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?

Indubitable Certainty

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:

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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.

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C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]

    10 replies to "How Can I Believe in a Fallible Collection of Infallible Books?"

    • Bibliophile

      Where to start? Firstly, Catholics have been condemning Sola Scriptura since long before Descartes… So the question of indubitability is not even relevant here; not to mention the approved Catholic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas requires no such (Cartesian) emphasis on absolute certainty in matters of human reason. Any honest, well informed and intellectually responsible research will reveal that this attack is a complete misrepresentation of what Catholics believe. Also, as I said, it is irrelevant. Secondly, the Catholic objection to Sola Scriptura can not be reduced to essentially “Your list of books cannot be trusted because it’s possible it is wrong”. That is pure and simply a straw man. There are many, many problems with Sola Scriptura, including the historical fact that there just was no Christian canon of scriptures available for the first couple of centuries in the early Church, making the notion a totally arbitrary novelty that was never accepted by the faithful or taught in the Church, until it was invented in the 16th Century. Also, in an era of parchment and scrolls, scriptures would have been very difficult to obtain without a printing press and mass distribution… Not to mention the problem of illiteracy in the ancient world, or the fact that oral tradition was the basis of Hebraic culture. Many, many reasons to reject Sola Scriptura as absurd; but “It’s possible you could be wrong” is not one of them… The point of Catholic objections to Sola Scriptura is that without some form of external authority to declare which writings are and are not sacred scriptures, you just cannot arrive at any canon, period. So, in short, this entire response to Catholics is historically and philosophically inaccurate

    • Bibliophile

      Please may I be permitted one more comment in closing.

      Descartes lived during the 17th century. More than one hundred years separate between Luther and Descartes. The Protestant rebellion and Sola Scriptura had already been condemned by the Church, long before Descartes was even born! So it wasn’t about epistemology (a relatively new, and distinctly modern department in philosophy); the problem was about authority: on what basis do we believe? God’s revelation? Or man’s reasoning? The dispute between Luther and the Church in the 16th century, ironically for this odd protestant apologetic, demonstrates that, in fact, it is not the Catholic Church but Luther himself who is closer to Descartes’ ridiculous principle of “indubitable ideas”, by demanding to know for sure whether he was saved. He agonized over not being certain about his salvation, until he finally devised a solution to a problem that was created, largely, by and for himself. The Church had always taught that our salvation is a matter of faith and was ultimately up to God: Luther is the one who insisted that ultimately it had to be a matter of his own personal judgement

      Luther’s theology is the grandaddy of Descartes’ philosophy: in the same way that Luther made the ultimate basis for faith to be personal judgement, even so Descartes made the ultimate basis of reason to be the thinking subject

      Luther and Descartes, each in his own way, are thus both partly responsible for the paradigm change in worldview that shifted the whole focal center from God to human beings; and this period especially – from about 1500 until 1800 – has been a notably troublesome period in the history of the Church

      • C Michael Patton

        Thank you so much for commenting l, my friend. Are you saying that the argument “You have a fallible collection of infallible books” is not an argument used by some Catholics? That was the extent of my focus in this blog. It couldl only be a straw man if I created this argument myself to make Catholics look bad. If you repudiate this particular argument (as it seem you do), then we are in agreement. Of course that does not mean that Sola scripture is correct. It just means this particular argument is illegitimate.

        My personal allergy to on aspect of the Cartesian method is remains relevant not just in the case of responding to Catholics, but in every area. It sounds like you agree. So we are on the same page (at least right here). We can leave other arguments for or against Sola scriptura for a different time. We can just say, in this case we agree. And, with that, I am pleased to know we have unity.

        • Bibliophile

          Thanks kindly, sir. But what I said is a strawman in your post, is reducing the Catholic rejection of Sola Scripture to, in your own words, “essentially, your list of books can’t be trusted because it’s possible you are wrong”. This is so clearly a strawman, because, as you said yourself, the demand for absolute certainty assumes Cartesian ideas – and the Catholic Church openly and explicitly rejects Cartesian philosophy in favour of Aquinas.

          And, as far as I know, it was R.C. Sproul (MHRIP) who made the statement that Protestants have a fallible collection of infallible books. And he certainly was not Catholic.

          • C Michael Patton

            Hey friend,
            I have had this argument made by many Catholics throughout the years. I’m not suggesting it is a good one, just a common one.

            More importantly, I don’t think I suggested that this was Roman Catholics’ only argument anywhere. When I said “essentially, your list of books can’t be trusted because it’s possible you are wrong” was just dealing with the argument in question. Not the entire canon of Catholic apologetics on this matter. It is just one that has some rhetorical power and I wanted to address it. I know there are many other arguments made against sola Scriptura that are more legitimate. So I still don’t think it was a straw man. Either way, hopefully, this corrects that.

    • Kevin Simonson


      Doesn’t it likely follow that the books of the Protestant Bible might themselves be fallible? How are Biblical Christians certain that those books are infallible? Or even that they’re probably infallible?

      • C Michael Patton

        Definitely, as well as our interpretation. We are only left with degrees of certitude, even about the individual books. That is why we must think through our faith, issue by issue, book by book when we are able. I’m not saying you have to become a professional theologian or go to seminary though. Often, we just get to a point where we say “It is enough to justify my faith,” as we can never really study everything exhaustively. But, some of us are able to spend more time in this matter than other to gain their trust and help the others through.

    • Bibliophile

      My good sir,

      Thank you for clarifying that your post does not represent the “entire canon of Catholic apologetics” on this issue; I would hasten to add that neither does it provide an accurate representation of the Catholic position on the complicated nexus of issues raised in your post.

      When you make such unqualified, blanket statements like, “The charge to Protestants from Catholics is, in essence, Your list of books cannot be trusted because it’s possible it is wrong”; and then quickly follow up with bold assertions like, “The Roman Catholic smoke screen of indubitable certainty that seems to be given by having a living infallible authority (Magisterium)”, you imply, however unintentionally, that official Catholic teachings endorse Cartesian rationalism and the epistemological foundationalism which he bequeathed to modernity. Ironically, by insisting that, in your opinion, Roman Catholics and Protestants are in the same boat because ” They (Catholics) have no more reason to believe in an infallible church than we do to believe in an infallible canon”, since, on your view, even, apparently, in matters of faith, “we only have relative certainty”, and therefore, on your view, whatever we believe “must be substantiated by the evidence” -; ironically, you align yourself with the same methodological madness of Enlightenment modernity by prioritizing inductive reasoning above everything. And that is a glaring inconsistency which casts doubt on any charitable claims to unity. In short, your entire approach in this blog is polemical against Catholicism – and you haven’t even got the facts straight!

      Please underunderstand that there is no arrogance or pride intended on my part by bringing this to your attention; but if you continue to disseminate misinformation that maligns the Catholic Church, better in my opinion that you are made aware than continue to misrepresent the other party.

      • C Michael Patton

        I disagree my friend. But I will try to do better. Wait for my next post. It will probably make you more angry, but also might cool your jets some.

        keep being so thoughtful and jeep engaging deeply. While we disagree, you’re a good representative of your faith. I’m glad to have you as a brother.

        • Bibliophile

          I thank you, Michael, for your willingness to open dialogue and endearing manner. I will do my best to “cool my jets” and be less angry at your next post 🙂

          As a child of the Enlightenment myself, I came to the faith from a background of critical scepticism that demanded evidence for absolutely everything, before I could accept any belief as “justified true belief”. It took me a lot of painfully hard work – and even relationship difficulties – to discover that my approach to these issues was basically mimicking the methodology of modern foundationalism, whether that was in form of idealist conceptualism, or scientific empiricism – both of which are really just two sides of Descartes rationalism coin.

          As with Kant, who said that Hume woke him from a ” dogmatic slumber”, so it was with me – except it was Aquinas who woke me from my rationalist stupor! I could then see clearly the hopeless situation in Protestant theology, saturated as it is now with rationalist philosophy, and appropriating rationalist methodology in apologetics, etc. I delved deep into church history and history of philosophy and science; and it wasn’t too long after that when I was able to finally see the problems with Protestantism and Sola Scriptura, learned the true nature and extent of the theological debate at the Roformation and eventually “crossed the Tiber” to finally embraced the Catholic faith.

          None of this implies that I am of the opinion that the Catholic Church is perfect; but I do believe that She possess the fullness of the faith in form of Sacred Scriptures, a living Sacred Tradition and a unifying teaching authority (Magisterium).

          Last, but not least, I am so glad that you consider me a brother: the fundamentalist Baptist background I reflexively got involved in when I first converted to Christianity from atheist scepticism was not so kind to Catholics and still teaches that the Roman Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon (and posts like this tend to cement that thinking in the heads of literalist fundamentalists especially).

          We can agree to disagree, that’s okay: the Catholic Church learned the hard way that we are ALL brothers and sisters in Christ and so faith cannot be coerced – but that’s probably subject matter for another debate, right?!?

          Looking forward to your next post, brother.

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