Eamonn Clark, STL
I appreciate the reply to my latest post on Sola Scriptura from Nemo. This long-delayed post will be my last public response – and I will do so via the method called “fisking,” my comments in bold, with a little outro to close. Go here to see the whole post (some introduction and endnotes). See my previous posts here, here, and here.
Clark made an objection to sola scriptura, which is commonly raised by Roman Catholics, as I found out just recently. It goes like this, if I understand correctly: a) the Scripture started out as individual books written by different authors centuries apart, b) there is no way of knowing which books belong in the Scripture c) unless there is an authority outside the Scripture that can infallibly determine what constitutes Scripture, d) ergo the infallible authority of the Catholic Church.
Yes, that is more or less the way the argument goes, as what else would determine the canon? In my last post, I showed that the only alternatives are that we are left with our own judgment, that some totally arbitrary measure exists (sola Luther?), or the even worse and much weirder hypothesis of a “fallible collection of infallible texts.” Another option would be that history didn’t happen – as we will see, the historical reality of the formation of the canon is relevant here.
For starters, regarding (d), even if we grant that an authority outside the Scripture is necessary to determine what constitutes Scripture, it doesn’t follow that the magisterium of the Catholic Church is such an authority. I get the impression, rightly or wrongly, that Roman Catholics are attacking sola scriptura as if it were a zero-sum game, and they would establish the authority of the Church simply by knocking down the authority of the Scripture.
Not quite – one needs to recognize the Voice of the Shepherd behind all of it. One is simply bound, by the operation of the kind of sufficient grace which touches all rationally active minds, to know that the Christ’s truth and authority subsists in the Catholic Church. One way to see this is through the history of the Scriptural canon – it did not fall from the sky. If I think that the old woman at the supermarket infallibly determines the canon, then I have a problem. Why would it be any different for, say, some disgruntled Augustinian friar named Martin Luther? (Then there are other claims too, such as with the Ethiopian tradition, but we leave that aside.) So history is the key here. There are PLENTY of ways to see that the Catholic Church has the authority which She claims – the plethora of miracles, the favors of the many major Marian apparitions (especially Fatima, given its enormous audience and recent occurrence), the coherence and stability of doctrine, the proliferation of that doctrine across the Earth… But the canon is its own argument, based in the facts of history (but not thereby exhausted, as one must still see with the eyes of faith).
But that is far, far from the case. From the epistemic perspective, the same questions would remain: How do we know that (the magisterium of) the Church is infallible? What constitutes the magisterium and who decides that infallibly? Does it speak with one voice or many? How do we know that the teachings of the magisterium are interpreted correctly? The list goes on.
These are presented as very challenging questions, but they are relatively straightforward to answer. We know the Church is infallible by faith, evidence of which is contained in all the things I just mentioned. One ought to be inclined toward trusting the Church as God’s infallible mouthpiece just as one is inclined toward Christ – flesh and blood does not reveal, and yet it also does prepare one to make the jump. St. John Henry Newman called this sense of the convergence of evidence which doesn’t quite demonstrate the truth of the Catholic Faith the “illative sense.”
What constitutes the magisterium, in the relevant sense here, is: the Pope, or the whole college of bishops teaching together with the Pope. Who decides that infallibly is and could not be other than God. We can see here that Nemo is struggling with the relationship between evidence, faith, and authority. In the end, it is up to one’s own mind to see, and that’s that, and yet we also are not entirely alone in our responsibility for knowing – we have help through others. What is really of faith cannot be demonstrated by “flesh and blood,” it must be revealed from above, but often using “flesh and blood,” as with the Incarnation itself, but also through the visible hierarchical structure of the Church. The Pope is, in a sense, the Church’s babysitter – like Aaron was for the Hebrews while Moses was up on Sinai. Regardless of how well he does, he has the authority (cf. Saul’s reign over Israel, the Pharisees and Jerusalem, etc.).
The magisterium, in this sense, speaks with one voice, and could not speak otherwise. (I have written more about the different senses/uses of the word “magisterium” elsewhere on these pages.)
Nemo’s final objection once again shows that he is trying to grapple with the reality that, at the end of the day, one cannot actually have another take the place of one’s own mind in the relationship between evidence, faith, and authority, but one also isn’t responsible for everything by himself – we have a visible, exterior structure which disposes us to the operation of interior invisible grace. We can have intelligent people help us to understand the teaching of the Church, and we have the exterior authority of the Church itself as expressed in Her definitive doctrines, but one must still see with the eyes of faith for themselves after encountering the reality of dispositive visible effects of God’s grace with the senses. To drive this home, I could take many of these same objections and apply them to Christ. How do we know He speaks infallibly? Who decided that? How do we know we are understanding what He is saying? Actually, this last one is the whole theme here – He evidently wanted us to have a very serious kind of help. He did not leave us orphans. Nor do we need to be able to read in order to have faith – something which Sola Scriptura indirectly implies. The peasant girl in 9th century Gaul simply knows, “The old man in the funny hat has learned the true Faith and is responsible for instructing me so that I can save my soul,” and that’s about all she needs.
Second, regarding (c) the canon. If we define canon as a definitive collection of books that are recognized by believers as Scripture, then what constitutes the canon changes over time, at least from a historical perspective. For example, in the Gospels, Jesus constantly refers to (what we now call) Old Testament books, namely, the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-45), which the Gospel authors designate collectively as “the Scriptures”, or simply “the Scripture”, emphasizing its unity. The canon then did not include the New Testament books which were written later. By the fourth century, the majority of the 27 books of the New Testament have been recognized as Scripture, as evidenced by extant New Testament manuscripts and the writings of the Church Fathers. There is no evidence that such recognition resulted from a Church Council. It is likely that the canon emerged organically through a grass-roots networking process, independent of any central authority.
I’m a little shocked that Nemo would make the objection that the existence of Scriptures before Christ and the apostolic age would somehow undermine the possibility of more Scripture. Since the fullness of God’s revelation is the Incarnation of His Son, there will be a clear division among the texts wherein God foretells the coming of Christ and the texts wherein God teaches about what happened during Christ’s earthly life and ministry. Turns out that the 430 year gap between Malachi (the last prophet of the Old Testament) and Christ’s public ministry maps onto the 430 years of Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. It was time for God to speak again.
Nemo then jumps to the 4th century. He’s right to point out that the canon had basically been settled by then. He neglects to say HOW. It was, of course, the project of Pope St. Damasus I, whose old house I coincidentally have been doing some of my research in (it is here) as there are some curial offices there in the palazzo surrounding the church. This was partially in response to confusion over what belonged in the canon which occurred at the end of the 2nd century, because of the heresiarch Marcion. But without going into details, there was still some slight lack of clarity over the so-called “Deuterocanon” throughout the medieval period and into the 15th century. However, there was no problem significant enough to warrant any action more forceful than the council which Damasus held in Rome in 382, where he published his list. This mild anxiety (but no “crisis”) was evidently on account of the prologue to the the Liber Regus (the “Kingdom Books” – 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2Kings), written by Damasus’ private secretary, St. Jerome. (Jerome evidently held reservations about Damasus’ list and let people know it. Maybe Damasus was fine with it – who knows… It was 9-10 years after the Council of Rome in 382 under Damasus I.) It was the Council of Trent (an ecumenical council, the highest kind of teaching authority on account of the sort of papal sanctioning involved) which “canonized” the list which we have today – although the same list had been put forward by Damasus some 1,200 years earlier, and also just the century before at the Council of Florence (another ecumenical council), but only using the word “inspired” and not “canon”/”canonical.” This was in response to the activity of Luther, who threw out some books which were especially inconvenient for his ”theology.” This, together with the invention of the printing press, heightened the urgency for a stronger position on the canon than did the shift from baskets and scrolls to the codex in the 1st century. The Jews and first Christians didn’t have books at all, they had scrolls which could be put into one basket and then another. The codex forced the question of what would be included and what excluded. The printing press meant that not just the clergy and scholars but everyone in the world could soon have a “Bible” – so it became absolutely imperative to know what that meant. In fact, we see here a stroke of God’s Providence. Had Luther not tampered with the list given by Florence, then we may still be left without the list of inspired texts which Trent gave us, and the problem would perhaps have grown deeper and thornier than it already is.
Third, a few more words regarding the self-authentication of the Scripture (b). Jesus says, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me” (John 6:45). And “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) It is interesting that, with the advance of technology, voice recognition software can uniquely identify the speaker from a voice recording, as the voice of each person has a unique digital signature. If I may use another analogy, the Scriptures bear the seal of the Lord, just as signet rings are used by ancient kings to authenticate their royal decrees. All believers, without exception, have been and will continue to be taught by the Lord, and have the right and obligation to hear His voice and follow Him.
Once again, we see Nemo wrestling with the evidence-faith-authority paradigm. Yes, we do need to recognize the Voice of the Shepherd, but to what degree? As I said in an earlier post, St. Mary of Egypt was taught by God without study. Are we held to that standard? Are we all bound to know what is Scripture simply by being sufficiently holy, or intelligent, or both? No – rather, we ought to see the all the other things which point towards the Divine origin and thus the veracity of the Catholic Faith and go from there. God wants us to see the greatest effect of His Incarnation – the Church, His Bride – and then read about Him in the light of what the Church offers to us for our instruction. He does not want us arguing whether 1 Clement or The Shepherd of Hermas or the various silly Gnostic “gospels” are inspired documents, OR THE DEUTEROCANON.
Lastly, if we define the Canon as a complete collection of books inspired by God for the salvation of His people, then the Canon is fixed from the foundation of the world. But, one might ask, is what we have today the whole Canon? It is possible that some inspired books have become extinct, e.g., Paul’s letter to Laodicea (Colossians 4:16), just as some species God created has become extinct through the long lapse of time, and just as His prophets died after they had served the purpose of God in their own generations. We can only answer (in faith) that God has preserved the canon through history to accomplish His purpose, so that the canon we have is sufficient and necessary for salvation, and the lost books, if any, do not subtract from the integrity of the canon, nor their inclusion make the canon redundant in any part.
Here we have to say that God knows what He wants included and certainly made sure that it was in fact included. That’s it. Those, and those alone, would then carry the character of “inspiration,” as inspiration is only really a useful term in theology when it refers to “those books contained in Scripture.” Other kinds of authority and prophecy surely exist, but the special thing about being inspired is precisely that it is part of Scripture.
Well, thus endeth the discourse. From here, we would no doubt continue to explore what “the Church” is, how the virtue of faith works, what the process of inspiration involves, or drill into what exactly the status of the Deuterocanon was in the middle ages, and so on, but this takes us quite far afield of the question. I do other posts on some of that stuff. But for any curious Protestants reading, you might start with this good article on apostolic succession and go from there.