It’s a (Canon) Trap!

Admiral Ackbar, in all his Mon Calamari glory

I admit it. I tried to trap my Baptist friend Shawn, beginning around here in the comments.

Yes, it’s back to the canon again. The issue that will never die, and can never die, until we come to unity. Here’s the background on my latest tack to make progress in the discussion.

Bogged down in the Old Testament

The canon debate got mired in the muddy waters of the history of the Jewish canon, whether they had a closed canon prior to Christ, what such-and-such Church Father and council said (or didn’t say), all to try to buttress the argument for the Protestant or Catholic OT canon.

Catholics tried to impress upon the Protestants that the historical evidence was ambiguous and could not provide certainty in any OT canon.

Protestants fought back seeking to argue that the Jews had figured out their canon and fixed it before Christ’s Incarnation.

And we argued over the historical evidence and came to no agreement.

But in the midst of this discussion, I had…an idea.

The Idea

Why not grant to the Protestants that the Jews already fixed the OT before Christ, and that it’s the Protestant OT, and that that is the true one?

How did the Jewish people get the canon right, especially since their was no authoritative pronouncement, no big council that decreed it in ancient times? Simple, God guided them, the Israelites, to know their Scriptures. After all, my friends pointed out, they were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2).

But after thinking about their position on the OT for a while, I realized, just like Bruce Pandolfini did in Searching for Bobby Fischer, that “that was a mistake.”

The Mistake

Of course, it’s not really a “mistake,” since it’s a belief that they hold. But it leads to an inconsistency which I sought to demonstrate. And the syllogism goes like this:

1. God guided the Jewish people in the Old Covenant to discern the OT books He inspired
2. The New Covenant is equal to or greater than the Old in every way
3. God must have then guided the Christian Church in the New Covenant to discern the NT books He inspired

I had learned that I had to phrase things carefully not to get diverted off this syllogistic track, and so I avoided the pitfalls I had seen occur in previous dialogues with my friend. But Shawn’s a straight shooter (which I greatly appreciate) and told me to get to the point.

Which I did. I tipped my hand to him and then asked whether he agreed with #3, the conclusion. And he said that he did.

The Payoff

So why does that concession lead to an inconsistency? Several possibilities.

If God guided the Christian Church on the issue of the canon, why did He not guide them on, say, baptism? Or on any other doctrine? It becomes ad hoc to claim He guided the Church on one issue but not another, unless a principled reason for making this distinction can be given.

I happened to already know that Shawn believed the Church had begun corrupting baptism early on in her history, so this was a tack that I thought would be fruitful in demonstrating the inconsistency in his position. As it happened, Shawn stopped responding and so we never got to the payoff. I don’t presume to know why. Maybe he saw where it was going. Maybe he got busy and more important things had to be taken care of.

In any case, I hope that this elaboration is helpful to seeing how positions and arguments can be explored. The hope would be that, when someone realized that their position was ad hoc, they would seriously consider the implications and, through prayer and further study, come to take the next step of faith: that God guided His Church into all truth, not just on the canon, but on all her teachings.


4 thoughts on “It’s a (Canon) Trap!”

  1. “If God guided the Christian Church on the issue of the canon, why did He not guide them on, say, baptism? Or on any other doctrine? It becomes ad hoc to claim He guided the Church on one issue but not another, unless a principled reason for making this distinction can be given.”

    Exactly. I’d broken down the central problem of sola scriptura with a similar syllogism:

    1) If the Holy Spirit guides the Church (Jn 14:26, 16:13), and the Holy Spirit’s guidance is reliable (Rom 3:3-4; 2 Tim 2:13), then the Church’s teachings are reliable.
    2) The Church’s teachings are not reliable.
    3) Therefore, either the Holy Spirit’s guidance is not reliable, or the Holy Spirit does not guide the Church.

    The problem with the Protestant canon versus the Catholic canon also breaks on this rock. Somehow, the HS fell asleep at the switch when the councils of Rome, Carthage and Hippo all declared for the Catholic canon, and didn’t wake up until around 1517? Doesn’t sound very “reliable” to me!

    In the end, you can’t deny the guidance of the HS on any single without indicting the reliability of the HS, and you can’t radically deny it at any point after Pentecost without indirectly accusing the Lord of welshing on His promise. Bringing Him in to “save” various preferred doctrines then ushering Him out to undermine the “corruptions” is special pleading, no more and no less. In essence, you can draw a straight line from the here-again-gone-again HS to the Mormon belief in the Great Apostasy; the root flaw is the same.

  2. One place you can go is to ask whether the discernment of the cannon was protected by some form of charism of infallibility. Getting them to admit God gives men such a gift even in a limited way is a big breakthrough. Often there is a notion that any doctrine of infallibility is fundamentally unchristian. If you can get them to admit they do beleive in the notion. That we just differ o the details of how it works. Then we can talk about who’s version has more support in scripture or tradition. Guess what? The idea of a “bible only” infallibility has no support in either.

    1. Good point, Randy. And that was what I was going for, since “God guiding the process so that its result was correct” is another way of saying infallibility. It’s a big breakthrough, though my friend didn’t return to finish the discussion, so I’m not sure how he ultimately would have responded.

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