Robert Arakaki has responded here to my Reformation21 article An Apostolic Case for Sola Scriptura. I’m grateful for his interaction and some of the other questions I’ve received. Here are a few thoughts in reply.
Arakaki rightly points out that if the apostolic commission included a written testimony, there should be evidence in the New Testament of this task. Unfortunately, Arakaki then proceeds to ignore the New Testament evidence I traced in the original article. But for clarity, I’ll quickly review: First, Jesus told the apostles that it was their job to be His witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The word “witness” or “testimony” has a rich Jewish legacy going all the way back to the “Testimony” which was the written copy of the Ten Words that resided in the ark of the covenant (e.g. Ex. 25:16). Later in Israelite history, “testimony” becomes synonymous with the “law of God” written in the books of Moses in particular. By the time of Isaiah, the prophet pleads with the people to measure the various “mutterings” they are receiving with the word of God and the “testimony” (Is. 8:16-20). While God’s word certainly was announced through the mouths of prophets, it was also inscribed permanently to form the Old Testament.
Related to this, while Arakaki can hardly be faulted for assuming the modern scholarly consensus on when the New Testament was written (often thought to be decades after the events they record), the origin of this modern theory is 19th century liberalism, which having been caught up in the excesses of romanticism on the one hand and enlightenment skepticism on the other, found it rather natural (not to mention convenient) to assume a rather drawn out process of oral tradition slowly being written down and codified. The love child Schleiermacher conceived was born as Bultmann’s full blown existential bastard, and many of even the most robust Protestants (and Orthodox and Romanists) imbibed various strains of their theorizing, including the process of writing the New Testament. Nevertheless, this modern theory flies in the face of a thousand years of Jewish practice and tradition going all the way back at least to Sinai, and it goes directly against the command that Jesus gave the disciples. There is no evidence the apostles waited twenty or forty years to begin writing. One piece of evidence corroborating an earlier date for the writing of the New Testament is the fact that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is mentioned nowhere in the New Testament except as an immanent future event. It is highly likely that all portions of the New Testament were written by the mid 60s, pushing the usual timeline back into the 40s at least. Although I suspect that Matthew’s gospel was written in the 30s, almost immediately after Pentecost.
Several more lines of textual evidence include Luke’s explicit reference to the many who “have undertaken to compile a narrative” (Lk. 1:1). Presumably he refers to Matthew and Mark at least, but if Luke is writing in the early 60s, finishing Acts with Paul in Rome (Acts 28, 2 Tim. 4:11), it’s likely that he’s referring to many of the writings that would come to comprise the New Testament. We should also note that these writings originated from “eye witnesses,” which at a minimum refers to the apostles themselves (Acts 1:21-22). This indicates the high likelihood that Luke studied under Peter at some point, since he is the only one who could have been the eye witness of some of the events recorded in Acts 1-6, and when the narrative shifts to Saul of Tarsus, we are right to assume that he was the eye witness source for the rest of the book of Acts. It’s a fun and subtle moment when Luke explicitly enters his own narrative when he begins to accompany Paul from Macedonia, suddenly shifting from “they” to “we” in Acts 20:5. Add to this the emphasis Paul places on his signature, the way he signs all of his authentic letters (2 Thess. 3:17), the fact that Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16), and there is actually a great deal of New Testament evidence that the apostles were “quite conscious of this goal” of compiling a body of writing that comprised the “testimony” of those hand-picked eye witnesses of Jesus.
Arakaki’s claim that Jesus never made writing part of the apostolic calling is also a bit odd since no one in this discussion believes Scripture is expendable. Everyone believes that the writing of Scripture was an apostolic act. So this objection almost proves too much. If Jesus didn’t command the apostles to write Scripture, then who needs Scripture? But of course Arakaki doesn’t mean to denigrate the written Scripture. Preaching and writing are not opposed to one another any more than any of the prophets of old (beginning at least with Moses) would have thought that their prophecies would not be written down. As Arakaki notes with regard to Iranaeus, those nearest the apostles assumed that the oral and written teachings of the apostles would have been complimentary and not in tension. To be clear, of course I (and all thoughtful Protestants) understand that there would have been a great deal of oral teaching going out during the lives of the apostles. No one disputes the existence of oral tradition alongside the growing corpus of written instruction. Here, I will gladly cite that favorite verse of our Orthodox and Roman brethren! “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (1 Thess. 2:15).
However, and this is the point I’m still waiting for someone to elucidate for me, when various Christians in various places got conflicting reports, as happened in Thessalonica for example – how were they to tell the authentic teachings from the scammers and false prophets and false apostles? Again, my point is not that the oral teachings were not authoritative, my point is that by their very nature they could not be verified like a written letter or gospel. If you want to know what Paul wrote, you can go back and check, but if you have different memories or have received different reports of what Paul said, you have to go get Paul himself. This seems to be the precise situation Paul is facing with the Thessalonians. There are spurious “words” and “letters” that seem to be from the apostles (2 Thess. 2:2). How should the Thessalonians judge the real oral and written traditions from the spurious ones? Paul tells the Thessalonians to check everything against his written words (2 Thess. 3:14) – and since there are false letters flying around too, he tells them to check the signatures against this one. “This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine…” (2 Thess. 3:17) I’d love to have a conversation about these verses and the particular situation Paul is addressing.
Just a couple final comments for now:
First, my “theory” does not assume a “static listing of canonical scripture right from the time the Apostles Peter and Paul were alive.” My original article happily admitted that there were indeed some anomalies (e.g. Hebrews). My primary aim is to prove that it was the task of the apostles to hand down an authoritative teaching/testimony concerning Jesus, and that the evidence of the New Testament indicates that wherever disputes arose as to what that apostolic teaching was, we are to refer to their written testimony as found in the New Testament. This thesis does not require a completed canonical list by the death of the apostles, but it certainly explains why there was so little controversy surrounding the apostolic writings, which became known as the New Testament.
Lastly, with regard to Arakaki’s concern about the role of the bishop, I refer my readers to Cyril, the Bishop of Jerusalem (ca. 315-384 A.D.) who writes in his Catechetical Lectures:
For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.
Notice first off that Cyril says his authority is not absolute but depends on his proving his teaching from Scripture. This is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, and it’s from fathers like Cyril that Bucer and Luther recovered this apostolic and patristic doctrine. But secondly, do not think for a moment that this obliterates the true authority of pastors and elders or demolishes the significant role they played in establishing the Church in the apostolic writings. Nevertheless, it is absolutely crucial to say what Cyril says: all true authority derives from Christ, and Christ has spoken clearly, absolutely through His apostles in the pages of Scripture. We must not be drawn aside by “plausible” teachings that may be apostolic in origin; we must push further and ground whatever we teach or believe in their very words found in the New Testament.