The Canon, Authority and Infallibility


In discussing Sola Scriptura, there are three things that need to be clarified and understood, otherwise people will be talking past each other. These three things are what Sola Scriptura actually is, the difference between material and formal authority, and infallibility as an inner worldview issue.

What is Sola Scriptura?

Simply put Sola Scriptura is 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.

This second sense, where scripture is not the final authority for the Protestant, is fundamental to understanding why the position is problematic. Since it reduces doctrine and theology to being a purely human endeavor. In fact it would reduce scripture to man made endeavor as well. With the only way to get out of it being an appeal to divine revelation. Which ultimately does not do much to solve the problem. As we shall hopefully see further down.

Material and Formal Authority 

Aristotle listed out four types of causes, two of which are relevant to this discussion. Material and Formal cause. The material cause of a wooden chair is wood. The formal cause is the blueprint/design which gives the wood its form or shape into a chair. Likewise when it comes to theology or rather the Christian faith as a whole, there is going to be a material authority and a formal authority (the only other option is a sort of Christian-agnosticism). So when Protestants say “The Bible is their final authority, while you take the Church and tradition” this would be correct if speaking of material authority. That is speaking in regards to the raw data, the source.  Since for Orthodox and Roman Catholics, the Bible isn’t the only infallible source. 

But in my experience that is not what they are trying to say. What they mean is that “Since scripture is my final material authority, it is my final formal authority as well.” But this is not necessarily the case. The Bible may be the final source of data (material cause) but formal authority is about arrangement of data. Claiming the Bible to be ones formal authority is equivalent to saying their interpretation is the inspired understanding of the text. Thus conflating their formal interpretation of the text, with the text itself. This may not be be a conscious act, but it is implied by what is being said. Things said by some of them such as “I only follow the Bible” implies that their formal understanding is equivalent to the Bible itself.

However it is the individual’s own understanding that determines the form/shape of their interpretation. And since Sola Scriptura teaches that “no ecclessial (church) body or individual has the authority to give a decree or doctrine which the individual is obligated to uphold”, the individual has the final say as to how they ought to understand/form the data. As such it is the individual, not scripture that is the final formal authority.

In this case then all doctrinal statements and formulations, all theology would be man made. And not beyond revision. It doesn’t mean that it could not be correct but, that nothing could ever carry divine/binding authority. In other words Christianity would have to be a faith with little to no borders as what one ought to call Christianity. As ultimately one ought not/is not bound to call it anything other than what they understand it be.

So this not a question about whether one can be their own formal authority and correct about a doctrine. But this is a matter of what it means to claim that scripture itself, not the individual or the Church is the formal authority. Since understanding determines the formal authority, it would be to claim that ones understanding has direct access to the divine intent/form for the text. In other words, it is not only to claim that their understanding of the text may be the same as the Divine Author’s, for various exegetical reasons. But that it in fact is the same and they know this to be the case. This however is to claim divine revelation. It would mean that their interpretation does not carry just a human authority, but since it is God’s understanding, it carries a divine authority. And others ought to believe it.

Now, they may not say this outright, or even claim this to be the case, but it is what such a position would imply. Many times too people may not claim that their doctrine is divinely set in stone, but they will indeed live and act as if it were. Also to claim that one’s interpretation has final formal authority is the Bible, is to deny Sola Scriptura. Since now the person themselves become another infallible source and rule of faith. And they now “[have] the authority to give a decree or doctrine which [individuals are] obligated to uphold, whether they see it that way or not.” Since their interpretation would be God’s. Much like a prophet sent by God, one may not believe them to be. But one is still obligated to believe.

This means then, according to Sola Scriptura, all formal arrangement is fallible and human, as such one cannot equate their arrangement with the data itself unless they are claiming to have have divine inspiration. Which means that ones interpretive framework, per this worldview is just as much a “man made tradition” as what Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics are said to follow. But for the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, not only is there a material authority that is divine (scripture and oral tradition (1) which together form sacred tradition) but there is a formal authority that is binding and divine too, the Church. While for Protestants there is a claim to a divine material authority, but only a human formal and binding authority.

But if Protestantism is true, and the canon is the collection of books that form the divine material source, how do we know that the canon itself is of divine origin? In other words, was the shape/form of the canon put together by a divine formal authority? Or a human one? To see this problem more clearly, we need to first dissolve a false dichotomy that is often put between scripture and tradition. Since scripture itself had to be passed down and the canon itself as arranged by the Church is passed down. So Holy Tradition, for the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, includes the scriptural tradition (Old and New Testament), Oral Tradition, and decrees of the Church. All of which form the borders of the faith, guarded by the Church and passed down, traditioned to the next generation. This for us is not just a human activity. But it is the activity of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Visible Church since as the Body of Christ She is united to Her Head, Jesus Christ. Such that when the Church speaks, Christ by His Spirit is speaking infallibly through humans.

As a Protestant though, one either accepts that the canon as arranged by the Church is divine and infallible, but that would mean rejecting the Protestant canon, or that the canon itself is ultimately man made, or that the Reformers have divinely and infallibly given the canon. Which would be to deny Sola Scriptura.

Saying too that the Bible is self authenticating whilst people disagree on what should count as the Bible, and claiming that God established no ecclessial authority which could make a canon binding, is to claim that all formal canons are reduced to man made opinions. Unless one is claiming direct special revelation. It is for this very reason, as said before, that Sola Scriptura necessarily implies that all formal declarations of doctrine cannot be beyond revision, since to do so would be to elevate the doctrine to the level of scripture.

Hence whilst the content of the doctrine may be true, one must say all formal interpretation are human traditions (maybe true, but human none the less). The problem is that the canon faces this same dilemma, it is either a human tradition or it is a binding from a divine ecclessial authority. The only other option is to move this divine guidance from the corporate level to the individual. So saying X canon is self authenticating (*to me*, is what they’re really saying), carries no more weight than saying X interpretation is self-authenticating (to me).

In other words, the canon is just as much a tradition as anything else. And it is either a human tradition both corporately and individually, or it is a divine tradition revealed corporately (in which case which corporate body has the authority to define it) or individually (which individual has had it revealed to them that it is X number of books, no more, no less?).

Even arguing as some do that a certain Church Father held to the 66 book Canon or that the Church once held to it wouldn’t advance the argument in favour of Protestantism.

1) Protestants do not believe that because a Church Father believed X, that X is binding on the Church. So to argue that a Father held to the X canon would on this view amount to a human opinion, unless said Father was said to be inspired. Secondly, the Orthodox Church does not teach that a belief is binding because a Father held to it. Nor would it be an argument against the Orthodox worldview to say that X Father held to a belief that is contrary to the formal of majority position of the Church. Since Orthodoxy does not stand or fall based on that. So arguing for the Protestant canon based on either of these notions does not help.

2) Protestants do not believe that the majority position of the Church or the formal position is necessarily binding on individuals. Or divinely inspired. As such even if one were to argue that the Church held either by majority or formally, the books of the Protestant canon, it would not mean that said position was inspired, since many other such things are rejected by Protestants as not being inspired, which meet the same requirements. Or close.

So the canon itself being decided by an ecclesial body and passed down as such is a tradition. And the Protestant canon is a Protestant tradition. So the only options for deciding a canon would be to say that it all ultimately human opinion, there is an ecclesial body which is guided by the Spirit to make known the inspired text or rather an appeal to a personal revelation as to what the canon is.

It is not “self authenticating” to the unregenerate man per this position. So the Spirit must enlighten the individual to see said self authtentication. As such, the person espousing this position is still

a) Appealing to divine revelation/intervention to reveal that X number of books and no more, no less are inspired.

b) That the Spirit illumined them and not others, including many people in the Church for quite a very long time. So they have it right while the Church as a whole did not. Which smacks of Gnosticism.

For the most part I do not think anyone on the Protestant side argues or would argue that God has made it self authenticating to them that X passage or X book is revealed. I’m sure that some who used to think that John 8:1-11 was inspired, but now doubt it due to arguments that it was a later add on, at one stage would have considered it “self-evident” scripture. Rather it seems one argues that God has used the canon as they know it to edify them. And from there it is assumed to be inspired. But whether God uses something for your edification, and whether Esther is inspired are two separate issues.

Infallibility and Worldviews

Often times too, when we say that per the Sola Scriptura worldview, one could be wrong about the canon (since individuals per se aren’t promised infallibility), the charge is then turned around to say that “Well you guys could be wrong about the Church being infallible so you’re in the same boat.”

As someone said to me “I’m asking you these questions to determine what your epistemic commitments are that would bring you to reject Sola Scriptura. On what grounds would you say that church cannot err?”

But that is missing the point. The thing is that infallibility for the Orthodox is an intra-worldview issue. One first comes to the conclusion that X body is the Church, and from there affirms what X teaches bona fide. For the one claiming sola scriptura however, infallibility is a starting point, since you must begin with a divine and infallible canon that is revealed to you, or claim it may be true but must be held to as man made, like one would hold say the Westminster confession.

While we’re asking them “based on your worldview, how do you consistently say X is true.” They’re asking us “How do you know your worldview is true.”

I think that it is pretty clear based on my arguments above what the epistemic issues with sola scriptura are. I reject it partly because by affirming it I’m either claiming that I have special revelation or that the canon is man made. Appealing to self-authentication doesn’t help the issue either, not only for the reasons I’ve already given above. But because whilst on Sola Scriptura one may have a metaphysical commitment that the scriptures cannot err, they do not have metaphysical commitment that they cannot err in what they claim is self authenticating. Unless of course they do. In other words, infallibility doesn’t just mean knowing something for sure, but the impossibility of getting it wrong. As such any worldview which meaningfully wants to employ infallibility must not only claim they have such a mechanism in place to produce it, but that there are certain conditions by which one can know when such a mechanism is working. So Sola Scripturist may believe that God is the grounds of infallibility, hence scripture from God is infallible. But nothing in this worldview commits one to believing that X group or Y individual will infallibly make known what is from God. Therefore mooting the strong foundation and surety that God’s infallible word was meant to be. And if the Bible is supposed to be the only divine thing we have, and it gets called into question, is it any wonder that doctrines soon follow? Is it any wonder that with no binding formal authority, an individualistic and subjective “spirituality” prone to heresy is ever an underlying intrinsic threat?

So asking me, how do I know the Church is infallible, is another way of saying “Why do you believe the Orthodox Church is the Church?” since infallibility is what it claims for itself, one must first believe that it is the Church. Much like one may first come to believe the historical evidence of the Resurrection and *then* come to believe that given you have faith Christ is who He claims to be, He must be infallible. So I don’t see how

a) Why I believe the Orthodox Church is infallible, has in impact on how consistent the worldview itself is, which is what the issue of Sola Scriptura is about, which worldview *if* it were true, makes more sense.

b) How it would answer the epistemic charges about the Sola Scriptura position? Eg demonstrating that the Orthodox Church is not what it claims to be, doesn’t make Sola Scriptura any more coherent.

That is why I am saying you are moving the goal posts.


  1. Oral Tradition doesn’t mean that till this day it is not written down or possible subject to verbal flux. But that it was not found explicitly in the New Testament text, but has its origins either in the collective and passed down understanding of the Church, verbally from the Apostles then written down in the following decades and centuries, or written by the Apostles but survived verbally, till at some stage it was written down.

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