Review of Trenham, Rock and Sand. Part 1: Historical

The courtly Eastern Orthodox convert from Presbyterianism Josiah Trenham wrote this book with a three-fold purpose: (1) to summarize Protestant doctrine and practice for Orthodox readers (hereafter: EO) as sympathetically as possible; (2) to show areas of overlap between EO and Protestantism; and (3) to summarize the proper EO stance toward Protestant doctrine, i.e. show where Protestantism is wrong in several particulars. An interview with him on the same book can be found here (part 1 and part 2). In a followup post, I will interact more in detail with our heresies outlined in (3), viz.

    • sola scriptura
    • filioque
    • monergistic salvation

Here, I will summarize and comment on the success of (1), the historical origins.

Protestantism is summarized under the rubrics of its five alleged main branches: Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist, and Evangelical. I want to criticize this taxonomy, but that is best deferred until a bit later. One general criticism is that the assertions about the chief movers are often not footnoted at all, or merely documented by reference to secondary sources, so this makes it hard to track down context. Occasionally, undocumented assertions are what we know to be false; for example (p. 85) “The slogan, ecclesia reformata semper reformanda is articulated by all the churches of the Reformation.” The PC(USA) does affirm this slogan, in book of order F-2.02, but this is certainly a post-liberal accretion. The arch-bishop of the dissident congregational group known as CREC claims it (D. Wilson, “Reformed” is not Enough, p. 13). It is also true that ignorant writers in the orthodox Protestant churches can be found bandying the expression around, even in my own OPC. But it is not official. Its first utterance was long after the Reformation. One writer found on the ELCA website claims it was coined by Karl Barth, though I have seen a citation earlier than Barth somewhere. At any rate, Father Trenham’s assertion is false. It is not the case that expression “is articulated by all the churches of the Reformation.”

A second general criticism is persistent ignoring of scholarly interactions from Protestant sources. For example Robert Letham’s Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective (orig. published 2007), in which Letham treats the subject with erudition and sympathy, and proposes solutions. This is not even mentioned, let alone interacted with. Trenham’s silence conveys a clear message: we are not interested in discussion or point-counterpoint; we want unconditional surrender. Trenham is willing to survey and summarize, while remaining firmly in control and muttering anathemas (e.g. “damnable heresy” in connection with our saying filioque, p. 174). I realize that this follows from their starting point of being the one and only true church. However, it is a non-starter when engaging with Protestants that are well-informed and desirous of finding the truth on these matters, and who genuinely wish for reunion with other branches of the Church.

Now on to the matter. The treatment of Luther seems generally accurate, though it leaves out the most important thing: Luther’s central existential crisis that eventually found resolution in Justification by Faith Alone, namely his tortured conscience that could find no relief in confession and absolution. This is a serious lacuna. Instead, the narrative jumps to the Indulgence problem and the 95 theses. Trenham finds nothing in the 95 theses that an EO would not agree with. His main criticism is that Luther made the hasty generalization that all Councils err, rather than realizing that only the post-schism Councils err, and that, just by virtue of separation from the proto-church found in EO. However, I do not think Luther said that all Councils err. He says, for example, in the work On the Councils and the Churches

So, too, it was said of the Nicene Council, that its decree existed before it and remained after it. The decrees of the true councils must remain forever, and they have always remained, especially the chief articles, because of which they came into existence and got the name of councils. 

It is fair to point out that Luther emphasizes truth rather than ecumenical authority per se, and main point rather than every jot and tittle. But this is different than saying he affirmed all councils err. Likewise, WCF says only that councils may err, and that many (but not necessarily all) have (WCF 31.3).

After asserting that the foundational error was thinking that an ecumenical council could possibly err, the main two criticisms harp on the indulgence the Lutherans granted to the bigamy of Phillip of Hesse, and Luther’s “breaking his vow of celibacy” in marrying Katy. Then he adds that “Luther was a radical and forced a terrible breach in western Christendom.” This we deny. It was the epicurean pope John Medici and his successors that forced the “terrible breach.” Luther was innocent here, and he was not a radical.

The situation with Phillip is opportunistic and not very germane to the points of contention. On the one hand, Roland Bainton concedes it was a mistake: and mistakes can be made without invalidating an entire movement. On the other hand, it seems to me that it is a debatable question as to whether polygamy cannot be conceded in unusual circumstances, especially when dealing with the head of state. So raising this issue in a book of this kind seems like a distraction.

Even if you show that polygamy is always and in every circumstance wrong, there are several hurdles that must be ascended to use this against Lutheranism. 1. Was it just ordinary infirmity, or a concession that is endemic to the theology? 2. What authority did Wittenberg have over Hesse anyhow? 3. Can an alliance only be entered into with partners that are squeaky clean morally in every department?

Likewise, Fr Trenham is all in with the concept of “consecrated celibacy,” but using this as a critique of Luther is question-begging. We deny that I Cor. 7 can be interpreted to sanction taking such an oath. If one has the gift, then an oath is unnecessary; and if one does not have the gift, such an oath is unlawful. There is a difference between swearing to your own heart, and still doing it (Ps. 15:4), vs an intrinsically unlawful oath. But Trenham says “there is no Church without monasticism” (p. 24), including presumably the celibacy oath. Clearly, there was a church without monasticism in Acts. If that is official EO teaching, then I think that error alone is enough to rule out the infallibility of the EO church.

There is perhaps an editing problem in this section, in that after discussing his issues with the Augsburg Confession, he states (p. 33) “It is simply historical fact that even the most conservative Reformed churches have been unable to maintain a strict adherence to their confessions” and cites an anecdote from his own participation in the PCA as proof. But the Reformed churches are not subscribed to the Augsburg Confession. Moreover, the assertion is false. There are a number of Reformed churches that maintain strict adherence to their confessions. We too criticize the PCA for its laxness.

The main burden of the chapter on Zwingli appears to be the tragic Marburg Conference, which demonstrates that “they could not come to an agreement about the significance of the most important sacrament in the Christian faith and the traditional center of divine worship.” This disagreement “would be the very headwaters of a river of Protestant disagreement and theological disunity that would only morph into a dizzying number of Protestant denominations and conflicting confessions of faith right up until the present day.” (p. 50). But there are really only three views on this subject within Protestantism (i.e. not “a dizzying number”) and a maximally sympathetic view would reveal that all the non-anabaptist views (more on this anon) often reveal more of a verbal than actual disagreement. 

Moreover, on Trenham’s own view, why is it even important to “get the Eucharist right” with exacting precision in one’s Confession? For, where has the EO officially defined its understanding of the Eucharist in a binding document? A sympathetic criticism would suggest that Luther and Zwingli should have followed in the EO footsteps and not tried to define the Eucharist in a technical sense at all.

I will skip over the chapter on the Anabaptists, except to observe that it is incoherent to count these groups as Protestants, i.e. in the same camp as us, while also criticizing our founders for approving of their execution! This is more absurd than if we lumped the Nestorian churches in as part of the EO: we could do so with greater justification, since the EO bishops did not even advocate for their execution as far as I know. But suppose we wrote an equivalent book and insisted on including the Nestorian churches as a branch of EO. Or the Armenian National Church. Then against the protests, we say, “well they didn’t affirm sola scripture; they claim immediate continuity with the apostles; they have a similar liturgy; and who are we to adjudicate your internal squabbles?” I will expand this insight below.

He grants Calvin’s exemplary work on commentaries (74-75). Beyond, that, however, there is not much good apparently. The chapter suffers from little throw-away gossipy tidbits (e.g. that Geneva gave him a large salary — how do we know this? what about his expenses? what about his own testimony that he would be leaving very little behind as an estate?). There is also a recurrent damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t theme — on the one hand, he was a dictator (72-73); on the other hand, he can be criticized for acquiescing too easily to the authorities (p. 74). As in the chapter on Luther, the cheap trick of saying someone argues against X because X is not “his” position is frequently utilized (e.g. p 77). You hear this rhetorical trick used a lot today because of the relativism and poisonous post-modernism that the baby boomer generation imbibed so deeply. Luther and Calvin argued against positions they found to be out of accord with Scripture. You could say, “against positions out of accord with ‘their’ interpretations,” but that utterly misses the point in a poisonous way. As if they just “came to” their position, and then opposed others just because the opponent disagreed with themselves. It confuses first order discourse with second order discourse. And note that this trick can be used by anyone, any time with equal (in)validity. “St Photius lashed out against the filioque just because it differed from his position,” etc. etc. 

An interesting obiter dictum is that Reformed churches are “very ugly” (81). Now in the case of my own denomination, the OPC, I concede that many of our churches are quite ugly. However, even in making this judgment, the sympathetic critic will take into account the plundering that took place by the apostate PCUSA at the time we were kicked out for orthodoxy. It takes a lot of money to build a beautiful building. But the early American Reformed churches are quite beautiful, in harmony with the American aesthetic of simple elegance. In contrast, I find the EO churches with their spires and onions to be gaudy and even somewhat Mohammedan in their “look.” They disrupt the American lines in ways that I would call ugly, at least in our context. In Moscow, they look okay; in Peoria, not so much. The EOs simply transplant their own idiosyncratic aesthetic into an alien context. I do not agree they are beautiful. (The catholic gothic cathedrals are something else.)

As a side note, this raises a point that I think is a serious obstruction to being able to further consider union with the EO churches: in addition to the alleged “faith of the Holy Fathers,” they bring an awful lot of specific ethnic baggage along with, usually seen even in the name chosen. We have no intention of becoming Greeks, or Russians, or Ukrainians, or Syrians, or Egyptians. What an indigenous American Orthodox church would look like has yet to be seen.

I will leave the chapters on the Anglican church and the Catholic counter-reformation for the readers’ own perusal, lest this review become too prolix — except to note that characterizing the latter as a flowering “in answer to the Protestant aggression” (p. 115) is quite tendentious, and the exact opposite of our view of matters.

The chapter on the Evangelicals calls for some comments. Every idiosyncratic and crackpot group is pulled in under this rubric. The American church scene over the last century or so is indeed deplorable. It has come to be that a mushroom church can spring up anywhere there is enough moist soil and sunshine. However, there are two currents feeding the evangelical movement that need to be more sharply distinguished and developed.

1. No doubt the Second Great Awakening contributed a lot to this ethos. If Trenham interacted with the Reformed Church (and probably, the Lutheran and Anglican ones as well) with more focus, he would realize that we deplore the Finneyan revivals as spurious, which left “burned out districts” in their wake. They were fake, and we suspect many of their successors are fake. 

2. The still-orthodox Reformed churches do not self-identify as “evangelical,” except in a very specific sense that is probably only still remembered by baby boomers. Here is a quick summary of that history. In the early twentieth century, the mainline churches apostatized, and the internal reaction rallied around the “Five Fundamentals,” which came to define Fundamentalism. Those five fundamentals were

    • inerrancy of Scripture
    • divinity of Christ
    • virgin birth
    • substitutionary atonement
    • literal resurrection

I know that Fr. Trenham might quibble with the fourth bullet, but the others? Can we get an olive branch on the basic legitimacy of the fundamentals?

Then, in the fifties, there was a movement by Carl Henry, Billy Graham, and others to maintain the Fundamentals but with a kinder, gentler face, and more cultural engagement. That, and only that, is what evangelical means in our circles in a positive sense, and this aspect is not skillfully analyzed in this book. 

Conclusion

Even on his own terms, Trenham fails to thread the needle to show weaknesses in our view. The problem is the fallacy of composition. He munges groups together as Protestant, then thinks the whole comes under attack with problems in any part.

The problem is in trying to win the debate by clever statement of definition. Worse yet, he does not even give the definition. This is a serious fault in the whole project. We can only guess that Protestantism is defined by him as either

    • anyone that breaks fellowship with the apostolic trunk, or
    • anyone holding to sola scriptura

But are either of these adequate? To the first suggested definition: then the Coptic, Armenian, and Nestorian Churches need to be identified as Protestant; but then Fr. Trenham needs to add chapters for them: which would make the thesis ridiculous. Moreover, Luther’s break was with the Roman Catholic Church — and does Fr. Trenham grant that Roman Catholic is the apostolic trunk? (For it was from that trunk that Lutheranism and the Reformed emerged.) (And deferring for the moment that Luther didn’t break, he was broken off by Medici.) If yes, will he continue to make that concession when he turns his artillery to the Roman Catholic fellow-apostolic-trunk? But if not, he will need to expand the first criterion to say “…or with any branch already broken.” But then, he should include Quakers, Socinians, and cultists as Protestants — which he would probably be happy to do, but the point is, he didn’t — probably because the plausibility of the project would have been vitiated. 

Dabney reported that the PCUS in 1871 formally committed to a “policy of non-recognition” of the Cambellite societies, i.e. effectively declared them to be outside the church (Discussions, vol. 1, p. 349). Would that our orthodox denominations would repeat this precedent for any number of modern “Protestant” denominations that are far worse off than they were. The point though is that attempting to lump all these groups under a common label is both logically fallacious, and does not correspond to a distinction that we recognize.

To the second suggestion: First, there are different nuances in the definition of sola scriptura. The Anglican 39 articles says Scripture “contains all things necessary to salvation” (Art. 6) but leaves a large area open to tradition. The Presbyterian WCF add to Scripture’s sufficiency “all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life” and clarifies “is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.“ The Methodist church grants the primacy of Scripture for establishing doctrine, but quickly adds the “interpretive” triad of experience, tradition and reason. It seems like that definition is far closer to the EO position than to the Reformed.

It only gets worse if you fast-forward to the present. Here, a vast swath of groups that Father Trenham picks out as Protestant do not hold to sola scriptura in the historical sense. 

To drive the point home, suppose we grant the sola scriptura connotative definition of Protestant; then let us define the complement of that set. The modern Anglicans have effectively neutralized the 39 Articles by often listing them as (mere) “historical document.” I cannot find anything on the official website or google search indicating that ordinands are required to subscribe to them. The PC(USA) mentions “scripture” 17 times in their form of government, but never in a way that could be construed as the principle of sola scriptura — and no orthodox person of any camp could possibly accuse them of following sola scriptura. 

And so, similarly for the other apostate “Protestant” denominations.

Thus, we propose defining denotatively

Protestant = {OPC, PCA, RCUS, LCMS, WELS, …}

Anti-Protestant = {EO, RC, PCUSA, ELCA, Quakers, Anglicans, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses…}

Now, I write a book called “Rock and Sand” (or maybe: “Smoke and Mirrors”) about the “Anti-Protestant Church,” with chapters on Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, mainline Presbyterians, Quakers, Anglicans, and Mormons. So the proof that EO is false is the 48,000 groups that alongside them reject sola scriptura, not to mention the manifest heresies cropping up all over the place in that group.

Do you see the problem? You can’t just define your way to a critique, let alone a solution.

The TOC objection to Sola Scriptura

If I estimate it correctly, most of the churchist attacks on sola scriptura are based on the thesis that without an authoritative church, it is every man with his Bible and his own private interpretation; no one could know what the right interpretation is; we could never have one holy catholic church; and Protestantism’s 26,000 denominations (or 35,000, or 48,000, or whatever number is alleged today) is all the proof we need of the impossibility of sola scriptura. [Note: by churchist I am trying to find a term that covers both EO and RC polemics. I thought of prelatic, but prelacy need not be founded on a position that denies sola scriptura, at least formally. I hope my neologism is not deemed to be offensive or provocative.]

There are many bobs and turns to the point-counterpoint that are set in motion with this class of attack. James White has brought many good points to bear in this battle, though his own anabaptist convictions leave him vulnerable at a couple of points where a sound ecclesiology would help a lot. For example, given a proper ecclesiology, there are really only, what, maybe a couple dozen Protestant denominations, and as many of the “divisions” have to do with language and national settlement as fundamental disagreement on interpreting Scripture.

But my interest in this essay is to focus on a second class of artillery that is being brought out with regularity, which is similar to the first yet quite distinct. That is, they press the question, “how would you even know what Scripture is unless the Church defined it for you?” This is summarized pithily in the conundrum: your Bible has a Table of Contents (hereafter: TOC); but where in Scripture is the TOC to be found? Scripture alone cannot even establish its own contents: the church is necessary for this. Therefore, it is not even a coherent doctrine. (e.g. Patrick Madrid, Michael Lofton, Jay Dyer, [about a minute or two each] and Jimmy Akin). Jason Stellman talked a lot about the TOC problem in the aftermath of his conversion (prior to his full apostasy).

All of the churchists are impressed by this conundrum. Jay Dyer is so confident of it that he won’t let a Protestant make even one point on any subject unless and until he, there and then, gives an answer to the conundrum to Jay’s satisfaction (or here). 

R. C. Sproul seems to have yielded to its force by conceding that the TOC is a fallible guide to infallible revelation. 

But that is surely inadequate.

Note that this conundrum is different not only from the interpretive question (which is outlined in the first paragraph), but also different from the question of whether there is an oral tradition in addition to Scripture.  In short, there are a variety of attacks on sola scriptura, which should be sharply distinguished:

    • not possible because of need for interpretation
    • there exists a second repository of apostolic teaching (e.g. liturgy or Tradition); hence it is not sola
    • there is a continuing source of infallible teaching, such as the consensus of the bishops, the magisterium or pope
    • it is impossible without the TOC, and the TOC does not come from Scripture; therefore, sola scriptura is self-contradictory, since another source of authority is required even for its statement

The focus here is only on the TOC objection. Of course, the TOC objectors are also going to hold one or more of the first three bullets; but here, the burden is to unpack and expose the TOC objection. I will gather the argument under rubrics for digestibility. (Note: this essay only addresses the NT canon question. The Apocrypha is properly a question of OT canon.)

1. Tu quoque

Where is the TOC listing indicating which ancient Christians we are to regard as “fathers”? (for objectors that hold to the fathers as exemplifying one or more of the first three bullets). 

Of course, you can buy a multi-volume set of books with titles like “the church fathers.” But this is analogous to the TOC: how did the editors know which authors to include as fathers?

I suppose the answer would be something like this: in the course of time, a kind of consensus develops whereby some authors are set aside, others ratified by virtue, if nothing else, of being copied, manuscript to manuscript (but who granted this kind of authority to the intuition of the copyists?) Every so often, a convocation or Council is called whereby positions are staked out that ratify certain earlier authors (but in every respect? or just as pertaining to the question being debated?) At length, volventibus annis, we reach the present, where there is a general inherited consensus that certain authors are to be venerated as fathers, others as heretics. (But why privilege the trunk that happens to lead to us?)

What this reflection shows is that an appeal to the “fathers” to vouchsafe a “tradition” can only be sustained in terms of Christianity as a complete system of truth. A piece-meal or foundational appeal to them, or it, cannot be sustained without question-begging. Which also brings us full circle back to the role of Scripture in Christianity as a system of truth.

2. Non-falsifiable

Suppose it were discovered that one of the “books” of the Bible indeed contained the list of 66. Would this satisfy our opponents?

Obviously not. That list would only be authoritative if it were already determined that that book was God-breathed. It would be question-begging.

This should give our opponents pause: they are asking for something that would not satisfy them even hypothetically.

3. Inherently impossible to know a Word from God without church?

If they are saying it is impossible for verbal revelation to be known as such without the church, then they are asserting that there is no possible world where such is the case. 

But this is far-fetched. Of course there is a possible world where God speaks, and men hear it and understand. Just as in a possible world, a father can speak, and his family knows he has spoken and knows the content of what he has spoken.

The objection is a metaphysical argument for impossibility similar to the Greatest Rock argument used by naive atheists. Can God create a rock so large that he could not lift it? If so, he is not omnipotent; if not, then he is not omnipotent; one or the other must be the case; therefore, he cannot exist. (I knew a Chinese woman who said this argument was taught to them in their government schools.)

Every Christian knows there is something wrong with this argument, and he knows he is within his rights to continue believing in God, even if he cannot identify the fallacy in the Greatest Rock argument.

4. Sartre’s objection

Moreover, we know (3) is wrong because, at certain times, men have validly recognized the voice of God in our world, the actual world. 

Sartre asked, how did Abraham know it was the voice of God that commanded him to sacrifice Isaac? 

The answer is: somehow he knew. If he did not know, then nothing about the story makes sense. Then nothing in Genesis makes sense. Then redemption makes no sense, the Son did not come as a sacrifice for sin, and there is no Apostle Paul explaining the gospel. 

We don’t need to know the mechanics of how Abraham knew. That he knew, is part of the package. It is a system of truth that is at stake here.

Frege argued that we know the sense conveyed by our words, even if we can’t explain how. Otherwise, language could not be passed on from one generation to the next. But language is passed on from one generation to the next.

It is a programmatic truth that Abraham heard the voice of God. It is not a deduction, nor an isolated axiom. It is part of the system of truth that we call Christianity.

Actually, lots of people heard, and understood the voice of God, without an external authority to vouchsafe it. Adam and Eve before they sinned, in the evening. The prophets, when they said “thus saith the Lord.” The Apostle Paul, on the road to Damascus. The chaps on the road to Emmaus.

5. Formal vs material

The TOC objector (especially in Jay Dyer’s aggressive form) thinks that one cannot get to first base with a confession of sola scriptura unless one has all of the inspired books, and none uninspired, and able to justify each and every one — in short, unless the canon question is already settled and known; which he thinks is only possible on the premise of church authority, and thus impossible on the premise of sola scriptura. This is a variant of (3) and (4), with the focus on the totality question, i.e. on a closed and complete canon. By hinging the argument on the totality (i.e. closed canon), he claims the idea is implausible, that any individual could attain to the exact and entire canon. The totality is either 

    • known by private, subjective conviction, in which case it is implausible to imagine that a single, universal canon could emerge, or
    • known by a publicly objective standard, in which case it rests on a standard outside the canon itself, and thus refutes sola scriptura

But sola scriptura is a formal, not material principle. That is, it says

X is Scripture —> X trumps a mere word of man

for all X. In other words, the principle stands apart from determining what satisfies the protasis concretely (let alone, the complete set of X).

This is so even if a Word of God can only be known concretely; nevertheless, as a limiting concept, sola scriptura is a formal, not material principle. It is a statement of an attribute of any Word of God vis-a-vis any competitor, transcending this particular text before me.

So the accuracy or completeness of the TOC is not even an important topic unless the formal principle is first conceded; so let our opponents grant the formal principle or give up the argument.

In short, the situation is exactly the converse of what Dyer thinks.

6. All or nothing fallacy (historical form)

As in (5), Dyer’s form of the TOC objection is that sola scriptura is meaningless until there is a settled canon, and you only can have a settled canon by mediation of the church.

But this is tantamount to saying you can’t know you have any writing that is the word of God, unless you know that you have all of them. Which is obviously false.

To have any teeth, this objection needs to add “after the canon is closed.” Obviously, for most of the time of human history, the people of God only had a fraction of what would be the eventual canon. Yet sola scriptura applied at every point, we say.  But the canon being closed is a heterogenous principle to that of knowing the voice of God.

7. TOC(t)

The churchist might concede a time dependence, as if to say, at any time t, the TOC at that time, say TOC(t), would have to be known without the church vouchsafing it, in order for sola scriptura to be true. 

But evidently, TOC(t) was known without a church to vouchsafe it, at least for some t. For example, at t = the time of our Lord’s ministry. He made frequent reference to “the Scriptures,” and did not expect to be answered with Jay’s Objection, and in fact wasn’t.

The churchists say, “then there must have been an equivalent authority that vouchsafed it, analogous to the church’s.” But this is an argument from silence, with no evidence.

8. All or nothing fallacy (insufficient-subset form)

Beyond any dispute, there is a large subset of what we call the NT canon that was recognized as the authoritative word of God, virtually from the moment the last apostle died onward; yet without any churchly pronouncement on the matter whatsoever.

This large subset would be S = {the four Gospels, Acts, the 12 undisputed letters of Paul, 1st Peter, 1st John}. 

Here we have the “catholic principle” (believed by all at all times) at work without any pronouncement or ruling of the church whatsoever! It is evidenced in the writings of the very earliest Christians.

We do not need to concede that “the remaining TOC needed the church’s pronouncement” in order to observe that S is already sufficient to establish the way of salvation and the establishing and ordering of the church. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a single doctrine in the Nicene Creed, the Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, the 39 Articles, or the Catholic Catechism, that (i) would not be entailed by S but (ii) would be by the full TOC. (A trivial exception is the inclusion of the TOC itself, as in WCF 1.2.)

The thesis is not to deny that there are inconsistencies between some of these confessions, but rather that the TOC objection does not take into account the extent to which the undisputed TOC-subset S is able to prove all the important systematic doctrine, at least in the minds of the purveyors of them.

Why there are some discrepancies between some of these confessions is a different matter: it is not related to TOC. 

This observation alone, shows that the TOC objection claims too much. You don’t need the complete TOC to confess sola scriptura and to come to know the way of church and salvation from it.

9. The deictic fallacy

It is hard to know whether Jason Stellman was really being serious with the TOC objection. (Can it be that a Westminster West graduate would not have learned these things?) There are two things that should be observed about any TOC.

(i) A TOC is deictic, not propositional.

Deictic is a word used by linguists to pick out words that point without having an inherent meaning apart from their pointing function. That one (pointing).  The deictic function is external to the thing pointed at; it is not part of the meaning of the thing referenced. 

“Which was the book you mentioned that has a complete and self-contained exposition of Newtonian Physics?” 

“Oh, that one over at the end of the shelf there.” 

“That doesn’t make sense — are you saying, the expression ‘that one over there’ is part of the exposition of Newtonian Physics?”

That is the function of the TOC.

(ii) The TOC is built up iteratively, starting with a single entry

Suppose there were only one inspired book. Then, you could hand it to someone, saying “here it is; taste and see.” That statement, “here it is,” is not part of the claimed content, namely, that the text pointed to is God-breathed.

Now, suppose there were two. Then you could staple them together, and put a yellow stickie where the second one begins. “Here it is; the second one begins at the yellow stickie.”

And so forth.

The idea that the TOC must be God-breathed for the concept to make sense simply misunderstands the function of the TOC. It is just a stapler in literary form.

I know that the TOC objection is actually a metonymy for the question, “why do you say this or that text is inspired?” However, metonymies and other figures of speech have a way of taking on a life of their own. People start to think it is actually a logical problem per se.

If there is a way to recognize any Word of God, then the TOC takes care of itself; it is not a separate problem.

10. “The fact that there was any TOC history shows Scripture is not self-attesting.”

This is really a summary of all the TOC objections, and the answer is similarly compendious.

The canon was not approved by, but imposed on the Church, by the Apostles, who received their commission to do so directly from our Lord. It is not some miscellaneous collection of traditions set to writing, which the church must then authoritatively gather together and put its stamp of approval on. No: it is imposed on her and on all men: entering the church is tantamount to receiving them.

That is a brief summary of a magnificent little book by Herman N. Ridderbos, titled Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.

Scripture proofs are provided, and a review of the relevant incidents from church history, and rebuttal of alternate theories.

Let me unpack the thesis a bit, as properly understood, it answers all objections.

(i) The person and work of Jesus Christ is the culmination of redemptive history; the way, the life, and the truth.

(ii) Part of the extended event which was the work of Jesus Christ was commissioning the apostles to teach and baptize, promising them supernatural assistance in their remembrance and proclamation.

(iii) The mode of the apostles performing their commission was tradition. Tradition in the NT (paradosis) means receiving X and then handing X on. Think of what each runner does with the baton in a relay race. It is not a vague “stuff a lot of people have been doing for a while.” No it is concrete, definite. In this case, it must have a divine origin and be handed on as apostolic tradition (= handing-on, paradosis, tradition).

(iv) Canon in the NT, or standard, rule and norm is already present from the beginning as the apostolic tradition (p. 13).

(v) The apostolic tradition = Canon was initially completely oral in form. 

(vi) This tradition/canon was gradually converted to written form.

(vii) By the time the apostles were gone, it was found that alleged oral teachings could be manufactured at will by manipulators. Hence, it was realized that the canon was closed and that only that which was written (objective, public) could be appealed to, in order to settle a controverted point.

This model actually answers all of the objections to sola scriptura in one fell swoop. The scriptures are the tradition in objective form. The tradition is imposed, not held up for approval. 

The apostolic tradition/canon establishes the church, not vice versa. 

I recommend the book to both friend and foe.

In a sense, one can truly say that there is no canon without a church testifying to it. But this is a correlation with the opposite causality to what the churchist thought.

Becoming a Christian is tantamount to accepting this tradition/canon, in that it is constitutive of the system of truth that is accepted or rejected. How one comes to hear the voice of God is biographical, and might be a little different in each person’s case. For some, it is immediate upon first exposure. For others, it starts from the testimony of a trusted authority, such as parents, or church. For others, it is a gradual realization — although, I am inclined to think that this latter condition would be equivalent to someone that is not yet in the church; there is no Jesus Christ to be united to other than the one presented in the tradition/canon; doubting one is doubting the other.

How one thinks one came to believe it need not reflect the primal reality.

The only thing is, is that for Ridderbos’ thesis to move from showing we are within our rights to confess sola scriptura, to the full position, that this is the only foundation for any knowledge whatsoever, let alone of knowing the church, requires a post-script to be added on the systematic nature of truth, circularity, and so forth. Which I hope to do anon.

The Holy Catholic Church (HCC #1)

In many traditional discussions of the church, a host of definitional distinctions are brought out right away: the church invisible vs. visible; triumphant vs. militant; representational vs. lay; and so forth. All of these distinctions have their place, and in their place are very important. Here, however, I propose to start with the primary lexical meaning of the Hebrew qahal or Greek ekklesia as “the called,” which, in the biblical context, connotes a people called out of the sinful mass of humanity to be the people of God, to worship him in truth, and be constituted as the corporate body identified with the living and true God. Continue reading