The Only Honest Protestant
Our hero is a Baptist born in the 1800’s. His distinguishing mark was a relentless passion to determine the books of the Bible. For he understood clearly, that if the books that comprise the Bible isn’t firmly established, the Protestant Reformation has no foundation.
After years of investigating every possibility imaginable, he presented his finding to a certain biblical society in the early 1900’s. Almost despairing, he reported that no solution was to be found. While not finding doesn’t prove non-existence, there is the obvious practical problem that if the canon is unknown, so too is the true doctrine.
This Baptist wasn’t the first to recognize the problem. But he was one of the few who seriously tried to solve it. Today, however, the problem is implicitly acknowledged to be intractable, with the solution often being posited in another manner.
But let us go back to the beginning. Sola Scriptura is the foundation of the Reformation in that Scripture alone is the final authority for all questions of faith and morals. Hence, without a definitive canon (i.e. list of books), there is no final authority. Consequently, proving the canon is impossible to determine would destroy the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. Can this be done?
The simplest proof is to assume that determining the canon is possible and then derive a contradiction. To this end, consider the Scripture Sieve. This device/means functions by filtering out everything but authentic Scripture. Pour in Tobit or the Maccabees, nothing comes out. But the Gospels pass through with flying colors, and so does the Torah, and so on: just as Protestants have known all along.
On the other hand, Jews are perplexed with the New Testament’s inclusion. Catholics are stymied seeing the deuterocanonical books rejected. Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, and Muslims are dumbfounded, horrified and petrified to discover the Kangyur, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon and the Quran are all excluded.
As only the Protestant canon makes the grade, and the correctness of the Scripture Sieve is manifest, the entire world sees the errors of their ways and subsequently converts to Protestantism. So, does that qualify as a contradiction?
Granted, the conversion implication is hyperbole (but only partly). But the point of this exercise was to introduce the Scripture Sieve, and to note what a tall order it is. And indeed, why should it not work against all holy writings? But let us proceed rigorously.
The Concept of Scripture
The particular feature of Scripture relevant here is its infallibility in the sense that it is absolutely true. As God is Truth itself, Scripture, being the Word of God, is a faithful reflection of those truths being spoken (i.e. revealed) by God in Holy Scripture.
But Scripture contains an implicit component, namely, an authenticator. Scripture is revealed: it is transmitted from God to man. Scripture can only be infallible if it is infallibly transmitted. Hence, the need for an authenticator that is of necessity infallible. For if something is fallibly transmitted, it cannot be infallible. To repeat, authentication is necessary as otherwise the source is uncertain and cannot be said to be the infallible Word of God.
This definitiveness of revelation is intrinsic to Sola Scriptura. The Bible can be the final authority only if Scripture is complete and without error: no missing books, no extra books, no errors. This is a fundamental premise. Otherwise, the doctrine it expressed would be incomplete (or even wrong) and therefore it would be unreasonable to treat it as the ultimate authority.
Branding aside, the Scripture Sieve is the necessary infallible authenticator. From the Catholic perspective, one obviously exists. Namely, the front end of the sieve is the complex process whereby the proper books are fallibly determined. But in the last stage, the Pope (the Magisterium in union with the Pope for this particular case) makes the final and infallible determination of the canon.
But the Reformers explicitly rejected the teaching that the Church is infallible, the hierarchy in particular and especially the Pope. Hence, Protestants need something else to provide infallibility for their Scripture Sieve.
As a preview, the remainder will demonstrate that excluding the Church was a fundamental mistake because it is the only viable means for infallibility. In simplest terms, this follows because anything touched by fallible hands is fallible, as will be illustrated upon examining the two primary cases. Hence, it is effectively an act of faith to believe the Reformers found the real canon, which in turn is the antithesis of Sola Scriptura.
In Search of Infallibility
As exemplified by the Catholic version, the Scripture Sieve can include fallible parts. So Protestants can use whatever they want, including their notion of the Church. But the “sum” of fallible decisions is not infallible. Something intrinsically infallible is needed. Logic is a good candidate. But this has multiple problems.
The central problem is that an interpretation is required before logic can be applied. As the Reformers proscribed private interpretation of Scripture by fallible members, all interpretation is fallible. The fallible input will prevent logic from yielding an infallible result.
Its other problems are basically variations of the same. For example, any attempt to distill a consistent set of beliefs from even a highly filtered set of writings will require a fallible interpretation when selecting the criteria that the logic will enforce. In short, the fallible choices that define the underlying logic will result in a fallible system.
As Scripture is presumed to have already been fully revealed, an on-going search for an infallible authenticator (a component) is a contradiction. As such, it seems the only remaining possible means for something infallible is Scripture itself.
Self-Excluded Double Inclusion
The idea that Scripture is self-authenticating is held by some denominations today, and possibly from the time of the Reformation, at least implicitly. There is some truth to this notion as the Holy Ghost does “speak” through Scripture and thus does testify to its authenticity. As this is God Himself, there is the potential for infallibility.
However, this is effectively a discernment of spirits question. Including the authenticator within Scripture also brings with it authenticator #2 of authenticator #1. While authenticator #1 is infallible (God), authenticator #2 in this model is the person discerning what is being revealed by authenticator #1. But the Reformers excluded men from being infallible so any decisions remain fallible. To generalize, anything touched by fallible hands is fallible.
Furthermore, the concept of self-authenticating Scripture is self-inclusion (of self), which reduces the concept to logical nonsense. (Also, the “voice” of Scripture is far from being “loud” enough to provide reliable authentication at the personal level, much less infallible. History demonstrates this, and impartial empirical testing would show the same.)
The Big Mistake
It follows that an infallible authenticator is impossible within the framework of Sola Scriptura as propounded by the Reformers. In other words, the foundation of the Protestant Reformation contains an intrinsic contradiction, and therefore, is false on logical grounds alone.
This is a subtle error, and would be easy enough to make. Though already in the Reformation’s early years, Martin Luther noticed the problem of the necessity of a definitive canon with no apparent means to determine it. That may have haunted him somewhat, but it didn’t bring him to reason.
Though it does bring up the honesty dimension. There has been and still is a certain lack of straightforwardness here. There are numerous Protestants who will still hold up a Bible and insist that it is all you need. But even when the impossibility of certainty is tacitly acknowledged, it is downplayed: “We are pretty sure, and here is why” is a modern response. But that hides the fundamental problem.
There is a serious logical flaw in the very foundation. The Protestant Reformers asserted the Catholic Church was wrong, and here is the correct understanding. Naturally, they claimed being guided by the Holy Spirit.
But the Protestant Church was built upon a major architectural flaw, which should immediately bring into question everything that hinges upon it. This is not something to be glossed over.
Sorta Sola Scriptura
An honest appraisal would be that Scripture is only trustworthy as a doctrinal authority to the degree it is established to be actual Scripture. Though the degree it is established begs the question: by whom? But if this is somehow answered, would that render the doctrine to be unestablished, or should some other fallible authority to be used that is “better” established?
This sounds like a cure worse than the disease. But how can the “sorta” be addressed? In the Protestant universe, there are no good answers, and strangely, no authoritative answers.
For if only the Bible can provide an authoritative answer, an authoritative Bible is required, which requires an authoritative answer to what is the authoritative Bible, which… This is the crux of the error: embedding the source of authority within the source of authority. For if the authority to decide the canon resides within the Bible, it is circular. Otherwise, it is evidently impossible as Church authority to make definitive decisions was denied. The only upside to this is it’s the perfect formula for painting oneself in a corner and shooting oneself in the foot.
Interestingly, the non-authoritative canon isn’t as severe as it may seem. Canon divergence for the New Testament is almost non-existent across all Christian traditions. Today, that is, as there were many contested issues over the centuries.
But the Old Testament is more checkerboard. For example, 4 Maccabees is included by the Georgian Orthodox and there are other books considered canonic by some but not by either Catholics or Protestants.
However, the New Testament must be understood in the light of the Old Testament, and vis-versa. These two complement each other, leaving one incomplete without the other. Hence, the missing books of the Apocrypha will impact the proper understanding of the New Testament.
So why is the Apocrypha not canonic? One reason still given is that some books contain doctrinal errors. But Scripture is the sole source of all doctrine, not doctrine the criteria for Scripture, if one honestly upholds Sola Scriptura. Yet, it is arguments such as this (though most aren’t so blatantly circular) which provide the “certainty” of the Protestant canon being correct.
(The next two sections delve a little deeper into Sola Scriptura, but are auxiliary to the main point and may be skipped to save a little reading time.)
Another curious feature of Sola Scriptura is that it make the existence of the Bible strictly impossible. Specifically, consider the process of writing Scripture. While the ultimate author is God, the actual writers were men.
There is no reason to believe, generally, the sacred authors knew at the time they were composing Scripture. Regardless, like all human authors, they had to make a whole series of decisions regarding exactly what details and concepts to set down in writing, together with the phrasing choices: inspiration didn’t reduce them to robots.
However, God’s inspiration must have confirmed infallibility upon them as otherwise their decisions would have been subject to error, which Scripture, by definition, excludes. But this is the Protestant horror of horrors: men making doctrinal related decisions which other men must abide by.
Of course, Protestants will point out that only God can define doctrine. As this is correct, Catholics will concur, and then note the Pope can define doctrine only if it is based on public revelation. However, this process isn’t necessarily entirely infallible.
For example, Saint Luke could in draft development have made “mistakes” (i.e. have included extraneous content or excluded content) during the potentially long writing period but “corrected” before the Gospel was completed. Similarly, in certain cases per Catholic teaching, the Pope is infallibly guided by the Holy Spirit, but not in all decisions.
However, strictly speaking, transmitting the Word of God through fallible men is impossible, or a dice game. Though granted, the Reformers would probably admit this exception of infallibility. Yet, they didn’t foresee the necessity of infallibility by the Church as required by the Scripture Sieve, and thus explicitly denied it.
Divided We Stand
Finally, a few comments on private interpretation. There is the obvious problem that authority granted to everyone is essentially granted to no one. But do exclusively fallible interpretations give rise to a logical contradiction?
To the degree that private interpretation leaves interpretation and enters the realm of addition or subtraction, the answer is yes. For then, doctrine is double sourced: by Scripture and by interpretation artifacts. As errors are guaranteed by a fallible Church, so too is the double sourcing, which reduces Sola Scriptura to an approximation, not a reality. In other words, strictly speaking, “sola” is impossible.
In practical terms, as interpretations carry no authority, the only recourse to resolve doctrinal differences upon impasse is either to ignore, or often enough, to divide. While divisions are common among all religions, Protestants have set the record for the number of different denominations.
Curiously, the clarity of Scripture should prevent that, as taught by Lutheranism for example. Namely, the doctrine contained in Scripture is clear to every ordinary reader, making expert interpretation unnecessary for any Biblical passage.
A fascinating counter-example is artificial birth control, which virtually every believer considered gravely immoral for the first nineteen hundred years of Christianity, including Protestants for over four hundred years. Hence, the complete Protestant reversal after 1930 (within two or three decades) is quite striking, particularly in its near universality.
For this means that nearly every Protestant then living was either tangibly wrong before 1930, or wrong afterwards. It is also an indication that private interpretation tends to make truth democratic, not objective.
Counterintuitively, as only the Catholic Church is infallible, it follows that the Jews do not possess the Old Testament. God indeed revealed the books of the Old Testament through the Jewish people, but divine revelation wasn’t complete until the coming of Jesus Christ. For only then, did God established the Church. As such, Judaism has no definitive (infallible) means to determine exactly which writings are Scripture. Some books are fairly obvious. But where exactly is the line to be drawn?
Rabbinic Judaism eventually determined its canon. But there isn’t agreement among scholars when this occurred: some say around 100 BC,
others around 150 AD
For the greater part of the 20th century, the prevalent belief was the Jewish canon was established at the hypothetical Council of Jamnia, around 70 to 90 AD. This theory has since been discredited.
, some say much later. As the Jewish people were expecting the Messiah, almost exactly at 3 BC, the earliest date seems to be unreasonable, for closing the canon anyway, though the list was already solidifying.
The written Word of God flows from living Tradition. Judaism also recognizes that Scripture doesn’t, and indeed cannot, capture revelation in its entirety. Furthermore, Scripture was significantly (if not primarily) determined through liturgical usage as only sacred texts were/are considered appropriate. Thus, community acceptance, guided by the Holy Spirit, was the driving factor,
subject to debates, etc
This was a gradual process, where over the decades, the nascent Church began to realize that the Gospels and letters of Saint Paul and such, were not just venerable writings but actually Scripture. Though exactly how this occurred is largely lost to history.
. It is here that Christianity and Judaism diverged.
In the early years of Christianity, Scripture as then existing was shared, as was the synagogue. But Christians eventually left the synagogues, and then came the diaspora. Henceforth, liturgical development was completely independent. The result? The Pontifical Biblical Commission has stated “the more restricted Hebrew canon is later than the formation of the New Testament.”
Scripture essentially concerns the revelation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is the person of Jesus that the prophets foretold and all of the Covenants pointed to. There is unity in the Word of God: there is no Old and New Testament per se, only Scripture, regardless how it is decomposed into the various books.
However, the Reformation, and Martin Luther in particular, disregarded that unity, not to mention over a millennium of Christianity. They favored Judaism’s seventh century canon, which if consistently followed, would entail rejecting the entire New Testament, not just the deuterocanonical books. But how could mere men authoritatively decide, at that point in Biblical scholarship, if that is to be the criteria, the Protestant canon for all ages?
The Scripture Sieve is not a fabrication; rather, it is a logical abstraction. Scripture remains Scripture, independent of authentication. But eventually the canon question will arise. Hence, the most wise God endowed to the Church (the pillar of the truth) the necessary authenticator (adapted for our human nature) through the charism of infallibility.
While the Church didn’t exercise that until late, the imperativeness of such an authenticator for Sola Scriptura was immediate. Martin Luther did consider justification the primary issue, and chronologically, it was more or less his first step. But Luther’s list of errors is long. Their complexity makes it difficult to pinpoint the central error. Yet, it can be said the fundamental error pertains to authority.
Actually, Scripture isn’t independent of authentication: authentication is its crown. It is an infallible crown that also safeguards Scripture from interpretation errors through the teaching authority of the Church. But Sola Scriptura without that crown is simply a contradiction.
Furthermore, only the Catholic Church has ever stated it is infallible (outside of obvious impostors). While there are many other “sacred” writings, none of these are Scripture: for they can’t be. This is yet another sign that the Catholic Church is the only true religion, which further exposes the false ecumenism rooted in Modernism (saying all religions are the same) as intrinsically wrong.
The Three Last Things
Logical implications like those presented above spurred on the “only honest Protestant” with a determined zeal only matched by the seriousness of the mission. Just a century ago, as evidently it still mattered back then, he spent a good portion of his life searching for the Scripture Sieve. So who was that Baptist?
Unfortunately, the case is being cited from memory (but nothing essential hinges on it anyway), so his name will be dubbed “John.” But if he had succeeded, John would undoubtedly be a household name today. For the existence of an infallible Scripture Sieve is tantamount to a proof that the Catholic Church is not infallible, as its canon was dogmatically defined at the Council of Trent.
Massive conversions to Protestantism can only be conjectured. Though at a minimum, it surely would have caused a great stir. But as it has been proven here, the Protestant Scripture Sieve cannot exist (provided this author got his ducks in a row).
To repeat, if God didn’t infallibly reveal His Word, we do not possess Scripture which by definition is the authentic and authoritative revelation of God (and hence infallible). Years ago, this definitiveness mattered greatly to Protestants, though now, good arguments seem to be good enough, as they increasing perceive that fallible arguments are all they have.
At the logical level, the Catholic Church remains on solid ground. Not so the new foundation from the Reformation. Building upon a contradiction is not a rational way to correct supposed errors (or address the abuses of the day). And there is a dishonesty in pushing this under the covers.
This is not to suggest that Protestants are generally dishonest, not even on this issue. The teachers of teachers who teach the faithful may not even understand it very well. But at some points in the chain, selective reasoning is being applied.
While Protestants tend to speak as if the Reformation’s correctness is an infallible dogma, there are solid reasons to believe the breach will soon be healed (implicitly implied per Fatima). The division is a great scandal, and loss of the Sacraments is an immense loss. But the future of the one fold is not for today.
So in the end, for now, we are left with three things: a theological premise that defies the laws of logic, the comic cadence of 900 million Protestants running off a cliff and standing on thin air, and “John” – the only honest Protestant.
See also the Sola Scriptura Sweepstakes for the opportunity to help promote this fundamental logical truth.
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