I recently read Michael Patton’s post on the canon of scripture, Dave Armstrong’s response, and Turretinfan’s debate with Matthew Bellisario on sola scriptura. Before I continue, let me make it clear that I agree with sola scriptura and reject the Catholic explanation of the rule of faith. Further, I think Michael and Turretinfan did a good job overall, and were more convincing than their Catholic opponents. Nevertheless, both Michael Patton and Turretinfan made maneuvers that surprised me, and in my opinion weakened their defense of sola scriptura.
Michael Patton, in responding to the Catholic argument that without the infallible declaration of the Church, there would be no way of knowing what books belong in the canon of Scripture, replies, Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books. Why does he make this surprising move? Michael realizes the question is one of epistemology — “How do you know?” But Michael rejects absolute certainty for relative certainty: This supposed need for absolute certainty is primarily the product of the enlightenment and a Cartesian epistemology. To say that we have to be infallibly certain about something before it can be believed and acted upon is setting the standard so high that only God Himself could attain to it. Outside of mathematics and analytical statements (e.g. a triangle had three sides), there is no absolute certainty, only relative certainty. This epistemological limitation results in Michael declaring the canon fallible.
I disagree. God reveals the canon of scripture to us, because the scriptures declare themselves to be Divine. Arminius explains:
But by the very arguments by which the Scriptures are Divine, they are also [proved to be] Canonical, from the method and end of their composition, as containing the rule of our faith, charity, hope, and of the whole of our living. For they are given for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction, for correction, and for consolation; that is, that they may be the rule of truth and falsehood to our understanding, of good and evil to our affections, either to do and to omit, or to have and to want. (Deut. xxvii, 26; Psalm cxix, 105,106; Rom. x, 8, 17; Matt. xxii, 37-40; 2 Tim. iii, 16; Rom. xv, 4.) For as they are Divine because given by God, not because they are “received from men;” so they are canonical, and are so called in an active sense, because they prescribe a Canon or rule, and not passively, because they are reckoned for a Canon, or because they are taken into the Canon. So far indeed is the Church from rendering them authentic or canonical, that no assemblage or congregation of men can come under the name of a Church, unless they account the Scriptures authentic and canonical with regard to the sum or substance of the Law and Gospel. (Gal. vi, 16; 1 Tim. vi, 3, 4; Rom. xvi, 17; x, 8-10, 14-17.) (link)
Knowing the canon is simply receiving God’s word. God says “this is My Word”, and we believe Him. Other books do not declare themselves to be God’s Word, so we leave them out of the canon.
Granted this involves faith and we walk by faith, not by sight. But we can know the canon is correct in the same sense we can know any other spiritual truth. Faith and proof are alternative paths to certainty. I am not any less certain that Jesus Christ is the Son of God than I am that 2+2=4. Further, the faith part relates directly to God’s authority and only indirectly to accepting this book as God’s Word or not. The reasons we believe the 66 books are God’s Word are sufficient to know they are God’s Word, if we grant God’s authority.
Appealing to epistemological limitations at this point is unhelpful and runs the risk of removing all certainty. If we don’t accept certain axioms like our own existence or the law of identity, we cannot be absolutely certain about anything at all. This includes matters of faith (i.e. Jesus Christ is the Son of God) and matters of science (i.e. 2+2=4). But if we grant the axioms (and we must), we can demonstrate truth, including that the 66 books are the correct canon of scripture.
Turretinfan argued that “Sola Scriptura (as expressed in the Westminster standards) is properly derived from Scripture.” While the Bible claims its own infallible authority, it does not renounce all others. It does claim the sufficiency and completeness of its revelation regarding salvation, but it doesn’t claim to be “sola” in all religious matters. Instead “sola” is derived from examining other things which claim to be infallible. Since Popes and councils have contradicted themselves and scriptures, we reject their claim of infallibility. Scriptura is “sola” because it’s the last man standing. Arminius explains:
Those [new] revelations which are said to have been already made, have never yet been demonstrated in this manner (establishment of their Divinity by indubitable arguments); and it will be impossible to produce any such demonstrative evidence in support of those which, it is asserted, will afterwards occur. (link)
So while I agree with Michael and Turretinfan on sola scriptura, I disagree with them on how to explain it. Scripture, and scripture alone, demonstrates itself to be God’s Word.