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 God, John 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.