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  • Writer's pictureThe Other Paul

Initial Thoughts on Suan Sonna's Comments on Sola Scriptura

A friend shared a link to Suan Sonna's recent presentation at Reason & Theology on problems with Sola Scriptura. It was intended not as a direct refutation of Sola Scriptura per se, but a parsing of alleged implications of such that show an inconsistency in the simultaneous belief in Sola Scriptura and other beliefs like a closed canon, which should thus give Protestants pause on their beliefs. I posted a comment on the post but am also making this post on the basis of that comment, with some necessary expansions:

This presentation perpetuates long standing strawmen we have corrected time and time again. To the hypothetical Protestant answer that Suan addresses - that they just trust the canon they received - he replies that now they are relying on a "tradition," and so its special pleading to deny other ones. But we have known this to be a tradition since the Reformation, and that's fine because SS is not the rejection of "tradition" writ large, but the subordination thereof. Dr. Ortlund himself has acknowledged this issue, that the problem is not with tradition per se, but its status alongside scripture.

Nor is it special pleading for us to accept a certain canon (esp. the NT canon) yet reject late traditions like the Assumption, because the NT canon is not something first discernible in the 4th century from Athanasius, but right from the 1st and 2nd with historical attestation to numerous NT books, thus being deducible from the ordinary canons of historical method (i.e. that they were written or approved by men ordained by Christ). But even with less attested books some of us like myself accept the homologoumena-antilegomena distinction; those most clearly established as canon vs not as clear. Respecting antilegomena we grant the inferior attestation of such, and so use the homologoumena as the primary interpretive lens over the antilegomena. I myself, to be consistent, would not consider someone accursed if they rejected the canonicity of James, for example. I discussed this issue with fellow Anglican River Devereux on his channel a little while ago.

Suan claims that a Protestant is positing a "proto-infallibility" when a he affirms that the Spirit led the Church in discerning the canon, and thus is inconsistent when he also rejects other allegedly infallible authorities or allegedly infallibly established traditions. This is simply false, because Prots who make this argument do not do so on the basis of an infallibility inherent to the Church (i.e. this canon is true because this ecumenical council declared so), but from after the fact study and confirmation of the truthfulness of the canon, kind of like how someone may study a historical event and then after the fact declare that God had His hand in it. Providence, in other words. In practical terms, I can study the history of the canon and discover how firmly attested the core books of the NT are from the beginning of Church history, and so affirm after the fact that the Church was guided by the Spirit in this respect and thus by consequence that such was infallibly done, since the Spirit cannot err. Infallibility is not being ascribed to the sources themselves; the same witnesses who support the canon of scripture could err in other respects; whether and how they err can only be established on a case-by-case basis via historical inquiry. This is an a posteriori ascription of infallible guidance from the study of the evidence vs the a priori assumption of infallibility in a particular agent or organ as per Romanism and Easternism.

Suan also attempts to demonstrate that the canon cannot be established "by human reason," because that which is scripture fundamentally belongs to God, and so it is He, not men, who should be able to decide what is and isn't canon. Otherwise, people can use their reason to cut whole books or sections of books from the canon on the grounds of interpolation or forgery. This was easily among the most confused of arguments I heard in the whole presentation, and I believe another example of the confusion of ontology and epistemology in this family of sceptical "how do you know?" arguments. The canon is established by God on a Protestant Sola Fide paradigm, as He is the one who chooses to inspire certain authors and not others; there is no inconsistency here. But epistemologically, yes, every individual and even the Church writ large necessarily engages in human reason via the canons of historical method (which includes the witness of the Church/churches) in order to discern what the canon of scripture is. Suan raises situations where people (chiefly critical scholars) "can" dispute the authenticity of passages or whole books by human reason, but the mere ability of someone to make such propositions is completely irrelevant to the truth of such, and they can be shown objectively to be wrong, thus closing the issue on an objective level even if they physically vocalise contrary opinions.

Suan then reiterates that this is a problem when one does not accept a system that can infallibly close a canon and put it beyond question. Here, the epistemic safety net rears its ugly head once again. I grant that there are text critical issues - none of which are of critical theological import - where true ambiguity exists, and further that in principle all of our human reasonings could be liable to re-examination. The latter point is simply an empty necessary truth, especially in situations where all available evidence points one way. To thus suppose that our conclusions could in theory be wrong proves absolutely nothing, because the evidence and the conclusions thereof remain. To argue thusly is to side oneself with sceptics like Hume and Popper, and so allow others to question whether you at all have a Christian epistemology. On the former point regarding issues of true ambiguity, I simply say; deal with it. This is how life works, including for the early Church; fallible men had to fallibly examine the fallible witness of other fallible men in order to fallibly discern what the canon of scripture and the tradition of the Church was, and mistakes can be made. This is undeniably true even on the Roman system before any ecumenical councils (particularly the Council of Trent regarding the scriptures) or ex cathedra statements, and so by Suan's own worldview the Church was in this position for centuries on countless issues. And yet, the fathers still spoke confidently about what the truth was and what was and was not Holy Scripture, because they took for granted the possibility and validity of discerning the sources of faith by ordinary means as a given. If Suan or other Roman apologists think this is a problem, then I simply say they better dig in, because it's a ubiquitous reality.

I am very tempted to write more but I wanted to keep this brief, as I've had the issue of drafting quick blog posts only for them to turn into mini-essays which I then shelve for another time. I may give a fuller response in a stream in the near future.

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