Beckwith v. TurretinFan on Sola Scriptura

TurretinFan attacks Frank Beckwith’s excellent article on sola Scriptura by calling it a “bait and switch.” I’m interested in this subject, since I was quite impressed with how simply Beckwith made his case the first time I encountered this. He just says things so succinctly that you’re left to mull it over a bit before you realize he’s right. What strikes me here is how much better Beckwith’s arguments are, particularly since he was the one unaware he was about to enter a debate. For example,

Beckwith says: Because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture—as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s Apostles—any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-Biblical theological knowledge.

TurretinFan responds: There is a rather obvious problem with this claim. Given Scripture (as Beckwith does for the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s apostles) a list of canonical books is readily derivable from the Scriptures. As a thought experiment, one could imagine receiving a Bible with the table of contents accidentally smudged beyond recognition. That table of contents could be easily restored from the text in a matter of moments. Given Scripture the list of canonical books, while not found as such, is easily derived.

Of course, if one doesn’t grant that we already have the Scriptures, as such, the matter of creating a list becomes more difficult. But that’s not a challenge facing sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura begins with the reader possessing the Scriptures. It is a given of the system.

My Take: This seems like a strange response to me. It’s an admission that sola Scriptura only works if you start with the canon of Scripture, and can’t be derived from Scripture itself. That’s pretty much Beckwith’s point. All TF seems to be proving is that the Protestants who argue for this doctrine have a leather-bound Bible at home, and think of it as one Good Book. But Beckwith’s original point is incredible important, if you’ve got any sense of Christian history. The Bereans in Acts 17:11, the go-to verse for sola Scripturists, didn’t have a leather-bound 66 book King James Version of the Bible. In fact, they’re Greeks, so they probably were Deuterocanon-loving apostates in the eyes of modern Protestants.

The 66-book Protestant Bible is a product of the Reformation. To say, “I base my Protestant beliefs off of the Bible alone,” while admitting, “and the Biblical canon I use was created by the Protestant Reformers” is exactly the problem. You’re not basing your beliefs off of the Bible; you’re basing your Bible off of your beliefs.

TF is right, of course, that the only way to know for certain the number of Commandments or Apostles is from the Bible. But that’s not really the same parallel at all. If you believe in the canonicity of Exodus, you must believe in the Ten Commandments. Exodus points to the Ten Commandments as being (a) accurate; and (b) ten in number. But that’s not the case for books of the Bible. You can believe that Paul’s epistles are God-breathed, but that doesn’t really do anything to prove or disprove whether Peter’s are. Peter refers to Paul’s writings as Scripture, but doesn’t spell out what they are (does that include Hebrews, for example?).

But more than that, you don’t have to believe in the canonicity of Exodus to believe in the accuracy of the Ten Commandments. TF repeatedly accuses Beckwith of “taking away” the Bible, but that’s not it at all. Exodus claims that the Ten Commandments are from God. So if you take Exodus as a reliable historical text, you get to the Ten Commandments. The Gospels do the same for belief in Christ. But the vast majority of Books (to my count, 65, excluding Revelation) don’t claim to be Scripture themselves, nor do they say which other books of the Bible are Scripture. So I could, for example, think that the Book of 1st Kings was a true historical account, putting full faith in its accuracy, without ever saying, “therefore, it’s Scripture; therefore, it’s God-breathed.” The Didache, for example, is an accurate and authentic representation of early Christianity, and is thoroughly orthodox. But it’s not Scripture.

You can’t just play “count the Books,” like TF is suggesting. You have to first know which of the books are Books. There are religious texts which don’t claim to be inspired which are (e.g., Jude), and which claim to be inspired but aren’t (e.g., a number of the Gnostic texts).

Beckwith Says: But the belief that the Bible consists only of 66 books is not a claim of Scripture—since one cannot find the list in it—but a claim about Scripture as a whole.

TurretinFan Responds: One cannot find the list in it, only in the sense that one cannot find the list of Psalms in the book of Psalms. In other words, the list is not given as such. However, a list may readily be generated from the Bible or from the book of Psalms.

My Take: In fact, the bit about the Psalms is just as inaccurate as the bit about the number of books in the Bible. The Eastern Orthodox and some Oriental Orthodox have 151 Psalms, while Catholics, Protestants, and the vast majority of Jews have 150. To say “we have 150, because we have 150” isn’t an argument at all. Likewise, no one that I’ve found so far prior to the Reformation had 66 books in their Bible.

For Protestants to say authoritatively, “there are 66 books in the Bible,” requires that their church speaks with binding authority. If it’s simply a prayer conclusion from private examination of Scripture, they most that they can say is, “for me, there are 66 books of the Bible,” or “my personal studies have lead me to conclude that 66 books of the Bible are inspired.” I see no way that it can be a binding statement of orthodoxy; in fact, the Jews prior to Christ lacked a Church with this authority, and thus, had various canons. If you say, “you must believe this piece of information (that there are exactly 66 books) in addition to believing in the books of the Bible,” you’re adding an extra standard besides Scripture, and sola Scriptura self-destructs.

This is probably most easily proved by negation. Protestants deny that the Deuterocanon is Scripture. Upon what authority? Where does the Bible say that these books aren’t Scriptural? And if it doesn’t, then Beckwith is right. To arrive at a canon of Scripture, which is needed even to rely upon the Bible, you must have a trustworthy and reliable Authority (which you can define as Tradition, the Church, or both). To the extent you can trust that Authority, to that extent — and only that extent — you can trust the Bible.

Beckwith Says: In other words, if the 66 books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of 66 particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-Biblical.

TurretinFan Responds: This has essentially been addressed above. Given the Bible, we can easily sit down and count the number of books. The fact that it is not explicitly part of the text of the Bible is actually a quite trivial point, if we are given the Bible. What Beckwith’s argument essentially asks the reader to do is to derive the belief about the number of books of Bible without the Bible. Then having taken away the Bible, Beckwith claims that the number of books can’t be determined. But this is simply a game of bait and switch. Beckwith lures the reader in with a proposal to derive something from the Bible but then takes away the Bible.

My Take: There’s no baiting and switching at all on Beckwith’s part. He’s dealing with the internal witness of Scripture: what the Scriptures say. TF is trying to add an external witness: what we know about the Scriptures. Beckwith’s point: “where do the Scriptures internally say that they’re Scriptures, and not simply inspirational religious texts?” Beckwith is spot-on. Beckwith’s working within these parameters:

  1. You have the 66 Books of the Protestant Bible.
  2. You can rely only on the information therein.

TF is working within these parameters:

  1. You have the 66 Books of the Protestant Bible.
  2. You know that these Books are inspired.
  3. You know that there are no others.
  4. You can rely only on the information therein.

Beckwith proves remarkably well that you can’t get to #2 and #3 of TF’s list without violating #4. That before you’ve even arrived at #4, you’ve already broken that rule. TF’s responses only reaffirm this point. And his claim that Beckwith is removing the Bible is false: Beckwith is removing only external knowledge about the Bible.

A supportive reader, seemingly aware of the perilous position TF finds himself with this line of argumentation, attempts to supply an “internal witness.”

Ryan said…
Internal evidence of the 66 book canon:

God’s sheep hear His voice, and they follow it.
God doesn’t author confusion in amongst His sheep.

Does God speaks to His sheep through the 66 book canon, then, as Protestants believe? Well, has the church has reached a consensus that the 66 book canon is God’s word? Yes. The only reason I can think of why “C”atholics would be surprised at this would be because they assume they are a part of the church.


  • First, Ryan is relying upon the authority of the “church.” Which is, of course, the opposite of relying upon the authority of the Bible alone.
  • Second, Luther’s canon and Calvin’s canon differed. Modern Protestants think Luther was wrong. By Ryan’s logic, the Protestant Reformation is the fruit of a non-Christian seed. Oops.
  • Third, Protestantism is chock full of theological confusion. Find me a doctrine which all Protestants agree upon (or even all Protestant denominations agree upon) contra Catholics and Orthodox.
  • Fourth, this sort of “the saved know there are 66 Books” nonsense means that no one prior to the Reformation was saved. That’s absurd.
  • Fifth, on the contrary, if the knowledge of the 66 Book canon only becomes revealed at the time of the Reformation, then you’ve got ongoing revelation, which is the opposite of a fixed, stable canon. The faith was delivered once for all (Jude 1:3), not once to be added to at the Reformation.
  • Sixth, this standard isn’t even remotely Biblical. Even Jude seems to think that the Book of Enoch is canonical (see Jude 1:14-15, a quotation of Enoch 1:9), although the Holy Spirit prevents him from saying as much. Shall we assume he wasn’t saved?
  • Seventh, what authority in the “church” declared a 66 Book canon accurate? If it’s just the common understanding of a majority of Protestants, what’s to keep that from changing?

Finally, why are so many Calvinists so mean? What is going on here? No other Protestant group I know of is as nasty to outsiders. The only other “religious” group I know of that acts this way are the New Atheists. It’s so ugly! Mark Shea has suggested, if memory serves, that it’s a weird obsession with masculinity: the preference for St. Paul, the belittingly of Mary, the preference for apologetics over witnessing, etc. Obviously, a masculine Christianity is great (just like a feminine Christianity is great). But the Bride of Christ doesn’t need to be visceral. I get it, some Calvinists deny that Catholics are saved. But shouldn’t Christian witnessing mean you try and appeal even to these people? Or is this the product of a theology which assumes that some people (the reprobate) were created by God just to torture for eternity?


  1. Excellent post. I admit that I was taken back by the ‘Pope thinks he is God’ tangent and didn’t even focus on TFan’s actual critique of Beckwith’s article.

    And, in my brief interaction over there they are not nearly as mean as other Calvinst blogs.

  2. Thanks, SP.

    I agree with you on this one – I can at least read TurretinFan’s blog without coming away feeling dirty. It’s just sad that “charitable” for a Calvinist apologetics blog would be “mildly nasty” in almost any other context, especially religious.

  3. Joe,

    “…..In fact, they’re Greeks, so they probably were Deuterocanon-loving apostates in the eyes of modern Protestants….”.

    I think you may be onto something there?

    Those Greeks needed that Jew to open their eyes to see the error of the Deuterocanon. And after listening to the argument and then turning to the Scriptures, they immediately repented and got their cutters out and edited their book, looking for more help from above so as not to make that stupid mistake again.

    Have you responded to Steve Hays yet?

  4. Natamllc,

    Just to be clear, I mean that they’re Greek Jews, but I think we’re on the same page there. You suggest that the “repented and got their cutters out and edited their book,” since they discovered their Scriptures were wrong.

    The Bible, on the other hand, says in Acts 17:10-11, “As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”

    That doesn’t sound like a denunciation of Scripture at all, and since we’re in apparent agreement that what the Bereans understood at the time of this passage to be “Scripture” included the Deuterocanon, I don’t see any more room for debate. That is, unless you ditch the plain language of the Bible for some extra-Biblical tradition about how there are only 66 Books.

    Who’s Steve Hays? I’m not sure I’m even aware of what I’m supposed to be responding to. Can you send me a link?

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