Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The self-witness of Scripture to the canon of Scripture

1. Introduction

Reflecting the herd mentality of Roman Catholics, it has become fashionable for Catholic epologists to allege that sola scriptura is self-refuting unless the canon of Scripture is self-referential. However, this allegation overlooks the self-witness of Scripture to the canon of Scripture.

In this post I’ll briefly classify and summarize the different kinds of internal evidence we find in Scripture for the canon of Scripture.

I’m not going to present all the documentation, because I’ve done that elsewhere. This is just a little roadmap of how to approach the issue. When one offers copious documentation, it’s possible for a reader to lose his way in the welter of detail. My post is just a guide to the documentation I’ve already provided for these different lines of evidence.

2. Intratextuality

By this I mean the self-witness of individual books to their own authorship. Certain types of authorship are a sufficient condition of canonicity. If a writer is a prophet (e.g. Moses, David, Daniel, Isaiah) or apostle, then he’s qualified to write a book of the Bible. That principle can also extend to, say, a member of the Petrine or Pauline circle (e.g. Mark, Luke, author of Hebrews).

Likewise, it’s not coincidental that two NT books were penned by Jesus’ siblings (James, Jude). For these are two “insiders.”

Authorial ascriptions can either be explicit or implicit. Conservative commentaries, Bible introductions, reference works, articles, and monographs expound and defend the intratextual evidence of Scripture.

3. Intertextuality

As one scholar defines it, “Intertextuality is the study of links between and among texts. Many written texts, especially biblical ones, were written with full awareness of other texts in mind. Their authors assumed the readers would be thoroughly knowledgeable of those other texts. The New Testament books, for example, assume a comprehensive understanding of the OT. Many OT texts also assume their readers are aware and knowledgeable of other OT texts,” Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach (Zondervan 1995), 212-13.

“It is in the nature of intertextuality itself to proceed diachronically. Some biblical texts presuppose, on the part of their readers, a rather thorough knowledge of other, previously written texts,” ibid. 237-38

This can take various forms, such as common authorship, quotations, foreshadowing, literary allusions, or a storyline thread (e.g. Gen-Kings; Ezra/Nehemiah–Chronicles).

Of course, we also need to make allowance for how a book is quoted, how it functions in the author’s argument, or its preexisting reputation.

In addition, historical narratives create a chronological framework in which to fit books belonging to other genres (e.g. Wisdom literature, Major/Minor prophets). For example, Ellis uses the Book of Acts as a bridge to other NT writers.

If intratextuality is self-referential, then intertextuality is cross-referential.

Helpful writers on the intertextuality of Scripture include Bruce Waltke, E. E. Ellis, John Sailhamer, Beale/Carson (eds.), and David Noel Freedman.

Due to the prophetic orientation of Scripture, the canon of Scripture is also interconnected by a promise/fulfillment schema. Informative writers on Messianic prophecy include T. D. Alexander, Derek Motyer, O. P. Robertson, and John Sailhamer.

4. Paratextuality

As one scholar defines it, “The Bible as a literary work is made up of text and paratext. Paratext may be defined as everything in a text other than the words, that is to say, those elements that are adjoined to the text but are not part of the text itself if the ‘text’ is limited strictly to the words. The paratext of Scripture embraces features such as the order of the biblical books, the names assigned to the different books, and the differing schemes of textual division within the books.”;col1

A Catholic might object on the grounds that this is really extrabiblical evidence inasmuch as it takes for granted a standard edition of the Bible.

However, Freedman has argued that Ezra was the editor of the Hebrew canon. And his argument has been refined by Sailhamer’s recent book on the Meaning of the Pentateuch.

Yet Ezra was, himself, a Bible writer. Therefore, his edition of the OT would figure in the self-witness of Scripture.

Likewise, Stanley Porter has argued that Paul was probably responsible for compiling his own letter collection. And, if not Paul, one of his hand-picked deputies, like Luke or Timothy.

Helpful writers on the paratextuality of Scripture include Greg Goswell, John Sailhamer, and David Noel Freedman.

5. Postscript

i) A Catholic epologist might object that appealing to the self-witness of Scripture sidesteps the question of why we should even believe the testimony of Scripture.

However, that objection changes the subject. That ceases to be challenge to the logical coherence of sola Scriptura. Instead, that objection attacks the veracity or credibility of the claim, rather than the coherence of the claim.

And there are various ways of defending the self-witness of Scripture.

ii) A Catholic epologist might also object on the grounds that appealing to the self-witness of Scripture cannot settle the question of the Apocrypha.

However, internal evidence cuts both ways. The internal evidence for a given book (intratextuality) may either be consistent or inconsistent with its ostensible authorship.

I’d add that I have no problem with also using external evidence to corroborate the canon. I’m simply responding to the Catholic objection on its own terms.


  1. "In this post I’ll briefly classify and summarize the different kinds of internal evidence we find in Scripture for the canon of Scripture."

    Much thanks for the brief summary, Steve!

  2. I've John Sailhamer's The Pentateuch as Narrative in my long list of books I own and haven't gotten around to reading yet.

    I have not had the impression Frank Cruseman counts as the staunchest evangelical but in a book he wrote on the Torah he wrote that Jeremiah's reference to "the lying pen of the scribes" had made the Law a lie. If one of the prophets condemns scribes for corrupting what was considered scripture then clearly even at the time Jeremiah was written there were ways to establish a critique of the preservation of the biblical text of the time. When Jeremiah is brought up to be condemned some city elders point out that Micah turned out to be right so perhaps this new prophet should be given time to continue to speak. My memory may be fuzzy here but the self witness of scripture regarding how it developed seems like an easy thing to establish.