Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sola Scriptura and the canon of Scripture: a philosophical reflection

Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-Biblical theological knowledge. Take for example a portion of the revised and expanded Evangelical Theological Society statement of faith suggested by the two ETS members following my return to the Catholic Church. (The proposed change failed to garner enough votes for passage, losing by a 2-1 margin). It states that “this written word of God consists of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments and is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behavior.” But the belief that the Bible consists only of 66 books is not a claim of Scripture—since one cannot find the list in it—but a claim about Scripture as a whole. That is, the whole has a property—“consisting of 66 books”—that is not found in any of the parts. In other words, if the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-Biblical.

Where have I gone wrong in this reasoning?

25 comments:

amtheomusings said...

Your reasoning isn't wrong; I have been pressing some Evangelical friends with more or less the same line of reasoning (just on how they know we as Christians are supposed to accept that the Bible is inerrant) and so far received answers that I have pointed out could only be solved through a visible infallible authority, i.e. the Catholic Church.

Stephen Weltz said...

From what I can tell, the response is usually "you too". They wouldn't say that your reasoning is wrong, only that it doesn't prove anything.

We both have to choose our authority fallibly. They fallibly choose to follow 66 books of the Bible, and we fallibly choose to follow the Roman Catholic Church (which includes the Bible, Tradition, etc.). So I think they would argue that we are in the same epistemological boat, that is, we both must choose what to trust as divine revelation before we have divine revelation to help us choose.

Unless I misunderstood what you are saying, or what they are saying.

Jae said...

It is not about the inerrancy and sufficiency of the Scriptures BUT the correct meaning and interpretation of the teachings of the said Book which the Apostolic Tradition of the Church comes in.

In a gameball, if dispute arises between opposing teams we need a referee/arbiter to make judgment and pass a decision without which even if you have the manual/handbook the game would still be in chaos.

David Charkowsky said...

@Steven Weltz

Would you agree there's a major difference between a visible infallible authority that cannot (and does not) define the canon of Scripture and a visible infallible authority that can (and does) define the canon of Scripture?

To "choose fallibly" an infallible authority to pass judgment on something that it cannot (and does not) pass judgment upon sounds highly defective to me. It's a non-starter.

Jae said...

Kudos Dr. Beckwith, well said, very logical, very true.

Jae said...

Kudos Dr. Beckwith, well said, your statement makes a lot of sense and very logical, cool!

orthocath said...

Very well put. For me, as a Protestant it was harder to accept the idea that the canon of Old Testament and the New Testament was established by some unknown authority or by some sort of common agreement.

Duane said...

The reasoning is perfectly sound, but as a convert from protestant tradition I believe we must tread carefully on this point. Protestants should be applauded for the high regard they give to the Bible, but they do so in such an exclusive and literalist way (generally speaking, here) that even-handed observations like this can come off as disparaging and play into the caricature of the Bible-illiterate Catholic.

I don't know immediately what remedy would work. Perhaps in the spirit of ecumenical outreach we should explain to protestants how we are thankful that the Holy Spirit has guided the church in defending the cannon of scripture. Once this (potential) common ground is established it may be effective to point out the inherent need for interpretive authority in matters of Scripture.

Stephen Weltz said...

David,

I think I see what you're saying now (it took me a while). If you focus purely on choosing the canon, it seems like there is no contest. We Catholics have an authority to identify it and Protestants don't.

But the Protestant response is that we have merely pushed the question back a step. They have to identify their authority (Scripture) without an authority to help them. We also have to identify our authority (The Church, along with Scripture and Tradition) without an authority to help us choose.

You asked if there's a difference between a visible authority that identifies the canon and one that doesn't. There is, but Protestants don't choose their visible authority in order to choose the canon. For them, choosing their visible authority IS choosing the canon, because the Bible is their visible authority. For us, choosing our visible authority is choosing the Church. When you ask Protestants how they know the canon is the canon, they can just as easily ask how you know the Church is the Church. Both will have to argue without an appeal to a visible infallible authority.

The only major difference I can see in the two processes is that after Catholics choose their authority, the authority confirms their decision (Scripture, Tradition, and the Church support and each other and hold each other up), while a Protestant gets no such confirmation from his authority that he chose the right books(since, as Dr. Beckwith pointed out, the Bible does not tell us the canon).

Hodge said...

Roman Catholic: The Scripture is identified by the Church and that Church is continued through the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformed Church is a break off in the sixteenth century.

Magisterial Reformers: The Scripture is identified by the Church and that Church is continued through the Reformed/Prot Churches. The Roman Catholic Church is a break off in the sixteenth century.

Radical Reformers: The Scripture is identified by the individual in the same way that God led the Fathers to identify the Scripture, i.e., via the Holy Spirit's guidance.

How is it not the case, in any of these systems, that an individual choice (possibly fallible) must be made in which system to trust? How is it that any of them pose the idea that their systems cannot speak to the issue of the canon. They all are capable of doing this. Whether we speak of the RCC, EO, MR, or RR, one is trusting that they have trusted in the right system that produces the correct view of the canon. I do think the RR are relying on historical precedence in order to make that decision, but that still does not negate the idea that the HS has led them. Maybe I'm missing the force of the argument, but I don't see how any of the systems are different, except that one out of four of them does not provide external feedback.

Constantine said...

Sorry to have to disagree with amtheomusings and jae but Dr. Beckwith's "reasoning" is pretty faulty.

Here's why.

FB Wrote:

In other words, if the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-Biblical.

Where have I gone wrong in this reasoning?


Reply:

For a deductive argument to be useful it must be sound which means both that its conclusion follows necessarily from its premises (i.e. its valid) and that its premises are true. Unfortunately, your syllogism is both invalid and unsound. Let’s take a look.

Your syllogism may be properly displayed thusly:
1. If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief and the number of books is a belief
2. and one cannot find that belief in any of the books
3. then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief

But this deduction is invalid because the conclusion (#3) does not follow necessarily from either premise (#1 or #2).

To be a valid deduction it would have to take either of the following forms:
1. If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief and the number of books is a belief
2. and one cannot find that belief in any of the books,
3. then the 66 books are NOT the supreme authority on matters of belief – OR – then the number of books is NOT a belief.

In this case, either of the two conclusions follows necessarily from the premises 1 & 2. (Your conclusion that the belief in 66 books is extra-biblical is really another premise and not a conclusion.)

But in addition to being invalid, your deduction is unsound. Unsound means that whether or not the conclusion follows the premises necessarily, the premises are false. Take for example your first premise: “If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief and the number of books is a belief.” We can substitute your definition “number of books is a belief” for the actual number ( “66 books”) and we get: “If my belief that the right number of canonical books is 66 is the supreme authority on matters of belief…”. So your belief is the supreme authority for matters of belief? You’ve argued yourself into a circle. A circular premise is, by definition, unsound and so your argument fails.

So to answer your question – “Where have I gone wrong in this reasoning?” – you have presented an unsound argument for your case. You have used false premises and come to unnecessary conclusions.

Here’s an interesting deduction for you:

1. If Jesus affirmed the Protestant canon, then it must be true and complete.
2. Jesus did affirm the Protestant canon,
3. Therefore, the Protestant canon is true and complete.

There is no doubt that this is a perfectly valid deduction. But if you were to deny it, you would have to prove it unsound. Interesting challenge, huh?

Peace.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

You divided the conditional statement. Conditionals are whole statements.

In order to properly assess the argument, you have to keep the conditionals intact, or at least rewrite them in a way that is true to the original claims.

So, let's do it. Here's the section you diagramed:

If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-Biblical.

Here are the diagrams I suggest, which I think are more true to the reasoning found in my post:

Argument A
1. If the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, then the belief that the Bible consists of 66 books should be found in the Bible.

2. It is not the case that the belief that the Bible consists of 66 books is found in the Bible

Therefore, it is not the case that the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief.

This is a modus tollens, a valid argument form:
If A, B
~B
Thus, ~A

Argument B
1. If the belief that the Bible consists of 66 particular books cannot be found in Scripture, it is extra-biblical.
2. The belief that the Bible consists of 66 particular books cannot be found in Scripture
Therefore, the belief that the belief that the Bible consists of 66 particular books is extra-biblical.

This is a modus ponens, a valid argument form:
If A, B
A
Thus, B

I am confident that the premises are true, since I have yet to find a list of the canon in Scripture. But we shouldn't expect it, since the totality of the canon is a property of the whole and not its parts.

Hodge said...

Frank, what if I proposed this instead:

1. If God is the supreme authority on matters of belief,
2. and the 66 books manifest that God has spoken in them.
3. Then the 66 books have supreme authority on matters of belief.

Isn't the real question how we know that God has spoken through these books? If that is the case, then the examples I gave above provide a basis for believing in them apart from the books having to be listed in the Canon itself, do they not?

I'm a Magisterial guy who believes the Church has authority to identify and interpret the Scripture, so I don't really need the argument above; but could not the solo positions argue this?

CathApol said...

Greetings Dr. Beckwith,
I posted a response to Steve Hays from Triablogue, and included your comments, adding some of my own to yours.

http://cathapol.blogspot.com/2010/01/sola-scriptura-self-refuting.html

God be with you,

Scott<<<

Howard Fisher said...

I think part of the debate between both sides is a misunderstanding of the Protestant position. For instance, it was said,

"But the Protestant response is that we have merely pushed the question back a step. They have to identify their authority (Scripture) without an authority to help them. We also have to identify our authority (The Church, along with Scripture and Tradition) without an authority to help us choose."

1) The premise seems to be that one must have an ultimate infallible authority outside of God Himself to know what is Scripture.

2) Another caricature and false premise is that Protestants don't believe in the witness of the church or her testimony to what is Scripture. The quote above makes it sound like each and every Protestant just shows up and catches a book that fell out of the sky and must be his own infallible pope to believe it is from God.

Perhaps William Whittacker's book Disputations On Holy Scripture may be of help to Roman Catholics who wish to understand what Protestants actually believe (of course it doesn't help when most Protestants actually fit the description due to their ignorance on the subject). Perhaps reading Calvin's Institutes would be of help as well.

Hey, perhaps Protestants should start reading too! :-)

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Hodge writes:

1. If God is the supreme authority on matters of belief,
2. and the 66 books manifest that God has spoken in them.


Can't do it. Conditionals--"if, then statements"--are compound statements, but they cannot be divided. For each conditional is one statement a piece, consisting of two parts: an antecedent (first part) and a consequent (second part). The first is a sufficient condition for the second, and the second is a necessary condition for the first.

Stephen Weltz said...

Howard,

Maybe I wasn't clear enough, but you misunderstood what I was trying to say.

I was saying that a certain argument that Catholics use against Protestants is a bad one (this is not the one Dr. Beckwith is using). The fact that my attempt to expose a bad Catholic argument was taken as an attack on Protestantism indicates that I need to learn to write more clearly.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Oddly, many have interpreted my argument as a version of the "Sola Scriptura is self-refuting" argument. It could be read that way, but that was not my intention.

The SS is self-refuting argument goes something like this: since the doctrine of SS is not found in Scripture, and SS teaches that all true doctrine is found in Scripture, therefore SS is not a true doctrine.

Because I am not convinced that every version of SS falls prey to this fallacy (though it may be weak for other reasons), I have not suggested that argument here.

What I am suggesting is that without extra-Biblical theological knowledge--whether it is from the Holy Spirit, the Church's Magisterium, or some criteria of canonicity--it is difficult to figure out how one arrives at 66 particular books (73 in the case of Catholics and Orthodox) that constitute Scripture.

Consider, for example, the dispute between Catholics and Protestants over whether the deuterocanonical books belong in Scripture. Neither Protestants nor Catholics cite Scripture (the other 66 books) as authoritative on this matter, since the question is whether the Scripture is the 66 or the 73. The Catholic couldn't cite the 66 since he or she does not believe that the 66 is "the Bible" without the 7. And the Protestant couldn't cite the 66 without begging the question, since the issue to be resolved is whether the 7 belong with the 66.

My reflection was really prodded by some recent reading on natural theology, and that got me thinking about the necessity of non-biblical theological knowledge in the formation of the canon. The paragraphs in that post were adapted from portions of Return to Rome, where I was not arguing against sola scriptura, but rather, explaining how the Catholic and Protestant views of biblical authority (in the context of the ETS's doctrinal basis) require non-biblical grounds for their claim.

See more on this here: http://tinyurl.com/yzz4l2u

Lothair Of Lorraine said...

Over at AOM a rather venomous fellow who goes by 'turrentinfan' or something has actually claimed that the canonical scriptures are a given in the doctrine of sola scriptura. Is he kidding with this kind of sophism? Doesn't he realize that the same claim, if made circa 200AD, would leave him with a much differnet list of canonical books [e.g. Muratorian Fragment]. He is actually declaring the LIST of books as infallible while pretending that the whole thing started within the breakaway philosophers of the 'reformation'.

Hodge said...

OK, I now have to address you as Dr. Beckwith for a moment, because I'm going to ask a logic question to you as a prof.

Based on what you said, is the problem only that I placed the syllogism in an "if-then" conditional, so can it stand as follows:

1. God is the supreme authority on matters of belief.
2. The 66 books manifest that God has spoken in them.
3. Therefore, the 66 books have supreme authority on matters of belief.

or does that still not accomplish the task?

I also have to apologize for misreading you. I thought you were making the "SS is self refuting" argument as well. Thanks for the clarification. I see your point much better now.

Joe Heschmeyer said...

Frank:

Not that you need it, but here's my take:
http://catholicdefense.blogspot.com/2010/01/beckwith-v-turretinfan-on-sola.html

I think your most recent comment on this thread is a really important one, probably worth its own post. Pax Christi!

marycatelli said...

No, Hodge. Even as you stated it, it does not hold together.

Because, surely you would say that each of the 66 books manifest that God has spoken in each of them. That we don't in fact have 66 books of which God has spoken in some parts.

But for your argument to hold together, you would therefore have to say that Isaiah has supreme authority on matters of belief. Which would give us 65 "supreme" authorities, not one.

Jae said...

Hodge said:

"1. God is the supreme authority on matters of belief.
2. The 66 books manifest that God has spoken in them.
3. Therefore, the 66 books have supreme authority on matters of belief."

No. 2 is a conclusion by itself - how can you prove that God has spoken through the 66 books? The dispute is about which books among the thousands are inspired and thus included in the "list".

Howard Fisher said...

Stephen wrote, "Maybe I wasn't clear enough, but you misunderstood what I was trying to say."

Actually, I caught that, but then I was very unclear in my response.

I did think this was interesting.

"Consider, for example, the dispute between Catholics and Protestants over whether the deuterocanonical books belong in Scripture. Neither Protestants nor Catholics cite Scripture (the other 66 books) as authoritative on this matter, since the question is whether the Scripture is the 66 or the 73. The Catholic couldn't cite the 66 since he or she does not believe that the 66 is "the Bible" without the 7. And the Protestant couldn't cite the 66 without begging the question, since the issue to be resolved is whether the 7 belong with the 66."

This seems to have the assumptions I was referring to. To clarify, if I were living in the generation after Moses wrote the Exodus, I would not have needed an external infallible authority. Yet who would deny the Israelites witness to the Scriptures?

Ryan said...

Dr. Beckwith, you asked, “Where have I gone wrong in this reasoning?” Well, sir, I believe you went wrong in your very first statement, “Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture…” What you’ve done is set up an artificial criteria (which you already know won’t be met) and basically said that since it isn’t met then it isn’t true. It’s not too much different, for example, than non-Trinitarians arguing that since the word “Trinity” isn’t found in Scripture then the doctrine of the Trinity must not be true.

The Jews already set the Old Testament canon before Christ came and established His church. The same 39 books we use today, no more and no less, were contained in the Jewish Tanakh, just grouped differently. And Christ did refer to this canon: “All things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). Also, Christ and His apostles quoted from 36 of the 39 books (the exceptions being Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs). The Deuterocanonical books, however, recognized by the Roman Catholic Church (Judith, Maccabees, etc.), not only were not included in the Jewish canon but were never quoted by Christ or His apostles. Therefore, if the New Testament doesn’t recognize any of the Deuterocanonical books by quoting from them, then they must not be the word of God.

Roman Catholics also construct the same type of artificial criteria for Sola Scriptura; they say if it isn’t explicitly taught in Scripture then it isn’t true. Yet we know the Old Testament is the word of God because Christ endorsed it. And we know the New Testament is the word of God because it was written by those commissioned by Christ. Up to this point we can be confident that the Scriptures, the 66 books of the Bible, are the word of God. Oral tradition, on the other hand, is claimed to be derived from the same source—the apostles—yet clearly contradicts many times what they wrote. So, how can we accept any additional “authority” that contradicts what we already know to be God’s word? The simple fact that it contradicts the known word of God exposes that it is not the word of God. This is why we claim Sola Scriptura!