Last night I had dinner with Jaison Jacob – a Calvinist friend living and studying at Moore Theological College. The discussion turned to matters surrounding the bible – something that I was hoping to avoid because we always go in circles on this issue and never get anywhere. However to my surprise, Jaison was able to prove the inspiration of scripture and a doctrine of sola scriptura with a short, concise sequence of logical steps and without any reference to the Catholic Magisterium. I was amazed and wondered why he had never been able to do this in the many previous theological discussions and debates that we had had together over the past few years.
I will here attempt to reproduce and analyse his argument (Although as should become immediately apparent from reading the first sentence, I do not claim to do so in a way which he himself would agree with). If it manages to hold up, this would be extremely significant because it would deal with some of the most burning questions that drove me to Catholicism back in 2014.
A Common Foundation
Both the Catholic chain of reasoning and the Protestant chain of reasoning that Jaison outlined to me last night share a common logical foundation, so I will start by outlining that:
- Reason and Experience have primacy and supreme authority. God gave me a brain before he gave me a bible.
- On the basis of Reason and Experience, it is possible to conclude that Jesus is God. (In my personal case, it is direct mystical experience which confirms this fact, rather than reading the gospels, however for other people, their faith in this proposition might derive more from their study of scripture)
- On the basis of Reason and experience (In the form of Historical enquiry and method), it is possible to verify that the text of the New Testament has been accurately transmitted from the days when it was first written all the way up to the present.
- On the basis of Reason and Experience (Historical method again), we conclude that the accounts of Christ’s words and life given in the Gospels are accurate enough to trust, without necessarily being inerrant.
- From 2, 3 and 4, we conclude that the “red letters” of the gospel (Words spoken by Jesus) are literally words coming from the mouth of God verbatim, and are therefore inspired.
So we have primary authority vested in Reason and Experience, along with all the manifestations they may take such as science, history, philosophy, theology etc. We also have established that Jesus is God and that his recorded words are inspired, without necessarily being 100% inerrant.
The Protestant Argument: Sola Scriptura
The protestant argument continues:
- Some of the inspired red-letters state that Jesus promises his apostles that they will be able to recall the gospel message, and that it will be preserved in their memories and accurately conveyed in their teaching in such a way that they too speak with inspiration. (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me” and John 14:25-26 “These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”)
- From 1, we conclude that any document which is written by apostles or contains apostolic teaching is inspired, and this definition is broad enough to encompass the entire New Testament.
- In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the law, the prophets and the psalms as if they are inspired, which covers a sizable chunk of the OT. Furthermore In 2 Timothy, Paul makes a vague reference to “the scriptures” and directly claims that whatever they are, they are inspired
- Conclusion: We can be fully confident that the entire New Testament is inspired, we can be fully confident that the Torah, the prophets and the psalms are inspired, and we can be fully confident that whatever Paul meant by “the scriptures” in 2 Timothy, they too are inspired. Therefore sola scriptura is true and valid.
This chain of reasoning is powerful enough to conclusively prove the inspiration of the New Testament, but it depends on tradition at several key points. For one thing, we are unable to work out who actually authored many of the epistles and gospels. We draw our confidence as to the authorship of these documents from tradition. I have no problem with drawing on tradition, but this is problematic for an adherent of Sola Scriptura because the bible is supposed to have supreme authority in opposition to tradition. Having the case for the bible rest on tradition undermines the whole philosophy.
This chain of reasoning also does not fully prove Sola Scriptura (here defined as “Scripture alone has the highest authority”), because reason and experience remain as the foundational authorities upon which everything else rests. In this chain of reasoning we start with reason, not with the bible, and use reason to conclude that Jesus is God and that scripture is inspired. It is only after depending on reason that you end up with a collection of inspired scriptures, and therefore it is reasonable to assume that these scriptures should be interpreted in light of reason and experience rather than having reason and experience interpreted in light of scripture, as the Sola Scripturist would have it. Scripture may very well have authority, but this authority is not higher than reason and experience.
This chain of reasoning also remains problematic for this idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on the scriptures, because the scriptural canon is loosely defined and potentially mutable: New apostolic writings could be discovered and old apostolic writings could be revealed to be fraudulent. If this were to happen it would be a very confusing situation: many Christians throughout the centuries would have based their lives on books that were later revealed to be forgeries, and many Christians who were reading the bible under the impression that it included everything they need to know were in reality missing some books that they were supposed to acknowledge but didn’t. (Incidentally, this was a reality for the first 700 years of Christianity. In the far east, the Syriac Peshitta omitted many New Testament Books. And around the wider Christian world, there were many books that were once considered inspired but were later discovered not to be, for example the Shepherd of Hermes)
This chain of reasoning also ends on a cliff-hanger, because it does not clearly define a canon of scripture. Something more is required to work out what Paul means when he says “the scriptures”. As it stands, the wisdom literature, historical books and deuterocanon are up in the air: are they inspired? We simply don’t know.
There is also still the problem of false teaching and the project of identifying the true church. There are important contradictions between denominations, who are all reading the same set of scriptures but teaching mutually contradictory things. The attitude, common to many protestants that “I am right because I have the holy spirit and they are wrong because they don’t” is just arrogant and foolish. The problem of interpretation is inescapable. You may argue that the bible is “clear”, but it is obviously not clear enough to cut through our sin and effectively convey the truth, in which case it may as well not be clear at all.
The Catholic Argument: Tradition and Magisterium
For comparison, I will outline the Catholic argument for the inspiration of an entire, well-defined canon.
- Some of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus established an authoritative, institutional church by duplicating his divine authority into the apostles (eg, Luke 10:16 “Whoever hears you hears me, whoever rejects you rejects me” and Matthew 18:18 “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
- Other of the inspired red-letters reveal that Jesus singled out and appointed Peter as a supreme leader of this church. (Matthew 16:18-19 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”)
- Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that prior to dying, the apostles appointed successors. By drawing on the divine authority vested in them by Christ, the apostles were able to similarly transmit their divine authority into these successors, making them essentially equal in authority to the apostles.
- Reason and Experience (In the form of Historical enquiry) reveal that this process of appointing successors and vesting them with divine authority has continued uninterrupted to the present day.
- From 4, it becomes possible to identify a one, true church, existing in the present day. Simply look for bishops who can trace their authority back through history to the Apostles and Christ. This church also should have a single supreme leader who can trace himself back to Peter.
- The only church that fits the description in 5 is the Catholic church.
- The Catholic church has the power to teach with inspiration/divine authority, as its’ leadership are all in the apostolic succession.
- The Catholic church has authoritatively, infallibly and dogmatically identified a canon of scripture, the books of which are all inspired.
- Conclusion: The bible according to the canon of Trent is inspired and infallible.
The Catholic argument is superior because it solves almost all of the problems I outlined in the analysis of the protestant argument.
Catholics have no problem with tradition and fully embrace it, believing that Jesus established a church with an inspired tradition, identified by apostolic succession. He did not write a book.
Catholics also have no problem with according reason and experience their rightful pride of place. Reason and experience hold supreme authority, and it is on the basis of these that we conclude that the church can sometimes teach infallibly and that the bible is inspired. Because reason is the supreme authority, the church teaching needs to be understood and interpreted in light of reason and so too the scriptures.
The idea that we are supposed to base our entire lives on scripture simply does not arise, because Catholics instead have a broad and multifaceted tradition (of which the bible is one small part) in which they are supposed to live out their lives.
The canon of scripture is also well-defined and reasoned out in the Catholic account. There is no ambiguity. Further evidence could not cast doubt on the canonicity of an existing book or introduce new books. The deuterocanon is included, along with the entire Hebrew Old Testament and New Testament. The canon is clearly established.
Finally, identifying the true church and the true teachers is easy: just look for people who are in communion with the bishops.
Conclusion? Sola Scriptura is Still Bunk.
The Protestant chain of reasoning is powerful, but the Catholic one remains more reasonable and less problematic. Protestants are able to prove the inspiration of the New Testament and large portions of the Old Testament, however the exact canonical boundaries are very fuzzy. They are unable to fully prove the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Whereas Catholics are able to provide an authoritative church and clearly defined canon of inspired scripture.
Despite mounting an intriguing and compelling argument, Jaison has failed to convince me of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and the Catholic account remains superior.