Doubting Sola Scriptura: My Road to Rome, Part 1

As a young Evangelical in college, I wasn’t impressed with the Catholic arguments I encountered. On one point, though, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with my own answers either.

(photo: Register Files)

My Road to Rome: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Two of the most important books in my journey from Evangelicalism to Catholicism were a pair of older apologetical works — one anti-Catholic and one Catholic — which I found laughably unconvincing when I first encountered them in college some 30 years ago, and which I set out to refute at length.

The Protestant one was Lorraine Boettner’s infamous anti-Catholic tome Roman Catholicism, which was given to me by a Calvinist friend who is now Catholic himself. The Catholic one was Archbishop John Francis Noll’s dialogue-based catechetical work Father Smith Instructs Jackson, which an Evangelical friend received from a Catholic classmate. (My Evangelical friend also became Catholic, though as far as I know he is not Catholic today.)

I wrote pages and pages of rebuttals to both books. Roman Catholicism I felt insulted my intelligence — and insulted Catholics too — with specious arguments, false characterizations, historical misstatements and otherwise shabby arguments. I wasn’t Catholic, but I wanted to refute Catholicism fair and square, which meant being as fair to Catholics as I would want them to be to me.

But I was no more impressed with the apologetical arguments against Protestantism and for Catholicism in Father Smith Instructs Jackson, written in dialogue form between a Catholic priest and an uninstructed Protestant.

I haven’t revisited either book since my college days, and I have no idea how Archbishop Noll’s approach would strike me today. At the time, though, my impression was that his Protestant character “Jackson” was a straw-man creampuff who offered no real defense of Protestant beliefs and fell down with admiration at any argument from Father Smith, however flimsy.

Answering Father Smith

My Evangelical friend and I were both fans of the philosophical dialogues of Peter Kreeft (a Calvinist turned Catholic who personally played an important role in my conversion). Unlike Father Smith, Kreeft’s dialogues are much more robust encounters between different points of view.

So together we co-authored a rebuttal dialogue called “Martin Answers Father Smith.” (Martin’s name was not chosen at random; we also considered “Cal.”)

We had a lot of fun ripping apart what we considered the shallow arguments of Father Smith and the ignorant, sounding-board questions of Jackson. We took on Father Smith’s arguments on a range of subjects, and were very satisfied with our own rejoinders — but the one subject that gave us some pause was the subject of the canon of scripture.

Not that we were at all impressed with Father Smith’s attempt to derive the canon from the Magisterium of the Church. This argument seemed nonsensical to us.

However, we were less than entirely satisfied with our own efforts to articulate an alternative Protestant basis for the canon. How can we know definitively which books are the divinely inspired word of God and which ones aren’t?

A fallible collection of infallible books?

We went to our pastors and teachers. We read up on F.F. Bruce, D.A. Carson, R.C. Sproul and Bruce Metzger, as well as more popular authors like Josh McDowell.

To our surprise, everything that we read led us to the conclusion that, if scripture alone — sola scriptura — is our final authority, then we cannot know with certainty what our final authority is, since our final authority itself doesn’t tell us, and we have no other to appeal to.

Our best case, we found, was a probabilistic argument. That is, going by the information available to us, it seems more likely than not that these books belong in the canon, while these books don’t, and we have nothing better to go on than this.

In other words, we found ourselves facing what R.C. Sproul has termed “a fallible collection of infallible books.” And this inevitably means that we cannot dodge or dismiss the possibility that fallible Christians got it wrong — that some books in our Bible don’t belong there, or that some books that should be in were left out.

Attempts to evade this conclusion, I felt from the start, were unconvincing. For example, there are Protestants who will tell you that scripture is “self-attesting” or “self-authenticating”, so there is no need for an authoritative church to authoritatively discern (whether in ecumenical council or by a gradual, decentralized process; that made no difference to me) which books do or don’t belong in the canon.

This has never been helpful to me. Whatever “self-authenticating” means, in the end it is fallible human beings who have to discern whether or not a given book has this quality — and, very clearly, fallible Christians can and have arrived at different conclusions regarding the status of particular books. Therefore, mistakes are possible.

Canonical fuzziness

Even if all Christians agreed on all the books of the Bible, it seemed to me that the problem would still exist.

I did take some comfort in the fact that the 27 books of my New Testament were the same books historically recognized by Catholics, Orthodox, and other Eastern Churches. (I had not yet heard of the Orthodox Tewahedo Churches of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who accord some kind of canonical status to a number of little-known post–New Testament works. I did have the idea that Orthodox Christians might have a somewhat more expansive Old Testament even than Catholics, and perhaps a fuzzier one — though at this point who was I to be calling someone else’s canon fuzzy?)

The Old Testament is another story, obviously. Someone has to be wrong about Sirach and Judith and 2 Maccabees and so forth. But who? The probabilistic arguments mounted by various Protestant scholars seemed convincing to me, but did that necessarily mean they were right?

Anyway, who is to say that we mightn’t also have made mistakes about other books where we happen to agree? If some of us are wrong about Sirach or the Wisdom of Solomon, how can we be sure that all of us aren’t wrong about Ecclesiastes or Song of Solomon?

Among the arguments we reviewed, we looked at criteria like whether an New Testament–era book was written by an apostle or by someone closely associated with an apostle, and which Old Testament–era books were quoted by Jesus or various New Testament authors. 

But none of these criteria rule out error. In trying to adjudicate it after the fact, I couldn’t escape a certain sense of rationalizing toward a predetermined conclusion.

After all, who decided that whatever was written by an apostle, let alone someone “closely associated” with an apostle, was canonical? What about the disputed authorship of a number of New Testament books, not to mention Hebrews, whose authorship is wholly speculative?

What about cases where the New Testament quotes apocryphal books, most dramatically in Jude which appears to quote the Book of Enoch? (Some Evangelicals attempt to evade this, but they do so using logic they would resist if they were trying to authenticate a book they considered inspired.)

The Bible: More than a fallible consensus collection

After trying, unsuccessfully, to evade Sproul’s conclusion, I tried to make it work for me. I tried to argue that whatever holes in the canon might be left by this view, the Catholic view was far less satisfactory. I tried to argue that I would rather have a fallible collection of infallible books than an infallible magisterium that made, I felt, no sense at all.

This worked for me for a time, though after awhile I began to feel that my arguments against the Catholic view might have been a bit facile.

Eventually I came to the conclusion that Sproul’s view is inadequate: We cannot simply regard the NT canon, certainly, as a consensus collection representing the fallible human discernment of so many fallible human beings.

In principle I had to admit that I couldn’t prove that Hebrews belonged in the New Testament and that, say, 1 Clement didn’t — but in practice, when I looked at the book of Hebrews, I found it impossible to bracket it, as it were, or read it with mental footnotes and asterisks.

In some way I couldn’t fully rationalize, I found it impossible to deny or even to question the book’s authority — and this was not, I came to understand, because of any “self-attesting” or “self-authenticating” quality in the text itself.

Rather, it was the simple fact that, like the other books of the NT, the canonicity of Hebrews had become a datum of history, a reality accepted by Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

A “stealth canon” of faith

I was aware on some level that the carefully worked-out theological formulations that I accepted regarding the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of Jesus, among other things, were articles of faith that I had received from others.

I did not believe in an infallible Magisterium, but I did believe in the guidance of the Holy Spirit upon fallible Christians and Christian communities — and I believed that these formulations, which had come to be accepted in some form or other by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants, were the fruit of this guidance.

While I could defend the biblical foundations of any doctrine I believed, I knew I had not come up with any of it by myself, and it would be absurd and dangerous to wonder if perhaps such foundational articles of faith shared in common by Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox were simply wrong — that the Holy Spirit had allowed all Christians everywhere to lapse into heretical error. That way, I understood, was the path to sub-Christian sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.

To remain in doubt where no clear and long-standing consensus among Christians exists, or perhaps has ever existed, such as on the disputed Old Testament books, is one thing. Where there is division, one can question whether this communion or that has been more surely guided by the Holy Spirit.

But if one believes at all in the guidance of the Holy Spirit upon believers, then when all Christians everywhere have come to agree in recognizing the authority of certain books — or in excluding others as apocryphal — it is not a question of whether the Holy Spirit is here or there, but whether the Holy Spirit has done any guiding at all or allowed all Christian communities everywhere, right up to the present day, to lapse into error on so fundamental a point.

Martin Luther, I was well aware, had grasped this nettle. He had questioned the canonicity of various New and Old Testament books, including Hebrews, James (“an epistle of straw”), Jude, Revelation (“it is not revealing”) and Esther.

But the Protestant Reformation as a whole had not followed Luther in this, and I found his view untenable, at least for myself. I wanted no part of the Pope of Rome, but it seemed at least equally incredible to me that God should want me to be my own pope, or to sit in judgment of virtually all of Christian history and Christian communions everywhere.

As soon as I began to think this way, I was no longer quite operating under sola scriptura. I had at least implicitly acknowledged another authority, a kind of “stealth canon” of faith: a rule I would later come to know as the “Vincentian canon,” after its formulator, St. Vincent of Lerins. 

This is how St. Vincent put it: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est; “what has always, everywhere and by everyone been believed.”

My Road to Rome: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3