A few weeks ago, my old college buddy and fellow sojourner Jacob said something that has had me thinking since then — his definition of sola scriptura is “the Church is fallible.”

That may not seem like something so startling to many people, but — even as someone who has a high, even elevated, appreciation of capital-T Tradition but seriously struggles with some Catholic presuppositions — it’s one that I appreciate.

Your typical Catholic (and Orthodox) apologist will reply that the only way we even know what the biblical canon is because the Church has historically defined it, making the contents of the biblical canon Tradition itself. Scripture is inspired even if the Church does not recognize it, but the only reason you know it is scripture is because the Church has called it such, they say.

And that’s a point I concede, at least to a point (or, better stated: I am not equipped to argue it). 

But here’s the problem with that argument: there are four [major] biblical canons — Slavonic, Greek, Roman Catholic and Protestant (I listed them in order from longest to shortest, including the appendices in the case of the Slavonic and Greek corpora — that is assuming that an Orthodox reader accepts the Council of Jerusalem as dogmatic, of course), and apologists on both sides of the fence can cite early historic examples of those in favor of either the Catholic and Protestant tables of contents.

That leaves us with a bit of a conundrum, which is exactly why the Roman Catholic dogmatized their canon at the Council of Trent and the Orthodox at least agreed (if not dogmatically) at the Council of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, Protestants have chosen to define their Old Testament canon along the lines of the Jewish Council of Jamnia rather than by the LXX. That council didn’t happen until after Christ but was the canon Jerome backed (until he later caved and added the deuterocanon into the Vulgate).

My point is that even the Tradition surrounding the canon wasn’t clearly defined until the 1600s (something some Catholics curiously think is a strong point for their case), and it wasn’t Luther who first disregarded some books, so there’s a real weakness in the argument that the Bible as Tradition is proof that all Tradition is equal to Scripture.

 (I know this is a drastically fast fly-over of history — for example, I know there were other Jewish canons, and I realize that there are several other canons used by sui juris churches in the east. Don’t beat me up.)

Then, of course, there’s always the fact that Catholics can’t give you a solid answer as to what composes the Magisterium, per se, and the Orthodox will begrudgingly admit that there can be a fine line between Holy Tradition and old papers written by holy men.

That’s kind of where I stand at the moment (in other words, a little confused). And that’s why I’ll have to address arguments about the nature of the church and apostolic succession in our next heartwarming episode of Tradition and Me.