A Universal Apology Point Two: ON CANONICITY

ON CANONICITY

I am recounting in chronological order the several reasons I have for accepting that the Catholic Church is what she says she is.

The second is the paradox of accepting on authority the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity but rejecting authority defining those doctrines.

I did not back when I was an atheist (and do not now that I am a faithful Christian) see how anyone can reject the Church without rejecting the writings of the Church. If the Church is not sacred, how can her writings be sacred? And if her writings are sacred, how can the Church not also be?

There are only two possible answers: one is to say that the Church had her authority, legitimately exercised, up through the period where the New Testament writings were written, collected, and canonized, and lost that authority thereafter. The answer depends for its probative value on the date assigned as the point of last legitimate authority, after which the Church’s apostasy was irrevocable. Any doctrines promoted before that date are presumptively valid, as being given by a legitimate authority.

The other answer is to say that the Church never possessed magisterial authority, that is, the authority to define Christian teaching, and that this power lodges either in the individual, or nowhere.

The logical fallacy involved in this second answer is obvious: if the Church never possessed the authority to define doctrine, then nothing in the Christian canon, not even the fact that Christ existed at all, has any authoritative support.

It is not as if there are independent non-Christian written records testifying to the events in the Gospel or the visions of St Paul or St John aside from the apostles and disciples themselves. Aside from the testimony of Peter and Paul and the other saints and apostles and martyrs, there is no record that Jesus of Nazareth lived at all, much less that He was the Christ, much less that He was divine, and said the things He said.

There is nothing in the Bible listing the canon of scripture. There is not even a rule or standard mentioned explaining how to compile such a list, or to establish what books belong and what do not.

But let us suppose for the sake of argument that there were a book in the Bible, let us call it The Book of Solascripture, which clearly and plainly set out that scripture and not tradition is the sole authority for determining canonicity, that is, giving the standard of what constitutes orthodox teaching. Let us further suppose that the Book of Solascripture lists all books which are orthodox and authoritative, from the Book of Genesis through to the Apocalypse of John. Does the Book of Solascripture list itself in the list? Either it does or it does not.

If it does not, that is a self-contradiction, for then the book by whose authority we know which books are authoritative lacks the authority to make that determination.

If it does, that is a circular argument, for then the book by whose authority we know which books are authoritative is the only witness to support its own authority. It would be like a judge in a court of law declaring himself king on the grounds that, as king, he has the authority to grant this one judge, himself, the right to declare who should be king.

Let us suppose again that the Book of Solascripture was written anywhere from 30 years to 120 after the Crucifixion, as late as 150 A.D.  Consider the apostle, let us call him Protoluther, who penned the Epistle of Solascripture. Was everything he taught before that date invalid? Was everything every apostle taught before that date invalid? To them, scripture meant only the Old Testament.

What was his basis for Protoluther’s authority to write this scripture and teach this doctrine that authority comes from scripture alone? That authority must be based on something Christ or one of the other apostles taught to him orally. But if so, by it own definition of authority, this doctrine has no authority to be taught, nor to enter the canon of scripture.

If Protoluther has no authority to proclaim Sola Scritpura as authentic Church teaching, how much less has Luther over a thousand years after. And by what authority does Luther decree that all canonizations from the past thousand years were invalid? How does he get the right to strip the sainthood not from one nor two, but from all the saints back to Saint Mary?

But in fact there is no Book of Solascripture, and in fact there is no passage in the Bible supporting Sola Scriptura. (There is a passage saying scripture is useful for instruction and reproof, however, but this is hardly that same thing). There are also passages indicating that the early Church Fathers spread tradition orally, and relied on oral tradition, and expected it to be spread orally, from one generation to the next.

There is no passage in the Bible indicating that this reliance on tradition was, or was meant to be, temporary or limited to a certain early period. (It may be so that Christ intended or command such a limitation, and that we as Christian should obey His intent or command for the sake of salvation, but, if so, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura is false, for then there is at least one commandment or divine intention, necessary for salvation, which is not in the scripture.)

So, logically, the answer that the Church never possessed teaching authority must be rejected by any Christian. No man determines the nature and content of the Christian teaching for himself on his own authority, because no man living is an eyewitness to Christ.

That leaves the other answer: that the Church at one time possessed teaching authority and lost it on the grounds of her apostasy. This rests on the question of teaching authority. This is turn rests on the question of whether the Church is or is not one, true, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Hence to support this answer logically,  the Protestants have to make four claims: first, that the early Christians in doctrine and practice and to all practical effect were Protestant and not Catholic, on the grounds that the Church suffered an apostasy, slowly or suddenly, at some specific date between the First Century and the Sixteenth; and, second, that this apostasy was final and irrevocable, such that the Church could never reform, repent, nor regain her lost authority; and third that this apostasy grants each Protestant individual the legal authority to rebel in order to return to the original forms of the Church.

Note that this third claim logically gives each individual baptized Christian an authority no Pope nor General Church Council ever claimed, which is the ability to overrule or ignore the findings of any or all previous Church Councils.

This third claim has no support whatever in the constitution of the Church, nor in canon law, nor in the writings of any Church Father, nor in Scripture, nor any basis in logic. Nothing Christ says said that each man can invent his own Church to suit himself.

The fourth and final claim is that each man has the right and authority to interpret scripture for himself. If a ten o’clock scholar reads a passage where, for example, Jesus says none is good but God alone, and he interprets that to mean that Christ was a human prophet and not the Second Person of the Trilogy, his reading is as authoritative as if Saint Peter had said it.

For that matter, if the same scholar decides that the resurrection scenes are meant to be allegorical or poetical, and that Christ never rose from the dead, or never existed to begin with, that is spoken with Peter’s authority also.

Or if he decides that Christ declaring the Eucharist to be His body is allegorical, then Peter’s authority can dismiss the Lord’s Supper as something Christians need not keep; or if he decides that baptism is a spiritual act which is marred or blockaded by the performance of a sacrament using material water, then Peter’s authority teaches Christians must not perform baptisms; or if he decides the serpent in the garden of Eden was the true God seeking to grant men knowledge and divinity whereas the creator was an evil demiurge and the enslaver of man; then by this logic these are all valid readings, all equally Christian, all equally authoritative.

 

24 Comments

  1. Comment by The_Shadow:

    Point of order, sir. While I agree with the vast majority of what you have written, it isn’t quite true that there is no evidence of Jesus’ existence outside of the Bible and other Christian witness.

    There is a brief passage in Josephus about Jesus (and another longer one which is now believed to be a later interpolation). He also mentions John the Baptist and James the Just. Also, when the Jews were expelled from Rome, Tacitus mentions that the decision was made due to heated public arguments over ‘Chrestus’, who had been crucified under Pontius Pilate.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Asked and answered, counselor. These are dependent and not independent witnesses, since Josephus and Tacitus no doubt learned of the existence of the man through the fame brought to him by His followers.

      But, even if that were not so, the independence of the witness is insufficient. This brief and elliptical mention in Josephus or Tacitus is insufficient to erect an independent church with other doctrines to the church He founded. Neither one calls Chrestus the Second Person of the Trinity, for example.

  2. Comment by Stephen J.:

    The impression I have always had (though I will freely admit error to anyone who asserts otherwise for their own case) is that most Protestants define their sense of the shift in authority not positively but negatively, in the sense that they do not so much witness the authority appearing in the laity (for that authority was *always*, they believe, in the laity) but consider it to have vanished from the clergy, on the grounds that what the clergy do and teach and say contradicts, or appears to contradict, the words of the Bible itself.

    This is the primary ground of sola scriptura, according to Wikipedia: not that the Bible is the only source of authority but that it is the final source of authority, and the authority of other sources is to be considered valid only insofar as it agrees with and can be shown to proceed from the Bible — not a trifling criticism, given the way the Pope and clergy of Luther’s day were exploiting theological “elaborations” for their profit. After all, the Church did not create the Bible, in the sense that none of the books, gospels and epistles were written by “the Church” or for “the Bible” in a consciously exegetical act for the sake of a single book that didn’t yet exist; rather, it merely articulated a definition that was perceived to be self-evident and already extant in the works themselves (much like civil marriage is considered by Christians not to be what creates the bond between a man and woman but the legal recognition of an objective, already-extant relationship). If some truths really are self-evident, then by that very definition their articulation and codification is merely an arrangement to aid perception, not a creation, discovery or establishment; and conversely just because each man can in principle put “his own” interpretation on it (a process always meant to be guided by the witness of the Holy Spirit) does not mean other men cannot reject that interpretation as self-evidently nonsensical.

    And as I understand many Protestant claims, the argument was not so much that “the Church never possessed teaching authority” as “the stranglehold the clergy of the Church have acquired and maintained on that authority is unjustified and unjustifiable”. The Church — the whole Church — can have magisterial authority, but the authority must be partaken of by all its members, not just a wealthy inner clique with a lock on the money and the sophistication needed to make that authority impenetrable to, and thus unchallengeable by, the laity. (After all, if we can believe that the Holy Spirit guides the hearts of those Popes and other men in the Magisterium so as to guarantee they will never create a truly self-contradictory teaching, why can we not believe that the Holy Spirit will guide men and women not so ordained and appointed? Do we attribute greater holiness to the men of the Magisterium?)

    But ultimately you are right, and much of Protestant theology seems to me to turn on the fundamental issue of the contradiction between a rightful authority by ordained position and the abuses of the power in that authority by its corrupt holders. The essential Protestant declaration is simply, “It is incompatible with God’s justice to believe that salvation can be denied to one man by another corrupt man; therefore salvation must proceed from some source accessible to all, I cannot be denied it because I could not tithe enough to this greedy priest, and no bishop or Pope who says otherwise can be legitimate.” Righteous as this is on the face of it, I have always seen a faint but lethal taint of despair in this declaration: like the Donatists who believed clergy in a state of sin could not execute spiritually valid Sacraments, it seems to contain a belief that the power and capacity of God can be innately limited by the constraints of fallen men and matter, and that there are actions which will cause God to withdraw His Grace from us of His own choice (rather than constituting our rejection of that Grace through mortal sin). Which is mostly why I have never been tempted to be a Protestant; I may be no worse a man than any given priest or theologian, but by that self-same observation, I have no greater a claim on the Holy Spirit’s insights or favour, either.

    • Comment by Malcolm Smith:

      I would have worded it differently but, by and large, Stephen J’s comment is pretty much the position of the Anglican and Lutheran churches. (Although one has an English flavour, and the other a Germanic flavour, their theological differences are very minor.) Sola scriptura means that nothing can be required to be believed unless it can be found in scripture. I cannot see why this should be controversial. After all, why would God provide us with scriptures if he intended us to believe in something additional? Tradition is not rejected; rather, it is required. What we reject is the idea that there can be traditions in addition to the Bible. The proper use of tradition is clarify ambiguities, or perceived ambiguities, in the scripture by inquiring as to the interpretation given to it by the very earliest of the Christian teachers. (That’s the ante-Nicean fathers, who may not speak with one voice, not a pronouncement from some magisterium a thousand years later.)
      In one of his earlier posts, Mr Wright said that this procedure would confirm the Roman Catholic interpretation. I only wish he would actually attempt to apply it to some contentious RC doctrines, rather than merely appeal to authority.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        While this is a succinct statement of the Protestant position, it has no persuasive value to prove the point in contention, which is where the books of the Bible came from, or how it became the Bible. Any Protestant who believes in the Incarnation, or the Trinity, or in monogamy, or in justification by grace alone, believes Christian teaching not found in the Bible, or at least not found unambiguously. Any Protestant who accepts the book of the Apocalypse of John as canonical but not the Gospel of Thomas or the Shepherd of Hermas again believes a Christian teaching not found in the Bible.

        You are using the phrase ‘appeal to authority’ incorrectly, indeed, in the opposite of its meaning. An appeal to authority argument runs this was: 1. an authority believes such-and-such 2. what the authority says is sufficient warrant for its truth 3. therefore such-and-such is true.

        There is nothing like that in my argument. The form of my argument is this: If one has the belief that nothing can be required to be believed unless it can be found in scripture, this belief is itself not found in scripture. Therefore it is not required to be believed.

        Furthermore, ‘scripture’ is a collection of writings written by the church and declared scriptural by, and only by, the authority of the tradition of the church. Therefore the authority of scripture cannot be more certain than the authority of the tradition of the church, since the second depends on the first. Therefore the statement that the proper use of tradition is to clarify ambiguities in the scripture is a logical paradox.

        That is the argument to be addressed.

        • Comment by Stephen J.:

          “Furthermore, ‘scripture’ is a collection of writings written by the church and declared scriptural by, and only by, the authority of the tradition of the church.”

          Though I am not myself a Protestant, my own rather cursory research suggests that this is an incomplete elucidation of the Protestant position, which includes the belief that “Scripture” is more than a body of writing justified by the authority of tradition; rather, it is a living force actively united with the real and active Holy Spirit, and “creates a living agreement of faith” rather than compelling “a mere intellectual assent to its doctrines”. (Quotes are from the Wikipedia article on sola scriptura.) The Church does not have authority to declare what is and is not Scriptural, only to recognize it based on apostolic origin, universal acceptance, liturgical use and consistency of message; Scripture is held, essentially, to be self-evidently self-justifying, and supernaturally so, and the lack of a formal declaration to this effect within Scripture itself is no hindrance to accepting it.

          From the standpoint of logical argument, you rightly note below in another post that this constitutes begging the question; but it seems to me that this may be the fundamental problem here — “begging the question” is only a valid criticism of theses that one is attempting to prove by rational argument; it does not apply to axioms asserted to be so self-evident that they in the end cannot be proven or disproven, only accepted or rejected.

          For my own part, I do have to say that trying to figure out which authority — Scripture’s or the Church’s — “came first” and justifies the other’s sounds like trying to figure out which blade of a pair of scissors is the one that “really” does the cutting. Which metaphor in turn suggests that the Protestants, sick to death of the rust that had covered one blade of those scissors, broke it off, flung it away and clung to the single blade remaining as a knife, but have been living ever since with the clumsiness and lack of control the missing blade compels, and are either cutting less and less or hurting themselves more and more often.

          • Comment by The OFloinn:

            which authority — Scripture’s or the Church’s — “came first”

            There was a Church before there were the Scriptures — save of course for the Jewish scriptures –so that does not seem a difficult question.

      • Comment by Mary:

        “After all, why would God provide us with scriptures if he intended us to believe in something additional? ”

        Huh?

        What return would you make if someone told you that everything had to be proven from the Pauline epistles? And asked why would God provide us with the Pauline epistles if he intended us to believe in something additional?

        Indeed, I am part of an argument even now on-going, with a Protestant who informs us Catholics that only the Pauline epistles are binding on Christians, that all other works of the Bible are addressed to other people, not to us — and even he didn’t offer an argument as silly as that.

      • Comment by John's Web Support:

        why would God provide us with scriptures if he intended us to believe in something additional

        Why would God provide us with a Church if He did not intend us to believe its teachings, even those you consider “additional”?

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      After all, the Church did not create the Bible, in the sense that none of the books, gospels and epistles were written by “the Church”

      Pardon me if I was not clear. “The Church” refers to the body of the believers in Christ and their leadership. Before the Monophysite controversy, there was only one church, and all Christians, from Peter onward, belonged to it. You are saying, in effect, that the New Testament was not written by Christians for Christians.

      If your point is that they did not know at the time of the writing that it would later be considered scripture, well, I suppose Daniel did not know that either, or Jeremiah. That does not change the basic point of the argument.

      But ultimately you are right, and much of Protestant theology seems to me to turn on the fundamental issue of the contradiction between a rightful authority by ordained position and the abuses of the power in that authority by its corrupt holders

      Except where in the Bible does it say Christians are allowed to abolish their fealty to the Church and establish one, each man on his own authority, as he sees fit, once the church is proved to be corrupt? If the corruption is correct, does the lost authority return?

      Besides, I am congenitally unable to fear that a man can stand between me and the Omnipotent and block the way. I am only concerned with who is preaching and speaking the truth, not whether he is committing sins on the side. His sins do not mar the message he carries.

  3. Comment by Rygor:

    To be blunt about this sort of “argument,” it’s stupid. Firstly, Scripture teaches us that the Holy Spirit is the One who reveals God’s Truth to His elect people, so there is ipso facto no need for a “holy” and “infallible” body of interpreters of the Bible. The Holy Spirit is the only Infallible interpreter of His own Word. Every man, excepting Christ, is a sinner and is, therefore, liable to interpretative error. The argument is already refuted, but let’s look at another aspect of the argument that is equally false (and stupid), viz. the false dilemma that Catholics claim “the protestants” will face. If Sola Scriptura is false because it requires us to make a decision to believe a particular interpretation which we cannot know for sure has or has not met with Christ’s approval, then the Magisterium is also to be rejected, for they stake their claim to authority on the basis of their interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19. How can we know that their particular interpretation has been authorized by Christ if they are appealing to their interpretation of Scripture that they claim has been authorized by Christ?!

    This is not only viciously circular, it is also a concealed appeal to authority and is, therefore, doubly fallacious. The Roman Catholic either autonomously accepts the Magisterium’s interpretation of Scripture – without having any way whatsoever to prove whether or not their interpretation of Scripture has been authorized by Christ – and thus overrides the authority of the Magisterium and sins against God (by God’s command no less!), or he tries to suffocate his conscience which is very loudly condemning him for fighting God and His Christ.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Your comment is based on a logical paradox.

      ” Firstly, Scripture teaches us that the Holy Spirit is the One who reveals God’s Truth to His elect people, so there is ipso facto no need for a “holy” and “infallible” body of interpreters of the Bible.”

      Either this is the correct interpretation of scripture, or it is not. If it is not, then there is a need for an authoritative interpretation in order to minimimize errors of just this kind. If there is, then it is begging the question, if not an infinite series (we know our interpretation of scripture is correct, because we interpret scripture to mean that our interpretation of scripture is correct, which we know because we interpret scripture to say so, etc). It also begs the question why the Book of Maccabeus and Tobit and the Epistle of James should be included or excluded, which is not a topic scripture addresses.

      then the Magisterium is also to be rejected, for they stake their claim to authority on the basis of their interpretation of Matthew 16:18-19. How can we know that their particular interpretation has been authorized by Christ if they are appealing to their interpretation of Scripture that they claim has been authorized by Christ?!

      That is not the argument here being made. Please read what is written before commenting on it.

      If Sola Scriptura is false because it requires us to make a decision to believe a particular interpretation which we cannot know for sure has or has not met with Christ’s approval

      That was not the argument here being made. Please read what is written before commenting on it.

  4. Comment by Plutonium:

    Hm… as a Protestant reading these arguments, I’m feeling like a castle next door to me is being bombarded rather than my castle. I’m not totally sure if this is correct, so can you explain your conception of the beliefs of Protestants regarding canon/the authority of scripture/the origin of that authority.(or point me to where you do, there is a lot of stuff and I might have missed it)

    Also, how does the term ‘authority’ relate to ‘infallibility’ in this case? Because obviously say, an expert has authority in their expertise, in that more weight should be given to the expert rather than a random person, but it seems like you are using authority in a considerably stronger manner.(Again, I might have missed something)

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Frankly, I have no idea what account the Protestant can give for the authority that determined the canon of Scripture. My argument is that there can be no coherent account of the authority that determined the canon of scripture if that authority is not the early Church.

      I had assumed all Christians believe that the Holy Spirit guards the core doctrines summed up in the Nicene Creed from corruption and error, and that every Christian agreed that what all Christians of all periods of time agree is the basics of Christianity is indeed an infallible truth. A person who says Christ did not come in the flesh, for example, is not only cursed by Saint John as being an antichrist, I am assuming all Christians properly so-called regard this doctrine, the Incarnation, as beyond any reasonable dispute. It cannot be wrong; God would not permit us for so many centuries to be deceived on so basic a point. It is, hence, both authoritative and infallible.

      I do not know the technical terms used by theologians. If the Protestants use another term like ‘inerrency’ to describe this confidence that we got the message in an uncorrupted form from the Apostles who got it from Christ, please feel free to substitute a more precise term for the concept I am calling ‘infallible.’

      • Comment by Plutonium:

        This is somewhat helpful, and I think this is nearly right, but I think I’m going to wait for you to finish your series before I respond further. I’ll keep thinking on this. In general, I’d probably say that the Church(general) has authority, but not as much as say, a true prophet from Old Testament times(a particular person of the general Church if you’ll permit the labeling anachronism) had when he was declaring “Thus saith the LORD…”(Prophet is infallible, the Church is not). Obviously the level of authority depends on the cohesion of the Church as whole on a particular issue, temporal closeness to the original writings, etc. I need more time on this though.

  5. Comment by The OFloinn:

    This may be useful for those who think that the prospect of Luther and Calvin condemning each other and both jabbing their fingers and crying “It’s in the BOOK!” is an edifying affirmation of Sola Scriptura.
    http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1202.htm
    Unless, of course, Augustine of Hippo was already one of the corrupted.
    + + +
    The Orthodox Church bases itself on the Holy Traditions. They do not even have the Bible, as such; but rather the book of the Gospels, the Lectionary, and several other volumes, as well as the writings of the Greek (and some of the Latin) Fathers going back to the first generation. The Bible IOW is simply part of the Traditions. (Surely, we did not think they were oral traditions!) However, one seldom hears Protestants rail against the Orthodox Church or the Ecumenical Patriarch; though one has seen Orthodox writers claim that Protestantism is just one step removed from atheism. (Oddly, Augustine said the same, long before there was Protestantism as such.)
    + + +
    Our old friend Fabio had an interesting comment touching on the matter tangentially in a post on a different topic entirely; viz., the emergence of historical thinking.
    St.Paul describes the role of this collection of old books with remarkable exactitude: “…from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 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, throughly furnished unto all good works.” The purpose of studying the Old Testament is nothing to do with the study of history, or for that matter of science: it helps faith by understanding “doctrine” (theology, philosophy), by rousing a sense of one’s inferiority or downright guilt as compared with heroes of old (“for reproof, for correction”) and to learn from them and from their collected wisdom (“for instruction in righteousness”). It is for this reason, and for no other, that Paul teaches that “all scripture is inspired by God”. Indeed, one has the sense that if he – or the other teachers who, in every tradition and culture, repeat the same concept from Europe to the Far East – were to become aware of the obsession of some moderns with factual authenticity, they would would be shocked. They certainly would regard it as a base and mean ambition: who is interested in squeezing some dumb fact that had ceased to matter four thousand years ago from books whose source of wisdom and inspiration lives for ever?)
    http://fpb.livejournal.com/481660.html

  6. Comment by DaveSomething:

    John,

    It seems to me that you have two simultaneous arguments here, one of which is convincing. I’m referring to these arguments:
    1. It is logically impossible for reliable scripture to have come from an unauthoritative church. This strikes me as a very weak argument. We can imagine an alternate universe where God did indeed, as you put it in one of these essays, beam down a complete set of scriptures to be discovered by Peter, who then managed to transmit it down the centuries via a flawed and unauthoritative body. Perhaps the transmission would require a special grace of some sort, but it is certainly logically possible, right? So I think your claim of logical fallacy is incorrect.

    Your argument regarding the Book of Solascriptura I take to be a subpoint of this argument. Here, you say that if Solascriptura testifies to its own authority, then it fails on the grounds of circularity. But I think this same point applies to Church authority, doesn’t it? If the Church is only authoritative because the Church says it is, that is an identical problem of circularity. But the Church’s actual grounds for authority is God (through Christ) – an identical claim could be made for the book of Solascriptura. It derives its authority from the action of God.

    2. The historical process of forming the scriptures seems to look like the act of an authoritative church. This, I think, is your main and most powerful point, and in my opinion you do it a disservice to subordinate it beneath the claim of logical fallacy above.

    Respectfully,
    Dave

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      “We can imagine an alternate universe where God did indeed, as you put it in one of these essays, beam down a complete set of scriptures to be discovered by Peter, who then managed to transmit it down the centuries via a flawed and unauthoritative body. Perhaps the transmission would require a special grace of some sort, but it is certainly logically possible, right?”

      It is not logically possible for an unauthorized authority to make an authoritative ruling. No one can both believe the canon of scripture based on the authority of the Church and disbelieve in the authority of the Church.

      If what you are claiming is that there is logical possibility for there to be some independent reason to give credence to scripture aside from its canonization, that certainly is logically possible. It is like the golden tablets written in Reformed Egyptian allegedly found by Joseph Smith. Unlike a Round Square, a golden tablet of Reformed Egyptian could exist, and give some independent witness to the authority of the scripture.

      The argument there is a historical one: there is an insufficient witness from Jewish or Pagan authors, Josephus or Tacitus, to establish the canon of scripture. Those who claim they themselves selected which books of the old and new testament are canonical, and they just so happened to agree with Church authorities, are acting without the same authority they say the Church lacks (and the coincidence is not to be believed).

      Here, you say that if Solascriptura testifies to its own authority, then it fails on the grounds of circularity. But I think this same point applies to Church authority, doesn’t it?

      Not at all. The scripture comes from the Church and the Church comes from Christ. It is circular to argue that the doctrine of sola scriptura is biblical until and unless we establish the authority of the Church on which the authority of the scripture rests; but the analogous case does not hold with the Church, whose claim of authority comes from Christ which comes from God. The Church does not preach ‘sola ecclesia’.

      2. The historical process of forming the scriptures seems to look like the act of an authoritative church. This, I think, is your main and most powerful point, and in my opinion you do it a disservice to subordinate it beneath the claim of logical fallacy above.

      Nonetheless, as I said in the beginning, I am not giving a theological argument, merely the argument that persuaded me.

      And, with all due respect, I do not see any flaw in the argument. If, after the revolution, the US Constitution had been written by the Emperor of China and not by the Constitutional convention of the sovereign United States of America gathered for that purpose, then the Constitution has no legal force or effect, because the Emperor of China was not sovereign and had no claim of authority to write laws. The written witness of a body which is not authoritative cannot be authoritative unless the body is an authority.

      • Comment by DaveSomething:

        “It is not logically possible for an unauthorized authority to make an authoritative ruling.”

        That seems probably true. But does a ruling need to be “authoritative” for it to be correct?

        My Dad wrote me a letter when I was a kid. I kept that letter to this day. I could give you the text of that letter, if we were both interested in such a transaction. I could hand the letter on to my son, and he could hand the letter on to his son, etc. At any point along the chain, you could get a copy of the letter from me or my descendants. We have no special authority, we just happen to have the letter.

        Why couldn’t the same thing be true of the scriptures?

        And I don’t think you got my point about the authority of scripture or church. You say that scripture cannot be authoritative on its own power, because that’s circular. I agree, but pointed out that the same argument applies to the church – the Church cannot be authoritative on its own power; it must derive its authority from Christ. In principle, scripture could have that same power – it could derive its authority from God rather than from itself. That breaks it out of the circular loop in the same way that you break the Church out of the circular loop.

        • Comment by Andrew Brew:

          The question here is not whether you have authority ( to do what? Pass on the letter? Say what your father meant by it?) but whether your father had the authority to write the letter to you in the first place.

          If a claim were made for the New Testament such as is made by Mohammed or Joseph Smith, your argument would have force. Since nobody has ever claimed that the NT was not written by early Christians, that remains the question: did they have authority to write down what they knew?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I did get the point and I answered it. The doctrine of sola scriptura is illogical because it assert that scripture is authoritative on the ground that scripture said so, as if scripture sprang out of the brow of Zeus like Athena, fully armed and ready for battle. The Church on the other hand does not assert that the Church is authoritative because the Church says so. The Church’s position is precisely the same as your parable of yourself and the letter from your father.

          Now, all you need to add to the parable is that the letter contains a command or a commission which your father commanded you and your children to do. Let us pretend the letter is a last will and testament repeating your father’s wishes concerning the disposition of his property, for example. In a case where someone gives a command, especially a command meantto be carried out by a second party, the question of whether or not the second party acts beyond his authority cannot be avoided.

          To make the analogy perfect, we must further suppose that there was some oral commands, some shared family decisions or family traditions known to you and to your father without which the letter makes no sense. Let us say there are references in the letter to some of the things you and your father did together. “I bequeath the lake on whose shore I proposed to your mother to go to your stepsister and to her heirs, including all fishing and mineral rights, provided she never cuts down my favorite tree.” No one but you, let us say, knows which lake and which tree is meant. Suppose further that he told you orally that you were to be the executor of the will, or, better yet, suppose it was the custom of the family that the eldest male be the executor of the will.

          At that point, if someone, let us say the stepsister, disputes the chain of custody of the letter, or needs you to explain some obscure reference or in-joke you shared with your father, then you would be in the same position as the Church disputing matters with a heretic.

          The letter cannot simply be “true” without being authoritative precisely because it contains a command and a dispensation. It orders you and the stepsister to do something with the Father’s property. You interpret the letter one way (the same way such letters have always been interpreted in all your family history) and she interprets it to mean the letter was written for her to be executor, and to select the largest lake, no matter where father proposed to mother. The spot is not otherwise identified, and your stepsister claims ‘sola epistola’ is a new doctrine the family should follow, so that no one’s indpedent recollection or diary entries identifying which lake is meant can be admitted into the dispute.

          Then she gets the King of England to rob you and shoot your dog, burning down half the house in the process.

          The idea that the letter is self-explanatory is absurd. The chain of custody of the letter is paramount, especially if the stepsister is claiming that you are no longer the executor of the will, indeed, no longer in the family at all, due to allegations that you misinterpreted the letter, or wasted the property, or did some crime that should impeach you as executor.

          So, to put it simply, the answer is no. The question of authority — whether the letter is valid or a forgery, and whether you have authority to interpret and execute its provisions or not — defines the nature and the outcome of the dispute.

    • Comment by Richard A:

      Sorry for hopping into the discussion late.

      DaveSomething, we can imagine a parallel universe in which that may have happened, but we live in this universe where a dispute would immediately break out as to why this collection of writings held by this hot-headed fisherman should be considered normative for all humanity.

      This is one of the frustrations of disputing this question with ‘Bible Christians’, and it’s related to Mr. Wright’s ahistoricity argument. It swiftly boils down to a speculation on the best way for God to deliver His revelation, to a frustration that He did not in fact do it that way, to a concerted effort to demonstrate that, as it turns out, He did do it the way I thought all along He should have done it. How fortunate for me; how unfortunate for the last fourteen centuries of deluded Christians who got it wrong.

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