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.