Friday, February 25, 2005

The question of authority in relation to the biblical canon

Al Kimel, at Pontificator, offers another incisive post on the issue if canonicity, this one entitled, "Canon to the right of them; canon to the left of them." The problem of canonicity reduces to the problem of authority and, for the Protestant, the problem of a bifurcation between the authority of Scripture and that of the Church, which, in truth, should not and cannot be separated. There is little more ironic than the spectacle of evangelicals vociferously defending the infallible divine guidance of the apostles in their inscripturation of God's Word turning, a moment later in conversations with Catholics, to backpedal furiously at the suggestion that God could have extended this infallible guidance beyond the apostles' act of writing to their verbal teaching and that of their authoritatively ordained successors.

The Protestant position is self-defeating, because it rests on a presupposition that cannot be supported from Scripture or from history--namely, that the whole content of God's revealed will for the ongoing instruction of His Church was committed "wholly to writing," so that no unwritten residue of divinely inspired instruction survived from the oral teachings of Jesus and His apostles that remained binding on God's people after the NT was written. This assumption, stated more or less audaciously, is nearly ubiquitous among Protestants. But how could one claim to know this? The data of Scripture don't make this case. and the data of history and the Church Fathers weigh heavily against it. It does not even make good sense. First, if all bindingly authoritative oral instruction ceased with the death of the last apostle, and if the early churches did not have copies of all the NT books until well after that time, who spoke for the Lord Jesus and the apostles in the interim? Second, how is one to plausibly imagine the transition from the partially oral framework of authoritative instruction (OT + teachings of Jesus and apostles) to a wholly written framework (OT + NT) required by this hypothesis? Gregory Krehbiel offers a wry scenario:
One imagines all the churches dutifully obeying Paul's oral instructions on the Eucharist [1 Cor 11:34] and anxiously awaiting the publication in the Antiochian Post of the last apostle's obituary, at which point they are to rewrite their book of church order and eliminate everything based on oral instructions.
The whole idea, of course, seem ridiculous, but scarcely more so than some of the assertions commonly made in this connection

But then, in all seriousness, what is the Protestant partisan of scriptura vs. ecclesia magistra to say about those who remembered the oral instructions of the apostles--concerning, say, the Eucharistic liturgy--who perhaps even wrote down and preserved these, even though they never made it into the NT canon? The writings of the early Church are filled with extrabiblical sayings of Jesus, practices of the Christian community, liturgical and Eucharistic formulas, and so forth, which presuppose the divine origin and authority of these things. On the Catholic view, this is not a problem, since the writings of the NT are viewed as part and parcel of a larger normative tradition, not as a complete set of catechetical instructions for new believers, but as occasional writings with an "eye to the situation in the churches," often intended to correct abuses. But what is the Protestant Partisan to do with instructions and practices that claim to be apostolic but were never put in writing in the NT? Again, Krehbiel offers an imaginative scenario:
Imagine, if you will, John Calvin, Bible in hand, visiting the church of Corinth in the year 125. Calvin notices some practices in the church of which he has never read specific mention in Scripture, and he rebukes the church for "adding to God's word."

One of the presbyters approaches Calvin and says, "Have you not read in Paul's first epistle to this church, in the passage about the Lord’s Supper, 'And the rest I will set in order when I come'? (1 Cor 11:34) Dear brother, I was a young man when the apostle visited this church. These church practices you condemn came from the apostle's very lips. Are you greater than Paul? We also have in our possession Paul's letter to the church of the Thessalonians. He commands them to continue in the traditions, whether delivered by word of mouth or by epistle. (2 Thes 2:15) Are we to obey you or the apostle?" (Krehbiel, A Defense of Roman Catholic Doctrine Against Reformed Protestantism [Laurel, MD, 1992], p. 6).
The logic of apostolic authority runs seamlessly into the logic of ecclesiastical magisterial authority. Peter Kreeft (Fundamentals of the Faith, Appendix B) oversimplifies, but makes his points clearly when he says there are at least four things wrong with the Protestant position:
First, it separates Church and Scripture. But theyare one. They are not two rival horses in the authority race, but one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture). The Church as writer, canonizer, and interpreter of Scripture is not another source of revelation but the author and guardian and teacher of the one source, Scripture. We are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher, but by one teacher, the Church, with one book, Scripture.

Second, sola scriptura is self-contradictory, for it says we should believe only what Scripture teaches, but Scripture never says this! If we believe only what Scripture teaches, we will not believe sola scriptura, for Scripture does not teach sola scriptura.

Third, sola scriptura violates the principle of causality: that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. The Church (the apostles) wrote Scripture, and the successors of the apostles, the bishops of the Church, decided on the canon, the list of books to be declared scriptural and infallible. If Scriptue is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.

Fourth, there is the practical argument that private interpretation leads to denominationalism. Let five hundred people interpret the Bible without Church authority and there will soon be five hundred denominations. But denominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural standards-see John 17:20-23 and 1 Corinthians 1:10-17.

Fifth, sola scriptura is unhistorical, for the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church, to teach them.
Obviously there are a couple of points that require some finessing here, but they clearly focus the issue of authority where it needs to be focussed. Is there on earth an institution that exists in licit episcopal succession from the time of Christ that directly bears the authority he deligated to his apostles? If so, the jig's up and the problems are all minor details. If not, it's each private interpretation of Scripture and tradition for itself, and we may as well all pack up our bags and go home.

For further reading: