Holy Scripture and the Holy Catholic Church
By Timothy G.
The question of ultimate spiritual authority is perhaps the watershed issue in the debate between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. Protestantism, of course, locates the ultimate authority for faith and practice in the Bible. This idea is captured in the Reformation slogan Sola Scriptura, or "Scripture Alone". Roman Catholics, on the other hand, locate the ultimate authority in the institutional Church. Though it often invokes considerable negative attention from Catholic apologists, I believe that Protestant apologist James R. White's term for the Roman concept of authority, Sola Ecclesia, or "the Church Alone", is fundamentally correct. This is seen mainly in the Roman Church's view of the relationship between the Bible and the Church.
I would like to note from the outset that the relationship of the Bible to the Church is an enormous subject that I cannot hope to cover comprehensively. Nevertheless, I have divided this work into several sections which I believe will at least serve as an introduction to the central issues. First, I will examine the question "Is the Bible a Church-based book or is the Church a Bible-based Church?" Next, I will look at the concept of an infallible Church, and seek to ascertain whether or not such is required in order for believers to know what God has spoken. Finally, I will seek to contrast the Protestant position on how believers in Christ may know the extent of the canon of Scripture with that of the Catholic Church.
Which Came First: The Bible or the Church?
In this writer's experience, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is the focus of some of the most heated attacks that Roman apologists can muster. Misunderstandings of the doctrine abound, and as a consequence, many misdirected attacks are made. For example, it is often claimed that Sola Scriptura is a useless doctrine because on the basis of Scripture alone, one cannot know what books are canonical and what books are not canonical. With the addition of the historical fact that the canon of the New Testament as we know it today was first formally listed by the councils of Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD), this dovetails into the argument that Scripture cannot be the ultimate authority because it was the Church that decided on the canon, thus showing that the authority of the Church is prior to that of the Bible. It is this misunderstanding of the issue of authority that I will focus on here.
The key verse of the Protestant position is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which states, "All Scripture is inspired by God, and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Protestants usually focus on the descriptions of Scripture as "profitable" and "adequate" for every good work a Christian needs to do, as well as for doctrine and correction of errors. In my experience, Roman apologetic responses to this are generally very weak, consisting of little more than the rebuttal, "Yes, but the verse doesn't say that Scripture is the ONLY authority for these things, as your doctrine of Sola Scriptura maintains." 1
The stronger Roman counter-argument focuses on the first portion of the verse, namely, on the definition of the term "Scripture". Now, it is quite obvious that unless one knows precisely what is included in "Scripture", merely stating that "Scripture" is sufficient for faith and practice will get one nowhere fast. The term "Scripture" must be defined in a concrete manner so that we may know what God has spoken to us.
It is here that the Roman apologist thinks he has backed the Protestant into a corner. Siezing on the historical process by which the formal listing of canonical books was accomplished by the Church, he asserts that precisely because it was the Church that did the listing of the canonical books, the Church possesses authority that the Bible does not. One Roman apologist personally asked me how, on my view that the Bible is infallible and the Church fallible, a fallible authority could dictate the contents of the infallible authority.
Admittedly, this argument sounds quite powerful at first. It is often followed by the charge that if the list of canonical books is not infallible, then all we have is a fallible list of infallible books. Theoretically, the Church might have left out some books that are the Word of God and included others which are not the Word of God. The Roman position, it is claimed, does not suffer from this problem, for, since the Church is infallible, its decisions about the canon are also infallible. The Church has spoken, and nothing else can be said.
Like many arguments used by Roman apologists, however, this one only sounds good. There are three reasons why the argument is invalid: 1) it is circular, 2) it operates by confusing two different senses of the word "Bible", 3) it proves too much and is historically invalid even on Catholic criteria. Let us examine these reasons one by one.
1) The argument does not escape the very same epistemological problem it claims that only Protestants suffer from--circular reasoning. The argument usually begins by admitting up front that it is not going to treat the Scriptures as if they are inspired, but merely as legitimate historical documents. It then proceeds to build a chain of purely historical evidence--passages of Scripture, quotations from early Christians and Councils, etc--which is supposed to show that Christ instituted a Church with certain properties, properties which are today found only in the Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy. Having thus established the existence and authority of the Church as conceived by Rome, the argument then uses that Roman authority as a sledgehammer against all competing positions.
Many Catholic apologists use the above argument against a caricature of the Protestant position--which they say amounts to believing the Bible is inspired simply "because it says it is". The Catholic doesn't have this problem, claim these apologists, because he has an external authority--the Church--to tell him that the Bible is inspired and which books are contained in it. The problem with this line of reasoning is that the Catholic himself gets at least part of his understanding of the formation of the Church by Christ and its supposed infallibility from the very Scriptures he says he can't know apart from the witness of the Church.
Among the passages of Scripture adduced to support the Roman doctrine of the Church is Matthew 16:18-19, which supposedly implies that the Church will be infallible. But on the Catholic premise that the infallible witness of the institutional body of bishops is necessary in order for one to know that the book of Matthew is legitimate while, say, the Gospel of Thomas is not, how can the book of Matthew be used as part of a "proof" of the existence of that infallible body of bishops? (See my essay, Sola Historia? Rebutting the "Historical" Argument for the Roman Catholic Church" for an expanded analysis of this question). Thus, the Roman apologist uses Scripture to support his claims about the infallible Church and then inconsistently asserts that no one can know what Scripture is until the infallible Church tells him so!
2) The Catholic apologist conflates two different senses of the word "Bible" when he says things like, "The Church is not a Bible-based Church; the Bible is a Church-based Book". In one sense, this statement is entirely true--the collection of canonical books that we know as the "Bible" was, in fact, compiled and listed by the institutional Church. 2 The Church was the instrument through which I have received a leather-bound book containing 66 writings that I know as the Word of God. 3 Nevertheless, there is a sense in which the Church itself was formed by the "Bible", where that term means what Paul refers to in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the theopneustos, or "God breathed" writings. Just as I would not likely possess my leather bound collection of inspired writings apart from the historical process the Church went through in the early centuries of recognizing some books and rejecting others, there would be no such thing as the Church if God had not condescended to give revelation in the first place.
The Catholic will attempt to rebut this criticism by saying that it invalidly assumes that the revelation God gave was transmitted exclusively in written form. This is not the case, however. As even Catholics must recognize, the "Bible" of the New Testament Church prior to the collection of the writings of the Apostles was the Old Testament. These writings were theopneustos as well, and would therefore fall under the description of 2 Timothy 3:16. Much (if not all) of the teaching of the Christ and the Apostles is simply exposition of the "veiled" truths of the Old Testament, which means that even the "oral revelation" given by them was based on the written Scriptures that were in existence at that time! Furthermore, since Sola Scriptura does not deny that there have been periods in the history of God's dealings with His people where revelation was given in an oral form, the fact that Apostolic teaching was first given orally in no way helps the Catholic position.
3) The charge that if the Church is not infallible no one can know which books comprise "Scripture" and which do not is spurious, for it involves the Roman apologist in the fallacy of "proving too much". It is simply a matter of the historical record that only a handful of the books we know as New Testament Scripture today were ever disputed by any Christians prior to the councils which supposedly definitively established their status. These councils were not held until 393 and 397 A.D. For the Roman claim to be true, it would mean that nobody in the first four centuries of the Church knew with any certainty which of the many books in circulation were God's Word, including the supposedly infallible successors of Peter! 4
But this is manifestly untrue. Of the 27 books of the New Testament, only six were ever disputed, and of these, not all were disputed at the same times or by all Christians. Indeed, one of the earliest listing of books we have, known as the Muratorian Fragment (dating from around the end of the second century A.D) lists 21 of the New Testament books along with several others which were ultimately rejected. Additionally, the great anti-Gnostic apologist Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. AD 189) provides us with early evidence of an informal canon. Though he does not produce a list, he does seem to have a clear recognition of some apostolic writings:
These facts establish that there was a great deal of agreement in the early Church as to what books comprised the oracles of God, and this agreement was prior to any councils. To say that the mass of ordinary Christians needed these councils--and thus, some kind of proto-Roman "institution"--to distinguish what God had spoken from what mere men had spoken is to ignore the fact that the councils were not introducing something new into the equation of canonicity, but simply recognizing in a formal fashion the consensus (at least concerning the New Testament) of Christians everywhere.
Furthermore, the assumption of the argument that the councils of Hippo and Carthage "infallibly" defined the canon for the whole Church is simply untrue. As The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits: "According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church at the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent definitively settled the matter of the Old Testament Canon. That this had not been done previously is apparent from the uncertainty that persisted up to the time of Trent ." (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, The Canon).
Although we must note that this statement references the canon of the Old Testament only, it must apply to the canon of the New as well, since Hippo and Carthage were not ecumenical Councils, but provincial councils. The fact that there was continuing dispute after these councils about the place of the Apocryphal, or deuterocanonical, books in the Old Testament canon while there was apparently no dispute on the canon of the New Testament after these councils is simply an interesting fact of God's providential dealings with His people--not an indication that Hippo and Carthage were "infallible" councils. To take them as such is to be grossly anachronistic in one's reading of history.
A further fact supporting the idea that the canon was not decided infallibly for the whole Church by these councils is found in this passage by the great Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, himself a participant at both Hippo and Carthage. Speaking of the "most skillful interpreter of the sacred writings", Augustine writes:
We must note with interest that "On Christian Doctrine" was written somewhere between 396 and 427--after the alleged listing of the canon by the Bishop of Rome, Damasus, in 382, after the "infallible" council of Hippo in 393, and perhaps even after the "infallible" council of Carthage in 397.
Thus, if this argument is true, it counts against Rome in exactly the same way Rome uses it against Protestants. How did loyal Catholics prior the mid-sixteenth century know that Matthew was inspired by God before the Church "infallibly" declared it to be so in that Council? If they did not know before the Council, then it would appear that it is possible for one to be a good Christian and for the Church to remain triumphant over the gates of Hades even with a Church that made mistakes regarding the canon of Scripture. If they did know before the Councils, then there are two questions the Catholic apologist must answer: 1) on what basis did they know, and 2) why can't we know on that basis as well?
It will not do to attempt to rebut this argument by saying that loyal Catholics did not need an infallible definition of the canon in the first place, since they already had an infallible rule of faith in the Church, for this is quite simply an anachronistic way of reading history. Quotations from the early Church Fathers showing the supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith are legion. For a concise summary of these, I recommend William Webster's article "Sola Scriptura and the Early Church".
Still, the argument from the identity of the canon is, on its surface, a thought-provoking one. Noted Protestant apologist James R. White even says that it is "the single best argument presented by Roman Catholicism against the concept of sola scriptura". 5 On a subject as important as the identity of the Word of God, how can we be content with a fallible list of infallible books? Furthermore, if Protestants themselves go to an outside authority (Hippo and Carthage) for their definition of the canon, isn't the whole idea of Scripture Alone as our guide to faith and practice thereby demolished?
The key to answering this objection is found in understanding that the canon of Scripture is more than just a mere human list of inspired books; it is the sum total of the inspired books themselves, as God sees them. In other words, since God is the Author of those books which are inspired, the canon is actually determined by God Himself. The identity of the canon is what it is whether anyone outside God ever recognizes it for what it is. White uses the example of the canon of the books he has written himself, and notes that, "...The action of my writing those books creates the canon of my works. If a friend of mine does not have accurate or full knowledge of how many books I have written, does that mean there is no canon of my books? No, of course not. In fact, if I was the only one who knew how many books I had written, would that mean that the canon of my books does not exist?" 6
The identity of the canon of Scripture is a different, though related issue, from the recognition of it by others. Everything that is theopneustos is canon, whether or not any human being recognizes it. So in actual point of fact, the "Bible" (where the term is precisely synonomous with the theopneustos) pre-existed and defined the Church, for God initiated the contact with men, God called out some men to be His own possession, and God inspired certain books and not others. The fact that the Church was the instrument through which the listing of the canon was accomplished says absolutely nothing about the identity of the canon, nor does it require infallibility on the part of the Church's councils (since God is infallible and guides His Church). As White puts it, "...the canon is not defined by us nor is it affected by our knowledge or ignorance." 7
In sum, then, the answer to the question, "Is the Bible a Church-based book or is the Church a Bible-based Church?" is that both are true, but in two different senses. The formal list of inspired books is Church-based (though the process of recognition was guided by God's providence, something not even Catholics can deny). However, the books of Matthew and Hebrews (to take two often-cited examples) are canonical simply because God breathed them out through human writers. In this latter sense, the Church is a Bible-based Church.
Infallibility Or Sufficient Knowledge?
In his excellent work The Roman Catholic Controversy, White has dealt with infallibility and the canon succinctly. He writes:
White goes on to describe "the Great Scandal" of our fallible knowledge as it relates to the Bible:
The Protestant Reformers had a solution to this "problem", namely, the doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers". While it is beyond the immediate scope of this paper to diverge into a detailed discussion of this principle, it is appropriate to quote White again as to what it means regarding the believer's relationship to God's Word: "...God holds us individually responsible for what we believe and why we believe it. 'The Pope told me so' won't cut it in the end. Nor, may I add, will 'My pastor told me so.' Every limited, finite, fallible person is called to 'search the Scriptures' and 'examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.' (I Thessalonians 5:21)." 10
The bottom line is that we do not need to have infallible certainty regarding the canon of Scripture. Infallibility is a trait that only God possesses. Finite beings simply cannot have it, nor is there any place in the Scriptures (the divine inspiration of which is not in dispute between Catholics and Protestants) where we are told to seek after it in an authority that is external to the theopneustos writings. To the charge that our fallible list of infallible books might be incomplete, we reply that while it is logically possible that it is incomplete, it is neither actually likely or actually provable that it is incomplete. I say "not actually likely" because the list of books was forged in the fires of great controversies that did not "leave any stones unturned", so to speak regarding the identity of the canonical books. 11 I say "not actually provable" for precisely the same reason that the list is fallible: infallibility does not exist in finite things, and one would have to be infallible in order to state with any certainty that some inspired books were left out.
For better or for worse, then, we are left with a fallible list of infallible books.
How Could Christ Hold Men Accountable to Fallible Knowledge?
In the opinion of this writer, this question is really the coup-de-grace to the Catholic position. When we weigh the Catholic claims about infallibility in the balance of the teaching of Christ Himself on the role of the Scriptures, they are found wanting.
The question is based on the elementary recognition that the Old Testament Church was not infallible. Time and time again, it fell away from the truth God had given it, and was frequently reformed and restored by the rediscovery of the written Scriptures--not by oral teachings passed on through a priestly hierarchy. The immediate Catholic objection to this Old Testament parallel, that the New Covenant is founded on better promises (Hebrews 7:22), is nullified by the context of Hebrews, which is the method of atonement for sin, not some general outline of how the New Testament Church differs from the Old Testament assembly.
At any rate, at no time in Old Testament history did anything even remotely like an ecumenical council gather to issue an authoritative statement on the canon of the Jewish Scriptures. To be sure, God did work with His people in a process of recognition of the books, but this was both gradual and quite apart from any kind of institutional imprimatur.
And yet, Christ held his opponents responsible for their perversions of "the Scriptures", as if a recognizable body of divine writings was simply a given of the religious situation in His day (Matt. 22:31). The late evangelical biblical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote of this issue: "Our Lord and His apostles might differ from the religious leaders of Israel about the meaning of the scriptures; there is no suggestion that they differed about the limits of the scriptures. 'The scriptures' on whose meaning they differed were not an amorphous collection: when they spoke of 'the scriptures' they knew which writings they had in mind and could distinguish them from other writings which were not included in 'the scriptures'." 12
The relevance of this fact to the topic of this essay is simply, as James White likes to put it, "How did a Jewish man who lived fifty years before the time of Christ [infallibly] know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were Scripture?" 13 There are only two answers to the question, and neither one helps the Catholic position.
The first is to say that the Jewish man obtained his infallible knowledge of the canonicity of these books from the Jewish leadership. But this cannot be, for Christ indicted the Jewish leadership with introducing traditions of men into Jewish religious life and thereby nullifying the Word of God (Matt. 15:1-9; Mark 7:8). Furthermore, the Jewish Old Testament canon excludes the Apocryphal books, which puts the authority of those "to whom the oracles of God were committed" (Romans 3:2) in conflict with Rome's alleged infallible authority.
The second answer is to say that the Jewish man above did not infallibly know that Isaiah and 2 Chronicles were Scripture. But this brings us back to the question of how Christ could hold the Jews of His day responsible for their perversions of teachings they did not infallibly know to be divine! Either Christ was judging His opponents unfairly, or infallible knowledge of the canon was not necessary. And if it was not necessary then, why is it necessary now?
So How Do We Know What Books Are the Word Of God?
Before proceeding, I want to propose the following statement for the reader's consideration. "We know that there is a God because the Catholic Church tells us that there is." Outrageous? Quite so. In a moment, we shall see how it is precisely this kind of statement that the Roman Catholic Church expects us to accept when it tells us that we cannot know the Word of God apart from the Church's judgment.
It is often claimed by Roman apologists that the Protestant position amount to a kind of subjectivism that would allow for any claim to divine revelation--perhaps even Islam's Koran 14--to advance unhindered, thus destroying any possibility of a rational apologetic for the Christian faith. It is said that without the testimony of the Church, we cannot even tell the difference between non-canonical Christian writings (such as The Shepherd of Hermas) and, say, the book of Philippians. The argument alleges that, in order to solve this problem, Protestants themselves rely on the Catholic Church's oral tradition of what comprises the New Testament canon, and thereby destroy their own formal principle of Sola Scriptura.
Catholic apologist Gary Hoge provides an example of this overall argument, including the second charge:
It is easy to see why this objection arises--because Catholics cannot easily conceive of "authority" that is not wrapped up in a visible, hierarchical institution such as their Church. Nevertheless, the objection is based on a misunderstanding of how God works with His church. I will attempt to dispel the misunderstanding here.
I first must note that the charge of subjectivism, as it is presented above by Hoge, is based on a false dichotomy. We are given only two options: either we have the unquestionable decision of the infallible Church, or we have a collection of isolated individuals each trying to come up with the correct canon all on their own. But these by no means exhaust the possibilities, as the process of the canonization of the Old Testament shows. God worked with His people over time to recognize and collect His inspired written Word, both Old and New Testaments--the process was corporate, not individual, as Hoge makes the Protestant position out to be in the above citation.
But what of the passage from Calvin which Hoge cited? Did not Calvin explicitly say that the knowledge of the canon of Scripture is based on feelings within each individual believer? In order to clearly understand what Calvin is saying , we must back up to the beginning of Book III, Chapter VII of the Institutes (from which Hoge is quoting), and survey the entire context. I will quote at some length:
Calvin then goes on to discuss the general propriety of adducing external arguments for the inspiration of Scripture. He does believe that such arguments exist, and that they can "with no great trouble shatter the boasts they [despisers of God] mutter in their lurking places". Nevertheless, he notes the following truism, no doubt experienced by the most able of evidential apologists (both Catholic and Protestant!) even in our own day--that merely overthrowing the intellectual arguments of unbelief with intellectual arguments for belief cannot convince a heart that is set against God:
Now let us re-read the snippet that Hoge provided us, with a bit more of the context (portions omitted by Hoge's ellipses are in non-bold font):
"Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture is indeed self-authenticated; hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else's judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proof, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! Such, then, is a conviction that requires no reasons; such, a knowledge with which the best reason agrees--in which the mind truly reposes more securely and constantly than in any reasons; such finally, a feeling that can be born only of heavenly revelation. I speak of nothing other than what each believer experiences within himself. (1:7:5)
We must note that Calvin is speaking of how believers in Christ themselves know what Scripture is, not how believers in Christ are to speak of Scripture to unbelievers--a fact which evades the criticism about the inspiration of the Koran.15 Moreover, we observe that Calvin quite plainly insists that it is not by our own judgment (much less anyone else's!) that we know Scripture to be from God, but by something from outside of us which is imprinted on our hearts by the Holy Spirit of God. This "internal witness" is also said to be "beyond guesswork" and yet in agreement with the "best reason" any mind could come up with.
It is difficult to see how any objection can be raised to the idea that the Holy Spirit "seals our hearts" with the conviction of the truth of Scripture, especially in light of the fact that Christ himself taught that no one could even come to him for salvation unless the Father had first made him able to do so (John 6:44; 65).
This fact highlights the different understandings of man that exist in the Roman and Reformation camps. Rome's apologetic seems to be telling us that external evidence (part of which is the testimony of the Church) is sufficient of itself to bring a person to faith in the Scriptures; the Reformation disagrees, insisting that God Himself must create faith supernaturally in a person before they can believe. After this inward revelation, other things, such as the testimony of the Church, can be brought in as confirmations. Indeed, Calvin himself goes on in the very next chapter of the Institutes to show how "So Far As Human Reason Goes, Sufficiently Firm Proofs Are At Hand To Establish The Credibility Of Scripture." Some of the thirteen reasons adduced are the now standard arguments from miracles, preservation of the text, and fulfilled prophecies. This is far from the meaning that Hoge wishes one to see in Calvin's words--namely, a collection of isolated individuals each trying to come up with the correct canon all on their own.
Furthermore, while Hoge is correct in saying that "When someone becomes a Christian and is given a Bible, he accepts it as the Word of God, no questions asked.", it is by no means certain that such a person is relying on "the Catholic Church's say-so". We could ask why Hoge allows the individual in question to "intuitively" understand that he alone cannot determine the canon of Scripture, but disallows him from "intuitively" knowing Scripture to be divine in the way that Calvin speaks of--by the internal testimony of the Spirit. Hoge cannot see what is going on in any given believer's heart, and therefore, it is improper for him to attempt to judge such things as being somehow inappropriate or insufficient reasons for that person's own, internal belief.
But there is more to the Protestant case. Consider the words of the great Presbyterian theologian of the last century, Charles Hodge in an essay entitled, "Ground of Faith in the Scriptures":
Note well this last sentence, for not only does it bear on the question of how one knows Scripture to be divine in origin, but it will also be shown to bear on how the millions upon millions of faithful Catholics know that their Church is authoritative. Hodge continues:
Recall the statement with which I began this section: "We know that there is a God because the Catholic Church tells us that there is." Does anyone, even the most dedicated of Roman Catholic apologists, truly believe that the ground of their belief in God is the "say-so" of the visible hierarchy of bishops in communion with the Pope to whom they have given their allegiance? Even if a life-long Catholic could answer this question affirmatively, what are we to do with people (like Gary Hoge!) who confess to have believed in God prior to the time when they converted to Catholicism? It would be an extreme insult to suggest that these people need the witness of the bishops of the Catholic Church so that they may know that God exists! The same seems to be true of the recognition of the inspiration of Scripture.
This suggests a further objection to the Roman theory, namely, this question: "How does the individual Catholic know that the Roman Magisterium speaks for God?" One need only spend a few hours reading the materials produced by Catholic apologists16 to discover that the guts of their answer to this question is a variety of evidential arguments--primarily the accumulation and cataloguing of a plethora of historical datum. As interesting as these materials are, it is noteworthy that Protestant apologists can and have produced materials that deal with the very same data and yet draw opposite conclusions.17 Additionally, it is manifestly obvious that none of this evidence (whether presented by Catholics or Protestants) is in any way the ground (or foundation) of the respective faiths of individual persons on either side. In fact, it would seem that for the vast mass of persons on each side, the basis of their belief is something internal to themselves. In an e-mail debate with me on Catholicism and Protestantism 18, Gary Hoge even admits this.
I had written the following to Hoge:
Aside from the non sequitur conclusion of the paragraph (which I deal with in my response to Hoge's letter), the reader should take note of the phrase "the majority of believers would follow the Church uncritically." Now, if they are following the Church uncritically, that means they are not relying on any external testimony as to the veracity of the Church or its authority to bind their consciences. This is puzzling, for the basic assumption of the Catholic criticism of how Protestants know Scripture--the criticism we have been examining in this paper--is that Protestants absolutely need an external authority to infallibly confirm the Scriptures so that they may have certainty of faith. Without this infallible external authority, Protestants are said to be "orphans", blindly groping about among a plethora of competing documents which all claim to be divine in origin.
But this line of thought presents a very serious problem for the Catholic apologist, for we can turn the question back around on them by pointing out that numerous other institutions exist which also claim to be apostolic in origin. Some of these, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) even claim that their identity as the true Church which Christ founded is proved by the lineal succession of teachers in their midst--the very thing many Catholic apologists claim of their own institution! 19 Can we not justly ask why the identity and veracity of the Scriptures is tied to an infallible external confirmation, but the identity and veracity of "the Catholic Church" is not? Can we not justly reverse the criticism and accuse the Catholic Church of undermining all hope of a rational defense of the Christian faith by resting its authority on the pious feelings of individual Catholics, millions of whom can give no external confirmation of their belief in the Church? It appears that Calvin was correct: Roman Catholics "do not care with what absurdities they ensnare themselves and others, provided they can force this one idea upon the simple-minded: that the church has authority in all things." (Institutes 1:7:1, cited above).
But let us not listen to Calvin alone. Charles Hodge shows us what this grandiose "authority of the Catholic Church" boils down to in the life of an individual Catholic:
This brief survey of the relationship of the Bible and the Church has covered much ground, and should now be summarized as succintly as possible.
We saw that the claims of Catholic apologists to the effect that Scripture cannot be the sole infallible rule of faith for the Church because the Church preceded the Scripture and had to infallibly define its canon are false for three reasons.
First, such claims are circular. They begin by asserting that nobody can know what the Scriptures are until the Church tells them, but then they proceed to "prove" the Church by a string of evidences that includes passages of the very Scriptures that are said to be in doubt outside of the "say-so" of the Church!
Second, these claims confuse two different senses of the word "Bible". The Church preceded the "Bible" where that term denotes the completed collection of canonical books (as in the leather-bound books we carry today), but the "Bible" preceded the Church where the term denotes the God-breathed revelation given through the apostles and prophets--some of which was initially oral and only later inscripturated, and some of which was written from the very start.
Third, such claims prove too much, for they amount to saying that nobody in the first four centuries of the Church knew with any certainty which of the many books in circulation were God's Word. We saw that such an idea is utterly false historically, for only six of the New Testament books we know today were ever disputed, and of these, not all were disputed at the same times or by all Christians. Additionally, the canonicity of the Apocryphal books was never universally accepted by all Christians, even after the supposedly "infallible" definitions of the canon given by the councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).
We saw that despite disputes over some books in some quarters of the early Church (which were solved over time by a growing consensus) the vast majority of believers seemed to have acted as if they knew what Scripture was--as if their fallible knowledge of the identity of written apostolic teaching was sufficient for their faith and practice. Furthermore, we saw that Christ Himself held the Jews of His day responsible to the teaching of the Scriptures, even though they did not have an infallible ruling on the identity of those Scriptures and were not given such a ruling by Christ. If infallible knowledge of the contents of the canon was not necessary then, why is it necessary now?
Finally, we surveyed at some length why the question put to us by our Roman Catholic interlocuters--"How can you know that the Bible is the Word of God when you don't have an infallible Church to tell you so?"--is really not only sacrilegious, but manifestly absurd. The very same logic eliminates the "certainty of faith" that these Catholics claim to have regarding their Church. Just as the masses of Protestants uncritically accept the inspiration of Scripture based on its effects on their own souls and may never seek external confirmation, so too the masses of Catholics uncritically accept the authority of their Church and may never seek external confirmation. If it is "irrational" for one group to do it, it is "irrational" for the other to do it as well.
Moreover, those Catholics who should be best able to see the incoherency of their argument --the apologists who make it so central to their cases--are strangely blind to the dilemma they have constructed for themselves. It is absurd to pit two competing ultimate authorities (Sola Scriptura and the Catholic Magisterium with its Sacred Tradition) against each other and demand that only one of them provide infallible external confirmation of its veracity. 21
The Catholic argument is viciously circular in that it uses Scripture to verify Church and Church to verify Scripture. The Protestant position, on the other hand, rests its argument in a First Cause which cannot be and does not need to be explained or verified in order to be accepted. External verifications for the Scriptures DO exist, but they are brought forward only as confirmations of what was already known by other means to be true. If Catholic apologists would merely admit that they do precisely the same thing in their arguments for their Church, it is conceivable that progress would be made in this long-standing debate.
When we compare the basis Rome offers us for knowing the Scriptures with the concept of God's dealings in the hearts of His own as outlined by Calvin and Hodge, the conclusion of Hodge seems most appropriate: "To teach that we cannot know the Scriptures to be the work of God, except on the testimony of the church, is to teach we cannot see the sun without the help of a candle."
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1. This is really a non-argument, for it does not engage the point that if one possesses an adequate authority for some action, one does not need to look elsewhere to the possibility that other authorities might exist. The Protestant position does not deny that the Church of Jesus Christ has authority to teach, nurture, and discipline its members; rather, it denies that the Church is the supreme authority in the life of the believer. Roman apologists who try to counter the use of 2 Tim. 3:16-17 in this fashion simply reveal that they are begging the question they are supposed to be answering--namely, the manner in which the Church is related to the Scriptures.
2. I will here briefly mention that, as a Protestant, my understanding of the phrase "institutional Church" differs radically from the Roman Catholic's understanding of it. The latter automatically identifies this entity as the organization of bishops in communion with the church in Rome, which itself assumes the primacy over all other churches in the world. The former understands the phrase to mean, at best, all assemblies of the "called out ones" (ecclesia, or "church") all over the world, and rejects the idea of the universal primacy of any one particular assembly over all the others.
3. I will here pass over the controversy between Protestants and Catholics over the canonical status of the Apocrypha. I do so not because it is not important, but because I cover it elsewhere (see my essay "Why Do Protestant Bibles Exclude the Deuterocanonical Books?".
4. One Catholic rebuttal of this idea would be that Christians didn't need an infallible understanding of the canon before it was actually so defined, for they had the Church, with its infallible successors of Peter, to teach them. While I certainly grant that Christians do not need an infallible understanding of the canon, and even that Protestants do acquiesce in the judgment of the early Christians regarding the New Testament canon (just as they rely on the judgment of the Jews for the Old Testament canon), the rest of this rebuttal is quite plainly a matter of begged questions. Infallibility simply doesn't follow from the mere idea of authoritative teachers guiding Christ's flock. Furthermore, the entire concept of apostolic succession--particularly as pertains to Peter--as presented by the Catholic Church has enormous problems both with Scripture and with history (see my essay "Apostolic Succession").
5. White, James R., The Roman Catholic Controversy (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), pg. 92.
6. Ibid, pg 94
7. Ibid, pg 94
8. White, James R., The Roman Catholic Controversy , pp 50-51
9. Ibid., 51-52
10. Ibid, pg. 52
11. And of course, as both Catholics and Protestants agree, God is providentially in control of all things and has promised never to leave His Church ( Matt. 28:20), to guide it into all truth (Jn. 14:26)--which, interestingly enough, has quite obviously not yet been fulfilled even on the Catholic view of things-- and to ensure that its assaults on the gates of Hades will never be withstood (Matt. 16:19). Catholic apologists are quite prone to simply begging the question of the nature of the Church's authority when they cite these verses, e.g., they simply assume that the only way these verses could be true is if the Church is infallible. But we should take note of the fact that in all of these passages, the active work is being done by God Himself, not by His Church. It is precisely because God is infallible that the Church is not and does not need to be.
12. Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture (Downer's Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1988), pp. 28-29
13. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, pg. 94. The following paragraph of mine closely follows White's presentation on pp. 94-95. Also refer to his taped debate with Catholic apologist Gerry Matatics on the issue of the Apocrypha.
14. Gerry Matatics makes this very charge in the Apocrypha debate with White.
15. Regrettably, I cannot digress with great detail into the very interesting subject of the ground and warrant for believing any given proposition. Nevertheless, for clarity's sake, this point must be observed. Unless any given book claimed divine inspiration for itself, a person would have no reason to even consider whether or not it was so. And unless a person felt or thought within himself that the book was so inspired, the mere claim by the book that it was so would have no bearing on his life.
It is entirely appropriate for any believer of any proposition to advance as the ground of his belief something internal to himself. No one can deny that a Muslim or Hindu experiences something within himself that convinces him of the truth of the Koran or the Baghavad Gita. Any external reasons advanced in support of the belief--whether internal consistency, agreement with other known facts, accreditation by an organized body of authoritative religious leaders, etc--would constitute the warrant for the belief. The ground of the belief is personal, and cannot be expected to convince an outsider. The warrant, however, which consists of external proofs and reasons, may do just that. Nevertheless, no warrant, no matter how good, can be expected to persuade someone who has no ground within himself for believing it. Even the great logician Richard Weaver recognized this in his book Ideas Have Consequences: " How frequently it is brought to our attention that nothing good can be done if the will is wrong. Reason alone fails to justify itself...if the disposition is wrong, reason increases maleficence; if it is right, reason orders and furthers the good." (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) pg. 19
16. The reader is directed to such organizations as Catholic Answers and Envoy Magazine, and to the websites of individual Catholic apologists such as Dave Armstrong, David Palm, and Gary Hoge for examples of this.
17. Aside from the book by James White which I have already quoted in this piece, there is also White's organization's website, Alpha and Omega Ministries, and William Webster's collection of original articles found at Christian Resources.
18. The entire debate can be found at Dialogue With Catholic Apologist Gary Hoge. The letters from which I am quoting here are entitled, "The Doctrinal Diversity of Protestantism".
19. We must here note that the attempt of some Catholic apologists (such as Tim Staples in a debate with James White on Sola Scriptura, available from Alpha and Omega Ministries) attempt to rebut this kind of use of the Mormon Church as a disconfirming example by scoffing at its recent origin as opposed to the (alleged) fact that the Catholic Church has been around for 2,000 years. This reasoning rings hollow because it operates by importing into the argument distinctly Catholic ideas about the indefectability of the organized body of bishops. One cannot "prove" that the Mormon Church's idea of a universal apostasy in the early Church is a false one simply by saying, "Well, our Catholic Church says that could never have happened."
20. Hodge, "Ground of Faith in the Scriptures"
21. I am here referring to the fact that the historical arguments used by the Roman apologists are simply not infallible, as is the case with all forms of inductive reasoning. When one is piling up facts in support of a given conclusion, it is entirely possible that one may overlook, distort, or end up "explaining away" some facts that disconfirm the conclusion. Furthermore, the Catholic apologists themselves are not infallible, and so it is ludicrous for them to suggest that they can provide infallible "certainty of faith" regarding their Church by simply constructing massive edifices of historical data. Thus, their demand that Protestants provide such "certainty" regarding the Scriptures is quite disingenous, to say the least.