Theo-Illogical: Quid Pro Canon

by Timothy F. Kauffman

One need not read many Roman Catholic apologetics books before discovering that the mantra of the modern Romanist is "Sola Scriptura is self-refuting." This phrase is on the lips of the professional and the amateur apologist alike. The proof for the allegation takes on many forms, but one of the most prominent is this: "The 66-book canon of the Bible cannot be found in the Bible." What the Roman Catholic is attempting to demonstrate is that Christians must appeal to something outside the Bible and in addition to it. To show the canon of the Bible, the Protestant must appeal to the table of contents which reflects the historical testimony of the Church. Both of these "sources" are outside of Scripture, and thus the Roman Catholic thinks to prove that Sola Scriptura fails. "See?" he says. "You have to appeal to something outside the Bible to support sola scriptura. Thus, sola scriptura is self-refuting." The Roman Catholic then triumphantly produces the documents of an allegedly infallible Roman council (Trent, in this case) which show exactly what the 73-book canon really is. Thus have the apologists of Rome sought to show that while Protestants cannot prove the content of the Bible from the Bible, Rome can know definitively the canon of the Bible from its councils. Protestants, on the other hand, have no infallible source by which they may know they have the right 66 books, and therefore are members of a self-defeating religion. So thinks the Roman Catholic apologist.

Normally in a discussion like this one, the Protestant is all too quick to take the bate and begin to discuss the fact that the canon is received and not revealed, and therefore is not an additional part of revelation. True though it is, that line of thought allows the Roman Catholic apologist to sidestep a gaping hole in his own argument.

If the weakness of Protestantism is that the canon of our revelation exists outside the Bible (allowing the Roman Catholic position momentarily), then the strength of Rome should be that an infallible canon of its revelation can be produced on request. The Roman apologist thinks he has already satisfied this by providing the canon of Scripture from Rome's infallible councils, but in Rome, revelation is not so limited. It includes other forms besides the Scriptures: Tradition and the teachings of the Roman Magisterium, including the infallible teachings of her popes. Roman Catholicism summarizes this as Sola Verbum Dei, or The Word of God Alone, and proposes this as the infallible alternative to Sola Scriptura. Very well then. Perhaps the Roman Catholic apologist can provide the canon of the Word of God, and we will start by requesting an infallible canon of ex cathedra papal statements. How many times has the pope taught ex cathedra, or "from the chair" of Peter? How many ex cathedra papal statements have there been, and what are they? Producing this canon of ex cathedra papal statements will prove to be a very difficult task indeed, and the Roman Catholic will be forced to go outside his own definition of The Word of God to do it.

An Elusive Canon

Different Roman Catholic apologists have asserted very divergent numbers of infallible papal statements. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine of the Bodily Assumption of Mary were taught infallibly by Popes Pius IX and Pius XII in 1854 and 1950, respectively. Both popes taught that these doctrines were divinely revealed and were therefore part of Christian revelation and to be believed. But are these two the only infallible ex cathedra papal statements ever made? Perhaps they are. It depends on which apologist you ask. Roman apologist Scott Hahn says yes. In his talk on Pope Pius IX's proclamation in 1854, Hahn stated that 1950 was the only other time an ex cathedra statement had ever been made by a pope:

"Now, we have to realize that the Holy Father has only stated dogmatically and infallibly a definition of a doctrine one other time: in 1950, with the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, both her body and soul."[1]

Hahn has proposed a two-statement canon of ex cathedra papal statements. But apologist Tim Staples says there are at least four, and likely very many more. In his audio tape series, "All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed," he berates those who state that popes have only spoken infallibly on two occasions. Staples mentions the two ex cathedra statements to which Hahn refers, and then adds at least two more, referring first to pope Boniface VIII's statement Unam Sanctam (1302), and second, to St. Leo's letter to Flavian[2] which was examined and approved by the Council of Chalcedon in 451:

"We have infallible statements from popes all the way back. Pope Boniface VIII made an infallible statement in the 13th century concerning papal authority or papal primacy. In the year 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, Pope Leo I made an infallible declaration that was recognized as such by council Fathers concerning the hypostatic union of Christ."[3]

The Roman Catholic may not initially be concerned over the inability of his apologists or his religion to define an infallible list of ex cathedra statements, as long as there exists the fallible certainty that it may be limited to these four, or three, or two. But that fleeting disinterest spells disaster for the concept of a unified Roman Catholic religion with a defined canon of revelation. The Roman Catholic cannot simultaneously insist that the Protestant produce an infallible listing of the canon of God's Word and ignore the fact that his own Church is unable to do the same with something as simple as a list of ex cathedra statements. As evidence that the dilemma is not limited merely to a few teachings, the Roman Catholic is invited to consider the longer list compiled by Adam S. Miller in his book, The Final Word. Miller assures us that he has the right list when he says his booklet contains, "...a listing of ex cathedra Papal pronouncements on matters of doctrine." And he joins us in recognizing the significance of the issue when he states that his work contains a listing of "what the Catholic Church has defined as those truths formally revealed by God and necessary for belief." His proposed canon of ex cathedra statements is eleven.[4] But Roman Catholic priest Leslie Rumble would beg to differ. He has an even longer list in his book, That Catholic Church. In his opinion, there have been 18 ex cathedra papal statements throughout Roman Catholic history. Not only does Rumble's list contain considerably more statements than Hahn's, Staples', and Miller's, but it also contains two caveats indicating that the degree of certainty of the reliability of this (or any) list is in doubt. To his list of 18, Rumble added two caveats indicating that he is not quite sure. Next to items 12 and 13, he added this clarification:

"There are some Catholic theologians who hold that, although these two decrees of Pope Leo XIII are of the utmost authority, they still fall short of technical requirements for infallible 'ex cathedra' utterances." [5]

And next to items 16 and 17, he added this:

"[These] Two utterances very probably comply with the requirements of an 'ex cathedra' decision…" [6]

In an attempt to lay out exactly what it is that the popes have taught infallibly, Roman priest Leslie Rumble ends up deferring to what "some Catholic theologians" believe, and what "very probably" complies with ex cathedra requirements. This is very telling.

Elusive Criteria

Perhaps if Roman Catholics knew with any certainty "the requirements of an 'ex cathedra' decision," this matter could be easily resolved. Unfortunately, within Rome there is as much disagreement on the number of criteria as there is on the number of ex cathedra statements. Exactly what are the criteria by which a papal statement can be considered to have been ex cathedra? And how many criteria are there?

Roman Catholic apologist, Scott Butler compiled what he calls "A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy" called Jesus, Peter and the Keys. In this book, he provides for his readers three criteria by which one may know that a pope has spoken infallibly. He cites the Vatican Council I statement, Lumen Gentium (brackets added by Butler):

"And this is the infallibility with which the Roman Pontiff, the head of the college of bishops, enjoys in virtue of his office, when [1] as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith, [2] by a definitive act [3] he proclaims a doctrine of faith or morals."[7]

But in contrast to this, the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that there are actually four criteria by which such a determination must be made. The Encyclopedia's four criteria are not entirely redundant to Butler's three, and further require that the statement must contain a binding condemnation of error.[8]

William G. Most, on the other hand, a Roman Catholic apologist and priest, believes there are only two criteria by which a papal definition is to be considered infallible:

"If a Pope intends to make anything definitive, that is infallible. No special form of words is needed. …We conclude that all that is required is [1] the intent to make an item definitive, plus [2] writing in such a way as to make that intent clear."[9]

The problem which now arises for the Roman Catholic is to determine infallibly which set of criteria should be used to conclude that a doctrine has been taught ex cathedra. Should he use the three criteria or the four or the two? Which set of criteria is the infallible set? Whose interpretation of the two, three or four criteria is the infallible interpretation? The dilemma is severe. Those who prefer to downplay the significance of this are welcome to join the many Roman Catholics in the world who are at this moment debating the infallibility of various papal statements—because they cannot know infallibly which criteria to use. It is no wonder that Roman Catholic apologists will rarely proclaim exactly how many ex cathedra papal statements there have been, or exactly how they know for sure when it is that a Roman Pontiff will exercise this charism of infallibility in the first place. Even here, there is disagreement within Rome.

What think ye of ex cathedra?

Roman apologist Karl Keating, founder of the apologetic ministry Catholic Answers, believes the pope normally only exercises the charism of infallibility when a controversial matter must be settled:

"An infallible pronouncement—whether made by the pope alone, by an ecumenical council, or by the constant teaching of the Church's magisterium through the centuries—usually is made only when some doctrine has been called into question."[10]

But Roman apologist Hahn believes the exact opposite:

"Now, many people think that this ex cathedra, this official papal pronouncement defining dogma, is sort of like the ultimate way in which the pope resolves doctrinal controversies. That is the opposite of the truth. The pope is not an umpire. The pope is not a referee. …we wrongly understand his office and his ministry if we think that he is just to call 'fair' and 'foul,' 'safe' and 'out,' and throw the flag and declare the penalty."[11]

Which is it? When does a Roman pope speak or teach infallibly, and how can the sheep know infallibly that the shepherd has so taught? In view of all of this, it becomes clear that Roman Catholics—even Roman Catholic apologists—do not know certainly or exhaustively what the pope has infallibly taught or exactly what it is that they are required to believe. Nor do Roman Catholics agree on when or why a pope speaks ex cathedra. Nor do Roman Catholics have an infallible set of criteria by which it can be determined that a pope has spoken infallibly, and neither do they have an infallible means of interpreting the criteria, be they two, be they three or be they four.

Perhaps the reader has begun to see the weakness of the Roman Catholic position. The Protestant has been asked to produce an infallible list of the canon of the Bible. If the Protestant produces such a list, it is a concession that an elementary part of Christian knowledge (i.e., the canon) is contained outside of Scripture. Thus, it is alleged to be a denial of Sola Scriptura. Rome, on the other hand (so it is supposed) does not have this problem because her infallible Council of Trent declared the canon of Scripture, and that is how a Roman Catholic knows with certainty that which the Protestant cannot—the canon of the Bible. But Roman Catholics cannot know the infallible canon of what they are supposed to believe. A very small portion of that canon would be a list of ex cathedra papal statements. Any Roman Catholic will gladly give you his opinion of how many times the popes have exercised this gift. Scott Hahn has affirmed a list of two. But that is Hahn's opinion. Rumble has offered a canon of possibly 18, most likely 16, but possibly only 14, and Miller thinks it might just be 11. But these are mere opinions. Staples has offered a canon of at least four, and says there are more. But that is his opinion. These are all the fallible opinions of men. The truth is, the infallible list of ex cathedra papal statements exists nowhere within what Rome calls her three sources of revelation: the Bible, the Magisterium, and Tradition, leaving the faithful to struggle through this issue, groping blindly on their own. In fact, their own teachers will not and cannot tell them. Thus it can be said of Rome that something fundamental to her system of beliefs exists outside of her revelation. So while the Roman Catholic thinks to prove that Sola Scriptura is self-refuting because the list of the canon of the Bible exists outside of Scripture, by his own standards he instead proves the insufficiency of Rome because something fundamental to the belief of the Roman Catholic actually exists outside of Rome's only sources of revelation. The Roman Catholic is therefore forced to rely on information which he gathers independently of the Magisterium, the Bible and Tradition in order to understand fallibly what it is that his religion might be teaching him.

Sola Verbum Dei is self-refuting

Rome's answer to Sola Scriptura is Sola Verbum Dei, or "The Word of God Alone." Rome believes that the Word of God is contained in the Scriptures, Tradition, in her Magisterium—including ex cathedra papal statements. But Rome cannot produce an infallible list of ex cathedra papal statements from within what she calls the Word of God. Thus, in order to convey the Word of God, Roman Catholics must appeal to something which is not contained in the Word of God. Sola Verbum Dei therefore becomes self-refuting by the standards of Rome's own apologists. Perhaps Rome should spend time proving why her version of Sola Verbum Dei is not self-refuting by her own standards before worrying about whether or not Sola Scriptura is.


1. Hahn, Scott, "A Biblical Understanding of Mary," tape 3 of 4, side 1

2. Leo's letter was actually written in 449. Staples is somewhat inaccurate when he says that Leo "made an infallible declaration" in 451. Rather, the council affirmed it in that year.

3. Staples, Tim, "All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed," tape 2 of 6, side 1

4. Miller, Adam S., The Final Word, (Gaithersburg, MD: Tower of David Publications, ©1997), pg. 28

5. Rumble, et al, That Catholic Church: A Radio Analysis, (St. Paul, MN, Radio Replies Press, ©1954), pg. 81

6. Rumble, pg. 81

7 Butler, Scott, et al, Jesus, Peter and the Keys: A Scriptural Handbook on the Papacy, (Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, ©1996), pg. 203. Brackets in original.

8 The Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1907, Vol VII, pg. 796

9 Most, Infallibility of Level Three Teachings, (Published electronically for use in classes taught by Fr. Most and for private theological study. Brackets added for clarity)

10. "Papal Infallibility," a tract produced by Catholic Answers, (©1996 Catholic Answers, Inc.) ,

11. Hahn, Scott, "A Biblical Understanding of Mary," tape 3 of 4, side 1

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