Biblical or Extra-Biblical?

I was recently reading a blog post from my friend Frank Beckwith titled “Sola Scriptura and the scope of the canon: a reflection on my philosophical reflection.” In it Frank differentiates his view from the argument that Sola Scriptura is self-refuting, a popular position among conservative Catholic apologists. In question is whether the interpretive key for the canon’s formation (and eventually for biblical interpretation) exists “outside” of the text itself. To the extent that one regards it to be so (extra-biblical) he has undermined the “Sola” of Sola Scriptura. In what follows I want to offer a quote from Kevin Vanhoozer’s book The Drama of Doctrine where, in his section titled “The Canon as Rule,” he presents an anecdote from Irenaeus that I think sheds helpful light on the issue:

“Irenaeus compares the relationship of the Rule of Faith to Scripture to a mosaic whose pieces can be variously arranged to form a portrait of a king or a picture of a dog. Mosaics in the ancient world were shipped unassembled, but they included a plan or key (hypothesis) that served as directions for their proper arrangement. Irenaeus likens the Rule of Faith to the correct hypothesis that allows the church to see the face of the king—Christ—in the Scriptures rather than a dog, which is what the heretics think they see because they have not arranged the mosaic correctly. The Rule is thus accountable to the text and its subject matter precisely because it seeks to provide the key for its correct understanding. Hence the authority of the Rule depends on its conforming to the Scriptures. This explains Irenaeus’s heroic efforts to demonstrate that the Rule of Faith indeed accords with Scripture.”

Such a view doesn’t look to natural theology as the source of the Bible’s hypothesis (interpretive key) or to other extra-biblical criteria; rather, the key emerges from divine revelation–in the Hebrew Scriptures, the person of Jesus, the teaching of the Apostles, and eventually in the inspired text. In other words, the way we decide what is canonical and what constitutes right teaching is not teaching about the Bible, but, from our post apostolic vantage point, teaching that extends from the Bible.

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. This response seems to abstract to be of any solid use. Certainly God didn’t want us ‘guessing’ at the canon.

  2. Good point Nick. I suppose it may appear like guessing, if not for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Protestants are comfortable saying that God superintended the process of forming the canon through the agency of the church, and yet, the criteria with which these decisions were made came from God’s existing revelation, and not from something extra-biblical.

  3. I just cant see that working out on a practical level, such that the ‘average Christian’ could come to know the canon with clear guidelines. But what is also noteworthy is that people like Luther questioned the validity of books like 2 Peter, Jude, James (especially), etc, while Calvin questioned the validity of books like Revelation. So clearly this wasnt an clear discernment for even prominent Reformers.

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