This is part three of a response to a paper critiquing The Reformed Protestant Doctrine of Inscripturation and The Fullness of Time.
Part one can be found here: Guest Blog: Response To a Catholic Critique Of The Reformed Protestant Doctrine of Inscripturation (Part One).
Part two can be found here.
Iohannes offered to take a look at Frank’s paper, and provide a critique. His response will be posted here in parts. To really appreciate this interaction, it is essential that one actually first reads the paper posted by Frank Ramirez.
A defense of the Protestant position on Scripture
Here it is needful to demonstrate two things: (a) that the Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice; and (b) that the testimony of an infallible church is not necessary for the reception of the Scriptures as being, with certainty, the word of God. In both cases it will be possible to give only a cursory overview of the subject matter; but nevertheless, this overview will hopefully provide an accurate depiction of the larger issue.
There are many approaches to proving that the Scriptures are the rule of faith and practice, and a thorough, albeit condensed, treatment of this matter is available in the fifth chapter of A.A. Hodge’s Outlines of Theology. Rather than repeat unnecessarily the breadth of the arguments there presented, here we shall focus only on one argument, which is that “Christ and his apostles always refer to the written Scriptures, then existing, as authority, and to no other rule of faith whatsoever.” This does not mean that the word as proclaimed orally in the ministry of Christ and the apostles was without authority. The point is rather that the example of Christ and the apostles shows that for the Church today, “The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, having been given by inspiration of God, are the all-sufficient and only rule of faith and practice, and judge of controversies.”
It was noted at the outset that the Savior’s words in John 5:39 can be read as a command to “search the scriptures.” Even if the imperative reading be rejected in this particular verse, there is abundant witness elsewhere in the Bible to the fact that the Scriptures are the authoritative corpus of divine revelation, and that it is by the standard of Scripture that all teaching is to be tested. To begin with, Christ constantly quoted and appealed to the Scriptures in order to establish his doctrine and defend it against the charges of critics. In this he followed the watchword of Isaiah: “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”
The practice of Christ shows that the law and testimony, as delivered by the oracles of old, was to be found in Scripture. This is exemplified in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Abraham responds to Dives’ entreaty for his brethren by saying, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” Moses and the prophets, though they had perished long ago, were yet still speaking in Christ’s time through their written testimony. Although oral traditions about the teachings of the prophets may have survived at that time, nevertheless the definitive account of the prophets’ doctrine was in fact the written word. This is shown, for example, in Luke 24:27: “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (cf. vs. 44) When the risen Lord wished to show the disciples ‘all that the prophets had spoken’ about himself, he took them through all the scriptures, since that is where the prophets’ revelation was authoritatively recorded for the church. As Hodge said, it is significant that in his ministry on earth Christ both taught with his own authority and appealed to the authority of Scripture, but nowhere does it appear that he recognized any further rule of faith.
Christ’s practice continued after his ascension, as is shown by the letters and history of the apostles. The apostles not only taught authoritatively as Christ’s ambassadors, but, like their Lord, also frequently made appeal to Scripture. They did not countenance any doctrinal authority not countenanced by Christ. Moreover, as the commendation of the Bereans in Acts 17 shows, the message of the apostles themselves, like all doctrine, was to be judged by Scripture. In the current age, with Christ and the apostles departed, the Church must continue to follow their example. And as was the case with the prophets of old, Christ and his apostles, though not present with us in the body, are yet still speaking to the world, their doctrine having been likewise authoritatively set down for the Church in Scripture.
Thus, in its simplest form, runs one of the arguments for the sola scriptura. This argument may not put to rest every thesis that may be advanced in support of the Roman doctrine of tradition, but it does, at any rate, hopefully give some insight into how the Protestant position may be substantiated. Having addressed the place of Scripture as the rule of faith and life, it is proper now to look at the last matter requiring our attention, namely the basis on which the Christian receives the Scriptures as the word of God. This was already covered at length in the previous discussion, and rather than repeat everything that was said there, it is best here only to restate the Protestant view and to point out the main weaknesses of the claim for the necessity of the Church’s infallible testimony.
Protestants hold that God, in the abundance of His wisdom and mercy, has given men many useful external testimonies to the truth and authority of Scripture. These include the evidence of history and the witness of individual believers, as well as, perhaps most importantly, the testimony of the Church. Furthermore, the written word does itself exhibit magnificent characteristics that foster an impression of credibility. The totality of this evidence is quite weighty, but as the Westminster Confession says, “yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” In the nature of the case, nothing less than this would be sufficient; and at the same time nothing else could be more persuasive. Calvin puts the matter well in saying:
In vain were the authority of Scripture fortified by argument, or supported by the consent of the Church, or confirmed by any other helps, if unaccompanied by an assurance higher and stronger than human Judgment can give. Till this better foundation has been laid, the authority of Scripture remains in suspense. On the other hand, when recognising its exemption from the common rule, we receive it reverently, and according to its dignity, those proofs which were not so strong as to produce and rivet a full conviction in our minds, become most appropriate helps.[Institutes, Bk. I, Ch. 8]
A defense of this position was made at length in the sixteenth century by William Whitaker in his Disputations on Holy Scripture [pp. 332-358 of the Parker Society edition]. In that work he advanced in meticulous, even scholastic fashion, nineteen arguments in its favor. It is not necessary, however, to argue in this way, nor is it necessary that each of Whitaker’s arguments be accepted; for the strength of the position can be shown through its comparison with some of the simplest teachings of Scripture. In the parable referenced above, Abraham informs Dives that if men “hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” Calvin, commenting on the verse, observes that “faith does not depend on miracles, or any extraordinary sign, but is the peculiar gift of the Spirit, and is produced by means of the word.” Just as men will not ultimately believe in Christ until the Spirit gives them eyes to see salvation in Him, so too they will not receive the Scriptures for what they are until the Spirit gives them ears to hear God’s word in them.
It should be remembered that when the ancients heard Christ preaching, they did not have the benefit of the church, infallible or otherwise, telling them to receive his words. Christ simply taught as one with authority, and his word was with power (cf. Mat. 7:29, Mark 1:22, Luke 4:32). It is true both that John the Baptist bore witness to Christ, and that Christ wrought many miracles that showed himself and his message to be from above. But it is also true that, in spite of this impressive evidence, very many people refused to believe. “The light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” Christ’s preaching did not produce true faith in any of his hearers until the Spirit unstopped their ears; until He opened their eyes and hearts, and thus illuminated their minds and understandings. It is this illuminating testimony of the Spirit that gives believers the certainty of their faith. Once it is enjoyed, all other testimonies, even the most forceful of them, appear as what they properly are—what Calvin called “secondary helps to our weakness,” or testimonies corroborating “that chief and highest proof,” i.e. “the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” And as Owen said, “When our Saviour Christ himself preached, what he spoke was as much the word of God when he spake it as now that it is written.” [Sermon on Luke 16:29] Even as the hearers of Christ had many corroborating testimonies to the truth and authority of his message, so too have we many to the truth and authority of Scripture; but just as their certainty came ultimately from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, so must ours also.
There are other places in Scripture which shed light on this doctrine. Among them is the line in First John: “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.” (vs. 2:20) Regarding this verse, John Murray wrote, “This anointing is an abiding possession and invests believers with discernment of the truth and stedfastness in it.” [The Infallible Word, ed. Stonehouse & Woolley.] For the present purposes, however, it is appropriate now to turn from the positive case in order to respond to an objection. It was asked whether an Old Testament believer would, when accepting the teaching of Isaiah, need to have faith in the prophet in addition to faith in his message. Here the trust had in Isaiah would indeed be an important confirmation of the truth of his proclamation. But in this case as in others, the message was to be received with certainty not so much because the believer heard Isaiah utter it, but because he heard God speaking in what Isaiah uttered. When Paul was in Athens, he was so little esteemed by some of the learned men that they called him a “babbler.” (Acts 17:18) This is an idiomatic rendering of a rather contemptuous word. Yet although Paul was despised, his words to the Athenians and foreigners at the Areopagus did not lose any of their authority or their trustworthiness. In the same way, when Paul first entered the synagogue in a town and began to preach the gospel, he was not immediately recognized as an apostle commissioned by the Lord Jesus. Whatever trust men had in him as a teacher, it was not because of this that they were ultimately led to embrace the good news he brought. They embraced the gospel in the end because God enabled them to see the truth of what Paul preached. It is only after they recognized Jesus as Lord that they could properly recognize Paul as their Lord’s duly appointed herald.
This leads us to the often-made claim that without an infallible church, believers could not have certainty that the Bible they receive is the word of God. Two main responses have been made to this, in order to show it is mistaken. The first is that it seems problematic historically. For the ancient Jews did not have an infallible Church to settle for them the matter of which books were divinely inspired. As Old Testament scholar Edward J. Young said:
How the books were gathered together we are not told. Apparently, no religious council in ancient Israel ever drew up a list of the divine books. Rather, in the singular providence of God, his people recognized his Word and honored it from the time of its first appearance. Thus was formed the collection of inspired writings which are known as the canonical books of the Old Testament. [The Infallible Word]
The key concept here is that “in the singular providence of God, his people recognized his Word.” This is what Protestants hold to be case in the New Testament age, as well. And the historical facts seem to fit well with this thesis. It makes sense that in the absence of a distinct body of tradition that authoritatively resolves the matter of the canon, there may at times, especially early on, have been some disagreements about it. As was suggested previously, it is conceivable that in the days before the cessation of the gift of prophesy, Christians may sometimes have erred in thinking something to have been delivered from God which in fact came only from men (cf. 1 Cor. 14:29; 1 Thess. 5:21) In the same way, Christians may sometimes have erred in their judgments about the canon. Yet if the position of the Church of Rome is correct, it seems peculiar that other very ancient Churches, each claiming to follow the tradition of the apostles, have different canons. It seems also a little strange that the church fathers, who are said to have transmitted apostolic tradition to the later church, did not have a more perfect agreement about the canon.
It might be asked how, if the Protestant position is correct, the Church could ever finally settle on a single recognized canon. Calvin’s remarks on the command to ‘try the spirits’ in 1 John 4:1 may be helpful with this and like questions. The passage is somewhat too lengthy to quote in full, but the most relevant portion is the following:
But here a difficult question arises: If every one has the right and the liberty to judge, nothing can be settled as certain, but on the contrary the whole of religion will be uncertain. To this I answer, that there is a twofold trial of doctrine, private and public. The private trial is that by which every one settles his own faith, when he wholly acquiesces in that doctrine which he knows has come from God; for consciences will never find a safe and tranquil port otherwise than in God. Public trial refers to the common consent and polity of the Church; for as there is danger lest fanatics should rise up, who may presumptuously boast that they are endued with the Spirit of God, it is a necessary remedy, that the faithful meet together and seek a way by which they may agree in a holy and godly manner. But as the old proverb is too true, “So many heads, so many opinions,” it is doubtless a singular work of God, when he subdues our perverseness and makes us to think the same thing, and to agree in a holy unity of faith.
The last sentence is especially interesting. The general consensus on the canon that appears historically is a precious token of divine providence. This consensus is not altogether perfect, and it is not in itself infallible. Nevertheless, given that so many believers have historically testified that God speaks in the recognized books of the Bible, their testimony carries great weight. They were, after all, the people of God, indwelt and guided by the Holy Spirit. Although the testimony of the Spirit is ultimately decisive as the source of the believer’s certainty—for our faith stands not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God—nevertheless, if a man thinks the Spirit leads him away from the consensus reached by the great body of believers, then he should carefully consider whether his perception is correct. There is a time when it is necessary to stand, like Athanasius, against the world. Protestants believe this was the case at the time of the Reformation. The judgment of men, and even of the men of the church, is not infallible, and God’s word must remain the final arbiter of controversies. Nonetheless, believers should treat with a healthy respect the conclusions of their brethren and forebears in the faith.
This brings us to the other weakness of the notion that an infallible church is required for the certainty about the canon. It may be assumed, for the sake of argument, that the Roman Magisterium is infallible in its teaching on the canon. However, even if this were the case, for our certainty about the Scripture to be mediated through the infallible judgment of the Magisterium, it would first be necessary for us to recognize the authority of the Magisterium. We must then ask on what basis a Roman Catholic comes to believe that, as his Catechism says, “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone.” The answer is bound to be similar to the Protestant’s reason for receiving the Scriptures as the word of God. The Roman Catholic believer might indeed be able to point to many objective evidences that support the claim for authority made by the Magisterium. But would he not in the end say, that even after all these important testimonies have been considered, his full persuasion and assurance about the infallibility and divine authority of the Church’s teaching office come from nothing less than work and witness of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Is it not because of this witness of the Spirit that the Roman Catholic believer finds himself, in the last analysis, truly certain that the Roman Church has correctly interpreted the apostolic tradition, while the Greek Church has not?
The same tremendous epistemological weight therefore bears down on the Roman Catholic deciding to accept the judgment of the Magisterium that bears down on the Protestant deciding to receive the books of Scripture. In both cases, although the believer’s conviction may be buttressed by objective evidence, it nonetheless derives its certainty not from anything of this world, but from the voice and agency of the Triune God. Only God Himself can handle the epistemic burden. Only the light of the Spirit can finally illuminate and dispel the twilight of uncertainty.
It is true that both Roman Catholics and Protestants reason in a circle. Being the finite creatures of the infinite God, the situation could not be otherwise. The important question that must be asked is, whose template of beliefs fits reality? Which position can consistently harmonize the facts of Christian faith and experience? As contraries rather than contradictions, it is possible that both sides could be mistaken. But for my part, I firmly believe that one is correct, and hope that this response might show something of the reason.
With Prayer and Respect,