Andrew Fulford Archive Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism Responsa Sacred Doctrine

All That the Prophets Have Spoken: A Rejoinder to Feser Pt. 2

This is part 2 of a two-part reply. The first part is here.

In my previous post I indicated that it would be helpful to provide a model for how the Jews could know the OT canon without an infallible magisterium, and in the following I will suggest how this process occurred. Any explanation for how this is possible needs to answer two questions. Firstly, how did the original audience in antiquity know which texts were God-breathed? Secondly, how could later generations come to know the same thing? (In the following I am drawing deeply on the following works: Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church, Andrew Steinmann, The Oracles of GodJohn Wenham, Christ and the Bible, and Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited. Virtually none of my points below are original to me, and I encourage readers to study these works. Online versions of the same kind of argument can be found here and here)

How did the original hearers come to know which texts were God-breathed?

In Exodus 4:1-9, after Moses has received his prophetic commission, he challenges the Lord with the following question, and receives the following reply:

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”

Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?”

“A staff,” he replied.

The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”

Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has appeared to you.”

Then the Lord said, “Put your hand inside your cloak.” So Moses put his hand into his cloak, and when he took it out, the skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.

“Now put it back into your cloak,” he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh.

Then the Lord said, “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.”

The question that Moses asks is essentially the same as our question: how will people know when a message is from God? The answer is clear: God will provide miraculous confirmation that the messenger is speaking for him.

Moses sets the pattern for the rest of history. When the Law addresses tests for prophets, it gives two that help to rule out candidates: their claimed miraculous confirmation fails to come to pass (Deut 18:22), or they contradict the previous word of the Lord (Deut 18:20). The motive of the question reveals how a true prophet could be detected: they preach a message that coheres with already established revelation, and they provide miraculous evidence that God is speaking through them.

Beyond the books of Moses, a scan of the OT reveals that many of the books are named for the prophets who are their authors.  And if a prophet was made a prophet by means of “standing in the divine council” (i.e., receiving divine revelation) (Jer. 23:22), then several other major historical figures would qualify, including David and Solomon. Finally, prophets active in the last period of the Old Testament, like Malachi (or arguably even Nehemiah, cf. Neh. 2:12), would have been known around the time that some of the historical books from that period were being written, and so could have provided inspired witness to their scriptural status.

The Old Testament as an historical source provides corroboration that it was regarded as canonical, as a divinely given rule (e.g., Exod. 24:3-8; Deut. 31:9-13; 2 Kings 23:1-3; Neh. 8:1-18). The existence of a divinely authoritative written text was also not accidental to the redemptive historical activity of God. On the contrary, in setting up a covenant with Israel on the lines of ANE suzerain-vassal treaties, God took over a form of relation to his people that brought with it authoritative texts. That is, such treaties involved texts that included the following: a preamble identifying the suzerain, a historical prologue giving the story of the relationship between the Lord and vassal, stipulations and obligations for each party to fulfill, blessings and curses that follow on subsequent relations to the stipulations, and a deposit of the written text into the sanctuary of the people (see John Walton, Ancient Israelite Literature in Its Cultural Context for more on this point). The entirety of Deuteronomy follows this pattern, and it is not difficult to see how the rest of the entire OT functions to elaborate on or another aspects of these covenant documents (history, threats of punishment and promise of blessing, etc.).

It was natural, then, given that this type of covenant was established by God through a prophet, that inspiration would extend from oral into written texts even within the OT. As Roger Beckwith writes:

Since the Scriptures were God-given and sacred, and often originated with prophets, the concept of inspiration was extended from the oral form of the messages of the prophets to their written form, and was applied to these in every part. This development of thought is well advanced in the Old Testament itself. Twice at least God is spoken of as the writer of the Law (2 Kings 17.37; Hos. 8.12). Deuteronomy often speaks of itself as a law in written form (Deut. 17.14-20; 28.58, 61; 29.20f., 27; 30.10; 31.9-13, 19, 22, 24-26), so, when it declares its law to be authoritative in every part (Deut. 4.2; 12.28, 32; 17.19; 28.1, 14f.), this applies fully to the written form of it. The same teaching, that every part of the written Law is authoritative, is implicit in 1 Kings 8.56; 2 Kings 21.8 (where the written form of the Law is presumably in view) and explicit in Josh 1.7f.; 23.6; 2 Kings 22.13; 1 Chron. 16.40 (where the word ‘book’ is used), and it is extended to the written form of Jeremiah’s prophecies in Jer. 26.13. The heavenly setting, eternity and purity of the Law—probably the written Law—is affirmed in Ps. 119.89, 140, 152, 160. In certain places the expression ‘as it is written’ is used, without further explanation of where it is written (Ezra 3.4; Neh. 8.15; 2 Chron. 30.5, 18; cp. Ps. 149.9), and this absolute use is extremely significant, since it evidently means ‘as it is written in the well-known and authoritative Scriptures’. (68-69)

As a consequence of this, Jews considered these written scriptural texts verbally inspired in their entirety and infallible. Once again, Beckwith:

The way Scripture is used in the writings, from the Dead Scrolls onwards, which quote it in this manner [e.g., with phrases like “it is written”], seems clearly to imply that its inspiration is verbal. Such, indeed, is the explicit teaching of the rabbinical literature: even the words of Scripture come not from the human thoughts or wisdom of the authors, but are spoken and written down from the mouth of God or in the Holy Spirit. Consequently, when a passage of the Old Testament is quoted or referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls, in Philo or in the Mishnah, the writer frequently rests his argument on a single word. Nor is the New Testament any exception (Mark 12.35-7; John 10.34; Gal. 3.16; Heb. 2.8, 11f.; 3.7-4.11; 7.2; 1 Pet. 3.5f.). Jesus and the apostles, like the authors of the rabbinical literature, are perfectly ready to paraphrase their quotations on occasion, so as to make a point, but is on the actual words of Scripture that they ultimately rest their case, and it is to these they appeal in proof that their teaching, and not any rival teaching, is the true interpretation of the Old Testament. Verbal inspiration and infallibility always go hand in hand, and it is therefore no surprise to find Philo describing the Pentateuch as the Law free from falsehood (Quaest. Et Sol. In Exodum 2.42), and Josephus saying that the biblical records, being written by prophets through divine inspiration, contain no discrepancy, and do not disagree or conflict with each other, but are justly believed (Against Apion 1.7f., or 1.37f.). Similarly, one of the main reasons for the rabbinical disputes about five of the canonical books was that they contained passages which seemed to disagree with each other or to disagree with the Pentateuch, the implication being that such contradictions within Scripture are impossible. (70-71) [See this recent post by Steve Hays for corroboration on this point.]

Jesus manifestly agrees with this conception of scripture, as is evident from the Matthew and John texts I quoted in the first part of this rejoinder. Beckwith mentions Josephus above, and it is worth stopping to see what the Jewish historian tells his Gentile readers about the beliefs of the Jews regarding the scriptures (Against Apion 1.7-8):

But what is the strongest argument of our exact management in this matter is what I am now going to say, that we have the names of our high priests from father to son set down in our records for the interval of two thousand years; and if any of these have been transgressors of these rules, they are prohibited to present themselves at the altar, or to be partakers of any other of our purifications; and this is justly, or rather necessarily done, because every one is not permitted of his own accord to be a writer, nor is there any disagreement in what is written; they being only prophets that have written the original and earliest accounts of things as they learned them of God himself by inspiration; and others have written what hath happened in their own times, and that in a very distinct manner also.

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another, [as the Greeks have,] but only twenty-two books, 1 which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death. This interval of time was little short of three thousand years; but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history hath been written since Artaxerxes very particularly, but hath not been esteemed of the like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there hath not been an exact succession of prophets since that time; and how firmly we have given credit to these books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add any thing to them, to take any thing from them, or to make any change in them; but it is become natural to all Jews immediately, and from their very birth, to esteem these books to contain Divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be willingly to die for them.

It is important to note what Josephus says: the scriptures are infallible, they match up exactly with the Protestant OT canon, and no further books were added to those because there ceased being a succession of prophets, i.e., prophecy stopped happening. Josephus was not alone in believing in such a cessation. Steinmann points out explicit and implicit corroboration for this point in several early Jewish texts: in Ben Sira, whose praise of the ancestors seems to entail a canon closed in the Persian period, 1 Maccabees 4:46, which notes there was no prophet in those days, the New Testament implicitly (perhaps Matt 23:34-36; Luke 11:49-51), 2 Esdras, which gives a canon as a 24 book collection from Ezra, and rabbinic writings such as t. Sota 13:2 (Steinmann 190).

This tradition naturally gives rise to a question: how did the Jews know that prophecy had ceased, and so canonical revelation along with it? Given our earlier answer to how they identified prophets, the reply to this question seems fairly easy to discern: they stopped receiving the miraculous confirmation that indicated prophetic activity.

Thus, prophets claimed miraculous confirmation for their teaching, and among the things they taught were that specific texts they authored were divinely inspired. But this leads to our second question:

How did they ensure this knowledge was passed on? How could later generations of Jews know which texts the miraculously attested divine spokesmen claimed were inspired?

The answer is twofold: by means of a temple archive, and by tradition.

Like their pagan neighbours (Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians), the Israelites and Jews followed the practice of keeping their holy books in their sanctuary (Beckwith 83). We see evidence for this from within the OT itself. Moses begins by putting the law of the covenant in the holy of holies, and then Deuteronomy (Exod 25:16, 21; Deut 10:1-15; 31:24-26). Josuha and Samuel are recorded as adding to this archive (Josh. 24.26; 1 Sam. 10:25) Later, during Josiah’s reign, the book of the Law is rediscovered in that same archive (2 Kings 22:8; 23:2, 24). Evidence suggests that this practice continued during the Second Temple (2 Macc. 2.13-15), and persisted up until the temple was destroyed in 70 AD. Beckwith writes regarding Josephus:

Josephus’s references to the Temple Scriptures are of particular interest, because of the first-hand information which was available to him, both as a priest and as an acquaintance of Vespasian and Titus. He was himself present at the capture of Jerusalem by the Romans, and records that a copy of the Jewish Law from the Temple was taken away to Rome and carried in the victors’ triumph, after which it was deposited in Vespasian’s palace (War 7.5.5, 7, or 7.148, 150, 162). He also records that, when the Romans captured the city, other copies of the Holy Books were given by Titus to Josephus himself (Life 75, or 418). Did these also come from the Temple? Since the copies in the Temple would have had particular sanctity and authority, its seems not unlikely that they did. In this case, the references which Josephus makes in his Antiquities to particular passages of the Temple Scriptures presumably relate to the copies now in his own possession. (83)

The Jews would have natural motivations to want to preserve their scriptures in such an archive. The first one has already been mentioned, that of the nature of suzerain-vassal treaties. Another is revealed by the recovery of the Law in Josiah’s reign. That is, it is apparent oral tradition alone failed to keep the Law within the living memory of the people; they were shocked when they found the book in the Temple. The superiority of written texts for the purposes of reminding God’s people of his word could not be clearer from this object lesson.

At the same time, the Jews could know which books were considered scripture the same way that modern day historians know that, e.g., Julius Caesar wrote the Gallic Wars. That is, they know this through a chain of testimony that spans centuries.

So, we now have a complete model for how Jews could know which texts were scriptural without an infallible institution. The prophets would hear from God with a commission to speak and write texts on his behalf; they would teach that their texts were divinely inspired, and receive miraculous confirmation that this was the case, that their teaching was divinely backed. Subsequently, their books would be put into the temple archive, and knowledge of them disseminated throughout the Jewish people. Later, Jews could verify which books the prophets wrote under inspiration through tradition (which texts their fellow villagers said they received from their ancestors; which texts they might have had in their local synagogue, etc.), and they could verify their tradition by checking the temple archive.

It is important to recognize this tradition was not infallible; there was no visible institution that had a divine promise of infallibility when speaking ex cathedra; the tradition was the same as garden variety human tradition, passed on by human beings who, though fallible, are still capable of telling the truth.

With this model in place, we can suggest in outline how the early church could have identified which books should be included in the New Testament canon even if the See of Peter did not have the charism of infallibility when speaking ex cathedra.

How was the New Testament canon formed?

We should begin by recognizing the Jewish nature of the earliest recipients of the Gospel message. As Jews, the same covenantal background I have already traced, which expected treaty documents to follow from the ratifying of covenants, formed them. This is evident in a Jew like Paul who virtually equates the Old Covenant with the Old Testament (and is the source of our calling it by that name: 2 Cor 3:14). Thus, when Christians came to believe that Christ had inaugurated the New Covenant, it would be entirely natural for them to expect further written revelation. Further, the OT encourages this expectation in texts like Deut 18:18, where God promises Moses he will raise up another prophet, whom Christians identified with Christ.

In line with this expectation, the New Testament suggests that the apostolic message would carry the authority of Christ. Jesus sent out his apostles as his ambassadors (Mark 3:14-15), just as he himself had been sent by the Father (John 20:21). He promised that the Holy Spirit would come to lead them, those who had been with him from the beginning (John 15:26-27), into all truth (John 14:16-17, 26; 16:13-15). God himself, in fact, had sent the apostles (Acts 10:41-42), and the result was that the words of the apostles were put on par with those of the Old Testament (2 Pet. 3:2). The apostles were conscious of this calling. An example appears in Paul’s writings, as Wenham notes:

Paul is conscious of speaking the word of God, not merely according to the best of his limited human ability, but in language that is given by God: ‘But we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but by the Spirit’ (1 Cor. 2:13). The authority pertaining to his spoken words and to his written words are the same: ‘Hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter’ (2 Thes. 2:15); ‘what we say by letter when absent, we do when present’; ‘I write this while I am away from you, in order that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority which the Lord has given me’ (2 Cor. 10:11; 13:10). Disobedience to the epistle demands a man’s ejection from fellowship: ‘If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him’ (2 Thes. 3:14). Recognition of the authority of what Paul writes is a criterion of spiritual understanding: ‘If any one thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord’ (1 Cor. 14:37). Paul’s epistles were intended to be read in the Christian assemblies: ‘I adjure you by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brethren’ (1 Thes. 5:27); ‘When this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans: and see that you read also the letter from Laodicea’ (Col. 4:16). (122)

Elsewhere, the apostle Peter recognized the scriptural status of Paul’s writings (2 Peter 3:15-16), as Paul recognizes Luke’s (1 Tim 5:18).

This conception of apostolic authority would be reinforced by the widespread early Christian belief that the apostolic office was foundational and unrepeatable: the faith they delivered is once and for all time (Jude 3), they are called the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20; Rev. 21:14), pillars of the church (referring to Peter, James, and John, and by implication Paul: Gal 2:9), and Peter as the primus inter pares is called the Rock on which the church is built (Matt. 16:18). Later, post-biblical texts confirm this belief was widespread (Kruger (178n81) notes as examples: 1 Clem. 42.1-2; 47.1-3; Ign. Rom. 4.4; Pol. Phil. 6.3; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3; Dial 106).

The conception of apostles as both prophetic, ambassadors for God as the OT prophets were, and foundational, coheres naturally with the self-consciousness of someone like Paul, who seems to have regarded his own writings as divinely inspired. And it also explains how the early church could have come to know the NT as scripture: the apostles themselves taught the churches, with miraculous confirmation, that these texts were scriptural.

This brings me to the end of my, rather long, digression. However, I hope it is clear that none of this was really a digression; it sketches the outline of the Protestant answer to how scripture can be known as such by appealing to historical evidence. With this in place, I will turn briefly to some of the remaining objections Dr. Feser raised.

How do we know which inspired writings are scripture?

The first one builds on a distinction between divinely inspired writings and scripture:

First and foremost is that it simply is not really even a prima facie response at all, because it changes the subject.  The subject is the question of exactly which writings are to be counted as part of scripture; what Turretin and Fulford are addressing instead is the different question of what defense can be given of the divine inspiration of certain specific writings typically claimed to be scriptural. … The Turretin-Fulford argument has the same problem.  At best it would show that certain specific writings (such as those associated with Moses and the apostles) are divinely inspired.  It would not tell us whether or not other books are scriptural.

The briefest way I can think to address this objection is as follows: the scriptures were considered the Writings simply because they were divinely inspired; that is what distinguished them from other writings, and this is why they were treasured as distinct, as is apparent from examples such as Josephus. And thus establishing the divine inspiration of a text is the same thing as establishing its status as scripture.

How do we know the scriptures are entirely infallible?

The second objection is about how scriptures could be known to have plenary verbal inspiration and infallibility:

Suppose a skeptic agreed that the books traditionally associated with Moses and the apostles contained solid evidence about various historical events, including even miraculous events, and about the teachings of the prophets who performed the miracles.  Such a skeptic could still ask, in a way that is perfectly consistent with that acknowledgement: How does that show that those books are themselves divinely inspired, infallible, etc. in their entirety?

The answer follows from all that has been said above. The prophets received miracles to confirm that they spoke from God; it would be unreasonable to suggest that when a prophet claims to speak for God, and then says that God will confirm this by performing a miracle, and then the miracle happens, that they were lying. If a prophet then said “This text I just wrote is entirely inspired”, their audience would be rational in believing them. Entailed in this claim, as part of its meaning as it would be understood by its original audience, was that the inspired text was infallible because it was inspired. Later generations could receive all of these beliefs by means of a chain of testimony, local synagogue or church archives, and prior to AD 70 in the case of the OT,  by means of the temple archives, where books were placed because of their inspired status.


Though much more could be said, I will end my reply to Dr. Feser here. Though we may continue to disagree about the veracity of sola scriptura, I hope I have at least made a reasonable case that the doctrine is coherent, contra the Jesuit arguments this discussion began with.

18 replies on “All That the Prophets Have Spoken: A Rejoinder to Feser Pt. 2”


As a Catholic, I’d like to thank you for your series of posts on sola Scriptura, which were genuinely illuminating and which helped clear up a lot of misunderstandings of the Protestant position on my part. I still have a few questions, though, which you or some commenter might like to answer:

1. You acknowledge that the Jews hesitated about including certain books in their canon. Esther is one notable example, and the Song of Songs is another: it never even mentions God. And in the New Testament, the controversy over the letter to the Hebrews and the book of Revelation continued until late in the fourth century, as the authenticity of these books was (and still is) considered doubtful. How would you defend the inclusion of these books in the canon of Scripture?

2. Some time ago, I read an article by Aaron Brake at which argued (as you do) that the Jewish canon was identical to the Protestant Old Testament. But recently, someone directed me to an article by Professor Michael Barber at which contradict the conclusions of Brake’s article, citing more recent scholarship (including a collection of essays called “The Canon Debate”). Would you care to comment?

3. Re your comments on the correct interpretation of Aristotle’s writings: one commenter on Ed Feser’s latest post suggested that while a living, infallible interpreter couldn’t settle all questions that might arise on the meaning of what he wrote, such a hypothetical interpreter could certainly transfer many exegetical questions about Aristotle from the “totally up in the air” category (e.g. Aristotle’s views on personal immortality) to the relatively clear-cut and non-controversial category (e.g. Aristotle’s distinction between act and potency), thereby substantially reducing modern readers’ uncertainty about what Aristotle meant. Likewise, a living, infallible interpreter of Scripture wouldn’t be able to settle all exegetical controversies, but he would be able to make Scripture much clearer. Or would you disagree?

4. Finally, it seems to me as a Catholic that relying on the Bible (even when one is guided by reason and godly philosophy) leaves several important doctrinal questions up in the air. To name a few: the Bible does not settle the issue of whether we should go to church on Saturday, Sunday or a day of our own choosing; or the issue of whether not only children, but also infants may be baptized; or the issue of whether Christ intended an ecclesiastical hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons or just elders and deacons. What general principles would you suggest for resolving these vexed issues, based on the Bible alone?

Thanks, Peter. I suppose Wenham’s place would be a good one to start with, in that it is the shortest and gives Jesus’ view on scripture. Then I would read Beckwith, then Steinmann (both of whom are writing about the OT), then Kruger (who writes about the NT).

//To name a few: the Bible does not settle the issue of whether we should go to church on Saturday, Sunday or a day of our own choosing; or the issue of whether not only children, but also infants may be baptized; or the issue of whether Christ intended an ecclesiastical hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons or just elders and deacons. What general principles would you suggest for resolving these vexed issues, based on the Bible alone?//

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.


Thanks for your questions.

(1) From my study, it seems that both Esther and Song of Songs were considered canonical by the Jews. See my answer to 2. below for further references. As for Revelation and Hebrews, I would argue that the evidence we have points to the apostle John being the author of the former, and Paul of the latter. Not many would agree with me about the latter point, even among conservatives, but if I am wrong about it, then I would say we still have good evidence that the book was aurthorized by some apostle, if it was not directly written by Paul himself. See the second web link I gave when I was listing my sources for further discussion on that matter. That it took time for empire-wide consensus to form is not surprising, given how fast information could travel, the uneven geographical distribution of knowledge about the books, etc.

(2) I think Steinmann’s treatment of those historical matters is superior to that article. I would commend his book to you.

(3) Yes, I think in theory if there were such an infallible interpreter he could hypothetically make some things clearer. However, I don’t think that tells us anything about what God has actually given us. And in fact I don’t think the historical evidence we have suggests that God has done so. He expects us to get along without such an interpreter, it seems, and part of my argument is that what we have is good enough for his purposes for history.

(4) Those are great questions, and I can’t answer them all briefly, except to give my positions. It seems to me that:

(a) the apostles began a practice of having the church meet together on “the Lord’s Day” while they were present, and that has continued ever since
(b) the apostles allowed for congregations to make a prudential decision as to whether they would baptize the infants of believers or wait until later
(c) the apostles basically adopted the polity of the synagogue early on, which had a plurality of elders but with one primus inter pares president, who was first in honour but not in jurisdiction

I don’t think the apostles gave us divine commands for which day we should worship, or for which form of polity we should have, or for what age the children of believers should be baptized. If you want to read further on these things, I would suggest Anthony Lane’s work on baptism in the early church, Richard Hooker’s classic text, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, and James Burtchaell’s From Synagogue to Church.

I hope this helps.

As a Protestant with Catholic inclinations growing daily, I would love for you to address these questions, specifically the practicality of the final question, which is the real clincher for me. In the first part of this response, you said: “…there are many disagreements from a Protestant point of view
that do not threaten the salvation of those involved … Mainstream
Calvinists would tend to say that while these groups are wrong on some
issues, their faith is still recognizably in Jesus alone for their
salvation. Further, they would often probably state that many of the
disputed issues are less clear than basic biblical teachings like
justification by faith alone.”

This for me seems to beg the question. Rather than proving sola scriptura defensible, it simply narrows the goal posts to be ‘salvation alone’ that matters, and other disagreements are trivial or ‘open-handed’. If salvation really is all that matters, there are large portions of the Bible we could disregard as less important, and therefore not really important at all. I have a number of Seventh Day Adventist friends whose ‘sola’ leads them to believe I am condemning myself by worshiping on a Sunday. We both have the Bible – who can I appeal to for final adjudication?

The Holy Spirit? It would seem he is telling us different things!


I do think scripture addresses some disputed questions with varying degrees of clarity. However, if you want biblical answers to disputed questions like these, I would suggest a good Reformed systematic theology, like Herman Bavinck’s four-volume Reformed Dogmatics, and books like the resources I offered above. On the specific question of the Sabbath, DA Carson has a good volume on the subject, as well as Willy Rordorf. Steven Wedgeworth has written on TCI about Calvin’s answer to the question, and I substantially agree with his view. Geoff Robinson provided a basic biblical reply: to St. Paul it seems “all days are alike” from the point of view of natural and divine positive law, though as a matter of custom many Jewish Christians still observed the Sabbath, and all Christians seemed to worship on the Lord’s Day.

Sometimes, too, we ask questions of scripture that it never intended to answer. When it doesn’t provide us those answers, that’s not the fault of scripture. It has its own purposes, the first among which is to guide us back to God, to save us.

Or to put it most succinctly: the fact that the answers to questions about what scripture teaches might not be totally clear at first, and that people dispute what it does teach, does not mean it is impossible to determine with a reasonable probability what scripture does teach. This can be done through carefully following intellectual virtue (including piety towards God) and normal, grammatico-historical methods of interpretation.

Dear Dr. Torley,

Thanks for all your fine work over at Uncommon Descent:

i) There were some questions raised about Esther and the Song of Songs at a Jewish council after the fall of Jerusalem. That event precipitated an identity crisis in Palestinian Judaism.

However, these are very belated musings. That’s long after the initial reception of the books at issue. We need to distinguish between the original reception history and much later disputations, triggered by a crisis. And it’s just one local Jewish council.

ii) To my knowledge, Revelation was accepted early on. It was Dionysius (3C bishop of Alexandria) who later raised questions, largely based on stylistic differences between Revelation and the Gospel of John. I’d just note in passing that given how much of Revelation quotes or paraphrases the OT, the style of Revelation is largely indebted John’s sources rather than his personal style. So that objection is ill-conceived.

In addition, Eusebius was critical of millenarianism, so that jaundiced his view of Revelation.

The case for the canon is based on both internal and external evidence. If the “John” of Revelation is the apostle John, then that’s sufficient grounds to canonize it. And the apostle John is certainly the best candidate.

We know from Heb 13:23 that this book was written by a member of the Pauline circle. In fact, J. Ramsey Michaels has argued that it was written by Timothy.

In any case, it has a sterling theological provenance in 1C Christianity, both due to its likely date (pre-70 AD) and affiliations with Paul’s inner circle.

Apostolicity is not a requirement for canonicity. Inspiration (e.g. prophetic inspiration) is sufficient.

iii) Barber commits a common blunder. Our copies of the LXX date from the Christian era. So that can’t be used to tell us the content of the Jewish canon.

Moreover, it was convenient for scribes to treat codices as a general lectionary, including noncanonical books along with canonical books. A codex was a miniature library. You could bind several books in one for ease of availability. Like a portable bookshelf.

There’s no evidence I’m aware of that Qumran treated Intertestamental literature or its in-house sectarian literature on a par with OT Scripture. That’s discussed by Richard Bauckham.

iv) The Bible may not settle some questions for the simple reason that they don’t need to be settled. They are adiaphora.

v) In NT usage, “bishop” doesn’t have the same function as in Catholic polity. The only priesthood in the new covenant is the priesthood of Christ.


From this post, I would agree with this final judgment, even if I am wrong about Paul being the author (

“All five of the documents under consideration seem to have been written by a man who had a close relationship with at least one apostle. Even if Paul was dead when Barnabas wrote Hebrews, for example, the apostles still living probably would have had some familiarity with him, and his letter probably would have been widely circulated.”

“If Barnabas wrote Hebrews, then the considerations discussed above seem to make it likely that at least one apostle would have been aware of the document. Clement of Rome makes use of Hebrews (HEB, cli-clii), and may be assuming that his Corinthian audience will be familiar with the document as well, at a time when the apostle John probably was still alive. If the document comes from the early stages of the Neronian persecution or earlier, as I’ve argued above, then it was circulating for more than thirty years prior to John’s death. It seems doubtful that he never heard of it, while men like Clement of Rome and the Corinthian Christians did.”

“The high view of Hebrews reflected in Clement of Rome and so many sources of the second century and the large amount of time the document circulated prior to John’s death suggest that the apostles encouraged such a high view of the letter. It’s doubtful that the apostles were all unaware of the document or didn’t have much influence on the early perception of it.”

Andrew and Steve,

Thank you both for your very helpful comments. As you can see from the comments over at Ed Feser’s latest blog post at , I’ve been arguing that the Protestant position on the canon is a consistent one.

You seem to be arguing for some sort of “basic Christianity” which C.S. Lewis might have defended: Christians can at least agree on the essentials for salvation, even if they cannot agree on the fine details. I have a certain sympathy with that view, although I would note in passing that the number of denominations still espousing Christian morality seems to be steadily decreasing, judging from the responses of certain self-professed Christians to recent Supreme Court decisions (especially Roe vs. Wade and Obergefell vs. Hodges). But let that pass. To me, there are two serious problems with what I might call the classic Protestant view.

The first problem is that it leaves a number of pressing moral problems unresolved. Take slavery. All one can show from Scripture is that chattel slavery is ruled out. There is no compelling Scriptural argument against the slaveholder who says, “I don’t own my slaves as such; I merely own their labor, in perpetuity.” Or take torture. I can’t think of any Scriptural argument against its use when it is intended to save innocent lives. Now, you might argue that the institutional Church took a very long time to address these issues, and that there were a number of serious mis-steps by individual clerics (including Popes) along the way, and you would be right. But as the saying goes, better late than never. At least now we can say that the Church teaches with a united voice that slavery and torture are immoral.

I might add that there are a number of practical moral issues for Christians that Scripture does not settle clearly: the permissibility of divorce and remarriage in exceptional circumstances; contraception; and the question of whether lying is ever justified.

The second problem, as I see it, is the use of extra-Biblical terminology in credal statements. Mainline Protestants accept the first four ecumenical councils. They say the Nicene Creed, which refers to the Son as “of one being with the Father,” and they affirm that Jesus is one person in two natures. As an Australian who has lived in Japan for the past 15 years, all I can say is: you’re opening a can of worms here. Here’s why. In Matthew 28:19, Christ tells his apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (NIV). But the Gospel can only be preached to all nations if it is capable of being translated into every tongue. Now the Bible has already been translated into thousands of languages. So far, so good. But the first four ecumenical councils make use of terms that have no equivalent in many languages. In Japanese, for example, there is no term commensurate with the word “person,” which can be meaningfully applied to a member of the Blessed Trinity, an angel, an alien from outer space, and a human being, but not to a sub-rational animal. There’s no such term in Japanese. If you wanted to say that, you’d have to say “chisei-ga aru mono,” or thing possessing intelligence (following Boethius’ definition of a person as a rational individual). And in Japan, people seldom (if ever) say the Nicene Creed in Catholic churches: they usually recite the Apostles’ Creed.

So it seems to me that if classic Protestants were consistent, they’d drop their insistence on adherence to the Nicene Creed and the Council of Chalcedon. They’d just say something like this: “As Christians, we believe in someone called God the Father, and we believe in someone called God the Son Who is from the Father and Who cannot be separated from the Father, and we believe in someone called God the Holy Spirit, who comes from the Father through the Son and Who is also inseparable from the Father. We believe that these three cannot be separated from one another; they are one God. We also believe that God the Son took the form of a man, named Jesus, and we believe that this man had human thoughts and feelings, and made human choices, like us, but that He could do no wrong, because God was always with him in a special way. If you believe as we do, count yourselves one of us.”

How would you respond to that?

Is it okay for me to paraphrase you and then say, that your answer is basically to “choose your own Magisterium, the one that makes the most sense to you”? The difference between this and the Catholic position seems to only be that I get to choose: rather than submitting to an authority exterior to me, I submit to the authority of my own intellect?

I am not meaning to be facetious, this is a genuine question.

Is it okay for me to paraphrase you and then say, that your answer is basically to “choose your own Magisterium, the one that makes the most sense to you”? The difference between this and the Catholic position seems to only be that I get to choose: rather than submitting to an authority exterior to me, I submit to the authority of my own intellect?

I am not meaning to be facetious, this is a genuine question.

Dear. Dr. Torley, I’ll break my response into separate comments. Since you’re contrasting the Catholic and Protestant positions, let’s consider the Catholic alternative:

i) There’s a left/right split in the Catholic church. And that extends into the hierarchy. Compare Walter Cardinal Kasper to Raymond Cardinal Burke.

ii) There are many loose ends in Catholic moral theology. Take competing positions in Catholic casuistry regarding probabilism, probabiliorism, and equiprobabilism.

iii) When the Catholic church takes a stand against something, that’s apt to be compromised by loopholes. For instance, it forbids lying, but allows for mental reservations, equivocations, amphibologies, &c. It forbids divorce, but allows for annulment.

To an outsider, it smacks of special pleading.

iv) From a typical evangelical perspective, the Catholic position on divorce is contrary to Scripture. So which is worse: having unresolved moral problems–or resolving them in the wrong direction?

v) On a number of pressing moral issues, the Catholic church doesn’t even claim to offer certainty. Benedict XVI candidly admitted that:

“We are in fact constantly confronted with problems where it isn’t possible to find the right answer in a short time. Above all in the case of problems having to do with ethics, particularly medical ethics…We finally had to say, after very long studies, ‘Answer that for now on the local level; we aren’t far enough along to have full certainty about that.’

Again, in the area of medical ethics, new possibilities, and with them new borderline situations, are constantly arising where it is not immediately evident how to apply principles. We can’t simply conjure up certitude…There needn’t always be universal answers. We also have to realize our limits and forgo answers where they aren’t possible…it simply is not the case that we want to go around giving answers in every situation…” (J. Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth [Ignatius, 1996], 100-101).

“the number of denominations still espousing Christian morality seems to be steadily decreasing, judging from the responses of certain self-professed Christians to recent Supreme Court decisions (especially Roe vs. Wade and Obergefell vs. Hodges).”

I don’t see that decreasing. What I see is increasing polarization of preexisting factions. The Obama era has had a sorting action. The religious left came out of the shadows. But that division has been around since the Enlightenment. Even during the Middle Ages, you undoubtedly had many closet infidels.

“But let that pass. To me, there are two serious problems with what I might call the classic Protestant view. The first problem is that it leaves a number of pressing moral problems unresolved.”

i) To begin with, sola Scriptura doesn’t mean the Bible is an encyclopedia with all the answers. In addition to Scripture, an evangelical ethicist can make use of reason and evidence. General revelation supplements special revelation.

ii) Even in NT times, you had competing Jewish factions. You had Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Zealots. You had the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel. There was no referee.

iii) God hasn’t give us ready-made answers for every pressing moral problem. He hasn’t made the right answer immediately clear. He puts us in a position where we must think deeply about an issue before arriving at a reasonable resolution.

“Take slavery. All one can show from Scripture is that chattel slavery is ruled out. There is no compelling Scriptural argument against the slaveholder who says, ‘I don’t own my slaves as such; I merely own their labor, in perpetuity.'”

But there are differing degrees and kinds of servitude. And there are different ways in which a person can enter servitude. So it’s unclear why where should be a uniform answer to a pluriform issue. Unless you assume at the outset that all forms of servitude are morally equivalent, which runs the risk of prejudging or oversimplifying the issue, there’s no reason to think servitude in general is intrinsically immoral. In some cases it can depend on circumstances, or the particular form of servitude.

“Or take torture. I can’t think of any Scriptural argument against its use when it is intended to save innocent lives. Now, you might argue that the institutional Church took a very long time to address these issues, and that there were a number of serious mis-steps by individual clerics (including Popes) along the way, and you would be right. But as the saying goes, better late than never. At least now we can say that the Church teaches with a united voice that slavery and torture are immoral.”

But that begs the question of whether “torture” is always wrong. Why shouldn’t that be something that calls for careful distinctions and qualifications?

To begin with, the word “torture” is so indiscriminate. Suppose a known terrorist suffers from arachnophobia or claustrophobia. It is torture to exploit his phobia to save innocent lives? Even if we decide to define that as “torture,” why would it be wrong to exploit his phobia to save innocent lives? Why does protecting him from that phobia take precedence over protecting innocent lives?

“I might add that there are a number of practical moral issues for Christians that Scripture does not settle clearly: the permissibility of divorce and remarriage in exceptional circumstances; contraception; and the question of whether lying is ever justified.”

i) Commentators on Matthew and 1 Corinthians typically think Scripture does allow for the permissibility of divorce and remarriage in cases of infidelity and desertion.

ii) Biblical law and ethics usually deals with typical situations, not rare situations. Suppose a woman unwittingly marries a man who murders his wives to collect on the life insurance policy. That might be grounds for divorce and remarriage, even though Scripture doesn’t mention that, for the simple reason that Scripture doesn’t have occasion to directly speak to such an atypical situation.

iii) Evangelical ethicists typically think contraception is permissible, so that example begs the question.

Moreover, many Catholics, including some conservative intellectuals, find the blanket ban on contraception to be unreasonable. They think the distinction between “artificial” birth control and NFP ad hoc, and they think the blanket ban can’t be justified on natural law principles. For instance, in The Virtues, Catholic philosopher and logician Peter Geach admits that the traditional arguments against contraception are bad arguments. He labors to defend the official position in spite of the admittedly bad arguments that are traditionally adduced to support it.

iv) Many evangelical ethicists think Scripture does permit lying in some situations. So that example begs the question. Conversely, it’s very hard to explain how lying can be intrinsically evil on natural law principles.

When Catholic moral theology does take (seemingly) firm positions, the positions strike an outsider as arbitrary. Moreover, on closer examination, these hardline positions reduce to technicalities and escape clauses which make the position inevitably seem inconsistent and duplicitous.

Regarding the creeds, in missiology we consider that an issue of cross-cultural contextualization. In some cases it may be a mistake to impose Western formulations on alien cultures. We need to find conceptual equivalents rather than verbal equivalents.

I don’t think that’s the difference. Presumably a Catholic follows the Pope for reasons; Catholic apologetics tries to provide them (e.g., with arguments from Matthew 16, early church history, etc.). Ultimately everyone follows what they perceive to be the truth with their own intellect. Protestants find the reasons to believe in scripture convincing, and not the ones to believe in the authority of the Magisterium. Catholics find both convincing. There’s no escaping private judgment in this sense.

Comments are closed.