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.