In the interests of a sermon I am preaching on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, I went looking about on the internet for some of the common objections to the claims my sermon makes. I found a very interesting link titled Twenty One Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura.
The article by catholic apologist Joel Peters presented much of what I have heard in the past, but also did present some new and very challenging information. It is my goal in a long series of blog posts to briefly respond to each of these brief arguments.
I would like to begin with #12 in the link which states,
“The Belief that Scripture is ‘Self-Authenticating’ Does Not Hold Up under Examination.”
This is where the debate needs to begin. This is the worldview assumption: this is getting at the ultimate authority of both sides.
Although Peters doesn’t claim this, the ultimate authority for the Roman Catholic is the church. They claim they have a tripartite system of authority (Scripture, Tradition, and the Church Magisterium). The claim is that authority functions like a 3-legged stool. No leg is more important, but each is necessary.
But functionally, this is not the case for Rome. Catholics claim that the Scriptures are an ultimate authority for people, but they claim that the church is an equal authority, since after all, the church had to give us the Scripture, and it has to interpret it for us as well. Allegedly, without the Church we would have no Bible, and we can’t know what the Bible says. We need the church as a necessary starting point before we can move forward to the Bible/Tradition.
In spite of their claims to the contrary, as an epistemic axiom, the church is the final authority for the Catholic. The formation/development of Tradition/the Scriptures are enslaved to the authority of the church, and the understanding/interpretation of those things are also funneled through the Church. We will call this: Sola Ecclesia.
Here is the problem: everyone has to have an ultimate starting point; everyone has an ultimate authority, and those must be circular. You cannot appeal to something outside of your ultimate authority in order to justify your ultimate authority, because whatever you appealed to would then be a higher authority over whatever it is you are trying to validate.
Let’s put this in laymen’s terms shall we? If I say my mom is my highest authority because my dad told me she was, that would actually make my dad my highest authority, regardless of my claim otherwise. Therefore, all ultimate standards must be circular in some way when validating their own authority, like using your speed to prove you’re faster than others. If they were not circular, you would be stuck in an endless regress of authorities.
Even the non-religious are philosophically stuck with this necessary circle. For example, if someone appeals to no external religious authority (Church, Bible, Quran, Book of Mormon, Prophet, etc.) they ultimately determine truth by appealing to their reasoning process. Their cognitive faculties serve as their final court of appeal. Suppose that person was asked how they would validate the reliability or authority of their reasoning process. They would have to reason about the question, and then provide a reason for it. They would have to use their reasoning to justify the use of their reasoning. Viola`, they’ve opened up their bibles.
My Circle is Better than Yours
However, we are not just exchanging one logic fallacy for another, trading circular reasoning for an infinite regression like baseball cards. Likewise, this is not some Mexican standoff. I have my circle and you have yours. No, not all circles are created equal. Only one ultimate authority is actually valid and true, and thus that ultimate authority would be self-authenticating, while the others would simply be circular and fallacious.
The Roman Catholic and the Christian are at an advantage as they both believe in a God who can reveal things and authenticate to His creatures His own truths. The problem is the Catholic’s ultimate standard has cut off the branch it is sitting on.
Never once is the issue of how the author knows the Church to be infallible and authoritative addressed within the post. However, given his starting point, he could not give any justification for that. He could not consistently appeal to the Bible for this validation because, by his own admission, he needs the Church prior to a reading of the Bible in order to properly interpret it, as well as consider it reliable and completed. The same goes for validating his Tradition.
Thus, he needs to authenticate the Church apart from Scripture or Tradition. This leaves him with two options:
1) The Church is self-authenticating
2) A historical look at the development of the Roman Catholic Church validates its authority.
Number two cannot be consistently relied upon, for how does one study history? They must read books. Yet, the Catholic claim is that protestants cannot know what the Bible says without the Church, and the Bible is God’s Word! If God’s Word cannot be known without the church, certainly books that are fallible, written without inspiration, cannot be known or understood without the interpretation of the Church. Yet again, the Church must be presupposed prior to any possible historical study. This leaves one option for the Catholic: the circular claim that the Church is self-authenticating.
There are many problems with this, the first one is, in order to be self-authenticating it must be God’s Word, yet the Bible is just that. On what basis could the Catholic claim that the church is self-authenticating because it is God’s infallible Church, but the Bible, which is God’s infallible Word, can’t be self-authenticating?
Underneath this 3-legged stool, upon further examination, is a stool with only leg.
Underneath the claim in the article, Peters gives a number of standards for the self-authentication of Scripture that his own criteria doesn’t meet. First he argues,
“If Scripture were actually ‘self-authenticating,’ why was there so much disagreement and uncertainty over these various books? Why was there any disagreement at all?”
There is a smuggled in assumption. The assumption is a particular definition of “self-authentication” that Bible would not agree with. The standard here is that in order for the Scriptures to be considered self-authenticating, there must have been an immediate and unanimous agreement among people. Where does he get this standard from? Where does he get this expectation from in the first place?
In Dr. Michael Kruger’s book, The Canon Revisited, he notes this very thing when dealing with these objections. He says the reason so many Catholics see this argument as appealing is because,
“[T]hey have quietly slipped a foundational assumption into the debate, namely, that the existence of diversity and disagreement is contrary to what we expect if these twenty-seven books are really given by God.”
Kruger then lists 4 biblical reasons why would ought to actually expect diversity (Kruger, 198-199):
- The Scriptures warn of false teaching.
- There are spiritual forces opposing the church.
- People often resist the Spirit by their sin.
- Not all groups who claim to be the “church” are really part of it.
Another problem also is that the Catholic Church has had many disagreements over how to think of itself as well. Modern Catholics today disagree over things like whether the Vatican II is inspired, when the Pope is speaking Ex-Cathedra, and many other issues related to Rome’s claims to authority.
Similar to this first argument, Peters’ then complained that the Bible took multiple centuries to reach a “consensus.” Kruger again notes this presupposition is simply not necessary,
“[T]he most critical issue is that God chose to deliver His books to His church through normal historical channels. Given that [the New Testament was] not lowered down from heaven in final form, but written by a variety of different authors, in a variety of different time periods, and in a variety of different geographical locations, we can expect that there would be an inevitable delay between the time a book was was known and accepted in one portion of the empire as opposed to another. Such a delay would have eventually led to some disagreements and discussion over various books. If God chose to deliver His books in real time and history, then such a scenario would be inevitable and natural” (Kruger, 199).
Along with the charge that agreement didn’t happen sooner, what is the evidence that there was unanimous consensus around Peter’s Papal Primacy in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd century?
In defense of this claim, Peters also states,
“Even more interesting is the fact that some books in the Bible do not identify their authors. The idea of self-authentication – if it were true – might be more plausible if each and every Biblical author identified himself, as we could more easily examine that author’s credentials, so to speak, or at least determine who it was that claimed to be speaking for God. But in this regard the Bible leaves us ignorant in a few instances. Take St. Matthew’s Gospel as one example; nowhere does the text indicate that it was Matthew, one of the twelve Apostles, who authored it. We are therefore left with only two possibilities for determining its authorship: 1) What Tradition has to say, 2) Biblical scholarship.”
This commits the fallacy of equivocation. Self-attestation and self-authentication are not the same thing. Jesus’ sheep can hear His voice in a message even if the messenger is not wearing a name tag (thanks to the power of the Shepherd, not the sheep).
He then concludes the following:
“In either case, the source of determination is an extra-Biblical source and would therefore fall under condemnation by the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.”
The problems here are numerous. For starters, Greg Bahnsen pointed out to Gerry Matatics years ago that identifying these authors by name is pretty irrelevant. I reject the claim that knowing our missing authors infallibly is not crucial to the integrity of our claim. Also, appealing to biblical scholarship is not a denial of Sola Scriptura in and of itself. It could be, but often it is not. Biblical scholarship helps us understand the Bible, and its context. Appealing to them is not blindly accepting their authority, it’s allowing them to help us understand what the Bible is saying. But the Bible is still ultimately what is moving us to believe even in that scenario.
I am also curious as to how he think Tradition and biblical scholarship are so opposed. Much of Tradition is based upon the Early Church Fathers, who were seriously academic. Much of Tradition bases itself on biblical scholarship.
However, here is the bigger problem is pondering how Peters would authenticate the Church’s authority, for any answer other than “The Church says so” would be committing the same fallacy he is accusing the position of Sola Scriptura of committing when protestants appeal outside of Scripture to validate an author of Scripture. His argument then proves too much.
Now, the counter-claim I made was anticipated,
“Now the Protestant may be saying at this point that it is unnecessary to know whether or not Matthew actually wrote this Gospel, as one’s salvation does not depend on knowing whether it was Matthew or someone else. But such a view presents quite a difficulty. What the Protestant is effectively saying is that while an authentic Gospel is God’s Word and is the means by which a person comes to a saving knowledge of Christ, the person has no way of knowing for certain in the case of Matthew’s Gospel whether it is Apostolic in origin and consequently has no way of knowing it if its genuine (i.e., God’s Word) or not. And if this Gospel’s authenticity is questionable, then why include it in the Bible? If its authenticity is certain, then how is this known in the absence of self-identification by Matthew?”
This is a question-begging epithet. His complaint is that without an infallible revelation of the author, we cannot examine the credentials and know a book is from God. Pick up Dr. Kruger’s book if you believe that.
This is forcing the self-authenticating model to be dependent solely on the historical, apostolic evidence, which is a denial of the definition of a self-authenticating model! He is forcing his presuppositions into the definition of a word that rejects those presuppositions.
Driving into a Ditch
Four questions of summation remain:
Question 1: What is the external validation the church has to justify her own authority?
Question 2: Whatever external criteria Peters’ appeals to, why is it you can trust your fallible understanding of that criteria apart from the Church’s interpretive guiding, but the protestant can’t trust his fallible interpretation of Scripture apart from the church?
Question 3: If Peters appeals to internal criteria, rather than external, why does he require external criteria for the Scriptures?
Question 4: How could Peters consistently claim that the church is able to be validate her own authority, but the Bible, which is God’s perfect infallible Word, can’t?
To steal an analogy from Douglas Wilson, Peters has driven the protestant car into a ditch, but now no longer has a car of his own to drive.