"I've read second-hand that R.C. Sproul said Christians have "a fallible list of infallible books." Do you believe this? How does this factor into Protestant certainty?"
R.C. Sproul has made this point multiple times (for those of you familiar with his work, you know he frequently recycles his material). I have at least three sources in which he makes this point. Probably though, the point wasn’t even Sproul’s to begin with. He was the pupil of John Gerstner, and I think this statement was probably originally from the pen of Gerstner.
Don Kistler points out:
"Though Luther did not challenge the infallibility of Scripture he most emphatically challenged the infallibility of the church. He allowed for the possibility that the church could err, even when the church ruled on the question of what books properly belonged in the Canon. To see this issue more clearly we can refer to a distinction often made by Dr. John Gerstner. Gerstner distinguishes between the Roman Catholic view of the Canon and the Protestant view of the Canon in this manner:
• ROMAN CATHOLIC VIEW: The Bible is an infallible collection of infallible books.
• PROTESTANT VIEW: The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books.
The distinction in view here refers to the Catholic Church’s conviction that the Canon of Scripture was declared infallibly by the church. On the other hand, the Protestant view is that the church’s decision regarding what books make up the Canon was a fallible decision. Being fallible means that it is possible that the church erred in its compilation of the books found in the present Canon of Scripture.
When Gerstner makes this distinction he is neither asserting nor implying that the church indeed did err in its judgment of what properly belongs to the Canon. His view is not designed to cast doubt on the Canon but simply to guard against the idea of an infallible church. It is one thing to say that the church could have erred; it is another thing to say that the church did err.
Gerstner’s formula has often been met with both consternation and sharp criticism in evangelical circles. It seems to indicate that he and those who agree with his assessment are undermining the authority of the Bible. But nothing could be further from the truth. Like Luther and Calvin before him, Gerstner has been an ardent defender of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. His formula is merely designed to acknowledge that there was a historical selection process by which the church determined what books were really Scripture and what books were not Scripture. The point is that in this sifting or selection process the church sought to identify what books were actually to be regarded as Scripture."
[Source: “The Establishment of Scripture” Sola Scriptura! The Protestant Position on the Bible. (Don Kistler, ed. Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), found in the electronic edition of Sproul’s Chapters in Symposium Volumes]
Do I agree with the statement, “The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books”? Yes, because the heart of the statement is only meant to point out that the church is not infallible.
Sproul points out:
“Roman Catholics view the canon as an infallible collection of infallible books. Protestants view it as a fallible collection of infallible books. Rome believes the church was infallible when it determined which books belong in the New Testament. Protestants believe the church acted rightly and accurately in this process, but not infallibly.”[Source: R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, 58].
For me to admit that the Bible is an “infallible collection” is really only a way of being cornered into admitting the Roman Catholic paradigm of an infallible extra-Biblical authority. Does that therefore mean that I believe the bible contains a book it shouldn’t? No.
I recognize the Christian Church received the Canon. It does not though, create the Canon, or stand above the Canon. In other words, I see no reason to grant the Church infallibility in order for the Church to receive the Canon. The Church was used by God to provide a widespread knowledge of the Canon. The Holy Spirit had worked among the early Christian Church in providing them with the books of the New Testament. This same process can be seen with the Old Testament and Old Testament believers. The Old Testament believer 50 years before Christ was born had a canon of Scripture, this despite the ruling from an infallible authority.
First century Christians had the Old Testament, and had “certainty” that it was the very word of almighty. Clement of Rome frequently quotes the Old Testament. He does so, with the understanding that the words of the Old Testament are the very words of God. He was certain of it, this despite the alleged infallible ruling of either Pope Damaus or Trent. His use of Old Testament passages show a certainty that the words were God’s words. Or, think of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy- Paul notes that from infancy Timothy “knew” the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim 3:15): “…and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” How was it Timothy could know the Scriptures were the words of God without an infallible Church council declaring which books were canonical?
Obviously, the notion that an infallible council can only provide Canon certainty cannot be accurate. To expand this, think of all the New Testament writers: they freely quote the Old Testament with the certainty that it was the Word of God. Yet, no infallible source defined the Canon for them. A “source” definitely received the Old Testament Canon, but that “source” was not infallible, nor do I recall Rome arguing that the Jewish Old Testament leadership was infallible. Hence, I see no reason why the entirety of the Bible needs an infallible body to declare the Canon. It wasn’t needed previous to Trent, Damasus, or the pre-Christ Jewish authority.
That being said, how was it that Timothy had “certainty” the Old Testament was the word of God? It is God’s sovereign power that reveals the canon to His church, for His purposes. The people of God are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. It is they, who are given spiritual life and continually fed by its words. Jesus did this himself, as recorded in Luke 24:45, “Then He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” As to how a Protestant can have certainty on the Canon, my certainty is in the providence and work of God. Only faith will read the Bible and hear the voice of God. God used means in giving us His Canon, but like the Old Testament believers, those means don’t need to be infallible for one to know they are reading and hearing God’s word.