Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sola Scriptura and textual criticism

There’s a striking parallel between Catholic objections to sola Scriptura and liberal objections to inerrant autographa.

There are two related versions of the liberal objection to inerrant autographa:

i) It’s ad hoc to insist that God inerrantly inspired the autographa unless God inerrantly inspired all copies of the autographa.

ii) The distinction is useless in practice since we don’t have the autographa at our disposal.

A general version of the Catholic objection goes something like this:

i) Sola Scriptura is self-refuting. For if revelation alone is the rule of faith, then our knowledge of the rule must, itself, be a reveled datum.

A more specific version of this general objection goes something like this: Sola Scriptura is self-refuting unless Scripture enumerates the books of the canon.

One immediate problem with the Catholic objection is that it constitutes a straw man argument. To my knowledge, classic formulations of sola Scriptura don’t formulate the principle in self-referential terms. Theologians who formulate sola Scripture never meant to subsume the rule of faith within the items covered by the rule of faith.

Therefore, the standard formulation(s) of sola Scriptura is not self-refuting.

ii) However, a Catholic might object that this misses the point. Even though sola Scriptura may not be classically formulated in just those terms, that’s a logical implication of sola Scriptura.

But is that true? On the face it, it’s fallacious to assume that a rule of faith must take itself as its own object–as if you use a ruler to measure itself.

In fact, you can’t use a ruler to measure itself because you’d have to have a ruler in the first place. A rule of faith is something over and above the thing it measures. That’s understood.

iii) Perhaps, though, a Catholic would say that while sola Scriptura is not self-contradictory, nevertheless it is ad hoc to insist that revelation alone must be our rule of faith unless our knowledge of the rule is, itself, a revealed datum.

And that version of the objection parallels the liberal objection to the autographa.

But are these ad hoc distinctions? For two reasons they are not:

i) For one thing, they go to an underlying distinction between natural and supernatural means of knowledge. Some things can be known by natural means whereas some other things can only be known by supernatural means.

a) Although some Biblical events can be known by natural means, other Biblical events can only be known by supernatural means. For example, there was no Edenic stenographer taking down the conversion between Eve and the Tempter.

Likewise, God’s plan for the world can only be known by supernatural means (i.e. divine revelation). Since only God has privileged access to his own intentions, only God can declare his intentions.

b) Moreover, even though some Biblical events can be known by natural means, their ulterior significance cannot be known by natural means.

The crucifixion of Jesus could be known by natural means, but the theological significance of his crucifixion could not be known by natural means. Although the crucifixion is an empirical datum, the theological meaning of that event is not an empirical datum.

So far from being arbitrary, (a)-(b) are principled distinctions, where revelation is our only point of entry–either to the event itself, and/or the theological significance of that event in the plan of God.

ii) In addition to principled distinctions, we also have probabilistic distinctions. Degrees of certainty. While this type of distinction admits borderline cases, involving the identity of a least lower threshold, the distinction, itself, is not ad hoc.

For example, questions of health and safety frequently turn on such considerations. What’s the risk of being vaccinated in relation to the risk of foregoing vaccination?

1.Regarding the autographa:

It is not ad hoc to distinguish between inerrant autographa and errant copies:

i) There is a major difference between errant copies of errant records, and errant copies of inerrant records.

a) For one thing, it wouldn’t even be possible to have an uninspired record of many Biblical events. For some of these events are naturally unknowable. Future events. Private conversations. What someone was thinking. The plan of God. The fact that God even has a plan. And so on and so forth.

b) Moreover, while some events are naturally knowable, their theological significance is naturally unknowable.

In cases of (a) and (b), a supernatural means of knowledge is a necessary means of knowledge. For such items of knowledge would be otherwise unobtainable were it not for God’s prophetic word.

c) Furthermore, necessity is not the only consideration. There can be higher and lower degrees of certainty. And there are many times when that distinction is hardly inconsequential.

In general, we remember events better than words. We may not be very good at verbatim recollection.

What we generally remember is a paraphrase of what somebody said rather than his verbatim utterance. And, of course, sometimes we misremember what he said.

There is also a difference between paraphrasing a verbatim recollection and a paraphrastic recollection. If you have a verbatim recollection of what somebody said, then you can accurately paraphrase his statement. But if all you remember is a paraphrase, then you can’t compare the paraphrase with the original.

Likewise, we tend to remember some events better than others. And, of course, some people have more reliable memories than others.

As such, there is a major difference between inspired and uninspired records of what was said and done. If all we had were uninspired records to go by, that would create systematic, insoluble uncertainties.

And the level of uncertainty might be pretty high. Indeed, you only have to look at the way liberals treat Bible history. Having denied the inspiration of Scripture, they regard Bible history as, at best, largely or fairly dubious.

To be sure, there’s a degree of willful, irrational scepticism among liberals, but once you deny inspiration, there is some validity to their scepticism.

Only inspiration or revelation can supply a baseline of certainty.

iii) That, however, isn’t comparable to errant copies. An individual MS can be errant, but still be quite reliable. When, moreover, we have many MSS and versions of Scripture, it is possible to reconstruct the Urtext with a high degree of certainty.

Moreover, there’s a lot of built-in redundancy in Scripture. It doesn’t turn on one key word or phrase.

As such, natural means of knowledge are perfectly adequate in textual criticism. It doesn’t require inspiration to sift through the available evidence and achieve satisfactory results.

2.By the same token, every Christian doesn’t need a special revelation of a special revelation. A private special revelation over and above the inscripturated revelation itself. He doesn’t need a revealed table of contents. For it is possible to identify the canon by using natural means of knowledge.

And that, in turn, goes to the distinction between miracle and providence. Everything is not miraculous. Everything is not providential. Each in its own place.

I’d add that Scripture itself furnishes a great deal of internal evidence (textual, intertextual, paratextual) to demarcate the canon. This isn’t just a random anthology.

At the same time, there’s nothing wrong with supplementing the internal evidence with external evidence.


  1. You have stated the case for why we have such variants of the Gospels and the Epistles as well as the histories as told in the Old.

    My guess is you are pretty close to your learned studies. As you go along you too will paraphrase those studies as new ones take the forefront of your thinking and rationale.

    Maybe you are blessed with a memory that remembers things accurately well too?

    I have heard from one man of another man that had photographic memory until the last few years of his life, to the point of degeneration that the last sound teaching he did was several back from the last one he did.

    His mind sorta melted down and became useless to him. His spirit was sound and strong and he died in the Faith too.

    I compliment you on this work.

    At the end of the day the Catholic objections are going to lead across the Tiber and into the lap of the fallible man! And who knows what's over the horizon, maybe they will grow their hair and let a woman be pope?

    I suppose that is why this fight is to the death, the Catholic books and our 66?

  2. Steve said:
    There’s a striking parallel between Catholic objections to sola Scriptura and liberal objections to inerrant autographa.

    Indeed, and I've often seen parallels between Roman Catholic arguments against Sola Scriptura and liberal arguments for postmodern deconstructionism. Both approach a text and say that it is impossible for someone to read it correctly with any degree of certainty.

    Now obviously the ramifications of the two systems are different. Pomos assert that we cannot interpret any text today to gain objective meaning, so we have to reconstruct it however we see fit; Roman Catholics assert that we cannot interpret the Bible today to gain its objective meaning, so we have to have the Magisterium tell us what it means. So the outcome is different.

    But the root idea--that it is impossible for a text to convey objective meaning on its own--is the same in both instances.

  3. Just from a personal digression, Peter, I kinda like the way pomos assert things, post 1840s, 1950s, modernity and post-modernity, just the same! :)

    I would to God more Catholics would turn Pomo!

  4. natamlic: "I would to God more Catholics would turn Pomo!"

    You may wish it, but not me. No way. No way!

    Of course, I would to God that more Catholics would turn 5-Sola Reform Protestant Christians, but if given the choice between them remaining (conservative) Catholics and turning Pomo, I'd much rather them remain conservative, traditionalist Catholics.

    Incidentally, I have heard that some pomo Emergers, after having been liberal Emergers for some time, convert over to Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism after a while. I.e., pomo liberal emerging churches are a recruiting ground for Orthodoxy or Catholicism!

  5. Truth,

    are we talking about the Pomo Indians of Northern California?

    The last I checked, we wear feathers in our hair, sing and dance to the drum and drink turtle blood to ward off the white man sicknesses that nearly killed us off? Years ago, we pitched and strawed our feet and walked to the coast to fish and gather seaweeds and other tantilizing treats, killed deer and other animals, smoked fish and danced til dawn! We thought this life God The Great Spirit gave us was fine!

    Now we have to hassle about all this?

    Ok, so be it! :)