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.