Infallibility & The Canon

Proof for the reception of the canon:

Jesus promised to build his church. (Matt. 16:18) Jesus also told his apostles that those who received them received Him. (Matt. 10:40) The implication is that the building project of the Lord was to be founded upon the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) Consequently, the words of the apostles and Christ had to be received without error because Jesus promised to build his church upon them, which is now a matter of history given the passing of the apostles. Therefore, the canon is closed, lest the church has no foundation. The apostolic tradition was both oral and written (II Thess. 2:15) but only the written apostolic tradition has been providentially preserved. Accordingly, Scripture alone is what the church is built upon, which must have been God’s intention since Scripture alone is all he left us in keeping with Christ Jesus’ promise to build his church.

This simple argument has been met by Romanists from “Called to Communion” with resistance for two primary reasons. The claim is that the apostolic office in view in Ephesians 2:20 includes both the perpetual seat of the papacy and the oral tradition of the church. Let’s assume then that the unwritten tradition still exists even though it has never been produced. Jesus promised to build his church and we’ll say that he promised to build it upon both Scripture and unwritten tradition. (I of course would say that if Jesus promised to build his church on the unwritten tradition then he failed since there is no preserved unwritten tradition that the church has been built upon; yet for argument sake let’s assume the tradition is intact.) Whether we have the unwritten tradition or not has zero impact on the argument from “intent and providence” for the reception of the written tradition. Any preservation of the unwritten tradition does not undermine the reception of the written tradition. Now in a last ditch desperation Romanists will resort to saying that the texts in view are not just speaking about the teachings of Christ and his apostles (even oral traditions) as being the foundation of the church, but rather the texts mean that we are to receive for the foundation of the church the teachings of their alleged successors (the popes) both written and oral. In passing I’ll note that to have to receive the teaching of a pope 2,000 years after the teachings of the apostles and Christ would clearly deny the import of “foundation of the church.” But aside from the obvious, even if we grant the point, the reception of the written tradition through divine intent and providence is not affected by the Gnostic “exegesis” of Ephesians 2:20 regarding popes because a papal apostolic succession and the reception of the canon are not mutually exclusive premises. To “refute”” the Protestant position on the canon in a non-arbitrary, non-ad hoc fashion the Roman apologist will have to deny that Jesus had any intent whatsoever for the church to be at least partially built upon his written words and the written words of the apostles. To introduce Gnostic dogmas regarding unwritten traditions and the succession of bishops is simply to throw up Red Herrings in a sophist manner.

In sum, the Roman apologist needs to avoid the divine intent at all cost; for as soon as he acknowledges Christ Jesus’ intent to build His church “at least in part” on Scripture, he is then constrained to show why God’s intent could not have come to pass without an infallible magisterium (according to the same divine providence by which the rest of the eternal decree comes to pass). Since Romanists cannot possibly succeed in showing that God could not bring to pass the reception of the canon without an infallible magisterium, they are left no other choice (short of becoming Protestant on this matter) than to bring into question the divine intent. The Romanist does this through arguing by false-disjunction, introducing non-mutually exclusive premises to the promise of building the church “at least in part” on the canon; these Red Herring premises are intended to (a) establish a need for an apostolic oral tradition, and (b) establish a succession of infallible bishops. Yet neither a nor b undermine the divine intent to bring to pass the reception of the canon for the establishment of the NT church. Yet even allowing for those unjustified premises, Romanists cannot produce a sound argument to undermine the divine intent, which presuppose the necessity of bringing to pass the reception of the canon. They with the Satan can only say, “Has God said?”

With my Protestant brethren in mind, when it comes to the question of how we can know whether we have the Canon, I’ve never been comfortable with appealing to “criteria”. After all, even if we make apostolic authorship a criterion for NT canonicity, then several canonical books don’t qualify as such. Perhaps we include “close association” to an apostle as a criterion; then we can accept Luke, Acts, Hebrews… but then what about Barnabas? I also don’t think “attributes” of canonicity (or marks of divinity) gets us much closer to the thorny epistemic question at hand. Neither does apostolicity in my estimation. Indeed, those sorts of criteria may have been employed by the early church when pondering canonicity and there’s no question the Holy Spirit persuaded according the divine attributes of Scripture, but the means the church employed to ascertain and receive Scripture, and our criteria today for knowing we have the canon must remain distinct.

However, I don’t think we’re consigned to skepticism or looking to an alleged infallible magisterium; nor must we conclude (as one Reformed popularizer suggested) that we have a fallible collection of infallible books. I’m grateful Dr. Kruger from RTS takes things in a dramatically different direction, but my disagreement is substantial if I understand his position.

Some basic premises all Reformed folk can agree upon:

  1. There’s a relevant distinction between what is true and what is known to be true. So, it is true that canonical books were Scripture prior to those books being widely known to be Scripture. Accordingly, the church didn’t determine the canon. Rather, the church recognized the canon and received it as such.
  2. Jesus placed his imprimatur on the Jewish canon (and not the apocrypha).
  3. Jesus promised to build his church. (Matt. 16:18) Jesus also told his apostles that those who received them received Him. (Matt. 10:40) The implication is that the building project of the Lord was to be founded upon the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20)
  4. Consequently, the words or teachings of the apostles and Christ had to be received because Jesus promised to build his church upon them, which is now a settled matter. The church has its foundation lest there’s no church and Christ’s word failed.
  5. Therefore, the canon was received and is closed, lest the church has no foundation, contrary to Jesus’ intention.
  6. The apostolic tradition was both oral and written (II Thess. 2:15) but only the written apostolic tradition has been providentially preserved. Accordingly, Scripture alone is what the church is built upon, which must have been God’s intention since Scripture alone is all he left us in keeping with Christ Jesus’ promise to build his church.

In sum:

  1. It’s in the canon we find the divine intention to build the church upon the canon.
  2. Therefore, shouldn’t our confidence be based upon the divine intention contained in the canon, which presupposes the church would recognize and receive the canon in order that Christ might build his church? Also, in conjunction with that, shouldn’t our confidence be based upon God’s revealed ability to do all his holy will?
  3. Maybe we can even take the church’s recognition of the canon out of the equation to make the point even stronger. Even had the church not wanted to receive the canon, she couldn’t but receive the canon given the divine intention. (Of course Jesus’ intention was that she be guided by the voice of God testifying in Scripture through the Holy Spirit.)
  4. In a word, I’m more than hesitant and quite uncomfortable in going outside the canon to justify our knowledge that we have the canon.