The letter of the law…

I want this post to piggyback on the discussion taking place about sola Scriptura. To be honest, I tend to avoid that debate, partially because it seems to devolve more quickly than others into pedantic, hairsplitting, pulpit-pounding backbiting; it’s a credit to this blog and its readers that that has not happened thus far.

All I would like to contribute, as an oblique consideration, is how the question, “Cur Deus homo?” stands in light of its scriptural basis and how its status might be addressed “solely” from sola Scriptura. The scriptural basis for the exact and most fundamental reason for the Incarnation is (notoriously) moot, and because of this I think it can shed light on the issues of doctrinal authority and religious assent in the sola Scriptura debate.

Cur Verbum caro factum est? As I think most everyone here knows, there are two main theses about the Incarnation. On the one hand, it is claimed that the Word became flesh because of the fall of humankind in Adam. On the other hand, it is claimed that the Word would have incarnated regardless of Adam’s fall or otherwise. The first thesis we can call the ‘redemptive’ theory of Incarnation, while the second we might call the ‘absolutist’ theory.

My question is: Are Protestants allowed to argue for the truth of the absolutist theory of the Incarnation? If not, why not? If so, how? Before answering, please consider the following quotations (found in “Cur Deus Homo? The Motive of the Incarnation” by Fr. George Florovsky).

Since, according to Florovsky, the early Fathers did not explicitly ponder the question whether a fall-free world would have still seen the Incarnation, he cites, as the first self-conscious advocate of the absolutist theory amidst the debate, Rupert Deutz, who writes:

“Therefore, we say quite probably, not so much that man [was made] to make up the number of the angels [i.e., for those who had fallen], but that both angels and men were made because of one man, Jesus Christ, so that, as He Himself was begotten God from God, and was to be found a man, He would have a family prepared on both sides. … From the beginning, before God made anything, it was in His plan that the Word [Logos] of God, God the Word [Logos], would be made flesh, and dwell among men with great love and the deepest humility, which are His true delights.”
–– (Rupertus Tuitensis, De Glorificatione Trinitatis, lib. 3. 20 (M., P.L., 169, col. 72)

Next Florovsky cites Honorius of Autun, writing in his Libellus octo quaestionum de angelis et homine, that

“the first man’s sin was not the cause of Christ’s Incarnation; rather, it was the cause of death and damnation. The cause of Christ’s Incarnation was the predestination of human deification. It was indeed predestined by God from all eternity that man would be deified, for the Lord said, ‘Father, Thou hast loved them* before the creation of the world,’ [cf. John 17:24] those, that is, who are deified through Me….”
–– ibid., cap. 2 (Μ., P.L., 172, col. 72)

Whereupon Florovsky considers the views of Duns Scotus:

“The Incarnation of the Son of God was for him the very reason of the whole Creation. Otherwise, he thought, this supreme action of God would have been something merely accidental or “occasional”. ‘Again, if the Fall were the cause of the predestination of Christ, it would follow that God’s greatest work was only occasional, for the glory of all will not be so intense as that of Christ, and it seems unreasonable to think that God would have foregone such a work because of Adam’s good deed, if he had not sinned.‘”

Elsewhere Scotus says, “the Fall is not the cause of Christ’s predestination. Indeed, even if one angel had not fallen, or one man, Christ would still have been predestined thus—even if others had not been created, but only Christ.” He continues:

“This I demonstrate thus: anyone who wills methodically first wills an end, and then more immediately, those things which are more immediate to the end. But God wills most methodically; therefore, He wills thus: first He wills Himself, and everything intrinsic to Himself; more directly, so far as concerns things extrinsic, is the soul of Christ. Therefore, in relation to whatever merit and before whatever demerit was foreseen, He foresees that Christ must be united to Him in a substantial union…. The disposition and predestination is first complete concerning the elect, and then something is done concerning the reprobate, as a secondary act, lest anyone rejoice as if the loss of another was a reward for himself; therefore, before the foreseen Fall, and before any demerit, the whole process concerning Christ was foreseen…. He would not have come as a mediator, to suffer and to redeem, unless someone had first sinned, unless the glory of the flesh had become swelled with pride, unless something needed to be redeemed; otherwise, He would have immediately been the whole Christ glorified.

Next, Florovsky takes a brief look at St. Thomas’ views on the matter:

“Aquinas … saw the whole weight of the arguments in favor of the opinion that, even apart from the Fall, “nevertheless, God would have become incarnate,” and he quoted the phrase of St. Augustine: ‘in the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.’ (De Trinitate, XIII. 17). But Aquinas could not find, either in Scripture or in the Patristic writings, any definite witness to this Incarnation independent of the Fall, and therefore was inclined to believe that the Son of God would not have been incarnate if the first man did not sin: “Although God could have become incarnate without the existence of sin, it is nevertheless more appropriate to say that, if man had not sinned, God would not have become incarnate, since in Sacred Scripture the reason for the Incarnation is everywhere given as the sin of the first man.

Then Florovsky turns to Bonaventure’s claims, which closely align with St. Thomas’:

“Comparing the two opinions — one in favor of an Incarnation apart from the Fall and the other dependent on it, he concluded: ‘Both [opinions] excite the soul to devotion by different considerations: the first, however, more consonant with the judgment of reason; yet it appears that the second is more agreeable to the piety of faith.’ One should rely rather on the direct testimony of the Scriptures than on the arguments of human logic.

Florovsky mentions the fact that St. Francois de Sales argued for the absolutist theory. Florovsky does not cite St. Francois, but I will. In his Treatise on the Love of God (Bk. 2, ch. 4), he writes:

“God knew from all eternity that he could make an innumerable multitude of creatures with divers perfections and qualities, to whom he might communicate himself, and considering that amongst all the different communications there was none so excellent as that of uniting himself to some created nature, in such sort that the creature might be engrafted and implanted in the divinity, and become one single person with it, his infinite goodness, which of itself and by itself tends towards communication, resolved and determined to communicate himself in this manner. So that, as eternally there is an essential communication in God by which the Father communicates all his infinite and indivisible divinity to the Son in producing him, and the Father and the Son together producing the Holy Ghost communicate to him also their own singular divinity;—so this sovereign sweetness was so perfectly communicated externally to a creature, that the created nature and the divinity, retaining each of them its own properties, were notwithstanding so united together that they were but one same person. …

“Furthermore the sacred providence determined to produce all other things as well natural as supernatural in behalf of Our Saviour, in order that angels and men might, by serving him, share in his glory; on which account, although God willed to create both angels and men with free-will, free with a true freedom to choose evil or good, still, to show that on the part of the divine goodness they were dedicated to good and to glory, he created them all in original justice, which is no other thing than a most sweet love, which disposed, turned and set them forward towards eternal felicity. …

“He … foresaw that the first man would abuse his liberty and forsaking grace would lose glory, yet would he not treat human nature so rigorously as he determined to treat the angelic. It was human nature of which he had determined to take a blessed portion to unite it to his divinity. …”

In the third section of Florovsky’s essay, he focuses on St. Maximus as a major advocate of the absolutist theory, although not one consciously debating the possibility of an alternate fall-free world (cf. the note* at the end of this post):

“The 60th Questio ad Thalassium, is a commentary on I Peter, 1:19-20: ‘[Christ was] like a blameless and spotless lamb, who was foreordained from the foundation of the world.’ … St. Maximus first briefly summarizes the true teaching about the Person of Christ, and then proceeds: ‘This is the blessed end, on account of which everything was created. This is the Divine purpose, which was thought of before the beginning of Creation, and which we call an intended fulfillment. All creation exists on account of this fulfillment and yet the fulfillment itself exists because of nothing that was created. Since God had this end in full view, he produced the natures of things. This is truly the fulfillment of Providence and of planning. Through this there is a recapitulation to God of those created by Him. … The Messenger, who is in essence Himself the Word of God, became man on account of this fulfillment. And it may be said that it was He Himself Who restored the manifest innermost depths of the goodness handed down by the Father; and He revealed the fulfillment in Himself, by which creation has won the beginning of true existence. For on account of Christ, that is to say the mystery concerning Christ, all time and that which is in time have found the beginning and the end of their existence in Christ. For before time there was secretly purposed a union of the ages, of the determined and the Indeterminate, of the measurable and the Immeasurable, of the finite and Infinity, of the creation and the Creator, of motion and rest — a union which was made manifest in Christ during these last times.”
–– (M., P.G., XC, 621, A-B.)

I have cited all these writings to throw light on an evident tension in the debate, namely, how strongly or weakly eminent theologians rely on the explicit teaching of Scripture to address a question like this. The application this debate has for the sola Scriptura debate is this: if a Protestant, for example, argues from Scripture that the redemptive theory is the truth, since, as St. Thomas says, “in Sacred Scripture the reason for the Incarnation is everywhere given as the sin of the first man.” The Protestant thereby implies that the absolutist theory is a mere conjecture, based, at best, on the Church’s doctrinal tradition and doctors. This of course indicates that the only certain and authoritative grounds for Christian DOCTRINE are the express contents of Scripture.

In that case, however, he begins to stumble. For by calling the express teaching of Scripture the only sure basis of doctrine, he compromises the idea that the established contents (canon) of Scripture are Christian DOCTRINE, since, after all, the canon is not expressly taught in Scripture. Without a rigorous Scriptural argument to support the canon of Scripture, it is, for the sola Scripturist, a theologoumenon just like, arguendo, the absolutist theory of the Incarnation. If, however, the canon is established and accepted based on traditional, extra-scriptural sources of doctrinal authority, then the canon becomes just as defensible or indefensible as the absolutist theory of the Incarnation. Round and round we go.

This analysis is not novel with me. It is an intrinsically retorsive (love that word) defect in the sola Scriptura position. Nonetheless, I thought it would be a bit novel to throw a different angle of light on the problem vis-à-vis a very profound doctrinal matter, to wit, the motive for the Incarnation.

It is also patent that the themes of the divine nature, predestination, and creation voiced in the above quotations might spark fruitful dialogue on those hallowed, hoary old topics.

Heck, if nothing else, perhaps this post can spiral into a round of pedantic, hair-splitting, pulpit-pounding backbiting. 😉

* Florovsky adds: “Hans Urs von Balthasar, Liturgie Cosmique: Maxime le Confesseur (Paris, Aubier, 1947), pp. 204-205 … quotes Qu. ad Talass. 60 and adds that St. Maximus would have taken the Scotist side in the scholastic controversy, yet with an important qualification: ‘Maxime de reste est totalement etranger au postulat de ce debat scholastique qui imagine la possibilite d’un autre ordre du monde sans pecho et totalement irreel. Pour lui la ‘volonte preexistante’ de Dieu est identique au monde des ‘idees’ et des ‘possibles’: l’ordre des essences et l’ordre des faits coincident en ce point supreme’ (in the German edition, Kosmische Liturgie, S. 267-268).


10 Responses

  1. Elliott
    If you were including me in the compliment about the bloggers, thankyou. But my wife doesn’t agree, and has accused me of using the “private langauage of evangelicals”. And Nicola uses more interesting adjectives than “hairsplitting”. (And to be honest, she was a little less recondite than to talk about Private Languages – it went on for a while, but Nicola mentioned something about “Bible thumpers assuming everyone reads the same books they do”.)
    Some questions
    1) What does retorsive mean?
    2) Do we need a “rigorous Scriptural argument” before we can recognise God’s word? (Or, better put, before we are left without excuse for not recognsing it?
    3) Does a belief need to be “sure” to count as knowledge?
    4) Aren’t you assuming a foundationalist model for theology? Can’t we take a more coherentist approach?
    5) Do any of those questions make sense? After a weeks teaching, it’s difficult to tell.


  2. Graham:

    1) I learned the word from Dr. Liccione, in his FT review of a book by John Haught. I quote: “In effect, retorsive arguments aim to show that being a principled atheist is “performatively” self-contradictory: One cannot consistently obey such imperatives as “be faithful to the desire to know” and “be responsible” while denying that they truly “anticipate” an “infinite horizon” of being, truth, and value by which one is also grasped, which of course turns out to be God.”

    Then I learned more about it a chapter by Hugo Meynell in a book of essays, *Catholic Responses to Reformed Epistemology*, in which he drew attention to a book-length treatment of his argument, which I then read (*The Intelligible Universe*). He never referred to his Lonergan-based argument as ‘retorsive’, but I could see how it worked even so. Basically, retorsion highlights the fact that, while some line of reasoning may not be self-contradictory, yet it can be self-destructive. A sort of pragmatic calling-your-bluff.

    2) I’m not sure how this gets off the ground, I mean: is there a rigorous scriptural proof the prime sufficiency of Scripture itself?

    Moreover, this only begs the question, since, if a rigorous exegesis were the grounds for “knowing God’s word”, then we clearly have no way of knowing God’s word about the canon.

    3) Sure? Sure!


    Certainty is, or should be proportionate to the level of discourse (e.g., maths requires proof in a way history cannot [cf. the snafu with R. Bellah nearly being appointed to Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Snootiness Studies]). To expect more certainty from a field of inquiry than the object can reasonably give, is to commit the fallacy of metabasis eis allo genos.

    Often, belief can be complemented by good will and natural desire. E.g., I may not be SURE of my friend’s every intention, but I can complement my hunches into knowledge based on charity towards him. As for natural desire, an intuition may be enhanced into knowledge not only by our natural receptivity to see evidence more attentively, as well as to discount skeptical worries based on a larger fund of natural experience. E.g., I may not be SURE the meat loaf is not poisoned, or is not my old uncle’s thigh, but I can assuage that skepticism with the larger fund of knowledge about how the world generally works (and since meat loaf is a general thing in the world, it gets the same “general” pass).

    4) I’m not assuming foundationalism. At least not hardcore foundationalism. If foundationalism means building from certain first principles, then, yes, I’m arguing as a foundationalist (just as Aristotle and St Thomas do). But that doesn’t mean I’m seeking infallible, self-evident principles perspicuous for any and all observers, then no, I’m not a foundationalist.

    My argument, if I may, in this post is simply to nudge a sola Scripturist toward facing the obvious: his own view retorsively undermines the very basis of his view as a debatable conclusion of his view. Concretely, basing all doctrine on Scripture alone renders Scripture itself non-doctrinal. I believe the Catholic Church has a superior “coherentist foundationalism” which argues towards the cogency of its sources of authority, but ultimately argues from those very sources in its message. The truth of God rests on the three interlocked pillars of the Church as the foundation of truth: i) Scripture, ii) Tradition, iii) Magisterium (in a sense, I would say the Church’s authority is “sola latreia”, since in Catholic worship all three columns are fused: the Bible in the traditional liturgy and iconography in union with the bishops and their priests). Cliched, perhaps, but I am a Catholic for a reason, namely, that I think the recursively reinforcing nature of Catholic criteriology works better than alternatives. It’s one thing to go “round and round”, like I said, if it’s a downward spiral (or perhaps Protestantism is just a ping pong match between the “best” in current theology and the inscrutably perspicuous primacy of Scripture over all theology). It’s quite something else to go in an even or perhaps even upward spiral, which I think Orthodoxy and Catholicism do, respectively.

    5) They do! Treat yourself to a Yebisu! (Better yet, treat me to one!)

  3. I’m writing on the fly here. Thinking out loud.

    Consider this analogy:

    You have been invited to move to an affluent foreign country. But in order to do so you must assemble with a group of other people going there at the end of the year. Each invitee is given three things: 1. a receiver that can receive and send messages to and from the country (though reception is often bad and often gets mixed up with competing signals nearby); 2. a massive dictionary to learn the country’s language, written by the ambassadors of the country; and 3. a book of notes that other invitees have compiled and handed around like samizdat so they can recognize the luggage they should all bring, the signals they should all know to indicate the assembly is underway before departure, the best landmarks to eventually find the departure area, etc. Every few years some invitees are called to depart, so there must be a cycle of transmission to secure that later invitees have an idea where to meet, when, how, etc. and how to speak the language so they live in the country.

    1. stands for the voice of the Holy Spirit.
    2. stands for the Scriptures as the official guide to the entire “true” world of discourse in that country.
    3. stands for the tradition as articulated by the Magisterium.

    Only if an invitee attends to all three can he have the most reasonably good chance of finding the departure assembly and being welcomed into the country as a true immigrant. When 1. conflicts with 2. and 3., it’s likely 1. needs to be aligned with the others.

    Interestingly, 2. was originally much larger and messier a compendium of all sorts of cultural tips and musings about the country. In fact, originally, 2. was basically coextensive with 3. The dictionary, naturally, was comprised of every thing the earliest invitees had been told by the ambassadors. Only over time did a separation emerge between 2. and 3., for two reasons: i) certain parts of 2. spoke about themselves in a way that nothing in 3. did, and ii) certain parts of 3. could only be derived from 2. Once it was seen elements of 3. were more like glosses upon what some invitee had read in 2., 3. became a separate, and in some sense lesser source of information––and yet, 3. was still essential for the whole project not only so that obscurities in 2. could be resolved but also because 3. indicated the most common reference to the contents of 2. 2. is everything the earliest invitees were told by the ambassadors, while 3. is everything the next-earliest invitees were left by the first invitees.

    Meanwhile, of course, the 2.-3. descent was being modulated by the common reports added to 3. based on 1. Every time something heard in 1. appeared in 2., it was given especial weight; and naturally, this was noted in 3., which eventually went on to tighten the focus and depth of 2.

    Rough, I know, but perhaps it will help someone smarter and holier than me develop or correct it.

  4. Elliot,

    Thanks again for that detailed and thoughtful look at an perennial difficulty. It exposes the problem of sola scriptura more or less in sense that I’ve long recognized.

    It has always been difficult for me to see how, outside of true divine authority, that the Chalcedonian definition, for instance, could be anything other than theologoumenon. I think the proof of this is that some brilliant, learned, and pious theologians (and it seems whole churches originally catholic) have disagreed with it. How is this to be explained? It seems to me that either sola scriptura is defined so broadly as to be practically consonant with Catholic teaching (more like “prima scriptura”) therefore making debate unnecessary, or so narrowly as to be no good even to Protestants, disallowing them to even do theology at all. Furthermore, it seems also clear to me that orthodox Protestants take the core of their theology from the Catholic tradition of (some) early councils while simultaneously refusing to admit that this is what they in fact do. “Well,” they say, “certainly we agree that the doctrine of those four (or three or five or six or how ever many they accept) councils elucidated doctrines that can be provable from scripture.” Fair enough, Catholics think so too (although why we need those councils, then, I don’t know). But what do they mean by “proved?” Because again, no matter how well you make your case, and how many authorities you cite (smuggling in tradition without saying so outright, of course) in the final analysis what you have, without a truly authoritative pronouncement, is theologoumenon. Granted, the Catholic Church formally dogmatizes very little in the way of her theology. The rest is either considered ordinary teaching, or , yes, theologoumenon (strongly supported, cogent theological opinion within an acceptable range of pious belief, experience, and tradition). Protestants and Catholics, as a generalization, don’t seem to do theology in ways that are really so different from one another. At the end of the day, orthodox thinkers on both sides have boundaries beyond which they cannot reasonably stray. Why obey those boundaries at all? Why should I think that those boundaries are anything more than a tradition with a small ‘t,’ which need not really restrict me in an absolute sense? It’s like the argument from cause. If you are the sort of person who thinks that the chain has got to stop somewhere, how do you escape the tyranny of theologoumenon that lies directly underneath the surface of sola scriptura without appealing to authoritative Tradition to mark those boundaries as impassible? In short,

    Why can’t I be an Arian?

  5. Elliot:

    I like your extended metaphor very much. By all means turn it into a post.


  6. By the way, Graham, when I answered your question 2), I conceded more than I need to.

    Forget a “rigorous Scriptural argument” for the canon––can you even give me any Scriptural argument for the canon?

    “Well,” you might say, “certain of Paul’s writings speak of themselves as divinely inspired, and Peter refers to Paul’s writings as such, etc.” I’ve seen attempts like that before. But that only begs the question: why should I heed St. Paul in the first place? Did he have infallible knowledge of just WHICH of his writings were “the goods”?

    The fact of the matter is, the only reason you heed Paul and Peter is because Antioch and Rome have done so for centuries. And they have heeded them precisely by honoring their writings as the word of God. Once that lineage is established, of course, it becomes theologically coherent to cite one author as support for the other. But only until one submits to that lineage––that authoritative tradition. The bottom line is, if the Bible alone is THE word of God, then clearly God is silent about the canon of the very Scriptures alleged to be THE word of God. That is theologically incoherent; perhaps not self-contradictory, but retorsively self-destructive.

    By contrast, if I stand before the entire Christian “manifold of witness” as it has ACTUALLY developed and existed for so many centuries, then I can’t simply “pick and choose” (which is literally what “heresy” means) which aspect of it I will favor.

    Why heed the Scriptures? Because the Magisterium and the Spirit-anointed faithful have preserved and honored them AS God’s word.

    But why heed the Magisterium and the Spirit-anointed faithful? Because they have received and preserved God’s word as their authority, and have done so in a way that is itself reinforced by the way their predecessors had done so.

    It is not our place individually to have infallible certainty about the pronouncements of the Magisterium––people toss this red herring into the debate all the time––(“But how do you know you know you know…the Pope knows?”)––but it only makes sense theologically to premise that voice as infallible IF IN FACT that voice is that which proclaims the Bible as the word of God. Infallible teaching need not always be verbal; education is primarily about socialization, of how to live well in the society in which one is being educated, so the majority of it, up to a certain age, is indeed about learning from the parents’ and teacher’s behavior rather than words. Likewise with the Church: just because the Church did not pronounce on the canon until, arguendo, Trent, does not mean its behavior prior to that was any less heuristic with respect to the canon they had preserved. It was precisely when Luther sought INFALLIBLE personal certainty of his own Christ-righteousness before God that he rejected the Church’s infallible authority over the canon. This is not a surprise really; for we can only choose one, personal certainty or infallible authority. Notice how little Catholics worry about the canon; it is as “given” by the authority of the Church as their own baptism was given by Her sacramentally. Ultimately, like I say, the Church’s crucible is worship: insofar as the various churches were celebrating the same faith, they were one; in time, that very action of authoritative worship helped the Church as a whole discern just which of the Scriptures were binding for the whole Church, which itself was a discernment modulated by the authoritative structure of the traditional churches.

    Why did the Arian controversy erupt? Because Arius was accused of reading the Bible wrong or because he was accused of undermining the worship of the common Church? Arius was able (quite ably, as we know) to argue from the Bible that Jesus was a creature, but he was never able to argue from the Mass that Jesus was anything less than God, since the Mass was entirely predicated on the idea that Jesus was being worshiped along with and, indeed, AS God. Arius was condemned as a heretic against the Church’s worshiped truth, not as a bad Bible scholar. Scriptural arguments were used to indicate this fact, NOT to establish by themselves that Arius was wrong. By analogy, a soccer player is offsides when and if the referee says he is, based on his knowledge of the game and based on his authority; no player has ever been called offsides because some fan, or group of fans, has argued for it from the ISL rulebook. The ref can never violate the rulebook, but obviously the rulebook can never call offsides or anything else without the active, free, authoritative wisdom of the referee as the voice of the rulebook. In any case, who else but a college of referees ever decided the contents of the rulebook? They did so BASED ON the long tradition of actually played and diversely hallowed soccer. That tradition was binding for them antecedently in the same way the rulebook is binding for them ultimately. But always, in between, suspended between the antecedent authority of the tradition and the final authority of the rulebook, the living voice of the referee is absolutely vital to how and even whether the game is played. As a Protestant, you are the guy in the stands chewing our the ref for making a bad call. As you read the rulebook, you might be right; but you have no such authority to reject the ref’s word on the matter.

    If we shift this analogy up to the theandric, apostolic level, I think the fallibility of the ref’s various calls is amended towards infallibility in the same way the fallibility of the rulebook is amended into inspiration. But in the logical structure of the analogates, living authority is integral to “the game” of faith, and in a way that Protestantism simply cannot furnish. Instead of playing the game, too many sola Scripturists end up playing with the rulebook instead.

  7. Thanks for the detailed reply. I must say this is great! Don’t get this kind of discussion in Ulster.
    I’ve printed your posts out and will think them over today and tomorrow,
    What’s a Yebisu?


  8. Yebisu is one of my favorite Japanese beers. 😉

  9. Elliot
    I’m afraid I don’t drink beer. But the story was excellent! I found it very helpful.
    Before I talk about the nature of Theology or doctrine, I suppose I need to make sure that Protestant faith in Scripture makes sense. So here goes. From the start we need to be clear that Scripture is more than a “deposit” of Truth, or the ossification of the Apostle’s teaching. Scripture is God speaking- the “speech-acts” of God. So we have commanding, teaching, reasoning, promising and so forth. We can abstract propositions from all this – but there is an act of communication, or Divine Discourse, at work. So if Scripture is the Word of God, I would expect this to be known directly, rather than through an inferential argument.
    I’ve been asked for an exegetical argument. A “contents page”, perhaps. Or a passage that gives the criteria for canonicity, or that teaches the disciples to gather a canon. In the absence of such a passage, or exegetical argument I fall to a “retorsive” critique (well, not just me personally, but I go along with all the other Protestants).
    I am a little unsure as to the exact nature of the problem for the Protestant. It seems conceivable to Michael Liccione (how do you pronounce that?) that an individual could discern God’s word without the aid of a council, or an authoritative magisterium. And naturally, it is conceivable that a group could discern God’s word. How can God’s word be discerned in the absence of an inspired list of books? I’ve already given some of the details, but I’ll try to pull them together. Paul and Jesus worked with a canon of Old Testament Scripture which they not only considered authoritative, but to be the words of God (please keep in mind that these words are “accommodated” to human conventions and cultures etc.) Paul in his letters claims an extraordinary authority (not only comparing his call to that of Jeremiah, but claiming to have the “mind of Christ”). Obviously Jesus claims a remarkable authority behind his teachings and actions, and to call your work “the Gospel” was not only to equate it with a prophetic call to Israel, but also to place it above the divine authority of Rome (see NT Wright’s “What ST Paul Really Said”).
    Now here we have works claiming God’s authority addressing people who have a concept of Scripture … not much wonder that a New Testament canon emerged. But I’m getting ahead of myself. How can I know that these works are, in fact, from God? The criticism keeps being levelled that without a council (or whatever) all I have is mere “opinion” not “knowledge” (at least that seems to be the underlying criticism). But what turns opinion into knowledge? Take knowledge as “non-accidentally true belief”. What could turn my belief into knowledge? A wide variety of means could be at work in the case of Scripture -the fact that God himself addresses the reader, the witness of the Holy Spirit, the nature of the answers to existential questions, the illumination of Salvation-History and coherence with the other Scriptures (the Tenakh). We might want to check the writing against history (not a bad idea if a “Gospel” pops up that has no knowledge of Palestine or its’ customs and history).
    Whether we make an inference, or recognise the voice of God directly, we can be certain that the work can be discerned as God speaking. That puts the work on a par with Scripture – it deserves the same recognition. Does a person need to be “infallible” to know what is Gods’word and what isn’t? Hardly, and I can’t see why a council would need to be infallible either.
    Why a “canon”? For one thing, the period of “public” revelation was over. If you like, even if the Heretics had never appeared there would have been the need to follow the Jewish example and confess that God had spoken. There was also the practical need for leadership. Did the Church need a Scriptural warrant to go draw up a list of Scriptures? I hardly think so – not unless you take an extreme view of Sola Scriptura and make Scripture the ONLY authority. (So far as I can tell only the evangelical Presuppositionalists have attempted to work out such a system. Congratulations, I think you have demonstrated that they were wrong). Reason, conscience, experience and tradition all have authority. How much authority depends on the question they are trying to answer. (They never have the authority of the inspired words of God). But in this case the Church used the Word of God and common sense to make a judgment – a canon was needed to keep order – and to formulate a doctrine – that the writings of the Apostolic era were as much “Scripture” as the Old Testament.
    I can’t see any reason to doubt their judgment. I can see very good reason to accept it (see paragraph 3). With one exception.

    There is no evidence other than some 4th and 5th Century Christian LXX that the Jews considered the Apocrypha to be Scripture, and Josephus, Javnia, the later Rabbis, Qumran and Philo do not use the Apocrypha as Scripture. So maybe old Luther was on to something – these books may lack the seal of Jesus’ approval. However, if they can pass the test in paragraph 3, maybe Protestants should reconsider.
    More could be said about the role certain writings had in the foundation of the Church, and how “one sacred deposit” of truth needs to be as self authenticating as “one sacred Scripture”(unless you think circular arguments help). But I’ve taken up to much of your time already.
    Thanks for your patience.

    Graham Veale

  10. Maybe a book of analogies like the one on doctrine would be very helpful.
    “A Guide to Catholicism for Evangelicals?”

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