Over at the Parchment and Pen blog, Michael Patton has objected to the statement of faith of Together for the Gospel (T4G), particularly as it pertains to the relationship between tradition and canon:
Think of it another way: Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.
I imagine that Patton is quite aware of the similarities this argument has with standard Roman Catholic formulations. In fact, this is precisely the argument used by modern Roman Catholic apologists. For example, Patrick Madrid challenges the Protestant position on canon on the grounds that Christians do not have an “inspired table of contents” that would reveal “which books belong and which books do not.”
Now, I think much of what Patton is striving for is commendable. After all, doesn’t the uniform witness of the church (what we might call tradition) play some role in helping us know which books are canonical? Yes, I think it does and I appreciate Patton’s emphasis in this regard (and I cover this in my forthcoming book, Canon Revisited). However, I think the way that Patton has framed it is still problematic. Steve Hays over at Triablogue has offered some helpful responses here. I will offer a couple of my own:
First, would an “inspired table of contents” really solve the problem as Patton (and Catholics) maintain? Let us imagine for a moment that God had inspired another document in the first century which contained this ‘table of contents’ and had given it to the church. We will call this the 28th book of the New Testament canon. Would the existence of such a book satisfy Catholic concerns and thus eliminate the need for an appeal to church tradition? Not at all. Instead, they would simply ask the next logical question: “On what basis do you know that this 28th book comes from God?” And even if it were argued that God had given a 29th book saying the 28th book came from God, then the same objection would still apply: “Yes, but how do you know the 29th book came from God?” And on it would go.
The Catholic (and Patton’s) objection about the need for a ‘table of contents,’ therefore, misses the point entirely. Even if there were another document with such a ‘table of contents,’ this document would still need to be authenticated as part of the canon. After all, what if there were multiple table-of-contents-type books floating around in the early church? How would we know which one was from God? In the end, therefore, the Roman Catholic objection is, to some extent, artificial. Such a ‘table of contents’ would never satisfy their concerns, even if it existed, because they have already determined, a priori, that no document could ever be self-attesting. In other words, built into the Roman Catholic model is that any written revelation (whether it contains a ‘table of contents’ or not) will require external approval and authentication from church tradition.
This leads naturally to my second concern. As I have already noted, I think the consensus eventually reached by the church on the books of the NT can help us know which books are from God. However, I would disagree with Patton (and the Catholics) that this is the only way to know (Patton said, “it is only through tradition…”). Entirely overlooked in this regard is the intrinsic authority built into these books and how that intrinsic authority could play a role in their authentication. The Catholic model so over-emphasizes church tradition as the only means of knowing that, at least in practice, they ignore the internal qualities of the books themselves.
The protestant reformers referred to this as the self-authenticating (autopistic) nature of Scripture. It is simply the idea that the books themselves bear the qualities and attributes that can identify them as having come from God. This is not the place to offer a full defense of this idea; my point is simply that it has been a standard part of Reformed/protestant theology throughout church history and thus must be considered.
In sum, I believe that the consensus eventually reached by the church (what one might call ‘tradition’) is a way to know which books are canonical, but certainly not the only way. As far as the protestant reformers were concerned, these books could speak for themselves. After all, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).
 Patrick Madrid, “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy,” in Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, ed. Robert A. Sungenis (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1997), 22.
“they ignore the internal qualities of the books themselves”.
However, we are yet to see your analysis of the internal qualities of all the books that were considered and how you arrived at the same books that Tradition has handed down to us. Until you and however many in your group can give an alternative method of recognizing the canon of Christian Scriptures, all your protesting is just that – a Protestant thing to do.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Dozie. Appreciate your comments. You say “we are yet to see your analysis of the internal qualities of all the books.” A few thoughts:
1. Given the limits of a blog site like this, I don’t have time to go through each of the biblical books of the NT (not mention the OT) and do what you ask. I trust you understand those limitations. But that does not make the argument invalid.
2. Historically, Christians have affirmed there is something unique and special about the qualities of these book–something that distinguishes them from other books. I assume, even as a Catholic, you would agree that these books are different. Surely you would not suggest the actions of the church *make* these books something they were not before. Even the most stringent Catholic positions do not claim that.
3. You refer to the people “in your group” as if the principle I am discussing is an isolated idea. Christians have evaluated canonical books in precisely this way from the time of the first centuries of the church. They accepted these books because they heard the voice of Christ in them (and *not* in other books). This is how Christians knew which book were canonical prior to the church issuing declarations about it. I give examples of this patristic testimony in my forthcoming book.
Devin Rose says
Hi! Catholic guy here. In my research, there was not “uniformity” in the first centuries of the Church on the New Testament canon. Rather, many Fathers and early Christian writers who mentioned which books they thought were Scripture diverged on many of the books, at least seven of them (from memory: 2 & 3 John, 2 Peter, James, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation).
On what basis do you make the claim that the early Church was uniform in accepting the 27 books of the New Testament?
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Devin. Appreciate you checking out the blog. My comments about the uniformity of the church refers to the consensus eventually reached by the church on the 27 books of the NT. Of course, that consensus was not achieved overnight. I would argue that the “core” books of the NT (4 Gospels, Paul’s letters, and a few others) were recognized by the church very early (2nd century). A full consensus on the smaller books was probably not attained till about the 4th century. But my point is simply this: the consensus of the church is a meaningful indicator of canonicity. But, that does not imply the church is infallible (or needs to be).
Hello Michael! Curious, how is it that you see uniformity in accepting the 27 books of the NT canon? When I read the early church fathers, or look at the most ancient lists we have, I do not see such uniformity. In fact, I see that the OT was still undecided, as well as much controversy over the NT canon. Hebrews, 2Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation were all disputed until the late fourth century. Books such as the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Paul and Thecla, Clements Letter to the Corinthians, etc. were all considered Scripture in many parts of the Christianized world.
As I previously alluded to above, some of the OT deuterocanonical books were accepted in some of these early lists. So, where exactly are you drawing your information from? Apostolic Tradition was passed down primarily through the Liturgy, and this is the basis for how we know which books are inspired and which books are not. Through the Liturgy! In the Catholic Church, there is the very ancient principle of Lex Orandi Lex Credendi…”As the Church worships, so the Church believes”…and this was the basis for the canon of Scripture. In essence, the canon of Scripture were those books that were approved to be read at the Liturgy…the Mass.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Brock. Appreciate the post. See reply to Devin above.
How is that a fallible Church recognized an infallible collection of books? This sounds like the same logical fallacy that R.C. Sproul put forth. This violates Logic 101: An effect can never be greater than its cause. Since none of the infallible books give us a list of the infallible books which are to be in the Bible, this makes us look outside of the Bible to conceive how the canon was determined. For that matter, if it doesn’t require an infallible Church, or collector, then why believe these books in the canon are infallible?
Furthermore, if we don’t need an infallible Church to determine what the canon is…then what criteria was used to determine canonicity?
Michael Kruger says
One of the ways that the church recognizes that a book is canonical is from the qualities of the book itself (see post above). The reformers believed that a divinely inspired book would have certainly qualities that would make it distinctive from other books. And by the help of the Holy Spirit, Christians could recognize these qualities. There is not space to defend that whole concept here. But, such a process does not require the church to be infallible.
What are these qualities? And how is it that they are differentiated between books such as Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians? In other words, what distinctive qualities does Paul’s Letter to Philemon have that Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians does not have?
Second, if the Holy Spirit is supposed to help Christians recognize these qualities, what happened in the early church? Was the Holy Spirit absent from their decision-making process since they could not tell for sure what was Scripture and what was not?
Again, what was this criteria or qualities that they looked for?
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Brock. I cover this issue extensively in my book, Canon Revisited. Look specifically at chapters 3 and 4. In short, the qualities of the books are similar to the qualities of God himself. The three I cover in the book are (a) beauty and excellency, (b) power and efficacy, and (c) harmony and consistency.
As for the early church, no the HS was not absent. There was a remarkable amount of agreement amongst early Christians about these books. But, the existence of these attributes does not necessitate absolute agreement without exception.
Also, if the Church made a “fallible” decision regarding the canon, then technically, we could have the wrong list, couldn’t we?
And, if we are to rely on the help of the Holy Spirit for recognizing the canon of the Bible, then why is there still so much confusion today among both Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants? Which group of Christians is the Holy Spirit guiding in this? We all accept different canons. Can you tell us? 🙂
1)Could not other books be described as having “beauty and excellency”?
2)Or as having “power and efficacy”?
3)Or as being in “harmony and consistency”?
Why couldn’t the early church figure this out? Of course, they eventually agreed on the Gospels over time, but there was still much controversy over other books such as Hebrews, 2Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and the book of Revelation. What was there hang up? Besides, this necessitates that the Church eventually came to decide that these books above were, in fact, inspired and part of the canon when they weren’t uniform in that decision prior. So, why should we accept the Church’s decision if the Church is only fallible? I don’t believe you can accept this canon with absolute certainty without the Church.
I do look forward to reading your book!
Michael Kruger says
Some final remarks, Brock:
1. No, other books could not bear these attributes in the way I understand them (you will need to read my book for the details). Just a quick example: not all books bear the power-efficacy of Scripture because not all books are divinely inspired. THere is something powerful and piercing about scriptural books. Remember: “The word of God is living and active, sharper than a double-edged sword…”
2. You ask why couldn’t the church figure this out. Actually, last time I checked they did. The church has a remarkable consensus around these 27 books. It didn’t happen immediately in the first century, but you don’t need immediate or absolute consensus for consensus to be meaningful.
3. A big misunderstanding (and misrepresentation) of the self-authenticating view is that it would require this absolute and immediate consensus from the beginning and for all time. Thus if anyone anywhere *ever* disputes the canon therefore the self-authenticating view is wrong. That is a grand caricature of that position and should be done away with once and for all.
Ken Temple says
I look forward to reading your new book on the canon, and I appreciate your book with Andreas Kostenberger – very helpful on this apologetic and historical issues!
Have you read any of these articles by Roman Catholic apologists on the Canon and Sola Scriptura ?
If you have, what would be your response?
Response of Keith Matthison to the article above.
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Ken. Thanks for commenting on the blog. I have a read a number of different Roman Catholic writings on this topic. I appreciate you pointing out additional ones, but, of course, I cannot offer a response to them here in the comments section. I will be sure to check out Matthison’s article.
How are these text considered divinely inspired when there appeared to be discord between the “super apostles” as Paul states and himself. If something is such inspired, would there not be unanimity and singular thought free of conflict? Texts such as Hermas and Barnabas were at one time included in canon as seen in codex Sinaiticus, when were they removed and why? Why does Jeremiah 8:8 refer to the lying pen of the scribes therefore do we believe our OT divinely inspired and complete? I es more on fleshly attributes and not spiritual? Would