Friday, May 08, 2009

A Defense of Scripture Alone

(Nearly three weeks ago, I had gotten into a debate on MSN with a friend of mine who is an ardent Roman Catholic. Our debate focused mainly on apostolic tradition and the sufficiency of scripture. At the time, I was not adequately prepared to answer every single question that had been posed to me by my colleague. Thus, I have been taking the time doing research and coming up with this response. Though this is by no means an exhaustive defense of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, it is my hope that it will sufficiently deal with the matters that had been presented previously.)

One argument pressed by Roman Catholic apologists against Protestants is based on the canon of scripture. As the argument goes, scripture alone is not sufficient to establish the canon of books that should be included in the bible. Now, how solid is the argument, and how are we to respond to it? We shall see soon enough.

One thing that should be remembered is that Jesus and the apostles frequently appealed to the Old Testament as God-breathed scripture. We can find examples of them appealing to scripture constantly throughout the gospels and epistles, implying that they themselves accepted them as God-breathed. Here, we run into a problem for those who hold to the longer Alexandrian canon immediately: Remember that Jesus was raised in Palestine, and thus must have quoted from the Palestinian canon. The Palestinian Jews accepted the shorter canon which comprised only 22 books. Jesus, having lived in Palestine, most likely relied on this very same canon.

“But wait! The writers of the New Testament quoted the Septuagint (LXX), so they must have accepted the Alexandrian canon.” One may make this argument, but certain things need to be pointed out:

First, the main reasons why the NT writers quote the LXX are twofold: One is that it is written in Greek, which made it more accessible to the Greek-speaking Hellenistic Christians. The other is that the LXX brought out the Christological elements of the OT better than the Hebrew. In any case, this does not mean that the NT writers accepted the Alexandrian canon as authoritative. Second, it should be remembered that the NT writers did not even always quote from the LXX. While they do so several times, they also quote from the original Hebrew text, transliterated into Greek, of course. And third, when Jesus confronts the Aramaic-speaking, Hebrew-reading scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the law, what scripture does Jesus speak to them in? Obviously, He would not be quoting the LXX to them, but would instead be relying on the very same scriptures that His fellow Jews would be using. To quote from Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict:

"There is no evidence whatsoever of any dispute between Him and the Jews as to the canonicity of any Old Testament book." (Young, AOT, 62) [1]

In all of this, it is also important to remember that the books of the Old Testament were inspired because of God, not because of any Jewish council or consensus of rabbis. The Jewish people merely recognize the books that God had inspired for them. As has been Evidence That Demands a Verdict:

The fact is that "no human authority and no council of rabbis ever made an [Old Testament] book authoritative," explains Bible scholar David Ewert. "These books were inspired by God and had the stamp of authority on them from the beginning. Through long usage in the Jewish community their authority was recognized, and in due time they were added to the collection of canonical books." (Ewert, ATMT, 72) [2]

And finally, it is Jesus Himself who makes recognition of the Old Testament, as shown in Luke's gospel:

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
(Luke 24:44)

This aside, we must now address the question of the New Testament. One interesting thing to note is that this early on, Paul’s epistles are already regarded as scripture. This can be seen in Peter’s second epistle, where he states:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.
(2 Peter 3:16)

What’s more, Paul seems to have been aware of the gospel of Luke, and quotes it as scripture. In his first epistle to Timothy, he makes the following quote:

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
(1 Timothy 5:17-18)

The second scripture quoted above is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. A quick search of the Bible shall reveal what scripture Paul is referring to:

And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house.
(Luke 10:7)

So here, we can see that both Paul’s epistles and the gospel of Luke were already deemed scripture almost from the very beginning of the history of Christianity.

Nevertheless, it may be argued that this still does not give an inerrant canon of the entire New Testament. This must be conceded. However, is an inerrant canon absolutely necessary? I would contend that it is not so, and for this cause, I shall appeal to the facts of church history as my witness.

Now, it should already be known that the NT canon was left unsettled for a long time. For the Roman Catholic Church, it was only finalized at the Council of Trent in 1546. For the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was only finalized at the Council of Jerusalem in 1672. (link 1) (link 2)

What this means is that for 15 centuries, the NT canon had been left unsettled, and that this had been the case for all the branches of Christendom, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic. This did not seem to bother the early church, though. It has been well documented that many of the early church fathers quoted the NT books as scripture.

In the 2nd century, Irenaeus, for example, lists all of the four gospels, and quotes from most of the NT books, excluding Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Jude. In the 3rd century, Origen lists the same books, but adds Hebrews to his list of books that he accepts into the canon. (link 1) (link 2) (link 3)

Nevertheless, it is Athanasius who provides the oldest complete canon of the New Testament we have that is still available today in his 39th festal letter (written in 367 AD).

In his list, he lists 22 books of the Old Testament (which is virtually identical to the Jewish canon except for the omission of Esther), and lists the extra books of the LXX (plus Esther) as non-canonical books, which he nevertheless deems suitable for reading. Plus, he lists every book of the New Testament, the oldest surviving list to do so. (link)

Remember that throughout history, the early church fathers have appealed to scripture to support their views. Yet these early church fathers had neither pope nor council to provide them with any infallible canons. Why is this so? The answer is very simple: They did not need an infallible canon. We can find innumerable examples of Christians from the early centuries quoting the books that we now refer to as scriptures. They did not need a council or a pope telling them whether or not these books were scripture. Of course, here the inevitable objection must be laid out: “What about Sacred Tradition? The fathers made use of that, had they not?” Of course, this argument does not work so well. Bear in mind that the early church fathers had diverse views, some views even contradicting what Rome today teaches (so much for unanimous consent).

But how are we to apply this to the canon? Rome claims apostolic tradition as the source of its canon, as seen in paragraph 120 from the Roman Catholic Catechism:

It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books. This complete list is called the canon of Scripture. It includes 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New. (link)

Unfortunately for Rome, one cannot make a case that there is some sort of infallible extra-biblical tradition that can authoritatively define what the canon is, as is evident from the gradual development of the canon as we have it today.

(A quick note: I am not denying that tradition actually exists at all. There is tradition, no doubt, but I simply do not consider these extra-biblical traditions to be inspired or inerrant as the scriptures are.)

But, even if we suppose that extra-biblical tradition (infallible or not) really defines the canon, it would still not justify Rome’s claims. Whenever an early church father lists a canon of scripture, they tended to come closer to the shorter canon (although it is not exactly the same, sometimes they dropped Esther).

Athanasius’ 39th Festal Letter lists 22 books from the shorter Jewish canon (minus Esther), and specifically mentions that the extra books are non-canonical (with the notable exception of Baruch). Interestingly, in this same text, Athanasius states the following regarding the scriptures:

These are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these. For concerning these The Lord put to shame the Sadducees, and said, ‘Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.’ And He reproved the Jews, saying, ‘Search the Scriptures, for these are they that testify of Me. (link)

Melito of Sardis in Eusebius’ Church History gives the same list, which he says he had “learned accurately”. (link)

Victorinus’ commentary on the Apocalypse of John (known today as the book of Revelation) mentions that the Old Testament has only 24 books. (link)

Rufinus specifically denies that the extra books are canonical, instead stating that they are “ecclesiastical”, and “read in the Churches, but not appealed to for the confirmation of doctrine”. Interestingly enough, Rufinus states that “these are the traditions which the Fathers have handed down to us”, in reference to the shorter canon of scripture. Thus, whatever sacred tradition may exist, it is not on the side of Rome, at least not on the issue of the canon. (link)

And finally, there’s Jerome, probably the most famous example of an early church father rejecting the extra books as non-canonical. [3]

“But wait, there are early church fathers who do list the deuterocanonicals as scripture!” That may be so, but this still does not support Rome’s case. Even where the fathers list books from the LXX, one is hard pressed to find a canon that is identical to Rome’s.

For example, the apostolic constitutions list Judith, three (NOT two) of the Maccabees, and the wisdom of Sirach, but leaves out the rest of the extra books. (link)

Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lecture on the Ten Points of Doctrine only lists Baruch, and leaves out all the other extra books. (link)

The canon that is provided by Rome is supposedly first given by the Council of Rome in 382. But what is this council? The New Catholic Encyclopedia only makes one brief reference to it (and gives the date as 374 rather than 382 as per other sources). Unfortunately, no formal account remains of its proceedings. The alleged “Damasine List” which lists the same canon that was promulgated under Trent is really nothing more than a theory advanced by a Jesuit priest named Faustino Arevalo, who supposed that a certain document appended to the “Gelasian Decretal” (which came out a century after the supposed date of the Council of Rome) was actually from the aforementioned Council. (link 1) (link 2)

Even granting that Arevalo was somehow correct in his judgment, the fact remains that the Council of Rome was only a local synod, and whatever decrees were promulgated there would only have taken effect within its own province. Other provinces have drawn up canons of scripture as well, and some of these are dissimilar to Rome’s. Why all this inconsistency? Well, the thing is that we don’t really have an infallible canon. We have infallible books, yes, but we have, as theologian R.C. Sproul once put it, a “fallible collection of infallible books”.[4] I believe that the respectable biblical scholar Dr. Bruce Metzger said it best when he made the following statement in The Case for Christ:

When the pronouncement was made about the canon, it merely ratified what the general sensitivity of the church had already determined. You see, the canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn’t derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together. The early church merely listened and sensed that these were authoritative accounts.

For someone now to say that the canon emerged only after councils and synods made these pronouncements would be like saying, ‘Let’s get several academies of musicians to make a pronouncement that the music of Bach and Beethoven is wonderful.’ I would say, ‘Thank you for nothing! We knew that before the pronouncement was made.’ We know it because of sensitivity to what is good music and what is not. The same with the canon. [5]

Finally, when Athanasius confronts the Arian heretics and refutes their doctrines, what does he appeal to? Scripture, of course. Scripture was sufficient for him, and scripture was clear enough for him to be able to make his points based off of it. He did not need a council or a pope to tell him which books were scripture, neither did he need to appeal to any extrabiblical tradition. (link)

All of this proves that the Roman Catholic claim that we need Rome’s infallible decrees to know what the contents of the biblical canon are is patently false. The canon given by Rome is not based on “apostolic tradition” like it claims it is. Furthermore, the early church fathers never needed an infallible decree for them to be able to make use of scripture. So, what was good enough for them ought to be good enough for us. I believe there should be no inconsistency or illogic if I were to agree with what saints Theodoret and Ambrose have said before:

“I shall yield to scripture alone.” (link)

“For how can we adopt those things which we do not find in the holy Scriptures?” (link)

End Notes
1. McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands a Verdict. 1979. p. 27.
2. Ibid. p. 26
3. St. Jerome. Prefaces to the Books of the Vulgate Old Testament.
4. Sproul, R.C. Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine. 2005. p.40-43.
5 . Strobel, Lee. The Case For Christ. 1998. p. 68.

(Special thanks to Matt Gumm for providing me with pages 26-28 from Evidence That Demands a Verdict.)

My Roman colleague has written his response, and has posted it here. My friend has requested everyone to refrain from posting on his blog, to prevent people spamming him "like nutties". If anyone has any comments to make, just make them here on my blog instead. Thanks.

UPDATE 2 (May 26, 2009)
Though it is a bit tempting to post a counter-response (in fact, I was asked if I wanted to, but I was undecided on the matter at the time), I don't think I have adequate resources at the moment. For now, all I can do is post a few blog posts and web articles that can explain further and perhaps give answers to some of the arguments raised by my colleague. They will be listed below.

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