Saturday, January 27, 2018

Is the canon a fallible list of infallible books?

To put it briefly, Rome believes that the New Testament is an infallible collection of infallible books...The historic Protestant position shared by Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on, has been that the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books…Also there was the issue of authority, and the principle that emerged among Protestants was that of sola scriptura, which means that Scripture alone has the authority to bind our conscience. Scripture alone is infallible because God is infallible. The church receives the Scripture as God’s Word, and the church is not infallible. That is the view of all Protestant churches.

i) I believe this distinction originated with Sproul's mentor, John Gerstner, which Sproul popularized. But it's unclear what that distinction really means. If each and every book in the collection is infallible, then in what sense is the collection still fallible? Presumably, Gerstner/Sproul don't think the canon is actually in error, for if it mistakenly included one or more fallible books, then it wouldn't be a collection of infallible books. 

ii) Someone might object that I've committed the composition fallacy. But that depends. It's invalid to infer that if every engine part weights less than 50 lbs, then the entire engine weighs less than 50 lbs, but it's valid to infer that if every engine part is metal, then the entire engine is metal. 

iii) In theory, a fallible canon might mistakenly omit one or more infallible books. Every canonical book would be infallible, but not every infallible book would be canonical. Yet that doesn't seem to be what Gerstner/Sproul have in mind.

iv) Rather, they seem to mean it's possible that the canon is in error. But in that event, it's possible that the canon contains one or more fallible books. 

v) I think what they're trying to say that while the canon might be mistaken, there's a high probability that the canon is correct. The canon is possibly in error, but not actually in error. And there's sufficient evidence to be confident about the canon.

vi) It's not uncommon for Protestants to believe that God providentially guided Christians to canonize the right books. But if that's the case, then is the canon still a fallible collection of books?

vii) In addition, the locus of alleged fallibility is ambiguous. Is the canon said to be fallible because the evidence for the canon, while adequate, is less than conclusive or rationally compelling? Or is the canon said to be fallible because any uninspired human judgment is fallible no matter how conclusive the evidence?

viii) Furthermore, does the fallibility of the canon have reference to internal or external attestation? If a canonical book is inspired, and if it contains internal evidence regarding its own inspiration, or if an inspired book cross-attests the inspiration of another book, then is the canonicity of that book merely fallible?  

I think the Gerstner/Sproul formulation is too equivocal to be useful.


  1. A fallible collection of books that are infallible if they got it right?


    (I think that's probably what they would say.)

  2. I'm pretty sure that he saw men as fallible (those who collected the books into a canon) yet the God-breathed nature of special revelation (Scripture) infallible. God providentially guided the reception of his word to his people. Keep in mind this was said within the context of a series that was differentiating between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. He was contrasting the idea of the RC Infallible Collection of Infallible books, vs. Fallible Collection of Infallible Books.

    "I think the Gerstner/Sproul formulation is too equivocal to be useful."

    After listening to over 1,000 Renewing your Mind podcasts (many 5,6 7X's each) RC was just trying to make his complex thoughts easier to understand for the layman. That was the nature of his ministry.

    1. That fine if it doesn't result in oversimplification.

  3. Steve, I agree that Dr. Sproul should have gone into greater detail with his formulation of this very important doctrine. I believe that he would agree with point iii - that the 66 books of the Protestant canon are all God-breathed, but one or more Holy Spirit inspired book(s) or epistle(s) could possibly be missing or overlooked. Possible but not likely.

  4. I’ve heard that comment before and always took it to mean that a canon list is *not* an item of divine revelation, though a canon “list” exists as a byproduct of divine revelation in the form of books even if only God knows the list during the process of providentially guiding his church to recognize the right list.

    Also, regarding your point (v), assuming that is the correct interpretation of Sproul, what are your thoughts on that take?

    1. There are competing canons of Scripture, viz. Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, so they can't all be right. So it's right or wrong in reference to whom? As a Protestant, I think the Protestant canon is right.

      To some degree this depends on probable evidence (i.e. external attestation). But it also depends to some degree on internal evidence, which is more than merely probable.