A commonplace argument among Catholic apologists, whenever the topic of sola scriptura arises, is that without an authority external to the Bible, one can not know which books belong in the Bible in the first place. No Protestant would argue that the table of contents is infallible, and yet somehow one must know that Galatians belongs in the Bible but not the Epistle to the Laodiceans, the Gospel of Luke but not the Gospel of Philip.
Protestant apologist Stephen Wolfe, in “A Short Defense of Sola Scriptura,” tries to sidestep this problem by arguing that sola scriptura, as a doctrinal principle, is subsequent to the process of codification. The Church had authority for a time (to tell us what books belong in the Bible) but it ceased to exist once the canon was closed.
The doctrine of sola scriptura is not about a list of books, but the principle that all doctrine must come from scripture. In other words, all doctrine must come from a certain type of revelation, namely, inscripturated divine communication. The codification of the canon as a list of books is subsequent to the receiving of texts as scripture, not prior to it; and saying that the rule of faith is contained in the sixty-six book canon of scripture presupposes this codification as subsequent.
All this bears a striking similarity to a point which Dr. James White has made before, most notably in his 1997 debate with Gerry Matatics. In that debate he said that sola scriptura is a “normative condition” of the church that does not exist “during times of enscripturation.” It only shows up when the canon is closed. The anonymous “TurretinFan” made the same point in a more recent debate with William Albrecht, when he said that sola scriptura is “what we do with the Bible once we have the Bible.”
It’s a clever argument, to be sure. It tries to get around the fact that the Church must first tell us what the canon is, by saying that sola scriptura did not exist then anyway. The canon needed to be written first. Then it needed to be codified. But then, once all that was done, sola scriptura took over and we did not need these external authorities any longer.
The problem with that argument is that it leaves at least four things unexplained.
1. If that were true, what about the many Christians who could not read?
Even Reformed scholar Michael J. Kruger concedes that the literacy rate among Christians in the early centuries of the church was somewhere between ten and fifteen percent. How can sola scriptura function if such large numbers can’t even read the Bible in the first place and must rely on other authorities to tell them what it says and how it is to be understood?
2. If that were true, why would God not have told us about sola scriptura somewhere in the biblical text?
You don’t find any passage in the Bible that says we are to be governed by the Bible alone. Instead, we find texts, like 1 Tim. 3:15, that tell us about the authority of the Church.
3. If that were true, why do we not hear about it in the Church Fathers?
Instead, we find people like Ignatius of Antioch telling us, “You make sure you listen to the bishop.” Why did we have to wait for James White to tell us that sola scriptura took over when apostolic authority left off? For when I pressed him on it, Dr. White was not able to tell me of one single person, before himself, who made that point. Now Reformed apologists all ape something Dr. White said in 1997 only when Mr. Matatics forced him to concede that the apostles did not practice sola scriptura.
4. If that were true, why was the Church wrong about the number of books in the canon for 1200 years?
For all that time, Christians thought that Baruch was canonical scripture. For all that time, they thought that Tobit was the inspired word of God. If the Church had the authority to recognize what books were in the canon, how did they get it wrong, and why was Martin Luther the first to figure that out? Where in the Bible did Martin Luther learn that Wisdom shouldn’t be in the Bible? If, once the canon is settled, we’re supposed to follow scripture alone, how is it that scripture gets removed from scripture?
Unless there are satisfactory answers to questions such as these, Protestant attempts to defend sola scriptura will only create more problems than they solve.