Rochelle’s Quest for the Canon

“Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?”

-Luke 20:4


 

Rochelle is sitting at a busy local Café, having a lively conversation with a young woman about her age. As a Philosophy student, she started out university life fairly agnostic about anything to do with God. Though committed to naturalism as her preferred understanding of the world. Through various encounters with Christian groups on campus and her own personal research, Rochelle slowly moves from agnosticism to Classical Theism. Having a new metaphysical outlook, she examines the validity of the Gospel accounts. Beginning by looking into the best evidence for and against its forgery. Concluding that they were indeed written by people who knew Jesus of Nazareth, or knew people who knew Him, Rochelle examines its truthfulness. Particularly the arguments for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

By this stage grace has been working in her heart and a personal faith in Christ develops. Accompanied with what she believes are good justifiable reasons for believing what she does. So far she has established to her satisfaction that God exists, and that Jesus is divine, died on the Cross and rose again. On this basis she takes as divinely authoritative any words and actions of Jesus in the New Testament. Anything she perceived that Christ affirmed and believed, she affirms and believes. Taking them to be the final word.

As Rochelle finished explaining how she came to be a Christian, her friend and fellow classmate Sarah, listened attentively. Then proceeded to ask a variety of pressing questions about her new found faith. Not out of any antagonism, but from genuine curiosity. Sarah grew up attending church but was never really bought into the idea. And while Rochelle was able to respond to many of the queries adequately, she admits to not having all the answers. That while she may still have questions, and doesn’t claim to be beyond making mistakes, she sees no reason to doubt Christ or her encounter with Him by grace. She’s astute enough to realize that even though she’s fallible, if her faith in Jesus as divine isn’t misplaced then she’s right to treat what He says as God’s word.

Sarah asks her if she thinks that the entire Bible is God’s word? Rochelle feels like saying yes, but explains that she hasn’t looked into the rest. So far she has only recently accepted the Gospels as being truthful in what they say about Christ. So that anything she can establish Christ as saying has divine authority. So perhaps the books written by the Apostles also have divine authority. Sarah thinks about it for a minute but points out that isn’t necessarily the case. Whilst the Apostles teachings may most closely resemble that of Christ’s, what’s to say that quite a few things they reasoned about him aren’t wrong? Perhaps it is the case that they have accurate recollection of what Jesus said, but that doesn’t mean that their understanding of it would be the same as each other’s let alone Christ’s. So while we could take their writings and teachings as being most authoritative, in principle there isn’t anything to say that they are divinely inspired. They could well be, but it can’t just be assumed.

Rochelle concedes the point and reasons that either God would need to tell her what is His word, or He would have given that job to at least one other person. Sarah agrees saying that Rochelle accepts Jesus’ words because she believes in His divine authority. So it follows that Jesus would be the best candidate to establish what else has divine authority. At this, a light goes off in Rochelle’s head, and she says that this is her basis for accepting as divine books that Jesus accepted as Scripture. Sarah, who has had quite a few discussions on religion, points out that this would only apply to the Old Testament, and wouldn’t even get every book which has historically been accepted by Christians throughout history. Hearing this Rochelle formulates the argument that actually Christ gave divine authority to the Apostles, and that they were promised guidance in shepherding the Church. Her main points being centering around the promise of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s imagery of the keys, giving the Apostles the power of binding and loosing in the Church. She also nods to Acts 15 where it is pointed out that the Apostles considered their decision at the council to be that of the Holy Spirit.

Whilst Sarah thinks about this, Rochelle adds that this is sufficient grounds to accept any of the books written by Apostles as divinely inspired. It also gives ground for any scripture used and quoted in the New Testament to be inspired as well. After about a minute’s silence Sarah asks if Rochelle considers the book of Enoch to be God’s word. Puzzled, Rochelle says she has never heard of this book of Enoch and can’t find it in her table of contents. Sarah points out that somewhere in the New Testament the book of Enoch and other such books are either quoted or alluded to by various authors. Even though not all Christians accept these books as divine. “It would seem,” begun Sarah, “that mere quotation or allusion doesn’t mean a text is inspired.”She then goes on to argue that it seems Rochelle would have to say that the Apostles never err or make mistakes at all, in any of their encounters when it comes to what they say or write, if she’s just going to accept something as inspired by the mere fact it came from them.

Rochelle comments that she hasn’t heard any Christians she know speak about the Apostles that way. That most probably believe they could make mistakes in their day to day lives. But not when it came to scripture. Sarah not satisfied with the response asks in principle, why someone should believe this? Other than to avoid an unpleasant consequence of leaving what has been held as God’s word to be up for question. Rochelle points out that we claim to know things without having absolute assurance all the time. Admitting that this is indeed true, Sarah adds that you still need a principled reason for coming to a conclusion. And that the only way to assure inspiration is divine guidance. She then points out four likely possibilities. Either Christ’s promise to guidance and the keys of authority applies to:

a) The Apostles all the time and the Church all the time

b) The Apostles sometimes and the  Church all the time

c) The Apostles all the time and the  Church sometimes

d) The Apostles sometimes and the  Church sometimes

Rochelle points out that the last option wouldn’t help anyone. At best it would mean that we could be convinced that the New Testament scriptures are God’s word. But without a divine authority of some sorts, there wouldn’t be a principle by which we’d say that’s necessarily the case. Sarah then adds that the third option would place Rochelle in the position she was a minute ago. Where the Apostles never err in their writings or speech.

“What if just their writings were free from error?” asked Rochelle.

“Seems a little ad hoc to say but okay. You’d need to argue from Christ whom you already accept as divinely authoritative, that this is what He meant by guidance.”

Hearing this, Rochelle went back to the idea that they were always inspired. Sarah reminds Rochelle earlier she said this wasn’t a very common position. She also asks if Rochelle was ready to hinge her belief in the inspiration of the New Testament, on the idea that the Apostles *never* erred at all. Given that this would be a high call even by typical Christian understanding, and that there are other positions available, Rochelle would need a strong argument primarily from the words of Christ to support this. On top of that it would need to be at least equal to, if not better than the arguments for the other positions. Sarah then went on to add that she couldn’t then have a blanket trust in the New Testament as whole.

“Your degree of confidence in the inspiration of the New Testament, would need to be taken on a case by case basis. The stronger a belief in a text’s authorship, the stronger your principled belief in its inspiration. Even then the individual texts themselves may not be inspired in their entirety if there is evidence of later additions. Such as the favourite story about Jesus, and the woman caught in adultery. If I recall correctly, there is no definitive answer on who wrote the book of Hebrews.”

Rochelle points out that whilst these are strong concerns, in principle it doesn’t rule out the possibility of knowing what New Testament books are inspired. We still have the divine assurance or principle of the Apostles. It is just that the link between the authoritative source and ourselves has some holes. But we are still given a good chunk of the canon.

“True,” said Sarah, “you can still argue for a lot of Apostolic origin. But that still brings you back to the key assumption that needs to be argued from Christ’s words that the Apostles would never err at all. So that you could trust whatever at all you establish comes from them. Even then you’re still left with trying to sort out the Old Testament. Which various Christian groups don’t agree on. You’d need to argue from a combination of what Christ and the Apostles say in order to establish the Old Testament. In a consistent manner which won’t arbitrarily accept some cited and alluded books whilst rejecting others. It would also mean likely having to throw out anything that you can’t get a strong citation or allusion for at all.”

Rochelle notes that this position, where the Apostles are guided all the time and the Church sometimes, seems to blur the line between divine authority and human opinions quite a lot. To follow it in principle could establish quite a few things. But perhaps not as much as one would want, and not as strongly as they’d want either. She then moves on to examine the second position. Sarah notes, it is probably the strangest of them all. That the Apostles weren’t guided all the time, but the Church always would be. It seems rather ad hoc and indicates somehow that the Apostles are not part of the Church.  She adds that the promise of the keys which is later applied to Church, starts with the Apostles. Whatever guidance and authority the Church has, can’t be more than that of the Apostles. Sarah points out that she also doesn’t know of any Christians who think their leaders are perfect. So surely the Church can’t always be guided.

Having been thinking about these things quite a bit, Rochelle argues that Christ still promised that the Church wouldn’t be overcome. He also gave the Apostles some sort of authority that was divine. If Acts is accepted as accurately recording what the Apostles did, then there were times it seemed this authority was exercised. Could it be possible that they could all gather together in Acts 15, come to a conclusion, claim the Holy Spirit was guiding them and then be wrong? And if that happened, and the Holy Spirit never corrected it, then wouldn’t Christ’s promise fail to come true? At this Sarah nodded in agreement. It did seem that way, she said.

“So are you arguing for the first position?” asked Sarah

“The second.”

“You haven’t answered my reasons for why that one doesn’t make sense.”

“It depends on what you mean by Church. It also depends on what you take guidance to mean.”

Rochelle explains that the Apostles can at times speak infallibly. They are guided in that sense. But that doesn’t mean that they cannot personally make mistakes. However the Church as whole can never err. There could never be a doctrine or idea that takes it over, the way it did in Acts 15, that could be wrong. So various individuals can err, but the Church as a unity can not.

Sarah not convinced noted that there wasn’t a real Church unity. There were many denominations, each of them claiming to be correct. Rochelle responded by saying that this would seem to mean that the authority of the keys, and the Christ’s promise of guidance ended or failed. It would seem that if Christ wanted to give divine revelation, and endow the Apostles with the authority to produce and guard it, that at very least He’d not want this to be lost in history. There must exist at least one Church unity where this promise of guidance, like we saw playing out in Acts 15 still exists. This it seems, is most plausible way to defend the inspiration of the New Testament. Since it means a divine source has been preserved till this day.

“Well,” said Sarah, “Not necessarily. A divine source would at least need to be preserved long enough to list and formally define what are the inspired texts. Then in theory after that has been established it could cease to be guided.”

“But that itself seems rather ad hoc,” Rochelle replied, “and doesn’t seem to be, pardon my pun in the spirit of Christ’s promise.” Sarah rolled her eyes smiling.

“Well you still have like a billion churches to choose from. So which one?”

“Baby steps Sarah,” laughed Rochelle,”I’m just newly a Christian. But you’re right. Which one? Which one indeed…”

 

 


(A few notes to clarify the issue at work in the story)

On my last Sola Scriptura post I spent a lot of time defining and expounding the terms. Sola Scriptura I said was the belief that scripture is the only infallible rule of faith and that the individual has the right to private interpretation (p.i). By p.i it is meant that no ecclessial (church) body or individual has the authority to give a decree or doctrine which the individual is obligated to uphold, whether they see it that way or not. The private interpretation or conscience of the individual is the court of final appeal as to what they are obligated to believe. So in one sense Scripture is their final authority, but in another sense it is not. That is, scripture is their material authority, but not their formal authority.

And that’s what it’s primarily about; authority. It’s not primarily about reaching some point of absolute psychological certainty on the issue of Scripture or interpretation. The reason for this comes from the following.

Special revelation is a matter of authority

Scripture is special revelation

Therefore Scripture is a matter of authority.

Let me flesh that out. Romans 1 tells us that God’s power and attributes are displayed and made manifest via creation. There is also the witness of conscience that humans beings generally have. These sort of things fall in the category of natural theology. That is they do not require special revelation in order to be demonstrated or known per se. It is possible that one reasons to various true positions about God based on these. But to know specific thoughts and information that God revealed in nature, requires God to personally intervene. Unless one wants to argue to the entirety of scripture could have been deduced from nature and conscience alone. Without access to the mind of God, God as to make Himself known. So when someone says “This is the revelation of God” they are either claiming that God has revealed something to them or inspired it through them. Or that God has done so with another individual or group of people.

This revelation being from God automatically carries with it authority. Whether people recognizes it or not. The one to whom that revelation is given is automatically an authoritative figure when they speak or make it know. Since when they speak they’re not just saying “this is my opinion” or “this is what I have concluded”. But rather “this is what God has told me, or is making known through me.” Note, it doesn’t necessarily mean that this person is now given authority over others. But on the question of what ought to be believed as divine revelation, they become an authoritative source. Not just a human one, but a divine one. Since it’s not due to their opinion, wisdom or status. But because God gave it to them.

Now for sure, one could doubt that this person received any revelation. But it doesn’t negate the logic that;

God’s revelation is authoritative

If God has revealed His truth to X

The X is an authoritative source of revelation.

It should also be distinguished the *kind* of revelation that I’m speaking about here. It is not *just* God granting someone the grace to  recognize  divine truth.  But is making them an authoritative means or source by which divine truth which was otherwise inaccessible, is made accessible.

[As a side not to the story, whilst we are not required to hold that the Apostles never erred at all ever in anything they said or wrote. Ever. A person could hold to the infallible Church Unity position, as well as either opinion of the Apostles. It’s just not the one I chose to defend in the story]

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