I am looking at page 23 of my Bible and it has the list of books. The books all together number 66—Thirty-nine in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament. This is often referred to as the “canon” of Scripture. “Canon” (Gk. kanon) means “rule” or “measuring rod” (just in case you didn’t know!). The canon of Scripture is the collection or a “rule” of books that Christians believe belong in the Bible. There are some variations among Christian traditions concerning the number of books. The Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches all use different canons (as well, some eastern churches will vary still). The Catholic and Orthodox include a group of books in their Bibles referred to as the Deuterocanonical books (“second canon”) or, as some would call it, the “Apocrypha” (although the Orthodox Church is not quite as settled upon the absolute status of the Apocrypha).
How Do I Know Which Books Belong In The Bible?
The question How do you know what books belong in the Bible? is a significant one indeed. The Catholics and Orthodox will normally refer to the establishment of these books as part of the canon by late fourth-century and early fifth-century non-ecumenical councils (“non-ecumenical” meaning they are respected and reflect tradition, but not officially binding or dogmatic). It wasn’t until the Council of Trent (1545-1563) that the Roman Catholic Church dogmatically and infallibly declared the current Catholic canon (including the Apocrypha) as being authoritative.
I believe that the 66 books of the Protestant canon belong in the Bible, no more no less. I believe that all 66 books are inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Yet the list on page 23 of my Bible is not part of the canon. In other words, the list itself is not part of the inspired word of God. I am using the English Standard Version, but it is the same in any version of any language. The NET Bible does not have an inspired list, even in the footnotes! There is no early Greek or Hebrew manuscript that solves the problem either. Therefore I have a potential difficulty. Since do not believe in an infallible human authority (a pope or a ecumenical council) that can determine what books belong in the Bible, how can I be completely certain what books belong in the Bible?
A Fallible Canon of Infallible Books
It was R.C. Sproul who first made the claim that Protestants have a fallible canon of infallible books. A fallible canon of infallible books?!! What good is that?!! Catholics often jest about the seemingly ironic conundrum that Protestants (as advocates of sola Scriptura) find themselves. The doctrine of sola Scripture was one of the two primary battle cries of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Essentially it means that the Scripture is the ultimate or final authority for the body of Christ in matters of Christian faith and practice. Professing this doctrine (sola Scriptura) does not mean that there are no other authorities, but that there are no other ultimate or final authorities. Catholics on the other hand will claim that they, due to their belief in a living infallible authority (the Pope and Magisterium), have an infallible collection of infallible books. Therefore, the infallible Bible is only the infallible Bible because their infallible authority has said so. So, from their perspective, Protestants have to borrow from Roman Catholics in order to make the argument that Roman Catholicism is, in this case, wrong!
Doesn’t this mean we are sitting on a limb we are sawing off?
A Fallible Interpretation of Infallible Books
Not only this but what about interpretation? Protestants do not believe in an infallible authority to dogmatize which books belong in the Bible. So far so good? But they also don’t believe in an infallible authority to interpret the Bible. Therefore, we can take this to the next level. Protestants have a fallible interpretation of a fallible canon of infallible books. Ouch! Sounds like it is time to swim the Tiber (i.e. convert to Catholicism), eh?
Not so fast. In the end, this is an issue of epistemology. Epistemology deals with the question “How do you know?” How do we know the canon is correct? How do we know we have the right interpretation? Assumed within these questions is the idea of certainty. How do you know with certainty? Not only this but how do you know with absolute certainty?
The question that I would ask is this: Do we need absolute infallible certainty about something 1) to be justified in our belief about that something, 2) to be held responsible for a belief in that something? I would answer “no” for two primary reasons:
1. We Don’t Need To Be Infallibly Certain
This supposed need for absolute certainty is primarily the product of the Enlightenment and Cartesian epistemology. A good ol’ guy named Rene Descartes, who is the father of the Age of Reason, was behind this and we in the West are still heavily ruled by his thought. Cartesianism, while pushing us in the right direction in many ways, also placed a burden on our knowledge that we could not, as humans, carry (and were never meant to). It purported indubitability. Indubitability is when your belief in or knowledge of something is incapable of being wrong. In essence, it proposed that belief was not believe-worthy until it was indubitable. To say that we have to be indubitably certain about something before it can be believed and acted upon is setting a standard so high that only God Himself could attain it. Outside of mathematics and analytical statements (e.g. a triangle has three sides), there is no absolute certainty, only relative certainty. We all ultimately realize this. All of our actions, thoughts, and pursuits are relegated to this relative certainty. We get in a car and drive and are only relatively certain it will stop with we push on the brakes. We commit our entire lives to someone with only relative certainty that they will be faithful. On and on we could go with illustrations, but you get the point. Sometimes our relative certainly is very high based on the evidence. Even then, it is still only relative. I could, however unlikely, be wrong. But just because we only have relative certainty does not excuse or alleviate responsibility for acting on or believing in something.
Another example: I believe that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. I prepare each day with this belief in mind. Each night, I set my alarm clock and review my appointments for the following day, having a certain expectation that the next day will truly come. While I have certainty about the sun rising the next day, I don’t have infallible or indubitable certainty that it will. There could be some astronomical anomaly that causes the earth to stop its rotation. There could be an asteroid that comes and destroys the earth. Christ could come in the middle of the night. In short, I don’t have absolute infallible certainty about the coming of the next day. This, however, does not give me an excuse before men or God for not believing that it will come. What if I missed an early appointment the next day and told the person “I am sorry, I did not set my alarm clock because I did not have indubitable certainty that this day would come.” Would that be a valid excuse? It would neither be a valid excuse to the person who I was supposed to meet nor to God.
I know I am spending a lot of time here, but just hang with me.
What About Bobism
We have a term that we use for people who require indubitable certainty about everything: “mentally ill.” Remember What About Bob? He was mentally ill because he made decisions based on the improbability factor. Because it was a possibility that something bad could happen to him if he stepped outside his house, he assumed it would happen. There are degrees of probability. We act according to degrees of probability. Simply because it is a possibility that the sun will not rise tomorrow does not mean that it is a probability that it won’t.
Remember this: possibilities do not equate to probabilities. In rhetoric and reason, this is called the fallacy of the “appeal to probability” (although it should be the “appeal to possibility,” but, oh well); Here It Is In Latin so it sounds smarter: possibiliter ergo probabiliter
Let’s now turn back to the Canon of the Bible. The charge to Protestants from Catholics is, in essence, Your list of books cannot be trusted because it’s possible it is wrong. But just because it is possible that we are wrong (being fallible), does not mean that it is probable. In the end, just like with everything else in life, we have to look to the evidence for the degree of probability concerning Scripture. The better the evidence, the higher the probability.
2. You Are Not Infallibly Certain Either
The Roman Catholic smoke screen of indubitable certainty that seems to be given by having a living infallible authority (Magisterium) disappears when we realize that we all start with fallibility. No one would claim personal infallibility. Everyone knows that we, as individuals seeking truth, could be wrong about any issue. Therefore, any belief in an infallible living authority could be wrong. As Geisler and MacKenzie put it, All Roman Catholics have is probable knowledge. Catholics admit, as they must, that they do not have infallible evidence of an infallible teaching Magisterium. They have merely what even they believe to be only probable arguments. In other words, it is their personal opinion and fallible interpretation of the evidence that brings them to a belief in the supposed infallible Church Magisterium which, in turn, defines the infallible canon. They have no more reason to believe in an infallible church than we do to believe in an infallible canon.
This means we are all floating on the same river, just different boats. Catholics have a fallible belief in an infallible authority about an infallible canon; Protestants have a fallible belief in an infallible canon. Both authorities must be substantiated by the evidence and both authorities must be interpreted by fallible people.
This is the question that I have: In the end, what is the difference?
Do we have a fallible collection of infallible books? Yes, I concede, I believe we do. When all is said and done, all of our beliefs are fallible and therefore subject to error. I am comfortable with this. But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error. We have to appeal to the evidence to decide. And, I believe, the evidence for the sixty-six book Protestant canon is not only sufficient, but compelling.