The Canon Made Impossible: Ehrman, McDowell & an Unlikely AgreementFeb 20th, 2012 | By Guest Author | Category: Blog Posts
The following is a guest post written by Brent Stubbs, re-presenting material originally appearing at his blog, Almost Not Catholic. Brent majored in theological-historical studies with a minor in law at Oral Roberts University. His studies emphasized pre-Nicene and late Protestant Church history. Under the Reformed tutelage of Dr. Daniel Thimell–professor, former pastor, author of “God, Grace, and the Gospel”, and co-author of Christ in our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World –he developed a strong affinity for Reformed theology during his undergraduate studies, even visiting Kirk on the Hill Presbyterian Church (EPC), an almost unthinkable move for a lifetime Pentecostal. After college, he taught Bible and history at a few different Christian high schools. During that experience he became more viscerally aware of the panoply of theological opinions within Christendom and the strong implication, or rather lack thereof, with regards to truth. During this time of theological consternation, he obtained a Masters in Business Administration and left teaching to work in private industry and subsequently–and at the prompting of a friend–began exploring the claims of Catholicism. That journey eventually led him to the University of Dallas and their graduate philosophy program where he was trying to “fill in the gaps” and answer the question: “What is the difference between my subjective understanding of Catholicism and a Protestant’s claim to theological knowledge?” (Cf. The Tu Quoque.) In 2008, he and his wife and then 3 children (now 4 + 1 on the way!) entered into full communion with the Catholic Church.
I. Same Team: Fighting the Abuses of Higher Criticism
In this essay, I will show that although Protestants and Catholics share common interest contra the secular exegetes who desire to undermine the innerancy of Sacred Scripture, certain Protestant theories of the canon, by denying the authoritative agency of the Church in the formation of the canon, follow a very similar script to that of the secular exegetes who deny the divine agency of Christ and His Church.1 This becomes an oddly shared assumption between evangelical Protestants and secular exegetes — an unlikely agreement. Moreover, without the authoritative agency of the Church, the events of history leave us with no canon, and “inner witness” theories leave us without a credible one. Thus, the canon is made truly “impossible.”
Most Protestants love Jesus. These Protestants are “Jesus people,” and this love for Jesus gives them something in common with Catholics.2 Catholics, as the people who partake of Jesus’ body, blood, soul and divinity, cannot help but be endeared to them. Enter Bart Ehrman. A seeming enemy of both Jesus-loving Protestants and Catholics alike, Ehrman and his associates attempt to “debunk” the Sacred writings that we both hold in high regard. Much like the Jesus Seminar, Ehrman believes that through textual criticism and the historical critical method, he can prove the Bible to be an unreliable source and therefore not a supernatural book.3 Ehrman wields what he thinks are devastating blows to Christianity’s claims about Scripture. At this time, I will only mention that there is strong evidence to combat his arguments. Nevertheless, we can set those arguments aside and proceed having in our mind the obvious theological tension between Ehrman and evangelical Protestants.4
Thus, the Catholic Church and most Protestants are on the same team regarding the problems with the abuses of the historical-critical method. We both object to Ehrman’s claim that modern science disproves much of the New Testament. His position unnecessarily forces him to conclude that the Biblical witnesses could not have seen what they said they saw, and thus that they did not intend to convey what they apparently meant to convey. Conversely, the Catholic and Protestant approach to the texts does not close us off to the possibility of the supernatural. But in addition, the Catholic ‘approach to the text’ is altogether different from that of the historian looking back 2,000 years. We as a community extended through time from the day of Pentecost to the present, were there when the events happened, and bring these events forward to the present as a living memory preserved in our community in the form of Sacred Tradition.
II. History Will Not Give You A Canon
The Sacred Tradition is revealed and handed down within history, but is not the same as history. Unlike the Sacred Tradition, natural history does not require an infallible Magisterium to be understood or known with the certainty proper to our natural cognitive ability. History is not revealed religion but instead is something we can apprehend through the right use of our reason. History is the unfolding of and subsequent record of reality, not the in-breaking of the divine through accommodation and condescension as is the case for revealed religion. An article of faith and an article of history require different evidence and different authorities for that evidence, and that fact draws out the epistemological differences between history and theology (e.g., St. Mark and an eye-witness to a car accident). Of course, as I said, articles of faith come to us in history, but the fact that St. Mark said such-and-such at time “x” is different than the article of faith to which he gives witness. For example, the fact that Christ rose from the dead is a part of history.5 His descent into Hades and His sacrifice in the heavenly realm is not.
What does this have to do with the canon — as my title alludes? The canon is relevant because any student of ecclesial history, employing the right use of reason on the evidence from the early Church, must acknowledge that there was not consensus regarding the canon in the early Church. For example, Melito’s list excluded Esther. Origen is suspicious of James, II Peter, II and III John. Cyril of Jerusalem and Gregory of Nazianzus exclude the book of Revelation in their New Testament lists. 1 and 2 Clement were read in the liturgies of the early Church for some time.6 The book of Hebrews was called into question and a third letter to the Church in Corinth was revered in the East as canonical until as late as the fourth century.7 Lastly, we must admit that some canonical lists in antiquity provide us a 22-book N.T. canon while others do not. All of this without even mentioning the spurious and wildly redacted canonical lists of various sects!8 Thus, no list or set of lists in the historical writings of the early Church sufficiently corroborates a Protestant or Catholic canon in such a way as to necessitate the assent of the intellect.
In turn, it cannot be argued that the canon of Scripture comes to us as a fact in the same way as “the sky is blue” or “George Washington was our first president.” No, both of those latter facts are easily confirmed either through direct sense experience or indisputable historical evidence preserved by credible witnesses. Further, one cannot arrive at an article of faith — the canon being one such article — by using reason alone. An article of faith is a gift of grace. Thus, to receive it, grace must build upon nature (reason), so that the dogma we receive is not against nature nor is it merely the by-product of it. This particular type of argument was seminal during the Counter Reformation. If, as the Protestants claimed, the Magisterium of the Church was not needed as the “ground” for dogma, and reason was tainted by sin, how could Scripture alone plus reason alone get one to pure, undefiled Christian dogma? So in the case of the canon, if the historical record does not evidence consensus until the mid-fourth century, and none of us individually has been promised infallible judgment, what are we to think of the Christian canon?9
III. From Historical Fact to Subjective Fiction
In the face of the traditional view of the relationship between Church and dogma, Magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, decided to dismiss the Catholic view in favor of what he would call the “inner witness.”10 In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, he writes:
Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! (book I, ch. 7)
Notice that Calvin, like Ehrman, denies the agency of the Church (“our own nor by anyone else’s judgement”) in discerning the canon. We trust the canon not because God worked through the Church. We trust the canon because we feel it in our soul, before God alone. This reminds me of St. Francis de Sales’ words in Controversies:
Now let us see what rule they have for discerning the canonical books from all of the other ecclesiastical ones. “The witness,” they say, “and inner persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” Oh God, what a hiding place, what a fog, what a night! (Ch. V)
Calvin wants us to believe that the Spirit gives us an inner witness. Yet, where was this inner witness for the first four centuries of the Church? Why do not all of our canonical lists agree? We admit that St. Jerome was at first hesitant about the deuterocanonicals, but latter he defended them.11 Did he lose and then gain the Spirit? Did he have and then dispossess it? Surely we must believe — in view of the “inner witness” theory — that no one in all of patristic history had the Spirit!
So, how shall we proceed? At this point, we should admit that the canon is not and cannot be a mere “fact of history.” The evidence is such that reasonable men, apart from faith, will agree to disagree. Why? Because the facts themselves do not warrant one particular position over another. Thus, reason alone leaves the canon open. Similarly, the “inner witness” theory leaves the canon to subjective speculation. Why? Because it would seem that if the theory were to work at all, it should at least work best in the patristic period — when the Spirit was “fresh off the presses” so to speak. Even if we do not grant that period some special status, the vast array of canon theories amongst believers throughout all of ecclesial history, even among Reformers,12 makes the “inner witness” an apparently unattainable anomaly. Therefore, the only other option is the authorized agency of the Church guarding, clarifying, and providing an authorized determination of the Tradition regarding which books are sacred and which are not.
Fast forward a few hundred years. As I mentioned, some Protestants — like Ehrman and company — deny the supernatural agency of the Church in the determination of the canon in order to preserve their theory of Christian history which excludes the possibility of a divinely authorized, infallible Church.13 Starting with a theory — that the canon was already settled well before the Church “spoke”14 or that Christ must have implied what it was, they go on to do the same thing to the reality of the history of the canon that the Jesus Seminar types do to the Person of Christ. The Jesus Seminar and Ehrman reject “who” Christ is. Those who reject the Church’s role in defining the canon reject “who” She is as well. In other words, because Ehrman is committed to a scientistic, materialist worldview, he will not allow the evidence to point to a divine Christ. So, too, the Protestant — deeply committed to a theory of ecclesia that excludes the possibility of her exercising divine authority — puts forward claims that will not allow the evidence to point to a divinely authorized Church. For both, it is like watching a mime stuck in a fictitious box. It is clear that there is a way out, but the actor seems unwilling to do the obvious. For example, Micheal Vlach, Ph.D., a Professor of theology at Master’s Seminary, argues that we must distinguish between the canon’s nature and the canon’s discovery. He cites an argument made by James White that he thinks illustrates this point:
“I have written eight books. The action of my writing those books creates the canon of my works. If a friend of mine does not have accurate or full knowledge of how many books I have written, does that mean there is no canon of my books? No, of course not. In fact, if I was the only one who knew how many books I had written, would that mean that the canon of my books does not exist? The point is clear. The canon is one issue, and it comes from God’s action of inspiring the Scriptures. Our knowledge of the canon is another. Our knowledge can grow and mature, as it did at times in history. But the canon is not defined by us nor is it affected by our knowledge or ignorance.” (James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996. p. 94)
White and Vlach are right that all truth exists in the mind of God. No true existing thing has existence apart from God. However, almost everything we know, we know not because God knows it, but because God has used something or someone to communicate it to us. Through nature we know certain eternal qualities of God. Through the Church, we know the truth of Christian dogma. It is fine to assert that God knows the canon, but the question is how do we know the canon? That is the important question if the canon is to function at all as a dogma for Christians. Moreover, the Church must be a trustworthy conduit of this fact, in the same way that nature must be a trustworthy conduit of the eternal attributes of God. If not, St. Paul is wrong to tell us that natural theology portends the knowledge he claims for it. Of course, nature does in fact communicate what he claims regarding the eternal attributes of God, and, similarly, the Church (as St. Paul also claims) is the “ground and pillar of truth.” Thus, Valch and White unnecessarily divorce the canon from its epistemic conduit. This unnatural dislocation is motivated, no doubt, by Valch and White’s insistence that no authoritative Church is necessary to know the canon. Yet, such a dislocation makes certain knowledge of the canon impossible or merely subjective at best.
We might also turn to popular evangelical apologist, Josh McDowell, for an example in his book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, where he argues that the Church did not define but rather perceived or recognized the canon. This seems like a step in the right direction inasmuch as it is the Church, and not each individual, but of course we would want to ask how and who acted to perceive and recognize the canon, and what would motivate us to care that they did so. Further, it is not clear how this definition does not necessitate a Catholic view of the Church — one that McDowell would no doubt reject. 15 This particular view necessitates a Catholic notion of the Church because if the “who” and “how” were not divinely granted grace to perceive the canon, we are left with the epistemic despair of something approaching R.C. Sproul’s “fallible list.”16 In reply, McDowell might say that this is a grace given to all the faithful, and therefore doesn’t require a special charism given to the Magisterium. However, this is problematic on at least two levels. First, on the level of the individual, this is as specious as the “inner witness” theory — only at a grand scale. Also, considering various “Christian” groups who would appose the Protestant canon — even, for example, Catholics — it suffers from the “No True Scotman” ad hoc fallacy:
1. All Christians are given a grace to recognize the Protestant canon
2. Brent is a Christian; he does not recognize the Protestant canon
3. Therefore, Brent is not a true Christian
Second, on the level of the community, the canon is a part of the Sacred Tradition of the Church. For that reason, the Magisterium is required as the authoritative steward — to determine what in fact constitutes authentic Christian Tradition. In this way the Church does not “create” Sacred Tradition, in much the same way that She is not the author of Scripture. It is her role to interpret, to “canonize” so to speak, the Sacred Tradition in such a way as to say “this” not “that” is included therein. If, however, McDowell grants the Catholic Church only this one infallible perception and reception, it would be ad hoc to do so. There would be no good reason not to attribute this grace to the Catholic Church’s other dogmatic decisions. Instead of either option, his argument does not address the question of agency — who receives or recognizes the canon — which is at the heart of the Catholic position.
McDowell might argue here, pace Catholicism, that at the time of the canonization of the New Testament, the Church was unified, unlike today. However, such an argument would suffer from negligent handling of the historic facts of that time on at least two counts. First, if we place the official canonization date in the early-fourth century — excluding earlier dates because of a lack of consensus or dogmatic action of the Church, at that same time Donatism and Arianism are in full swing. This is hardly a picture of a “unified Church” in the sense that an evangelical would qualify.17 Also, the Arian canon of Scripture was acutely different from the canon used in the Catholic Church.18 Second, the historic record simply does not evince that the various churches throughout Christendom were using all and only the same books. Thus if one abandons the authority of the Church to circumscribe, defend and interpret the deposit of faith, one is left with only two other options: either an ad hoc decision or the “inner witness.” One fails the mark of reason, the other the mark of faith.
IV. Different Teams: An Unlikely Agreement
What are the implications of such arguments to the credibility of Christianity and what is the relationship to Ehrman? First, Ehrman and the Jesus Seminar types are thinking within the theory-paradigm of higher criticism. They reject the authority of God’s divine agent — the Church — to canonize Scripture. For those in that camp, the canon does not rest upon the authority of Christ’s presence in His Church — mediated through His Apostles and their successors. On their view, no such authority can exist! No, under Erhman’s theory, the canon must be known like any other historic fact (like “George Washington was our first president”). Thus, Ehrman arrives at a much different canon than the Christian one, not because he ignores historic facts but because he includes those facts (e.g., the lack of consensus) while rejecting the authority of the Church. This is motivated by a commitment to a theory that excludes the work of the Holy Spirit through the agency of the Church, and such a movement necessitates a position that leaves the canon question open.
Similarly, some Protestants are committed to a theory-paradigm that excludes the possibility that God used the Church authoritatively — forming an unlikely agreement with Ehrman’s camp. So, on the one hand Catholics and Protestants are on the same team — defending the inspiration of Scripture and attesting to the historical reality of the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, on the other, the Protestant who does not recognize but even rejects Christ’s authority mediated through His Apostles and their successors (the ones with the keys of the kingdom) encourages what I believe to be an intellectual quagmire that bolsters Ehrman’s right to put forward a mythic view of Christianity. Why? Because Ehrman understands that reason alone will not get you to dogma — that is why he has none. From there he makes an intellectual leap that makes Christianity out to be merely a personal and psychological catharsis. This mythic view of Christianity is only perpetuated when the rule (canon) of Scripture finds its final ground in the subject’s intense experience of God (à la Calvin).
“What a hiding place, what a fog, what a night!”
V. Why We Trust “The Canon”
In truth, history does not give us either a Protestant or Catholic canon. The Church does. Her actions are not a-historical, but neither are they merely the work of an historian. Having the “mind of Christ” and the Divine paraclete given to “guide into all truth” of the “things that are to come”19 , the Church faithfully guards the deposit of faith — in history — and when prompted, defines those dogmas which act as boundary markers of orthodoxy.
The Christian canon does not act like the “rule” (the meaning of the word “canon”) of the Iliad, as if the textual analysis that would lead one to circumscribe what is and is not a part of Homer’s epic poem could also lead one to what is and what is not God’s Holy Writ. A method to circumscribe the Illiad is not sufficient to circumscribe Sacred Scripture. While an academic panel may suffice for the Illiad, no such panel has the authority or divine guidance to lead us to a “Christian canon” worth trusting. This notion certainly is not foreign to the Protestant faith. As a Protestant, I accepted that the gospel of St. Matthew is supernatural while at the same time acknowledging that God used St. Matthew to write it. I did not trust St. Matthew’s gospel because God dropped it out of the sky or because my heart burned within me when I read about Jesus’s genealogy in Matthew chapter one. In a similar way, as a Catholic, I trust the canon of Scripture I have because it came to me by way of God’s working through His Church. It is the Church’s signature–so to speak–that is at the bottom of the table of contents. Invested with divine authority and guaranteed divine guidance, She has led the people of God into the truth regarding the dogmas of the faith throughout time. One such dogma is the canon.
Lastly, and to draw an analogy, Christ is trustworthy because He is God not because our senses can perceive that He is. Faith is not against reason or our senses, but the faith is not a by-product of rational process alone. No, it is precisely when St. John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” that men and women were compelled to exercise the virtue of faith and believe in that which they could not see. This faith is not against reason (e.g., history affirms the reality of the resurrection) but also is not grounded purely in reason. So, too, the Scriptures receive their authority directly from God. Yet, just as we perceive the Father through the Son, so too do we in the age of the Church perceive the Son’s working to bring about a canon of Scripture through His Church empowered by the Holy Spirit, the one called along side to help (παράκλητος-paraclete). This does not detract from God’s glory. On the contrary, it proclaims and affirms His divine plan to build a Church, a family, against which not even the gates of hell will prevail, and Who would be a sign to the world of the eternal reality of the Kingdom of God.
- I should note, that when I say ‘canonize,’ I do not mean to imply that the Church imbues particular books with the quality of inspiration. God does that. Instead, like all doctrine, I mean that the Church has been authorized by God to determine, to interpret what in fact God has done. In this case, it would imply that the Church would declare “these” and “not those” books are to be read in the liturgy, studied for doctrine and venerated as a part of Christian piety. [↩]
- See Dr. Michael Liccione’s guest post here that distinguishes between two species of Protestants. [↩]
- For a discussion of how the historical critical method can be used for the glory of God, see Verbum Domini. [↩]
- The point of this post is not to combat Erhman’s particular arguments. For an accessible and academic treatment of the topic, see Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. You can find a number of YouTube video responses to Ehrman by Norman Geisler and William Lane Craig here. See also http://ehrmanproject.com/index. [↩]
- I do not mean to imply that the resurrection is a natural act. I only mean to imply that it is an act that is subject to public scrutiny. We have a record of those who witnessed His death and we have a record of what He said after He resurrected. On these facts alone is the resurrection properly understood as a part of “history.” [↩]
- Clement of Alexandria actually called 1 Clement Scripture. See “The Church History of Eusebius,” book 3, Ch.16. [↩]
- Canon of the NT: Its Origin, Development, and Significance, by Bruce M. Metzger, 1997. [↩]
- See the Nag Hammadi Corpus. [↩]
- See CCC paras. 120 & 1117. [↩]
- “John Calvin on the True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church,” in Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith, by John Calvin; trans. Henry Beveridge. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1958 (reprinted from Calvin Trans. Soc., Edinburgh, 1851), p. 267. [↩]
- Against Rufinus, 11:33 [AD 402]. [↩]
- See Luther’s Antilegomena. [↩]
- See former Roman Catholic Williams Webster’s essay here, where despite casting aspersions on the Catholic canon, his very evidence casts aspersions upon a Protestant one. You can also find a list of essays here from various Protestant scholars discussing the canon in a similar way. See especially Professor Micheal Vlach, Ph.D’s article, “How We Got Our Bible.” (I. Introduction of Canonicity, Sec. C). Also, see James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1996. Lastly, for a perspective that admits that the canon is not closed see this guest post by Lutheran Josh Strodtbeck. [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- See CCC, para. 1117. [↩]
- For a more thorough discussion of Sproul’s view found in Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine, see Tom Brown’s analysis in Sect. 3 of “The Canon Question.” [↩]
- In a Catholic sense, unity is achieved through communion with Christ through His Apostles and their successors in union with the Chair of St. Peter. For the evangelical argument, unity would have to mean a lack of “sects” or “branches” as there are today. However, the Donatists would have to be described as a branch in evangelical ecclesiology. See St. Optatus on Schism and The Bishop of Rome. [↩]
- You can find a discussion of the Arian canon here. [↩]
- John 16:13, D-R. [↩]