I ran across an Instagram post the other day that contained a 5 point argument against Sola Scriptura (although, it was more of an argument against the Protestant conception of canon, though that was misrepresented as well). The argument was as follows:
- If Sola Scriptura is true, then all important theological data necessary for doctrine is found in Scripture.
- The canon is an important theological datum necessary for doctrine.
- The canon is NOT found in Scripture.
- Therefore an important theological datum is not found in Scripture.
- Therefore Sola Scriptura is false.
I’m going to tackle this premise by premise, demonstrating that the conclusions do not follow from the premises.
If Sola Scriptura is true, then all important theological data necessary for doctrine is found in Scripture.
This premise, so far as I can tell, is pretty much true. God has deposited all we need to know in the Scriptures. However, not “all important theological data” are found in Scripture. Many things that we would like to know are hidden from us nonetheless. Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to Yahweh our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” In this sense, Scripture does not contain all theological data necessary for doctrine, but rather all theological data necessary for us to know in this life.
The canon is an important theological datum necessary for doctrine.
At this point, the problem is confounded for the Catholics. If this statement is true (which I think it is), then an important theological datum necessary for doctrine was missing for 1500 years after the death of Christ, because the canon was not defined dogmatically by the Catholic Church until 1546. Certain regional councils (the Council of Carthage, for example) had attempted to do so, but nothing was ever set in stone. It took Luther’s challenge to the then widely accepted canon of the Council of Florence in the 15th century (an ecumenical council that sought to heal the divide between Rome and various other schismatic churches, including Eastern Orthodoxy) to spur the Church into action. Florence was not dogmatic; hence, the need to further declare the canon and anathematize those who disagreed. But while all this talk of history is of merit, what is beneficial is the consideration of the theological implications of canon, outlined in my response to the third premise.
The canon is NOT found in Scripture.
Now, this is confusing. The canon, after all, is the books that make up Scripture; so the canon is Scripture. The word “canon” means “rule” or “rod,” something by which other things are judged. But what the argument here refers to is the list of those books, as though the table of contents at the beginning of our Bibles is the inspired 67th (or 74th) book of the Bible. It’s not the list that is inspired; the Scriptures are.
It’s helpful here to differentiate between what is called Canon 1, and what is called Canon 2. Canon 1 comes into existence by necessity of God writing a book. Once God inspires something, a canon of his work comes into existence; there is no need to write it down or to have an inspired list for the canon to be in existence. What’s left to be done is for the church to recognize (not declare) what books God has written and which ones he hasn’t. Since the Scriptures by nature are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and Jesus’ “sheep hear [his] voice” (John 10:27), Scripture must needs be recognizable to those who believe.
Canon 2 is distinct from Canon 1 in that it comprises the fallible list of books that the church has recognized as God-breathed. While Canon 1 contains all the books God has written (and none of those that he hasn’t), Canon 2 contains all the books that the church has believed to be authentically inspired by God; the church may err in this, as she has throughout history (just look at the canon list of Carthage, or the church fathers who considered pseudepigraphical works like The Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas to be Scripture). However, as it has worked out in history, God’s people has always recognized the books he has written: the Jews believed the Tanakh (the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament) to be Scripture, and the church was pretty much agreed on the New Testament canon by the time Athanasius sent out his 39th Festal Letter, wherein he listed the 27 books that make up the NT canon in the order that we have them now.
So no, Canon 2 (the fallible list, i.e. table of contents) is not found in Scripture, and is not inspired of God—but considering Canon 1 is Scripture, the claim is ridiculous. I refer you to White, James R., Scripture Alone for a fuller treatment of this topic.
Therefore an important theological datum is not found in Scripture.
The conclusion does not follow from the premises.
Therefore Sola Scriptura is false.
The conclusion does not follow from the premises.
Sola Scriptura is necessary for establishing doctrine. We know what the canon is; God wrote a book, and we recognize his voice. Scripture, as it exists, is sufficient for any and all doctrine. As the canon is merely an artifact of revelation, it exists by necessity of God having written a book. Since it comprises the books of Scripture, it by definition cannot be something contained within Scripture. God chose not to inspire a list of the books of Scripture; claiming that he must have done so for Sola Scriptura to be true is erroneous.