The perennial question in the debate over sola Scriptura is whether the church is over the Bible or the Bible is over the church.
The latter position is (generally speaking) a Protestant one—the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, are the only infallible rule and therefore the supreme authority over the church.
The former position (generally speaking) is a Roman Catholic one—the church decided the canon and also, through the pope, decides how these books are to be interpreted. In this way, the authority of the Bible rests on the (prior and more foundational) authority of the church.
Of course, Catholics would not word it quite this way. The Roman church insists that the Scripture is always superior to the Magisterium. Dei Verbum declares, “This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it” (2.10). However, despite these qualifications, one still wonders how Scripture can be deemed the ultimate authority if the Magisterium is able to define, determine, and interpret the Scripture in the first place.
Regardless, this question of whether the church is over the Bible also comes up in the world of critical scholarship. Critical scholars will often make the point that, historically speaking, the church essentially created the canon sometime in the fourth or fifth century. The canon is merely a human product.
So, there is unexpected common ground here between the Roman Catholic view and the historical-critical view. While the former believes these books are divinely inspired, and while the latter believes they are not, they both agree that the church is the cause of the Bible.
Now, it should be acknowledged that there is a sense in which this is true. The Bible was written by divinely-inspired individuals who were part of God’s covenant community (i.e., the “church”). And later Christians (also part of the “church”) recognized these books as from God.
But, we have to be careful not to confuse the proximate “cause” of Scripture (human beings) with the ultimate “cause” (God himself). From a divine perspective, the church could not in any way be regarded as the cause of God’s divinely-inspired speech. On the contrary, God’s divinely-inspired speech always stands over the church and governs her.
For more discussion of this important topic, and a very (!) brief defense of the Protestant position, here is a recent video I filmed with Don Carson for TGC:
Can you comment on the idea that 1st century Christians knew that the apostles were writing scripture as they were churning out the New Testament, and how that might factor into a canon of Scripture that was largely solidified by the end of the 1st cent? (i.e., the church didn’t “create” the canon; they merely formally recognized what was already known in popular practice to be true…)
J. Starks says
There are a few resources that really help in terms of this subject matter. First is a series of lectures
by William Webster on Roman Catholicism where he covers the issues of Canon and Sola Scriptura
in the first five lectures. This is free and well evidenced material. Another resource is Herman Ridderrbos and his book “Redemptive History And The New Testament Scriptures”
Now to comment on this topic:
First- Scholars should make more technical material available as much as
possible. Dr. Kruger has done a fine job especially with the Kistemaker Lectures
and some of his classes he and Reformed Seminary has put online. NOTE- The Kistemaker
Lectures can no longer be downloaded so I hope that gets updated. However it is sad
when someone says “THIS IS NOT IMPORTANT AT THIS TIME OR WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH
TIME TO DISCUSS THIS DETAIL” Some but not all the time it is necessary to discuss some
detail especially if skeptics are discussing it.
Second- Sometimes and I am not trying to be cruel, but apologists when encountering
a subject like this need to do their own research and check sources before presenting
material ie Homer and number of manuscripts.
Third- Call the bluff of the skeptics. When a skeptic, especially on YOUTUBE asserts something
try to trace where that assertion came from. Many times they use ad hoc arguments. There
really is no evidence to support their claim they just do not want to accept the validity of the
opposing view (Yes Christians are guilty too —– See previous statement about Homer)
Fourth- History is full of gaps and historically we do not have every essential bit of data to know
everything to get the full picture in the early centuries when the New Testament was being formed.
We must keep this in mind when forming our platforms and presentations.
Fifth- Other sources on this topic include “Who Chose The Gospels” by Charles Hill and Christianity
at the Crossroads” by Michael Kruger. I mention these because within the NT text itself the apostles
were aware of their own unique authority. When the apostles were alive this was both oral and written (2 Thessalonians 2:2-15) and once the apostles died the written only. When the apostles pass
we see the early Church Fathers like Clement and Justin Martyr separate themselves from the anointing of the apostles and themselves. Plus, if the NT writers were unaware of their special
authority, then what they wrote would be subject to much interpolation. The NT Scriptures display a closed amount of writings that are authoritative all the way back to the NT itself. Early heresies such as Gnosticism and Montanism caused many conflicts along the line of what was an authoritative standard.
Sixth- Other factors include: Number of copies on NT writings; Geographical spread of the NT documents many times being bound together early (ie P46 & Tatian Diatesseron); Lack of copies of other texts orthodox or otherwise; Limited amount of any major textual variants in the NT text; The NT text itself( I Corinthians 14:37, I Thessalonians 2:13, Ephesians 2:19-20, 2 Peter 3:1-16, 2 Timothy 3:16, John 20:30-31, Luke 1:1-4, Acts 6:1-4, Colossians 4:16, Revelation 22:18-19, I Thessalonians 5:27 and
I Timothy 5:18).
Conclusion: The apostles were very aware of what they were writing and John in John chapters 14-16
discusses how Jesus would link His being sent by the Father to Him sending the Holy Spirit to anoint the apostles and send the redemptive message of Christ worldwide.When all the above criteria is put together, then the only rational inference is that from the onset that Christians in the first century and the apostles themselves knew that like the Old Testament, Scripture was being written in the case of Christ fulfilled and completed.
Scott Gassoway says
I really appreciated your other video on TGC about how we know that we have the right books in the New Testament. In 1 Cor. 5, Paul made reference to something that he had already written to the Corinthians. Do you believe that Paul is referring to a letter that we don’t have anymore? What resources do you recommend on this subject?