Monday, March 27, 2023

Trent Horn's Arguments About Early Recognition Of The New Testament Documents As Scripture

He recently posted a video on the subject, as an argument against sola scriptura. It came up in his debate on sola scriptura with Gavin Ortlund as well, and Gavin discussed the subject briefly in a more recent video. Here's something I posted in the comments section below that video:

In addition to Gavin's comments on the scriptural status of the New Testament documents, think of all of the references in John 14-16 about how the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles. They're told that they'll remember what Jesus taught them, will be guided into all truth, will have the future revealed to them, etc. The themes and language are reminiscent of what we're told about the nature of scripture elsewhere, such as in 2 Peter 1:21. And notice how closely what's said in John 14-16 aligns with John's gospel: the "bring to your remembrance all that I said to you" in 14:26 lines up well with the recording of what Jesus said in the gospel of John; the language of the Spirit of "truth" and "testifying" in 15:26-27 lines up well with what's said about "testimony" that's "true" in 19:35 and 21:24. If John's gospel reflects an early belief in the apostles' involvement in writing scripture, that helps explain why Paul refers to how he's writing "the Lord's commandment" (1 Corinthians 14:37) and why Peter referred to Paul's letters as scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16), as Gavin mentioned. And, to add to what Gavin said about 1 Timothy 5:18, keep in mind that the scriptural status of the gospel of Luke implies the scriptural status of Acts, since the gospel anticipates Acts (the "things accomplished among us" phrase in Luke 1:1 seems to refer to the history of the Christian movement up to that point in time, which is completed in Acts, as suggested by Acts 1:1), and Acts presents itself as a sequel to the gospel (Acts 1:1). Seeing both documents as scripture makes more sense than driving a wedge between two documents that are so connected. The book of Revelation refers to how John was told to write by Jesus himself (1:11), how Jesus approved of the contents of the book (22:7; see, also, the angel's comments in verse 9), and how nothing is to be added to or taken away from the book (22:18-19). That sounds like scripture. Similarly, Papias' report of what "the elder" (probably John the son of Zebedee) said about Mark's gospel (in Eusebius, Church History, 3:39:15) refers to how the gospel was written without error, without stating anything falsely, etc. That doesn't require the scriptural status of the gospel of Mark, but it offers significant corroboration that the document was so viewed. Most likely, Mark's gospel was accepted as scripture because one or more of the apostles identified it as such (with Peter and John as the best candidates). How do we explain why so many apostolic documents were accepted as scripture so widely from the second century onward? The best explanation is that the second-century church inherited that view from Jesus, the apostles, and the first-century Christians in general, as the evidence I've summarized above suggests.

In a video released after his debate with Gavin, Trent Horn went as far as to suggest that there's a lack of evidence that the gospels were even "prominent" early on (see 5:35 and 50:36 in his video titled "A Neglected Argument against Sola Scriptura"). So much could be said in response (e.g., early commentaries on and harmonies of the gospels among both orthodox and heretical sources). Eusebius reports that Quadratus and some colleagues were distributing copies of the gospels as they evangelized in the early second century (Church History, 3:37:2). Justin Martyr's Jewish opponent, Trypho, even comments that "I have carefully read them [Christian precepts in the gospels]" (in Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, 10). Why would a non-Christian like Trypho be carefully reading documents that supposedly weren't even prominent in the Christian movement? Justin refers to how the gospels were read alongside Old Testament scripture in church services (First Apology, 67). For more examples of how prominent the gospels were early on, see Charles Hill's Who Chose The Gospels? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Notice how the evidence for the scriptural status of Revelation furthers the argument that the writing of scripture is being anticipated in John 14-16 and that the gospel of John is scripture. The book of Revelation fits well with the reference to receiving revelation of the future in John 16:13. And Revelation is coming from one of the individuals Jesus was addressing in John 14-16 and an individual who referred to his gospel in terms reminiscent of what Jesus said in John 14-16 (John 19:35, 21:24).

Something else should be said about Luke and Acts. We can make an argument from the lesser to the greater here. If even a non-apostle's writings, Luke's, were recognized as scripture as early as the first century, how much more likely is it that documents written by apostles were perceived that way?

Since Trent's video cites the view that a change in how the New Testament documents were regarded occurred around the time when Irenaeus wrote or when Origen wrote, notice what Irenaeus says about how widely the documents were already recognized. He tells us that some heretics rejected some New Testament documents (Against Heresies, 3:11:7), but that most "do certainly recognise the Scriptures; but they pervert the interpretations" (3:12:12). Elsewhere, Irenaeus wrote:

"We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith." (Against Heresies, 3:1:1)

Tertullian wrote, "that gospel of Luke which we at this moment retain has stood firm since its earliest publication, whereas Marcion's is to most people not even known, and by those to whom it is known is also by the same reason condemned." (Against Marcion, 4:5) Origen notes, "There are countless heresies that accept the Gospel According to Luke." (Joseph Lienhard, trans., Origen: Homilies On Luke, Fragments On Luke [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 1996], 67) Or think of Ptolemy's comments on the gospel of John cited by Irenaeus (thus predating the time when Irenaeus wrote), all the controversies surrounding the gospel of Luke with regard to Marcion and the movement that followed him, etc. The evidence suggests that the gospels were already highly prominent long before Irenaeus wrote.

To summarize some of the points relevant to John 14-16:

- Jesus was speaking to apostles, which increases the potential that what he says there is relevant to canonical issues, given that apostolicity seems to have been the primary canonical criterion of the early Christians. For more on that subject, see here.

- Some of what Jesus says is applicable to people other than apostles, either in its primary application or in a lesser way. However, some of what Jesus says could only apply to some minority of Christians, such as the apostles (e.g., 14:26, 15:26-27).

- There's an emphasis on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, a theme often associated with the composition of scripture (e.g., 2 Peter 1:21).

- There's mention of receiving revelation (John 16:14).

- There's mention of prophecy (16:13), which is often associated with scripture elsewhere (e.g., 2 Peter 1:21). In fact, ancient Jewish and Christian sources often summarized the Old Testament as "the prophets", as documented in my article on apostolicity linked above.

- In some comments that are highly relevant to the writing of a gospel in particular, Jesus refers to how all that he's said will be brought to their mind by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26). Notice that what Jesus refers to in that context isn't just highly relevant to writing a gospel, but is especially relevant to John's gospel, which reports so much of what Jesus said, and this particular portion of his gospel, where a lot of Jesus' comments are being reported.

- John uses some of the same concepts and terminology found in John 14-16 when describing his gospel elsewhere (John 19:35, 21:24).

- Another document widely attributed to the same author (and very likely to have come from the same author), Revelation, explicitly refers to its Divine inspiration.

- Other documents around the same time that come from apostles or are closely associated with them are likewise referred to as scripture (e.g., 1 Timothy 5:18, 2 Peter 3:15-16).

- The cumulative effect of points like these should be kept in mind. For example, the more often John 14-16 uses scripture-like concepts and terminology, the harder it becomes to argue that the composition of scripture wasn't in view. It's possible to dismiss all of the relevant concepts and language in John 14-16, the similar concepts and language applied to John's gospel, and all of the references to the scriptural status of other relevant documents shortly after the events narrated in John 14-16. But the issue is how we best explain the evidence, not how to possibly explain it.

One approach we can take is to discuss the evidence summarized above in reverse chronological order. How do we best explain the widespread prominence of the New Testament documents and their acceptance as scripture from the second century onward? It seems that something in the first century likely brought about that situation. Then we can move to a document typically dated to the late first century, Revelation. It explicitly refers to itself as Divinely inspired. As we go earlier into the first century, we see further indications of the scriptural status of New Testament documents in 2 Peter, 1 Timothy, and elsewhere. The best candidate for the origin of that view of the documents in the early Christian movement seems to be what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit's guidance of the apostles in John 14-16.

Regardless of whether we trace the origin of the scriptural status of the documents to John 14-16, we know that belief in the scriptural status of the New Testament documents goes back to the first century and is found in multiple sources in that timeframe. We have good reason to think there are new scriptures accompanying the new covenant, as there were Old Testament scriptures accompanying the old covenant. We rely partly on sources outside of scripture to identify which documents are new covenant scripture and which aren't, just as Catholics, Orthodox, and others rely on means outside their rule of faith to determine the parameters of that rule, translate it into their own language, interpret it, argue for it, etc. There's nothing wrong with that when non-Protestants do it, and there's nothing wrong with it when Protestants do it. The "sola" in sola scriptura is about a particular context. It doesn't mean that scripture has to be alone in every conceivable way or in every way that's convenient for critics of Protestantism. Similarly, the "sola" of non-Protestant rules of faith (and they all have a "sola", even if they rarely or never spell it out as explicitly as Protestants do) isn't meant to suggest that their rule has to be alone in every conceivable manner.

Barely Protestant makes some good points in his video responding to Trent. And The Other Paul should be producing another response with Barely Protestant in the near future.


  1. I've challenged a number of Trent Horn's claims about the Old Testament canon: