Sola Scriptura can be broken into two parts:

  1. Sola - Alone
  2. Scriptura - The sacred Scriptures

One aspect of Sola Scriptura is the idea that Scripture is the Sole Infallible AND Authoritative rule of faith over Christians.

But in relation to my last post, there is a question over the canon of scripture. Since no book that anyone would consider scripture (at least among protestants that would claim Sola Scriptura) never says what scripture is, who determines what scripture is? Or, as I point out in my blog post:

This poses a two horned dilemma. Horn 1 - The source that canonized the Bible is not infallible and authoritative, thus we could add any books to the Bible and no one would have a basis to reject these additions (this is obviously bad). Horn 2 - The source that canonized the Bible is infallible and authoritative, thus Sola Scriptura is false. So whatever horn you take, you will end up with consequences.

So to close on my question, what source has given us the canon of scripture (not scripture, since that has come from God), and is that source infallible or authoritative?

3 Answers 3


The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is about how to rank various sources of spiritual authority, but it does not concern how we arrived at the Biblical canon.

Instead, Protestants teach that God's scriptures are self-authenticating under the witness of the Holy Spirit. The canon is only a list of recognition, not of determination. How the scriptures are authenticated is explained in the Westminster Confession:

WCF 1.5: We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture;
 and the heavenliness of the matter,
 the efficacy of the doctrine,
 the majesty of the style,
 the consent of all the parts,
 the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God),
 the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation,
 the many other incomparable excellencies,
 and the entire perfection thereof,
are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God;
yet, notwithstanding,
our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof,
 is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit,
 bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

The same idea is present in the Belgic Confession (1559):

Article 5: We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical,
for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith.

And we believe without a doubt all things contained in them—
not so much because the church receives and approves them as such
but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God,
and also because they prove themselves to be from God.

For even the blind themselves are able to see that the things predicted in them do happen.

We can see an example of this worked out in practice in Martin Luther's complex relationship with James. Luther considered James, along with Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, to be a secondary class within the NT, primarily for two reasons: James was not an Apostle, and James never mentions the death and resurrection of Jesus, the heart of the Gospel. But Luther still considered them to be scripture.

And then Protestants following Luther, also guided by the Spirit, would recognise James' full spiritual authority, because the Spirit's witness does not operate solely at an individual level, but also within the Church as a whole. An individual may at times misunderstand the Spirit's witness, but the Church as a whole is guided by the Spirit to true understanding. We see that the NT itself calls James an Apostle (Gal 1:19), and we recognise that different books of the Bible were written and inspired with different purposes. So Calvin wrote:

If James seems rather more reluctant to preach the grace of Christ than an apostle should be, we must remember not to expect everyone to go over the same ground. (Calvin's commentary on James)

The WCF footnotes give these passages in support of the teaching of the Spirit's authenticating witness of the scriptures:

John 16:13-14 (CSB): When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own, but he will speak whatever he hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.

1 Corinthians 2:10-12 (CSB): Now God has revealed these things to us by the Spirit, since the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except his spirit within him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who comes from God, so that we may understand what has been freely given to us by God.

I'll finish with a quote from G. I. Williamson's commentary on the WCF:

The fact of the matter is that the Bible cannot possibly be proved to be God's Word by anything external to God himself. This does not mean that the testimony of the Church is useless. A guide who points out various masterpieces in an art gallery is of use. He does not make doubtful paintings into masterpieces. He does not even prove masterpieces to be such. But he may be the instrument by which we are brought to see the intrinsic qualities which make them to be masterpieces. So the Church may point out that the Bible is the Word of God. But this is possible only because it is God's Word—because it already displays everywhere within itself the excellencies which belong to word-divinity. It must be there in order to be seen to be there. (The Westminster Confession of Faith: For Study Classes, page 11.)

To return back to Sola Scriptura, this does mean there could be problems if two Protestants did recognise a different Biblical canon. In practice that's not an issue, as nearly all Protestants recognise the same canon. Though many Protestants do read the Apocrypha for themselves, I haven't heard of any who have been turned by God to recognise it as scripture (though if they have, perhaps they just converted to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy?) But supposing there was a debate between Protestants over some doctrinal issue and one recognised the regular Protestant canon and the other had a slightly different canon? I would say that they would need to convince the other of their canon first, and if they couldn't come to same page there, Sola Scriptura would not be able to be applied to their doctrinal dispute.

  • For one that is an answer I will accept. That being said this "self-authentication" idea seems like a poor way to say something is scripture. If scripture truly was self authenticating, there wouldn't be a question among true believers over the canon.
    – Luke Hill
    Jan 27 at 0:03
  • 1
    @LukeHill If we can grieve the Spirit then we can surely deafen ourselves to him. For sure, it is a tough question how large denominations could for so long blind and deafen themselves to certain scriptures' self-authenticating and to the Spirit's witness, but that is subsumed by the question of why God would allow parts of his Church to teach falsehoods for so long. (Both sides of the Reformation must admit that is the case.) Neither are questions I have satisfying answers to. But on the other hand the Gospel is clearly proclaimed in many books which all accept. The Spirit has not failed.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 27 at 0:07
  • So I guess the best Protestant answer is that “we think we are right because the Holy Spirit (the same one that the Catholics have) told us we are”
    – Luke Hill
    Jan 27 at 1:00
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    Well almost. I'm not sure the Spirit's witness extends to propositional content like "The canon is only 66 books." Instead it's a witness that as we read the scriptures that we are reading the inspired word of God. The Spirit isn't saying "You're right", he's saying "Read this and build your life on it, for it is of God." If you never read or hear part of the Bible you may be missing out on the Spirit's witness of it.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 27 at 1:02
  • @LukeHill Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 27 at 1:50

Scripture is not read in a vacuum.

Words are not read upon a page, without any other input from heaven.

when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: [John 16:13, KJV]

Without the indwelling Spirit, one is bereft. What is truth ? What is true ? What is not ? . . . . are questions one cannot answer alone. One needs the indwelling Spirit of God, a witness within, a hidden wisdom.

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: [John 10 : 27, KJV]

Jesus Christ, himself, knows his own. And he speaks (yes, through the word, but also within, in Spirit).

And they hear.

And they follow him.

And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers. [John 10:5, KJV]

But other voices, other words, abound.

Yet they hear nothing of his tones, in those words.

And they flee from such voices, from such words.

Stranger, Danger.

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, [2 Timothy 3:16, KJV]

Or, as Robert Young's Literal has it . . . . . 'is God-breathed' θεοπνευστος, Theopneustos.

The breath of God is in his word.

the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. [John 6:63, KJV]

Printed words on the page, alone, are lifeless.

And the vast amount of printed matter on earth is bewildering, if one has no Spirit within to lead one.

Sola Scriptura . . . . Scripture Alone, is where one hears a voice within, a Spirit's leading, another Life.

And, down through the centuries, sheep have collected the writings together.

Such as William Tyndale, who was betrayed, imprisoned, denied a candle in the dark hours that he might read his bible . . .. and was then executed.

But he left behind 'for every ploughboy in England (and the English-speaking world) - he left behind a collection of writings that sheep read, and sheep hear and sheep follow.

This is the way.

O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock [Song of Solomon 1:8, KJV]

  • 1
    does that mean some apocrypha could be considered scripture? are the extra books in catholic bible scripture? is any of the canon bible not scripture?
    – depperm
    Jan 26 at 18:56
  • 2
    I’m very tempted to +1 for the poetic language which you employ (which is beautiful by the way) but I’m not convinced by this answer. The spirit supposedly acts as a guide of truth. But then why do we have several different interpretations of the same passage? Why do we have several different canons? I question if this even answers my question because no mention is made of the way in which we determine what scripture is. So no, this doesn’t answer my question.
    – Luke Hill
    Jan 26 at 19:07
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    How does one follow the wisdom of the "indwelling Spirit of God" without first being familiar with Scripture?
    – ken
    Jan 26 at 19:36
  • @NigelJ - How do we know we can be lead into truth sans Scripture as Abraham was lead, without referencing Abraham in Scripture?
    – ken
    Jan 27 at 16:32

This is a good question. As mentioned elsewhere, Sola Scriptura is only the belief that scripture is the sole source of Christian faith and practice. What SS does not do is provide a list of books, although at the time of the Reformation, everyone agreed on at least the 66 books and definitely the books of the New Testament.

The doctrine of Sola Scriptura, in a nutshell, affirms that Scripture is our only source of normative, apostolic, infallible revelation and that “all things necessary for salvation and about faith and life are taught in the Bible with sufficient clarity so that the ordinary believer can find it there and understand it.” -source-

So, where is the "table of contents" for the Bible? Some believe the Catholic Church at Trent defined the contents. Others believe Christ delineated the table of contents.

Here is Irenaeus on the four gospels.

  1. It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds,3449 while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground”3450 of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh. From which fact, it is evident that the Word, the Artificer of all, He that sitteth upon the cherubim, and contains all things, He who was manifested to men, has given us the Gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.”3451 For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,”3452 symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but “the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,”—an evident description of His advent as a human being; “the fourth was like a flying eagle,” pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church. And therefore the Gospels are in accord with these things, among which Christ Jesus is seated. Irenaeus

Further, he makes it clear that the scripture was handed down as already divine.

  1. We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith. -ibid-

And here is Athanasius with the same idea that scripture was already handed down as divine from the beginning.

  1. In proceeding to make mention of these things, I shall adopt, to commend my undertaking, the pattern of Luke the Evangelist, saying on my own account: ‘Forasmuch as some have taken in hand4543,’ to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed 552good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued stedfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance. -39th Festal Letter-

There is much more to the idea that scripture accredited itself, written as it were by eyewitnesses or companions between the bookends of James and John Sons of Zebedee, first and last apostles to die.

  • 4
    How does "handed down" differ from Tradition?
    – ken
    Jan 26 at 20:13
  • 1
    As mentioned elsewhere, Sola Scriptura is only the belief that scripture is the sole source of Christian faith and practice. Okay so scripture is the sole source of Christian faith. We agree on that definition. But what that leads us back to is the original question. One part of the Christian faith is the scriptures. So where do the scriptures say what the scriptures are? Where is the list? It seems that you made the case for tradition (the handing down of scripture) telling us, but is that tradition infallible? Is it authoritative? If it isn't infallible then we have no reason to trust it.
    – Luke Hill
    Jan 26 at 20:52
  • 1
    @ken A Tradition or tradition is a belief. What the texts refer to is scripture being handed down. Apostles John and Philip knew Polycarp who knew Irenaeus.
    – SLM
    Jan 27 at 15:02
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    @LukeHill there are many groups (Catholic, JW, LDS, other) who believe that what was handed down was insufficient, that the apostles left out something, that their group has the key to salvation. The Reformation was about restoring what was authentic for salvation, which was what's in scripture alone. I'd suggest you research how the bible came about. OT required a valid prophetic line. NT required it written between James and John. This corpus was handed down as genuine, as Divine.
    – SLM
    Jan 27 at 15:06
  • @SLM if you appeal to anything other than the Bible for your canon while simultaneously supporting sola scriptura, you have to respond to my objection.
    – Luke Hill
    Jan 27 at 15:08

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