Sunday, April 03, 2011
"A Fallible Collection of Infallible Books" by Jamie Donald
(This article was written by my friend, Jamie Donald, who graciously gave me permission to post it here. Please enjoy!)
A Fallible Collection of Infallible Books
This description of the Canon of Scripture, used by our Protestant brothers and sisters, has always left me somewhat perplexed. Rather than expound on my own understanding of the phrase, I'd like to turn to a blog article by James Swan on this topic. What James wrote a couple of months ago at Sproul: "The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books" vastly improved my understanding of this description.
James notes that this phrase comes from RC Sproul (who possibly got it from John Gerstner). Swan does not believe that the "fallible" clause means the Church did actually err when consolidating various writings into the Canon, only that the Church was not provided the special protection from error (which we call "infallibility"). He summarizes Gerstner's thoughts as, It is one thing to say that the church could have erred; it is another thing to say that the church did err. (emphasis added) Thus, Swan believes that the early church was used by God and "got it right" (to use a popular phrase I've seen with some Protestant e-pologists).
Perhaps an analogy is in order. Since we're in March Madness, I'll use a basketball analogy. Imagine that it's the closing seconds of the game and your team is down by one point. The coach calls a time out and outlines a play for his team. They only have time for this single play. They must score to win and advance in the tournament. The coach knows his star player will be double teamed, so he directs the ball be passed to whomever is free. When the opposing team shifts to cover the ball, that will free up the star and the ball is to be passed to him. The star will go in for the easy lay-up, scoring 2 points at the buzzer, winning the game.
The ball gets in-bounded to a guard. But instead of passing to the star, the guard sees that he's still free – it takes the other team some time to adjust their coverage. So he takes the shot from 3-point range. Everyone is on edge as they watch the ball – on a low percentage shot – not the sure thing of a lay-up – sails through the air. The ball goes through; "nothing but net' and your team wins the game.
The next day, the coach calls the guard into his office. He says, "I don't know if I should congratulate you as a hero, or bench you for the next game in the tourney. You didn't follow my orders!" The guard replies, "But Coach, I won the game for us!" The coach presses his point, "You could have missed!" And the guard answers, "But I didn't."
Just as the guard could have missed the shot in the game, the early Church could have "missed" on the Canon of Scripture. But they didn't miss. That is Swan's point. The Church wasn't protected from missing, but in history managed to get the right answer.
Swan notes that the Church plays a role in the Canon, but not as the author. He writes, I recognize the Christian Church received the Canon. It does not though, create the Canon, or stand above the Canon. (emphasis added) In this respect, the Church is to receive the Scriptures as a gift from God. When receiving a gift, it is the giver, not the recipient, who guarantees the quality of the gift. For example, if I give my wife a present for her birthday or our anniversary; if the gift is cheesy, that is my fault – not my wife's. Likewise, if she unwraps it and excitedly declares, "It's perfect!" the high quality of the gift was my doing, not hers. Hers is to appreciate the quality of the gift. The Scriptures are God's gift to us, His Church; and there is nothing we do (nor can do) which influences or causes the perfection, the inerrancy, of the Word.
Finally, Swan bolsters his point on a fallible Church by noting that the first century Christians and late pre-Christ Jews had received the Old Testament without an infallible source to declare that the writings were in fact the correct ones. If these ancients could know the Word of God without the charism of infallibility, then so can modern Christians.
At this point, I will let the reader review my summary and balance it against Swan's article to determine if I am correctly discerning his viewpoint.
In offering a critique of Swan's article, I would first note that there is much in it with which I think Catholics can agree. Read paragraphs 104, 105, 106, 136 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, and you will see that the Church receives the Scriptures, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the church herself. (emphasis added) Indeed, they are a gift to the Church and their unique nature of inerrancy is based on the giver, God Himself.
However, the role of the Church in the process of discovering the Canon of Scripture is something more than simply an occurrence in history that ended up "right." Where the basketball game had an objective standard to determine whether the player was a hero or not – the ball either did or did not go through the hoop, there is no objective standard by which to measure a writing as "scripture" or "not scripture." Without a standard against which he can measure, how does Swan proclaim the Protestant canon as the early Church got it right, while proclaiming that the Catholic canon (with the deuterocanonicals), the Coptic canon, or even Marcion's canon are "wrong"?
Let's look at this prospect another way. Tradition plays an important (although non binding) role in Protestant understanding of what should be considered, or not considered, an apostolic teaching. Tradition (with a small "t") informs and provides background to their understanding and interpretation of the Bible, where the New Testament contains all the writings which are "apostolic teaching." For example, Lutherans look at various Scriptural passages along with their traditional interpretive lens and conclude that baptismal regeneration is an apostolic teaching. However, since the Lutheran tradition – their interpretive lens – is not binding, they consider Swan to be a brother in Christ even though the tradition of his confession disagrees with baptismal regeneration and supports that disagreement with Scriptural references.
Please note that the purpose is not to get into a discussion about baptismal regeneration, nor to show that there are differences in interpretation amongst various traditions. The purpose is to try to highlight that tradition informs the interpretation of the Scriptures as to what is and is not an apostolic teaching, yet that same tradition is not binding in the Protestant paradigm.
But one of the qualities used by the Church to determine what is and is not Scripture is apostolicity. So when the very question about the canon is "is this writing apostolic teaching or not?" one can't determine the answer by looking at the writing itself. There must be some external measure. What it boils down to is that each group, Protestant, Catholic, Coptic, Marcion, etc, proclaim what they believe to have received as Scripture. To say that in the process worked out in history, the early Church got it "right" is to say that you believe your tradition.
Now it would be unfair and inaccurate to say that Swan thinks along the lines, "The Canon is what it is because I (or my denomination) says it is." He provides a reason for why he thinks the early Church correctly identified the Canon. He writes, The Church was used by God to provide a widespread knowledge of the Canon. The Holy Spirit had worked among the early Christian Church in providing them with the books of the New Testament. Not only does the Church receive the Scriptures as a gift from God, but God also ensures that the Church provides to the world the knowledge of the [correct] Scriptures. Swan is certain to tell us that it is God's work, not the Church's, which gets the Canon correct. As a Catholic, I can agree with much, if not all of this thought process.
But in this particular thought, Swan ends up proving the Catholic case! Let us return to the analogy of me giving a gift to my wife. If I have hidden the gift in a room, then tell her "warmer" as she gets closer to the hiding spot and "colder" as she moves away from it, she will find the gift. Under my guidance, she would be assured of finding the gift. It becomes impossible for her to not find it, or to "get it wrong." Again, Swan wrote, The Holy Spirit had worked among the early Christian Church in providing them with the books of the New Testament. (bolded to emphasize the entire sentence) The early Church was prevented from "getting it wrong" by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit's work in her.
That is the definition of infallibility in the lexicon of the Catholic Church. Infallibility, the assurance of not "getting it wrong" is often confused with inerrancy, the charism of definitely getting it correct. For example, with the topic of crime, a person's silence does not teach that crime is proper. Thus, it is not necessarily "wrong." But speaking out against crime would be the "correct" action. Infallibility does not ensure the latter action. Inerrancy does. It follows then that anything that has the quality of inerrancy would also be infallible, but being infallible does not guarantee inerrancy. The Scriptures themselves, handed on from God, with God as their author, are inerrant. The Church's discovery of the Canon is infallible, but not inerrant.
That the Church infallibly discovered the Canon, the gift from God to her, does not mean that she create[s] the Canon, or stand[s] above the Canon as Swan says. But as the Catechism (86) quotes Dei Verbum, the Church is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. (emphasis added) Just as Swan believes that God gives the Scriptures to the Church and guides her in discovering them, Catholics believe the same. The difference is that Catholics acknowledge that God does not fail in what He sets out to accomplish. Therefore, if God uses the Church to provide a widespread knowledge of the Canon, then a failure of the Church would mean that God failed. And that cannot happen.
Swan's final point, written as, The Old Testament believer 50 years before Christ was born had a canon of Scripture, this despite the ruling from an infallible authority, is a position stating that the Old Testament was set and known without an infallible organization. It is also an assertion of his conclusion (begging the question fallacy). The fallacy is not immediately apparent until after one understands what Swan means by the "Old Testament." What Swan considers as Old Testament Scriptures does not match what Catholics nor Orthodox consider to be the Old Testament.
The Protestant Old Testament is basically the Masoretic Text (as translated into various languages of the world) with its "table of contents" set in the Jewish school set up after the destruction of the Temple. This school was set up in Jamnia and established a Jewish canon of the Old Testament which did not include the deuterocanonicals. This ruling came circa 90 AD – well into the Christian era. This is the canon to which Swan refers when he says "Old Testament."
However, history shows that there were more than one version of the Old Testament at the time. Most people are aware of the Septuagint, the Greek-language version of the Old Testament that was used by faithful Jews in the Diaspora. The archaeological findings at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) show that many of the books of the Old Testament found there do indeed match the Masoretic Text. Many also match the Septuagint. What is not widely known is that many of the scrolls found match neither the Masoretic Text nor the Septuagint, but are of a third, previously unknown, version of the Old Testament.
However, assuming that the Masoretic Text is somehow the official Old Testament of the period (a best case scenario for Swan), there still exist difficulties which Swan must assume are absent. First, one must understand what the Masoretic Text actually is. It is more than just the Hebrew language, or original language, version of the Old Testament. When the Old Testament was written, it was written with consonants only. The vowels were left out. The Masoretic Text contains notes which essentially fill in the vowels by giving the words a pronunciation.
What this means is that whoever provides the pronunciation – or fills in the vowels – does much more than provide an interpretation of the Scripture. They actually establish its definition! Let's use a modern day example. Suppose you were to read in a cookbook recipe the line, "pr th frt." You could reasonably say that this line means either, "pare the fruit," or "puree the fruit." Yet, these are two dramatically different meanings!
Additionally, there is the historical fact that the Masoretic Text was not finalized until after 900 AD. During this time there were revisions; some minor, others major. For example, it has been asserted that the Masorite school changed Is 7:14 to use the word meaning "young girl" rather than "virgin" bearing a child as the prophecy. The assertion states that many of these changes were made to distance Judaism from Christianity.
Finally, different camps placed different levels of emphasis on the various books of the Old Testament. For example, the Sadducees believed that only the five books of Moses could be used as the infallible, inerrant word of God to be used as a means to settle disputes. When they question Jesus concerning the resurrection (a wife becomes widowed by seven brothers, so whose spouse will she be in the resurrection?), He first answers them by telling the Sadducees that they do not know Scripture (in Matthew and Mark). Upon telling them that they don't know Scripture, Jesus points back to the Pentateuch for his answer (in all three synoptic Gospels). He does not correct their lack of knowledge of Scripture by showing them that prophesies in Is 26:19 and Dan 12:2 are Scripture. Instead, he leaves the question unanswered and appeals to what they accept as Scripture.
Thus, a good analysis of what the devout believer 50 years before Christ knew to be Scripture leaves you with no real answer. Which of the competing texts were used in this devout believer's community and by his rabbis? How were the vowels filled into the words to give them meaning by those rabbis when read to the community? What actual books did his teachers hold to be truly inerrant? Except for the highly educated, the devout Jew would only know what he was told by his teachers. And we see that through no fault of his own, that could result in many different understandings of what constituted Scripture.
And as for the highly educated, well, Jesus told them that they didn't know the Scriptures. How could the average devout Jew of the time have the assurance of knowledge that Swan assumes?
In conclusion, Swan makes some very good and valid points. The Church is not the master of the Scriptures, but instead receives them as a gift from God. The Scriptures do not derive their authority from the Church, the recipient of them, but instead from God Himself as both the author and the gift giver. And the Church knows the Scriptures because God, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has guided her to this knowledge. However, because Swan over-states the concept of infallibility, he leaves himself open to criticism that God was possibly ineffective in His Revelation to the Church. He supports this idea by comparing the reception of the New Testament to the reception of the Old Testament. But in making this comparison and using it as an example, he assumes that the ancient Jew would have known the Old Testament exactly as Swan does. But he cannot truly show this to be the case.
May Christ, who reigns in Heaven with His Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, lead us all to a better understanding of God's word in each and every day.