By What Means Does God Make Revelation to the Whole Church?
When friends and family asked why I converted to Catholicism after traipsing through the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran traditions, I struggled to give them a good answer. To be sure, I had plenty of reasons: Because for Naaman the Syrian, grace manifested itself as obedience prior to faith, and indeed, his faith was contingent upon his obedience (2 Kings 5:1-15). Because I wanted to go to confession and say out loud all the rotten things I had thought, said, and done. Because once I understood what the Catholic Church really taught, I found that I had nothing left to protest. All of these were true reasons, but what I really needed was a good one-liner. A dear friend of mine suggested the response, “It works for me.” This one makes me smile, but I’ll probably never use it, because such a response is really intended to cut off conversation, whereas I really intend to provoke it. So now I have settled on a response that should do the trick: Because I believe in the infallibility of the Bible.
Devout Protestants think that they believe in the infallibility of the Bible; the purpose of this article is to demonstrate that they do not, and cannot, so long as they remain Protestant.
Protestantism insists, in the doctrine of sola scriptura, that scripture is the only means by which God makes revelation to the whole church. Ironically, it is this very doctrine that renders the composition of the Bible both fallible and not fundamental to Christianity. This is clearly demonstrated if we treat Biblical infallibility and sola scriptura as logical presuppositions and follow each through to its necessary conclusions. Before proceeding, let us define our terms:
Scripture: Any document written by man by the inspiration of God, or any collection of such documents.
Canon: A list of all documents considered to be scripture.
Bible: A collection of all documents defined by a canon.
Infallible: Having no possibility for error.
Sola scriptura: The Protestant proposition that scripture is the only means by which God makes revelation to the whole church. Further, because scripture is the only means of revelation, it is formally sufficient. That is, all fundamental truths of Christianity are revealed in scripture, at least implicitly.
The distinction between “scripture” and “Bible” may come as a surprise, but Protestant theology requires it, as we shall see.
Let us begin with the presupposition that the Bible is infallible. (For the sake of argument, let us take “canon” to be the Protestant version, “scripture” to be those documents named by the canon, and the “Bible” to be the collection of all those documents.)
- By presupposition, the Bible is infallible.
- By definition, the Bible consists of the canon and all the documents defined by the canon.
- Because the Bible is infallible, the canon is infallible, and the individual documents named by the canon are infallible.
- Because the canon is infallible, it must have been revealed by God.
- The canon is nowhere revealed in scripture, either explicitly or implicitly.
- In revealing the canon, God has made revelation to the whole church by some means other than scripture.
- Scripture is not the only means by which God makes revelation to the whole church.
- Sola scriptura is false.
- Because the confession of Biblical infallibility leads to a denial of sola scriptura, the one who professes sola scriptura must deny Biblical infallibility, because he must deny the infallibility of the canon.
- Biblical infallibility and sola scriptura are mutually exclusive.
So there it is. If one starts with the presupposition that the Bible is infallible, one must conclude that sola scriptura is false. Because sola scriptura and Biblical infallibility are mutually exclusive, one must (logically) choose one or the other. Protestants who understand this dilemma and remain Protestant choose sola scriptura over Biblical infallibility. R.C. Sproul, a well-known reformed theologian, wrote that “the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books” (Sola Scriptura!, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Don Kistler, ed., 66). In making this statement, Sproul was quoting John Gerstner, another well-known reformed theologian. Martin H. Franzmann, a well respected Lutheran theologian, ends his book on the historical context of the New Testament with the comment, “the question of the limits of the canon may be theoretically open; but the history of the church indicates that it is for practical purposes closed” (The Word of the Lord Grows, Concordia Publishing House, 295). This line from Franzmann is cited on the website of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod as that denomination’s position on the canon (https://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=6633). Lest there be any doubt, let it be noted that “theoretically open” is code for “fallible”.
Protestants who consciously choose sola scriptura over Biblical infallibility justify the choice by asserting that they believe the canon to be inerrant without being infallible. In other words, they say that to admit that the canon is fallible is only to admit that there is a possibility for error, not that there is error. However, the conflict between sola scriptura and the Bible is more serious than they have understood. To show this, let us now presuppose that sola scriptura is right and see what that causes us to conclude about the Bible. (Again, for the sake of argument, we shall take “canon” to be the Protestant version, “scripture” to be those documents named by the canon, and the “Bible” to be the collection of all those documents.)
- By presupposition, sola scriptura is right.
- By the definition of sola scriptura, all fundamental truths of Christianity are revealed in scripture.
- Since all fundamental truths of Christianity are revealed in scripture, no belief can have all three of the following characteristics: not revealed in scripture, fundamental, and true. (In other words, if it isn’t revealed in scripture, then it can’t be a fundamental truth.)
- The definition of sola scriptura presents a dilemma for every belief that is not revealed in scripture. A belief that is not revealed in scripture must be either not fundamental or not true. Examples of beliefs that are not revealed in scripture include:
“George Washington was the first President of the United States.”
“After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to people living in North America, at which time he corrected erroneous beliefs propagated by the churches in Europe and Asia.”
“Elvis Presley faked his own death and is living incognito in a retirement community in Florida.”
The first belief is true, but not fundamental. The second belief is fundamental, but not true. The third belief is neither true nor fundamental.
- The following belief is nowhere revealed in scripture, either explicitly or implicitly: “The limits of scripture are accurately defined by the canon.”
- This belief, that the limits of scripture are accurately defined by the canon, is either not fundamental or not true.
a. If this belief is fundamental, then it isn’t true.
b. If this belief is true, then it isn’t fundamental.
And so we have two possible conclusions. The Protestant who believes that it is fundamental to Christianity that the limits of scripture are accurately defined by the canon can only conclude that the limits of scripture are not accurately defined by the canon. This conclusion is awful, but perfectly logical. The canon is not revealed in scripture. If scripture is the only means by which God makes revelation to the whole church, then the canon came to us apart from the revelation of God, which makes it a tradition of men. Of course, traditions of men can be good, even very good, but never when they bear on that which is fundamental (Matthew 15:2-3). That which is fundamental, God reveals, because we would somehow manage to screw it up. So if the canon is fundamental, but it is tradition rather than revelation, then there is simply no way that we got it right. Alternatively, the Protestant who believes that the limits of scripture are rightly defined by the canon is left only with option 6b. That is, he must not only concede that the canon is fallible, which many have seemed willing to do, but also that it isn’t fundamental to Christianity. The only way out of this terrible dilemma is to question the presupposition that brought us to it - that sola scriptura is right.
A comment on the word “fundamental” is warranted here. I have purposely left its definition vague for two reasons. First, it is a point of profound contention among Protestants, and second, the logic is valid regardless of the precise definition used. The Protestant who takes “fundamental” to mean “something upon which salvation may hinge” must concede that the canon is fallible and not something upon which salvation hinges. The Protestant who takes “fundamental” to mean “something on which the church cannot compromise for the sake of unity” must concede that the canon is fallible and something on which the church can compromise for the sake of unity. And so forth.
The best argument a Protestant can make for an infallible canon, and thus an infallible Bible, is this: each book of the Bible either 1) bears internal witness to its own infallibility or 2) derives its infallibility from the witness of another book, which in turn, bears the internal witness of its own infallibility. This is the theory of “self-authentication,” and typically John 10:4-5 is cited as support. It is a weak but plausible argument with respect to books that are presently included in the canon. (It must be remembered that many New Testament books, including Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation did not authenticate themselves to some of the earliest Christians, many of whom died for the faith.) However, self-authentication is an impossible argument with respect to books that might be missing. A “self-authenticated” canon cannot exclude the possibility that another document might turn up in the future that seems to bear witness to its own infallibility. After all, some thirteen million members of the Church of Latter Day Saints profess that they know in their hearts that the books given to Joseph Smith by the angel Moroni are truly the word of God, and they also cite John 10:4-5 as justification. It may be argued that the final verses of Revelation prohibit canonicity for any book written later, but what if archeologists find a document that appears to have been written earlier, even by one of the Apostles? Frankly, this seems a rather obvious tactical move for our enemy as the end of time draws near. How will Protestantism respond?
It should be clear by now why Protestantism must distinguish between “scripture” and the “Bible”. It is because it must confess the infallibility of the former without confessing the infallibility of the latter. The senselessness of such a position is exemplified by the following statement from the website of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:
"Luther's opinion regarding the canonicity of the Epistle of James, which in his 1522 preface to this book he called an "epistle of straw"--as well as his opinions regarding the book of Revelation--are well known. But his opinion on the canonicity of these books has no bearing on his conviction that the canonical scriptures are inspired and inerrant. Luther expressed various opinions regarding the canonicity of certain books of the New Testament, and this is of historical interest. But his commitment to the infallibility of the divine revelation given in the scriptures remained unwavering." (https://www.lcms.org/pages/internal.asp?NavID=6633, paraphrasing R.C. Sproul, Sola Scriptura!, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Don Kistler, ed., 65)
So Martin Luther, while questioning whether certain books were actually scripture, continued to affirm the infallibility of that which really is scripture. But such a defense of Martin Luther overlooks the fact that scripture is infallible by definition. To confess that “scripture is infallible” is to confess nothing more than “that which is written by the inspiration of the Creator of the universe is infallible.” Philosophically, who can disagree with such a statement? Nobody who believes in a Creator. Disagreement ensues only when we attempt to define what “scripture” is. Islam says that the books of the Koran are scripture. Protestantism says that the books of Protestant Bible are scripture. To the Protestant Bible, Mormonism adds The Book of Mormon, and Catholicism adds the deuterocanonical (apocryphal) books. Judaism says that nothing written after the birth of Christ is scripture. Some members of these religions take the liberty of defining only certain parts of traditionally accepted books as scripture – specifically, those parts which agree with their own ideas about who God is and who they are. But nobody denies that those things which are written by the inspiration of the Creator are infallible. So although Martin Luther did not waver in his commitment to the infallibility of the divine revelation given in the scriptures, such a commitment does not distinguish him from the Muslim or the Mormon.
Since scripture is infallible by definition, we can press on to more relevant questions regarding scripture. Do such documents exist? What are they? Will there be any more? Is the whole document inspired, or just some parts? Are there documents or parts that were inspired, but only contain revelation intended for people living in a certain time and place? Has the truth been corrupted by human transmission and translation? What does one do when one part of scripture seems to contradict another part? All of these questions pertain to the extent of scripture. What answers can Protestantism provide to such questions when it formally professes, in the doctrine of sola scriptura, that its very definition of what comprises scripture, the canon, is fallible and not even fundamental?
Only the Catholic Church confesses an infallible canon and an infallible Bible, and she does so emphatically. This point is graciously conceded by R.C. Sproul, again citing John Gerstner. (Sola Scriptura!, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, Don Kistler, ed., 66) The Catholic Church can logically confess an infallible canon, because she confesses other means for divine revelation to the whole church.
“So what?” says the devout Protestant. “So what if the Catholic Church formally confesses that the Bible is infallible? In practice, the Catholic Church has embraced all sorts of doctrines which overtly contradict the Bible!” I know the devout Protestant says this, because I used to say it myself.
I have three answers to this sincere question. First, many Protestants misunderstand what the Catholic Church actually teaches. The solution to this problem is as near as the closest copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). The CCC is well organized, well indexed, and explains the Catholic faith using terms that are easy to understand. Second, all the unique doctrinal positions of the Catholic Church really do have substantial Biblical support. For a thorough treatment of this subject, I highly recommend Dave Armstrong’s book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (Sophia Institute Press, 2003). Armstrong’s book is a great starting point, and it is well referenced to allow a deeper investigation into any particular topic. Finally, we live in the information age; theologians and laymen alike have unprecedented access to the writings of the earliest Christians: Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, and many others. Although their writings are by no means infallible, these men lived and died for the faith that we now enjoy. Their interpretations of scripture are of profound value to all Christians, and largely, they interpreted scripture in a way that Protestants today would deem too “Catholic”. But don’t take my word for it - read them for yourself. I highly recommend a particular CD-ROM collection: Early Church Fathers, available from www.logos.com, because this version comes with a nice search engine and exhaustive cross-referencing. There are two versions: Protestant and Catholic. The only difference between the two is that the Protestant version comes with additional commentary; there is no difference in the actual text of the early writings.
In conclusion, I wish to say that a reasonable degree of curiosity is in order here. Most Christians have a great respect for G. K. Chesterton. His book, Orthodoxy, which was published 14 years prior to his being received into the Catholic Church, stands as one of the greatest works of Christian apology ever written. All Christians should at least be curious as to what it was that drew this great Christian thinker to Catholicism. Furthermore, our God promises that if we seek truth, we shall find it. Surely this promise does not only apply when we seek in the right places, for how are we to know a priori which places are right? The promise must always apply, so long as we seek prayerfully, earnestly, and sincerely. Since we have this promise, what harm is there in giving a fair hearing to the one and only church that formally and emphatically confesses Biblical infallibility? Trust me - she’s worth a look.