In Part 3 of this series we looked at Whitaker's discussion of external and internal testimony to the canon. For Whitaker, all external testimony, as useful as it is, cannot bring about much of any true belief without the internal work of the Holy Spirit. On this point, Stapleton issues the following objection:
If it be by the testimony of the Spirit that we know the scriptures, how comes it that churches, which have this Spirit, agree not amongst themselves? For (so he argues) the Lutherans disagree with you Calvinists, because you receive some books which they reject: therefore, either you or they are without the Spirit. This is an objection urged also by Campian and by others.
Stapleton presents quite the dilemma: either we are forced to say the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit is unreliable since it produces contrary beliefs among true Christians (thus abandoning the internal testimony for the canon), or we are forced to say that Christian groups that disagree with ours on smaller points of belief really do not have the Holy Spirit at all.
This is also an objection more generally applied to Sola Scriptura and doctrinal division today, so Whitaker's responses will be useful to analyze.
Whitaker thinks the dilemma is unreasonable, for three reasons, the first of which is as follows:
I answer: In the first place, it does not follow either that they who reject those books, or we who receive them, are without the Holy Spirit. For no saving truth can be known without the Holy Spirit; as for example, that Christ died for us, or any other. This the papists will themselves allow. Yet it does not follow that all who have learned this truth from the Holy Spirit must agree in all other points of faith. Nor does it immediately follow, that all who are in error are without the Holy Spirit, because all errors are not capital. Now the reason why all who have the Holy Spirit do not think exactly alike of all things, is because there is not precisely the same equal measure of the Holy Spirit in all; otherwise there would be full agreement in all points.1
1. I'm not specifically sure what Whitaker means by "the same equal measure of the Holy Spirit." I assume it is with respect to how much the Holy Spirit is being followed and obeyed, but perhaps he has some other concept in mind, such as some sort of pouring out of the Spirit in different quantities (if that term may be used in this situation) which leads to a greater alignment with God on matters of truth. Either way, the point is useful, for however the spiritual mechanism occurs, it seems reasonable to say that various followers of God will obey the Holy Spirit to greater or lesser degrees.
2. A example of this response is the disagreement between Peter and Paul over the Judiazers. Peter was endowed with the Holy Spirit by direct promise from Jesus in what was a great amount2, at it seems equally reasonable (although ultimately irrelevant to the argument) to say that Paul enjoyed a similar endowment. Yet we would not say their disagreement forces us to choose one or the other as having the Holy Spirit. Paul doesn't treat Peter as a non-Christian in his confrontation with him, even if he had fallen into serious error. So Stapleton would have us follow a line of argument that Paul did not believe.
3. I'd also observe that Stapleton's argument wouldn't succeed today. Can you imagine a Catholic bishop arguing that the Eastern Orthodox do not have the Holy Spirit because their canon differs from what was determined at Trent? That would not fit with the ecumenical spirit now present in the post-Vatican II era.
Whitaker's second point is as follows:
Secondly, both we who receive some books not received by the Lutherans, have the precedent of some ancient churches, and the Lutherans also, who reject them. For there were some churches who received these books (that is, the epistle of Jude, the second epistle of Peter, and the second and third of John), and also some who rejected them, and yet all meanwhile were churches of God.3
The appeal to the "ancient churches" is useful here because it plays on the Roman Catholic denomination's claims to being a continuation of the tradition of the early fathers. If disagreement over the canon (or any doctrinal issue) means the Holy Spirit is not present in one (or more) disagreeing parties, then we should also be willing to say that the Holy Spirit was not present in one or more disagreeing early church communities and church fathers. But the theological and historical commitments of Rome in using and approving of the church fathers make this impossible for a Roman Catholic to accept.
Finally, Whitaker argues:
Thirdly, it does not presently follow that all have the Holy Spirit who say they have it. Although many of the Lutherans (as they call them) reject these books, yet it is not to be concluded that such is the common opinion of that whole church. The papists, indeed, understand and denote by the name of the church only the bishops and doctors; but the sentiments are not to be judged of by merely a few of its members.4
How many times do objectors to Sola Scriptura uncritically lump all professing Protestants together and assume that we believe the Holy Spirit is leading all of them? Any criticism of this line of argument for the canon must take into account this qualification--that not all who profess the Holy Spirit have it.
1. William Whitaker, Disputations on Holy Scripture (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1894; reprint, Orlando: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2005), 295-296.
2. Cf. John 16, esp. v. 13. The Apostles were to be led by the Spirit "into all truth" (NIV).
3. William Whitaker, Disputations, 296.