I was listening to a debate between Peter D. Williams and James White on the topic of Sola Scriptura, which is the Protestant doctrine stating that scripture alone is the only rule of faith and practice for the Christian Church.
It is an uncomfortable experience listening to James White tie himself into knots to avoid answering the most important objections to Sola Scriptura. For example, Williams asked White how it is that he even knows what inspired Scripture is if the Bible does not provide a God-breathed table of contents; that is, how does James White or any other Protestant know that the 27 books of the New Testament canon are inspired text. This is a relevant question given the fact that Protestants, especially of the Calvinist theological tradition, will claim that the inspiration of the Bible is self-authenticating.
The inquiry presented to White is a very straight forward epistemological question.
How does James White know – how does he have knowledge of this canon? White’s answer is to appeal to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture and that God knows the canon. This supposed answer, however, dodges the question instead of answering it. To answer the question this way would be the same as answering the question – how do you know Jim has two brothers? – by appealing to the fact that Jim is a rational animal. To focus on the nature of the inspired written word is to make a metaphysical claim, which leaves the epistemic question completely untouched. The Catholic does not deny the metaphysical status of the Bible being God-breathed; what we want to understand is how does the Protestant even know that what they are reading is in fact inspired text based on their own doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
White cannot answer the question because it traps him in one of two untenable scenarios. The first untenable scenario for White would be to answer the question correctly, which is to admit that there were external standards appealed to in order to recognize inspired documents during the process of compiling the written word of God into a single organized book. For example, an accepted letter/epistle had to be written by an Apostle or a person directly associated with an Apostle. This standard is a tradition external to the scriptures themselves. Another external standard was whether or not the visible Christian community recognized and widely used the letter/epistle in the liturgy. These two external standards are not laid out in the text of the finalized accepted canon; they are standards used to identify the canon.The second untenable scenario for White is to accept a situational, subjective, fideistic epistemology resulting in an anarchic interpretative grab bag of truth claims.
Another maneuver typically used by White is to say the books that were excluded from the canon contradict what is in the finalized canon. Once again, this avoids the issue. We can make that claim now because the issue has been settled. When I read the Gospel of John and compare it to heretical gnostic writings, I can say that yes, the gnostic writings are in error and not God-breathed. But if I were to transport myself back in time before the canon was settled, the issue would not be quite as easy. Some of the books not included in the canon claimed to be inspired and claimed to be self-authenticating, but they did not make the cut. Why? Because they violated the oral and written Apostolic traditions handed down from the beginning of the visible Church.
Throughout the debate White avoids these serious concerns and keeps bringing up issues such as the bodily assumption of Mary and Papal infallibility to distract from the fact that he has absolutely no case to support his claim of Sola Scriptura.
– Lucas G. Westman