Scripture and Authority in Protestant Theology
November 8, 2008
Is the Protestant principle of sola scriptura illogical? Does it violate any formal rules of logic, namely committing the fallacy of circular argumentation (e.g., “The reason I believe in the authority of scripture is because scripture claims authority from God”) which, of course, entails begging the question? Dave Armstrong believes it does, and I think it’s fair to say that this is the general consensus of the Catholic apologetics world (which should be distinguished from academic Catholic scholarship). Apart from considerations of other doctrines, even soteriology, Protestant Christianity must be rejected for at least violating inscrutible laws of ratiocination in its authority principle. This post by Armstrong is a good example of this belief, where “inexorable, unarguable reasoning” requires us to reject sola scriptura.
The insurmountable problem facing the Protestant position, according to Armstrong, is the fact that scripture itself does not testify to its own exclusive authority. Combine that with scripture’s own lack of a table of contents (canon) and you have an inability for the Protestant to extra ecclesiam know what is scripture, in precise limits. And, thirdly, once the Protestant claims a certain set of texts as scripture, he still knows of his fallibility; thus, how can the fallible individual claim to know his canon of scripture is indeed scripture? The solution to these problems is the Church, according to Armstrong et al. The Church defines what is scripture, the Church tells us that this scripture is not solely authoritative for doctrine (at least not formally sufficient), and since the Church is infallible in this regard, the individual Christian can know both what is scripture and matters of faith not defined therein. The locus of the assent of faith is, then, the Church and, by extension, everything the Church binds de fide. So, for sake of clarity at the cost of redundancy, here is what this Catholic principle accomplishes:
1. Defining all that the Christian must believe as revelation from God.
2. Defining what is scripture — what texts are inspired witness to God’s revelation.
3. Defining with infallibility number 1 (and, thus, number 2).
This is, of course, a perfectly defensible and sensible position. The problem is believing that the Protestant principle is illogical and believing that the Catholic principle escapes the circularity which, supposedly, voids the Protestant position. A second problem is believing that either or both are (strictly) circular arguments. But, we cannot get to these problems without first understanding how both the Protestant and the Catholic determine what is revelation and, thus, infallible in its witness to God’s own self-revelation and a continuing part in this revealing of God to his elect until the parousia.
A real question for the Protestant is determining what is revelation from God, but this is equally a real question for the Catholic. The Catholic has determined that the Church is the vehicle of God’s revelation and, as such, requires the assent of faith. The Protestant has not determined any Church to have such authority, but he has determined that certain texts (scripture) proclaim God’s revelation and, as such, requires the assent of faith — but the Church does not therein play an inessential role. The use of the term, “determination,” should perhaps be replaced with “recognition,” since the Christian, in union with the Church, does not ascribe authority to scripture but, rather, acquieces to it, as he comes to faith by the Holy Spirit — a Spirit at movement with his fellow believers in the Church. The Protestant does not come to a collection of writings and then set about determining which are to be held as sacred. The Protestant becomes a Protestant, which is to say, becomes a Christian, in the Church, and it is with the Church that the Protestant joins in recognizing scripture. He would not even know the gospel if it were not for the Church, but the Church herself would not know the gospel if it were not for God’s election of Israel and Jesus Christ, which is also the election of the Church (the new Isreal). This covenantal revelation is recorded by the body of believers, Israel-Church, in writings which are then held as authoritative as they are the bearers of this revelation directly from God. We do not turn to Augustine, Thomas, or Barth in order to determine what God has revealed of Himself; rather, we turn (with Augustine, Thomas, and Barth) to the scriptures and confess accordingly. In the first centuries of the Church, it was her task to confess scripture, which includes confessing what should be included as scripture. The Christian joins with the Church in this confession, not with the understanding that the Church is infallible in its declarations here or elsewhere but with the understanding that this Church is the elect of God, given God himself in the Holy Spirit with a redeemed vision of His Word. Thus, the Church can err, but it is the Church which is given the commission to proclaim the gospel. The Church varied in multiple ways in what she considered scripture during the early centuries, and even in the Church of Rome of the 16th century there were disputes over the OT deuterocanon, with faithful cardinals taking the Jewish-Protestant position. But this did not put the Church of the 16th century in any more of an “illogical” position than the Church of the 4th century. The Protestant does not see the variations here and obvious indeterminancy as a threat to the holy mission of the Church, which nonetheless must include a confession of scripture. All of this, of course, leaves open the possibility that a Protestant may reject a certain writing as non-scriptural, just as the Church has collectively and variously, but not without due and weighty reference to the collective wisdom (under the Spirit’s tutelage) of the Church. It’s not to be taken lightly, to say the least; which is why a healthy pragmatism and understanding of God’s providence over all things makes the revision of the canon an unnecessary consideration for most Protestants.
Now, the question of circularity seems rather an odd charge. The Catholic believes in the divine authority of the Church, not because the Catholic Church simply “says so,” but because a comprehensive consideration of God’s revelation, in scripture and Church, reveals this charism of the Church. The Catholic can be wrong here just as much as the Protestant can in his determination of authoritative revelation. Hopefully these observations will lead to both sides moderating their claims, especially the charges of logical fallacy.
Recommended Further Reading
John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch
P. T. Forsyth, The Principle of Authority