The Epistemic Grounding for the Biblical Canon
May 11, 2007 — 9:43

Author: Tim Pawl  Category: Christian Theology Religious Belief  Tags:   Comments: 30

There's been lots of discussion in the previous post about canonicity.  Which books are the inspired books that God has given to his church?  We want a canon that contains all and only the inspired texts.  Only inspired texts, so that we aren't led astray by phonies; all inspired texts, so that we aren't missing something vital.  

But, how is the Christian supposed to know which canon is the right one?  The Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all have different canons, and that's just mentioning the three most common canons.  There are many other professed canons out there.  How does the Christian know which to affirm?  

What sorts of things could justify the Christian in judging /this/ canon to be all and only God's word?  I'm not asking (yet) for the whole story; I'm asking a more general question.  What sorts of justification /could/ do the work here?

More below the fold.

One thing I should be clear about is what I'm not asking.  I'm not asking the Christian to start with nothing at all and then prove that all and only these books are part of the canon.  My question is: given that you are a Christian and are in a relationship with God, what grounds you in choosing /this/ collection of books?

What I'd like to see in the end is a response that doesn't require the Christian to make any bald assumptions.  That is, I'm asking for a coherent, consistent position that lacks epistemic danglers.  

Here are some types of justification that I don't think work:

1.  A book is part of the canon if and only if the canon of scripture claims that the book is part of the canon.  
a.  This answer presupposes that we already have a canon.
b.  No canon has an inspired table of contents.  
c.  Even if we had a collection of books that contained all and only books that were claimed to be canonical by that collection, that still doesn't prove that we have the canon.  I could write two books, each citing the other as canonical, and claim it is the canon of scripture.  That doesn't give us a canon.  

2.  A book is part of the canon if and only if the Holy Spirit moves the individual believer to affirm that the book is part of the canon of scripture.
a.  Though it may be that I don't know any real believers, no one I know has had this sort of experience.  
b.  What I have had is the interior movement of the Holy Spirit in convicting me that an individual text is presenting me with the Gospel of Christ.  However, this particular test both allows in too much and too little:
i. It overshoots by allowing too much as scripture.  If this were the correct test, there would be more of scripture.  For instance, Luther’s commentary on Romans, St. Ignatius of Antioch’s seven letters, and the Didache have all moved me deeply, and while reading each I’ve felt the Holy Spirit convicting me of the Gospel of Christ.  But, these aren’t part of scripture.
ii.  It undershoots by not allowing some scripture into scripture.  I have not felt the interior movements of the Holy Spirit convicting me of the Gospel of Christ while reading, say, Philemon, or the Levitical law.
c.  I have felt the interior instigation of the Holy Spirit convicting me of the Gospel of Christ while reading 2 Maccabees.  However, no protestants do, I take it, since none of them affirm it as in the canon of Scripture.  Which is it – in or out?

It seems to me that one can have reasons for accepting a particular canon of scripture that come from 1) the scripture itself, 2) something internal to oneself, 3) something external to oneself [I’m not sure this is exhaustive].  Now, I think having reasons that come from scripture itself is doomed to failure.  Scripture can’t justify the acceptance of scripture, for reasons given above.  Reasons internal to oneself, like the natural light of reason, or the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit don’t seem to work either.  Reason alone can’t determine which books are canonical.  Reason alone falls short of such a task.  The internal testimony may do it for some believers, but I’ve never had such a private testimony.  Neither has any other believer I’ve talked to about this (but, that said, I may just not know a single true Christian).  So, it looks to me that something external to myself and to scripture has to do the work of giving me reasons to affirm a subset of the purportedly revealed texts.  

But, what external thing?

  • Dear Tim:
    I’ve always thought that this is much more of a problem for Protestants than it is for Orthodox or Catholics. An authoritative teacher has a duty to proclaim their own authority. If God were going to give us a single authoritative book, he would also have to say somewhere ‘This is the single authoritative book.’ If a book describes itself that way, as does the Quran, (one translation of The Quran that I came across began with the statement: ‘This is The Book. In it is guidance sure and without doubt for those who fear God’), then it is at least a candidate for being God’s word. With the Bible, we have no book that clearly makes such a statement about the whole of the Bible itself, indicating which books are included and which are excluded. The only reason for treating the Bible as, like the Quran, even a potential candidate for being God’s authoritative word is the existence of two institutions that claim ‘We are the single authoritative teaching institution set up by God, and, on his behalf, we are going to tell you what is included and what is excluded from his single authoritative book.’ So, if you want a single authoritative book become an Orthodox or Catholic Christian, or a Muslim, or perhaps some other choice, but not a Protestant.
    But before posting, I thought I should do some homework. The standard apologetics above is well-known, and there are responses. I came across some on the web-site of this guy called John Calvin:
    He’s obviously been thinking deeply about what it means to be a Protestant.
    What I draw from Calvin is that without some internal authority, there will be no belief at all. A book may have all the authority of God’s word, but it will be of no use to me unless I believe it is God’s word, and ultimately, something inside me must make that my belief – what he terms the instigation of the Holy Spirit.
    At the same time, we are depraved and cannot always recognise God’s word. The canon is important because it means we must accept the rough along with the smooth – not just the parts of God’s word that appeal to us, but the parts of God’s word that are hard to bear.
    Now a Catholic/Orthodox believer can, I suggest agree with this: all of us have to rely, ultimately, on our own sense of what is from God and what is not. However, if Calvin is correct, why doesn’t each individual have their own canon? It is just not credible to say that all Protestants independently feel the guidance of the Holy Spirit when they read just this set of books, and there is no canonical work that claims to list all and only those works that are part of the canon.
    It is true that Calvin does have some other pointers: a work cannot be scripture if it explicitly or implicitly denies itself such a status, by claiming for itself a merely human authority. To treat Augustine’s Confessions or Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love or C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as scripture would go against the obvious intentions of the authors. Scripture might not say ‘This is scripture’, but it can hardly say ‘This book is not to be treated as scripture.’ If I assert that I am infallible, that does not prove I am infallible, but if I deny that I am infallible, that proves that I am not infallible. (I’m sure everyone will see how to refine this to fit ‘A proper sub-set of my statements are infallible’: if the Pope denies his infallibility, he is in error, but if he makes an ex cathedra statement denying his infallibility, the Catholic Church had better close shop).
    I remember when in an Introduction to Theology lecture Rowan Williams playfully suggested that he thought that 2 Maccabees is therefore a problem for Catholics, because in the preface and afterword the author claims to have done his honest best as a human historian. But one could perhaps say the same of Luke’s Gospel, or the Epistles of Paul. I really don’t think that Prof. Williams intended this as a serious suggestion. (It sticks in my mind because it was one of those rare remarks in his lectures that I was able to understand).
    I think any honest Protestant, who accepts the canon of scriptures, would probably admit that they believe in the canon they do because of the way it is presented by their fellow believers. You go to a shop and buy ‘The Bible’: you don’t go to the library, read a set of ancient texts and, after finding some inspiring and others repulsive, put the ones you like together and magically discover that, lo and behold, you have come up with the same set as that chosen by other believers. Sharing a single book enables believers to work together, and it is because we trust in the consensus of our fellow-workers across the ages that we share a single book. So we have not just my trust in the instigation of the Holy Spirit in my heart, but our trust in the instigation of the Holy Spirit in our community.
    For a Catholic or Orthodox Christian, the boundaries of ‘our’ community are clearly drawn. Protestants do, of course, believe in the Church, but the true Church is the invisible Church, of which any tangible community on Earth is an imperfect reflection. It occurs to me that it would be entirely consistent for a Protestant to say that the tangible canon of the Bible, likewise, is imperfect, the true canon being known to God alone. Consider Psalm 137, for example: does God really want us to take joy in killing babies? I attended an evangelical Bible-study on this verse, and I know there are a variety of responses. But isn’t one option to say that this isn’t really God’s word, although generations of believers have thought it was, that although it is bundled into ‘the Bible’ on Earth, it is not sung as a hymn of praise by the elect in Heaven? I realize that this involves saying that God has permitted generations to make a terrible mistake about his word, but is that so much more implausible than supposing he has applauded while people take delight in killing infants?
    So to summarise. Calvin is surely right that if we believe in God’s word, we must also believe we have some sense for what God’s word is like. However, it is implausible to suppose that all of us, working independently, have applied this sense and come up with the same set of books. If there were, amongst the books Christians accept, a book listing books, this would solve the problem, but there isn’t such a book. So the proper solution will have to involve special importance to group consensus. The individual sense that tells me that a passage is inspired could also tell me that a particular group whose consensus matters. Catholics and Orthodox each have a clear idea of which group is the one whose consensus matters, and on that basis a clear idea of what books are included. For Protestants, the boundaries of the group whose consensus matters are fuzzy, at least on earth where we see through a glass darkly, so why shouldn’t the boundaries of the canon be fuzzy as well? Evangelicals won’t welcome this conclusion, but liberal protestants might say that this is what they have believed all along.
    Cheers, Ben.

    May 11, 2007 — 14:08
  • It is unclear to me why some of what you write in objection to (2) is so problematic. We could do worse than talk about quantities of inspiration. I think Lewis’ “Screwtape Letters” is inspired by God, but maybe not 100% of it (that is to imply, it is in no way infallible). And this is inspiration from the same God who is supposed to inspire Scripture. Now is it somehow less the “Gospel of Christ” than Philemon? The writers of the New Testament apparently thought that they were writing Scripture to some degree, insofar as they were presenting the “Gospel of Christ,” and admittedly Lewis did not. But the only criteria for the NT appears to have been whether or not a writing was true, good, and most importantly “God-breathed.” The criterion is never “Does it appear in this or that anthology?” So perhaps our concept is problematically contrary to even Scripture’s conception of itself.
    I also don’t see the problem with the Spirit not leading us to accept this or that part of current Scripture. We could just bite the bullet and say that we have to reserve judgment on a text until we are moved by the Spirit with respect to it. Or, it can have a kind of lower tier of applicability for us. Maybe we accept it tentatively for whatever reason, but the Scriptures about which we have been moved by God have a special status for us – e.g., we feel more comfortable talking about them, teaching them, recommending them, etc.
    Anyway, those comments don’t really get to my full view. First, in following merely what I said we might get a terribly individualistic community in which no one can speak to anyone else on the basis of Scripture, since everyone will accept different pieces and reject others. So I think that a good way to make the judgment is this: Barring direct personal revelation, we should generally trust the overwhelming historical evaluation given by the Christian epistemic community. That is to say, if we really believe that God lives through the Church, the church’s judgments on matters of Canon should be more or less accepted by its members. Otherwise, it seems that there is little content to our belief that God guides the Church.
    Obviously there are difficulties, notably the difference between Catholic and Protestant canons. But this isn’t strong enough to refute my method. Those kinds of differences can be investigated on a case-by-case basis, and we can utilize all sorts of analyses – historical, philosophical, etc. Furthermore, we could use the Scriptures shared in common to evaluate those disputed. This doesn’t fall victim to your objection in 1.c, because the canon being used for reference would be established by a method other than Scripturally mutual affirmation, namely, widespread acceptance by the Spirit-guided community.
    And on the objection that the Muslims, Hindus, etc. all have Scriptures, I would just point out that they are outside the epistemic community of relevance for this judgment.
    Let me know what you think, and I hope I haven’t been too longwinded.

    May 11, 2007 — 14:36
  • Ben, this is interesting. You say,
    If God were going to give us a single authoritative book, he would also have to say somewhere ‘This is the single authoritative book.’
    But it wouldn’t mitigate the epistemological concern that Tim presents. The quasi-self-referential clause (the clause refers to the book of which it is a part) is evidential only if the referent–i.e. the book–is canonical. We’re back where we started.

    May 11, 2007 — 14:53
  • Tim Pawl

    Dear Ben:
    I agree with you that the task of justifying the canon is easier for those who think that there is a theological authority besides the Bible (besides as in “another along with”).
    John Calvin has a website now?! Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!
    I think you are on to something with the talk about the holy spirit working in our communities. But, I’m not clear on what that looks like from a protestant perspective. How does one draw the acceptable boundaries of the community of believers I should trust in the formation of the canon? Like you say, I think the answer for Catholics (and probably Orthodox, though I don’t know for sure) is easy. However, if the instigation in the community is going to play an important role in telling me what books God intended to be in the canon, the community I refer to had better not include books I reject, or reject books I include. I better have a community that affirms all and only the books I affirm (or I should change and affirm the books the community affirms). Demarcating such a historical community–one that rejects the apocrypha, for instance–is a difficult task. That is, unless one uses “acceptance of /this/ canon” as the criterion for circumscribing the thinkers that belong to the community. But, that, of course, is ad hoc.
    As for the fuzzy canon, I take the point. One could claim the canon to be fuzzy, and thus that it may contain books that made it there by mistake, or lack books that should be there. Then, though, there is still the question of why these books in the canon. Even if you think your favorite canon is fuzzy, you should still have a reason for including these books rather than those books.
    Thanks for the comment.

    May 11, 2007 — 15:14
  • Tim Pawl

    Dear Joshua,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I grant that there are different ways that God inspires things. So, it may very well be true that in some sense of “inspired”, God inspired C.S. Lewis. But, I wanted to focus on a particular sort of inspiration. The sort of inspiring that God did with the Bible. Maybe I should have clarified that in the original post.
    I also see from your comment that my usage of the phrase “the Gospel of Christ” is confusing. Here’s what I meant: I’ve never had an experience where God gave me a list of canonical books. But, I have had some experiences where I’ve felt: “yeah, this is it; this is the Gospel”. I then went on to show that such an inward testimony, as beautiful as it is, doesn’t provide justification for taking the work to be canonical. That’s because I (and I bet others) get that feeling from books that clearly aren’t meant to be canonical. Furthermore, I don’t get the feeling from some books that are canonical (at least according to the standard canons).
    Could you elaborate on “Scripture’s conception of itself”?
    It looks like you want to make a distinction of levels in the canon. Some Lutherans do that. Their distinction is between the antilegomena (spoken against) and the homologoumena (unanimously attested). The antilegomena include 7 NT books, including James, Revelation, Hebrews, 2,3 John, 2 Peter, and Jude.
    Finally, you suggest we trust the “overwhelming historical evaluation given by the Christian epistemic community” when deciding on the canon. It seems like someone should do that, only if he thinks that the Christian community is reliable on theological matters or if he thinks that God has somehow guided the church to be free from error regarding some theological truths (like the canon). That is, he should trust the evaluation of the Christian community if he thinks they are reliable by themselves or reliable by God’s helping hand.
    However, if one thinks that the the community is reliable in either way, he should ask himself about the teachings of the community that he doesn’t agree with. For instance, if I think that the apostolic fathers are reliable in theological matters (whether on their own or because God is leading them), then I have reason to go along with them on theological matters. That gets me a canon. But, it also gets me things I might not want: a three-tiered hierarchy of ordination, particular views on the Eucharist, and so on. The more of these things I disagree with, the more I accumulate a defeater for my belief that these folks are reliable in the first place. The more of these things I affirm, on the other hand, the less need I have for an appeal to the overwhelming historical evaluation given by the Christian epistemic community.
    Thanks again,

    May 11, 2007 — 15:41
  • Roderick Walter Beavers

    Our Lord Himself gave credence to the collection of Hebrew writings from Genesis to Malachi. These books before his time on earth as man; being established as scripture in the Jewish community. He Himself read text from these established books. When Paul famously quoted that all scripture is inspired… he spoke of these same established books. At that time there were no “quote unquote” New Testament books persay. But inspired teachings,letters,records,and revelations;Of Jesus the Christ and the Apostles, by the Apostles. later compiled into what we call today the New Testament. Paul himself saying if there be any other teachings that arise that do not align with the foundations they { the Apostles} have laid. do not receive them as ” scripture ” even if an angel were to appear to you. And donot forget the HolySpirit has been sent to confirm the truth to each and every believer. we must remember He the H.S. is our teacher/counsellor. Jesus said He the H.S. would lead us into all truth. The person of the H.S. is one we must be intimate with. Jesus said He shall be in us.

    May 11, 2007 — 15:48
  • To Tim:
    Thanks for replying. I do realize that you implied different types of inspiration. I meant to doubt this by stating:
    “And this is inspiration from the same God who is supposed to inspire Scripture. Now is it somehow less the “Gospel of Christ” than Philemon?”
    I other words, it seems simply bizarre to suggest that God’s inspiring Bonhoeffer to write such-and-such is substantively different than him inspiring James to do so, or a Psalmist, etc. And my belief here is not grounded in my personal experience in reading Bonhoeffer, but is just grounded in the implications of the same Spirit being behind both. I guess I did gloss over the fact that you meant to argue that Canon-style inspiration is different than just “Gospel of Christ” inspiration, but I don’t think the difference is at all clear.
    My usage of “Scripture’s conception of itself” is meant to critique the idea that the books of the Bible were “meant to be Canonical.” I am wholly unaware that any of the writers of the Old or New Testaments had a concept of Canon in the sense we are using it. They were instead trying to preach the living word of God, which presumably believers do today. They would indeed make statements like:
    “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
    But that doesn’t distinguish between styles of inspiration, or even give any reason why the Canon might be closed (in fact, we presume that it wasn’t closed at that point). Still further, it doesn’t mention what “Scripture” it is including. And Paul – perhaps infamously for certain brands of “fundamentalism” – distinguishes between his words and the words of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 7. I don’t recall anyone in the New Testament ever using as an argument the fact that something does or does not appear in a particular anthology. In fact, Jude even uses the authority of 1 Enoch in Jude 1:14-15, surely a work outside of Scripture by anyone’s count.
    In distinguishing between accepted and disputed books, I don’t mean to make a statement about the books themselves, but just about how we go about evaluating them in light of the criterion of church history. Again, barring revelation, and in this case also barring overwhelming agreement by the epistemic Christian community, we will have to use other methods. They might be historical analysis, reference to accepted texts, maybe pragmatic concerns, etc. This doesn’t mean that when there is agreement, we can’t use consensus as an argument. We can just say this: Where there is consensus among epistemic Christian peers, there is follows good reason to accept their conclusions. Where there is not consensus, we have to find other ways of knowing. This is actually really mundane. Our eyes are a good way to acquire knowledge. But if we don’t have them, maybe we’ll use something else. But instances where we can’t use our eyes are not arguments against the usefulness of our eyes.
    I don’t think your final concern holds much force against my proposal and here’s why. The methodology of using the overwhelming consensus of epistemic peers does not derive its force from a belief that the community will be infallible on this or that matter, just that it is a generally reliable source. This really is akin to following consensus in other areas, like the health-value of Advil pills. You say it’s a problem when someone disagrees with the community, but I don’t see how this is so. Perhaps the community has in fact made some gross historical error, or perhaps the individual in question has some important special revelation, or perhaps there are deeply troubling social/historical reasons why the Church holds some belief, or perhaps it is the individual who is wrong. These are the questions a person must ask when doubting the overwhelming consensus of peers. But if no especially good reasons to doubt the community show up, then we can rely on the default assumption that God guides the overwhelmingly held conclusions in the Church.
    So all I am trying to say is that these are the best ways we have to go about investigating the truth of these matters. It’s really similar to other fields. If I don’t have special scientific knowledge based on my own research, then I will be justified in appealing to the scientific community on my area of interest. However, there are certain mundane checks on this, such as: the community is racist and this disposition makes them reach racist conclusions. And I don’t think the instantiation of this problem is a defeater for the methodology I’m presenting; rather, it is part of it and taken into consideration.
    Hey, looking back over this comment I think I’ve repeated myself several times, in neat circles. I apologize for this and look forward to your thoughts.

    May 11, 2007 — 16:25
  • Mike – I wasn’t saying that if a book claims to be God’s one authoritative revelation, then it is God’s authoritative revelation. My point is that if a book doesn’t make such a claim, then it is probably not God’s authoritative revelation. In this case, the absence of a particular kind of evidence (the claim to authority) is evidence of absence (because the authority would proclaim itself as such).

    May 11, 2007 — 16:32
  • Christian Lee

    Thanks for the post. As I see it, we want to know whether a particular individual assertion that P, whether written or spoken, was inspired by God. That is to say, we want to know whether God intended that P be asserted.
    In addition, an assumption seems to be that if God intended someone to assert P (inspired them), then P is true. I do not see how this assumption follows from anything self-evident, given that God may intend someone to assert P, even if not-P. God may have a good reason to have someone assert a falsehood. Perhaps the false assertion is the best way for God to communicate to humans some important truth. Perhaps there is a good for the sake of which God inspires someone to assert the falsehood. That is, we may be in the dark on this matter.
    Moreover, many individuals have claimed to be inspired by God when they asserted P. But why should we trust Paul or Moses rather than David Koresh or Joseph Smith or Muhammud? Each alleged prophet had their own following, a community that believed what they asserted, but we need know whether such communities had a good reason to so believe, therefore appealing to the fact that a community did believe P does nothing to justify P. This becomes especially pressing in light of the fact that various communities hold beliefs incompatible with one another.
    As far as it goes, I see no reason to think a Catholic is in a better position than the Protestant, Muslim or Mormon, all positions seem to be in an equally bad position.

    May 11, 2007 — 16:36
  • Tim Pawl

    I don’t see why it is “simply bizarre” that God would inspire different writings in different ways. But, since you allow quantities of inspiration, consider the sort of inspiration I’m talking about the maximum quantity of inspiration.
    You say: “Where there is consensus among epistemic Christian peers, there is follows good reason to accept their conclusions.”
    Who are the thinkers I should look to when searching for a consensus? All purportedly Christian thinkers across time? If so, I don’t get any consensus. My contemporary Christian thinkers? Again, what’s the consensus there? Are the Arians included? If so, Athanasius was in the wrong for standing opposed to them.
    Let me give an analogy for what I meant in my final concern against your position. Suppose I go to the speculative physics convention and ask a speculative physics question of them. Suppose a consensus answers that P is true (where P is a viable answer to my question). Now, suppose that a consensus also affirms Q, R, S, and T. I, however, affirm ~Q, ~R, ~S, and ~T.
    I have a problem now. If I take them to be reliable (not infallible, just reliable), and Q through T are all matters of speculative physics, what should I do? I could change my beliefs to match theirs. But, if I review my evidence for Q through T and still find that I think that they are all false (I keep my original beliefs), I then have the makings of a cumulative defeater for the claim that they are reliable.
    Now, this example presupposes that we have a way of figuring out who the speculative physics epistemic peers are.
    Now consider the canon and other theological matters. Suppose I do find a consensus on the canon (I don’t think I would). Great, I have good reason to affirm a canon now. But, I also see that there is a consensus about a certain view of the Eucharist, and a certain view of Holy Orders, and a certain view of sacraments, and a certain soteriology, and so on. If I disagree with all of these other findings, I’m in a pickle. If I take the group to be reliable, I have good reason to change my beliefs. If, after reflection, I think that they are wrong about ordination, the Eucharist, the sacraments, justification, and so on, I have the makings of a defeater for the belief that they are reliable in matters theological.

    May 11, 2007 — 17:53
  • Tim Pawl

    I don’t think that whether or not God intended P to be asserted is the same as whether or not God inspired P. It would be weird to call God’s words from the burning bush inspired, even though God intended that they be asserted. However, I’m not sure that you meant this.
    I don’t intend to assume: “if God intended someone to assert P (inspired them), then P is true.”
    I think God has intended for people to assert false things (God let a deceiving spirit deceive the king in 1 Kings 22). I do, however, think that whatever is inspired is true. However, that last sentence needs to be loaded down with caveats.
    It seems to me that you are interested in asking the question I said I wasn’t asking here. My question is: given that you are a christian, what reason do you have to affirm /this/ canon. You seem to be asking: Many people claimed to be speaking for God. How can you be sure that yours is the right one? My question lets the Christian start as a Christian and then justify her canon. Yours asks the Christian to justify being Christian (instead of Muslim, for instance).
    Now, I still think a Catholic is in a better position with respect to my question than a protestant (though that’s not to say that a protestant doesn’t have a decent answer). I haven’t thought enough about your question to say whether I agree with you that a Catholic isn’t in a better position with respect to your question.
    All the best,

    May 11, 2007 — 18:06
  • My point is that if a book doesn’t make such a claim, then it is probably not God’s authoritative revelation.
    Right, Ben. So you might be saying,
    (1) Pr(~B/~C) > Pr(~B),
    This just says that ~C incrementally increases the probablity that ~B, where B represents “the book is authentic” and C represents “the book claims authenticity”. I don’t know if that’s true; maybe it is. But what I would deny is (2).
    (2) Pr(~B/~C) > Pr(B/~C)
    That is, the absence of the claim to authenticity does not make it any more rational to believe that the book is inauthentic than to believe that the book is authentic. (1) entails (2) only if the priors Pr(~B) = Pr(B) or Pr(~B) > Pr(B). But I really have no idea whether the prior probability that any particular candidate for the canon is authentic is greater than the prior probabiliy that it isn’t. So I don’t think we can reasonably claim (2). In the absence of an argument for (2) from (1) and priors, you might just assert that (2) sounds plausible enough. I don’t know. Suppose we just agree to put the priors equal Pr(B) = Pr(~B). If so, I think it is just as reasonable to conclude that (2) is false. This is because (3) seems right to me,
    (3) Pr(~C/~B) = Pr(~C/B).
    Ask yourself how probable it is that someone includes the claim C given that the book is inauthentic. Then ask yourself how probable it is that someone includes the claim C given that the book is authentic. I say they’re the same; if so then (3) is true. But then (2) is false. Granted, this is no knock-down argument. But all seem have to go on here are epistemic intuitions on what seems likely.

    May 11, 2007 — 18:21
  • Christian Lee

    I didn’t mean to be offering an analysis, but since it’s independently interesting, why don’t we just say:
    S’s is assertion that P is inpired by God iff S asserts P and God intends S to assert P.
    The burning bush does no asserting since only agents assert, therefore it raises no problem.
    Moreover, I think God may allow someone to be deceived by an evil spirit intending them to assert P, but not intend this himself, so the Kings verse does not seem to me to raise a problem either since intuitively that is not a case of inspiration by God.
    You think that what is inspired is true, I don’t know why, it’s not reasonably analytic, though you could stipulate this new meaning for ‘inspiration’. I just don’t think this is what ‘inspiration’ means and the stipulation, so understood as factive, will lead to confusion. It seems quite reasonable that God could, if he had good reason, inspire somone to assert a falsehood. We wouldn’t say, upon learning that God wanted Joe to assert P though P was false, that Joe wasn’t inpired.
    You asked, “What sorts of justification/could/ do the work here?” with respect to the question “There are many other professed canons out there. How does the Christian know which to affirm?”
    I ask: How can we know that a particular text, or more generally, an assertion is inspired by God?
    I’m not sure how our questions are importantly different, though one can conditionalize both of them on being a Christian. Of course, non-Christians like myself can be just as interested in the correct answer to both. So I don’t see the point in the conditionalization. And figuring out which Canon to affirm, as far as I can tell, is best answered by figuring out which text is most likely to be an inspired one, since, if it’s inspired “I take it” there is a presumption of reliability that would be lacking if it were not. So I don’t see why my question is not one you want answered, even though I’m not directing at Christians alone.
    For what it’s worth: I think it’s very important to distinguish issues of reliability from the evidential status of seemings. Moreover, we should be clear on the nature of testimonial justification (transmission versus generation, etc.). Finally, we should try to be clear on the conditions under which, if it seems to one that God is revealing some truth P to one, when one has defeaters for this seeming state to count as evidence in favor of P. Has one been drinking lately? Has one ingested strange colored mushrooms? Is one in a psychiatric ward of a hospital? Is one reliable in other areas of their cognitive life, etc…..All of these issues are central to understanding whether inspiration can generate justification and whether a particular canon could be justified on its basis and hence whether a particular canon could, in principle, be justified for one lacking such experiences by way of testimony from those claiming to have had such experiences. If we end up thinking noone could be justified in believing God inpired them to assert P, and if my belief that P is formed on the basis of testimony that God inspired another to believe P, then it’s quite hard to see how belief a canon could be justified at all, and that’s why these more foundational questions need to be asked.

    May 11, 2007 — 18:40
  • Roderick Walter Beavers

    Joshua I disagree on the point that the old testament writers held a different veiw than ours on what writtings are held sacred as the authoritive word of God. on the contrary they as a nation lived ,ate ,and breathed, canonical law. When they recorded their history,traditions,law,etc… they did so under the strictest dicipline to hold to the highest level of accuracy. This may be why God chose them to be the original keepers of the oracles of God; other than the fact that Abram believed God. as far as the new testatment is concerned as to it’s accuracy, they who recorded them where also this canoncalized people; The jew. A people who to this day can trace there history to the first man. Now concerning Authority ” This is My beloved Son hear ye Him.”

    May 11, 2007 — 19:26
  • For what it’s worth: I think it’s very important to distinguish issues of reliability from the evidential status of seemings.
    Obviously, there are important epistemic distinctions to raise. But what else is new? Who since Descartes has thought that we can do epistemology without presuppositions? No one that I know. Maybe, as Plantinga urges, theistic commitments are prior to one’s epistemology. That is, what one takes to be the right epistemology will depend on one’s theistic views, not vice versa. If that’s true–and there is a great deal to be said for his defense of this view–then we have two views of epistemology at odds in this discussion. That conflict is unlikely to be resolved rationally.

    May 11, 2007 — 21:34
  • Chip

    Thank you, Tim, so much for this post! This is such an important issue that gets such poor treatment in the evangelical church (at least from what I know). I spend a lot of time encouraging Christians to not use completely circular logic to defend their view of the Scriptures. You guys might get a kick of this atheist kid on youtube making fun of this all-too-common circular logic below. I find it funny, but sad that it’s all too true in many cases.
    On a more serious note, I find all the evangelical effort to defend inerrancy (i.e. the Chicago Statement)and Sola Scriptura is undermined by the lack of a solid response to this question (at least that I’m aware of). All too often, they defend metaphysical issues such as God’s inability to err. But most the world’s religions can agree on this point with little difficulty. It’s the epistemic issues that are really important. I find it strange that evangelicals seek to show historical precedent for inerrancy by pointing to Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther – all of whom were talking about different canons being inerrant!
    I know the most common move that I like is to treat the gospels (and Acts) as ordinary historical texts and glean Jesus attitude toward the OT plus his authority given to the apostles. And then link the rest of the NT to their authority. I know that this is not without difficulty, but at least it’s not completely circular or subjective.
    Nonetheless, it is so refreshing to read a good discussion about this issue! Thanks!

    May 11, 2007 — 22:44
  • Mike, you are treating ‘being the infallible guide’ as equivalent to ‘being authentic’, and then coming up with general estimates for probability about whether what is authentic is more likely to proclaim its authenticity as what is inauthentic. But this ignores the context in which we are talking about infallible guides. The Catholic point is that if there were an infallible guide sent by God, such a guide would have a clear duty to proclaim its status. We are told by someone in authority that when we reach a certain point in our journey, he has arranged for a guide to show us the way. When we reach that point, several people say ‘Well, I think maybe this way’, and ‘That way looks good to me.’ If we are looking for the guide we are promised, we expect that they will say ‘I’m the official guide, as promised by the original authority figure. I know the right way perfectly well, don’t listen to these others.’ If the guide fails to make such a claim to authority, but just says ‘Well this way, I think’, the guide is failing in their duty. But the original authority figure promised that the guide would perform their job properly, and the claim to status is part of the job. If this is correct, then the probability of the real guide not proclaiming their status is zero.
    The claim is made that God promises in scripture that the Church would fulfil this role as guide. Two Churches, Orthodox and Catholic, proclaim such a status. Protestant Churches adopt the title Church, equivalent to guide, but fail to proclaim their ‘Officially appointed infallible guide status’. We have good reason to suppose (if we accept the controversial claim about the scriptural promises) that the current situation reflects confusion rather than malice: Protestant Churches (on this view) are people who thinking they have some idea of what the way is say, helpfully ‘Yes, I’ll be your guide’, and so might be mistaken for the promised Guide. Of the Catholic and Orthodox Church, one is simply mistaken.
    The Protestant view, as I see it, substitutes a map for a guide. (There are guides who say, ‘Look, I’m not perfect, but here’s the map the authority mentioned. Follow it and we’ll be okay). The trouble is there are slightly different versions of the map in circulation, and some people say that one version is missing an important page. Which version to follow? Well, if we have an Infallible Guide plus Map, we at least have a reason for thinking this is the right Map. We would also have such a reason if the Map contained a statement about its status, including telling us exactly how many pages there must be. But no copies of the Map include any statement about how many pages there will be. So Infallible Guide plus Map meets what we were expecting from Original Authority. Map alone just doesn’t fit – and it would fit better if a Map clearly said ‘This set of pages is all and everything you need for the journey.’
    Now its true that, a priori, if someone were deliberately trying to confuse people, they would pose as the Infallible Guide. However, we only find two claimants to this position, but many more claimants to be just a guide with a map, and no Map with table of contents. So the probability of a real guide not proclaiming status is zero. We might expect that the probability of a false guide proclaiming themselves to be The Guide is high, as it might well be were the false guides deliberate and clever con-artists. However, at most one of them is a deliberate and clever con-artist – the probability of a false guide proclaiming True Guide status turns out to be low, based on the evidence. We only have two choices – lucky us!
    This, as I say, is my summary of a standard argument from Catholic apologetics that works just as well for the Orthodox and, indeed, a form of argument that I have heard used on behalf of Orthodoxy. It presupposes an Original Authority, Jesus, and a particular interpretation of some of his promises. Although we are supposed to be restricting attention to Christianity, I’ll just mention to Christian that in my previous post, I gave priority to Catholic, Orthodox or Muslim over Protestant. My choice of Muslim was not just a random ‘select other religion’. The Quran looks far more like a Map That Proclaims Its Status than the Bible, because it is, in its current form, much more clearly a unified work from a single author that commences with a claim to be ‘The Book, guidance sure and without doubt.’ I’m not saying, of course, that there are no problems with taking the Quran to be God’s word, just acknowledging that if, as Catholics and Orthodox maintainI recognize that Roderick is making a good attempt to build up a list of scriptural books using cross-references within scripture. But can he say why Enoch for example, is not included, to use Joshua’s excellent example?
    Also, some comments on canonical inspiration. Since I’m speaking about maps, guides and journeys, many of you will recall C. S. Lewis’ novel The Silver Chair. Aslan (representing Jesus) promises Jill that she will see signs that guide her. One such sign is the writing Under Me. Later, Jill is told that this sign was part of a longer message, written centuries ago, and concludes that it was not intended for her. Puddleglum reminds her and Eustace that Aslan before the sign was ever written, Aslan knew about the quest they would go on one day: any words, spoken by anyone, can be a sign from him. I immediately think of the little child’s song, tolle lege, (pick it up and read it) that changed Augustine’s life.
    But while inspirational, these examples are not canonical. A canon is a measuring rod, a standard to which a community must live up. The canon can be referred to in order to correct a fellow believer on a point of doctrine. Occasional inspirational messages, like ‘Under Me’ or ‘Tolle lege’ we judge to be inspirational when we see that they led an individual in the right direction. We see that what they say is right, then decide they were inspired. With a canon, we should be able to force someone to admit that what they thought was right was wrong. This is why I think that problems in the Anglican Church are partly a matter of fuzzy canon versus firmly defined canon. (Joshua, your view sounds like what I had in mind when I wrote of a fuzzy canon).

    May 12, 2007 — 1:16
  • Christian Lee

    First, ???? Second, you said, “Who since Descartes has thought that we can do epistemology without presuppositions?”
    Okay, but we might as well make them explicit and then take them one by one, right? They haven’t been mentioned until I mentioned them. And these presuppositions are crucial.
    “…what one takes to be the right epistemology will depend on one’s theistic views, not vice versa.”
    But this is just wrong. Plantinga even argues for his epistemological view by way of arguing against other internalist views, and then reliabilist views, and ends up at his own theistic view (though no doubt his conclusion was foreseen).
    So I just don’t see two views in conflict at all. But I’m probably missing something since after a few messages of yours I nearly always end up thinking “Oh, that’s what Mike’s saying, sh#$*! that’s a good point.”

    May 12, 2007 — 1:44
  • Christian,
    The Plantinga point is not so easy to dismiss. For instance, an epistemology that takes one’s cognitive faculties as designed to function in certain epistemically reliable ways is not possible if we are not designed at all. Taking the sense of the divine as evidential for the existence of God is more or les absurd unless you have the theological position that we all are designed with a sensus divinitatus. It is difficult to make sense of these faculties as having any telos at all unless you have some prior commitment to their having been designed.
    So in answer to your worries about the distinction between “seemings” and reliablity, someone of Plantinga’s ilk might urge that, the fact that things seem a certain way (e.g., it seems to me that God is present or directing my life or . . .etc.) is evidence that they are that way. Seemings are reliable for beings whose faculties are directed to truth.
    I’ve no doubt that you’ll see this as wildly question-begging. But that is more or less the point I wanted to make. To see it as question-begging is to assume that epistemology is independent of one’s theistic commitments. Someone who denies that it is so independent will naturally take your assumption as question begging.

    May 12, 2007 — 8:31
  • I’m with Christian on not seeing how the Catholic or Orthodox view could be better off. It seems as if all the same issues arise in terms of what counts as tradition, or if you accept levels of inspiration (where I guess some tradition should give us a higher credence somehow, and some tradition is infallible while other tradition is not but is often right), then you have the problem of figuring out what’s where in the hierarchy.
    My general thought on this has been to start with something like Alex’s argument that some core of NT books are reliable and expanding from their treatment of other scripture in an inductive (and thus fallible) way to other biblical books. If the person of Jesus is central, and we can get some reason for thinking his views are generally true, then we can give high credence to most of the scriptures, and most of the scriptures would then include things like Psalm 119, which is impossible to accept at false value without accepting full inerrancy. I’m leaving out a lot of steps, but that’s the initial argument for an infallible or inerrant scripture, and it doesn’t rely on tradition at this point.
    Now as to what the canon is, the main Protestant line of thought is not Calvin’s. The usual argument is that tradition is a good guide to what the early church used, and the early church is a good guide to what the apostles held to be true. That’s a fallible guide to what the canon is, but no Protestant claims our reconstruction of what the canon is is infallible. The canon itself is infallible (which is a metaphysical claim about a condition: since God inspired it, it follows that it has no errors), but why think that requires thinking our epistemic access to which books are in the canon is infallible? Our epistemic access to something, even to a necessary truth, does not have to be infallible for the truth to be true or even necessary.
    Then tradition as a whole can be a fallible and errant guide to many things, including what counts as heresy and what counts as the canon. But scripture itself, given a conclusion about what counts as scripture, can trump tradition given that scripture is infallible and therefore inerrant. Our access to anything will be fallible, since our access to most anything is fallible. But that doesn’t stop anyone from relying on a conclusion of a fallible argument to conclude that a set of documents is infallible and thus to follow it, short of good enough arguments that any one of those documents is fallible or errant.
    Then Protestants generally give arguments why the apocrypha/pseudo-canonical/deutero-canonical books are not genuinely in the canon, even if some of tradition supports their being in it, and those arguments would distinguish why those books would be left out and other disputed ones like II Peter would be left in.

    May 12, 2007 — 11:44
  • Christian Lee

    I think there are straightforward and decisive objections to Plantinga’s epistemology, though no doubt that’s not a widespread view in these corners.
    And seemings may be reliable or not. If they are for one, and if it seems to one that God exists, then belief in God is prima facie justified. And I don’t think that’s question begging, it sounds fine to me. We then need to ask: Are there defeaters? Is the seeming reliable? Do we have independent reasons to think God doesn’t exist, etc…
    No doubt one can describe a view that isn’t independent of one’s theistic commitments. Similarly for Naturalism. Say, B is justified for S iff God wants S to believe B or iff the evolutionary facts about S and her environment entail B is likely to be true. These views are just wrong though.
    But look! My point is one about canon selection. I’m assuming we should accept as canon all and only those books that are inspired. Does anybody deny this, I can’t tell yet??? If it’s accepted, then Tim’s question is important: how can we be justified in believing, and on what basis, that a particular text is part of the canon, one of those inspired text?
    I certainly agree the circularity move doesn’t work, now I’m curious just how this “internal instigation to accept a book as canon” is supposed to work. Is the story Plantingan or no? If so, how should we spell it out? If not, how does it differ? Are their defeaters? I have answers to these questions, but as far as can tell, nobody else has accepted that these are the questions that need to be answered. So before I launch my worries, I want to know I’m on the same page as everybody else, thus the sophomoric “we should distinguish x, y and z…”

    May 12, 2007 — 15:45
  • I’m assuming we should accept as canon all and only those books that are inspired. Does anybody deny this, I can’t tell yet???
    I see; that could be the right answer. But my mind gets numb at the thought of hammering out what ‘inspired’ might mean in this context. Yikes, I just can’t imagine any decent, shared answer to the question “what are the N&S conditions for book B’s being inspired”? Maybe I’m being too pessimistic.

    May 12, 2007 — 16:02
  • Jeremy, thanks for the information about mainstream protestantism.
    The advantage that Catholics and Orthodox claim requires acceptance of the view that an authoritative teacher has a duty to proclaim their authority clearly, and to make it clear what is, and what is not, part of their authoritative teaching. It isn’t that my knowledge that something is infallible must itself be infallible, but that when one considers the reasons why God provided an infallible source, it is clear that the infallible source has certain duties. This is an argument intended to identify the one true Church, but in identifying the Church, we identify the canon.
    Of course, at any time, a Catholic or Orthodox believer may be unclear what is infallibly taught and what isn’t, but such issues can be settled. In particular, most doubts about what is part of scripture and what isn’t were settled (for Roman Catholics) by the Council of Trent.
    Now, the obvious Protestant response is to reject the initial premise: God did not promise us an infallible institution.
    My point is that many Protestants treat the canon as playing the same role that the Church does for Catholics and Orthodox (or rather the same role that the combination of Scripture, Tradition and Magisterium does for Catholics and Protestants). If it is to play this role, its limits must be clearly defined. If it contained a clear definition of its own limits, that would be self-referential but not paradoxical. It wouldn’t prove that it was genuine, but it would enable it to be the kind of thing that can function as a canon. A canon is, after all, a measuring rod, and it is hard to use a measuring rod if its length is uncertain. The absence of a clear scriptural answer to the question ‘Exactly which books are part of scripture’ means that ‘sola scriptura’ becomes a difficult doctrine.
    The mainstream protestant view that you describe sounds rather like what I called the ‘fuzzy canon’ view. It means that if someone cites a canonical passage against me, there is always a chance that I will say ‘Well come to think of it, why is that in the canon anyway?’ I don’t see anyone publishing a Bible that omits the pastoral epistles, but I can imagine someone, in a discussion about the role of women, for example, saying ‘Well anyway, Paul probably didn’t even write that, so it shouldn’t really be in the Bible anyway: tradition is fallible, and this was one of its errors.’
    I’m not attacking the fuzzy canon concept, I’m just pointing out how, if you take away the magisterium, then, given the fact that Christian scripture is a collection rather than a single book, the concept of the canon itself might have to change.

    May 12, 2007 — 17:07
  • Tim Pawl

    Thanks for the comment. I agree with what Ben said in his last post. But, I wanted to add a bit.
    You say that the main Protestant line of thought is that the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books. But, depending on what you mean by main, I’m not so sure.
    So, for instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 1) has it that all scripture (listing the Prostestant canon) is God’s infallible word, which we can be sure of through the internal instigation of the Holy Spirit. We have a “full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority” of scripture “from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” It further lists all the books in the protestant canon and says none can be added to the books. It sounds to me like they are saying “here are all the books, there aren’t any missing, and we are sure that these are the books of the canon.
    The London Baptist confession of Faith (1689) repeats the same words I’ve given above.
    Finally, I’ve read the Book of Concord, Augsbury Confession, and Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church on the canon. Unfortunately, none of them directly take up the question of our degree of epistemic access to what books make up the canon. However, they do read to me as if they are all closer to the Westminster Confession of Faith line than to your main Protestant line of thought.
    All that to say that I would characterize the mainline protestant doctrinal understanding of the canon as more like the Westminster Confession’s understanding. Even if the line you hear most often (the main protestant argument given, maybe) is that the canon is a fallible collection of infallible books.

    May 13, 2007 — 15:28
  • Christian Lee

    Mike…why not say S’s assertion that P is inpired by God iff God intends that S asserts P, S asserts P, and S asserts P because God intends that S assert P. Don’t ask me what ‘because’ means:)
    Here’s an argument:
    P1: If it’s reasonable for “us” to believe that S was inspired by God to assert P, then the best explanation for S’s assertion that P is that S was inspired by God to assert P.
    P2: It’s never been the case that the best explanation for S’s assertion that P is that S was inspired by God to assert P.
    C: So, it’s not reasonable for us to believe S was inspired by God to assert P.
    Generalize…and it follows that for none of us is it reasonable to believe that someone else was inspired by God to assert something. If so, then none us should believe that God inspired either a councel of a Church or the authors of Biblical texts.
    Does anybodt reject P1? If so, why?

    May 13, 2007 — 16:23
  • Tim Pawl

    Here’s what I meant with the burning bush counterexample to your analysis of inspiration. If you substitute God in for all the “S”‘s in your analysis, you get that God inspires God to assert P when God does assert things. So, when God talks to Moses from the burning bush, God is inspiring himself, on your account. All that to say that your analysis of inspiration needs an “and S is not identical with God” clause. If you don’t add such a clause, P2 is false.

    May 13, 2007 — 23:09
  • Tim Pawl

    You are welcome! And thanks for that link to the video. I, like you, find it both funny and sad.

    May 13, 2007 — 23:12
  • Tim, isn’t there still a medium in the burning bush case? Isn’t God inspiring the bush?

    May 14, 2007 — 8:14
  • Tim Pawl

    I guess I always read the passage as God talking. The speaker uses the first person, and says you should have no other God but me.
    But, the passage also says an angel of the Lord appeared. So, I guess I’m not sure.
    However, take any instance in which God communicates without an intermediary. Think of the person of Christ if you want. In those cases, God inspires God to assert P. Better, I’d say, to rule out self-inspiration.

    May 14, 2007 — 9:00
  • Shane

    There may be another option. One may look at the history of the first Christian centuries of the undivided church and find out which texts were read during worship in many congregations over time. The texts that were most widely read would have the best support as part of the canon. This may not give absolute certainty, but Pr(~B/~W) > Pr(~B),where W represents “The text is read widely in worship”.

    May 16, 2007 — 0:21