I listened to an old debate between Dr. James White and Patrick Madrid last evening as my wife and I were making the long drive home from visiting my parents and filling the pulpit for a local Reformed church, and the question how Protestants can affirm both sola scriptura and speak of the canon of Scripture in a meaningful way came up in one of the rebuttal periods. While I am neither a particular fan of Dr. White or Madrid, I find listening to debates a distracting past-time, as it helps to hear two opposing views side by side – especially when there is a proper cross-examination period.
As I was listening to Mr. Madrid, a quote from one of his books got stuck in my head, which meant that I spent 30 minutes when I got home searching my library for my copy of Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura. One of critiques that Madrid brings forward in his chapter “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy”, is that sola scriptura is untenable because without some external infallible authority, there is no way to know which books belong in, or should be included in, the canon. In Madrid’s words, Christians don’t have an “inspired table of contents” that reveals “which books belong and which books do not.”
You see, according to Mr. Madrid, if Christians had this inspired table of contents, the we wouldn’t need the definitive judgment of the Roman Catholic church to validate the canon. I’ve come across this sort of statement in other Catholic writings, and I’ve never quite understood how such a position avoids the problems of an infinite regress and vicious circular reasoning. (Please note that I don’t believe that all circular reasoning is fallacious, but some certainly is.)
Let’s imagine (for the sake of argument) that God had inspired another first-century document that included the “table of contents” that Mr. Madrid believes is necessary for sola scriptura to work, and that He had given it to the church. We’ll call this “book twenty-eight”. Would the existence of “book twenty-eight” assuage the concerns of our Roman friends? In other words, would this allow Catholics to affirm sola scriptura and deny the need for an infallible church?
Not in the least!
Here’s why: the consistent question to ask at this point would be, “How do I know that ‘book twenty-eight’ is infallible and given by God?” We would then need a hypothetical “book twenty-nine” to authenticate “book twenty-eight”, but the same question would still be valid – no matter how far down the line we went. This is the definition of an infinite regress.
Madrid’s objection completely misses the point. Even if there were another document with the table of contents that he thinks sola scriptura requires, that document itself would still need to be authenticated as part of the canon. Therefore, to at least some extent, the Catholic objection is artificial. Such a hypothetical “table of contents” could never alleviate their concerns, because there is an a priori determination that no document can ever be self-attesting.
All of this is not to say that the traditional Protestant formulations regarding the canon are without there own messy problems…but more on that tomorrow.