Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sola Scriptura and the scope of the canon: a reflection on my philosophical reflection

Oddly, many have interpreted my argument here as a version of the "Sola Scriptura is self-refuting" argument. It could be read that way, but that would be a mistake, since that was not my intention and nor is it a fair reading of what I actually penned.

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 did not suggest that argument in that prior blog entry.

What I suggested 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.

One of the temptations to which many of us succumb (including yours truly) is to read a person with which one disagrees as offering the least plausible version of his case. I suspect this is why some of you--though I impute only benign intent--have mistakenly read my reflection as a version of "SS is self-refuting."

For the record, I see nothing non-Protestant in my Protestant brothers and sisters suggesting that our knowledge of the canon's scope depends on extra-biblical revelation such as the Holy Spirit's work in the believer's heart and/or in the historical development of the Church in its earliest centuries. Both, of course, lead to other questions that elicit their own difficulties and possible answers. But I do not think that either route is indefensible or prima facie irrational.

(Update: Just came across a commentary on my original post by a fellow named Howard Fisher. Mr. Fisher opines:

First, I would love to ask how Mr. Beckwith knows there are 66 books of the Bible. He would obviously say, as a Roman Catholic, that it is the RC church's authority to tell us this information. Of course, then I would ask how he knows the church has this authority. Of which he would then explain that Jesus told us in Matthew 16 that Rome has this authority. To which I would then ask how he knows Matthew 16 is God's Word. He would then respond by saying the church says so. To which I would ask...I think you might get the point now.

Catholic theological reasoning is not modernist, as what one often finds in some enclaves of the Fundamentalist Protestant world, as exemplified by Mr. Fisher's series of odd queries and speculations about my alleged answers to them. Catholics don't begin with doubt and try to find a first clear and distinct idea ("scripture alone," e.g.) from which to deduce a linear series of fundamental doctrines and beliefs about church government. Rather, we begin with what we think we have good reason to believe is true: the Catholic Church in the present is identical to the apostolic church of the first century. It is, to be sure, far more developed in both theology and ecclesiology, but the seeds for such development were present from the start. Thus, we don't cite Matthew 16 as evidence of this. Rather, we read Matthew 16 in light of the history and development that has already taken place. We believe in order to understand, to paraphrase St. Augustine.

So, the Catholic is as confident of the church's authority as he is of the authority of Scripture, since, for the Catholic, the latter is the book of the former. Just as you can't have a human being without a soul, you can't have the Bible without a Church. For the Catholic, there are not two things for which we must account, Church and Bible. Rather, there is one thing--Christ in the world--that provides us with both Church and Written Word. Just as Jesus was both flesh and Logos, the Church and its authority is manifested in both Magisterium and Scripture.

For the Catholic, as well as many Protestants, Christianity is not merely a set of propositions to which one must assent. Rather, it is the Gospel of the Word made flesh. It is the good news that we may participate in the divine life. But it is not about Christ being an individual's "personal Savior." Rather, it is about becoming an adopted son of the Father and being in communion with all members of Christ's body, both living and dead.

I, of course, understand that many Protestants do not share this account of Christ and His Church. But for Catholics it seems to us to best account for the phenomenon and authority of Scripture, the development of doctrine, and the role of the Church and its authority in the reading of the first and the orthodoxy of the second.)


Zach said...

Dr. Beckwith,

I'm trying to understand your summary of the SS-is-self-refuting argument. Did you intend to write: "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 true doctrine"?

I'm one of those who sometimes has a tendency to conflate this argument with the one you actually made regarding the canon. Thanks for highlighting the differences.

Francis J. Beckwith said...

Thanks Zach. I think I made a boo, boo. It's been changed.

Nick said...

I see the "SS is self refuting" argument as perfectly sound and applicable to the 'classical' understanding of SS.

First, by 'self-refuting' I mean it contains a contradiction within itself, meaning it cannot be true. So if I gave instructions saying "you may ONLY eat apples, but sometimes oranges," that is a contradiction and thus self-refuting proposition.

My reasoning for SS is as follows:

(1) SS teaches (in a nutshell) only teachings derived from Scripture are binding on Christians.

(2) SS is a teaching binding on Christians.

(3) Thus, SS must be taught in the Scriptures.

(4) IF SS is NOT taught in the Scriptures, there is a contradiction with item (1) - thus it's self-refuting.

Now, Catholics don't believe SS is taught in the Scriptures, so we would say it's self-refuting.

HOWEVER, many Protestants fall prey to item (4) unintentionally by effectively saying "Sola Scriptura doesn't have have to taught in Scripture to be true." Most don't phrase it in that way, but it often comes in the form of "The Scripture is an authority, and I'll take it as my ONLY authority UNLESS someone (e.g. a Catholic) steps up and demonstrates another inspired authority." That, however, is merely a variation of "SS doesn't have to be taught in Scripture."

The line of reasoning where SS is 'assumed true unless proven otherwise' is at most 'negative proof', and clearly falls into the self-refuting category, for one is assuming the teaching rather than getting it from a divine mandate via the Scriptures (i.e. 'positive proof').

LASTLY: A Protestant can say Scripture teaches SS, at which point THEY wouldn't fall prey to item (4), though they (still) shoulder the burden of proof to prove SCRIPTURE ITSELF teaches SS.

David Charkowsky said...

Dr. Beckwith,

What I'm hearing in synthesis is that Sola-Scriptura Christians and Catholic Christians alike are highly dependent upon various things exterior to their formally recognized authority on divine revelation. Furthermore, no matter what we do, we can't eliminate the variable of our fallible human faculties from the economy of salvation. (Perhaps it's important for us to recognize and embrace this limitation the Creator designed into our humanity?)

Moreover, the good news is that while fallible human faculties are a variable in the economy of salvation, it is a variable whose significance tends towards zero with time because the God of Justice ultimately judges us according to conscience---according to our obedience to the truth we actually possess, not by our mere "hearing the law" nor by "circumcision" alone (cf. Rom 2).

Constantine said...

Dr. Beckwith,

I don’t think it is accurate to say that 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.”

Protestant scholars have cited the 66 books as disproof of the additional 7.

As to the extent of the canon, they cite Luke 11:50-51 which shows Jesus referring specifically to the Hebrew canon (some also cite Luke 24:44). As to the limits of the canon, they cite Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32 and Proverbs 30:6. (Revelation 22:18 could also be added.) As to Divine authorization of both its extent and its limits, they cite Matthew 5:17-20.

So Protestants have cited the 66 and done so conclusively. And they have done so without begging the question.


Nick said...

Constantine, those passages are begging the question. Though a percentage of the "66" are referenced as Scripture, not all are, thus it's begging the question.

Constantine said...

I think we’ve missed each other on this, Nick.

Jesus didn’t affirm just a part (“percentage”) of the OT – He confirmed every pen stroke. In other words, Jesus Himself said that every pen stroke in EVERY book of the OT was Scripture – not just a “percentage”. So the point is not that I’m using the Bible to prove the Bible – or just selected passages to prove the Bible - but rather that we are using the words of Christ to prove the Bible. And Christ is the end of the epistemological road.

Hebrews 6:13 shows how God uses God to prove God. That's not begging the question or circular reasoning. What higher authority could God appeal to for proof of Himself? Christ is simply the end of the epistemological road. And His affirmation of the Hebrew canon cannot be subjected to any higher authority for there is none.


Nick said...

My point wasn't that he affirmed a 'percentage' in the sense He only considered a fraction of the OT to actually be Scripture, but rather one cannot derive the OT canon simply by noting all the OT references the NT makes (because the NT doesn't quote all the OT books).

In short, using the methodology "if the NT quotes OT book X, then X must be canonical," one cannot derive the complete OT canon.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Constantine said:

Jesus Himself said that every pen stroke in EVERY book of the OT was Scripture

Constantine, there appear to me here to be two unspoken assumptions:

1) that 'the OT' was a well-defined accepted body of writings at the time of Jesus;

2) that the concept of 'Scripture' as opposed to 'non-Scripture' was well-defined.

I don't know enough about these things to speak with authority, but I should have thought both presuppositions less than 100% obvious.

And to the extent the first is correct, I have always been given to understand that 'the OT' at the time of Jesus was generally taken in the form of the Septuagint - which certainly contains the 7 books which Protestants dispute.

Just wonder what you think!


John Thayer Jensen said...

PS - I guess what I am saying is that Jesus's confirmation of the authority of something called the Law and the Prophets does not, in itself, tell us anything about the content of the Law and the Prophets.

Jesus does make explicit reference to some of the OT books - not all, I believe - but even that is not the same as affirming their authority, is it? I mean, St Paul appears to refer (Acts 17) to some pagan philosopher, but that doesn't have to mean that St Paul thought of that philosopher as on, say, a par with Moses.


Francis J. Beckwith said...

John makes a good point: what was Jesus' understanding of what we call the OT? We can, of course, propose accounts that seem to establish the Catholic or the Protestant point of view. But it seems that the evidence fails to conclusively exclude either position (though I think the Catholic position on balance is far more plausible).

However, given that fact that the Early Church (with few exceptions) seemed to embrace the deuterocanonical books as Scripture, and the only time any identifiable group of Christians claimed to authoritatively pronoune them as definitively non-canonical is in the 16th century, I think it is wise to err on the side of Augustine and his predecessors and successors rather than with Luther and Calvin and their successors.

As J. N. D. Kelly writes in Early Christian Doctrine:

It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative by the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than . . . the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism . . . It always included, though varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocryphal or deutero-canonical books. The reason for this is that the Old Testament which passed in the first instance into the hands of Christians was not the original Hebrew version, but the Greek translation known as the Septuagint. . . . In the first centuries at any rate the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and treated them without question as Scripture.

It is clear, then, that the burden to exclude the deuterocanonical books is on the Protestant, since the default position historically has been their inclusion. But in order to exclude them, you have to do more than just show there is a plausible case to exclude them. You have to show that there is no good case to include them, for as long as there is a reasonable case that they should be included, a wise person should want to err on the side of having a complete canon.

John Thayer Jensen said...

In the interests of complete disclosure, I should say here that the question of the authority for the canon and for why I should consider it inspired was one of the things that, in 1984, brought me at last, 10 years later, to enter the Catholic Church.