I was recently interviewed by Gavin Ortlund on his podcast: “Which Canon is the Right One?” Enjoy!
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. [Read more…]
While modern Protestants certainly have some significant theological weak spots, I pushed back against the results of this study on the grounds that the questions being asked were fundamentally misleading. Indeed, the theological descriptions of the Protestant (and Catholic!) positions were flat out wrong.
Having already dealt with the sola scriptura issue in the prior post, we now turn to the issue of sola fide. Here is the summary of the Pew survey about the way Protestants view that issue: [Read more…]
My new book, The Question of Canon, is designed to challenge a particular approach to the New Testament canon that is prevalent in the modern academy. It is the approach that suggests that in the earliest stages of Christianity the canon was in disarray; the canonical process was a wide-open affair where no one agreed on much of anything and no one was able to distinguish canonical books from apocryphal ones.
What is ironic about this critical approach is that it has an unexpected ally: Roman Catholicism. The Catholic claim is remarkably similar to the one of critical scholars (at least in its premise). Both claim that the canonical situation in early Christianity was in disarray and that there was no way to distinguish canonical books from apocryphal books. It’s just that modern scholars use this as a justification to reject the canon altogether, whereas Catholics use this as a justification for why we need an infallible church to tell us which books are in the canon. But, both groups share the same premise.
In my interactions with Catholics over the years, I have raised this issue. I have pointed out that many of the Roman Catholic apologists are essentially making the same argument as Bart Ehrman. They are trying to show that the canon was a mess so that they can argue the only solution is to lean on papal authority (of course, Ehrman doesn’t take this second step). Admittedly, this has been a bit discouraging. I would have hoped that Protestants and Catholics could at least team up to respond to the criticisms of scholars like Ehrman.
In order to address the difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic views of canon, I will be joining James White on his Dividing Line program today at 1PM EST. It is a live program, so tune in if you are able!
The perennial question in the debate over sola Scriptura is whether the church is over the Bible or the Bible is over the church. If you take the latter position, then you are (generally speaking) a Protestant who believes the Scriptures, and the Scriptures alone, are the only infallible rule and therefore the supreme authority over the church. But, here is the irony: Roman Catholics also claim to be “under” the authority of the Bible.
The Roman Catholic 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), and the Catholic Catechism declares: “Yet, this Magisterium is not superior to the word of God, but its servant” (86). 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. Moreover, the Magisterium seems to “discover” doctrines that are not consistent with the original meaning of Scripture itself—e.g,, the immaculate conception, purgatory, papal infallibility and the like. Thus, despite these declarations from Rome, residual concerns remain about whether the Magisterium functionally has authority over the Scriptures.
My friend and colleague James Anderson has written a helpful blog post that brings even further clarity to this issue. He begins by observing the judicial activism that happens all too often in the American political system. Judges go well beyond the original intent of the constitution and actually create new laws from the bench. He then argues:
What has happened in the US system of government almost exactly parallels what happened in the government of the Christian church over the course of many centuries, a development that finds its fullest expression in the Roman Catholic Church.
The Bible serves as the constitution of the Christian faith. It is the covenant documentation. It defines the Christian church: what constitutes the church, what is its mission, who runs the church and how it should be run, what are the responsibilities of the church, what is the scope of its authority, what laws govern the church and its members, and so forth. Once the constitution has been written, the task of the ‘judges’ (the elders/overseers of the church) is to interpret and apply it according to its original intent. Their task is not to create new laws or to come up with “interpretations” that cannot be found in the text of the constitution itself (interpreted according to original intent) and would never have crossed the minds of the “founding fathers” (Eph. 2:20).
Yet that’s just what happened over the course of time with the development of episcopacy, the rise of the papacy, and the increasing weight given to church tradition. To borrow Grudem’s phrasing: If the Bible didn’t say something something that the bishops wanted it to say, or thought it should say, they could claim to “discover” new doctrines in the Bible — purgatory, indulgences, apostolic succession, papal infallibility, etc. — and no one would have power to overrule them.
Adapting the candid statement of Chief Justice Hughes, today’s Roman Catholic might well put it thus: “We are under the Bible, but the Bible is what the Pope says it is.” In fact, that’s exactly how things stand in practice. Functionally the Pope has become the highest governing authority in his church: higher even than the Bible. The church has been derailed by “ecclesial activism”.
Thus, even though Rome claims that the Bible is its ultimate authority, practically speaking it is the church that is the ultimate authority. Rome is committed to sola ecclesia. And this clarifies the real difference between Protestants and Catholics. Something has to be the ultimate authority. It is either Scripture or the church.