Protestant Christianity relies not only on the belief in divine inspiration, but also the exclusivity of the biblical canon as infallible revelation from God. Not many pastors could hope to keep their job if they were to state that the Bible is not infallible or that divine inspiration might not be limited to the Bible. The irony of this view is that it closely mirrors the Catholic church’s view of church infallibility. The difference between the Catholic view of infallibility and the Protestant view is that Protestants unconsciously affirm the infallibility of the early church only in regard to the composition, formation, and preservation of the canon, while the Catholic church believes it’s infallibility applied in all areas and continues to this day.

Protestants believe that the writings of the early church as preserved and assembled by the early church are infallible. If the early church was fallible in this regard, the Bible we have today could also be fallible. Therefore, logic leads us to conclude that by necessity, the church must have been infallible to some degree if the Bible is also infallible.

New Testament scholar Lee M. McDonald wrote:

“Those who would argue for the infallibility or the inerrancy of scripture logically should also claim the same infallibility for the churches in the fourth and fifth centuries, whose decisions and historical circumstances left us with our present canon. This is apparently what would be required if we were to only acknowledge the twenty-seven NT books that were set forth by the church in that context. Was the church in the Nicene and post-Nicene eras infallible in its decisions or not?” [1]

The New Testament was not a singular work, but a collection of writings by the early church. I must stress that although many of these various books were previously listed together at times (often with other non-canonical writings), our first recorded exclusive listing of the entirety of what now comprises the NT canon comes from a letter written by the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius in 367 CE. This means that the earliest recorded discussion of a canon that included all of the NT books did not even begin until roughly 300 years after the books were written. To put this in perspective, the United States has only existed for 238 years.

It is generally asserted that the deliberations over the NT canon centered around methodological principles. However, this is an assumption based around various statements from early church fathers unrelated to any one council or deliberation. There is no clear evidence that a strict methodology was adhered to in determining the final canon we use today.

Athanasius said this before listing the Old Testament books:

“There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews;” [2]

We can see that Athanasius was simply passing on hearsay in this regard. “for as I have heard, it is handed down”. In other words: ‘church tradition says’. By the end of the 4th century there were two regional councils that affirmed the 27 books as NT canon. However, no original text survived the first council (the council of Hippo). We only know of it from the council of Carthage (397 CE). It should also be noted that Carthage’s list differs from our Bible since they included non-canonical Old Testament books such as Tobit, Judith, and 1-2 Maccabees. While this does not effect the NT canon, it does cast doubt on a council that would affirm what the church considers ‘uninspired’ books as canonical.

Many church rules were established at the council of Carthage (138 to be exact, including the canon list), rules that the Protestant church arbitrarily does not accept; despite accepting their list of holy books as ordained by God. The church that assembled the canon far more resembled the Catholic church than Protestantism. Athanasius also listed the noncanonical book of Baruch in his version of the OT canon. This shows that neither him nor the other two 4th century councils were able to correctly distinguish between ‘inspired’ and ‘non-inspired’ books in the entirety of their lists. They also list the book of Hebrews as being written by Paul, a claim that even conservative scholars doubt. It’s authorship was debated in the early church as well. Several reasons lead to doubt: 1) it lacks Paul’s usual opening salutation, 2) it differs from Paul’s writing style, and 3) in Hebrews 2:3-4, the writer fails to include himself as one of the original witnesses to the Lord, indicating that he was a second generation Christian.

While apostolic authority was probably a factor, the distance from the composition dates would suggest that the decisions of canonicity were made based on the church’s main source of information: tradition. If the church believed a book to be written by an apostle or someone close to one, that would’ve most likely been enough to nominate it for inclusion in the canon. And in the case of Hebrews, they may have been wrong. But since tradition attributed it to Paul, he was listed as the author. If these councils were in error with regard to some of the books included in their OT canon, and probably mistaken in attributing authorship of Hebrews to Paul, how can we believe they were 100% accurate in their choice of books for the NT canon? It is clear that within a couple of centuries authorship could be mistakenly attributed, given the fact that the biblical writer of Jude quoted the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch as if it was authored by Enoch himself. We now know it was written sometime around 200 BCE; far removed from the antediluvian patriarch.

The debate was still ongoing considering some of the books during and after the decisions of the councils. I’ll quote McDonald again:

“When Churches began recognizing the sacred status of Christian writings, they did not always recognize the same books. By the fourth and fifth centuries, there was widespread agreement on the canonical gospels, Acts, and most of the letters attributed to Paul, but there was no unanimity on the Catholic epistles, Revelation, or several so-called noncanonical writings such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, or in regard to several of the OT apocryphal or pseudepigraphal books. Earlier, Enoch, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and other texts also circulated among the Christians as sacred texts in various locations.” [3]

The problem for Christianity is that either way you slice it, humans must have been infallible in all aspects related to the Bible in order to produce it, if it is also to be held as infallible. It can be argued that the copyists as well must have been infallible, despite the fact that their manuscripts often differ or contain errors to some degree. And why not add the linguists who have developed our understanding of the Greek and Hebrew lexicon? If they were not infallible, we could be reading inaccurate English meanings that did not exist in the original language.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that God never actually gave such infallibility to humans according to the Bible. And if He did, when did it stop, and how far did it apply? Infallible in all matters, or only that which is related to the holy book? Does the church still have this infallibility as Catholicism claims? This all goes to show that the assumptions required to uphold biblical inerrancy are too tendentious to be accepted.


References:

1. The Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon, Lee M.McDonald

2. NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Philip Schaff via ccel.org

3. The Pseudepigrapha and Christian Origins: Essays from the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas (Jewish and Christian Text), James H. Charlesworth, p. 208


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.


10721328_278062212388486_378808137_nMy name is Zach Van Houten and I am a secular Humanist with progressive values who enjoys good discussions about complex issues. I was a passionate conservative Christian from childhood until I found intellectual freedom in November of 2014. I take an interest in Humanism, general philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, eastern religious philosophy, atheism, politics, Biblical studies, and most importantly, the life cycle of sea turtles. Email me at meinperspective@gmail.com if you’d like to offer tips on how I can make myself less boring or start up a convo about the weather.


© Zach Van Houten and thefreethinkinghuman.wordpress.com, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Zach Van Houten and thefreethinkinghuman.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Featured image by Clarita via morguefile.com. Used under Morguefile License.
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