I would like to briefly respond to some comments made by C Michael Patton in a blog article that he posted today. I would like to start by saying that I agree with the fundamental assertion that he made, specifically, that the T4G statement of faith is inaccurate when it describes the Bible as the “sole authority for the Church.” I have often identified this very terminology as a misrepresentation of any meaningful historical and biblical definition of sola scriptura. It is one the primary means the Roman Catholics use to attack the doctrine of sola scriptura because it is transparently obvious that it is inaccurate to state that the Bible is the only source of authority that the church recognizes or utilizes. It is necessary to recognize that sola scriptura speaks to the Scripture’s role as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church, not the sole rule of faith period. Any church that is confessional in its expression and practice would be in violation of this less than accurate definition of sola scriptura. For example, my own church utilizes the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith as an accurate and sufficient representation of our doctrinal beliefs. And yet, it could be argued that we are using this as a source of authority, which would violate the inaccurate definition of sola scriptura. I have explained the necessity of being careful in our definitions on this matter in a number of my published works.
However, I must disagree with Mr. Patton at a very important point in his discussion. He wrote in his article,
Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.
I would like to suggest to Mr. Patton that at this point he has, in fact, fundamentally compromised on the doctrine of sola scriptura. Or at the very least, he has put himself in a position where he could never defend his doctrine of sola scriptura against a sharp critic of his position. I invested a fair amount of space in my book, Scripture Alone, discussing the issue of the canon of Scripture. I suggested that the common approach of defining the canon on a merely historical basis misses the fundamentally theological nature of the canon itself. I pointed out that the canon is a necessary artifact of the act of inspiration. The canon exists of necessity. Since God inspired some books but not all books, that means a canon exists de facto. God knows the canon infallibly because God knows his own actions infallibly. Since God has a purpose for the church to know the extent of His act of inspiration in providing to us the Scriptures, then God will expand the necessary effort to make sure that the church receives the blessing and gift he has given to us in Scripture, and that includes having a sufficient knowledge of the canon to accomplish His ends. But Mr. Patton identifies the canon as a “tradition of the church.” I think Mr. Patton would have a very difficult time defending the concept of sola scriptura against a very sharp Roman Catholic opponent if he takes this position. It is another example of how many of those who are in the forefront of evangelical proclamation today have not seriously engaged Roman Catholic apologetics especially on the issue of authority. See my discussion of the theology of the canon in Scripture Alone, pp. 95-119.