Scripture and Canon (Roman Catholicism)

PatrickMadrid_SQPNI 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.

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5 thoughts on “Scripture and Canon (Roman Catholicism)

  1. Please forgive me, and correct me, if I’m wrong — I haven’t read that particular book of Madrid’s — but I don’t think that’s the way his argument is meant to be taken. His point is that sola scriptura is not tenable because there isn’t such a document. That the existence of such a document would present its own problems, is an entirely different problem. He is not looking for a way to make sola scriptura work, or proposing that there is, or should be, such a “table of contents”; his point is that sola scriptura simply doesn’t work, and perhaps the problems you’re pointing out further confirm that. There is no authoritative way to determine the canon without relying on Tradition. How do you answer that?

    • Howdy, Joseph –

      I suspected that you would take a particular interest in the post when I was writing it; it’s good to see I wasn’t mistaken.

      One of the things I noted is that I think Madrid’s objection regarding the “inspired table of contents” is artificial at best. Whether that was how he intended the argument to be taken or not is secondary to me. My primary purpose in mentioning it is to show that from a Protestant point of view, it amounts to a distraction and displays shoddy thinking. The existence or non-existence of an “inspired table of contents” cannot solve the problem he has presented in the end, so why even bother bringing it up? The same is true for any appeal to an external infallible authority; in the end, it’s either a case of infinite regress or self-authentication, and Madrid isn’t going to want to claim self-authentication for his external authority because it will lead him places he doesn’t want to go. Madrid’s statement is an example of the sort of argument made by self-appointed “apologists” that drive me up the wall, because in my mind it shows more of a desire to “score points” than to actually understand and interact with your opponents position. Frankly, I have no great love for Madrid or White; in fact I have the same problem with both of them. Madrid and White both tend to come across like complete jerks.

      As far as tradition goes (no capitalization for the Presbyterians!), I think that there is an authoritative way to determine the canon without basing the canon on tradition. I don’t want to tip my hand too much right now, but that’s precisely what part three of this series attempts to deal with, but only after I rake the vast majority of my so-called “Protestant” evangelical brethren over the coals for their even worse arguments.

      Somehow, I get the feeling you are going to really like tomorrow’s post. It’s scheduled to go up around 0930.

      • I’m looking forward to it. 🙂 I’ve been kind of semi-absent lately, but I will do my best to come by and read.

        I’ve actually never read anything by Madrid at all; I have listened to him on the radio some, even talking to hostile Protestants, and he seemed tolerable and respectful enough. I tried to read James White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy last year, and it upset me so much I had to stop. I would agree that he comes across as a complete jerk. I know Catholic apologists can come across that way, too; I guess I am immune to it now since I’m already on that side. 🙂 I think Catholics tend to be more guilty of an attitude of smug superiority and condescension, and Protestant critics, in my experience, have been more aggressive and polemic against Catholic positions. I listened to an interview not long ago with Jason Stellman on the Called to Communion podcast, and what he had to say about White pretty much sums up what I’ve seen: that Reformed apologists spend much more time attacking Catholic traditions as unbiblical than they spend making a positive case for the Reformation.

        I’ve noticed, and been thinking a lot lately, that, like you say, a lot of “Protestantism” and “evangelicalism” out there comes across as very weak and watered-down and innocuous and empty. The church I grew up in was pretty much devoid of intellectual or theological thought. The people are good and loving and well-meaning, but I think unless one has a theological backbone, it’s very easy to drift into errors such as “prosperity” and “health-and-wealth” and “word of faith” teachings, and Rick Warrenism. (Speaking of which, I think you might like SteakAndABible, who writes about these sort of evangelical errors.)

        I never had much of a commitment to the Reformation or its principles (though my undergraduate history professor was a descendant of Lutheran ministers, and portrayed Luther quite heroically! he was also a medievalist, and painted the medieval Church and its heroes just as lovingly). I had drifted away from whatever weak, Arminian, Pentecostal roots I had long before I was carried away by the Tiber. Looking back at it now, I think I might have been drawn by the rationality of Reformed thinking if I’d had different influences. My experience of Calvinist theology was always frightening and despondent.

        • You know, odd as it may seem, I got to meet Dr. White in person a couple of years ago, and when he’s not behind a microphone and engaging in his work, he’s a charming and engaging man. On a personal level, I found him incredibly likable. But when he’s engaged in his apologetic labors, I jokingly call him “the robot” because none of those aspects of his personality come through. I find it a little disconcerting that because of his presentation, he loses folks that might be more willing to hear him if he sounded less like a pit bull and more like a pastor concerned for their souls.

          Where Madrid is concerned, I would say that “smug superiority and condescension” fit him to a tee. The first time I ever listened to him, the immediate mental response I had was, “Boy I wish this guy was half as smart as he acts”. Perhaps that’s a sinful response, but every time I listen to Madrid he leaves me with the exact bad taste in my mouth.

          I think one of the problems for apologists is that it is incredibly difficult to critique a position or religion whose power you’ve not felt. In the end, I think that’s 99% of Madrid’s problem, and White’s, too. Neither Madrid nor White have ever really felt the powerful pull of the others competing claims.

          Oddly enough, I heard a lecture from Al Mohler (of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) not long ago where he said something to the effect that in a few decades, the only Protestant churches that will be left will be the confessional ones (i.e., the confessional Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Anglicans) precisely because they do have “theological backbone” as you put it. The rest of the so-called “evangelical” churches are about to head the way of mainline Protestantism, at least in my opinion…

    • To be perfectly clear, perhaps I should state a couple of things explicitly, so there isn’t any confusion:

      I think the vast majority of what passes itself off as Protestantism…isn’t. The majority of folks running around bearing the label Protestant have only gotten halfway across the Tiber River at best. Furthermore, from my perspective, the term “evangelical” has become practically meaningless as well. Too many perspectives are now included under the “evangelical umbrella” for evangelicalism to be a recognizable movement. When Rachel Held Evans, Billy Graham, and Rick Warren are all called “evangelicals” something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

"I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naïve." (Romans 16:17-18) Please read "The Comments Policy."

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