Sola Scriptura: Can Rome Save Us?

Yesterday we had a discussion about Sola Scriptura, and the challenge of coming to a canon under this doctrine. And some of what we said might make people uncomfortable: that we have to rely on recognising it, something that might seem subjective and vague.

Given this, one might be tempted to say that Rome offers us a solution. We have no quick and easy way of coming up with a canon, but Rome might. Perhaps an appeal to the Tradition or Magisterium can give us not only an infallible scripture, but an infallible contents page.

This is however not the case. Putting aside all of the good reasons we have to stay on this side of the Tiber, reasons about salvation by grace alone, Rome still has no good solution.

Yes, it is true that Rome has infallibly defined a canon.  But they didn’t do this in the first century, or the second, or the third. They did it int he fifteenth. For fourteen hundred years, Christians had no infallible declaration of the canon. For fourteen hundred years, Roman Catholics (though if we are precise, I would argue that Roman Catholics haven’t existed for that long) haven’t had an infallible declaration of the canon.

Yesterday we had an important question: how can the faithful first century BC Jew know what the scriptures are? With Rome, this is exacerbated: if an infallible canon list is necessary, then how did a believing 10th century Christian know what it is? Rome doesn’t help the situation here.

But I think there is an even deeper problem here, a problem that is endemic to authority in general. No matter what our authority is (Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium), then the man of God has to be able to recognise that it is an authority. And it’s no good for that authority to tell us that they are an authority. Yesterday we avoided the accusation of circularity, but that would be circular.

Suppose that soon, the current Pope speaks ex-cathedra and says something which is heretical. Many Roman Catholics would claim that this immediately causes him to become an antipope, and he immediately anathematizes himself. Suppose that the Cardinals agree, but the Pope does not. Suppose that the Cardinals elect a new Pope. Now there are two claims.

Who are we to believe holds the authority of the Magisterium? (Permit me to simplify a bit here). Each claims to. It comes down to the individual to investigate (under the advice of wise friends and clergy) and decide who is the true Pontiff and who is not. The recognition of authority eventually always comes down to the individual, and in principle, no authority can ever get around that.

So while we may have some work to do, and perhaps some uncomfortable conclusions to accept, when it comes to the formation of the canon, we cannot appeal to Rome. Rome doesn’t make our problem any easier, or our situation any more comfortable.

Sola Scriptura: The Bible Doesn’t Define Canon

I am a Reformed Baptist, so I regularly find myself in debates with Roman Catholics. When discussing the pillar of the Protestant Reformation Sola Scriptura, Roman Catholics often make this claim: Sola Scriptura must be false, since scripture doesn’t tell us what scripture is. But Sola Scriptura requires that all necessary Christian doctrines be found in scripture. The canon is a necessary Christian doctrine, not found in scripture, therefore Sola Scriptura is false.

Perhaps more formally:

  • If Sola Scriptura is true, then all important doctrines are found in scripture
  • Canon is not found in scripture
  • Canon is an important doctrine
  • Therefore Sola Scriptura is false

 

This is indeed a valid argument. So to object, we must object to a premise. I think there are several avenues of attack here.

First, we can reject premise 1. Instead of claiming that all important doctrines are found in scripture, we can claim merely (as if this were a small thing) that scripture is the sole infallible rule of faith for the Christian. Other authorities may be good and useful, but scripture is the only infallible authority.

The problem with this is that it undermines a common argument for Sola Scriptura. That argument being from 2 Timothy 3:16-17. Scripture says (under this interpretation) that scripture is sufficient to fully equip the man of faith. And if we take a weaker view of Sola Scriptura, then we are open to the objection that scripture is not sufficient to equip us by telling us what is scripture. This indicates our interpretation is wrong. So we don’t want to deploy that argument. We want to affirm that scripture is the sole infallible authority, but we also want to affirm that scripture is sufficient to equip us.

We certainly don’t want to claim that canon is not an important doctrine. Although good work and theology can be done with an incomplete canon (as some of the church fathers had an incomplete canon), we would be foolish to say that it’s not important to know precisely what God has said.

So we find ourselves with rejecting this premise: “Canon is not found in scripture”. At first glance, this seems to be true. The bible contains no inspired table of contents, we can’t merely read it and get a list of all the books that are inspired.

We have some hope, however. First, consider the Old Testament only. We can derive an Old Testament canon from scripture, by considering the New Testament. Jesus and the Apostles treated the Old Testament they had, the full Hebrew canon, as being scripture and inerrant. They quoted sections of most books, but the unquoted books (like Song of Songs) remain part of the canon accepted by all Jews, and Jesus and the Apostles affirm this.

(Sidenote: if we use this process, we come up with the Protestant canon rather than the Roman Catholic canon)

But that doesn’t establish for us a whole canon, because it leaves out the New Testament. What the New Testament does do is affirm that we should hold to all the teachings of Jesus, and all the teachings of the Apostles. We do attribute Apostolic authorship to almost all of the New Testament works, so we have made some more progress. But we have a pretty big problem: Hebrews. Hebrews is of course anonymous, and there is no consensus on the author. What we do know is that the early church thought it was Pauline, but modern scholars (even conservative scholars) are now confident that it is not Pauline. There are some who think that it was a sermon from Paul transcribed by Luke, but that’s a very small minority. It certainly isn’t a Pauline epistle written by Paul like Galatians or Ephesians.

This is not the only problem with our approach here, however. We still are open to the objection: how can the faithful first century BC Jew know what God’s word is? They have no NT, which we have used. They must have some other methodology. So I do not think this approach is significant (though I think Apostolic authorship is important and sufficient to establish canonicity).

Does scripture offer us an alternative? I think it does, but I am not sure it is one that many will like. I think it is John 10:27

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me;

I think that this is true of the Christian: we hear God’s words, we recognize them, and because He has known (and regenerated) us, our ears are open to hear and follow. And we do that, and we keep Hebrews (and Jude, which we didn’t mention earlier). And the Jew in the 1st century BC can keep the Law and the Prophets. Why? Because (John 7:46b)

“Never has a man spoken the way this man speaks.”

And no-one has ever spoken like God has spoken. And in fact Jesus expects this of us (John 14:10-11):

 Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves.

Jesus expects us to believe Him, not primarily because of His works, but because of what He says. His words. I think we can safely apply these to all of God’s words. The regenerate believer, having had their ears opened, recognizes God’s voice and follows Him.

(Note that we may be accused of circularity here. Since it might seem like we are saying that scripture is true because scripture is true, or that we are using scripture to prove scripture. That would be a misunderstanding of the topic in question. I and Roman Catholics already agree that all of scripture is God-breathed and inerrant. But my contention is: we need nothing outside scripture (more or less, as I’ve said above), and scripture agrees. The Roman Catholic here is questioning whether scripture does agree. We are not trying to show that scripture is true by assuming scripture is true)

There is much more to say on the topic of the formation of the canon, authority, tradition and revelation. I will not get into all of this now, but I would encourage anyone interested to continue studying.

Further Reading:

Is Teaching Children Religion Indoctrination?

This point often comes up in debate: the atheist will claim that teaching your children that your religion is true is indoctrination. They will claim that we should tell our children that our beliefs are merely one among many, or that we should present our beliefs and let our children decide for themselves.

I think for the Christian to do that would be child abuse, or at the very least neglect.

Consider this analogy: should I teach my sons to treat women as being equally valuable to men?

The atheist cannot say “no”. Of course we should teach them that, we should teach them common decency and morality and how to be good people. We shouldn’t leave open to them the option of treating women poorly. We should explain to them why we must treat women as being equally valuable (they are as much persons as you are, etc.) but in the end, they must accept our answer here. Any other answer is unacceptable, and they will be punished for it if they don’t treat women well.

The atheist might say “but we are sure about women being equally valuable to men, we are not sure about religion”. But of course, the Christian is sure about religion. The atheist, if atheism is true, is right in saying that we shouldn’t teach children to be Christians. We shouldn’t teach them false things. But of course the atheist can’t assume atheism to be true to make their point, they are attempting to convince me, a Christian. And if Christianity is true, and if we are sure of it (as I am), then this argument fails.

The atheist might attempt to sidestep this and suggest that since people disagree about religion, even if we are confident ourselves we shouldn’t teach it. But they leave themselves open to the obvious response: people disagree about treating women equally too. Lots of them. I am sure you’ve probably noticed that.

Finally, the atheist says that gender equality is based on reason and evidence, and we present this to our children. While we just force our children to believe Christianity without presenting any reason or evidence. But of course that is false, a good Christian parent is one who makes a compelling age-appropriate case for Christianity. Not only with arguments, but with how they live their own life, full of love and holiness and obedience.

So where does the atheist go from here? Can they make a case that we should teach our sons to treat women as being equally valuable to men, while we should not teach them to follow Christ? I do not think the atheist can make this case.

If God is omniscient, all possible universes exist in his mind, and you shouldn’t expect any specific afterlife.

This is the title of a reddit post which presents a fascinating and original argument against God. It contains some premises that many Christians will be reluctant to accept, but given my particular idiosyncratic ontology and philosophy of mind, it does seem to be effective against me. Unless I can come up with a good response, I may be forced to change some of my beliefs. But it is early days yet. Here is the argument:

  • P1: God exists and is omniscient.
  • P2: Omniscience entails fully detailed, perfect knowledge/representation of everything.
  • P3: “Everything” includes all “possible/hypothetical worlds” (if this is not true, God can’t entertain counterfactuals, which is a pretty weird hole in omniscience).
  • P4: These possible/hypothetical worlds would be known in full, perfect detail/representation (P2)
  • P5: A perfect representation of a person would experience itself as an actual person with consciousness (like a simulation or “matrix”).
  • P6: Some portion of these worlds contain holy books telling them that God has such and such plans for it and the people within (P3).
  • P7: Some percentage of the worlds in P6 in which a given person experiences going to hell, or just living on forever in their body, in whatever sorry state they died in, and every other possible afterlife. Regardless of what they did in life (P3).
  • P8: There are more undesirable afterlives than desirable ones, as there are more ways for something to be miserable or suffering-inducing than for them to be perfect and happy.
  • P9: There is no way to determine whether one is in the specific world God created (if he even created any), or instead exists within a “simulation world” (P5 & P6).
  • P10: There are more “hypothetical/possible” worlds than actual, specifically created ones (trivially true unless he creates all of them, in which case the conclusion is still valid).

 

I give some suggestions towards a response in the thread, but I am not yet convinced I have a good response. Probably there is something simple which I am missing, but I thought I’d share it to praise it for being original, and to get the opportunity to hear other people’s opinions on it.

More fine tuning quotes

Here is a collection of more quotes from notable scientists that support our fine tuning argument. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Drs. Zehavi, and Dekel (cosmologists): “This type of universe, however, seems to require a degree of fine tuning of the initial conditions that is in apparent conflict with ‘common wisdom’.”
  • Ed Harrison (cosmologist): “Here is the cosmological proof of the existence of God – the design argument of Paley – updated and refurbished. The fine tuning of the universe provides prima facie evidence of deistic design. Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes or design that requires only one…. Many scientists, when they admit their views, incline toward the teleological or design argument.”
  • Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”
  • Vera Kistiakowsky (MIT physicist): “The exquisite order displayed by our scientific understanding of the physical world calls for the divine.”
  • Arno Penzias (Nobel prize in physics): “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

Fine Tuning: Why Privilege Life?

When presenting the fine tuning argument, skeptics may respond that we are unduly privileging life as something special in the universe. For example, someone might object that the universe is also fine tuned to produce iPads. Why is the existence of life significant in a way that entails God, but iPads are not? The restriction to life is ad hoc. So here I will give an attempt to respond to this claim, and give some reasons why theism predicts life.

The claim of theism here is that there exists a deity, and by this we mean that there exists an all powerful, all knowing, always good creator of the universe. Or something along those lines. Importantly, we think that God is in some sense the goodest thing possible, perhaps even Goodness Itself. And we also think that God is intelligent. Perhaps God’s intelligence is somewhat different to our intelligence, since God is timeless and unchanging and simple. But still rightly called intelligence.

Since God is good, we can say that in creation, He is pursuing something good. In fact if we believe Leibniz (and I do, this fits well with Calvinism) then we can say that the world God creates is actually the best possible world. The best possible world must include some good things.

I claim now that intelligent beings are some of the goodest things. Since God is Goodness Itself and is intelligent, the least we can say is that intelligence is very good. We can indeed go further and say that intelligence is fundamentally linked to goodness, as all of God’s attributes are. And further still, we can argue that in creating the best possible world, God would create beings in His image. He is Good, so His image bearers must be at least very good.

Given this, we have some pretty good reasons to think that God would design a world that could support not just life, but intelligent life. Many atheists, especially Kantians, think there is something special about humanity, namely: reason. Our ability to reason is unique, and morally significant. Kantians think that reason is the basis for morality. So it seems like the Kantians would agree that if there is a God, then God would create beings with reason. Intelligent beings.

Since we can demonstrate that if theism is true, then the universe will support intelligent life, we can indeed rightly use a fine tuning argument. This is not ad hoc, we have not arbitrarily selected intelligence to examine, we have shown how intelligence is significant for God.

Ligonier West Coast Conference on Apologetics

Ligonier Ministries recently had their 2018 West Coast Conference, this time the topic was Defending the Faith. I have not yet made my way through all the videos, but so far they are very valuable. Here is a link to each video, it doesn’t seem like Ligonier have put them into a playlist yet.