Friday, April 15, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The sola scriptura problems (Part III)


Authority over the Bible

In Part I, we saw how the basic premise of sola scriptura (only Scripture is infallible) must implicitly contradict Scriptural promises of either the Holy Spirit’s guidance or the Holy Spirit’s reliability to be true. In Part II, we saw how sola scriptura effectively and logically denies anyone the authority of the Spirit, including the Protestant defender of sola scriptura.

Part III builds on both the previous parts, because authoritative teaching necessarily entails authority over Scripture’s interpretation and the doctrines that can be derived over it. Since Scripture is literally “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16, theรณpneustos), giving it God’s authority, the person or institution who attempts to fashion doctrine from it must also have God’s authority to do so if the exercise isn’t to be one of astounding chutzpah verging on hubris.

But before we can decide what doctrines are supported by Scripture, we must decide what books are Scripture. This isn’t as obvious as it looks; besides the Protestant emendations which cast several books out of the Catholic canon, other groups look to add or subtract as befits their needs. For example, the “Jesus Seminar” wants to add The Gospel of Thomas, and the Latter-Day Saints propose the Book of Mormon for our acceptance.


Many if not most people are quite foggy—if not completely ignorant—about the formation of the Bible. We constantly talk about it as if it came to us as a single work, when we at least ought to be aware that it’s a collection of smaller works. The books of the Bible weren’t put together in a single codex for some centuries; so far as they were put together at all, they were put together on lists, or canons, of inspired works. But who decided which books would be part of the canons, and why?

Here’s the kind of ignorance I mean:

The Old Testament came together quite simply. The main criterion in determining whether a book should be included in the canon pertained to its author. Prophetic authorship was essential. If the author were known to be a prophet of God, his works were preserved. This was obviously at the direction of God.[1]

This is simply “making it up as you go”; worse, it doesn’t answer the questions “who” and “why” except to invoke the direction of God. In fact, the main criterion for determining the Old Testament was that the individual books had been held so by the Jews prior to Christ, and that the New Testament authors cited them either directly or indirectly. The four Gospel accounts of Christ’s life and works were accepted as authoritative almost immediately; only a few of the letters and Revelation were doubted and debated, and most of that had ended by the year 200.

However, over time, heretics such as the Gnostics began producing bogus “gospels” (e.g. Gospel of Judas) and dubious acts and letters (e.g. Acts of Paul and Thecla). At the same time, some communities used writings from second- and third-generation Christians. Determining the canons of authentic inspired Scripture was thus a conscious move to protect the integrity of the gospel message, to prevent presbyters from using flawed source material for catechesis and apologetics.

We know the “why”; now for the “who”. The hard thing for even well-educated and open-minded Evangelicals to admit is that it was the bishops of the Church who decided which books would be listed in the canons.

In 383, Pope Damasus I called an ecumenical council in Rome, which made the first authoritative declaration of the canons; further councils in Hippo (392) and Carthage III (397) confirmed the lists, which Damasus had used to commission St. Jerome to produce the first Latin (Vulgate) translations. In 405, Pope Innocent I sent the lists to an inquiring Bishop Exsuperius of Toulouse, declaring the matter “closed”.

In recent years, various anti-Catholics have attempted to reconstruct the canons according to internal criteria, to avoid conceding the bishops’ inspiration by the Holy Spirit, with little success. Others have claimed that Ss. Peter, Paul and John determined the canons, citing 2 Timothy 4:13, 2 Peter 3:15-16 and Revelation 22:18-19 as their grounds; however, none of these passages actually gives us a canon, nor is any such listing attested to by the Church Fathers.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great Church Father who lived near the end of the Empire and who helped legislate the canons of the Bible, put the matter thus to the Manichaeans:

Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichaeus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental 5:6).

It’s just this last point which makes Protestant apologists squirm. Saith Augustine unabashedly states, “I wouldn’t believe the (written) gospel if the Catholic Church had not told me to believe it.” His argument remains valid to this day: We would not know the Scriptures to be the inspired word of God had not the Catholic Church declared them so. Only they had the God-given authority to declare books “inspired” or not.

This brings up the obvious questions: Who gave Martin Luther the authority to pull four letters out of the New Testament and stick them in the back of the book as “not inspired, but good to read”? Who gave the authors of the Westminster Confession of Faith the authority to drop the deuterocanonical books from the Old Testament? What gives the “Jesus Seminar” the authority to add The Gospel of Thomas to the NT canon?

How can the Bible give anyone the authority to determine what should be in the Bible?

In sum:


  • Determining the composition of Scripture presumes God-given authority over Scripture, an authority Martin Luther and the Westminster Confession assumed as much as did the Council of Trent.

Part I: The central dilemma
Part II: Sola scriptura and the preacher's authority


[1] Tony Coffey, Once a Catholic (1993), p. 37.