(For those interested in the earlier sections of Disputations, Green Baggins has begun analysis on the first chapter--the number of books contained in the canon.)
Stapleton's Second Supporting Argument
Stapleton's second argument1 can be summarized as follows:
P1 The canon cannot be discerned by appealing to style, phraseology and other criteria without the additional judgment of the Magisterium.
P2 The Magisterium knows best how to judge style, phraseology and other criteria.
C1 Therefore, we need the Magisterium to identify the canon.
A Simple Reply
Whitaker levels three counter-arguments, but only the second (and a directly related part of the third) will be discussed here, perhaps because it is the most practical and powerful:
Secondly, although we should concede all this to him, yet where will be the coherence of his reasoning,— The church knows best the voice of the spouse, and the style and phraseology of scripture; therefore its authority is the most certain? For what though the church know? What is that to me? Are these things therefore known and certain to me? For the real question is, how I can know it best? Although the church know ever so well the voice of its spouse, and the style and phraseology of scripture, it hath that knowledge to itself, not to me; and by whatever means it hath gained that knowledge, why should I be able to gain it also by the same?2
This argument is further supplemented:
But as to his pretence that because the church delivers the rule of faith, it must therefore be the correctest judge of that rule; we must observe that the terms deliver and judge are ambiguous. The church does indeed deliver that rule, not as its author, but as a witness, and an admonisher, and a minister: it judges also when instructed by the Holy Spirit. But may I therefore conclude, that I cannot be certain of this rule, but barely by the testimony of the church? It is a mere fallacy of the accident. There is no consequence in this reasoning: I can be led by the church's voice to the rule of faith; therefore I can have no more certain judgment than that of the church.3
Two observations for now:
1. The point is well-received. If the Church gives us the canon and we cannot come to know it any other way, what of it? How does it logically follow that the Church is now the most authoritative body in the life of the believer? How does it follow that we should now submit our interpretations of Scripture to the Magisterium?
Whitaker uses an analogy to shore up this point (which I have slightly tweaked): There were Jews who could not have known (intellectually or by faith) Christ as the Messiah had not John the Baptist revealed him to them. Does it therefore follow that John the Baptist was the best interpreter of Christ's commands? Should these Jews have submitted their interpretations of Christ's words and commands to John's first and foremost? It's not obvious how that would be the case.3
2. It is also instructive for Whitaker to remind us that however the Church gains knowledge of the canon, laypersons should also have access to those means. If the Church identifies the canon through historical inquiry, why are we not allowed to engage the same texts with the same tools and come to the same conclusions independently? What, specifically, is it about the Magisterium that allows it identify the canon? Should the methods and reasons used to arrive at this knowledge remain inaccessible to everyone outside of the Magisterium? It's not obvious why this should be the case.
Athanasius is a fine example of this. Before any council met to recognize (or "determine" as some Catholics would argue) the canon, the famous father had successfully identified the New Testament canon:
...it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued stedfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance...Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.4
If Athanasius was able to identify the canon without recourse to the determination of the Magisterium, why are Protestant Christians any different?
1. William Whitaker, Disputations, 286-287.
2. Ibid., 287.
3. Ibid., 288.
4. Athanasius, Festal Letter 39.