At Green Baggins, a Reformed Protestant blog with an excellent name, there is a discussion ongoing with regards to the inerrancy of the Bible. The post asks this question:
If God has spoken in any place in His word in error, how do we know He has not spoken in error when His word says we are freely justified in Christ?
This is a good point, and a fairly standard one (by which I mean that it’s the sort of thing that Reformed folks often say to those who want to allow for error in the Bible on subjects unrelated to the Gospel). But there is a related issue that really ought to be examined as well, and it has been raised both in the comments on that post and in this podcast over at CtC (which, serendipitously enough, I have been listening to over the last couple days).
R.C. Sproul once described the Bible as a “fallible collection of infallible books.” By this he seems to have meant that no divinely-given canon of Scripture exists. That’s because the Bible does not specify its own canon, and (as a staunch professor of sola scriptura) he denies that there is any extra-biblical source of a divinely-authorized canon. Consequently the canon is a human product, and so it cannot be described as infallible, for that is a property that can only be attributed (according to Protestants) to Scripture.
The issue that I mentioned above is this: it is taken for granted by conservative Protestants that if the Bible is conceded to contain errors on other subjects, there is no reason to suppose that what it says about the Gospel is inerrant. But it seems to me (and to others: this isn’t some unique thought of my own) that if we grant this to be true, why should we not say the exact same thing about the canon? If the definition of the canon is not divinely authorized (as Sproul suggests), then there is no basis whatsoever for certainty that any particular book in it is actually the Word of God. Likewise, if any number of the books might be merely human, there is no good reason (on Sproul’s understanding of things) to think that any of them are genuinely divine. So it seems that Sproul’s view pretty much throws Protestant Christianity under the bus.
Of course, there is no reason of which I am aware to suppose that Sproul is anything other than a faithful, conservative Reformed Protestant. He might say, I guess, that although this “fallible collection” idea is true in principle, in practice there is no reason to doubt the Protestant canon. So I think it is certainly fair to say that he is better than his principles. :-) Nevertheless, I do not see how one can (on the one hand) say that errors in the Bible would undermine the reliability of its teaching about salvation (and so we must emphatically deny the possibility of errors in the Bible), and on the other hand say that the canon is not infallible. If errors in some small part of a genealogy in Chronicles would undermine the reliability of St Paul’s epistles, then a fortiori it seems that if an entire book of the Bible might be merely human, it is all the more true that the reliability of the Gospel is undermined.
But Sproul’s view is not the only one held by Protestants. Others say that the canon is “self-attesting” or that the Holy Spirit confirms its contents. The problems with these are obvious, I hope: self-attestation doesn’t make a book divine, else we Christians owe Muslims and LDSers an apology. :-) And the appeal to the Spirit amounts to subjectivism.
Another approach to the canon is more evidentialist, but it raises problems for Protestants as well, it seems to me: if they appeal to the history of the canon’s acceptance by the Church, they aren’t left with many options for understanding how it came to be recognized by the earliest Christians. Either it was received on the basis of self-attestation, or the Spirit’s motion, or on the basis of the authority of the Church. There aren’t any other options that I can think of. Well, we’ve already seen that self-attestation and the motion of the Spirit don’t really get us to something that may be understood to be genuinely authoritative, and Protestants typically reject the authority of the Church to define anything infallibly, so once again it seems that on the Protestant view there is no principled reason to hold to the authority of the Bible. If the Church lacks the authority to define the canon, or if it cannot be said to do so infallibly, then once again we’re back to uncertainty about Scripture.
So it seems to me that worrying about errors in the Bible is like arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship if we have no basis for certainty about the canon. And I know of no principled way to have certainty about the canon apart from a divinely authorized Church that can indeed speak with the authority of Christ.