The last major argument against the Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura, that we shall consider is the argument from the canon. Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox like to argue that the only reason that the Protestant has a canon of Scripture today is because it was the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Church that created it. They will argue that the Protestant must rely on their Church’s tradition as found in the writings of the church fathers so as to ascertain the canonicity of the Scriptural books. Sometimes they will use textual variants, New Testament Apocrypha, and Gnostic Gospels (i.e. Bart Ehrman-style arguments) to argue that the only way to have certainty with regards to the canon is to have it established by an infallible authority. “The Church created the canon, and so, it has the sole right to interpret the canon,” they argue. To this we reply:
The “Church” Did NOT Create the Scriptures: First, the Church does not have the sole right to interpret Scripture just because members of the Church wrote it.
The Scriptures were not penned by committees but by individuals moved by the Spirit and written to the Church.
These individuals were apostles given the gift of inspiration by the Holy Spirit. No bishop in either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Churches claims to be inspired.
The Holy Spirit is the author of both the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16) and the Church (Acts 2:1-4), and so, He decides which will have priority.
Historical Witness, Not Sacred Tradition: The Protestant canonical approach in regards to the church fathers has been to see them as historical witnesses whose testimony should be weighed instead of seeing them as recipients of ‘Sacred Tradition’ (in the dogmatic sense). In fact, since the church fathers give us conflicting accounts as to the origins of certain books, seeing them as historical witnesses whose testimony must be discerned as to its relevance through careful historical study is necessary.
Heretical Sources as Well: Heretical sources were utilized in addition to the church fathers for determining the canonicity of a book. For example, Tatian, an apostate who converted to Gnosticism, in his Diatesseron, names only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the Four Gospels and no others. This is significant since, being a Gnostic, he would be inclined to include any existent Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Judas or Thomas, in addition to the canonical ones.
Internal Evidence as Well: Internal evidence such as intertextuality (i.e. an already established canonical book naming another book as canonical) and historical allusions (i.e. things that would identify the author’s background and proximity to other canonical authors) which give evidence to a book’s canonicity have been used.
The Skeptical Argument is Self-Destructive: Any skeptical argument calling into question the reliability of the transmission of a written text can be re-packaged and returned with ten-times the destructive power against an oral tradition. I noted several cases of this in “The Argument from Apostolic Tradition and Succession” post found here.
The Hebrews Knew the OT Canon Without an Infallible Authority: (See the same argument in “The Infallible Knowledge Argument” post.)
Early Church Knew the NT Canon Without an Infallible Authority: (See the same argument in “The Infallible Knowledge Argument” post.)
Fathers and Others Who Looked to the Jews: There were a large number of church fathers and later scholars who, when they had become more learned on the subject of the canon, accepted the Hebrew Canon (which omitted the Apocrypha) instead of consulting “Church tradition”. These fathers and others include: Melito of Sardis, Julius Africanus, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Epiphanius, Gregory Nazianzus, Amphilochius, Basil the Great, Rufinus, Jerome, Anastasius of Antioch, Primasius, Nicolas of Lyra, Pope Gregory the Great, John of Damascus, the Glossa Ordinaria (a commentary), Cardinal Cajetan, The Venerable Bede, Agobard of Lyons, Alcuin, Walafrid Strabo, Haymo of Halberstadt, Ambrose of Autpert, Radulphus Flavicencius, Hugh of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, John of Salisbury, Peter Cellensis, Rupert of Deutz, Honorius of Autun, Peter Comestor, Peter Mauritius, Adam Scotus, Hugh of St. Cher, Philip of Harvengt, Nicholas of Lyra, William of Ockham, Antoninus, Alonso Tostado, Dionysius the Carthusian, Thomas Walden, Jean Driedo, John Ferus, Jacobus Faber Stapulensis, Johannes Petreius, Cardinal Ximenes, and the Bible translation, Sanctes Pagnini.
No Agreement Within Eastern Orthodoxy: Despite the claims of Eastern Orthodox apologists, there is actually no agreement as to the extent of the canon within Eastern Orthodox circles. This is especially so within the Russian Orthodox Church as well as the Greek Orthodox Church:
“For the Greek Church, the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672 introduced Wisdom and other Deuterocanonical books to a place in Holy Scripture. ‘There appears to be no unanimity, however, on the subject of the canon in the Greek Orthodox Church today. Catechisms directly at variance with each other on this subject have received the Imprimatur of the Greek Ecclesiastical authorities and the Greek clergy may hold and teach what they please about it (Metzger: 195),”1
“The Hebrew version of the Old Testament contains thirty-nine books. The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deutero-Canonical Books.” These were declared by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672) to be “Genuine parts of Scripture”; most Orthodox scholars at the present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Deutero-Canonical Books, although part of the bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.”2
Analogy to Rabbinic Judaism: Assuming for the sake of argument that the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox is correct in their assertion, the Protestant can always make an analogy to Rabbinic Judaism. God used the Hebrew people to write and gather the Old Testament, and the Christian’s knowledge of the Old Testament canon is dependant upon their ‘tradition’. However, they rejected (on the basis of tradition) the most important aspect of the Old Testament Scriptures which they testify to, the Messiah, and so, God rejected that visible authority structure and built up a new congregation from the faithful remnant of the Hebrew people.
In the same way (for the sake of argument), God used the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Church to write and gather the New Testament canon, and (for the sake of argument) the Protestant’s knowledge is dependant upon that Church’s ‘traditions’. However, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox reject (on the basis of ‘Tradition’) one of the most important aspects of the New Testament Scriptures which they testify to, justification by faith alone, and so, God rejected that visible authority structure and built up a new congregation, the Protestants, from the faithful remnant of the Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Church. To put it in an outline form (and again, this is for the sake of argument):
God gives OT to the Hebrews ----> Using tradition, the Jews reject Christ ----> God dispenses with the old, visible authority structure and starts over using the faithful remnant.
God gives NT to the R.C.C./E.O.C. ----> Using tradition, the R.C./E.O. reject sola fide ----> God dispenses with the old, visible authority structure and starts over using the faithful remnant.
To quote John the Baptist:
“But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ” (Matthew 3:8-10)
To make my analogy clear, I’ll change the words up a bit:
“But when Martin Luther saw many of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox bishops coming to Mass, he said to them, ‘You false teachers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, “We have Christ and the apostles for our spiritual fathers”; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Christ and His apostles. The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ ”
1 D. Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Doubleday 1979), p.67.
2 T. Ware, The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books 1997), p.200.