The next argument against sola Scriptura:

Without the infallible declaration of the Church, there would be no way of knowing what books belong in the canon of Scripture. Since there is no inspired canon of Scripture, the “Scripture alone” is not even enough to establish what Scriptures are truly Scripture. Therefore, the doctrine of sola Scriptura is self-defeating.

This is true. I am looking on page 23 of my Bible and it has the list of books. The books all together number 66, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament. This is often referred to as the “canon” of Scripture. “Canon” (Gk. kanon) means “rule” or “measuring rod.” 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 Protestants would call it, the “Apocrypha” (although the Orthodox church is not quite as settled upon the status of the Apocrypha).

The question How do you know what books belong in the Bible? is a significant one indeed and presents, what I believe to be, the most persuasive argument against sola Scriptura that there is. The Catholics and Orthodox will normally refer to the establishment of these books as part of the canon by fourth century councils. Catholics would further refer to the teachings of the council of Trent (1545-1563) which 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 New American Standard Bible, but it is the same in any version of any language. Even 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 that has determined what books belong in the Bible, how can I be certain what books belong in the Bible and still profess sola Scriptura?

It would seem that the Scripture alone is not sufficient to establish the Scripture alone!! Do we have an 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 situation in which advocates of sola Scriptura find themselves. Catholics claim that they, due to their belief in a living infallible authority, have an infallible collection of infallible books, and that we are just borrowing from them!

Not only this (as an aside), but what about interpretation? Not only do Protestants not believe in an infallible authority to dogmatize which books belong in the Bible, but they 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 an fallible canon of infallible books. Ouch! Sounds like it is time to 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 to 1) 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. This supposed need for absolute certainty is primarily the product of the enlightenment and a Cartesian epistemology. To say that we have to be infallibly certain about something before it can be believed and acted upon is setting the standard so high that only God Himself could attain to it. Outside of mathematics and analytical statements (e.g. a triangle had three sides), there is no absolute certainty, only relative certainty. This does not, however, give anyone an excuse or alleviate responsibility for belief in something.

For 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 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 infallible 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 or to God.

We have a term that we use for people who require infallible 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.

The same can be said about the canon and interpretation of Scripture. Just because there is a possibility that we are wrong (being fallible), does not mean that it is a probability. Therefore, we look to the evidence for the degree of probability concerning Scripture.

2. The smoke screen of epistemological certainty that seems to be provided by having a living infallible authority (Magisterium) disappears when we realize that we all start with fallibility. No one would claim personal infallibility. Therefore it is possible for all of us to be wrong. We all have to start with personal fallible engagement in any issue. Therefore, any belief in an infallible living authority could be wrong. As Geisler and MacKenzie put it, “The supposed need for an infallible magisterium is an epistemically insufficient basis for rising above the level of probable knowledge. Catholic scholars admit, as they must, that they do not have infallible evidence that there is an infallible teaching magisterium. They have merely what even they believe to be only probable arguments. But if this is the case, then epistemically or apologetically there is no more than a probable basis for Catholics to believe that a supposedly infallible pronouncement [either about the canon or interpretation of the canon] of their church is true” (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, p. 216).

Here is a graph to illustrate what I mean:

This means that we are all floating in the same river, just different boats. Catholics (Dual-Source Theory) have a fallible belief about an infallible authority; Advocates of sola Scriptura have a fallible belief about an infallible authority. Both authorities must be substantiated by the evidence and both authorities must be interpreted by fallible people. In the end, what is the difference? Advocates of sola Scriptura just cut out the infallible middle man.

Do advocates of sola Scriptura have a fallible collection of infallible books? Yes. We concede such. When all is said and done, all of our beliefs are fallible and therefore subject to error. But remember, the possibility of error does not necessitate the probability of error. We have to appeal to the evidence to decide. God would [probably] accept nothing less. :)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon 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. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    27 replies to "In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Seven – What About the Canon?"

    • Randy

      Interesting thoughts. I would say a couple of things. First of all, how sure about something do you need to be to die for it? Sounds a little melodramatic? How about this? You are same sex attracted Christian and Christianity teaches that sex is for marriage and marriage is between a man and a women. How sure of that teaching do you have to be before you give up on you deep desire to have a same sex marriage? Try another case. A teenage girl is pregnant. Her faith says abortion is wrong. But having this baby scares her to death. Do you want to explain to her that the teaching is probably right? That the possibility that it might be wrong is so small as to be ignored?

      Pope Benedict says you cannot put a question mark in the center of your life. A lack of trust in God’s truth leads to functional atheism. You don’t deny God but end up making most decisions the same way you would if you were an atheist.

      The other comment I would make on you diagram is that it does not start where it needs to start. It should start with Christ. Catholics can see clearly how Jesus started the church. Protestants cannot show as clearly how Jesus produced the scriptures. So protestants need a bunch more boxes to get from faith in Jesus to a 66 book cannon.

    • C Michael Patton

      Well, I am sure we would all put Christ and the testimony of the Holy Spirit in there, but this is simply for epistemic verification from a human standpoint. If we all simply said this is what Christ taught, we would all be left in the same situation where it has to be tested somehow. Subjective pronouncements would not get anyone very far, even if they are true.

    • Ken Temple

      Excellent Michael!

      I love the line about “mentally ill” and “What about Bob?” with Bill Murray.

      You said much better what I have been trying to say to Roman Catholics at Dave Armstrong’s website.

      God does not expect us to have “infallible certainty” – we are human. But the RC apologetic approach is to constantly ask:

      How do you know Matthew or Philemon or Jude or Revelation belongs in the canon? How do you know for sure?

      They also ask, “how do you know for sure you have the right interpretation?”

      That is the RCC apologetic approach and you have done a great job of exposing its problems.

      Thanks for a great article and series. I love your charts and diagrams also. Very pleasing to the eyes.

    • Jphilapy

      Randy Wrote ” Do you want to explain to her that the teaching is probably right? That the possibility that it might be wrong is so small as to be ignored?”

      But as Michael pointed out that is the fundamental issue facing both protestantism and catholicism. First you have to explain to that girl that the catholic church is probably right. Then you have to say therefore what they say is true.

      So how is it that you do escape this problem? What you see as a problem is your first hurdle.


    • tjones2280

      Nice blog, it’s the clearest defense of Sola Scriptura I’ve seen on the internet yet. I believe you make several errors in your reasoning though.

      “We have a term that we use for people who require infallible certainty about everything: ‘mentally ill.”

      The Catholic Church doesn’t claim to have infallibility on everything, just on the teachings of faith and morality.

      “The supposed need for an infallible magisterium is an epistemically insufficient basis for rising above the level of probable knowledge. Catholic scholars admit, as they must, that they do not have infallible evidence that there is an infallible teaching magisterium.”

      Now I’m no scholar, but if the Bible is the infallible word of God, and 1 Timothy 3:15 states “The Church of the Living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth,” would that not argue that a particular church has that “infallible teaching magisterium”? Since as you pointed out in an earlier post the whole Peter and the Keys episode in Matthew Jesus said he would found his church on Peter and his Apostles would it not be reasonable to conclude that such infallible evidence exists?

      “The same can be said about the canon and interpretation of Scripture. Just because there is a possibility that we are wrong (being fallible), does not mean that it is a probability. Therefore, we look to the evidence for the degree of probability concerning Scripture.”

      How about a degree of probablity of 100%? To accept any degree of fallibility is to make Scripture less than the Word of God, and opens up all sorts of issues such as how do you know that the Book of Mormon or “The Da Vinci Code” aren’t the truth? after all, they probably aren’t, but there is no way for us to know for sure. Everything becomes purely subjective at that point. We can pick and choose what suits us, rather that doing the will of God.

      With Christian charity,

    • Godismyjudge

      Hi Michael,

      I just wanted to give you a heads up that I referenced your post (here)

      God be with you,

    • Br. Christopher Gaffrey, OFM


      I would add a discussion of the Palestinian and Alexandrian canons of the Old Testament to make this more complete. The differences in the canon have to do with the different sources. The Protestant reformers used the Masoretic Text as their basis for the Old Testament while the Catholic and Orthodox, for the most part, took the Septuagint Text. The Masoretic Text is a Hebrew language version of the Old Testament, whose final form did not appear till about 800 AD(!). The number of books in the Old Testament were established by the Jewish community at the Council of Jamnia, in the late 1st Century AD, already after the initial break with Christianity. This is called the Palestinian Canon. The Rabbis making such a decision excluded anything not originally written in Hebrew.

      The Septuagint was a Greek translation from a Hebrew text of the Old Testament with the inclusion of certain books written only in Greek. It came about between the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC and was used by the Jewish people in the diaspora, who for the most part spoke Greek. These books would later be recognized as the Alexandrian Canon. They were not simply a Greek translation of the Masoretic Text. Recent biblical scholarship (especially the Quram manuscripts) has uncovered a previous Hebrew text, different than the Masoretic text, from which the Jews is the diaspora translated the Old Testament into Greek. It is that version of the Old Testament that is quoted in the New Testament.

      Some, including myself, have asked whether the differences in the Masoretic text and the underlying Hebrew that was translated into the Septuagint were not due to specific anti-Christian manipulation of the Masoretic Text on the part of the Jewish community. It has been noted that after the 2nd century AD the Jewish community in the diaspora stopped using the Septuagint. Perhaps this was a reaction to the Christian use of it and its clearer connection to Jesus as the Messiah.

    • Ed Kratz

      That is certianly a good discussion about the canon. I would also talk about how incredibly unstable the theoretical wider-canon of Alexandia was and the implications there. As well, I would talk about how all three of the great Alexandrian LXX extant manuscripts are not represented in anyone’s canon completely and how this demonstrates that no one actually believes in a particular LXX wider-canon. Then I would talk about how the Christian community COULD have distanced themselves from the Jews (which seems more likely) by distancing themselves from their canon, not only with the emerging NT, but with the Greek OT. Then I would also add that even then, this wider canon is only secondary in nature.


    • […] am understanding this comment correctly, it raises the same concern that another Protestant blogger expounded upon in more detail.  I needed to address similar concerns as this blogger did so I will be using his […]

    • Jonathan

      I think you make a very good point with the issue of epistemology. For me, however, it doesn’t make me want to believe in sola Scriptura. It makes me want to agree with the early church and what they believed (collectively) about what it meant to be a Christian. They spoke the same language the NT was written in, lived in the same culture, were either the generation right after the apostles or only a couple generations after. Compare that to the reformers for whom Greek and Hebrew were second or third languages, living in a completely different culture, having completely different values, espousing ideas that were either rejected as heresies long before Trent, or are not found supported at all by the majority of the church fathers.

      Knowing that even learned protestant theologians argue ceaselessly among themselves about essential issues of the faith, the most logical thing to do would seem to either become EO or RC.

    • Cameron

      Excellent points on epistemology. Many of the things you say are things I’ve personally meditated on for some time, even before reading your thoughts. When applying the same “dillema” to the RCC it really does show how they’re no different. They can’t infallibly know they’re infallible.

      I often ask Catholics, does the RCC authorize the infallible canon, or does the infallible canon authorize the RCC? The only credible answer for them is to offer is that “tradition” authorizes the RCC.

      However, this now ties into Jonathan’s comment above, in that there is NO unanimous “tradition” among the ECF about many doctrines, especially how to interpret Mat 16:18! So it blows my mind how he can assert that the ECF somehow collectively had it right. I would only ever argue that that which is God-breathed collectively has it right, and it comes from many cultures over the span of thousands of years! We need to look to Scripture and what the apostles taught, not the ECF collectively, not EO, and not RC.

    • Jonathan

      Hello Cameron,
      I want to apologize if my comments earlier came out kind of snarky. I don’t mean to be that way, but reading over them again, i think I get a little too into this kind of stuff.

      I agree with you that the ECF disagree on a number of issues, but they (or at least the majority of them) show surprising agreement on a lot of issues that are fundamental to the faith, like salvation, the nature of communion and baptism. And where they don’t agree on fundamentals (or details of the fundamentals), they have a church council to sort out the fuzzy issues – believing that, just as the church dealt with it’s doctrinal differences in Acts 15, so the church should do the same now. I find that to be very biblical, and that is the sense in which I say we need to follow what the church fathers and church at large believed.

      Also, saying that you believe only that which is God-breathed (i.e., the Bible) to be collectively right doesn’t solve the Protestant’s problem. In the sola Scriptura worldview, we are all still Spirit-filled, fallible Christians trying to interpret the Bible, not really knowing how successful we are in doing so. As Mr. Patton mentioned above, we are all floating in the same river. Whereas the RCC and EO church sort out these epistemological problems through debating and coming to conclusions through ecumenical councils, Protestants simply spread the problem of interpreting Scripture across every individual Christian, and spin off denominations when those different interpretations collide with each other. I find the EO and RCC way of sorting their doctrinal differences to both work (at least for the first 1000 years), and to be biblical – it’s what the Apostles and elders of the early church themselves did (Acts 15).

      So, I guess what I’m saying is that I totally agree that we are all fallible human beings, using fallible reasoning hoping to come to infallible conclusions about the Christian life. And I can totally agree with my Protestant brothers and sisters who believe that God wants us to know the truth and actively tries to show it to us. The question is, how?

    • Cameron


      Sorry, but I see things a different way. I don’t see a majority of the ECF agreeing on the doctrine of justification because it wasn’t clarified (consulting primarily the Greek) until the 16th century.

      I’d rather stick to that which is God-breathed and be wrong, than add to it or contradict it. Because if we use common sense tools of interpretation i.e. looking at the original languages, context, the original audience, the NT interpreting the OT (as the apostles did), remain consistent, etc. then we have every reason to be confident in interpreting the Bible.

      What good does it to do sort out an issue with the “church” if you end up contradicting Scripture and teaching contrary to it, like the RCC does on the issue of justification? At times even councils have erred, esspecially many RC ones.

      We don’t just interpret the Bible individually. We have 2,000 years of teachings and commentaries to gleam from. We have to adhere to that which is God-breathed, not abandon it just because a council tell us something. A coucil may lead to a fallible conclusion just as anything else, because it too consists of fallible humans. You can’t escape your own argument. And in Acts 15 the apostles were coming together. They had that authority. Our councils today have to be guided and judged in light of Scripture. That which is perfect and comes from God will always win over that which is finite and fallible.

    • Jonathan

      Cameron, I think you summed it up well when you said:
      “I’d rather stick to that which is God-breathed and be wrong, than add to it or contradict it.” I think that’s really the risk we take no matter what route we choose. Just because you stick to the Bible alone doesn’t gaurantee you’ll have the right interpretation of it. And just because I stick to the interpretations of councils and church fathers doesn’t gaurantee I’ll have the right interpretation either.
      I do find it interesting, though, that you say you don’t find a majority of the church fathers agreeing specifically on the issue of justification. When I first really started diving into the church fathers as a protestant, the one burning question I had was, “What do they say about how we get saved?” I haven’t read all the church fathers – mostly quotes. But a few, I’ve read entirely: Clement of Rome, Mathetes, Polycarp, Ignatius, Barnabas, Papias, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, and the first book of Ireneus’ Against Heresies. They are all the earliest church fathers we have and, surprisingly, they all largely agreed on the idea that salvation was a synergy – a combination of our effort and God’s grace. They seemed to know exactly what they believed and had no problem expressing their opinions on this subject. Here are just a couple of quotes from them about this:

      Barnabas, from ch. 19, ““The way of light, then, is as follows. If any one desires to travel to the appointed place, he must be zealous in his works.”

      From Ignatius’ Epistle to Polycarp – Ch. 2, “The times call for thee, as pilots do for the winds, and as one tossed with tempest seeks for the haven, so that both thou [and those under thy care] may attain to God. Be sober as an athlete of God: the prize set before thee is immortality and eternal life, of which thou art also persuaded.”

      From Clement to the Corinthians, ch. 28. “Since then all things are seen and heard [by God], let us fear Him, and forsake those wicked works which proceed from evil desires; so that, through His mercy, we may be protected from the judgments to come.”

      These quotes are pretty typical of the way they talked about salvation.

      As for your statement about councils, I understand that you disagree with them. Personally, I’m leaning more towards EO, so, the later RCC councils I may very well agree with you. But please don’t ignore the elephant in the room with Protestantism as well. What good is it to “use common sense tools of interpretation” if all it’s yielded in 500 years are multiple denomenations with multiple views on everything from infant baptism to the nature of the Trinity? Saying, “Let’s just all study Scripture,” sounds really good on paper, but in the real world of theology and academia it just doesn’t work.

    • Cameron

      Sounds like we agree on a lot. In a nutshell, fallible humans can error individually or collectively (as in a council even).

      But no one has to like solascriptura soley for the sake of unity and agreement. I don’t expect it to do that entirely, and I don’t think councils can do that entirely. So the elephant in the room should rather be welcome, and be made a living space.

      The more we adhere to what is God-breathed, and not make other things equally authoratative (which I’m glad you’re not doing, hence being EO), then we end up having an elephant that steps on us.

      I agree certain things in the Bible aren’t explicit, however, I believe the gospel is explicit to say we’re entirely justified apart from the moral law (Rom 3:19-22). I’ll explain why if you want.

      With the ECF, we have the same problem. One could easily say they’re not talking about justification per se, but are giving descriptive statements of what a justified person will do or be, as even Romans does this (Rom 2:6,7,13) while also teaching we’re justified apart from the moral law (Rom 3:19-22). And even if the ECF didn’t adhere to solafide, it doesn’t matter if that which is God-breathed teaches it – and so it should be the case with any issue.

      I would say in 1 Clement he does explicitly teach we’re justified by faith alone.

      1 Clement 32:4

      “And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

      McGrath in ‘Iustitia Dei’ also states that the church primarily followed Augustine’s latin concept of “merit”, not the Greek NT understanding of “justification”, when it came to this issue. He also states that the notion that merit = rewards didn’t come about until around the later 4th century.

      Just fyi. I’m sure you’re fine with all this as a non-RC.

    • Jonathan

      I’m glad we agree on a lot of things. 🙂

      I keep seeing you comment that we must adhere to what is God-breathed and not councils, as though the bishops in the councils (let’s say, the first seven, at least, to cover the EO and Catholics together) were not trying to do the same thing. To put it bluntly, saying that we’re safer trying to stick to the Bible doesn’t make you any safer. All you’re really doing is trading the pope and ecumenical councils – and their understanding of Scripture – for yourself and your favorite theologians. How is that better? In fact, how is that not much, much worse? You’ve said earlier that you have 2000 years of teachings and commentaries to glean from, but again, when those commentaries disagree, what do you do?

      And I really don’t believe the Bible is explicit when it comes to the protestant view of the Gospel – which is what I’m assuming you mean when you say, “justified apart from the moral law.” Imputed righteousness, sola fide, etc. I grew up protestant, so I think I understand where you’re going with that and your explanation, though, you know, maybe I should not assume such things! 🙂 If you want to justify your view of justification, by all means go ahead. But before you spend all your time responding in that way, of all the books of the Bible, Romans is the one I’ve most read and studied. I’ve also studied Galatians more deeply than a lot of other books as well. I think I even read Luther’s commentary on Galatians in college, actually. And, I will gladly admit, those two books do seem very much to be saying that we are justified apart from the moral law. But again, how? It seems to me that protestants interpret every other passage of the Bible in light of just those two books. If a passage about salvation seems to agree with the theology we derive from Romans and Galatians, all the better. If the verses don’t fit that theology, we say that they are “hard to understand” and “unclear”. A case in point is the Sermon on the Mount. I encourage you to try reading the entire Sermon on the Mount without trying to fit it into any theological grid. Just take Jesus at his words. Follow His flow of thought. After doing that, be honest, what view of salvation do you walk away with?

      Is the Sermon on the Mount the summation of every aspect of how to get saved? No, of course not. But neither is Romans and Galatians. The Bible talks about salvation in varied and nuanced ways – with many different metaphors and examples. Picking the judicial metaphor and just sticking with that doesn’t seem very Biblical to me. But of course, you disagree, which just proves my point that just following the rules of interpretation don’t help us. We need more than that

      As for your Clement quote, I’d also encourage you to read the next few chapters after that quote and, again, tell me if you walk away thinking Clement was a sola fide theologian. And, again, try reading all those early fathers and see if you still feel the same way.

    • Cameron

      I thought we agreed on these points. 😀

      It seems we’re going in circles now. Yes I have to pick and choose which interpretations I gleam from, just as you must pick and choose which councils you will gleam from. The problem cannot be avoided one way or the other.

      The point of being able to look at history isn’t to say we all have agreement. Remember I said we need an elephant to be in the room, yet make it a living space, rather than get stepped on by the elephant. The point of having much to gleam from is simply having much to gleam from!

      So many interpretations of what is God-breathed is offered under the sun and if we stay consistent, study context, Scripture as a whole, the original languages, understand the original audience, etc. then we’ll be doing better than any alternative.

      About solafide, Romans and Galatians are the most didactic about the issue of justification before God than any other passage in Scripture. It zooms the camera all the way in on the topic. Jesus also says in John 6 that the work God requires is to believe, with no mention of anything else. Is Jesus contradicting himself? Is Mat 5 contradicting Romans 3-5? Of course not.

      I’ve heard RC arguments about 1 Clement 34 already. The context there isn’t justification. Even Paul uses the same language in Rom 2:6,13, and yet we know he’s not teaching justification via works for many exegetical reasons. Also, Clement surely isn’t contradicting himself. Also, if McGrath is correct, in the book ‘Iustitia Dei’ is discusses how the modern understanding of the term “merit” (=rewards unto justification) wasn’t understood that way until the late 4th century. In the early early church it was understood as rewards after justification, not “unto” justification.

    • Cameron

      I also wanted to add, you pick which councils you will listen to, as well as I. You also pick which interpretations sound the most truthful and consistent, etc. as well as I do. We can decide which councils seem the best and which interpretations seem the best.

    • Jonathan

      Looking back over our comments, I don’t think I’ve made my point clearly enough, and I see why you feel like we’re talking in circles. I hope my response in this comment clears some of that up… if not, I really do apologize.
      Yes, the problem of interpreting Scripture is every Christian’s problem – whether you’re Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, whatever. But the reason the RC and EO approach is fundamentally different, and I think better, is precisely because of what you just said in your latest comment. To an extent, yes the RC and EO picks and chooses which interpretation to believe, and for the EO the first 7 councils are the best, so to speak, whereas for the RC, all their councils are binding – so I guess you can call that “picking and choosing” as well. But the picking and choosing eventually comes to a definitive end for the whole church once the council is over and done with. If I become EO, for example, I can’t pick and choose what to believe. I have this base line of Scripture and Christian tradition as seen through the lens of the 7 ecumenical councils. If I happen to feel, from my study of Scripture, that one or more of these councils are wrong, as an EO Christian, I conclude that I must not be understanding Scripture correctly – not the other way around. You seem to consider that a problem. I consider that a safeguard. Not only am I protected (by the councils) from the erroneous interpretations of others, I’m protected from my OWN erroneous interpretations – especially the ones I think look very convincing. This also keeps Christians from splintering off into a hundred different denominations. I find this approach to be very satisfying also because this is the model given to us in Acts 15 where not just the Apostles, but also the elders came together to hash out the major issue at the time. And why wouldn’t they? Proverbs talks about how a person who is wise in his own eyes is worse than a fool and that in a multitude of counselors, there is wisdom. James talks about how those who lack wisdom should ask for it, and the Lord will generously give it. In a council the shepherds of God’s flock come together to do what they have been ordained to do: guide the church. For God to not have guided them, the shepherds, in the right interpretation of Scripture when they were crying out to Him for it with one voice, would seem to me not to show how ignorant they were of Scripture, but rather how negligent God must have been to not lead them.

      And also, if God didn’t guide the church into truth, but they floundered in practically apostate views of the Christian faith, how can we as Christians today believe that God is guiding us either? They had the Holy Spirit just like we do. They had the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” If they, being sincere pursuers of God, fell into error, what hope do we have now that we are not doing the same thing?

    • Cameron

      Any Christian can easily hold to the first 6 ecumenical councils because they all deal with the nature of God and Christ which is heavily touched on in the NT. The 7th council, in pertianing to having to have relics in the church and that no church is consecrated without them, has no Biblical bases.

      Even many of the ECF before 350ad clearly believed in the diety of Christ and the trinity. That’s a huge sign that the church wasn’t somehow lost in the dark about the nature of Christ apart from those councils! Many of the fathers were already on the right track due to Scripture.

      Sure ecumenical councils help us conclude important matters of the faith. I have no problem with that. I can hold to sola-scriptura and that at the same time. But remember, much of those councils have a lot of Scriptural backing, since they deal with a topic that is rich in the NT – the nature of God and Christ. So anyone can see the NT agrees with the councils (mostly the first 6 I’d say), and they agree with Scripture.

      You can’t avoid the issue of “denominations” due to this because there are some EO who adhere to additional councils as well. Who’s more correct? Majority rule can’t always be right.

      As for interpreting other issues in the Bible, the Bible is not as clear on certain things that it is on the nature of God and Christ. It’s these gray areas that mostly form denominations. At the same time, there may be truths of Scripture, ie. God’s predistination and justification by faith, which may be true, yet never have a chance to have an ecumenical council due to their historical context. Yet, we shouldn’t dismiss such important issues due to a lack of an ecumenical council (as some weren’t even considered “ecumenical” until years later).

    • Jonathan

      Cameron, thank you so much for this dialogue. I’ve gained a lot from it. You’ve helped me clarify my own thoughts on these topics, and it’s just good to hear a different point of view.
      I think, at this point, I’m going to bow out of the dialogue. I feel like, for the most part, we’ve pretty much said everything we really feel about this topic and are beginning to swing back around to a lot of the core issues we began with (which I think you also kind of implied earlier). Also, we’re beginning to touch on issues that I just don’t feel competent talking about. I have never heard of certain EO denominations holding to varying numbers of councils (unless maybe you’re talking about the Coptic church?). I don’t say that to say you’re wrong, but just as an example of the fact that I can’t “spar” with you on that issue. So, I’ll just give some closing remarks and finish this. Feel free to have the last word.
      I’m glad that you don’t think the church was not lost in the dark! 🙂 I know a lot of Protestants who feel that it was basically apostate and who would not agree with the first 6 councils. So, that’s where I’m coming from saying that. It’s not an uncommon sentiment.
      I totally agree with you that there are issues in Scripture that we ought to take seriously even though no council has talked about it – predestination and justification being two. Councils were only for the purpose of dealing with issues that major groups of people were in disagreement about – issues that were tearing the church apart. So, obviously, issues not dealt with in church councils matter, too.
      You said, “Majority rule can’t always be right.” As a general principle, I suppose I agree. But consider Matthew 18:15-20. The passage talks about church discipline, and, in that context, Jesus assumes the church will be competent enough to weed out the sinner (or heretic, as the case may be), and that, as she does, what she “bind[s] on earth shall be bound in heaven.” And why? Because the church is infallible in and of itself? Because councils are not messy and argumentative and even contested for years after? No, but because Christ is with His church. It ought to be possible for something like a council to happen and the church to sort out theological issues in the power of the Holy Spirit precisely because God says that that is part of the church’s job description.
      Again, I feel that you are being too simplistic with the notion that sola scriptura will guide the way for the church at large without some authoritative mechanism to pronounce infallibly what is true and isn’t in a theological crunch. But we’ve discussed that already.
      So, to end this, again, thank you for the dialogue. Maybe after I’ve read up on these issues some more, I’ll jump back in again. Until then, I wish you all the best. God bless.

    • Jonathan

      meant to say, “I’m glad that you don’t think the church was lost in the dark!”, but you probably already figured that out.

    • Cameron

      OK sounds good. Good talking to you.

    • Simon

      Often Orthodox world is overlooked in these discussions (which usually take place only between Catholics and Protestants). Both Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Communities reject sola scriptura as a doctrinal innovation.

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