Friday, January 05, 2007

Sproul: "The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books."

"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.

6 comments:

FM483 said...

James,

In a similar fashion,it has been said with respect to the 16th century Lutheran Confessions(Book of Concord):

"We do not claim that our Confessions were infallible. We do not say they could not fail. We only claim that they did not fail" (Charles Porterfield Krauth, "The Conservative Reformation and It's Theology", p. 186).

"We do not interpret God's word by the Creed, neither do we interpret the Creed by God's word, but interpreting both independently, by the laws of language, and finding that they teach one and the same truth, we heartily acknowledge the Confession as a true exhibition of the faith of the Rule - a true witness to the one, pure, and unchanging faith of the Christian Church, and freely make it our own Confession, as truly as if it had been now first uttered by our lips, or had now first gone forth from our hands." (Charles Porterfield Krauth, "The Conservative Reformation and It's Theology"Ibid page 169)


Frank Marron

pilgrim said...

And we also see the importance of context...


that quote could be(and probably has been) used to make Sproul or Gerstner look like heretics...

It's an iomportant point for Sola Scriptura and the issue of authority--which is and was an important issue between Protestantism & RCism.

Kevin Davis said...

Scholars are hardly agreed as to the extent of a closed canon among the Jews at the time of Christ. Surely the Pentateuch was considered "scripture," as well as the Psalms and major Prophets; though, the notion of a "canon" as a closed and infallible collection of inspired writings is not evident from the sources. We know well that the collections of scripture that circulated among the diaspora Jews included what Jews/Protestants today consider apocryphal, but the early Church largely did not, nor can it be shown that the Jews at the time of Christ did. It was a debated issue among the early Church fathers with, most famously, St. Augustine affirming the canonicity of "apocryphal" writings, while St. Jerome, following the Rabbinic Judaism that developed after the fallout of the second temple destruction, limited the OT canon to the Hebrew writings. However, since important local synods in the 4th/5th centuries followed the Augustinian position, the received canon of the medieval Church included apocryphal writings. Not surprisingly, Rome, with conciliar infallibility, accepted apocryphal writings (with slight differences to the Greek/Eastern Orthodox canon) at Trent.

Of course, we haven't even mentioned the New Testament, but it seems obvious to me that, given Reformed epistemic foundations, a rather subjectivist appropriation of scripture must be held by Protestants. Why is Jude, for example, considered scriptural? Sure, the early Church largely considered it so, but the Church can ere; so if I consider it non-scriptural, who is to say that I am wrong? Or, what if I believe certain "anti-Woman" statements of Paul to be later interpolations (as many scholars have argued) and not truly of Paul and thus not rightly scriptural? Who is to say that I am wrong? Of course, before Trent, a Catholic could argue such, but these issues were not present as they are today, so us Catholics can be thankful that the Protestant crises in the 16th century incited the Church to settle the canon. Indeed, it was the Protestant crises that first showed the critical need for a settled canon, just as the Arian crises in the 4th century showed the need for a settled Christology.

Of course, Protestants may not find my preceding argumentation to be convincing, but I find it clearly more adequate than the Protestant alternative.

John Stebbe said...

James, I would be interested in your response to Kevin Davis on this topic.

James Swan said...

John Stebbe said... James, I would be interested in your response to Kevin Davis on this topic.

Hi John, ok, but I'm going to shut the comments down after I respond, since this entry is quite old.

Kevin Davis said... Scholars are hardly agreed as to the extent of a closed canon among the Jews at the time of Christ. Surely the Pentateuch was considered "scripture," as well as the Psalms and major Prophets; though, the notion of a "canon" as a closed and infallible collection of inspired writings is not evident from the sources.

Kevin is inconsistent. He says scholars are hardly agreed, therefore he concludes definitively there wasn't a closed canon. It appears Kevin is convinced that canon was still open, though I'm wrong if I hold it was closed. This is a double standard. He can't be certain while I'm not, particularly if "scholars are hardly agreed."

Kevin Davis said... We know well that the collections of scripture that circulated among the diaspora Jews included what Jews/Protestants today consider apocryphal, but the early Church largely did not, nor can it be shown that the Jews at the time of Christ did.

If Kevin is arguing for the non-Palestinian canon (I.e., the larger Alexandrian canon), this is no longer a tenable position in modern scholarship. However, he appears to be arguing the early church did not accept the apocrypha, if I've understood his sentence correctly. No argument from me.

It was a debated issue among the early Church fathers with, most famously, St. Augustine affirming the canonicity of "apocryphal" writings, while St. Jerome, following the Rabbinic Judaism that developed after the fallout of the second temple destruction, limited the OT canon to the Hebrew writings.

Indeed there was not collective certainty in the early church on the apocrypha. I would argue there were a good number of those holding to either view. I recently posted a blog entry (where in the comments section) I cite a Roman Catholic canon scholar who notes the Eastern church followed the 22 book Hebrew canon. Also considering those of the medieval church that were trained with the glossa ordinaria, the number of "who believed what" is more than Roman Catholics typically admit.

In regard to Augustine, see this link:
http://beggarsallreformation.blogspot.com/2006/09/augustine-on-canon.html

However, since important local synods in the 4th/5th centuries followed the Augustinian position, the received canon of the medieval Church included apocryphal writings. Not surprisingly, Rome, with conciliar infallibility, accepted apocryphal writings (with slight differences to the Greek/Eastern Orthodox canon) at Trent.

They were local councils, not representing the church as a whole. The medieval church was not united on the canon as to the inclusion of the apocrypha. That's why Cajetan and Erasmus are on my side.

James Swan said...

Of course, we haven't even mentioned the New Testament, but it seems obvious to me that, given Reformed epistemic foundations, a rather subjectivist appropriation of scripture must be held by Protestants. Why is Jude, for example, considered scriptural? Sure, the early Church largely considered it so, but the Church can ere; so if I consider it non-scriptural, who is to say that I am wrong?

Kevin hasn't thought through the issue deep enough when he uses the word "subjective." Given enough time and honesty, he'll have to at some point face himself, and that the same arguments launched against Protestant notions of canonicity work very well against Romanism.

The paradigm Kevin is implicitly arguing for is an infallible authority that determines the canon. This isn't the way God works with his people- go ahead and try to apply this standard to the Old Testament. Canonicity is discovered. I don't deny the church was part of the process. They weighed historical and internal evidence as we do.Kevin is welcome to deny the canonicity of Jude, in the same way a Jewish person living during the Old Testament doubted a book was canonical (where was the infallible canon determiner then?). One will never escape the subjective aspect of God's voice for the believer. Our understanding of the canon is based on history, internal exegesis, and faith in God's providence to give his word to his people.




Or, what if I believe certain "anti-Woman" statements of Paul to be later interpolations (as many scholars have argued) and not truly of Paul and thus not rightly scriptural? Who is to say that I am wrong?

The solution to this is not an infallible determiner, because it simply moves the same problem under a different shell. One then could ask, "Who determines that the infallible canon determiner is infallible"? "How do I know the infallible authority really is infallible"? "Why is this infallible authority correct and not another"? "How do I know with certainty the infallible interpreter chose the right books?"The simple truth is, one will never escape the subjective aspect of faith in God and his word. The mantra of Romanism doesn't solve the subjective problem.

In the same way, the argument isn't solved if an infallible authority simply says "the anti-woman" statements are Paul's. Questions like gain insight via exegesis and history- the same standards the early church used. A church doesn't need to be infallible to determine the answer to this. Jesus and the apostles could hold the Jews responsible to the Old Testament. If they could do it without an infallible authority determining the canon, why can't the church?


Of course, before Trent, a Catholic could argue such, but these issues were not present as they are today, so us Catholics can be thankful that the Protestant crises in the 16th century incited the Church to settle the canon. Indeed, it was the Protestant crises that first showed the critical need for a settled canon, just as the Arian crises in the 4th century showed the need for a settled Christology.

And yet, I've read Roman Catholic authorities that point out some of the best scholars at Trent denied the full canonicity of the apocrypha. Also Trent didn't even settle the canon- they passed over a few books, not deciding one way or the other.

Of course, Protestants may not find my preceding argumentation to be convincing, but I find it clearly more adequate than the Protestant alternative.

The Romanist paradigm is bogus, because it ignores history and logic. An infallible authority doesn't solve the canon certainty problem- it only moves the argument under a different shell, as in a shell game.