Saturday, July 3, 2010

Fallible Collection of Infallible Scripture? Reflections on an Assertion of Sproul

Preliminary Note

Before anyone tries to send in a comment accusing me of not believing Scripture is inerrant, let me say such an accusation would be false.  I do accept Scripture as inerrant.  The issue in question is looking at RC Sproul's statement that what we have is a fallible collection of Infallible books of Scripture.  It is my belief that this argument actually weakens the claim of the inerrancy of Scripture when we look at his claim logically.


RC Sproul has argued several times that the collection of Scripture we have is a fallible collection of infallible books.  He has said:

Though Protestants believe that God gave special providential care to ensure that the proper books be included, he did not thereby render the Church itself infallible.  Protestants also remind Roman Catholics that the Church did not "create" the Canon.  The church recognized, acknowledged, received, and submitted to the canons of Scripture…

…The church did not create the canon, but merely recognized the books that bore the marks of canonicity, and were therefore authoritative within the Church (Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, pages 22-23)

Defining Fallibility and Infallibility

Now, to argue that the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books (which he says on page 22 of his Essential Truths) must recognize this: To be fallible means "capable of making mistakes or being wrong" according to the OED, while infallible means "incapable of making mistakes or being wrong" according to the same.

Denying Infallibility

Now I have seen several blogs where it attempts to argue that what was meant was that Sproul was merely denying the infallibility of the Church.  One blogger writes: "the heart of the statement is only meant to point out that the church is not infallible."  He cites Sproul as saying [yes, I am aware that this is reporting secondhand]:

Rome believes the church was infallible when it determined which books belong in the New Testament. Protestants believe the church acted rightly and accurately in this process, but not infallibly.

From this concept, the blogger in question argues:

The Church was used by God to provide a widespread knowledge of the Canon. The Holy Spirit had worked among the early Christian Church in providing them with the books of the New Testament. This same process can be seen with the Old Testament and Old Testament believers. The Old Testament believer 50 years before Christ was born had a canon of Scripture, this despite the ruling from an infallible authority.

The problem is, this is really arguing in a circle while avoiding the point.  Did God use the Church in a way where the Church could have made an error, or did God prevent the Church from teaching error?

Sproul's Definition of what makes a Book of Scripture Canonical

Sproul lists three things (see page 23) which make Scripture canonical:

  1. They must have apostolic authorship or endorsement
  2. They must be received as authoritative by the early church
  3. They must be in harmony with the books with which there is no doubt.

We can point out inconsistencies with all three of these points based on Sproul's central contention that the collection of Scripture is fallible:

  1. If those who endorse it are fallible, it means this criterion is fallible
  2. if the decision of the early church is fallible, this criterion is fallible
  3. If Criteria 1+2 are fallible, this judgment is fallible (because the endorsement of the books could be false)

[Edited to fix a typo which entirely changed the meaning from what I meant]

What a "Fallible" Collection Means

If God did lead the Church to gather together the canon of the New Testament, and God kept the Church from erring on that canon, it means the canon is infallible and it follows that the Church must have been without error (infallible) at least in that point under contention.  If the Church was without error in this, was it without error in other teachings?  Remember, Catholics do not simply believe the Church cannot err by her own authority or merit.  We believe the Church is inerrant because Christ protects her from error.

However, if the Church was not protected from error when God guided them in declaring the canon, then it opens up many problems — such as, how do we know God protected the human authors of Scripture from error?

Use of the Euler Circles to demonstrate Sproul's problem

If all A is in B, and all B is in C, it logically follows that all A is in C.

euler-all-a-is-b-is-c(If all A is B and All B is C it follows that All A is C)

If we let A be List of Scripture, let B be the Scripture itself and C things that are infallible, we have this syllogism:

  1. The [List of Scripture] was [Shows that which is Scripture] (All [A] is [B])
  2. [Scripture] is [infallible] (All [B] is [C])
  3. Therefore [The List of Scripture] is [infallible] (Therefore All [A] is [C])

So long as [A] tells us Infallibly that [B] belongs in [C], we can know that the books of [Scripture] are [Infallible].  If [A] cannot tells us infallibly that [B] belongs in [C], we cannot know [B] is a part of [C].  We can only say we think [B] is a part of [C].

Due to this, Sproul's argument can be demonstrated as follows:


This gives a form error in logic however.  If we keep to the categories above (If we let A be List of Scripture, let B be the Scripture itself and C be Infallible), then if No [A] is [C], we can only say at best that we think some [B] is [C].  If No [A] is [C], we can't know that All [B] is [C], because we can't know if the list of Scripture [A] is correct or not.

If We Don't Know the List is Free of Error, We Can't Know if All the Books Belong in the Bible

So in order to deny that the Church was at least protected from making error in the decision of what belongs in Scripture, one has to say we don't know whether all the books in the Bible we have belong there and we don't know if some of these books excluded ought to have been included.  Why is this?

Because, if the list of Scripture is capable of being wrong, it follows there is a possibility that some books might be in the canon wrongly or else that some books were wrongly excluded.  A possibility is not the same as a certainty of course, but it does admit it could be wrong.  Remember, Sproul's designation of "fallible" means "capable of making mistakes or being wrong.

So… how can we know that the Church decision as to what books to admit as Scripture to be read within the Church did not wrongly exclude certain books (as certain modern Gnostics try to argue today) or else that certain books should have been excluded (as Protestants insist concerning the Deuterocanonical books which they call apocrypha)?

If the decision was fallible, but we did get all the books right, then basically the Church got lucky… but we can't know that it did get lucky.  However, if God inspired the Church to include only the books He made inerrant, then the decision was infallible.  The Church has then taught infallibly at least once, because it was protected from error at least once.

Prior to Church Declaration, There Were Disputes over Canon

Sproul does point out Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2+3 John, James, Jude and Revelation (he could have also mentioned the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John) were all disputed at one time (Eusebius spoke of disputes in the early 4th century).  1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas and Didache were considered to be canon by others (Clement of Alexandria made reference to them in the 2nd century).  However, he never gets around to the fact that what was accepted by decree of the Church settled the dispute (which fits his criteria #1 and #2 in the section headed "Sproul's Definition of what makes a Book of Scripture Canonical" above).

Why Sproul's Claim Puts Scripture in Doubt

The Church made the decision to include the New Testament canon as we know it today, rejecting the books which we recognize were not Scriptural.  Now, if the canon is fallible, we cannot know whether Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2+3 John, James, Jude and Revelation were rightly included, and we cannot know whether 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas and Didache should have been excluded.  If the decision was fallible, it might be right (if God did only inspire the books within the canon) but if it is a fallible decision, we are back again to the point that we can't know that the Church decided rightly.

This makes the claim of Sproul counterproductive.  If we can't know the canon is infallible, we can't know what parts are inspired.  We can't know who is right between the Catholics who claim the Bible has 73 books and the Protestants who claim 66 books.  So, logically we cannot accept the Bible as we have it as having only inspired titles as well as all the inspired titles unless we accept that the Church decree was infallible.  Either the Catholic Bible has 7 books too many or the Protestant Bible has 7 books too few.

A Look At Augustine's Quote

Catholics often cite St. Augustine's quote "I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."  Some question whether or not it is taken out of context (most say they cannot find the passage).  It can indeed be found in Contra epistolam Manichaei (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental) Chapter 5 #6, and reads in context (I've underlined the quote so you can see it in context):

6. Let us see then what Manichaeus teaches me; and particularly let us examine that treatment which he calls the Fundamental Epistle, in which almost all that you believe is contained. For in that unhappy time when we read it we were in your opinion enlightened. The epistle begins thus:—“ Manichaeus, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the providence of God the Father. These are wholesome words from the perennial and living fountain.” Now, if you please, patiently give heed to my inquiry. I do not believe Manichaeus to be an apostle of Christ. Do not, I beg of you, be enraged and begin to curse. For you know that it is my rule to believe none of your statements without consideration. Therefore I ask, who is this Manichaeus? You will reply, An apostle of Christ. I do not believe it. Now you are at a loss what to say or do; for you promised to give knowledge of the truth, and here you are forcing me to believe what I have no knowledge of. Perhaps you will read the gospel to me, and will attempt to find there a testimony to Manichaeus. But should you meet with a person not yet believing the gospel, how would you reply to him were he to say, I do not believe? For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church.  So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichaeus, how can I but consent? Take your choice. If you say, Believe the Catholics: their advice to me is to put no faith in you; so that, believing them, I am precluded from believing you;—If you say, Do not believe the Catholics: you cannot fairly use the gospel in bringing me to faith in Manichaeus; for it was at the command of the Catholics that I believed the gospel;—Again, if you say, You were right in believing the Catholics when they praised the gospel, but wrong in believing their vituperation of Manichaeus: do you think me such a fool as to believe or not to believe as you like or dislike, without any reason?

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV. St. Augustine: The writings against the Manicheans and against the Donatists. (130).

What St. Augustine is saying is, he holds Scripture as trustworthy and authoritative because he finds the Church itself to be trustworthy and authoritative.  The Church also tells him that he acknowledges the authority of the Church in teaching that Manichaeus (as an aside, Manichaeus is sometimes known as Manes or Mani in some historical documents) is not to be seen as a valid teacher, so an appeal to Scripture against the Catholic Church is to appeal against the assurance that Scripture has authority.  However, when considering the argument that the Church was right (once) when it called Scripture authoritative, but not at other times, He demands proof for why he should do so.

St. Augustine goes on in a solid rebuke of those who appeal to Scripture against the Church, saying:

It is therefore fairer and safer by far for me, having in one instance put faith in the Catholics, not to go over to you, till, instead of bidding me believe, you make me understand something in the clearest and most open manner. To convince me, then, you must put aside the gospel. If you keep to the gospel, I will keep to those who commanded me to believe the gospel; and, in obedience to them, I will not believe you at all. But if haply you should succeed in finding in the gospel an incontrovertible testimony to the apostleship of Manichaeus, you will weaken my regard for the authority of the Catholics who bid me not to believe you; and the effect of that will be, that I shall no longer be able to believe the gospel either, for it was through the Catholics that I got my faith in it; and so, whatever you bring from the gospel will no longer have any weight with me. Wherefore, if no clear proof of the apostleship of Manichaeus is found in the gospel, I will believe the Catholics rather than you. But if you read thence some passage clearly in favor of Manichaeus, I will believe neither them nor you: not them, for they lied to me about you; nor you, for you quote to me that Scripture which I had believed on the authority of those liars. But far be it that I should not believe the gospel; for believing it, I find no way of believing you too. For the names of the apostles, as there recorded, do not include the name of Manichaeus. And who the successor of Christ’s betrayer was we read in the Acts of the Apostles; which book I must needs believe if I believe the gospel, since both writings alike Catholic authority commends to me.

Schaff, P. (1997). The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. IV. St. Augustine: The writings against the Manicheans and against the Donatists. (131).

Here, I think Sproul's argument runs into a solid objection against any attempt to claim that the Bible holds authority without the Church.  He argues that since he believes in the Scriptures on the authority of the Church, and the Church rejects Manichaeus, he must therefore reject the appeal of the Manicheans to Scripture against the Church.  To show that Manichaeus was an Apostle as he claimed, it would weaken his belief in the Church to be sure, but also weaken his belief in Scripture which does not list Manichaeus as an apostle.

What is the Authority of Scripture without Witness of the Church?

Now I am aware that many non Catholics would argue that the authority of Scripture is from God, not the Church.  However, this takes us back to the beginning.  How do you know then that the Bible is authoritative?  Many claim their words are from God.  Muslims claim this of the Koran.  Mormons claim this for The Book of Mormon.  Gnostics have claimed this for their false gospels.  So, without a visible authority, how can we know they are not?

Because people accepted as settled the list of Scripture set forth by the Church, we had assurance that the books chosen were inerrant.  It would only be with the attempt to separate Scripture and Church that an alternate means of justification was needed.  The proof offered is arguing in a circle:

  1. The Bible is inerrant because God said so.
  2. God is authoritative on this matter because the Bible says so.

In other words, the only guarantee of what the Bible says is true is based only on what the Bible says.  If one denies the authority of the Bible, and wants to know how we can know God is what the Bible claims the defense does not prove anything.

In contrast, the Catholic view would be:

  1. God created a Church to spread His word and keeps His Church from error
  2. The Church teaches the Scriptures are inerrant.
  3. Therefore we know the Bible is inerrant.

If one chooses to deny the first premise, then the second statement may be thought to be in error, but as Augustine pointed out above, the attack on the first would also be an attack on the second premise, and one would have to reject the conclusion.

Because of this we cannot be sure we have Infallible Scripture unless we have an infallible decree on what the canon of Scripture is.

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