Three objections will be dealt with together in this blog as they are very similar in nature as we continue responding to 21 Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura.
Reason #10 says
“The Canon of the Bible was not settled until the 4th Century.”
The argument is simple: how could the Bible serve as an ultimate authority when the Church didn’t know what the Bible was for four centuries?
What’s the Hold-Up?
The first thing that needs to be addressed here that even many protestants miss is how incompetent this makes the Catholic church’s authority sound. The purpose of the argument is to make people think, “well, there must have been another authority since the Bible was unknown!” However, it is that very authority which is said to have canonized and identified the Bible. According to the author, it was particular councils that identified the Bible for people,
“It was not until the Synod of Rome (382) and the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) that we find a definitive list of canonical books being drawn up, and each of these Councils acknowledged the very same list of books.”
This understanding of Canon development is not true. However, even conceding for a moment, what took the church so long? If the church is an infallible authority, why did it need 4 centuries to determine this? Why did it need three separate councils to determine this? This argument ends up cutting in an entirely unexpected direction. The alleged infallible authority that governs the world seems pretty insufficient and inattentive by the (incidental) admission of its own adherent. This argument also really forces one of Rome’s foundational positions to crumble.
Rome denies Sola Ecclesia (the Church is the final and highest authority). They claim they have a three-fold authority system: The Church, Scripture, and Tradition. Rome argues that all three are equal authorities. As a matter of fact, the Church actually argues that the magesterium is subservient to the Scriptures:
“This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it.” (Dei Verbum 2.10)
How is it possible that the Church is in service to or equal with the Scriptures if, after all, no one knew what they were for four centuries? Not even the Church defined them until the fourth century. Thus, the Church cannot be in a position to serve that which, by it’s own authority it instituted. The argument has, yet again, cut both ways, and the Roman Catholic apologist is forced into degrading the Scriptures incidentally.
Rome can attempt to deny Sola Ecclesia for now, but needs to admit that Sola Ecclesia was the position for the universal Church for at least four centuries, and then Rome fundamentally changed her position on authority once it finally decided what the Bible was for the people. Which also means Rome can not criticize that Protestants believe Sola Scriptura didn’t begin until the last book was written and the the last apostle passed, because Rome’s position also needed to wait four centuries before coming into its fullness.
However, regardless of how self refuting the argument is, it simply implies things that are not true.
What Does “Settled” Mean?
What does the author mean when he claims the books were settled in the 4th century? There is a degree of truth to this. Christian and non-christian New Testament (NT) critics alike almost universally agree that by the time the 4th century rolled around, the NT canon was functioning as it does today (which, historically speaking, is incredibly fast). However, what is the standard for when one considers it “settled”?
If the standard is 100% unanimity between all groups who believe in inspired Scriptures, there still is not a settled Canon today. Protestants and Catholics disagree, and, contrary to author’s claim that “From this point on, there is in practice no dispute about the canon of the Bible, the only exception being the so-called Protestant Reformers, who entered upon the scene in 1517, an unbelievable 11 centuries later”, the Eastern Orthodox church disagreed and still does disagree with Rome’s canon, and they disagreed long before Luther. As a matter of fact, it was the Eastern church’s influence that caused Rome to include the book of Hebrews.
Eric Svendsen documents this in his book Evangelical Answers,
“The Catholic church did not first determine the canon. It was the Eastern Orthodox church that came up with the list of twenty-seven books first. The consensus by the Eastern church was decided in 367, and the twenty-seven books were included in Athanasius’ Easter letter from Alexandria. The decision was made twenty-six years before Hippo. The Western (Roman) church accepted a canon that did not include the book of Hebrews, but eventually followed the East in including all twenty-seven books. In other words, the Roman church relied upon the Eastern Orthodox church for her canon.”
On top of Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox disagreements, secular NT critics disagree on the nature and extent of Canon too, while many modern day Jewish sects have a separate Old Testament (OT) canon then all of the above groups. To even make a claim like “the Canon is currently settled” requires a particular standard which does not expect 100% agreement. This will be discussed in more detail in a later blog on whether or not Protestant Bible’s are missing books, but even former Roman Catholic Pope’s disagreed on Rome’s current OT canon. Thus, there are two options: there is no settled Canon, or, there does not need to be zero disagreement about the Canon to consider it settled.
By that kind of standard, history then yields the results that the Canon was established prior to the 4th century. (The claim that the reformers were the only people to disagree with the Canon is at best anachronistic and at worst untrue. Protestants have the same NT canon as Rome. We don’t disagree on that and the reformation had nothing to do with Canon. Thus, this statement is not true. Now, the author is likely referring to the OT discrepancies between the two sides. However, the Old Testament was settled, not only much earlier than the reformers, but even earlier than Jesus. Thus, Peters’ problem in that regards is with Judaism and our Biblical ancestors; not Protestants or Sola Scriptura.)
When Was The Canon Settled, and Who Settled It?
As was stated prior, it really is not unfair to say the Canon was settled in the fourth century, depending on what one means by that claim. However, the two elements of what our article means are: infallible councils made the decision about Canon;
Prior to the fourth century there was not a workable or knowable canon.
And those things are simply not true.
This is certainly an incredibly complex issue, and again, I cannot recommend Dr. Michael Kruger’s book The Canon Revisited enough. However, the surface can be scratched.
First of all, the authors of Scripture themselves regarded their writings as Scripture. 2 Peter 1, 1 Timothy 5, 2nd Timothy 3 are a few examples. It seems impossible to avoid the assumption that Christians recognized the apostle’s authority and the authority of their writings until a council told them to(which would only beg the question of how they knew the council to be reliable, but could not know whether NT letter’s were).
Reading the writings of church fathers seems to refute this idea as well. 1 Clement, The Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, the Epistle of Barnabas, Papias, Justin of Martyr, and Irenaus are all 2nd century references (or earlier) that recognize large portions of the New Testament as authoritative and canonical. It seems that people were in fact able to identify authoritative books without a fourth century council.
In fact, the famous Muratorian fragment affirms the Scriptural status of 22 of the 27 NT books, and that is dated to c.180.
The bottom line is that it can be historically demonstrated that “the four Gospels, Paul’s epistles, Acts, 1 Peter, 1 John, and perhaps a few others” made up a “canonical core” which was “widely recognized by early Christians” (Kruger, 231). This lead Dr. Kruger to say, “Therefore, dramatic claims that the canon was not finalized until the fourth century may be true on a technical level, but often miss the larger, more important point, namely, that the core of the canon had already been in place (and exhibiting scriptural authority) for centuries” (Kruger, 232).
Standing on those foundations, answers to the author’s questions can be provided:
“Who or what served as the final Christian authority up to the time that the New Testament’s canon was identified?”
Answer: The Old Testament Scriptures (which did not include Rome’s apocryphal books), and the Apostle’s oral and written Word.
“And if there was a final authority that the Protestant recognizes before the establishment of the canon, on what basis did that authority cease being final once the Bible’s canon was established?”
This is a bit misleading, because our authorities (Jesus and the Apostolic deposit) are why we trust the Scriptures. Thus, in that sense it hasn’t changed. However, the short answer is the Scriptures themselves are the authority in question. Paul declares their sufficiency and superiority (2nd Tim. 3, Gal. 1, Acts 17). Nowhere do the Scriptures call anything else other than Jesus, Themselves, and the Apostles theopnuestos, and we all agree Jesus and the Apostles are gone.
A Ship With A Rudder
Similar to this idea, the article raises another objection:
“The first Christians did not have a Bible.”
The Bible was a progressive work. It did not fall from the sky in completed form.
God used human means to accomplish the writing and preservation of His Word. Because God used human means, the Bible took time. As the article rightly points out, the last letter was not penned until, at the latest 100 AD (some, as I do, believe all books were penned prior to 90 AD.) The question then is how could the 1st century Christians believe in Sola Scriptura when there wasn’t a finished Scripture? The answer: they didn’t.
However, it is simply not true, as the author claims, that the 1st century Christians were a “ship without a rudder.” The claim is that the Protestant doctrine left the early Christians without an authority to fight against heresy. The early Christians had three important things:
- The Apostles.
- The formation and early circulation of a New Testament.
- The Old Testament.
Why skeptics and Catholics alike so often degrade and neglect the Old Testament is puzzling. When Paul brought new revelation to the Bereans in Acts 17, they were called “noble minded” because they didn’t take Paul as is, but examined his teachings in light of the Old Testament. Apparently the Bereans believed that the Old Testament was sufficient for examining heresy, and Paul agreed.
Paul agreed with the Bereans so much so that when writing to Timothy, in the very context of dealing with false teaching and evil people (2nd Timothy 3: 1-13) Paul tells Timothy to fight this by clinging to “the Sacred Scriptures” which he knew from “childhood”. The Old Testament Scriptures, which is still part of our Bibles today, was an important final authority for the Church, along with the Apostolic teaching, the Gospels, and the letters they were receiving. All of these were under the direction and guidance of the Holy Spirit. And contrary to the article’s misunderstanding of the doctrine, relying on the work of the Holy Spirit is not a violation of Sola Scriptura.
However, what does Peters’ understand the “rudder” to be for our 1st century brethren?
“The Holy Spirit was given to the Church by Jesus Christ, and it is exactly this same Spirit who protects the Church’s visible head, the Pope, and the teaching authority of the Church by never permitting him or it to lapse into error. The Catholic believes that Christ indeed did give the Holy Spirit to the Church and that the Holy Spirit has always been present in the Church, teaching it all truth (John 16:13) and continually safeguarding its doctrinal integrity, particularly through the office of the Pope. Thus the Gospel would still have been preached – authoritatively and infallibly – even if not a single verse of the New Testament had ever been written.”
The Holy Spirit is never said to be for the Pope. The papacy is utterly absent from the pages of Scripture. Much of the Holy Spirit is spoken of in regards to the Church, but yet again, our Catholic friend cannot use the definition of church rightly or consistently. He is redefining the word ekklesia whenever and however it suits his Catholic presuppositions. However, we too agree that the Holy Spirit has been safeguarding and protecting His Church, but we don’t limit the means in which He does that to a Pope.
Also, the Roman Catholic church did not function the way it does today in the 1st century. There is no historical or biblical evidence of this being the case. Rome has grown, adapted, and changed over the last 2,000 years, and the 1st century operated no where near how Roman Catholics operate today.
However, the real issue is this: we have seen time and time again that Rome’s doctrine forces the Catholic to disparage the Scriptures. Rome claims that a tripartite authoritative system doesn’t do this: but when push comes to shove, their arguments constantly do this. How is it that the church is “equal” to the Scriptures when one makes a claim like this:
“Thus the Gospel would still have been preached – authoritatively and infallibly – even if not a single verse of the New Testament had ever been written.”
How is the church, as it claims to be, a servant of the Scriptures, when the church long predates and “created” the Scriptures? Clearly, the church (whatever that means) takes on a vastly superior role to the Scriptures. The church is being called the ship’s rudder. The church is the why we have the Gospel, why we have the Scriptures, why we have Tradition. The church is the end all be all. This argument destroy’s Rome’s own claims and establishes our argument: Sola Ecclesia.
How sad are the state of affairs it must have been then for the people of God prior to Jesus (only thousands of years and millions of people). All they had were the Scriptures! They didn’t have a rudder! Remember, they had no infallible Church. They had no Pope. They had occasional prophets, but many of them were not able to hear them orally. Besides, how did they know the were interpreting the Prophets correctly without Rome? Since the church is the bedrock for Gospel preaching, one wonders how, for 400 years prior to Christ, with no prophet, God’s people knew anything about God prior to Jesus.
It seems it is actually Rome which has left the rudderless Christian ship wrecked on craggy rocks after being washed to and fro in the wind and waves.
Lastly, along with the issue of the Christians of old, the article argues against Sola Scriptura this way,
“The Bible Was Not Available to Individual Believers until the 15th Century.”
Well… whose fault was that?
|“The Bible isn’t available to men nor is it in their own language? Well…I tried” – Tyndale|
An important claim that came up needs to be addressed: the author claims the Apostles passed along their authority, and he cites two verses to do so:
“[T]he Apostles clearly chose successors who, in turn, possessed the same authority to ‘bind and loose.’ This is shown in the election of Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Cf. Acts 1:15-26) and in St. Paul’s passing on his Apostolic Authority to Timothy and Titus (cf. 2 Timothy 1:6, and Titus 1:5).”
2 Timothy 1:6,
“For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands…”
Paul was passing on pastoral authority; not infallibility. This is made clear in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. Paul defines the gift that he and the Apostles passed on by the laying of hands as pastoral teaching. Paul tells Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4: 11-14). Then he was told not to neglect the gift. All of this after Paul telling Timothy not to let his congregation despise him for his youth, but to “command and teach.” Never has anyone taught that Timothy was infallible. The Church has never believed Timothy or Titus to be infallible apostles. Nothing in the context suggests Paul passed on infallibility, but only teaching authority. The same authority Timothy and Titus were expected to pass on to other men (Titus 1:5). If Timothy were made an infallible apostle, why did Paul write this letter to him? Shouldn’t Timothy have already known this? No one wrote instructional letters to Paul….
Perhaps the idea of “laying on of hands” is being assumed to pass on infallibility. In Acts 8:17-18, the Apostles laid hands on Gentiles and they were saved by receiving the Holy Spirit. Was that group of nameless Gentiles infallible apostles? Also, it seems the laying on of hands can also be for healing purposes (Acts 9:17). It is simply not the Biblical testimony that laying on of hands is a process for imparting infallible authority.
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—”
If Paul telling Timothy to appoint Elders (Pastors/Bishops) means “Paul made Timothy infallible” then words literally have no meaning. (It’s not, this is his own private, fallible, interpretation of these verses.) Does this make every single bishop the church has ever had infallible? I thought that was reserved to the Bishop of Rome.
If that is the infallibility the church offers, if that is the kind of sloppy exegesis Rome’s authority offers, no one should want any part of it.