The Canon: A Protestant Account

Every so often, the canon debate is renewed in the blogosphere. The latest manifestation is found at Parchment and Pen with Michael Patton’s latest consideration of Sproul’s dictum, “We have a fallible canon of infallible books.” Michael Liccione gives a Catholic response at Philosophia Perennis.

I think the canon debate (=authority debate) might be better served if we actually start with what is actually going on in scripture instead of epistemological categories (e.g., certainty). To this end, here’s an excerpt from P. T. Forsyth’s brilliant lectures, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909):

In Christ God redeemed once for all. To make this effective in history it must be declared. What is the work for us without its word? It must be interpreted, unfolded, in thought and speech, else men would not know they were saved. The work alone would be dumb as the word alone would be empty.

There are some who recognize in Christ’s death no action beyond what it had, and has increasingly, upon mankind. It did not act on God but only from Him. Those who so think may be particularly asked what provision Christ made that a work with that sole object should be secured to act on history, and should not go to waste. He wrote nothing himself. If he had it could not well have included the effect of his death — unless he had done with a posthumous pen what my plea is he did by his Apostles. He did not even give instructions for a written account which should be a constant source for the effect on us intended by his life. Nor did he take any precautions against perversions in its tradition. Yet it is hard to think that a mind capable of so great a design on posterity should neglect to secure that his deed and its significance should reach them in some authentic way. He surely could not put himself into so great an enterprise, and then leave it adrift on history, liable to the accidents of time or the idiosyncracy of his followers. He could not be indifferent whether an effective record and interpretation of his work should survive or not. He would then have shown himself unable to rear the deed he brought forth. It would have been stillborn unless the close of it in some way secured its action on the posterity which we are told was its sole destination, on those whom alone it was to affect or benefit. But the completion of his work he did secure if he inspired its transmission and interpretation in the Bible. If he died to make a Church that Church should continue to be made by some permanent thing from himself, either by a continuous Apostolate supernaturally secured in the charisma veritatis, as Rome claims, or by a book which should be the real successor of the Apostles, with a real authority on the vital matters of truth and faith. But, we discard the supernatural pope for the supernatural book. And so we come back, enriched by all we have learned from repudiating a verbal inspiration and accepting an inspiration of men and souls, to a better way of understanding the authority that there is in the inspiration of a book, a canon. We move from an institutional authority to a biblical: and then from Biblicism to Evangelism. But it is an Evangelism bound up with a book because bound up with history. …And this because, for all the pronounced personality of each Apostle, he was yet the representative of a whole Church, an Eternal Saviour, and a universal salvation. The interpretation of the manifold work of Christ should be a corporate matter. …[Christ] rounded off his great work by inspiring an authoritative account of it, in records which are not mere documents, but are themselves acts within his integral and historic act of salvation. …[They] form an integral part of the deed itself….They are part of the whole transaction, integral to the great deed. And we do not get the whole Christ or his work without them.

(pp. 170-172)

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20 comments

  1. Thanks for posting this.

    “[Christ] rounded off his great work by inspiring an authoritative account of it, in records which are not mere documents, but are themselves acts within his integral and historic act of salvation. …[They] form an integral part of the deed itself….They are part of the whole transaction, integral to the great deed.”

    Exactly! That’s what Ridderbos would later try to get across with his insistence that the canon must be understood within, and as part of, Christ’s work in the history of redemption. The canon is in this sense prior to the church, much as Christology is prior to ecclesiology.

  2. If he died to make a Church that Church should continue to be made by some permanent thing from himself, either by a continuous Apostolate supernaturally secured in the charisma veritatis, as Rome claims, or by a book which should be the real successor of the Apostles, with a real authority on the vital matters of truth and faith. But, we discard the supernatural pope for the supernatural book.

    This is the crux of the issue. For Forsyth, either the Magisterium or the biblical canon “secures” the transmission of divine revelation. Nothing about that Tradition of which the NT is the most authoritative written record. By contrast, consider Vatican II:

    Sacred tradition and Sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 2, 42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.

    But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission; and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.

    It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.

    So according to the Catholic Church, there are three mutually authenticating means Christ has given to “secure” what needs to be secured: Tradition and Scripture, which together form “one sacred deposit of the Word of God,” and the Magisterium to interpret them “authentically.” Instead of one self-authenticating source, there are three mutually authenticating sources, with the latter serving the former and depending on them, and the former assimilated by the faithful through the latter.

    On this picture, everything Forsyth affirms about the Bible can and ought to be held as true. Only what he denies is rejected.

  3. He surely could not put himself into so great an enterprise, and then leave it adrift on history, liable to the accidents of time or the idiosyncracy of his followers. He could not be indifferent whether an effective record and interpretation of his work should survive or not. He would then have shown himself unable to rear the deed he brought forth.

    This reminds me of the words of Catholic Hebrew scholar and philosopher Claude Tresmontant, member of the Sorbonne at the University of Paris

    “The three gospels which we call ‘synoptic gospels,’ the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and Mark are three translations into Greek of three collections of notes and documents which were originally taken down as notes in Hebrew. . . Among the companions and disciples of the Galilean Rabbi Jesus were some who took frequent notes; this, indeed, was the custom in a milieu which was literate and even learned in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is time to jettison the old myth of an unlettered Galilean Rabbi surrounded by a gaggle of disciples equally unlettered.” [The Gospel of Matthew: Translation and Notes (Christendom Press, 1996), p. 14]

    Kinda gives a new understanding of Jesus’ command to “Go, therefore, and teach,” doesn’t it?

  4. Dr. Liccione,

    Forsyth has a similar understanding of an originating tradition, without, of course, the continuing apostolic-episcopal authority. The tradition, however, is not so much a deposit of truths but the Lord himself and his new creation in which the NT writers find themselves. The Gospel — a real Incarnation and Atonement — is the source, means, and end of scripture:

    “We cannot believe a certain thing just because it is in the Bible. And our city of refuge is Evangelism. What we really believe is the Gospel which, with the new soul, called the Bible also into being, and for whose sake it exists. It is not the Church. For the books of the Bible were given to the Church, more than by it, and they descended on it rather than rose from it. The canon of the Bible rose from the Church, but not its contents. Bible and Church were collateral products of the Gospel.”

  5. Iohannes,

    I’ll have to read Ridderbos’ Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.

    Kepha,

    Great quote. I’ve long complained about our contemporary presups about the supposedly ignorant masses of yore.

  6. Kevin:

    As you know, there are two senses of traditio or paradosis. One is “that which is handed on,” the other is “the handing on of that which is handed on.” Tradition in the former sense is indeed Truth himself, the Lord, and all he said and did to “make all things new.” But I have been speaking primarily of tradition in the latter sense, which is more a process of transmitting divine revelation to all those who did not know the Lord in the flesh. That is what all the debate is about, and that is the sense of the word ‘tradition’ being used in the quotation from Vatican II I posted.

    Best,
    Mike

  7. Mike,

    Yes, I understand. I was just pointing out that Forsyth does recognize a tradition to which and of which the NT is the authoritative interpretation, since you had said, “…Nothing about that Tradition of which the NT is the most authoritative written record.” As I see it, by positing the “Tradition” as a continuing unveiling phenomenon, instead of closed and limited by Christ’s unique 1st century work of atonement, the Church becomes the ultimate authority, able to bind doctrine not taught by the Apostles, though it is claimed to be implicitly taught. For the Protestant, the NT is integral to Christ’s historic act of salvation, since His work of salvation requires this witness, this good news, given to the Church; for the Catholic, the apostolic Church is integral to Christ’s historic act of salvation, since it is likewise perceived as necessary (for faith, for unity, etc.). Neither position has any epistemic superiority, regardless of what every Catholic apologist says. What is primary and determinative of whether one accepts scripture alone or an apostolic-episcopal Church is the manner in which the Gospel is held and how it is understood. A Gospel of free grace, and immediate divine relation, will naturally cohere with a Protestant singular deference toward a written record of God’s freedom towards his people among whom the Protestant finds himself. A Gospel of free grace conditioned by our continuance in love, given and sustained by the Church, will naturally cohere with the Catholic deference toward the Church itself as a communion of all those laboring together toward God’s freedom.

  8. Kevin:

    I’m not sure what you mean by saying that neither position has any “epistemic superiority.” Do you mean that neither position enables one to know more of the truth than the other? Or do you simply mean that neither position can establish its superiority to the other on the basis of premises that the other would accept?

    Best,
    Mike

  9. I’m just thinking of foundationalism. The Catholic position is often presented as superior to the Protestant position because the Catholic can know with certainty, while the Protestant is left with his own private judgment (=opinion). Newman made this point repeatedly (e.g., Mixed Congregations), and so does every Catholic apologist. I don’t agree. The Catholic judges the whole of the Catholic Church and assents according to a preponderance of evidences, including, not least of all, the moral work of the Holy Spirit. The Protestant judges the whole of scripture and assents according to a preponderance of evidences, including, not least of all, the moral work of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Catholic judges scripture as well, and the Protestant judges ecclesial traditions as well, but the ultimate authority is found in a Church for the Catholic, and in scripture for the Protestant. As such, the final appeal for dogmatics is in a different location. However, the determination of evidences, in both instances, is subject to the same epistemological laws. Neither Catholics nor Protestants can claim a logical demonstration of their faith assent (to the Church’s claims or to scripture’s claims). There is always a void between the evidence and the conclusion, and there is no bridge between the two (unlike a syllogism’s premises and conclusion). I don’t think this results in a “healthy” doubt (contra Michael Patton); rather, we have a moral or existential certainty, but not a “logical” certainty. The bridge is a moral bridge, a spiritual bridge. Regardless, it’s the same for both Catholics and Protestants. The former are not in any way escaping from “private judgment.” The difference is that the Catholic can perhaps achieve a greater scope of doctrinal assents. The Protestant admits to certain clear assents from scripture, but not toward anything which is not found in scripture. A Protestant cannot assent, upon his understanding of revelation, to May’s ever-virginity, immaculate conception, bodily assumption, and spiritual motherhood. He could say that this is a possibility (albeit very slight), but he cannot say it is divinely revealed. The Catholic, of course, can.

  10. That clarifies your position somewhat. But I’m a bit surprised you don’t take note of half of Newman’s argument. And that affects the wider issue.

    Newman fully acknowledges the role of private judgment in deciding whether or not to be Catholic. His point is that, once one decides to be Catholic, one decides to submit one’s judgment to the Church’s, if the matter is one of faith or morals and the Church has taught thereon with her full authority; for the Church is seen as infallible under such conditions. That doesn’t mean all scope for theological opinion-making and private judgment is closed off; it means that one’s own judgment must and does give way if and when it conflicts with the Church’s definitive judgment. Newman walked that talk in the way he dealt with Vatican I.

    According to him, though, the Protestant cannot do the same just by substituting “Scripture” for the Church. Scripture not only requires interpretation; the Protestant as such acknowledges no interpretive authority as infallible under any conditions. So he can only conform himself to his own fallible interpretation or the fallible interpretation of leaders whose judgment he is willing, for whatever reason, to concede is superior to his own. Thus even when his or their interpretation is true, so that he thereby holds what is truly of faith, he holds it only as opinion and thus not by faith. That argument is not original with Newman: Thomas Aquinas made essentially the same argument in answer to the question “Do those heretics who err in one article, have faith in others?” (ST IIA Q5 A3).

    The pivot of all this is, of course, the question of the “interpretation” of the deposit of faith. According to Newman, that takes place in part through “development of doctrine” in and by the Church. I sense a bit of sleight-of-hand in your assertion that Forsyth “does recognize a tradition to which and of which the NT is the authoritative interpretation.” All you’re really saying is that, for him, tradition is that which is handed on, namely the revelation in Jesus Christ. It is not in dispute that the NT is an authoritative interpretation of “tradition” in that sense, which I shall call ‘T1’; what’s in dispute is whether tradition in the sense in which Vatican II uses the term, namely the handing-on of T1 to the post-apostolic Church, is something wider than Scripture, yet equally as authoritative. I shall call tradition in that sense ‘T2’. The question at issue can now be framed as that of whether there is a T2 which hands on T1 but does not consist solely in Scripture.

    It is quite consistent with answering that question in the affirmative to say that Scripture is the most authoritative written record of both T1 and T2, such that once the canon is formed, it constitutes a norma normans for both T2 and the Magisterium. But it is not consistent with such an answer to say that Scripture, or at least the NT, is the sole authoritative record of T1. So which answer is better?

    Let me start by observing that it is not because I’m Catholic that I came to hold that there is such a thing as T2. Rather, in college when all these questions were open for me, admitting T2 in addition to Scripture, as means of handing on T1, seemed to me to cohere far better with what actually happened in the post-apostolic and patristic Church than admitting only Scripture as such a means. This is why I was puzzled at first by your remark about the lack of any “epistemic superiority” on the part of one position over the other. It is now clear you did not mean that neither position enables one to learn more of the truth than the other. One could reasonably venture to say such a thing only from a prior epistemic standpoint on which T1 can be known well enough to judge which take on T2 is epistemically superior—i.e. from a prior standpoint epistemically superior, or thought to be epistemically superior, to either the Catholic or Protestant one. That’s not your style. So I think it more likely you mean that neither side can convince the other on the basis of premises both would accept. As you know, that is a phenomenon very familiar to me from the Catholic-Orthodox debates in which I have participated. So I’m prepared to grant that we might also be dealing with the same sort of paradigm-incommensurability between Protestants such as Forsyth and Catholics. But I would still point out that nothing follows about which paradigm enables one to know more of the relevant truth. All that follows is that, whichever paradigm enables one to know more of the truth, people in the grip of the opposite paradigm won’t be prepared to see that truth.

    But before we confront that kind of problem, it’s important to get clear about precisely what the alternatives are. I have a very hard time doing that when dealing with Protestants. As I survey the vast array of Protestant denominations and theologies—who seem able to agree only in rejecting the Catholic Church’s claim to infallibility—I find many brands and flavors of sola scriptura. Hardly any stick consistently to the sola, for reasons I can understand but which are rarely admitted. So I’d rather limit myself to the task of ensuring that the position I myself defend is not unduly distorted.

    Thus I am obliged to reject as question-begging your claim that by positing the “Tradition” as a continuing unveiling phenomenon, instead of closed and limited by Christ’s unique 1st century work of atonement, the Church becomes the ultimate authority, able to bind doctrine not taught by the Apostles, though it is claimed to be implicitly taught. That’s just a relatively radical version of the claim, which I have repeatedly confronted and rebutted in my debates with the Orthodox, that so-called “devleopment of doctrine” is actually an illicit attempt to add to the deposit of faith, or at least to deny that public revelation closed with the death of the last apostle. But the Catholic Church agrees that divine revelation in the primary sense, i.e. that of T1, closed with the death of the last apostle. She does not claim to add to the deposit of faith but only to make more explicit what’s already given. She doesn’t even claim to “posit” T2. She claims it’s already given too and that she’s only being guided by it. If those claims are true, then the Magisterium is not “the ultimate authority.” As Vatican II indicates, the Word of God is; the Magisterium is only the servant thereof, resolving for the rest of the Church interpretive issues that would otherwise remain in dispute. Accordingly, your characterization of the Catholic position is only true if her actual teaching about her authority is false. That’s why I’ve rejected your characterization as question-begging.

    Best,
    Mike

  11. Yeah, I’ll admit that the whole “continuing unveiling phenomenon” thing was a bit question-begging, but I don’t think question-begging statements in-themselves are a bad thing. They’re bad if they intend to “prove” something, but I rarely intend to “prove” things 🙂 . Nonetheless, I see a sleight-of-hand in your statement that scripture is the “ultimate authority.” Or, rather, you are saying that T1 is the ultimate authority and scripture is not synonymous with T1. Rather, the apostolic revelation of the 1st century is T1 and scripture contains T1 but not all of it. Is that right? The problem, of course, is that we have no evidence that, e.g., Mary was ever-virgin or bodily assumed in T1 because the only evidence of T1 is scripture. Catholics propose that T2 is also a witness to T1, able to pronounce the contents of T1. Therefore, by T2 we know that Mary was ever-virgin and bodily assumed. So, how is T1 the “ultimate authority” when it is T2 which determines T1 in these cases? This is why Protestants accuse Catholics of “sola ecclesia” — the ultimate authority is the Church (of course, a Church which includes the scriptures).

    As for Newman, if you read, “Faith and Private Judgment,” in his Mixed Congregations sermons, you’ll see that he rejects that Protestants can have any certitude — only opinion/doubt — about any article of faith. His argument is, basically, that if you accept the apostles as authoritative, they are authoritative for all time through their successors because it has to be a living authority. Only a living authority can subject one’s conscience and not be left in a mess of contradicting opinions and uncertainties. This is largely what you are saying as well. Scripture requires interpretation. True. So do the dogmas of the Catholic Church, as you very well know (e.g., extra ecclesiam nulla salus, or what the heck “transubstantiation” means). I guess I just don’t find this (argument from interpretation) very convincing. I think the fundamentals of the Christian faith are easily determined from scripture, that is, if they are interpreted according to the dogmatic necessities of our Redemption through an Atonement by an Incarnate Son. To those who have received the Gospel in a New Creation, scripture is unveiled to them. It is not such a large leap from a Billy Graham Crusade to Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. I learned exegesis from Professor James Tabor (author, The Jesus Dynasty) at the University of N. Carolina at Charlotte. It doesn’t get much more liberal than Dr. Tabor. I know my Strauss, Harnack, and Bultmann as well. Once one recognizes the anti-evangelical presuppositions that produce their variant renderings, he or she will actually gain a greater trust in scripture, and appreciation for its role as norm for the Church.

  12. Kevin,

    What do you think of this passage from Calvin on 1 John 4:1?

    But here a difficult question arises: If every one has the right and the liberty to judge, nothing can be settled as certain, but on the contrary the whole of religion will be uncertain. To this I answer, that there is a twofold trial of doctrine, private and public. The private trial is that by which every one settles his own faith, when he wholly acquiesces in that doctrine which he knows has come from God; for consciences will never find a safe and tranquil port otherwise than in God. Public trial refers to the common consent and polity of the Church; for as there is danger lest fanatics should rise up, who may presumptuously boast that they are endued with the Spirit of God, it is a necessary remedy, that the faithful meet together and seek a way by which they may agree in a holy and godly manner. But as the old proverb is too true, “So many heads, so many opinions,” it is doubtless a singular work of God, when he subdues our perverseness and makes us to think the same thing, and to agree in a holy unity of faith.

    Previously I have thought about a potential distinction between de jure and de facto infallibility. Calvin’s approach positively (recognizing substantial agreement and consensus as the token of the work of the Holy Spirit) and the promise of indefectibility negatively have seemed to me possibly to suggest that although no organ of the church is de jure infallible in its pronouncements, in practice core parts of what the church has professed traditionally have enjoyed such universal acceptance and approval over the centuries that it is simply inconceivable that they could be in error, and thus are de facto infallible. That is, even though in principle everything may be reformable, in practice some things are so rooted in the church’s historical experience as to be, one might say, asymptotically irreformable. The main example I would give is belief in the Trinity, but more concretely I could see the Nicene Creed having a status like this, and perhaps also the canon (though the filioque would remain debatable, as would the question of the deuterocanonical books). If a position like this is viable (and it certainly isn’t as tidy as the RC position) it would affirm the limited form of tradition ( T1) in such a way as to make clear that not everything is up for grabs.

    This distinction of de jure from de facto has also led me to think of the differences between civil law (historically Roman) and common law (historically English) systems. The analogy can get strained, but what I have in mind is that for a very long time in the Western tradition the thinking was that laws are discovered, not made. FA Hayek notably argued that the common law tradition excelled the civil law in fidelity to this principle. Common law allows for an evolution that constantly takes precedent into consideration but is not absolutely bound by precedent. For in theory all precedents are themselves only a reflection of the ideal of law that is external to man and to be uncovered by him through the rational faculties. If men reasoned incorrectly in the past, then the precedents they produced are diminished in cogency. But that in theory any precedent can be reconsidered does not make this so in practice. In practice certain precedents are so well established, so widely recognized, that it would be inconceivable for them to be wrong, i.e. to fail to correspond to the truth. The precedents condemning premeditated murder have a status that many precedents involving, say, the details of intellectual property do not. If we go a step further, even when the legal tradition with its precedents becomes summarized by a code of legal guidelines, the result is still in an important sense a kind of subordinate standard, something that is authoritative not so much in itself but rather is authoritative because it represents what is recognizable as belonging to the ideal of justice. And even if the state for expediency by statute should mandate its formal guidelines as all equally binding, still in principle some of the guidelines may be more authoritative than others. I wonder whether this might be applicable to the questions of tradition and church authority in a way like what I suggested above?

    Sorry for the length of these musings…

    John

  13. I like the Calvin quote. It is sort of a common sense consideration: If the same Holy Spirit was/is at work in my salvation, then I should be able to see some substantial agreement with those who claim the same salvation by the same means (Gospel proclamation and witness of the H. S. to the scriptural revelation). If I interpret something well out of the mainstream, then there’s a good chance that it is more of “me,” and less of the H. S., at work (i.e., me apart from the H. S. is bound in pride and ignorance).

    I’m not sure about the “de facto” infallibility. It may work as a Protestant consideration, but it would require more limits. Otherwise, apostolic succession (among other things) would be a requisite of the Church for Protestants, given its overwhelmingly broad acceptance by East and West for centuries. Thus, the limits on “de facto” infallibility would have to be something like “only when the Church is seeking scripture alone.” Of course, Catholics will (rightly) come back and say, “That just begs the question.”

  14. Mike L said:
    “His point is that, once one decides to be Catholic, one decides to submit one’s judgment to the Church’s, if the matter is one of faith or morals and the Church has taught thereon with her full authority; for the Church is seen as infallible under such conditions.”

    “Scripture not only requires interpretation…So he can only conform himself to his own fallible interpretation or the fallible interpretation of leaders whose judgment he is willing, for whatever reason, to concede is superior to his own”

    As Kevin pointed out, the teachings of the Magisterium itself require interpretation as to their meaning, their obligatory force, which are irreformable (indeed even what exact sentences/concepts/phrases within documents/statements are irreformable), etc. It is not some simple binary system (as contests between RC theologians, not just laymen, give witness). As Dulles writes in his recent book on the Magisterium, “Except for the definition of the Immaculate Conception, there is little clarity about which papal statements prior to Vatican I are irreformable. Most authors would agree on about half a dozen statements.” The catholic also conforms himself to his own fallible interpretation, or to his own fallible interpretation of theologians or academics (like Mike L) who he thinks makes a good case. For more on Dulles’ book from a Protestant perspective, Steve Hays from Triablogue makes some interesting points – http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2008/08/magisterial-cat-and-mouse-game.html

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