Can You Establish the Canon of Scripture from New Testament Citations?

I raised, to a Protestant seminarian friend of mine, the two basic problems with sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”): namely, that you can’t rely upon Scripture alone to prove the doctrine of “Scripture alone,” meaning that it’s self-refuting; and that you can’t even rely upon Scripture alone to determine which Books properly form the canon of Scripture.  Sola Scriptura is logically impossible for both of those reasons.

My friend advanced this rebuttal for the second of these points:

  1. Start with the “protocanon,” those Old and New Testament Books which all orthodox Christians accept as canonical.
  2. From there, follow the citations within the Books themselves.  While it’s true that no one Book lays out an inspired Table of Contents to the Bible, there are countless examples of New Testament Books treating other Books of the Bible, including other New Testament Books, as if they’re Scripture.
A similar argument arises in the context of the Old Testament Deuterocanon, which Protestants call the “Apocrypha.”  Protestants will not-infrequently argue that if the Deuterocanon isn’t explicitly quoted in Scripture, it’s because it was not considered Scripture by the Apostles.
There are a few major problems with this theory:
  • It doesn’t solve the “sola Scriptura is self-refuting” problem:  To start with the protocanon in step 1, you have to rely on something.  Most likely, that something is the consensus of the modern Church, or of the early Church.  So you’re still basing your Scriptures off of Tradition or the authority of the Church, rather than off of Scripture alone.  And if Scripture can come from Tradition and the Church, why can only Scripture?  Nothing in Scripture suggests that this is the case, and there’s no logical reason I’ve ever heard.
  • This approach leaves out Books we know to be inspired.  Nobody in the New Testament ever cites Esther. Or Judges. Or Ruth. Or Song of Solomon. Or Ecclesiastes. Or Ezra. Or Nehemiah. And of course, most of the Books of the New Testament aren’t quoted in any of the other Books, so you couldn’t establish the canonicity of, say, Revelation or 2 Peter or the Gospel of John this way.
  • Conversely, this approach includes books we know to be uninspired. Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch in Jude 1:15, and he refers to the events of the Assumption of Moses in Jude 1:9.  Paul quotes the pagan philsopher-prophet Epimenides in Titus 1:12, even referring to him as a “prophet.”  Now, working backwards, we can say that Paul likely didn’t mean that he was inspired, but referred to his occupation, such as it was (the way we might call someone an Anglican priest, without acknowledging the validity of his ordination). But the whole point of this approach is that it’s supposed to establish the canon, so you can’t justify working backwards. If Paul calls someone a prophet, and quotes them in Scripture, or if Jude quotes a certain book to prove something did or didn’t happen, this approach would require you to consider those Scripture. Otherwise, it’s just special pleading.
So long story short, this approach produces an entirely screwy canon.  I’ll have more later on why this approach misunderstands the use of Scriptural citations in the New Testament.


Update: here’s the more later.

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