Here you can find this section of my book as it has now been re-written from a Catholic point of view. And here you can read an account of my transition from Protestantism to Catholicism. For a more full account of my current reasons for holding the Catholic point of view, see my book on this subject.
The Bible as the Only and Infallible Source of Divine Revelation
In this chapter, I will deal with a subject that is, strictly speaking, not necessary in terms of the main goal of this book, which is to show that Christianity is true. Yet I think it is a very important and crucial issue as soon as we have decided that Christianity is true. If Christianity is a true divine revelation, where exactly is the locus of that revelation? Does it come through the Bible alone? Does it come through infallible church authorities? Does it come through private revelations to individual Christians? Does it come from the Book of Mormon? If Christianity is a divine revelation, we need to know where to look, and where not to look, to get pure access to that revelation. My claim is that the Bible (that is, the traditional canonical Scriptures of the historic Christian Church) alone is an infallible divine revelation.
This issue is a very complicated issue, involving a great deal of biblical exegesis and historical research. This chapter is certainly not intended to be anything like a comprehensive study of the issue. I will simply address the issue briefly, giving some thoughts on why I hold the position I do. My thoughts here can be a jumping off point for those who might wish to research this issue further and in more detail.
The Bible is Divine Revelation
Christianity claims to be a divine revelation. But this does not mean, obviously, that everything every Christian says is a divine revelation. So we need to find out what exactly, in the history of Christian literature and discourse, we can reliably affirm as God’s revelation.
How are we going to find this out? We certainly cannot go back in time and look around for people to exhibit signs of receiving divine revelation. We must look at the history of Christian literature and discourse as we have it and see if there are signs as to what we would have good reason to take as a divine revelation. If Christianity is true, and God wishes us to have access to a divine revelation that he has revealed in the Christian tradition, then it is reasonable for us to trust in God’s providence, to trust that he has preserved his revelation to us so that the evidence is sufficiently clear that we can know what it is. Therefore, we can look at the received Christian tradition that we have with confidence in God’s preservation of his revelation.
I am recognizing here that a crucial element in figuring out the "locus" of the Christian revelation is going to be trust in God's providential handing-down of this revelation through history. A purely historical investigation, without any reliance on God's providence, isn't goint to cut it.
There are different streams in the Christian tradition as we go back to the earliest records. There is a mainstream, “catholic” tradition (as it called itself); and there are streams that were labeled “heretical” by the mainstream tradition. The mainstream, catholic group held to the traditional Christian doctrines we associate with Christianity today, and which I have assumed to be Christian doctrines throughout this book. The heretical groups frequently disagreed with the catholic tradition on some of these doctrines. The catholic group was, by far, the largest and best established group historically. The heretical groups were divided into many sects and did not possess the same sort of historical pedigree as the catholic group did, and also their doctrines were frequently out of accord with the mainstream Christian tradition (and with reason). For example, the heretic Marcion, in the second century A.D., didn’t like the Jewish elements in Christianity, and so he accepted only the New Testament, and only portions of it--namely, the “less Jewish” portions. He accepted the letters of Paul, part of the Gospel of Luke (with the more “Jewish” portions excised), etc. His position clearly is based on an alteration of an earlier tradition. Many of the Gnostic heretical sects produced gospels that were not known by the Christian churches of the time, and which were frequently full of esoteric philosophy and metaphysics that were markedly different from the Jewish atmosphere of the traditional canonical New Testament (and, of course, the Old Testament).
Most of these groups, catholic and heretical, accepted that God had provided revelation to his people in the form of authoritative Scriptures. Such an idea was already established, of course, in the Judaism that preceded the Christian era, and the vast majority of Christians accepted the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) as the Word of God (though there was some dispute over the status of some books, primarily what has come to be known as the Apocrypha, that were included in the famous Greek Septuagint translation of the Jewish Scriptures). I am referring here mostly to what Catholics call the "Deuterocanonicals". Very early on, there is evidence that Christians had another body of literature that was on par with the Jewish Scriptures, a body of literature that would later be called the “New Testament.” Both catholics and heretics tended to accept such a body of literature. Since the catholic tradition holds the best historical pedigree, as far as we can tell, and its doctrines are the doctrines of historic Christianity (which has the mark of divine revelation, as we established in the previous chapter), while many of the teachings of the heretical sects are not, it makes sense to assume that the catholic tradition maintained the most reliable passing-down of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. It makes sense to view their ideas about which books constitute the canonical Scriptures as far more reliable than the canons put forward by various heretical sects, especially when we consider in addition that most of the canonical books accepted by the catholic tradition were accepted by many of the heretical sects as well, but not vice versa. There was dispute in the catholic tradition about the authority of some of the traditional books, but these disputes were temporary and were eventually resolved into a pretty much universal consensus. Thus, historical investigation, combined with a reasonable confidence that God has preserved his revelation to us so that we can know what it is, leads us to look to the traditional catholic canon as delineating the books we should look to as the Word of God. There are simply no other claimed revelations that we have good reason to accept as such besides the traditional canonical books which we have come to think of as “the Bible.” The Gnostic gospels, for instance, are of doubtful historical pedigree, being accepted only by certain relatively small sects and universally rejected by the catholic tradition. There were some books, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, which were looked at in an authoritative manner by some in the catholic tradition, but only by limited groups and only temporarily. Any claimed revelation coming from within the Christian tradition in more recent times, such as the revelations of Joseph Smith (the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), do not have any clear evidence supporting their being divine revelations, and usually they have internal evidence against them, as they contradict the canonical Scriptures as well as reason. Smith’s revelations, for example, teach that God was once a man, and that God did not create the basic elements of the universe. This teaching is clearly out of accord with the Bible as well as with the sort of sound reasoning we have been engaging in throughout the past couple of chapters in this book. The mainstream, catholic tradition has never claimed to produce any further revelation than what is recorded in the Bible. Therefore, it makes sense to accept the traditional Bible as the only revelation that we have from God. And if the Bible is a revelation from God, it makes sense to trust it as authoritative in what it teaches. A look at the Bible’s claims about itself confirms these conclusions.1
So my argument is goes like this: 1. Since we know that Christianity is true, and Christianity is a divine revelation, we know that we must be able to find the "locus" of that revelation (that is, the place where it is found, so we can know its content). 2. The information that we have available to us to help us find this locus is in the history of the Christian tradition. 3. A purely human historical investigation will not tell us what we need to know without trust in God's providential guidance in terms of the passing down of the evidence, for, without that guidance, it could be that the best reading of the historical evidence might turn out to be wrong. For example, perhaps the early catholic Christian community decided to accept the Book of Jude as a legitimate part of the Bible, but, in fact, God didn't intend it to be there. Humanly, this is quite possible. But with God's providential guidance of the tradition, it is not. 4. Therefore, we can know what the locus of the Christian revelation is if we rely on a combination of the historical evidence plus God's providential guidance of the Christian tradition. We can trust God that the best reading of the historical evidence will be the right answer. 5. The historical evidence points us to the catholic tradition as the most reliable stream of early Christianity. 6. Therefore, we can trust that God guided the catholic tradition to get the locus of revelation right, and we can rely on the conclusions reached by that tradition. 7. The catholic tradition gives us the traditional canon of Scripture and tells us that it is the Word of God. Therefore, we can know that these canonical Scriptures are the locus of revelation.
A couple of comments about my methodology so far:
1. I have already rejected a couple of classic Protestant ways of thinking about this subject. I've rejected the "fallible collection of infallible books" view, advocated by some Reformed thinkers such as John Gerster and R. C. Sproul. This view holds that while Scripture is infallibly inspired, there is no infallible guidance in the collection of the canon. So our only basis for knowing the canon is correct is a purely human, fallible historical process and our fallible, human attempts to investigate the historical evidence. This seems also to have been the view of Martin Luther, which explains how he felt justified in rethinking the canon in his own time, such as in his rethinking of the proper place of the Book of James and some other books. I've also rejected the "self-authentication" method, which was advocated by John Calvin. In this view, we know which books belong in the Bible because the Spirit testifies this to us internally somehow when we read these books. Neither of these views made any sense to me, and so I adopted this third view--that we do historical research while trusting God's providential preservation of the Christian tradition on this matter.
2. You might think that my view sounds very close to the Catholic view. You would be right. From my current vantage point, I think I was already thinking along the right lines at this time to a great degree. As I recall, at least one of my Protestant friends pointed out to me at one point that my view sounded close to the Catholic view. I didn't care how Catholic my view sounded--I was always interested in what I thought was true, not whether or not my view sounded like this or that other view.
For more on these matters, and how my reasoning here if applied more fully leads to trust in the Catholic Tradition not only in the matter of the canon but in everything else as well, see this article.
For more on these matters, and how my reasoning here if applied more fully leads to trust in the Catholic Tradition not only in the matter of the canon but in everything else as well, see this article.
The Bible is Infallible and Inerrant
The Bible claims that it is infallible, without error in all that it affirms. Jesus said that “the Scripture cannot be broken” (John 1:35), and that seems to be the universal, consistent attitude of the entire Bible towards itself. Jesus tells his disciples that they should keep even the smallest part of the Law of Moses, for it is authoritative (Matthew 5:17-20). He criticizes the Pharisees for substituting their own tradition for what the Law of God says (Mark 7:1-13). The Apostle Paul teaches that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Timothy 3:14-17). The Apostle Peter affirms that the writings of the prophets in the Bible should be trusted, because they were speaking the word of God (2 Peter 1:19-21). The Bible writers consider the Bible to be trustworthy in everything it says, including in the area of history, as these examples illustrate: Exodus 20:8-11 refers to the earlier creation account in Genesis 1 as being historical. The Book of Hebrews refers to Moses leading the people of Israel out of Egypt (3:16-19), the story of Joshua (4:8), the historicity of Abel, Cain, Enoch, Noah and the flood, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Joseph, the conquest of Jericho, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, etc. (Hebrews 11). The Apostle Paul refers to Abraham and David as historical, as well as the giving of the Law (Romans 4:1-8, Galatians 3:15-18). Jesus refers to Noah and the flood as historical (Matthew 24:37-39), as well as Sodom and Gomorrah and its destruction (Matthew 10:15). Jesus refers to marriage being instituted by God in Genesis 1 (Matthew 19:4-5). The Apostle Paul refers to the story of Adam and Eve, and particularly Adam being formed before Eve (1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 11:7-12). The Books of Chronicles confirm the history in the earlier books of the Bible. The prophets in the Old Testament refer back to the events in earlier narrative portions of the Bible. I could go on and on. The consistent, universal attitude of all of the Bible writers is that if the Scripture says it, it is true, whether it be doctrinal information or historical information, or any kind of information. Here is a helpful article on this from a Catholic point of view.
The Bible Alone is an Infallible Revelation
The Bible nowhere gives any impression that anything other than the Bible is to be taken as divine revelation. All of the prophets in the Old Testament whose writings became a part of the Word of God handed down through time had their sayings written down and passed down in the Scriptures. Prophets were infallible when they spoke before their words were written down; but we have no oral tradition of the prophets outside of the written record that has been passed down through time. Nor was there, in the Old Testament, any infallibility or revelatory ability given to the regular teachers of the people of God--the priests and elders. (There were means of revelation, such as the Urim and Thummim, that were used sometimes, but they did not grant infallibility or revelatory ability to the leaders as such). Classical Jewish tradition has claimed that there is an oral law handed down from Moses that is not contained in the Old Testament writings, but Jesus in the New Testament specifically attacked that notion, insisting that Scripture alone was the Word of God (Mark 7:1-13). Nothing else could claim infallible authority. Jesus attacked the Pharisees for substituting “the tradition of the elders,” which he labeled “doctrines and commandments of men,” for the divine law in the Bible, which he labeled “the Word of God.” The leaders of the people of God in the Old Testament often erred, leading the people into sin. Surely the most dramatic example of this is when the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the elders of Israel, condemned Jesus to death as a blasphemer.
I now think I was too quick to come to the conclusion I reached in this paragraph. I think there are indications of an authoritative Tradition beyond Scripture alone in Old Testament times, though I think the evidence for this is pretty much inferential rather than direct. I don't want to get into this too much here, but my current thinking on this matter can be found in my new book, No Grounds for Divorce, on pp. 27-34. (You can download the book here.) But even if there was Scripture alone in Old Testament times, this would not prove that Sola Scriptura was the norm for the Christian era. There are a lot of changes between the Old Testament and the New Testament eras, so it is perilous to assume that what applied in one will apply in the other.
What about in New Testament times? There were apostles and prophets who were granted infallible revelatory ability. And they continued the pattern established in the Old Testament. Their words became a part of the Scripture (the New Testament). For example, the Apostle Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Peter 3:14-16). There is no indication that there will be a non-scriptural basis for passed-down authority, anymore than there was in the Old Testament. There is no indication that the leaders of the churches, the elders, appointed by the apostles, will have infallible revelatory ability, any more than the leaders of the people of God in the Old Testament. In fact, the apostles warn of errors being taught by some of the elders of the church (3 John 9-10, Acts 20:29-31). Even the apostles themselves can be in error. Paul had to rebuke Peter at one point for allowing his actions to speak against the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God (Galatians 2:11-14). But, as always, the Scriptures are claimed to be infallible. And there is no reliable record of any of the teachings of the apostles except in the New Testament, just as it is with the prophets of the Old Testament as well.
Again, I was inferring too much here without sufficient evidence, I think. It is true that the New Testament doesn't directly address the conflict over authority as this would come to be debated between Catholics and Protestants, but it certainly doesn't establish a Sola Scriptura view, and I think it gives indications that point in the other direction. Again, refer to my book (linked just above) and the pages I referenced for my current view on this.
To be fair to my earlier self, I looked at the arguments I have been presenting in these last two paragraphs as providing more of a confirmatory role than an establishing role in terms of my overall position. My core reason for going with Sola Scriptura will be looked at further below. I did not put a great deal of stake in biblical arguments for Sola Scriptura, and once my core reason for holding that view went away, these arguments were not able to sustain that view. I would have granted that these arguments were suggestive but not determinative. I now think they are much less suggestive than I did then.
I mentioned that there is no evidence that any infallible revelatory ability was granted to the continuing leaders of the church in the New Testament, just as with the leaders of the people of God in the Old Testament. But I can say more than this, for there is positive evidence in the Bible that there would be no more revelation after the time of the apostles (which ended with the first century A.D.). The Book of Hebrews (Hebrews 1:1-2) says this: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds.” Notice the contrast between the way things were done “in time past,” and what has happened now “in these last days.” The Bible attributes a finality to Jesus’s coming. He is the Word of God, the ultimate messenger who fully reveals God (being God himself) (John 1:1-18, Matthew 21:33-46). There were prophets and apostles who followed Christ and gave revelation after Christ, but their ministry was very different from the ministries of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament prophets revealed various things at various times in various ways, over hundreds of years, but the apostles and prophets of the New Testament all come at the same time, and not simply to reveal new things periodically, but to fully expound what Christ already taught while he was on earth (see Matthew 28:18-20, John 14:25-26).
At the end of the Old Testament, there was an end of revelation for a time. The prophet Malachi gave a sort of farewell address, indicating that prophecy would cease until the coming of “Elijah” (whom the New Testament identifies with John the Baptist) (Malachi 4). Again, this argument was more suggestive than demonstrative in terms of establishing my position. Malachi does not say that he is giving a "farewell to revelation for a while" address. He says nothing about whether there will be further revelation. He does speak in a sort of final way, and it does sound a bit like a farewell address. In a way, it is a farewell address, in that we don't have any prophet adding to the books of the prophets after this time until the New Testament. This doesn't mean God wasn't continuing to guide his people, but there is a kind of pointing here towards the next (New Testament) dispensation. Historically, there were no more prophets, and no more Scripture written, until John the Baptist and Jesus came. Well, I don't know that there were no prophets at all, but there were no more prophetic books written. Interestingly, there is a similar farewell address given at the end of the Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, pointing forward to the end of the world and the second coming of Christ in a way similar to Malachi’s pointing forward to John the Baptist (Revelation 22). Yes, I still think the end of Malachi and the end of Revelation are similar in some ways. Again, the end of Malachi could read like a farewell address, but this falls short of proving that there would be no more revelation at all of any kind until John the Baptist. Malachi simply doesn't address this, and nothing of the sort can be in any substantial way concluded from what he says. The Book of Revelation ends similarly, and, as with Malachi, I don't think anything could be substantially proved just from its ending alone about whether or not there would be further revelation in the future. What I was doing in discussing these things was trying to establish a sort of cumulative argument that the Bible is the sum total of the revelation we have. Each piece by itself was not intended to be a conclusive proof. Ultimately, the whole case depended on a deeper foundation for the Sola Scriptura position which I will talk about below. And, historically, there have been no more Scriptures written, that can be authenticated as such by being linked to the central and earliest apostolic tradition, since the Book of Revelation. The farewell address at the end of Revelation warns against adding to or taking away from the contents of the book. The warning probably refers to the Book of Revelation itself, but in the entire context of the rest of the Bible, its functioning as part of the farewell message gives it application to the Scriptures in general. Nothing further is to be added until the end of the world.
In fact, of course, the Catholic position agrees with this. There has been no further revelation since the time of the apostles.
Is the Church Infallible?
Some churches, such as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, which are historic churches that are branches (along with Protestants) of the early catholic tradition, have claimed to possess infallible teaching authority. They say that they alone have the infallible power to interpret the Scriptures. This is a complicated subject, and I do not here intend to do anything like a thorough job in discussing it, but I do want to point out briefly some problems with these claims of infallibility.
First, as we have seen, the Bible claims that there will be no further revelation given until the end of the world. And, interestingly, none of the churches in the catholic tradition, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, have claimed to have received any further revelation, nor have they ever attempted to add to the Scriptures. But what can a claim to infallibility mean besides a claim to be receiving revelation from God? Imagine that a church leader, or a church council, or the pope, tells us that a certain doctrine is definitely biblical and should be believed. Why should we believe this church leader? There might be two reasons: 1. We look in the Bible and see that he is indeed right--the doctrine which he is asserting to be in the Bible is indeed there. 2. We might rely on his infallible authority, and believe that the doctrine is there because he says so. If we take the latter approach, are we not in effect saying that God is speaking through him, telling us truths that we do not know from other sources? And is this not the same idea as a prophet giving new information from God? If the church leader is not giving us new information, then where is the infallibility of his pronouncement? If we believe the church leader simply because we take him to be infallible, then we are trusting in him just as one would trust in a prophet, thus attributing revelatory ability to him. If we don’t take his word for what he is saying, and instead check it out first, then his pronouncement is not different from any other pronouncement which we might take seriously but not regard as infallible. I would now say this argument is problematic, although there is some truth to it. It is true that something that could, in some sense, be called "revelation" is implied in God's continuing guidance of the Church's teachers and Tradition. As the earlier me points out, if we trust the Church implicitly about something, we are trusting that God is speaking to us through the Church, and this is, in a significant way, similar to trusting a prophet or the Bible to tell us something. However, the Catholic Tradition distinguishes between "revelation"--which is contained entirely in what was given to the prophets and the apostles--and "infallible guidance"--by which the Church is led by God to a correct interpretation and application of that revelation. We have "revelation" when something new is added the the deposit of what we have from God. We have "guidance" when God helps the Church to unpack and interpret and apply what we already have. But I'll grant that there is something of a terminology dispute going on here. If we don't mind using words in ways differently from their established usage in the Catholic Tradition, we could in some sense refer to God's continuing guidance of the Church as a kind of "revelation." But then we would say that the Catholic Tradition, found in both Scripture and Tradition, wants to draw a line between the kind of "revelation" that is considered to add to the deposit of faith and the kind that is intended to interpret and unpack it, and all the Scriptural and Traditional references to "no continuing revelation" refer to the former rather than to the latter, and there is no Scriptural or Traditional evidence that there would be no continuing guidance to the Church from the Holy Spirit. So I grant that my previous self had a kind of a point here, but it is not a point that is terribly relevant to proving Sola Scriptura, I think. If the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox Churches are infallible in some of their pronouncements, given throughout history, then why are these pronouncements not added to the Scriptures, since they constitute further revelation? Because they are not "revelation" in the same sense. All the revelations given and passed down in the times of the Bible were written in the Scriptures, as we have seen. Maybe, but, as I mentioned above, I don't think the Bible or history proves this to be the case. And even if it was, it would not prove that further guidance of the Church in unpacking revelation would need to be added to the Scriptures themselves. Jesus warned against looking to the traditions of men as infallible, teaching his disciples to trust in the Scriptures alone. But he didn't say to trust in Scripture alone. He said to trust in the Word of God alone. Whether or not these are the same thing is in dispute. The fact that the churches that claim an infallible teaching office have not attempted to add to the Scriptures suggests that claims of infallibility have grown illegitimately over time. Or it suggests that the previous me had not adequately taken seriously the distinction between "revelation" and "ongoing guidance" in Catholic theology. The earliest tradition was aware that Scripture alone contained the full revelation from God, to which the church should add nothing; but these churches have found ways to try to practically circumvent that reality by claiming infallibility without revelation.
The claim to infallibility in these churches seems to have arisen out of the understanding of the relationship between Scripture and Sacred Tradition in the early church. The early church (we are talking about the church from the end of the first century to about the seventh century A.D.) held that the entire deposit of the faith once for all delivered by God to his people is contained in the Bible. For the most part, but not entirely. In fact, I was only beginning to understand the Church Fathers in these days, and I've since changed my mind about what they had to say on this subject. At first glance, there are things some of the Fathers said that sound Sola-Scriptura-ish, but when you look deeper you see that they mean no such thing. When I wrote this, I was only superficially aware of what the Fathers had to say on this topic. I would only start studying this in further detail a few years later. If you want to see what the Fathers had to say on this topic, here is a place to a get a quick idea and here is a place to go more in depth. But when heretics arose up to distort Christian doctrine, early church leaders and theologians looked not only to the Bible but to the beliefs of churches which could be traced historically back to the apostles to confirm the proper interpretation of the Bible and the church’s doctrine. For example, if a heretic (such as a Gnostic) were to claim a new revelation from God, or a new, unheard-of interpretation of the Scriptures, the church fathers would frequently appeal to the doctrinal positions and practices of the well-known, historically authenticated apostolic churches (such as the church in Rome, which was believed to have been founded by the Apostle Peter) to correct the heretic. The entire content of the Christian faith was handed down in the Bible, but it had also been handed down through the living practices of the church. This is mostly true, although the Fathers did believe that some authoritative things were handed down by Tradition outside of Scripture. Thus, the traditions of the church could be safely appealed to. This practice of referring to the tradition of the church is in many ways analogous to the process of reasoning I used above when discussing how the entirety of the Christian tradition points towards the Bible that we now have as the locus of divine revelation. It is not that I think there was any infallibility granted to the early church itself, but rather that as we cannot completely retrace the steps of the formation of the Scriptures and the accepted books of the canon of the Scriptures, the appropriate thing for us to do is to trust that God, who clearly wants us to look to his revelation as authoritative, has providentially delivered it to us. However, once we know what the Scriptures are, they become the basis from which we challenge all other statements, as no one else has been granted infallible authority--at least no such claim can be proven. That many theologians in the early church saw things in this way, or at least not too far off from this way, can be seen from a comment from Cyril of Jerusalem, an important theologian of the early church, who described the central importance of the Bible as the final authority for Christian doctrine:
For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.2
Over time, the appeal to tradition against heretics led to a temptation to think of that tradition as itself infallible, in spite of the absence of any reason to think so. The tradition was reliable, yes, but not infallible. This unfortunate confusion later led to some of the churches that were derived from the catholic tradition using the reliance on tradition to introduce non-biblical doctrines into the church and to constrain the interpretation of the Bible by their own teachings.3
A few things to say here:
1. The early Fathers did indeed accept the Tradition of the Church and the Church herself as infallible along with the Scriptures. More study of what they said made that clear to me. (See the links above to get into such study yourself). As I mentioned before, some of the Fathers sometimes say things that, superficially, sound Sola-Scriptura-ish. The quotation just above from St. Cyril of Jerusalem is one of the best examples of this. The best way to get a sense of what the Fathers are really saying is to read them in context. The links I've provided above are intended to help provide an opportunity to do that. Just to give an idea of how un-Sola-Scriptura-ish the Fathers can be, however, let me here just provide a couple of quotations, the first from St. Vincent of Lerins and the second from St. Basil the Great:
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.1
1St. Vincent of Lerins, Commonitory, section 5. Translated by C.A. Heurtley, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Retrieved from the New Advent website (embedded links removed) at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm at 2:53 PM on 2/19/18.
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us "in a mystery" by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay—no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation?1
1St. Basil, On the Holy Spirit, section 66. Translated by Blomfield Jackson, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895), revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Retrieved from the New Advent website (embedded links removed) at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3203.htm at 2:46 PM on 2/19/18.
2. Again, my previous self was on the right track here in terms of the need to trust God's guidance of the Church's Tradition. I point out here that the early Fathers trusted God's guidance of the Church to get the canon of Scripture right and also to correctly interpret it. I was wrong in thinking that somehow this later "turned into" a belief that the Tradition and the Church were infallible. It didn't "turn into" this belief later; this was always the belief from the beginning. But I do here recognize the need to trust God's guidance of the Tradition. But you can see here that I make an arbitrary leap, and this is the central fallacy that led me to accept Sola Scriptura at this time. The leap comes in these sentences:
. . . as we cannot completely retrace the steps of the formation of the Scriptures and the accepted books of the canon of the Scriptures, the appropriate thing for us to do is to trust that God, who clearly wants us to look to his revelation as authoritative, has providentially delivered it to us. However, once we know what the Scriptures are, they become the basis from which we challenge all other statements, as no one else has been granted infallible authority--at least no such claim can be proven.
My error was this: I recognized the need to trust God's guidance of the Church's Tradition to know that Scripture is the Word of God and which books should be in the canon of Scripture. But then, once I got the Bible out of the Tradition, I stopped trusting God's guidance of it, assuming that the Bible is all we need. It is as if a mail carrier were to come to my door and attempt to hand me some letters. Upon receiving the first letter, I say, "Well, I've got the mail now. Thank you very much!" and then I close the door in his face as he tries in vain to give me my other letters. The "other letters" in this case refer to the infallible authority of Tradition and of the Church and her bishops. The early Tradition of the Church gives us all three--infallible Scripture, infallible Tradition, and an infallible Magisterium (teachers)--but I only accepted one of them and rejected the others. There were two reasons for this: 1. I didn't know enough about the Fathers at this time to realize that they were at odds with my Sola Scriptura view. I had been taken in by a superficial reading of some of their Sola-Scriptura-ish passages. 2. Partly because of #1, I did not realize the way in which the Protestant Reformation had ripped Scripture out of its original context, embedded together with the infallible Tradition and the infallible Church. I knew that we needed a locus of the Christian revelation. I knew that the Bible was at least part of that locus. I assumed that nothing more is needed to fulfill the need for a locus apart from the Bible, because I assumed the Bible could function on its own without an infallible Church and an infallible Tradition. And so I concluded that I had warrant to trust God's guidance of the early Church to get the Bible to me, but I felt that I didn't have warrant to trust it beyond that point because nothing was needed beyond that point. But this was simply to assume, without proof, that the Bible could function alone without an infallible Tradition and an infallible Church. Because I thought of the Bible as just an isolated unit, and Church Tradition and an infallible Magisterium as proposed external add-ons, I felt that I needed further positive warrant to add Tradition and the Magisterium to the Bible, when what I really needed was positive warrant to follow the Protestant Reformers in removing Scripture from its historical context within the three-legged stool which also included Tradition and the Magisterium. So my lack of awareness of the full history here came back to bite me. This was my fundamental reason for holding to Sola Scriptura instead of the Catholic view. All my other reasons were merely confirmatory but did not really establish my position, and so when I recognized my historical mistake a few years later those other arguments fell almost immediately, like the rest of a building collapsing after its main support is gone.
There are other problems with the idea that the church’s teaching authority is infallible that confirm our thinking on this point. For one thing, the churches that are derived from the catholic tradition have not remained unified, but have split--the biggest split being between the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches in the 11th century. The Roman Catholics claimed that the Pope is the universal head of the Christian church, while the Eastern Orthodox Church rejected that claim. There were other differences as well. Both churches are large, and both claim to represent the infallible tradition of the church. Who is right? There is no way to judge, as the Bible and the early church do not furnish enough evidence to decide the conflict (particularly as both churches rely on doctrines that cannot be justified by appealing to the Bible and the early church).
Again, a deeper awareness of history set me right on this point. At my time of writing this, I simply wasn't aware of the strong historical arguments for belief in the papacy in the early Church. I remember when, a few years after writing this, I first read some quotations from the Fathers on the papacy. I was reading a book by an Eastern Orthodox theologian (it was Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck's very helpful book, His Broken Body) and he was trying to make a case for an Orthodox understanding of the papacy in the early Church. But he presented me with the evidence for how strong belief in the papacy was in the early Church, and I remember being quite blown away. Anyway, there was a progression to my change of mind on this point. First, I came to understand that Sola Scriptura was not the historic position of the Church and that the default was against Sola Scriptura rather than for it. I talked about this in my previous comment above. This led me to need to choose between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. I had already come to the conclusion that the Eastern Orthodox position lacked any solid foundation and was self-refuting (I talk about this here), and I saw that Rome didn't have that same problem, so I knew that I had to go with Rome. Over the years since that time, from studying the history further, I've come to see more and more just how much stronger Rome's historical claims are compared to those of Eastern Orthodoxy. The early Church, both East and West, really did follow the Roman view, while the EO view was really non-existent. (This was a hugely important book for me in showing me this. I highly recommend it. Also, for a shorter read, see this.)
Another problem is that the teaching authority of the churches can be shown, historically, to have been in error at various times. For examples, we can look at the doctrines of free will and of the separation of church and state. First, let’s look at free will. According to the Bible and the reasoning of classical theism, God ordains all that comes to pass. Nothing happens that cannot be traced in terms of its ultimate cause back to God. Therefore, although we have the ability to make voluntary choices, those choices are not made in independence of the causality of God. They are ultimately predestined by God to occur in accordance with his will. Otherwise, God would not be the First Cause who is the source of all reality. However, the Eastern Orthodox Church has long taught that our free will choices are not predestined by God. They teach that free choices, to be free, must not be entirely traced back to God’s causality as the First Cause.4 Upon further reflection, I would now be less certain in condemning Eastern Orthodoxy as a whole on this point, although the reason for this is not very flattering to them. I've come to see that the Orthodox simply have no clear way of establishing what their own universal teaching is on many points because of their weak and confused epistemology (see here for more on this), so I've decided I can't say the common views of predestination and grace found among the Orthodox necessarily represent the Orthodox churches as a whole or their fully official and authoritative position. Likewise, the Roman Catholic Church, while being closer to the truth on this matter than the Eastern Church (many of its theologians over the years even holding to the biblical position) I was referring here to the Dominicans, equivocates on this point, refusing to acknowledge that God can determine the will of man by his predestination.5 I no longer have a problem with the Catholic view on this point. At my time of writing this, I had three main problems with the Catholic view on predestination and grace: 1. I thought they condemned the Jansenists for no reason. My current view on this can be found here. 2. I thought the Molinist view should have been condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, and yet it hasn't been. My current thoughts on this can be found here. 3. I thought that some things the Church has said about grace were wrong because I misunderstood them. For example, I thought the Council of Trent, when it says that grace is given such that people can reject it, was denying the efficaciousness of grace. This latter concern didn't last long, and I had abandoned it years before I started to become Catholic. Trent did not deny the efficaciousness of grace. With regard to my concern about the Jansenists, once my main reason for rejecting Catholicism was gone, my confusion regarding why the Church condemned Jansenism did not constitute a strong, much less a conclusive, argument against Catholicism in itself. The same thing happened with regard to my concerns over Molinism. But see the links above if you want to know more about these things. Also, see here for my current understanding of the Church's views regarding predestination and grace. And see here for my attempt to compare the Catholic view with the Calvinist view. These churches therefore teach doctrine in this area that is contrary to the Bible and to reason. With regard to the separation of church and state, or the relationship between religion and the state, the Roman Catholic Church has changed its mind over the years. A few hundred years ago, the Catholic Church was punishing heretics by burning them at the stake. Even before I began my transition to Catholicism, I came to recognize by learning more history that this was a superficial and misleading statement. Today, the same Church has declared that it is an intrinsic human right that all people possess liberty of conscience and should not be coerced or punished by the state for acting out even false religion in private or in public.6 (It is, of course, sheer coincidence, I’m sure, that the change in Catholic doctrine mirrors changing standards in the broader political culture of the western world.) Thus, Roman Catholic doctrine has no doubt taught error on this subject--it either taught error in the past, or it is teaching error now. This was another point of concern that didn't last long after my fundamental reason for holding Sola Scriptura had collapsed. I had already started to question aspects of my concern here before that happened. In short, I judged the Catholic Church here too quickly. I judged that modern Church teaching contradicted earlier Church teaching on religious freedom, but now I see that no contradiction can be proved. Rather, what we have are abiding principles that are applied differently in different cultural and historical contexts combined with a change in emphasis in the Church's teaching. I put both strands of Church teaching together harmoniously here. To be fair to my earlier self, one can superficially get the impression of a contradiction in Church teaching on this point. The issues are very complex. But I do feel I was too quick to judge here. (I actually wrote something up on this against the Catholic view. I have an intention at some point to repost that with some commentary, just as I am doing here with this chapter from the first edition of my book.) Many more errors and contradictions could be brought up to show that the so-called infallible churches are not infallible at all. No, I don't think that is the case, not upon further reflection. I'm not sure what I had in mind here specifically. I was probably thinking about things like changes in emphasis in Catholic teaching regarding the salvation of non-Catholics (I deal with this on pp. 158-162 of my book), as well as alleged papal contradictions and errors, such as the Galileo affair (see pp. 153-158 in my book), the case of Pope Honorius's heresy (I deal with this in this post), etc. As with the issue of the inerrancy of Scripture, there are a host of issues and problems that are sometimes raised regarding the accuracy and consistency of Catholic teaching through the ages. At the time of my writing this, I had not studied these issues in great depth. As I began looking into these things more fully, I found that none of them hold up to close scrutiny as serious problems or reasons for rejecting Catholic claims. My position at this time was somewhat like that of an Atheist who thinks he has good reasons for thinking that Christianity is made-up nonsense. If that is the case, then it would be likely that the Bible contains errors and contradictions, so one is likely to credit accounts of such errors and contradictions. But if the Atheist comes to see there may be reasons to think Christianity may actually be true, he begins to look more carefully at the alleged errors and finds that things are not as simple as they previously appeared. There is a lesson here: It is important to evaluate arguments carefully and objectively one by one, rather than buying into arguments without adequate scrutiny simply because they confirm what one already thinks one has reason to believe. In my case, I should have been more careful about declaring errors and contradictions in Catholic teaching. Part of the context of my opinions at this time was my belief that I should default as much as reasonably possible to the Reformed tradition and the teachers within that tradition since these teachers had authority (not infallible authority, but authority nonetheless) from God. These sorts of complaints about Catholicism were centuries-old and well-accepted in Reformed circles, so that led me to give them some weight as I gave the benefit of the doubt to the Reformed tradition (even though in a number of cases even at this time I found myself defending Catholic ideas against what I thought was not-entirely-just Reformed criticism). Also, I was only at the beginning of paying much attention to Catholicism, and so my opinions on many of these things were initial and provisional rather than conclusive. I didn't put them forward, for the most part, as core reasons for rejecting Catholicism, but more as confirming arguments. Once my main reason for rejecting Catholicism was refuted, these other concerns gave way very quickly.
Has the Transmission of the Bible Been Infallible Also?
Although the Scriptures frequently claim to be infallible and inerrant, yet nowhere is the claim made that the transmission of the text through the copying of manuscripts is a process blessed by infallibility. However, if God wishes us to look to the Bible as his authoritative revelation, as I think we can see from what has previously been said, we have reason to assume that God would preserve his text providentially in such a manner so that there would be no unavoidable error in the manuscripts that cannot be corrected. We have no reason to think that God must have preserved every manuscript or copy of the Bible free from all error, but we do have reason to believe that God will have provided us the means (for example, through comparison of multiple passages of Scripture and/or multiple manuscripts) of discovering any errors in any particular manuscripts and thus solving any problems that might arise from this. In fact, when we look at the manuscript evidence, we find that the manuscripts of the Bible have been remarkably preserved over time. The New Testament, for example, is among the most well-attested books in ancient literature. However, there are a number of relatively minor discrepancies between various manuscripts; but when they are examined, it is usually not too difficult to detect the errors and to figure out which readings are correct.7 Thus, we have reason to believe that God has preserved his Word providentially so that it is available to us still today.8 I won't take time here to comment on my earlier comments on manuscript transmission. Suffice it to say that now I recognize the need to take into account the infallibility of the Church and of Catholic Tradition in thinking about these matters.
Our conclusion, therefore, is that the Bible alone is the locus of divine revelation, and it is infallible in all that it teaches. This doctrine follows from the more general affirmation that Christianity is true. In fact, we can add this to the list of doctrines that we can be objectively certain of. As I have shown, the religion of Christianity, in its history and tradition that we can examine, clearly affirms that the Bible is a divine revelation. It does not clearly point to anything else being a divine revelation. This sentence, once again, articulates my core reason for believing in Sola Scriptura at this time. Once my historical awareness was increased and I recognized that Sola Scriptura was not the historic position of the Christian Church, and that Sola Scriptura cannot be taken as the default position without some positive proof that Scripture can function without the context of an infallible Church and an infallible Tradition, my view on this point fundamentally changed. If the Bible is not an infallible divine revelation, then God has created an inherent and inseparable association between the true religion, containing the revelation of himself, and the claim that a certain book contains infallibly that revelation, when that claim is false. But, as we saw at the end of the previous chapter, it would clearly be contrary to the nature of God to associate falsehood essentially with himself or the revelation of himself. Therefore, we can logically conclude that if God has associated his true religion inseparably with the claim that the Bible is a true, authoritative divine revelation, and he has given us no clear indication that anything else is such a revelation, then the Bible, and the Bible alone, must indeed be such a revelation. Therefore, anything that is clearly taught in the Bible bears the clear, certain and conclusive stamp of being God’s Word, and we can therefore take it to be certainly true.
1 For more on the subject of this section, see The Canon of the New Testament, by Bruce Metzger (Oxford University Press, 1997). For more information regarding the Old Testament Apocrypha, and an argument against its inclusion as part of the canon of the Old Testament, see William Webster‘s article, “The Old Testament Canon and the Apocrypha,” found at http://www.christiantruth.com/articles/apocryphaintroduction.html as of 10:41 PM on 8/26/11. I would now recommend this article.
2 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, Lecture 4, section 17, retrieved from the New Advent website at http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310104.htm on 6/7/2010.
3 For more on the early church's understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition, see William Webster's article, “The Church Fathers and the Authority and Sufficiency of Scripture,” found at http://www.christiantruth.com/scriptureandchurchfathers.html. You can see that I was influenced by William Webster's writings on these subjects. The difficulty with Webster is that, while he presents a lot of information, the way he presents his material creates an impression of Sola Scriptura among the Fathers that is contrary to what one sees when one examines the Fathers more thoroughly and with more context. Before I had looked into that context more deeply, Webster's presentation of the history seemed convincing, and so I followed his approach. The Fathers do indeed have a high view of Scripture, and they do say things at times that sound Sola-Scriptura-ish, and they are writing long before the Catholic-Protestant conflict over Sola Scriptura, so it is easy to get an impression of Sola Scriptura from some of the things they say when one does not know the Fathers with greater thoroughness and depth.
4 See, for example, http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/inq_reformed.aspx.
5 See, for example, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent on free will--Sixth Session, Chapter V, which can be found here: http://history.hanover.edu/texts/trent/ct06.html
6 Compare, for example, the teaching of Pope Pius IX in 1864 on religious freedom (found at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9quanta.htm) with current Roman Catholic teaching on the subject from the Second Vatican Council in 1965 (found at http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl_19651207_dignitatis-humanae_en.html).
7 I will provide an example of this in the next chapter.
8 For more on this sort of thing, I recommend The Text of the New Testament, by Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman (Oxford University Press, 2005). There are disputes in the world of textual criticism over which manuscripts should be deemed more reliable when there is conflict between them. I am not going to get into this here, but my position is that the manuscript tradition that has been preserved to be available to the church throughout its history should be considered reliable in contrast to manuscript traditions that fizzled out earlier (or appeared much later) and which were not reflected in the text available to the church through its history. I affirm this because of what I have argued earlier--that we should expect God to have providentially preserved his Word so that it has been available to his people. Metzger takes a different approach which I do not fully agree with, but his book is a good introduction to how manuscripts are transmitted and to the general reliability of the New Testament manuscript tradition.