Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Is Scripture Self-Attesting?

One of the most glaring problems within Protestantism is on the authority of the Bible: how do we know which Books are sacred Scripture?  How can a Christian possibly know which Books belong in the Christian Holy Book without learning this from the Christian Church?

Titian, John Calvin (16th c.)
As Catholics, we'd argue that they can't.  An often overlooked point is that the Bible was written to the Church.  St. Paul specifically addresses most of his Epistles to specific churches (see, e.g., Romans 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:1-2; 2 Cor. 1; Gal. 1:1-2; Eph. 1:1; etc.), and every Book in the New Testament was written to, and for, the Church.  These Books were then preserved by the early Church, read publicly in the Liturgy, and solemnly declared as canonical: by the Council of Carthage in 397, by Pope Damasus shortly thereafter, all the way through to the Council of Trent.

But Protestants reject this Bible.  They have a Bible, with seven of the Books (and portions of two more, Daniel and Esther) removed. The result is a Bible which was not used by a single Church Father, or endorsed by a single early Church Council.

That is, while they call it the “Bible,” it wasn’t the Bible that the early Christians would have used or recognized.  How to get around this problem?  The Reformer John Calvin addressed this issue by simply claiming that it's obvious which Books belong in the Bible, as obvious as telling white from black:
As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.
But of course, the canon of Scripture isn't as obvious as telling black from white, or everyone would agree on which Books belong in the Bible.  Calvin addressed this problem by claiming that the key was listening to the “the inward testimony of the Spirit.With the Holy Spirit's help, you could easily know which Books were truly Scripture:
Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit.
Calvin's argument, known as the “self-attestation of Scripture,” is one that countless Protestants have reused,
often by proof-texting John 10:27 to say that the true Christians (the sheep) will hear Christ's voice (and thus, know which Books are in the Bible, since the Bible is the word of God).  So, for example, Michael Kruger at Reformed Theological Seminary trots this argument out in his recent book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Justin Boulmay, a Protestant blogger, gently dismantles Kruger's arguments for self-attestation.

So let's address the obvious, glaring problems with this argument for the self-attestation of Scripture: the unanimous witness of the Church Fathers.  There are three facts to consider.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
  1. First, the early Church Fathers had different canons.  That means that, even as Catholics, we have to recognize that the canon of Scripture wasn't always as clear as it is today.   For example, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Cyril each argued for a different canonical list.  Yet Catholics, along with most Protestants, consider all three men Saints, and exemplars of the faith.  This suggests that while the Holy Spirit remained, at all times, in control, He worked slowly and through the Church, rather than instantaneously, through each believer (as Calvin imagined).

  2. Second, no Church Father had the Protestant canon.  Despite the various canons that the early Church Fathers used, none of them used the canon of Scripture that Protestants use today.  Consider the implications.  If Calvin is right that those with the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit will recognize the Protestant canon of Scripture, then not only are Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyril not Saints, but no known member of the early Church was a Saint.  We would have to reject as non-Christian the very people, the very Christian communities, the very Church that brought all of us (Catholic and Protestant alike) the Bible. So, if John Calvin and his spiritual heirs are correct, the Early Church Fathers are neither our spiritual fathers, nor representations of the true (Spirit-led) Church.  But even Calvin himself would reject this conclusion.
  3. Even Jerome didn't buy into the idea of Self-Attestation.  St. Jerome argued unsuccessfully for the Protestant canon, before deferring to the judgment of the Church.  But even in his arguments for the Protestant canon, he wasn't saying, “I’m guided by the Holy Spirit, so this is obvious to me.” Instead, he was making arguments based on textual criticism, and the Jewish canon, etc. So even the Father who came closest to having a Protestant Bible didn't find the canon of Scripture obvious or self-evident.
Given Calvin's high view of St. Augustine (he quoted him 232 times in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, for example, while quoting no other Father more than 11 times), it's instructive to hear what St. Augustine had to say on the matter.  Not only did Augustine endorse the entire Catholic canon, but he explained the standard by which “the most skillful interpreter of the sacred writings,” ought to determine which Books were Scripture:
Louis Comfort Tiffany, stained glass window of St. Augustine (detail)
Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal. 
So it's not just that Calvin denies the canon that Augustine affirms.  It's that they're taking totally different approaches to Scripture.  Calvin's approach encourages each individual to assume that the Holy Spirit is directly communicating this knowledge to him.  Augustine's approach encourages the individual to humbly look to the Church.

There's much more that can be said on this topic. For example, Neal Judisch at Called to Communion makes a number of good points, including this one:
Second, his [Calvin's] own theory simply comes down to the idea that each individual can replace the Church’s activity in this regard – that although it’s demeaning to Scripture and indeed sacrilegious to say that the Spirit can tell the Church in Council which books are inspired and which are not, it’s God-honoring and perfectly pious to say that He does this with each particular person, as a kind of little church standing alone, one by one.

Now Calvin, I honestly believe, didn’t see himself as doing this. But this was because he clouded the issue by assuming (as have many following him) that when something seems clear and evident to him it’s got to be because the Spirit is speaking directly to him, giving him the unvarnished news, as it were, whereas anyone who doesn’t see precisely the same thing must not enjoy that unmediated spiritual insight he has but is instead being blinded by some or other interpretive “filter.” The misled might feel just as inwardly certain about their own beliefs as he does, of course, but if so they’re just deluding themselves, mistaking their own unfounded psychological certainty for the testimony of God Himself.
Judisch's point is astute, and we see Calvin's tendency to assume that his own views were the result of the Holy Spirit guiding him, while everyone else's views were delusional elsewhere in his writings, like on the issue of assurance of salvation and “evanescent grace”.

18 comments:

  1. I've raised this issue with my "Bible-only" independent evangelical in-laws and they just kind of shrug their shoulders. They are very suspicious of any authority other than their own and I'm not sure they want to understand the importance of the issue.

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  2. Great post! This truly is less an issue of deciding which books belong in the Christian Canon, and more an issue (as you raised in your final point) of deciding on whose authority you will base the Canon. Will I allow myself to be that authority, or do I rightly look to a Divinely-appointed Authority? This question was crucial in my conversion. I understood that to reject the Church's authority was simply to accept my own authority - which made no sense.

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  3. Why didn't Augustine just point to the Council of Hippo?

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  4. If we each have authority to determine our own Bible, I probably would leave out the book of Revelation (for the reasons given by D.H. Lawrence in Apocalypse) and I would add three books that have helped me along - Lewis' Mere Christianity, Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and Tolkien's LOTR. No two Bibles would be the same. We need not stumble in the dark when we can be guided by the light.

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  5. One argument I've been working on in my head regarding this issue is to compare Scriptures to the periodic table of elements.

    The periodic table can't be interpreted by each person individually. You can't say "Well this element symbol here means XYZ to me..." No, it means what it means, the numbers around those letters signify specific things, that we need to know in order to work with these elements.

    One physicist can't say it represents the basic building blocks of the visible universe, and another physicist says that it is a sheet of long lost classical music.

    Our entire civilization would come to a standstill if that were the case.

    Also, like with Scripture, everyone who comes to the periodic table has to come to it through some outside source which has some degree of authority on interpreting the periodic table. Without your Chemistry and Physics teachers back in High School the periodic table would be gibberish to you.

    Someone, somewhere along the line, had to have said: "Okay, Hydrogen should come first. There! The matter is settled." Just as someone had to say "Okay, Matthew is going to be the first Gospel. There! The matter is settled."

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  6. I didn't know this was still an issue for Catholics towards Protestants. I went to mass this weekend, and not one person wanted to discuss the differences in Bibles, and the homily wasn't reference to the Apocrypha. "One of the most glaring problems within Protestantism is on the authority of the Bible." The Protestants I know don't seem to argue at all about which scripture are from God.

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    1. I'm not positive I know what you mean by whether or not this is “still an issue for Catholics towards Protestants.” If you’re asking if we still believe that these Books are the word of God, yes. And yet nearly all Protestants deny that these Books are the word of God. Since this is an important issue (both Catholics and Protestants having a desire to hear what God is communicating to us, and all), it’s obviously going to be an “issue.” Which Books are inspired by God should be an issue for all Christians, right?


      Having said that, it’s not as if the Deuterocanon is the only part of the Bible – as you mentioned, it’s quite normal for the homily to be about a different portion of Sacred Scripture (frequently, the Gospel).


      Finally, I agree that most Protestants don’t seem to argue about which Scriptures are from God. I wish that they would, and that they would seriously investigate the reasons for their belief on this issue. I think it would be instructive, and would make for more engaging dialog.

      I.X.,

      Joe

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  7. Can a man know God? Can a man know God apart from the Scriptures? Yes! Adam did, Cain did, Noah did, and Abraham did! We can know God before we every lay eyes on a Bible! Paul says "Faith then cometh by hearing; and hearing by the word of Christ." Can the word of Christ be heard apart from the scriptures? Yes! Paul was taught the Gospel he later wrote about by Christ. And he also found the gospel concealed in the Old Testament. but I fear without revelation from God faith is not possible. Man cannot know God except God reveal Himself. We can be taught by the church, but at some point God must make it (faith) real by revealing Himself to us PERSONALLY. None other but God can do this.

    John 17:3; Jeremiah 9:23-24

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    1. Dave,

      Catholics agree that faith is a theological virtue that comes from God. But that doesn't eliminate the role for the Church, precisely because the Church also comes directly from God. But even acknowledging that faith is of (and from) God, how does that impact the question of which Books are in the Bible?

      I.X.,

      Joe

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    2. I think his point is that God can—and, by all accounts, did—reveal what the books of the Bible are, and he did so by faith. In other words, I would know what they are, even if no Roman Catholics had lived. After all, the first of those who knew of the canon did so without the benefit of a pre-existing canon or pre-existing councils.
      Aren’t you just trying to shift the question to “are Councils self-attesting?”

      Why do you want to solve this question of the canon as though it is a question of Euclidean geometry? May all who teach others to do these things be accursed.

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    3. Comrade,

      "In other words, I would know what they are, even if no Roman Catholics had lived. After all, the first of those who knew of the canon did so without the benefit of a pre-existing canon or pre-existing councils."

      What do you mean? 1) You wouldn't know what the canon was; and even if you "did", your neighbor would have a different canon than you. Or perhaps in that scenario he wouldn't have the true faith? So either we tend toward Gnosticism or relativism.

      2) The first of those who knew of the canon also disagreed on what the canon was. So, we again arrive at either Gnosticism or relativism without the Church.

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    4. Taylor, you say: "You wouldn't know what the canon was [if there was no preceding canon or council]."

      Do you see the slippery slope you are headed to? Do you see that, if you are correct that I would not know the canon without the benefit of the councils and what-not, then we have no canon even now? That is nonsense, of course, since I know my canon. Find another line of reasoning.

      You say: "... and even if you "did", your neighbor would have a different canon than you."

      Yes, but was this about my neighbour, or me? After all, even given the councils, the Protestants and Catholics disagree about the canon. Having an authority to decide the canon does not remove the possibility of divergence, since we will then just diverge on who the correct authority is. This is what happens when you try to solve matters of faith as though they are matters of Aristotelian logic; may all who teach this to others be accursed,.

      You say "Or perhaps in that scenario he wouldn't have the true faith? So either we tend toward Gnosticism or relativism."

      He would have true faith, if he believes that he is justified before God by putting his faith in Christ apart from works of the Law. Unlike Catholics, I do not believe that uniformity is a necessity for one to be a believer in the Gospel. Which, after all, is why the letters to the Churches were so different in Revelation. It wasn't one church. Roman Catholicism, with roots in heady European politics, is as obsessed with uniformity in thought as a European king would be.
      I should note that Roman Catholics recognise Muslims as people who worship the same God as them; however, they disagree on the canon in a most-fundamental way. Yet Protestants seem to be the over-riding obsession.

      You say "2) The first of those who knew of the canon also disagreed on what the canon was."

      Do you proof-read your comments? How can they know the canon, if they also disagree on what it is?

      You say "So, we again arrive at either Gnosticism or relativism without the Church."

      You failed to get my point. My point is that we disagree on what the "Church" is. How are you going to solve that? By breaking out your theorem provers once again? How will you correct the Muslims on their canon? By threatening them with Gnosticism or relativism? How will you resolve disagreement about who the authority on canon is? More Aristotelian logic? May all who teach others to treat matters of faith as though they are matters of philosophy be accursed.

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    5. It is interesting that you keep worrying about Aristoelian logic when you ignore all the other Eastern Catholics who don't rely on that like the Roman Catholics do.

      Yes, I proofread comments. It was to point out that nobody actually "knew" the canon in such a solid way as you seem to claim.

      All you seem to be advocating is the typical "me and my Bible sitting under a tree, being my own pope." It simply does not work.

      The reasons that Protestants disagree about the canon is that they rejected the councils. That is awfully convenient.

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    6. Hello, Taylor;
      You say: “It is interesting that you keep worrying about Aristoelian logic when you ignore all the other Eastern Catholics who don't rely on that like the Roman Catholics do.”

      I do not ignore them any more or less than I do Roman Catholics. —Or, for that matter, non Catholics who act like reason is the language of Heaven.

      You say: “It was to point out that nobody actually "knew" the canon in such a solid way as you seem to claim.”

      But I know the canon in the solid way I seem to claim! Or are you disputing this? —As in, disputing that I know my canon very well?

      You say: “All you seem to be advocating is the typical "me and my Bible sitting under a tree, being my own pope." It simply does not work.”

      You say it as though it is a bad thing. It works, and Catholics are actually required to do it regarding the councils. No council tells Catholics which councils to adhere to. Or which encyclicals to adhere to, or how to interpret them. No encyclical is interpreted by any other encyclical—and these are all more-complex than Romans. It works, and all believers are in the state of “me and my God sitting on this Earth, being my own believer”. For all these things, it is each Catholic being an authority unto himself. Is this a bad thing? Is the Catholic Church wrong on this? You seem to fail to grasp that it is an inescapable end. Why is the Pope the only Christian allowed to formulate thoughts on canons? This is an old and relentless assault against the beauty and glory of child-like faith, where it is now dishonourable to believe for yourself. May all who teach others these things be accursed.

      You say: “The reasons that Protestants disagree about the canon is that they rejected the councils. That is awfully convenient.”

      Au contraire”, the Protestants will insist, “it is the Catholics who agreed with the wrong councils and rejected sound teaching.“ How to resolve that? Another council, another promulgation? Do you see where you are headed yet?

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  8. Joe, you say: “One of the most glaring problems within Protestantism is on the authority of the Bible: how do we know which Books are sacred Scripture? How can a Christian possibly know which Books belong in the Christian Holy Book without learning this from the Christian Church?”

    You are merely shifting the problem to deciding which the correct Authority is. Even if I agreed that we can only know the Bible by relying on an Authority, then I would still contend with you and insist that you are wrong (as, in fact, I do), because we do not agree on who the Authority is.
    Why do you want to solve questions of faith using Aristotelian logic? May all who teach others to subject God to logic be accursed.

    Christopher, you say: “I understood that to reject the Church's authority was simply to accept my own authority - which made no sense.”

    Did you rely on the authority of Church to point out that you should accept the authority of the Church? Why do you treat a question of God as though it is a question of geometry?
    All those who teach others to privilege the mind of man and the working of logics over the voice of God and the working of faith, may they be accursed.

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  9. Rob, you say: “One argument I've been working on in my head regarding this issue is to compare Scriptures to the periodic table of elements.”

    So, for you, the best way to examine a question regarding the God-breathed Word of God is to liken it to a compilation of classes physical objects? Why do you treat the mysteries of God as though they are the subject of Baconian Science?
    May all who teach others to reduce the matters of God’s to the matters of men be accursed.

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