Nicene canon. And that’s why I reject Luther’s approach to Scripture.

    Best,
    Mike

  3. I’s say this is the key claim:

    “…his pristinely Protestant effort to defend the purity of divine revelation against the arrogance and accretions of fallible men only ends up making it impossible to distinguish between divine revelation and the opinions of fallible men. That’s why he ends up admitting only probabilities not certainties, and thus opinions rather than articles of faith.”

    It’s an elegantly retorsive critique, I think.

  4. Over at Parchment and Pen I have asked the question “What arguments count toward the probabilistic judgment that a specific book belongs to the canon of Scripture but others do not?” I restricted my brief discussion to the status of the deutero-canonical books, because the Protestant position seems to me to be particularly vulnerable here; but the question can be raised about all the books of Scripture.

    I find it difficult to specify compelling reasons why any specific book should be ultimately accepted as canonical apart from the testimony, experience, and judgment of the community of faith. It’s not as if a book called the Bible dropped from Heaven. We are neither Muslims nor Mormons. The divine authorship of the biblical writings is not obvious. Perhaps in an earlier day one could argue, e.g., that the writings of the Pentateuch are canonical because they were written by Moses, but this position can no longer be considered plausible in light of critical historical research. Similarly, in an earlier day one could argue that the Letter to the Hebrews is canonical because it was written by the Apostle Paul, but no one believes his anymore. So why should Hebrews be considered as Scripture?

    It’s all well and good to say that we do no need to know with absolute certitude which books are canonical. But what I want to know is whether we can even have, on the basis of Protestant principles, any kind of probable certitude (please correct my language) that any specific book of the accepted canon is truly inspired by God and therefore authentically biblical.

  5. I think it can be argued that there is good reason to reject this position from a Protestant position, as well. As Patton notes in the post, this is a very recent view; the traditional view is that the canon of Scripture is determined by the infallible authority of the Holy Spirit, which one encounters in the self-authentication of Scripture (and they would, of course, have also distinguished objective from subjective certainty). The ‘fallible canon of infallible books’ idea removes the Spirit from the picture. On the traditional view, the question of sola scriptura is simply a question of the mode in which the Holy Spirit exercises His authority to teach and guide; sola scriptura becomes important as a Protestant distinctive not merely because it opposes the Catholic view of the Church but because it does so in a way that nonetheless highlights in a clear way the centrality of the Holy Spirit to the Church (the infallibility of Scripture is the infallibility of the Spirit who gives it to the Church) while at the same time emphasizing the superiority of the Holy Spirit . This is a powerful and clever position from which to argue; indeed, I think many Catholics criticizing sola scriptura take this too little into account, and thus, instead of putting the dispute where it should be (the work of the Holy Spirit) end up with unnecessary tangles and positions about the role of Scripture that are dubious even on Catholic principles. The ‘fallible canon’ view, however, by making the canon a matter of human judgment rather than a gift of the Spirit to the Church, puts the Holy Spirit at far distant remove from the working of the Church. It also seems to conflate objective certainty with subjective certainty; which is a deviation from traditional Protestant as well as Catholic views of infallibility.

  6. I agree Brandon. I’m not an expert, but I think Calvin in particular emphasises that the Holy Spirit gives us certitude about the meaning of Scripture.

    At least since Colin Gunton, or the late great Lesslie Newbegin, it has been a fashion in some Protestant circles to blame Descartes and the enlightenment for all modern ills. But the notion of certitude as imparted directly by the Holy Spirit is in Calvin. I would bet that its also there throughout the Protestant scholastics like Turretin.

  7. I agree, Brandon. Calvin’s position was powerfully restated in the 20th century by Karl Barth, who declared that the canon imposed, and imposes, itself upon the Church.

  8. Brandon and Francesca:

    The “traditional” argument for sola scriptura that you cite is indeed one argument that I’ve encountered. I first encountered it in reading Calvin’s Institutes. But I must say that I’ve never understood it either.

    The Catholic Church agrees that, in Brandon’s words, “the canon of Scripture is determined by the infallible authority of the Holy Spirit.” But on the Catholic picture, this authority is manifest in the Church’s using a rule of faith beyond that of Scripture in forming the New Testament canon. The real dispute, then, is about whether Scripture is instead “self-authenticating,” in such a fashion that not only all but only the biblical canon is to be seen as an infallible rule of faith given by the Holy Spirit.

    The weakness of the more traditional Reformed view, it seems to me, arises from the fact that one cannot rely on it alone to resolve any doctrinally significant dispute about how Scripture is to be interpreted. By its own showing, Scripture is self-authenticating in the desired way only to those who interpret it rightly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But at some point, one needs an appeal to something other than than the text itself to determine who is interpreting it rightly. So if the interpretation of of Scripture is thus not self-authenticating, it’s hard to see why the canon as such is self-authenticating as the only infallible rule of faith.

    Best,
    Mike

  9. “What is any man who has
    been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the
    everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the
    Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost
    arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense. The
    ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the
    supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a
    procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their
    object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high
    head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying
    scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and
    lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or
    cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all
    hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation,
    breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up
    the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might
    express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your
    croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls
    and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.” But in what conceivable
    frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the
    scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always
    belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was
    hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say
    that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only
    truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why
    should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the
    statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as
    reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of
    that particular creed? To say to the priests, “Your statues and
    scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say,
    “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to
    worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not
    sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the
    street.”

    –– G. K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion, chapter II.

  10. “Moreover, the canon that was fixed juridically by the Council of Nicaea in 325 contained what later came to be called the “apocrypha” or “deutero-canonical” books, inasmuch as those were included in the Septuagint OT that the New Testament itself quoted. And yet, well over a millennium later, Luther and the Protestant Reformation confidently dropped them from the canon! ”

    I keep seeing online claims that “the Council of Nicaea” was responsible for “fixing” the Canon of Scripture, but I have never seen any historical evidence of this. Albert Sundberg, in his *The Old Testament Canon of the Early Church* (1964) makes no mention of any role of the Council of Nicaea in determining the Canon of Scripture, and a quick look through the chapter on Nicaea I in *The Church of the Ancient Councils* by Archbishop Peter L’Huillier (1996) contains no mention of ant such activity on the part of that council.

    On the other hand, for a council that played so important a role it is surprising how much of its records never survived. We have its Creed (not our “Nicene Creed,” which was a revision of 381, but the earlier version) and its 20 canons, but we don’t have its decrees regarding keeping Easter on Sunday or tying the 40-day Lenten fast to preceding Easter (rather than following on Epiphany), so perhaps it may have made a determination in that area — or it may be a later fiction, such as that about how Bishop Pachomius dissuaded the council fro requiring clerical celibacy. My own reading seems to indicate that the “Christian Canon of Scripture” was determined by a series of local councils, in the East and in the West (but with most of them in the West) between the early 380s and the early 420s, in Rome, Hippo, Carthage and again Rome — but that there was no “fixing” of the canon by any authority recognized as “ecumenical” until (for Catholics) the Council of Florence in 1441 and the Council of Trent in 1547; and perhaps never so “fixed” by and for the Orthodox (although the Council of Jerusalem of 1673, traditionally recognized by many if not most Orthodox authorities as “quasi-ecumenical,” but now dismissed by some more neoteric Orthodox thinkers as part of that “Western captivity of Orthodoxy” that they so deplore, gave formal recognition to the same Canon of Scripture as that of the Catholic Church). Martin Hengel (a German Lutheran scholar) in his *The Septuagint as Christian Scripture* (T & T Clark, 2002, 2004) makes the assertion towards the end of the book that the Orthodox “now” reject the deuterocanonical books and agree with Protestants on the Canon of Scripture, and cites in support of this some remarkably equivocating recent statements from Orthodox theologians and hierarchs. I wonder how representative the views expressed in these really are.

  11. Dr. Liccione,

    Why weren’t all the books of the LXX accepted as part of Scripture by the Catholic Church then but only a certain of them?

    Also, why not books such as the Didache which were of notable import in the early church?

  12. William Tighe wrote:

    “My own reading seems to indicate that the “Christian Canon of Scripture” was determined by a series of local councils, in the East and in the West (but with most of them in the West) between the early 380s and the early 420s, in Rome, Hippo, Carthage and again Rome — but that there was no “fixing” of the canon by any authority recognized as “ecumenical” until (for Catholics) the Council of Florence in 1441 and the Council of Trent in 1547;”

    Like William, I have never seen any evidence that the Council of Nicaea formulated the canon. I also agree with his comments concerning the Councils of Rome, Hippo and Carthage.

    However, I do believe the Seventh Ecumenical Council implicitly reconfirmed the biblical canon they codified, when it confirmed all the canons of the local Councils.

    From the Canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

    ANCIENT EPITOME OF CANON I.

    We gladly embrace the Divine Canons, viz.: those of the Holy Apostles, of the Six Ecumenical Synods, as also of the local synods and of our Holy Fathers, as inspired by one and the same Holy Spirit…

    Pax,
    John

  13. A broader question would be the very possibility of sola scriptura, at least as it’s popularly understood. Putting aside the issue of the canon, do those who subscribe to the principle really derive all doctrine from scripture alone? Is it even possible to do theology without a tradition of some kind? I think that the issue is over-simplified, that, in fact, protestantism only shifts the accepted authority away from a particular institution.

  14. Most Protestant groups accept that the Scriptures must be filtered through the ‘Confession’ of Faith or the Articles of their group. EG, the Westminister Confession of Faith. They call these ‘subordinate standards.’ Their beef is not having some ‘standard’ through which the group as a whole must interpret Scripture, but, as they understand it, elevating the standard above Scripture. Whatever the cogency of that position, the view of any large and long standing Protestant group is never simply ‘sola scriptura’.

  15. Francesca:

    Their beef is not having some ’standard’ through which the group as a whole must interpret Scripture, but, as they understand it, elevating the standard above Scripture.

    In that case, their beef is more with liberal Protestants than with Catholics. Cf. the statements I quoted from Dei Verbum.

    Best,
    Mike

  16. In that case, their beef is more with liberal Protestants than with Catholics.

    Perhaps not precisely. They think they are arguing with someone who raises a ‘standard’ – eg a dogma, a doctrine, a creed – above the Scriptures. They think that’s what Catholics do. But the Church as Catholics understand it is not precisely a ‘standard’ in that sense. Maybe it can be reduced to that if one analyses it down in philosophical terms – and perhaps the arguments at the Reformation were conducted in such terms. But in reality the Church is not an abstract ‘standard’ like a creed, it’s a thing, or perhaps in strong theological terms, a person. The Catholic theologian sees their exegesis of Scripture as ‘participating’ in this ‘person,’ not as subordinating itself to an abstract standard or line of credal thinking.

    On the Nicaea question, I’ve never read in a book that it set the canon. When I read it here, I assumed someone just knew something I didn’t, until William Tighe’s comment reminded me that it goes against any of the little I know about either Nicaea or the formation of the canon. I took a look at my notes from a book by Metzger on the formation of the canon, and he speaks of a series of ‘Festal Letters,’ eg one in 367 by Athanasius, which lists 26 canonical books, and another by Greg of Nyssa a bit later, which slightly disagrees with the number and content. I’d always assumed the canon fell together by a sort of ‘consensus episcopi’, not by ecumenical degree – until way after it was all there anyway, eg Florence.

  17. Francesca,

    In light of your comments, does this mean the various details reported in the following link are actually false?

    Major Church Pronouncements on the Bible

  18. Dr Tighe, Francesca, et al:

    I have done my own little research and find no record of the Council of Nicaea’s have explicitly “fixed” the canon of Scripture. I must concede that my assertion to that it did was made because I shared belief in something that “everybody knows” but, oddly enough, isn’t true.

    I shall revise the post accordingly.

    Best,
    Mike

  19. Ok, hold on folks —

    Dr. Liccione,

    Given what’s been related by Dr. Tighe, what manner of significance would this statement carry:

    “And yet, well over a millennium later, Luther and the Protestant Reformation confidently dropped them from the canon!”

    From the way things are being presented here subsequently, other than having defied the Canon decided at Florence, what wrong did Luther really commit in his abridged version of the Canon?

    I guess what I am now wanting to understand is if the Canon was decided willy-nilly in such manner (at least, that is the impression I’m getting from Francesca’s comments); canons which seem like the result of an iterative process whose consensus appear rather arbitrary based on the aforementioned reported facts; was there a wrong that was actually committed here by Luther?

  20. SP:

    The canon had been settled by Tradition for a millennium. Florence didn’t create the canon; it merely verified it formally. Luther broke with Tradition as well as defying the Magisterium. He had no authority, beyond his own opinions, for doing so. That’s why he grasped at sola scriptura, as he understood the denotation of the word scriptura. It was the only authority left for him to appeal to.

    Best,
    Mike

  21. Well, yes, unless somehow you accept Luther as an oracle. Luther’s views first emerged when, in the Leipzig Disputation of 1519, on the basis that those who are saved are saved by “faith alone” he denied the existence of Purgatory and the efficacy of prayer for the dead, and his opponent, Johann Meier of Eck, confronted him with 2 Maccabees 12: 39-45, he replied that he did not accept that book and others as Holy Scripture, and cited Jerome as his authority. Later Lutherans, although they continued to print the deuterocanonical books in their bibles and described them as “good to read” for edifying examples but not for doctrine, took up the principle that no “doubtful” book was to be used as a source of doctrine.

    The problems with such an attitude are twofold. First, we know why Jerome rejected the deuterocanonical books. He believed that only those books included in the Jewish Canon had been written in Hebrew (all of the others had, he thought, been written in Greek or Aramaic) and that only those books written in Hebrew were “inspired” — but we now know that the former assertion is false and that the latter was a notion unique to Jerome himself. Secondly, if “doubtful” books are to be excluded, then we should also exclude the Book of Revelation, the Letter to the Hebrews and II and II John from the NT as they did not appear consistently on earlier canonical lists, and Revelation and Hebrews, in particular, only made it securely into the NT thanks to those very same local councils in the period from ca. 380 to ca. 420 that gave us the Christian OT Canon.

  22. But what assurance do we have that the Canon we subscribe to contains all the books that should be regarded as Scripture?

    Could it be possible that there are certain books that should be considered that are not?

    I mean, why did the early church only select some books in the Septuagint while rejecting others?

    What makes 2 Maccabees considered as part of Scripture while 3 Maccabees isn’t?

  23. The meaning of “canon” is “rule” and in origin it was simply those books which the Church authorities deemed suitable to be read in churches, because of (a) their alleged apostolic authorship, (b) their compatibility with the “rule of faith” embraced by the Churches (i.e., their conformity with traditional orthodoxy) and (c) their widespread use. Other Christian writings (except the clearly heretical) might well be “inspired,” but that in itself gave them no ecclesiastical authority.

    That being the case, I cannot see any coherent meaning to the “should be” in your first two sentences, since there was (and so far as I can see is) no authority other than that of the Church itself to determine which books “should be” regarded as Scripture.

  24. I confess that I have been surprised to learn of the disagreements between Eastern Orthodox theologians on the canonical status of the deuter-canonical books. I knew that the accepted Orthodox canon differs from the RC canon on a couple of books, but I did not realize that some Orthodox theologians, past and present, really do appear to prefer the “Hebrew” canon. For example, Fr John Meyendorff:

    ‘The Christian East took a longer time than the West in settling on an agreed canon of Scripture. The principal hesitations concerned the books of the Old Testament which are not contained in the Hebrew Canon (“shorter” canon) and the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Fourth-century conciliar and patristic authorities in the East differ in their attitude concerning the exact authority of Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Esther, Judith, and Tobit. Athanasius in his famous Paschal Letter 39 excludes them from Scripture proper, but considers them useful for catechumens, an opinion which he shares with Cyril of Jerusalem. Canon 60 of the Council of Laodicea–whether authentic or not–also reflects the tradition of a “shorter” canon. But the Quinisext Council (692) endorses the authority of Apostolic Canon 85, which admits some books of the “longer” canon, including even 3 Maccabees, but omits Wisdom, Tobit, and Judith. John of Damascus († ca. 753), however, considers Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus as “admirable,” yet fails to include them in the canon. Therefore, in spite of the fact that Byzantine patristic and ecclesiastical tradition almost exclusively uses the Septuagint as the standard Biblical text, and that parts of the “longer” canon–especially Wisdom–are of frequent liturgical use, Byzantine theologians remain faithful to a “Hebrew” criterion for Old Testament literature, which excludes texts originally composed in Greek. Modern Orthodox theology is consistent with this unresolved polarity when it distinguishes between “canonical” and “deuterocanonical” literature of the Old Testament, applying the first term only to the books of the “shorter” canon.’ (Byzantine Theology, p. 7)

    On the other hand, one can also cite Orthodox theologians and authorities who insist that the deutero-canonical books are fully inspired and authoritative. Thus, e.g., the Council of Jersualem (1672):

    ‘Following the rule of the Catholic Church, we call Sacred Scripture all those which Cyril [Lucaris] collected from the Synod of Laodicea, and enumerated, adding to Scripture those which he foolishly and ignorantly, or rather maliciously, called Apocrypha; specifically, “The Wisdom of Solomon,” “Judith,” “Tobit,” “The History of the Dragon” [Bel and the Dragon], “The History of Susanna,” “The Maccabees,” and “The Wisdom of Sirach.” For we judge these also to be with the other genuine Books of Divine Scripture genuine parts of Scripture. For ancient custom, or rather the Catholic Church, which has delivered to us as genuine the Sacred Gospels and the other Books of Scripture, has undoubtedly delivered these also as parts of Scripture, and the denial of these is the rejection of those. And if, perhaps, it seems that not always have all of these been considered on the same level as the others, yet nevertheless these also have been counted and reckoned with the rest of Scripture, both by Synods and by many of the most ancient and eminent Theologians of the Catholic Church. All of these we also judge to be Canonical Books, and confess them to be Sacred Scripture.’

    We find this position re-stated over at the OCA website:

    From the website of the Orthodox Church in America:

    QUESTION:

    What is the position of the Orthodox Church regarding the books that the Protestant churches refer to as the Apocrypha? Maccabees, Tobit, Ecclesiasticus, etc.

    ANSWER:

    The Old Testament books to which you refer — known in the Orthodox Church as the “longer canon” rather than the “Apocrypha,” as they are known among the Protestants — are accepted by Orthodox Christianity as canonical scripture. These particular books are found only in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, but not in the Hebrew texts of the rabbis.

    These books — Tobit, Judah, more chapters of Esther and Daniel, the Books of Maccabees, the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, the Book of Sirach, the Prophecy of Baruch, and the Prayer of Manasseh — are considered by the Orthodox to be fully part of the Old testament because they are part of the longer canon that was accepted from the beginning by the early Church.

    Given the absence of authoritative ecclesial Eastern pronouncements on this matter–though the Jerusalem synod was certainly understood for several centuries as carrying great authoritative weight–it may be difficult to pin the Orthodox down.

    For apologetic purposes I would certainly prefer to claim that both East and West, while perhaps disagreement about whether specific “apocryphal” books should be included in the canon, agreed that at least some of them. But apparently this is too strong a claim and I must modify some of the claims I have made over the past couple of days.

    But what does Eastern disagreement on the status of the deuterocanonical mean for the the assertion that he is happy to live with a fallible but probable canon. I again I ask, what considerations count toward judgments of probability in this matter. Why should doubts among some Eastern Christians about the Septuagint outweigh the much stronger judgments and authoritative decisions found early on in the Western Church? Even St Jerome eventually modified his preference for the Hebrew canon, submitting himself, as he says, to the “judgment of the Churches.”

    I am waitingfor someone, either here or over at P&P, to provide strong evidentially claims to support the claim that the books of the Protestant Old Testament are most likely “divine inspired” and authoritative, but that the deutero-canonical books are not. If probably canon is sufficient, then please at least give me grounds by which to be persuaded.

  25. Brandon,

    I agree with your point that this is the newer view of the canon, but interestingly enough, it is based on the same fundamental Protestant belief of the absolute wall of separation between divine and human activity. In the Protestant mind, something must be either from God or from man. On the old view of the canon, scripture was infallible and was therefore from the Holy Spirit; on the newer view, the scripture is collected by men so it must be fallible. The old view saw the canon as divine and therefore not human, the new one sees it as human and therefore not divine. Mike spoke to this in the last sentence of his post.

  26. That’s one really smart Thomist

  27. I’m not fond of mantras like “inerrant in the original autographa”. As if Luke was incapable of a spelling mistake. I’m not happy with “fallible collection of infallible books” – it really is an admission that traditional conservative evangelical concepts of Scripture won’t stand. That doesn’t leave me with a liberal or neo-orthodox view. It just means that I have to ease up on the slogans.
    That said, the doctrine of “a fallible collection of infallible books” seems to concede that Protestants may have left infallible books outside their canon. I’m happy to concede the possibility. I’ll lose sleep when someone shows me what parts of the Westminster Confession are to be doubted as a result.
    Scripture cannot get it’s authority from the community of faith. When Jeremiah or Isaiah, or our Saviour spoke, the community of faith often didn’t listen. Yet what they said had authority. What they said would have had authority if no-one had ever listened (which is surely a logical possibility. Who listened to Noah?) And authority, not a list of books suitable for reading in Church, is at the centre of the disagreement.
    What grounds the authority of Scripture? For one thing the witness of the apostles and the Lord. We can lay aside the issue of inspiration, and conclude that as a matter of history the founders of the faith took Scripture as God’s words (Romans 9v25; Matt 19 v5). And surely we have good reason to accept the authority of Jesus Chist and this apostle.
    The experience of an individual can reveal the authority of Scripture (if you don’t like the idea of individuals, substitute isolated community. But the Word of the Lord did come to many individuals in Scripture). We come with questions to Paul and Jeremiah – who are we? what am I to do? And if they have the solutions, their answers become our answers.
    Furthermore God does much more than reveal truths about himself in Scripture. He acts – by giving commands, by reasoning, by guiding etc. An immediate response is required. There is an immediate claim to authority. I don’t see how a council can add anything to that authority. It can simply acknowledge that it recognises it.
    In other words, once we realise that Scripture is more than a source-book for Systematic Theology, Ethics and Ecclesiastical policy, the need for the authority of councils seems radically reduced.
    As for the need for an authority outside the text to determine doctrine – who interprets that authority? This is a serious issue, and not only post Vatican2. We’ll ignore the infinite regress that threatens – but I will note that the regress is only stopped by an exercise of ecclesiastical power. But I would like to know why, (outside the threat of excommunication or getting fired from your seminary), anyone who does not listen to the prophets will listen to the bishops.
    And there is a bewildering diversity in Roman Catholicism. I now find myself with more in common with Peter Kreeft or Paul Vitz than I do with the Archbishop of Canterbury. But a brief read of the English Roman Catholic periodical “The Tablet” reveals that many leading English Catholics find Vitz and Kreeft deeply embarrassing. Their sympathies lie with Rowan the “woolly liberal”.
    Of course the problem comes when Scripture and Ecclesiastical authority collide. The question was not Luther’s authority, but which authority he should listen to. As Euan Cameron has cogently argued in “the European Reformation” moral reform within the Church was impossible whilst the Church hierarchy controlled access to the sacraments, (and by implication, salvation). It was either a new view of authority and greater clarity about the Gospel, or no reform.
    Much more can, and should be said. But three points should be clear (1) The authority of the Scriptures can be inferred, or simply recognised, without any need to invoke Church Councils (2) The teachings of Christ, Paul, and the Law and the Prophets witnessed to by both, can be settled on as authoritative for the Church. This can then be used as a guide to discerning God’ Word in other writings (3) Given that there is a stable core, (slight) doubts over the precise extent of the canon should not trouble an evangelical any more than the elusiveness of the original autographa.

    Graham Veale

  28. “The canon had been settled by Tradition for a millennium. Florence didn’t create the canon; it merely verified it formally.”

    Well what “Tradition” ? Major ecclesiastical writers disagreed on what the extent of the canon was prior to and after the Western local councils (which is not the same list to Florence and Trent anyway). Other major ecclesiastical writers in the western church did not agree on the status of the deuterocanonical books all the way up to the Reformation including Cardinal Cajetan. Luther’s exlcusion of them is not all that revolutionary.

    Photios

  29. As a counter to Thomists view of the sharp dichotomy between divine and human action, I would recommend Vern Poythress’ essay “What does God say through Human Author’s”, and Kevin Vanhoozer’s “God Mighty Speech Acts: The Doctrine of Scripture Today”. I’m searching to see if they are available online.

    But I’m pretty sure I’m a Protestant, and I don’t recognise the flaw. Perhaps Thom is getting us mixed up with Muslims…

    Graham

    Graham Veale

  30. In answer to SP’s question – I don’t look at websites, I just ask Protestant theologians. I asked four Protestant theologians this morning if they believe in strictly subordinate standards, and all said yes, all of them emphasizing that the standards in question help one to elucidate what is already there in Scripture and that the standards are ancillary.

    One added,

    to your question: last sunday morning the church we attend in stonehaven hosted a family service with a break dancer and a guy from london who led the assembly in singing “okey dokey, hokey cokey, i will praise you karaoke”.

  31. Graham:

    As your comment ranges widely, I cannot do justice to your every point. But before I address the three points you make in your last paragraph, allow me to respond to your point about the “bewildering diversity” in Catholicism (you cite the Tablet crowd; in the US, it’s the National Catholic Reporter crowd).

    The Catholic Church is huge and membership in her is voluntary. She can no longer enforce conformity on the vast majority of her members; she cannot even enforce it consistently on priests and religious. And so, in an age such as ours, there just are going to be a lot of Catholics who pick-and-choose which Church teachings they will accept; and because the world hates the Church, they will always have a platform. The ancient Greek term for picking-and-choosing is haeresis, meaning “choice”; the transliteration of that term is ‘heresy’. De facto or material heresy is accordingly rampant in the Catholic Church. But that does not in the least affect the question whether the Magisterium of the Church actually possesses the authority it claims (as described, for example, in the quote from DV ¶10 I offered in my post). All it means is that many people who are (formally) Catholic nontheless (materially) reject that authority. In the US, orthodox Catholics sometimes call such people CINOs: Catholic in name only. As an orthodox Catholic, I believe the Magisterium actually has the authority she claims. But we recognize that the Church lacks the power to force most Catholics to give even lip service to it.

    That said, you make three points:

    (1) The authority of the Scriptures can be inferred, or simply recognised, without any need to invoke Church Councils (2) The teachings of Christ, Paul, and the Law and the Prophets witnessed to by both, can be settled on as authoritative for the Church. This can then be used as a guide to discerning God’ Word in other writings (3) Given that there is a stable core, (slight) doubts over the precise extent of the canon should not trouble an evangelical any more than the elusiveness of the original autographa.

    As to (1), I happily concede that the overall truth of Scripture—in some sense of “overall” and regardless of quibbles about the canon—can be recognized without recourse to any specific exercise of ecclesiastical authority. Countless people have been palpably moved to faith, repentance, and greater insight just by reading Scripture. But it does not follow that the unique authority of Scripture as the Word of God can be so recognized. To get that far, you need two further premises: (a) the truth revealed to us in Jesus Christ, whatever that may be, is to be identified by authentically “apostolic” witness; and (b) the NT actually provides that witness in a different and greater way than other writings purporting to be “apostolic” in either authorship or authority. Neither (a) and (b) can be logically established by Scripture even if, psychologically, the experience of reading Scripture disposes one to believe them. To get (a) and (b), one needs to rely on Tradition, which is both older and bigger than the NT canon that took the Church several generations to get clear about. To rely on Tradition is to rely on that Church of which Tradition is the tradition. The role of the Church’s general councils in this regard is simply to clarify and codify one tradition belonging to Tradition. That is necessary only when there is dispute. But usually there will be dispute, as the examples of Jerome and Luther make clear.

    As to (2), the Catholic Church agrees; see. again, ¶DV 10 above. But it must be stressed that, on the Catholic understanding, those who “settle on” the canon as “authoritative” are not just any individuals, but only those with divinely given teaching authority in the Church, i.e. the bishops. No Joseph Smiths, no Elaine Pagels. The Church cannot leave it up to individuals without authority to decide what writings will guide her confession.

    As to (3), then, “doubts over the precise extent of the canon” become relevant when one has no authority, other than that of individuals or isolated communities, to determine what the canon is. If one can be wrong about what is and is not canon, why can’t one be wrong about the basic principles motivating the formation even of the canon one recognizes as such? Without Tradition and a magisterium, all one has is the opinions of some people over against others.

    Best,
    Mike

  32. Graham:

    I overlooked another point of yours that I’ve often dealt with before:

    As for the need for an authority outside the text to determine doctrine – who interprets that authority? This is a serious issue, and not only post Vatican2. We’ll ignore the infinite regress that threatens – but I will note that the regress is only stopped by an exercise of ecclesiastical power. But I would like to know why, (outside the threat of excommunication or getting fired from your seminary), anyone who does not listen to the prophets will listen to the bishops.

    I can’t help finding the formulation of your question problematic. Given its self-understanding, the “authority” in question is not “outside the text,” if by that you mean that the text gives no warrant for believing there to be such an authority. The episcopate of the Catholic Church claims that it exercises the same degree of authority that Paul did in writing letters to various churches, (which comprise over 2/3 of the NT) and that all the apostles, led by Peter, were shown in the NT to be exercising. Now if that claim is true, then said authority is needed to resolve disputes about the interpretation of the text. The text itself does not suffice to do so.

    As to who “interprets the authority” itself, there is no infinite regress. Catholics are free to interpret the Magisterium’s pronouncements in any manner that is logically consistent with those pronouncements. In some cases the conditions on consistency will be clear; in some, not. When a dispute of that sort arises and becomes sufficiently serious, the Magisterium itself will settle it. Both the development and the assimilation of doctrine are ongoing. Only those formulations endorsed by the Church’s full authority are immune to negation.

    Best,
    Mike

  33. Michael
    Thankyou for the very swift reply. I want to mull over your response to point (1) in particular, before coming back to the three points in my last paragraph. It is very refreshing to get solid food for thought from a blog!
    However, I’d like to ask a few questions about the Cinos. Surely they don’t include Peter Kreeft and Paul Vitz? Yet I’ve known some Northern Irish priests to get very grumpy over their views of the Gospel. And I would find Peter Kreeft’s views on the gospel a little difficult to reconcile with Avery Cardinal Dulles’ essay “Who Can be Saved?” in First Things.
    Now I’m very uncomfortable with Dulles’ essay. I’m very comfortable with Kreefts’ sermons and essays. Both are more than CINO’s. And the nature of the Gospel – or at least personal salvation – seems an important issue, to my mind at least.
    For a Northen Irish evangelical it all gets rather confusing and disorienting. I’m more at home with some Roman Catholics on “the preaching of the gospel” than I am with many Protestant leaders. I disagree with some Roman Catholics as they lean towards universalism; others because, in practice, they downgrade the need for personal trust in Christ.
    Whatever else the magisterium is achieving, it isn’t achieving unity and clarity amongst theologically informed Roman Catholics on a central issue. Some see personal trust in Christ as vital, others – well others aren’t so clear.
    So I don’t think theological diversity can be put down to modern times and postmodern sensibilities; and in any case, the diversity among faithful Western Catholics just prior to the Reformation was just as bewildering. I’m not sure that we should be looking to the magisterium as the solution to doctrinal dispute. A lot would depend on how much unity was achieved post-Trent. That’s an historical question I’ll let others examine.
    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Graham

  34. […] and in light of the revision yet another part is being questioned. Anyway, here is the link: A Fallible Canon? Published […]

  35. Graham:

    Since you asked about “CINOs,” I thought I should answer from a rather uncontroversial standpoint while you ponder the larger issues.

    There has always been diversity of theological opinion in the Catholic Church. I believe that to be not only legitimate but healthy. What is not legitimate, even when it occasions good responses, is the sort of diversity in which some deny, or affirm theses which entail denying, that which the Church has taught with her full authority and thus infallibly. When the “extraordinary” magisterium defines doctrine as dogma, that is an exercise of the Church’s full teaching authority; when a pope unilaterally defines a dogma, which is far rarer than conciliar definitions, that is an exercise of the Church’s full teaching authority. “Diversity” which does not remain within the ambit of orthodoxy so understood is illegitimate. But that still leaves much scope for theological diversity.

    In particular, there is considerable dispute among Catholic theologians about just how to distinguish fallible from infallible teachings of the “ordinary and universal magisteriium” of the bishops. What the present and the previous pope have tried to reinforce is the idea that it is within the authority of the papal magisterium to settle such questions, short of dogmatic definition, when it sees fit to do so. That’s what John Paul II did in the case of women’s ordination, and that’s what I believe Benedict XVI ought to do in the case of birth control.

    I don’t believe any serious Catholic theologian would deny that personal trust in Christ is important for those who have truly heard the Gospel. At least I’ve never encountered one who denies it even de facto. I do think many Catholic theologians of the right and the left fail to emphasize such personal trust enough. That’s an occupational hazard of intellectuals, I should think.

    As for universalism, a distinction is in order. It is quite consistent with Catholic doctrine to hold that it is possible everybody will, in the end, be saved. That is because the Church teaches that Christ died for all people and loves us each of us that much. But most Catholic theologians believe it is inconsistent with the Gospel to hold that it is likely everybody will be saved. Jesus doesn’t talk as though it’s likely, and there seems to be no limit to human perversity in rejecting God’s love.

    Best,
    Mike

  36. Mr Veale,

    So you are admitting that one and the same action can be both human and divine? Say, that a man, acting by his human will, can forgive sins, merit his own salvation, or render an infallible judgment?

  37. I thought, there’s an easy one for me to answer, then I saw Mike L had done it already. Graham feels comfortable with Kreeft but not with Cardinal Dulles. 120 years ago, Graham might have, for instance, felt comfortable with Manning but not Newman. In the 13th century, you might have felt more comfortable with Thomas than Bonaventure. These are differences in theology, sometimes based philosophica differences and sometimes also based in differences in spirituality. Since all those people aim to show that their theology is based in authoritative magisterial teaching, there is no fundamental difference in doctrine between them. Theological, philosophical and spiritual differences are not the same as doctrinal differences. There is one Catholic doctrine, but many theologies which articulate it in different ways.

    If I may put it like this, I think Protestants are prone to seeing doctrinal differences amongst RC theologians where there are only theological or philosophical differences, because the leaders of the Protestant churches are theologians (that’s why I think I can ask four Protestant theologians, and arrive at *the* Protestant attitude to subordinate standards), whereas the leaders of the RC church are the Bps speaking together in ecumenical councils & the Bp of Rome. From a Protestant perspective, it’s easy to imagine one can look at what any RC theologian is saying, and see Catholic ‘doctrine’. But the only representatives of RC doctrine as such are the Bps at ecumenical councils & the Bp of Rome.

    It was very enlightening to me once when an elderly Dominican said that all the Reformers were guys with doctorates, intellectuals. It made me understand, amongst other things, why some Protestants have the – to me – maddening habit of referring to eg Rahner’s idea of anonymous Christians as ‘the Catholic position on the relation of Christianity to non-Christian religions’.

  38. Francesca,

    “In answer to SP’s question – I don’t look at websites, I just ask Protestant theologians. I asked four Protestant theologians this morning if they believe in strictly subordinate standards, and all said yes, all of them emphasizing that the standards in question help one to elucidate what is already there in Scripture and that the standards are ancillary.”

    Apparantly, you didn’t visit the website I alluded to in my comments; worse yet, did not understand the question I was asking.

    According to that website, the following timeline is presented:

    Pentecost (30/33AD)
    The beginning of the Church; the Church exists before a determination of a canon or a definitive list of books of what was later called the Bible. The NT was not even written yet.

    Melito, Bishop of Sardis (c. 170)
    Produced the first known Christian attempt at an Old Testament canon. His list maintains the Septuagint order of books but contains only the Old Testament protocanonicals minus the Book of Esther.

    Council of Laodicea (c. 360)
    A local council of the church in union with Rome produced a list of books of the Bible similar to the Council of Trent’s canon. This was one of the Church’s earliest decisions on a canon.

    Council of Rome (382)
    Local church council under the authority of Pope Damasus, (366-384) gave a complete list of canonical books of the OT and NT which is identical with the list later approved by the Council of Trent.

    Council of Hippo (393)
    Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)

    Council of Carthage (397)
    Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)

    Pope Innocent I, Bishop of Rome, 401-417 (405)
    Responded to a request by Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, with a list of canonical books of Scripture; this list was the same as later approved by the Council of Trent.

    Council of Carthage (419)
    Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)

    Council of Florence, an ecumenical council (1441)
    Complete list of OT and NT canon was drawn up; this list later adopted by the Fathers of the Council of Trent

    Council of Trent, an ecumenical council called to respond to the heresy of the Reformers (1545-1563)
    The canon of OT and NT received final definitions: 46 books in the OT; 27 in the NT; “Henceforth the books of the OT and the NT, protocanonical and deuterocanonical alike, in their entirety and with all their parts, comprise the canon and are held to be of equal authority.” The ancient Vulgate edition of the Bible was called the authoritative edition of the Bible.

    However, based on your comments, you make it seem that the Canon we Catholics hold to was not the result of an act of Councils, but by the manner you had described:

    “I took a look at my notes from a book by Metzger on the formation of the canon, and he speaks of a series of ‘Festal Letters,’ eg one in 367 by Athanasius, which lists 26 canonical books, and another by Greg of Nyssa a bit later, which slightly disagrees with the number and content. I’d always assumed the canon fell together by a sort of ‘consensus episcopi’”

    All I’m interested in is knowing what Is the right account.

    As a Catholic, I submit to the Authority of the Church & Tradition; however, one cannot convince a non-Catholic the validity of such Canon if they do not accept that same premise.

    It is with regards to the latter I wish to explore on what grounds should any non-Catholic even accept our Canon if such non-Catholics do not subscribe to that premise we ourselves hold so dear.

  39. Hello SP, clearly I misunderstood your question. I thought you were asking for evidence that Protestants interpret scripture in the light of subordinate standards.

    In response to the above which you cite from the website, I’d have to say, that, if you are wanting to set the principles and history of the formation of the canon out in such a way that Protestants could find convicing

    1) I wouldn’t start with AD 33, formation of the Church. That’s question begging, isn’t it?

    2) If I were a Protestant, and I knew of the Festal Letter of Athanasius (367) and of the Festal letters of the Cappadocians, from the 5th century, I’d ask why, if those councils which you list above were considered as authoritative at the time, these Church Fathers were producing lists of canonical books which slightly differ from one another.

  40. I got a question—Why are you using “CE” (Common Era) rather than “AD” on a Catholic website?

    “Council of Javneh (circa 100 CE)

    If you are speaking about “tradition” why aren’t you using “AD” (Anno Dommini {Year of our Lord})? Why are you employing a secularist term? Why are you employing a term designed to deconstruct Christendom?

    I mean “Common Era” is still marked by the beginning of Jesus Christ’s Birth so it is inherently hypocritical to say “Common Era”. Shouldn’t Catholics be upholding the Old Order and resisting revolution in our language?

  41. In your first comment above, SP, you ask about how the canon could have been achieved in such an ‘haphazard’ way. I wouldn’t call what I’m describing ‘haphazard’ – I’d call it piecemeal.

    If in fact the history indicates that the precise contents of the canon were arrived at in a piecemeal way, I wouldn’t find that disturbing, or undermining to the authority of the church. If one has to rule on one big question, eg, that Christ is God in the same way as the Father is God, or that the Spirit is God in the same way that Father and Son are God, one may have a ferocious intellectual debate, and the issue can be ruled on in one single council, ie Nicaea and Chalcedon in these cases. But in the case of the canon of Scripture, you’ve got lots of separate arguments about which books should be read in church alongside the OT as sacred scripture. One church might be using eg Revelation and other not, one might be using Clement and another not. There is no one single principle which can decide all of the questions raised about all the different books in the canon of the NT.

  42. Mike said (Sep 16th at 11:15),

    But at some point, one needs an appeal to something other than than the text itself to determine who is interpreting it rightly. So if the interpretation of of Scripture is thus not self-authenticating, it’s hard to see why the canon as such is self-authenticating as the only infallible rule of faith.

    Well, as you might think, I don’t think things are quite so simple. Protestants do traditionally hold that there is an infallible interpretation, namely, that of the Holy Spirit Himself. This, of course, is the Catholic view, as well, with the infallibility of the Church being understood as a participation in the infallibility of the Spirit; and, in general, I think, magisterial Protestantism will try to attribute to the Spirit operating independently of the Church (as such) what Catholicism attributes to the Spirit operating through the Church. Moreover, I think the question of canon formation is naturally distinct from the question of authoritative interpretation; whatever their relation, they are not the same sort of issue. So (as I think I’ve argued with you before) I think this objection is problematic when applied to traditional Protestant views. I think the approach suggested by the Thomist above (Sep 17th at 4:08) is a more promising platform for criticism, and is related to my suggestion that the real issue here is how the Holy Spirit works. I think it’s also promising to press the point that the Scripture in question has to be Scripture as practiced, preached, and prayed by the Church. Either of these points puts pressure on the sola scriptura view. I don’t really see that there are any other promising options on the table.

  43. Francesca,

    I think you’re missing the point —

    For example, in what you have reiterated here:

    “2) If I were a Protestant, and I knew of the Festal Letter of Athanasius (367) and of the Festal letters of the Cappadocians, from the 5th century, I’d ask why, if those councils which you list above were considered as authoritative at the time, these Church Fathers were producing lists of canonical books which slightly differ from one another.”

    The fact that individuals within the Church, even in spite of any canon determined by local council, were independently working on a canon themselves (books that they actually consider Holy Scripture) should somehow suggest (at least, to me) how rather arbitrarily the canon is defined.

    Fr. Kimel has even remarked on how the Canon of the Orthodox Church differs from that of our own in the Catholic Church.

    In my own independent research, I have discovered, for instance, that the Eastern Orthodox Church accept books such as 3 Maccabees whereas we don’t.

    This is one among many issues I was hoping to resolve here in addition (as well as in connection) to the Protestant query: the difference in Canon amongst the Apostolic churches themselves and what exactly are the consequences of such difference.

    I guess, for us, since we rely on the Word of God in both Written form & Tradition; it may not significantly matter.

    However, if doctrines were to be derived based on Scripture alone; would it be possible to have a set of doctrines that accurately reflects the Mind of Christ if these were without the books that make a substantial difference in the proper formulation of Christian beliefs (such as 2 Maccabees 12: 39-45, which would have served as the basis for the efficacy of prayer for the dead, as Dr. Tighe alluded to previously)?

    That is, what other books absent in such a canon that likewise make considerable difference in the formulation of such Christian doctrines (specifically, for those who are doing so de novo from Scripture alone without the guidance of Tradition) might there be since the absence of such books could inevitably result in an albeit deficient Christianity?

  44. Brandon:

    It goes without saying that the question of canon formation is different from that of canon interpretation. But as a Catholic I’d say they are related thus: that visible authority through which the Holy Spirit brings it about that certain writings are taken as canonical in the Church is the very same authority to which “authentic” (cf DV ¶10) interpretation of those writings is reserved. That is because the canon or “rule” of faith that guided the process of canon formation—i.e., Tradition—remains indispensable to the authentic interpretation of Scripture, and it is the visible authority in question, viz. the Magisterium, which has the authority to apply that rule of faith in a manner that binds the whole Church.

    …the real issue here is how the Holy Spirit works. I think it’s also promising to press the point that the Scripture in question has to be Scripture as practiced, preached, and prayed by the Church. Either of these points puts pressure on the sola scriptura view. I don’t really see that there are any other promising options on the table.

    I agree that the question is “how the Holy Spirit works,” and that the fundamental disagreements on that question are ecclesiological. But the ecclesiological disagreements are far from being logically independent of the questions of canon formation and interpretation. Everybody agrees that the Holy Spirit’s enlightening work is not limited to church authorities; but the issue is whether such work, as manifest in and through the role of Scripture, can be cogently cited against the claims the Magisterium makes for itself. One of the reasons I’m Catholic is that, given the history of both canon formation and biblical exegesis since the first century, citing Scripture against the Magisterium seems ultimately self-defeating to me.

    Best,
    Mike

  45. A couple of points about this

    The fact that individuals within the Church, even in spite of any canon determined by local council, were independently working on a canon themselves (books that they actually consider Holy Scripture) should somehow suggest (at least, to me) how rather arbitrarily the canon is defined.

    1) the individuals working independently – ie the authors of these Festal letters, Athanasius and the Cappas – were not just bishops, they were the Fathers of the Church – guys to whom Thomas A for instance always refers as ‘the holy fathers’ and with whom he scruples to disagree, and who he always reads reverentially. To any mediaeval, there was nothing arbitrary about the opinions of Athanasius or the Cappas. They do not yet have a developed theory of Tradition or tradition, and yet, for them, what the Fathers say has to be taken very seriously. The reverence with which the Alexandrians like Athanasius and Cyril and the Cappas were held in the later Latin and Greek middle ages amounts to understanding the age of the Fathers as one especially endowed with the Holy Spirit. No mediaeval theologian thought of Basil or Athanasius or Greg of Nyssa as an ‘individual’ university professor in the sense that they themselves were or Luther and Calvin were later to be. The Fathers could say, collectively, ‘ego sono tradition’ in a way in which no later individual persons outside the Bps of Rome could do.

    2) For a second related reason, the authors of the Festal Letters and the Reformers can’t be equated: by the time the latter make their own idiosyncratic decisions about Scripture, there already is a tradition, against which they are working. The Alexandrians and Cappas had between them developed a consensus about the canon. I do not say that consensus did not come about without any additional support from local councils and synods – I just say they all worked piecemeal together, and there is nothing arbitrary about this.

    3) The idea that there is something arbitrary or willy-nilly about these Bps working independently seems anachronistic. Athanasius spent much of his life fleeing the persecution of Arians, headed up by Emperor Constantius. On very many things except the real big issues about which ecumenical councils were called, bishops, especially those of the ‘big five’ sees worked independently – they had to.

    On another question, Revelation, several books on the formation of the Canon say that the Eastern church didn’t ‘accept’ it – the technical term is ‘receive’ – until the 12th or 14th century (the history books vary). To me that is simply another indication that no universally observed law was laid down.

    OTH, if John Meyendorff has opinions about the canon, I would conjecture they are just that – his opinions as an Orthodox theologian, not Orthodox doctrine.

  46. Francesca,

    Thanks so much for that!

    I am most appreciative of both the time & effort you devoted to provide such an elaborate answer for my benefit! Although, an explication as cogent as that, I hardly think it involved much of the 2! ;^)

    I am at once humbled & grateful!

    God Bless,
    S.P.

  47. Brandon said that the real issue at to be focused on is the way tha Holy Spirit works. Let me suggest that the first piece of evidence here, agreed to by both sides, is that he works through Scripture- a written document as opposed to merely an interior locution, a purely spiritual insight, or a special revelation (a la the road to Damascus). What does this say about how the Spirit works? His action is concrete, unchanging, visible, given to the whole world. But what value does a concrete, visible, unchanging document have except to a concrete, visible, and unchanging Church? What need would a supposedly abstract, invisible institution-which could change into limitless denominations- have for an unchanging, historical, tangible, written document?

    At the heart of the Scripture is the completely harmonious co-operation of God and man, because the heart of the Scripture is Christ, whose every action, thought, and work is at the same time totally human and totally divine. The doctrines of grace and justification are simply an extensions of this co-operation that one finds in Christ, and finds again in the unity of the Holy Spirit with the authors of Scripture- which in both cases, again, yields a visible, historical, unchanging result.

  48. The Bible

    So we’re back to the material and formal principles of the Reformation. And while they matter, they don’t matter as much as they used to.

    Very quickly, thank you Michael and Franscesca for your helpful comments on Catholic diversity. I might pester you with some more questions later. As you can imagine, the lines dividing Catholics and Protestants are political and social in Northern Ireland, and genuine dialogue is very difficult to achieve. The tribal drums tend to drown out conversation.

    I’ve given careful thought to the comments that have been made on this post. I think it is important to remember that the issue of first importance is not inerrancy or infallibility, but rather authority. Keeping this in mind –

    (1) Why does Scripture have Divine Authority?

    (1a) Scripture not only bears witness to but IS God’s action in history. Speaking is an action – when we command, or plead, or counsel we intend to achieve certain effects, to bring about changes in the world. (1b) As I have noted Romans 9 v25 and Matt 19 v 5 identify the words of Scripture with the words of God.

    (1c) Jesus clearly places his teaching and actions on a par with God’s teaching and actions in the Old Testament.

    (1d) When a book describes itself as “the Gospel” it is making a claim to authority. The claim is double – barrelled. It is the prophetic announcement to Israel that Exile is over, and it is a claim to a greater authority than an imperial pronouncement.

    (1e) Paul claims an authority at least equal to a Prophets (and we have seen how Paul views their words). In Galatians 1 v 15-17 puts Paul on a par with Jeremiah (Jer 1 v 5). There is a claim to prophetic authority in Paul’s writings – infact to something greater as he has “the mind of Christ”.

    2) It is a little difficult to see what authority could be added to the words of God. But is it merely human opinion that I have the authoritative word of God in the Bible?

    (2a) What turns opinion, or belief, into knowledge? The issue is controversial. This amateur is attracted to some version of Zagzebski’s Virtue Epistemology or Palntinga’s Proper Function (W J Woods “Epistemology” suggests a combination is possible). Now is a council, or magisterium, or tradition necessary to give me “knowledge” that the Bible is the word of God. I can’t see why.

    (2b) So long as my belief is formed in an appropriate manner I would say that my belief counts as knowledge. (Very, very roughly, I would say that our character needs to be transformed so that we have the humility and faith to accept God’s message. But that’s just me). Perhaps certain sorts of Religious Experience suffice – the Spirit’s Testimony.

    (2c) Perhaps you detect the externalism, and want more awareness of your reasons for believing. Maybe you can make an inference to the best explanation – from the answers Scripture gives to your existential questions, your religious experiences and the historical evidence. I’m not sure why someone couldn’t make such an inference and gain knowledge.

    (2d) And of course, I can use the evidence of Church Tradition. I can even grant Church Tradition has authority – so long as I don’t give tradition supreme authority, or authority on a par with Scripture.

    3) Am I on a slippery slope? Can we draw a line from Luther to Mary Baker Eddy, as I think some are implying?

    I only see this as a danger if we rigidly hold to “Sola Sciptura”, instead of “Suprema Scriptura.” Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition all have authority. Indeed, if I grant that Reason and Conscience have an authority independent of Scripture, I can’t see any problem with granting Tradition an authority independent of Scripture. But God’s words remain the Supreme Judge – the final court of appeal.

    4) As for criteria for canonicity, we don’t have access to the thoughts of the Councils or the earliest Churches. A canon has been passed on to me; I have good reason to accept it. I do not have good reasons for rejecting it.

    Granted the Bible lacks an inspired contents page; no passage says include “these” books. But I don’t see the need for a self-authenticating Tradition to give me any more confidence than I already have.

    Graham Veale

  49. Thomist
    In principle, no, I have no problem with conceding that God could grant such authority to men – and in one case did.

    Graham

  50. Thankyou very much for tidying up my mess.

    The other blog I vist is run by the BBC – Philisopia Perennis is incredibly well run, outstripping the beeb.
    Well done, everyone involved.

    GV

  51. Mike,

    You said:

    But as a Catholic I’d say they are related thus: that visible authority through which the Holy Spirit brings it about that certain writings are taken as canonical in the Church is the very same authority to which “authentic” (cf DV ¶10) interpretation of those writings is reserved.

    I think this is a common Catholic view today; but I don’t think it is required by any magisterial documents, and there is at least one longstanding and traditional Catholic view (which distinguishes the deuterocanonicals from the others in these terms, where the deuterocanonicals follow on and the others logically precede the authoritative interpretation of the teaching authority of the Church) with which this is inconsistent. That’s one reason why I think it’s important to distinguish the two pretty sharply: there is really a diversity of legitimate theological opinions on the issue.

    Your suggestion about self-defeat seems to be along the lines of what I had in mind about pressing the issue of what ‘kind’ of Scripture has to be in view in discussions of infallibility. I don’t quite see this as the same argument as the one you previously gave, though; although, of course, it’s possible that I’ve misunderstood.

  52. Graham, you seem to say, some books, eg Gospels, have authority, and our belief in this counts as knowledge. But then we’re making to saying that some books are just intrinsically ‘canonical’. Historically, that isn’t true, since we know it took several centuries to set the canon.

    On your third point, I agree. I don’t think there’s a slippery slope from Luther to Baker Eddy, because, as you say, most Protestants don’t literally believe in sola scriptura, but accept extremely subordinate subordinate standards. From the time he wrote his larger and smaller catechisms (I can’t remember which he wrote first), Luther accepted in principle that he couldn’t expect everyone to read the Bible and find exactly the same as he did, without external guidance (eg from his catechisms or the Lutheran Confessions of faith).

    I wonder if there is any tension between the first and third point? If the content and authority of the Gospel is just intrinsic to it, given the help of the Spirit, why do Protestants need subordinate standards?

  53. graham:

    Thanks for the compliment. I suspect, though, that the person at the Beeb who runs that blog actually earns their paycheck by spending most of their time doing something else.😉

    As to your points about Scripture, I hardly know where to begin. Francesca’s reply is good, so perhaps there will be some overlap in what I say.

    As to (1): I don’t know where you get the idea that Scripture just “IS God’s action in history.” Surely you can’t mean that God doesn’t act in history in any other way? I can understand saying that Scripture is the most authoritative written record of the revelation given to the Apostles, and thus given in history. As a Catholic, I even agree with that. But that’s weaker than your (1), and it doesn’t get us anywhere near scriptura suprema.

    As to (1c): agreed. Its truth explains why Jews, by and large, didn’t and don’t accept Jesus as Messiah. But that’s perfectly consistent with saying that Scripture is not, by itself, the sole infallible rule of faith, but rather stands or falls with Tradition and the Magisterium. One might hold, on scholarly grounds, that the NT accounts of Jesus and his claims add up to a reliable “historical” record thereof; but that is an opinion which is disputed even among Christian scholars, never mind by Muslims; and even granting its truth, it does not follow that Scripture has greater authority than the other two sources.

    As to (1d): again, true. But even if reading “the Gospel” just by itself persuades one that “Exile is over” and that the Gospel has “more authority than an imperial pronouncement,” the most that can be inferred is that reading Scripture, as the Church came to define “Scripture,” is one way to come to faith. Nobody disputes that. But it settles nothing pertinent to the debate here.

    As to (1e): same as (1c). All the more so since Paul is making a claim to a share in Christ’s authority.

    Let me quote your (2): It is a little difficult to see what authority could be added to the words of God. But is it merely human opinion that I have the authoritative word of God in the Bible?

    Your assertion, as distinct from your question, is insufficient for your purpose. If one believes that Scripture is the “words of God,” the first necessarium is to get clear about the meaning of that phrase. Surely you do not mean what Muslims mean when they say the Qu’ran is the words of God: the words actually spoken by a heavenly being to a particular person. More likely you mean that God caused various writers, over a period of a millennium or more, to express various experiences, historical events, oral traditions, and ideas in writings which he then caused the Church to recognize and collate as the normative written record of his revelation.

    If that’s what you mean, I can understand how this or that individual person could come to believe as much without explicit recourse to Tradition or the Magisterium, and thus come to believe that Scripture has divine authority as “the words of God” in the sense described above. But the purely historical fact remains that tradition guided the composition and collation of the OT; tradition as a rule of faith, which we thus call “Tradition,” guided that of the NT; and those who certified the writings of the NT as the ones suitable for being read in Church, as opposed to other writings purporting to be apostolic, were those exercising the Magisterium. As such, they judged the contents of just these books, as opposed to others, as reliable for transmitting the faith they already knew and claimed to teach authoritatively. In virtue of all that, the individual who reads the Bible since then benefits from Tradition and the Magisterium even when he is unaware of them. That of course does not mean that Tradition or the Magisterium are superior in authority to Scripture. But it does indicate that being convinced of Scripture’s authority without recourse to those other sources does nothing to show that Scripture is “supreme” relative to Tradition and the Magisterium. What I’d say to 2 (a)-(d) should accordingly be clear. Even granted one can find “good reason” in the Bible alone to regard it as “the words of God” in the sense described above (which I never have personally, but never mind), it does not follow that Scripture is superior in authority to Tradition and/or the Magisterium. It might yet be the case that Scripture and Tradition form “one sacred deposit of the Word of God” of which the Magisterium is the sole “authentic” interpreter—even if the Bible-believin’ individual has not yet come to recognize that.

    As to (3), I agree with Francesca’s reply, but I would go further. It’s all very well to say “God’s words remain the Supreme Judge – the final court of appeal.” But if the “subordinate principles” of interpretation, including ecclesial confessions and/or catechisms, are necessary for proper interpretation of God’s word, then the Bible by itself cannot and does not function as “the final court of appeal.” One needs an ongoing tradition embodied in a ongoing confessing community, a church, to understand it properly. And as a matter of historical fact, both the tradition and the community predated and produced the NT.

    What I’ve already said applies to (4) as well, with one caveat. I would not call either Tradition or the Magisterium, any more than Scripture, “self-authenticating.” I would instead repeat the words of DV ¶10 quoted in my post.

    Best,
    Mike

  54. Just to refine on ML’s penultimate para, I’ve been meaning to say in relation to the subordinate standards, that the difference between reading the Bible through filters of that type, as Protestants do, and reading the Bible within the Church, as RCs do, is that the Church is, as it were alive in history, whereas the standards are fixed on paper, so the Church continues reacting to new problems, whereas the standards react to the problems of the first 16 centuries alone.

    Most people agree that ‘problems’ such as the Arian controversy couldn’t be settled simply by quoting scripture, since both sides quoted Scripture. Similarly with the controversies leading down to Chalcedon. It’s an excellent thing having subordinate standards, but, Graham, what do Protestants do today if a problem is raised amongst our contemporaries which can’t be settled by reference to Scripture?

  55. Graham,

    1.) You have no objection in principle to a human being performing an action with a divine authority.

    2.) All your examples of why Scripture is authoritative either speak of a divine authority given to human beings (Jesus or Paul) or they assume this authority has been given to man- men wrote the scriptures, after all- which are words with divine authority.

    How can an authority be higher than a divine authority? Given this, you are already conceding, in principle and a matter of historical fact, that there are Christian authorities at least equal to Scripture.

  56. Brandon:

    You wrote that “there is at least one longstanding and traditional Catholic view (which distinguishes the deuterocanonicals from the others in these terms, where the deuterocanonicals follow on and the others logically precede the authoritative interpretation of the teaching authority of the Church) with which” my view “is inconsistent.” I’m not sure which other view you mean or why you say it’s inconsistent with my own. I need to get clear on this before I can reply to the rest of what you say.

    Best,
    Mike

  57. What an interesting thread. I need to return later when I have more time to digest it. But three observations right now:

    (1) I am not sure that it is entirely accurate to say Calvin’s position was restated by Barth. Barth obviously gives a development from Calvin, but that the differences between them are subtle doesn’t make them insignificant. John Murray discusses this in his contribution to the WTS symposium on The Infallible Word.

    (2) I was glad to see Photios bring up Cardinal Cajetan, whose opinions on the deuterocanonical books (as well as the NT antilegomena?) deserve consideration, especially if one is going to charge Luther with taking it upon himself to overthrow the canon as previously set by the Church. And for a different perspective on the OT canon as understood by the early fathers, one can check out Roger Beckwith’s study on The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.

    (3) For a more substantial presentation of the classical Reformed view on ground of the reception of Scripture, I’d recommend taking a look at John Owen’s Pneumatologia, Bk. VI, pt. 1, and also Thomas Halyburton’s “Essay Concerning the Nature of Faith, or the Ground Upon Which Faith Assents to the Scriptures” (which, if I remember correctly, actively sets a position like Owen’s over against Locke’s epistemology). Charles Hodge gives less detail but is also decent. For a more modern presentation, Herman Ridderbos’s little book on Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures is notable. As the title implies, Ridderbos looks at the place of the canon in respect to redemptive history, and specifically how the canon relates the post-apostolic church back to the apostles and their authority.

    God bless,

    John

  58. Thank you for your thoughtful replies. I have a tendency to “waffle” and I apologise for any confusion my posts have caused.
    I have a notion that we have, to some extent, talked past each other (mea culpa). I hope as I respond my argument will become a little clearer.
    I want to argue that Scripture has an authority prior to and independent of Church Councils. And that knowledge of that authority does not depend on the statements of a Church Council. This authority comes from Scripture being the word of God – not from being inerrant or infallible. (Although I’m reasonably happy with both terms).
    Michael is quite correct to point out that this would not prove that Church Tradition could not have an equal authority. Thomist is correct that there is no good reason for denying that God could give such authority to men on an ongoing basis (I don’t think he does, but he could).
    Francesca: I am saying that God has clearly revealed himself in his Word; and that those who fail to perceive that Scripture is the word of God have no excuse. That does not imply that the Church will immediately or always recognise his voice.
    Furthermore, you can’t achieve much just by repeating verses of Scripture (unless you’re Charlton Heston). But the Arian heresy can be falsified from the theology of Paul and the Gospels. Understanding a few verses of Scripture would be sufficient. And anyone led to worship Christ by Scripture, or who is likewise led to confess him as Lord of all, knows Jesus’ status.
    I don’t think my first and third points are necessarily in tension. But in evangelical (whatever that means nowadays) circles such tension exists. There is such confusion that the term probably should be abandoned.

    Graham

  59. Michael
    I am very grateful for your patience and persistence, and hope your students never gave you as much bother.
    Of course I don’t believe that God revealed himself only in the Scriptures. Of course I believe that he has revealed himself in the Incarnation and Salvation-History. What I am denying is that Scripture is merely “the most authoritative written record of the revelation given to the Apostles, and thus given in history” or “the normative written record of his Revation”. The contents of Scripture do more than reliably transmit the faith. In Scripture God speaks.
    As philosophers have known since JL Austin’s “How to do Things with Words” (and the rest of us have known since Eden) quite often to say something is to do something (eg. “I quit”, “You’re fired”). When God speaks in Scripture, he does rather more (but not less) than reveal some propositional truths about himself or what he has done. Scripture itself is as much an act of revelation as the parting of the Red Sea.
    The idea that Scripture is “the Words of God” isn’t mine: I got it from Paul and Jesus. (And I tried to produce evidence that showed that Paul and the Gospels placed themselves on a par with the other Scriptures. I don’t think that you’ve really taken the claim “This is the Gospel” seriously enough). There is no parallel with the Koran. For one thing I don’t belive that speaking the syllables in the original languages leads to a sublime experience. For another in many cases (but not all) the exact wording does not seem to matter. And God accommodates his speech to human genres and conventions. The Bible is not “heavenly speech”.
    If Scripture is God speaking, it is God acting: God commanding, rebuking, exhorting. God speaking through God about God – but also God speaking through men to men, and thereby changing men and bringing them into a relationship with him. Now if I don’t recognise the voice of the prophets, I’m not sure that the voice of the Bishops will remedy my plight. But if God acts through Scripture, if he speaks in it, and his Spirit impresses His words on our hearts, then I don’t need a council to recognise the Text’s authority.
    How did God cause the Church to recognise and collate the Scriptures? Perhaps through his Word? His written Word? Did the council – whichever council it was – really need to be infallible to recognise God’s word? Couldn’t a council simply recognise God’s written Word, and realise that it was authoritative? If God speaks in and through the texts they collated, what does their approval actually add to the texts authority?
    I admit “court of appeal” was a bad metaphor. Of course humans need to apply Scripture, and that means they need to interpret it. I’m not sure why infallible councils etc. are needed to interpret the Scriptures though. Do we need infallible guides to know the truth? I can’t see why.
    But I do need to make two concessions. One, to make a case against the infallible authority of tradition, I need to show that it is obviously wrong or self-contradictory on some essential or important point. (However some of the claims made on this post seem to indicate that tradition may lack, at the very least, clarity, if not coherence).
    Two, I am sure that conservative Evangelicals do need to rethink what they mean by inerrancy and infallibilty. Textual criticism alone implies that is the case. If that is your only point, then I think we can agree that fallible Councils and inerrant texts don’t mix. (A reliable and trustworthy council and reliable and trustworthy Scripture is a different matter).

    Graham Veale

  60. Graham:

    Reciprocating your “concessions,” I point out that I’ve already conceded that one can come to see, by the experience one can have of reading Scripture, that Scripture has divine authority. That is not a result of reason alone, but of grace. And yet, for reasons I’ve given and you have not gainsaid, such a result does nothing to settle the question how the authority of Scripture is related to that of Tradition and the Magisterium. One could just as well see the latter two as having divine authority, without thereby settling the question how the authority of Scripture is related to them. That was the path St. Augustine seems to have followed, which is why he could say that he would not believe the Gospels were it not for the authority of the Church.

    As Brandon has already argued, it comes down to the question how the Holy Spirit works through various authorities. In light of history, experience, and reason, Vatican II’s way of answering that question seems the most plausible to me. On that answer, neither Scripture nor Tradition nor the Magisterium, taken severally, are objectively self-authenticating; they stand or fall together. If that doesn’t seem plausible to you, perhaps that is because you’re at a point in your spiritual journey where what you get out of Scripture “alone” seems sufficient to you. That is the case for many people, which is perhaps the main reason they are Protestants. But at least as many people can say the opposite for themselves.

    Best,
    Mike

  61. […] “We have a fallible canon of infallible books.” Michael Liccione gives a Catholic response at Philosophia Perennis. Fides Quaerens Intellectum has been dealing with this and related issues […]

  62. […] is all very confusing to a Catholic, so Fr. Alvin Kimel of Pontifications and Dr. Mike Liccione of Philosophia Perennis made all the necessary objections based on the meaning authority and interpretation, not to mention […]

  63. Hi, Mike,

    The view I had in mind was one that is occasionally found among the scholastics, namely, that books like Judith are canonical because they were selected by the Church to teach certain things; this is an expression of the Holy Spirit’s work, but differs from, say, the reason Isaiah or Matthew is canonical, since Isaiah and Matthew were not selected for a purpose but received as a gift. It was never really an option to refuse Isaiah a place in the canon; likewise, it became clear at some point that Matthew was already effectively exercising canonical status, and that this simply needed to be insisted upon when people tried to give it up.

    One of the difficulties in talking about this subject is that the following are all distinct issues:

    (1) Scripture as inspired
    (2) Scripture as canonical
    (3) Scripture as canonical rule of faith
    (4) Scripture as word of God to the Church

    On a Protestant view of Scripture, these are often difficult to distinguish. But a Catholic view of Scripture has to distinguish them all. There are things that are inspired that are not Scripture (private revelations, for instance); things that are canonical that are not Scripture (liturgies); things that form a canonical rule of faith that are not Scripture (the Symbol, for instance). We can take it that the Church does not select the canon in such a way as to make it inspired (1) or in such a way as to make it the word of God to the Church (4); indeed, to claim that the Church selected the canon in either of these senses would be quite clearly inconsistent with Dei Verbum. One can take it that in one way or another the Church does select the canon in the sense of (3), just as it selects the Creed. But with regard to (2) there are all sorts of things that are going on, and it is not immediately clear that the Church in its history has been doing any deliberate selecting at all, at least in every case; and, if so, then things aren’t so neat as they would be if (to use your words to Graham) “they judged the contents of just these books, as opposed to others, as reliable for transmitting the faith they already knew and claimed to teach authoritatively,” and this were the actual formation of the canon. In some cases, for instance, the faith they already knew was derived in part from some of the books in question; and this starts very, very early — the very beginning, in fact.

    My point here is not to argue that this is the right view, but that this would be an entirely legitimate and possible Catholic view, one which sees the Church’s role in canon formation as something rather different than you seem to be suggesting.

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