Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Attention Roman Catholics: ”Sola Scriptura” is in the Bible

My copy of Canon Revisited arrived last Friday. (Michael J. Kruger, “Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books”, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books © 2012). Kruger’s is the first work that I am aware of, from a Reformed and evangelical perspective, that deals specifically with the entire range of the issues surrounding the Protestant acceptance of the 27-book canon of the New Testament. That includes not only the writing of the books [and Kruger notes that the New Testament books were “Scripture” at the moment they were penned], to how they were collected [immediately], how the church fathers used them, to how they were copied [and there are detailed accounts of “books” in that day as well as book production], distributed, used in worship, reflected upon, [in some cases] disputed, and accepted, all without the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

But he only does this incidentally. The stated purpose of the book, Kruger notes, is not to provide a comprehensive look at the history of the development of the canon of the New Testament. There are other works that deal with the historical issues (I’m thinking of Bruce Metzger’s Canon of the New Testament and Lee McDonald’s The Biblical Canon).

Kruger’s stated purpose is to respond to “the narrow question of whether Christians have a rational basis (i.e., intellectually sufficient grounds) for affirming that only these twenty-seven books rightfully belong in the New Testament canon. Or put differently, is the Christian belief in the canon justified (or warranted)? The answer is an unqualified “yes”.

While Kruger does not write specifically to counter the charge of the Roman Catholic Church (that only the supposed authority of the Roman Catholic Church can have fixed this canon for Protestants, and therefore Protestants are dependent upon Roman Catholic authority), he clearly is aware of this charge and he addresses it thoroughly. And since there are unthinking Roman Catholics who do not know what Sola Scriptura is [and worse: thinking Roman Catholics who do know what it is, but who nevertheless continue to caricature that position], and who thoughtlessly continue to ask the question “where is Sola Scriptura in the Bible?”, this work is extremely useful in addressing these specific claims as well.

* * *

The development of the canon of the New Testament is an area of study which, because of its complexity, has led to a lot of confusion. Especially in dialogues between Roman Catholics and Protestants. And because the issue is such a complex one, even well-meaning, though somewhat uninformed Protestant scholars (who have not been thoroughly up-to-speed on this issue), have helped to feed the confusion. For example, when noted Greek scholar Dan Wallace only recently said “it has been long noted that the weakest link in an evangelical bibliology is canonicity”, it caused a firestorm. Or when some Protestants, in unguarded moments, (for example, Sproul or Gerstner) say something like “the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books”, unthinking Roman Catholics are quick to say “Aha! The phrase Sola Scriptura doesn’t appear in the Bible, therefore the Roman Catholic paradigm is true”.

This work is the first that I am aware of to combine, in one place, all of the work that has been done on this topic, but perhaps has not been presented as a single, cohesive argument. And Kruger presses home the point that Protestants are indeed justified in thinking that do the books of the New Testament canon “have divine authority apart from their reception by the community of faith”, but also that “this authority can be known through the books themselves as the power of the Spirit works within them” (294, emphasis in original).

The title of the work, Canon Revisited, indicates that Kruger is aware of some of the breadth of the work on the topic, as well as the massive amounts of confusion. Indeed, Part 1 of the work is an overview of the many different viewpoints that seek to account for the Canon of the New Testament. While acknowledging that he can’t go into great detail on any one of these models, he does spend a good amount of time describing and evaluating some of the various “community-determined” and “historically-determined” views on the New Testament canon. Some of these are from Bart Ehrman types of historical-critical scholars. But Kruger is aware, too, that he is addressing not only historical-critical scholars, but Roman Catholics and other evangelical views as well.

The primary thrust of the work is to stake out and then respond to objections to what he calls “the Self-Authenticating” model of the Canon. By “self-authenticating”, he means, “we can know which books are canonical because God has provided the proper epistemic environment where belief in these books can be reliably formed. This environment includes not only providential exposure to the canonical books, but the three attributes of canonicity that all canonical books possess—divine qualities, corporate reception, apostolic origins—and the work of the Hoy Spirit to help us recognize them. Thus, contra the de jure objection, Christians do have adequate grounds for affirming their belief in the canon” (pg 113).

* * *

As someone who has dealt with questions of Roman Catholicism virtually all my adult life, I’d like to focus strictly on questions dealing with Roman Catholic challenges to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura. The “Canon” argument has been used by Roman Catholics from the time of the Reformation (Kruger cites “the sixteenth-century Roman Catholic Cardinal Sanislaus Hosius, papal legate to the Council of Trent”, who said: “The Scriptures have only as much force as the fables of Aesop if destitute of the authority of the Church”, pg 40). I’ve noted here that Roman Catholics are so comfortable with “the canon issue” that, in response to a major work undermining the centuries-old myth of “Peter as the first pope”, Oscar Cullmann did not receive responses that directly addressed his work on Peter, but that he merely that “In … most of the Catholic reviews of my book on St. Peter, one argument especially is brought forward: scripture, a collection of books, is not sufficient to actualize for us the divine revelation granted to the apostles (cited in “The Early Church”, London: SCM Press Ltd, © 1956, in the Foreword to the article “The Tradition”, pg 57).

To be sure, some Roman Catholic pay some lip service to Scripture. It’s “in there”, among the legs of the stool. But in practice, for Roman Catholics, the Bible has no intrinsic authority as the Word of God. That is, even though God may speak, still God’s very Word is helpless to communicate its message without the “interpretation” of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, in his recent “Covenant and Communion”, Scott Hahn, echoing Cardinal Hosius at Trent, “The Church [and by this he means “the Roman Catholic Church] makes the various individual texts into a single book or ‘Bible.’ Without the Church we have only a jumble of unconnected texts” (pg 35).

* * *

“My Sheep Hear My Voice”. Thus, Kruger begins his chapter outlining what he calls the “Canon as Self-Authenticating” model. It is noteworthy that he re-affirms what Calvin said of Scripture in his Institutes. “God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word….Scripture is indeed self-authenticated.” (from Institutes 1.7.4-5). He cites also Reformed writers such as Francis Turretin and Herman Bavinck:

Herman Bavinck reminds us that the church fathers [who had no official certification from Rome] understood Scripture this way: “in the Church Fathers and the Scholastics  … [Scripture] rested in itself, was trustworthy in and of itself (αὐτοπιστος), and the primary norm for church and theology” (Kruger, pg 90, citing Bavinck, “Reformed Dogmatics”, Vol 1, pg 452).

Kruger provides the definition of the term he is working with:

…for the purpose of this study, we shall be using the phrase self-authenticating in a broader fashion than was typical for the Reformers. We are not using it to refer only to the fact that canonical books bear divine qualities (although they do) but are using it to refer to the way the canon itself provides the necessary direction and guidance about how it is to be authenticated. In essence, to say that the canon is self-authenticating is simply to recognize that one cannot authenticate the canon without appealing to the canon. It sets the terms for its own validation and investigation. A self-authenticating canon is not just a canon that claims to have authority, nor is it simply a canon that bears internal evidence of authority, but one that guides and determines how that authority is to be established (91).

Of course he will look to external criteria as well. But as he says, “The canon, as God’s word, is not just true, but the criterion of truth. It is an ultimate authority … thus, for ultimate authorities to be ultimate authorities, they have to be the standard for their own authentication. You cannot account for them without using them” (91).

So, Sola Scriptura is in the Bible. Among other things, the New Testament canon “speaks for itself” (159).

I’d encourage any Roman Catholics who are reading this to pick up a copy of the book and take a look at Kruger’s presentation. Don’t convince yourself, as Roman Catholics have done for generations, on the basis of a caricature. If you want to challenge Protestantism, to say somehow that it is lacking, here is the place to start. And of course, I’d encourage every Protestant to read this work and become familiar with these issues.

I’ll pick this up here next time, Lord willing.


  1. Looks like a great book John.

    I too am convinced that He has given us EVERYTHING pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). And that much of the Catholic canon detracts from life and godliness.

    I am also thinking that your Sproul and Gerstner quote was not all that unguarded (they wrote and defended this position). As I recall they were making a tricky distinction between "infallible" and "inerrant". And I was wondering if they were leaving open the possibility of that other letter to the Corinthians being discovered.

    Something that Wallace just might do in the future :)

  2. Kruger only mentions Sproul and Gerstner, and not on this topic. He does not take an evidentiary view, and I do not believe he leaves open the possibility that if Paul's "lost" letter to the Corinthians were to be found, for example, that it would be included in the canon. It was lost for a reason.

  3. "It was lost for a reason"

    He used DHL?

  4. Someone needs to popularize these ideas. If Kruger is the man to do it, I'm all for it. I've liked his blog so far.

  5. Hi Ryan -- my intention is to continue to publish this in as much detail as I can. I've even considered posting a link on Catholic Answers, with a title similar to this one.

    Mathetes: He used DHL?

    Could be. That would never have happened with FedEx.

  6. Hi John,
    You motivated me to order my copy today. It was on my list to do later, but your article pushed me to go ahead and get it.

  7. Hi Ken, I'm glad to hear it. It's a fabulous resource. I had seen some of this in another great work by Dr. Kruger (and Andreas Kostenberger), "The Heresy of Orthodoxy". In both of these works, they're addressing critics such as adherents to the "Bauer Thesis", but it's a positive apologetic on the development of the canon, and it's really a way to address just about anybody who has issues about the 27 book New Testament canon.