Does Christianity Need the Bible?

Biblical Apologetics

Atheistic attacks on Christianity typically focus on philosophical issues concerning theism, or evidential attacks on the Bible. It occurred to me the other day that the latter plays upon a certain view of Christian theological methodology and ecclesiology that is flawed.

The issue, as I see it, is that these attacks are relying on an unspoken assumption that Christianity is relying on the Bible for its existence. This assumption is certainly fair, as it seems that many Christians think along the same lines. Even if Christians of this persuasion are not in the majority, it is without doubt that this is the case with popular Christian apologists. It is not much of an oversimplification to say that the two most popular approaches for defending the faith either begin by defending the Bible (Evidentialism), or conclude with its defense (Classical). The biblical text is then used to support Jesus’ claims / the gospel / the resurrection etc.

But what if the Bible could not be demonstrated to be trustworthy? I do not think that this is the case, but it is worth thinking about for at least these two reasons: (1) most skeptics think the Bible has not been defended sufficiently, and (2) even if it has been or can be, the case for Christianity will be even stronger if it can survive the failure of these biblical defenses.

Theological Responses

When a skeptic argues against the Bible it is not usually the book(s) that are being attacked per se. Rather it is the ideas communicated by the book(s). Skeptics do not, for example, typically attack the wisdom sayings in the book of Proverbs or the basic morality of Jesus’ sermons. And I don’t think many skeptics really are concerned over how many generations there are between Adam and Jesus, or how many angels were at his tomb. What skeptics want to call into question is Christianity itself. Since the Bible is assumed to be the foundation of Christianity, calling its historicity, manuscript transmission, scientific awareness, etc. into question is seen as tantamount to calling Christianity into question. Two popular responses have been made by modern Christians.

Defend Inerrancy

The first is to dig in and affirm the absolute inerrancy of the Bible and fight tooth and nail for every biblical affirmation no matter its nature (e.g., historical, scientific, moral), sometimes even down to use of correct grammar. This is necessarily joined by an equally fervent defense of a trustworthy manuscript tradition – for as all (except perhaps some confused folks in the KJV-Only crowd) acknowledge, inerrancy only applies to the original manuscripts (which we do not have). The copies of those inerrant original that we do have do not agree perfectly with each other, however. Thus, even inerrantists must concede the fact of transmission distortion. Their apologetic strategy, therefore, usually concerns limiting the significance of these distortions (e.g., that the quantitative and/or qualitative aspects of these distortions are inconsequential). This approach can be appreciated for its theological respect for, and upholding of, God’s word – but it also paints a large target on the Bible for skeptics fire upon.

Defend Infallibility

The second approach is to trade in the doctrine of inerrancy for its softer cousin, infallibility. Affirming the doctrine of infallibility only commits one to holding that the Bible is successful in communicating truth in matters of faith and practice, regardless of the accuracy of its delivery system (like an imperfect map that nonetheless will always get you where you need to go). Thus, textual errors are only considered significantly problematic if they touch on theology or morals. This approach has the benefit of making the target a lot smaller, but it suffers from its inability to provide an objective means of determining how the theology of the text can still be trusted when the text itself is at issue.

Problems with Theological Approaches

What both of the above approaches assume, however, is that Christianity suffers corresponding effects of biblical attacks. Thus, for the inerrantist if even one biblical statement can be decisively shown to be false, Christianity loses its foundation (I am not suggesting that no mediating positions are available, or that there is no way out for an inerrantist – indeed there is always the easy claim that the error was not in the originals. But this assumption seems to drive the apologetic effort at least at the front end). For the infallibilist the effects of error discovery are not nearly as dramatic, but (as stated above) the position suffers from its own questionable principles. If nothing else, it becomes a practical issue: in the real world the trustworthiness of Christianity and that of the Bible is often seen as equivalent by skeptics. Thus the infallibilist position will often come across as ad hoc.

The good news for the Christian apologist is that if Christianity is not coextensive with the Bible, then attacks on the one are not necessarily attacks on the other.

Christianity Without the Bible?

What if the text critics like Bart Ehrman, or Islamic / Mormon / Secular apologists were proven right in their claims that the Gospels were not written by the traditional authors, that many of the NT books are spurious, or that significant error is present in the Bible? What actual purchase would be lost by Christians? Given the above apologetic strategies and theological positions shared by most Christian apologists, one might well conclude that it would be “game over” for Christian believers.

I suggest that this is not the case. I will argue that even if we lost the Bible completely, Christianity would remain undefeated. That is a bold claim, but I think it can be demonstrated rather easily.

Basically the argument goes like this:

  1. Only if the Bible is necessary for Christianity would its defeat necessarily entail the defeat of Christianity.
  2. The Bible is not necessary for Christianity.
  3. Therefore the defeat of the Bible would not entail the defeat of Christianity.

The form is valid (per Modus Tollens), and the first premise is self-evident given the nature of the argument, so I need only support the second premise for the argument to be proven sound. There are facts both historical and speculative that show the second premise to be true.

“Those great and truly divine men, I mean the apostles of Christ . . .  published the knowledge of the kingdom of heaven throughout the whole world, paying little attention to the composition of written works. . . . Paul . . . committed to writing no more than the briefest epistles . . . of all the disciples of the Lord only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity.” – Eusebius

First, it is entirely possible that Christianity’s message could have been communicated verbally – and only verbally – forever. There is nothing inherently problematic with such a thing occurring. In fact a simple thought experiment will show that this is the case: suppose some atheistic world dictator succeeded in destroying every copy of the Bible in existence, and then somehow made it impossible to create additional texts of any kind. Would Christianity disappear from the earth? Would humans no longer have access to the saving gospel? Of course not. So, at least in theory, there is no problem with these two propositions being true at the same time: (1) Christianity exists, and (2) no Bible exists.

Second, the above theory has been shown to be true in reality. Receiving the gospel message is the requirement for becoming saved (1 Cor. 15:1-5), and this message was not initially communicated in written form (1 Cor. 15:1), yet those who heard it believed and became saved (becoming part of the Christian church – 1 Cor. 1:2). Thus, Christianity preceded the written message.

Third, it is an historical fact that Christianity preceded the writing of the NT. The earliest NT writings are typically considered to have been written in the mid-to-late 40’s (whether the first book is the Gospel of Matthew, the Book of James, or Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is debated). This means that even with a late date of Christ’s death / Pentecost (of A.D. 33), there is at LEAST a decade gap between the beginning of the Church and the VERY first NT writing. The point is even more strongly made when we consider that Paul’s writings (which are, at minimum, among the earliest NT writings) were letters addressed to already-existing churches. Add to this decade more time for delivery and distribution, and I think it is easy to see that the Church had to go for quite some time with no (NT) Scriptures of its own.

“Divine Providence can preserve from destruction whatever it chooses; . . . . we may, in the same manner, infer that there is no need of the scriptures, that every thing should be trusted to Divine Providence, and nothing committed to writing, because God can preserve religion safe without the scriptures.”  - William Whitaker

Fourth, Christians existed and continue to exist without possessing the NT. Even when the NT started to be written, its contents were not in the possession of the average believer. Besides the above mentioned delivery and distribution time lags, people simply did not have easy access to copies. Further, the NT was written in a time when most of the population was illiterate. Finally, it would be another 1,500 years or so before the invention of the printing press made Bible’s widely accessible even to literate people. (Thus, this is not just an Ancient, Medieval, or Reformation age issue). Even in our own time, people from many parts of the world become Christians when the Bible is forbidden or inaccessible in their own language. This certainly represents a hindrance to Christianity, but it is hardly destructive.

So even if the skeptic were successful in showing the Bible to be untrustworthy, he has not really gained much ground – at least if he is using that untrustworthiness as an attack on Christianity itself. For even if we give up the entire Bible, Christianity remains.

The “Zero Facts” Approach

The Christian apologist Gary Habermas has an interesting method that he uses when defending the historicity of Christ’s resurrection – he calls it the “Minimal Facts Approach.” What Habermas does is agree to use only the most academically respected sources (both Christian and secular) in support of his contention that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In doing so, he avoids the Gospels, many of Paul’s letters, and several other NT books that do not enjoy nearly universal “authentic status” among professional historians. Using only the minimal facts that can be gleaned from whatever historical documents are left, Habermas proceeds to argue that the resurrection remains the best explanation of the data. It’s a great approach, and his protégé’, Michael Licona, has been very successful with his version of it as well.

As I considered the implications of the typical skeptical attacks on the NT, and the results they hoped to achieve, I wondered whether I needed to keep ANYTHING from the NT in order to defend Christianity. If it is the case that, logically, the Bible is not necessary for Christianity, then I wondered what could been done apologetically with the Bible entirely absent. If we took the minimal facts approach to what is certainly an absurd extreme – without reliance on anything in the Bible (“Zero Facts” approach?), what would we have left over from Christianity?

As it turns out, pretty much everything.

Ecclesiological Apologetics

The arguments for the reliability of the Bible include an impressive array of evidence that, by a rather shockingly large margin, prove the Bible to be the most trustworthy of all ancient writings. Part of that evidence has been said to be the fact that even if we had no ancient manuscripts from which to derive our current Bible translations, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT just by reading the Church Fathers (e.g., McDowell, Geisler, Rhodes, et al.), but this has been disproven as an apologetic urban legend. It is possible that the Gospel of John could be reconstructed in this manner, but otherwise it seems that much of the verbatim NT would be lost if we had only the early Church Fathers to go on.

Regardless, it is not simply the case that the early Church Fathers quoted a bunch of Scripture – they quoted it while discussing theology. Theology they already knew. They discussed this theology while writing letters back and forth between churches. Churches that already existed. And they were able to quote Christian Scriptures and discuss Christian theology in Christian churches because Christianity already existed.

But guess what did not exist back then? The New Testament!  (Well, sort of.)

I have written on the issue of NT canon formation elsewhere on this site, but in a nutshell: the actual collection of books that make up the NT were not even listed in their present form until the 4th Century, and even long after that several books remained in question. So, technically, what we call the NT is a collection that was not recognized as such for hundreds of years. But this is a minor issue considering the implications of all the above issues concerning availability and literacy rates. The significant point is that what kept the Church going during this time was its own teaching – teaching that can be found in a multitude of sources:

  • Rule of Faith (e.g., Rm. 1:3-4; 1 Co. 11:23-36, 15:3-5; 1 Pt. 3:18; 1 Jn. 4:2)
  • Catechetical Instructions (The Didache {1st Century})
  • Sermon Messages (1-2 Clement {A.D. 95-97})
  • Post-NT Epistles (Letters of Ignatius {A.D. 98-117})
  • Baptismal Confessions (The Old Roman Creed {2nd-3rd Century})
  • Bible Commentaries (Theophilus, Diatessaron {2nd-3rd Century})
  • Liturgical Actions and Language (Liturgy of St. James, St. Basil  {4th Century})
  • Ecumenical Councils, Canons, Creeds, & Definitions {By the 5th Century}

So . . .
Before the NT was canonized, Christianity already existed.
Before the NT was completed, Christianity already existed.
Before the NT was even begun, Christianity already existed.

Thus, most of the issues skeptics have with Christianity remain even if the Bible is taken out of the equation. At minimum it is clear that the message that brought people into Christianity was from the very beginning that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, that he died, was buried, and rose again ( a.k.a., the Gospel! See (Acts 2 and all Acts sermons cf. 1 Cor. 15).

This was the message the apostles died (often horribly) for. This was the message the early Church suffered persecution for. And it was this message, promoted by 12 simple men from the insignificant and faraway land of Israel, and believed by social outcasts who worshiped in catacombs, that two centuries later brought the greatest empire on earth to its knees.

The Miracle of Christianity

As Habermas and others have shown, even if skeptics were successful in calling most of the Bible into question, the historical facts surrounding the miracle of the resurrection would remain. But even if we gave in to the skeptics arguments concerning the resurrection, they would then have to deal with historical facts that would now be even more difficult to explain. The very existence and success of the Church given its initial conditions seems miraculous – especially if the resurrection did not occur!

Either this was miraculous or not. If so, then the point is granted; if not, then I ask, what greater miracle than to convert so many without miracles?” – Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas argues that God has indeed proven His word via miracles, and yet the existence of the Church itself is an even greater miracle:

“Without violence of arms, without promise of pleasures, and, most wonderful thing of all, in the midst of the violence of persecutors, a countless multitude, not only of the uneducated but of the wisest men, flocked to the Christian faith, wherein doctrines are preached that transcend all human understanding, pleasures of sense are restrained, and a contempt is taught of all worldly possessions. That mortal minds should assent to such teaching is the greatest of miracles.” (SCG 1.6)

Why should the existence of the Church be considered so miraculous? Are there not thousands of competing religions in existence that could claim the same thing? The reason for this is that it is how the Church came into being that must be explained. Anyone can make up some attractive lies and gain followers for gain. But the opposite is not the case. Lies for gain are one thing, lies for loss are quite another.

Perhaps the skeptic will argue that this is a case of begging the question – arguing in a circle that the Church proves the Church? Not at all. The argument is not that the Church says she is true, therefore she is true. Rather, it is the nature of the facts surrounding her birth – so unusual that they beg for a miraculous explanation. To quote Aquinas again:

“This so wonderful conversion of the world to the Christian faith is so certain a sign of past miracles, that they need no further reiteration, since they appear evidently in their effects. It would be more wonderful than all other miracles, if without miraculous signs the world had been induced by simple and low-born men to believe truths so arduous, to do works so difficult, to hope for reward so high.” (SCG 1.6)


None of the above should be taken to suggest that we abandon defense of the Bible. This approach is not a reductionist attempt to shield the Bible from legitimate criticism. There is no need – for the evidential arguments for the reliability of the Bible are extremely strong (so much so that if they are thought to fail the Bible then, to be consistent, all of ancient history goes with it). If nothing else, it is difficult to imagine that God would bother inspiring hundreds of pages of communication only to have it lost before it could be disseminated!

Rather, what I am suggesting is that we apologists can benefit from a shift in our focus. Instead of moving from defending Realism (that truth and reality exist and are knowable), then Theism (that a personal, creator God exists), and then the Bible, perhaps it would be better to defend the movement that produced it. This approach opens the door to even more clear, available, and accepted evidences. If needed, it can also be used to neatly sidestep issues of biblical transmission, inspiration, inerrancy, or infallibility (these textual issues can be dealt with scientifically, philosophically, or theologically, instead of apologetically). Given this approach the skeptic’s target becomes both smaller and more difficult to hit – all without threat to Christianity’s teachings (which, after all, are the skeptic’s real prey).

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37 thoughts on “Does Christianity Need the Bible?

  1. Nice one, Doug. Yep, in my own personal explorations of alternatives to Evangelicalism a few years ago, one thing became crystal clear to me: Christianity, despite what I had previously believed, is not a “religion of the Book.” So, Christianity at its core is vastly different from Islam, for example, which most certainly is a religion of the Book, standing or falling with the truth of the Qur’an.

    Even in our own sacred writings, how many times do we see St Paul refer to the Church as Christ’s body? It happens over and over in his writings, and the great emphasis placed on the Church throughout the epistles is really dramatic, especially when contrasted with the de-emphasis (one could argue) of the importance of the apostles’ own writings themselves. You point out that numerous writings of the NT don’t indicate who their actual authors are. We get that info from the Church itself handing it down through the ages (e.g., that the first Gospel is attributable to St. Matthew). And even when a writing does self-declare its author (as Paul usually does), that’s no kind of proof of its having been written by the apostle Paul himself. What actually happened, historically, is that the Church handed down (“told us”) that St Paul actually was the author and those writings were truly attributable to him, etc, etc. So, the vehicle for transmission of truth here was the Church herself.

    But, this is all very easy for someone like me to say. I’m now a part of a Christian line that understands that the two most important and paramount sources of learning about God are Tradition and Scripture. Both are on a par with each other and both are, surprisingly to Evangelical ears, “sacred.” This sort of thinking though often takes a little adjustment for some Christians. To think that the Church and her Traditions could be as sacred and safeguarded throughout the years as the Holy Bible itself is a thought that often does require some reorganizing of the mind–like you say, requiring a shift in focus. But, the more one delves into Church history, the more crucially important the Church herself becomes. For the Catholic and Orthodox, those two sources of truth–Tradition and Scripture–become centrally important. But in a way, there’s a 3rd thing floating out there for whom those 2 great pillars exist. And that 3rd thing is the Church, the body of Christ. So the miracle of the Church is def an awesome apologetic. Of course, this apologetic tool has gotten dulled a bit through the Schism and Reformation. But, it’s still there to be seen for anyone who’s really looking for it.

    But the benefits of this shift in focus go far beyond the practical implications for Christian apologetics. I suggest that it causes an entire reorientation of one’s Christian self, leading to further benefits (e.g., liturgy, ancient prayers, the Church fathers, etc).

  2. In practice, perhaps I could say yes, but in theory it is better to say no. “Special Revelation” distinguishes what God has revealed to all people through creation (general revelation) from what He reveals in His direct communications – it says nothing of the manner of the communication. The fact that God did indeed inspire His special revelation to be written down in the Bible, then, is just what actually happened to His special revelation. But the two are not synonymous because even if it were granted that all special revelation is now in the Bible, that was not the case at first. At the very least it existed in the minds of the authors of the Bible before they wrote. Further, quite a bit of the Bible is recording what prophets or apostles said. So, in theory, God could have never allowed anything He ever communicated to be written down and simply continued to inspire only prophets or apostles verbally. So I think we would have to look at each use of the two terms before we knew if they could be interchanged.

  3. I would agree that substituting “special revelation” for Bible would be going too far. I certainly respect your opinion and arguments, but I will say I’m not sure I agree in total with them and find them difficult to reconcile with verses such as: “For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).

  4. Well written Doug, and very thought provoking subject. I posted this on G+ also. I must say that after I posted your query at Free Republic, I became embroiled in a battle of sorts with some over the very idea that anyone would even dare ask such a blasphemous question. I put myself in full defense of your thought, and maybe even went farther than you did in trying to push the envelope. I must admit that I got a taste of what it must have been like for a monk who questioned the Churches take on Scripture before the reformation ever started. As I said, I was soundly rebuked by some of my colleagues for even considering the idea that there would be no Bible. I did have a few that actually pondered the question with an honest and open mind. Which tells me that if you do write a book on this subject, get ready for the arrows which will be flaming.

    As I said before on G+, off the top of my head I am of the mindset that Christinaity does not need the Bible to survive, or thrive. Then last night as I reread your article, I was struck by a thought that gave me pause about the whole idea. Initially, I was of the same mind as Jeremiah Cowart above who stated that unlike Islam, Christianity is not a religion of a book, and thus it could survive without it. Also the example you used of the martyrs who refused to deny Christ even while being tortured. Their witness was so powerful that the very gaurds would at times become believers and then be tortured and killed along side their captors. Death for a cause is a powerful tool. It has brought down rulers all over the world, and yet the Christian martyrs did not give their lives so that the government of an empire would change, they gave their lives because they feared losing salvation if they denied Christ. They chose eternity with the true King, over dying in a fight to change the ruling King of a country. Unlike other religions, Christiants understand that eternal salvation through resurrection awaits all believers, and it is this sacrifice that becomes such a powerful testimony to unbelievers.

    Another consideration is that while all the letters which would encompass the canon were written in the 1st century, the vast majority of Christians would never read nor hear them read. Mainly because 85% of the Roman Empire was made up of uneducated slaves, and Christianity was mostly a religion of the slaves. So Christianity spread on the strength of personal testimony by lifestyle, and martydom. Even after Constantine made Christianity legal, the vast majority could still not read. It was incumbant upon preachers to share with the masses what they knew, and even most of them were illiterate. So Christianity made its greatest advancement at a time when there was no bible.

    Now, as I said at the begining, while was rereading the article and contemplating the world without the Bible, one thing jumped out at me, the Reformation. It needed the Bible to happen. Without the Bible, there would have been no need for the reformation. After all, what inherency would need to be corrected? There never would have been a reason for the Eastern Church to send a delegation to Ferrara for a Council with the Western Church over their doctrinal differences in 1439. This Council was not so important as to what came out of it, because every agreement was evenyuially discarded, but for another reason. That reason would be the members of the Eastern delegation that stayed in Italy. What follows are some excerpts from chapter 5 five of a thesis I wrote called, “How the Renaissance Led to the Reformation”. This was a chapter I wrote on “Literature”. To make my point, I thought it best to just post some excerpts of what I already wrote about the moment I am bringing up.

    “Some of the more then 700 men in the eastern delegation to the council stayed in the west. Georgios Gemistos better known as Plethon (1355-1450) was among the delegates who remained in the West giving lectures on Plato and other Greek philosophers. Led by Plethon’s lectures on Plato, the politically powerful banker Cosimo de’ Medici was moved to fund the Platonic Academy in Florence. Wealthy men, like Medici, would supply the funds needed to find and collect the antiquities desired by the men of the Renaissance Age. In 1490, Cosimo de’ Medici’s grandson, the great merchant Lorenzo de’ Medici, would almost go bankrupt by lavishly supporting the scholars and artists of the Renaissance period.

    In Italy, this revival in the study of the Greek classics was aided by the influx of Greek manuscripts brought by those fleeing the Muslims. After Constantinople fell in 1453, many Greek scholars brought along valuable Greek manuscripts so the invading Turkish Muslims could not destroyed them. The Italians were not driven by a desire to understand the original text of the New Testament, but by a passion to become acquainted with Homer, Plato and other classic Greek authors. This resulted in a literary awakening that eventually spread from Italy beyond the Alps.

    North of the Alps the attention was chiefly centred on examining the Old and New Testaments. Greek and Hebrew was studied, not with the purpose of ministering to a cult of antiquity, but to more perfectly reach the fountains of the Christian system. Thus, humanism entered into the service of religious progress. Being less brilliant and elegant, the German scholars produced no poets or artists of the first rank. Instead, such authors as Reuchlin and Erasmus were more serious in their purpose and more exact in the writings they contributed to the Reformation.

    This awakening of interest in classical learning coincided with the invention of the printing press in 1450 which was probably the most important agent in the history of intellectual culture since the invention of the alphabet. With the development of vernacular languages, and the weakening influence of the Catholic Church, the Renaissance writers and scholars received new avenues for expressing their views. In the period between 1450 and 1500, more than 6000 separate works were printed, with some of the most celebrated of these works still in existence to this day. In Italy, or the south, they were printing such works as the newly revived Greek and Roman classics, and the scientific works of various Renaissance scholars. As the Italians were printing chiefly secular works, in the north they were printing religious books such as Bibles, Psalters, and critical theological works. Access to these writings gave the northern Renaissance man freedom from dependence on the clergy. Just as the Bereans compared what Paul was preaching to what the scriptures said, Act_17:11 “Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so”, they to started examining the Scriptures. Along with God’s word they also read differing commentaries that were espoused, giving them a sense of freedom from the need of the clergy. This literature awakening helped lay the foundation for the constructive work of the Protestant Reformation.”

    As you can see, without the Bible, there very well may have been no reformation. If no reformation, then no persecution, and if no persecution, no America as we know it. History would be turned upon it’s very axis of reason. I always looked at the reformation as a second fullness of times that was needed to get God’s message distributed to the world. Each time it came about through sacrifice and persecution. For those who believe in dispensationalism, there will be a third fulness of times. A time of persecution for those who fail to be caught up in the rapture before the tribulation. Three times makes for perfection, does it not. How could all this happen without the Bible to be the catalyst?

    So while I do agree that the Bible is not needed to make the Church grow, it is needed to make the church complete, and it was needed for history to put us where we are today so that the end times could be in place for Christs return.

  5. Thanks for going for it on G+ haha. One thing though – I was not suggesting anything about the current need for the Bible. This was an apologetic argument for the claims of Christianity whether or not the Bible as a book could be proved trustworthy. thanks for being a thinking believer!

  6. Good article.I enjoyed it. But how might you answer the possible objection that, though in theory (and at at least at one time) no Bible may have been *necessary*, yet almost everything that you (and most Christians) know concerning Jesus actually comes from the reading of the Bible? For instance, in the examples above, you quote scripture – but what if that were not reliable?

  7. …that last line should probably read, “but what if the Bible did not exist?” It seems that one could not say that, “Well, oral tradition would carry the message” without it somehow begging the question (because, of course, it would *have to* but that can’t be proven).

    It seems that one might reply that we would have the writings of the early church fathers… but then it would seem that we would be right back to some sort of quasi-bible (a bible for all practical purposes) – relying on text as opposed to oral traditions.

    Not trying to be difficult – just trying to work through some possible objections in my head.

  8. Russ,

    We could know virtually everything from the other historical sources I cited – the Church Fathers. Tradition spread orally and graphically at the same time. The fact that the Christian story was not actually limited to oral traditions or non-inspired writings does not threaten the hypothesis that it could have been. Thus, a non-reliable Bible today would only mean that these other sources would have to be brought into play.

    It would not be question-begging to suggest that oral tradition would/could have carried the message because that is exactly what happened in history. It was eventually bolstered by the inspired scriptures, but as I said in the article, the Church existed well before the New testament did.

    Finally, I was not pitting oral against written tradition, so a “quasi-Bible” culled from the Church Fathers would not be an issue. But even a reconstructed Bible would not be necessary – for even if we could not tell which texts from the Church fathers were Bible quotes, all the material would still be there.

  9. “We could know virtually everything from the other historical sources I cited – the Church Fathers. ”


    “Thus, a non-reliable Bible today would only mean that these other sources would have to be brought into play.”

    - Right. But doesn’t this just prove the point that one would now be relying on written texts, as opposed to oral traditions that that could be currently accessed?

    “It would not be question-begging to suggest that oral tradition would/could have carried the message because that is exactly what happened in history.”

    -Agreed (almost). But certainly it would be a stretch to say that because oral testimony of Christianity was the case for the first few hundred years, that it would be able to carry it for the past one thousand and six hundred years. That grand leap is what seems like it could be question begging – not because it was the case for a short time -but that it would/could *always* be the case… and that is what just cannot be proven.

    Lastly, it seems that the point remains that there *must* be something (like a Bible) that the oral traditions should be held to. After all, the Orthodox Christians, the Gnostics, and all in-between would have there oral traditions. Which would be authoritative? Of course, one may then try to tackle that by arguing whose material is earlier, and the only way to objectively make that case would be the dating of written texts – whose is earlier… Even the oral traditions that make a strong early case for Christianity (like Paul’s “hymns” in Corinthians and other places) are only known because of the written (and discovered) text.

    I’m thankful for this post, as I have been wondering this issue as of late.

    Strictly and technically speaking, I agree with your argument – The Bible is not necessary (in the philosophical use of the word) for Christianity to exist (or be True), but I suppose my ‘snag’ is that the ability to *know* anything about the truthfulness of Jesus and/or His teaching seems as if it would become very fuzzy (to say the least) if there were no written record that was shown to be a reliable record of His life.
    This seems to be what the skeptic might attack voraciously – Granted, the Bible is not *necessary*, but how does the modern Christian have any reliable information (worth banking their eternity on) concerning this Jesus character? A story someone’s grandmother’s grandmother told them? It might be that the skeptic goes with this practical approach… in turn it would seem the Christian would be forced to go back to the reliability of solely the texts, whether they be church fathers or all in-between. Again, strictly speaking, I CONCEDE your original argument. But just as Ayer conceded the “logical problem of evil” to Plantinga, they still fight for the “evidential” problem… (not exactly the same, but similar in that, though the argument is conceded, there still might remain the looming problem of actual *knowing* for the modern Christian – and back to the problem).

  10. Russ,

    I think I see your overriding concern here, but this is not just a logically-possible argument I am making. Perhaps the difficulty is that I am making two claims here: (1) it IS the case that Christianity could survive a non-reliable Bible (because we DO have other traditions, esp. the Church Fathers), and (2) it is POSSIBLE that Christianity could survive a non-reliable Bible because it could survive having no writings at all. The first is an empirically verifiable claim based on facts, the second is more theoretical – but is also based on facts (i.e., that it did in fact do so for many years).

    You seem to agree with me on both but are concerned about what might have happened if (2) was the case as well. Here, I think, the historical venerability could be found in the same way it was with the Gnostics (your example, in fact!). The Gnostics made the the same claims as the Church in its infancy and in fact used WRITTEN sources to bolster them. What won the day was not manuscript evidence but the testimony of the Church. How did the Church avoid begging the question as to who was the true Church? History. The Church could point to an unbroken line of Bishops who all taught the true Christian doctrine. The Gnostics could not. (see HERE).

    The actual difficulty of tracking competing theologies within the Church is a different issue entirely. It’s not just about age – falsehoods rose within the Church as early as Galatia! At that point the Church’s authority was paramount (as it was in Acts 15). By the time the Church had significant enough splits to have to deal with competing theologies, Christian orthodoxy had already been established. Perhaps, in God’s providence, if God used oral tradition only for 2,000 years these splits would not have been allowed to occur. And of course, having a written source did not fix these splits either – so this is not just a problem for the issue at hand – it’s a problem for the whole Church. :)

  11. Great dialogue.

    Maybe you could make a few more tweaks to it (especially since you’ve had someone try and badger you with a few two-cent objections) and go knocking on Ehrman’s door to give it a go….

  12. Doug,

    Though this argument is basically over (as in I agree, and concede, the technical and philosophic aspect of the argument) I was wondering what your perspective might be on this R.C. Priest, with what I assume to be enough credentials to speak on the R.C’s interpretation of the Apostolic doctrines (as in pointing back to the real teaching of the Fathers)

    — (In May 2006 Manning was the recipient of the Papal award Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice from Pope Benedict XVI, given to “individuals whose contributions rise to a level that deserves recognition by the Universal Church.”) —-

    This is absolutely no way a slam or intent to malign those in the R.C. Church – but to try and follow the flow of the this conversation.

    From your perspective, how does this [his} statement fit into the issue of “knowing” and proper Authority?

  13. Russ,
    As a Catholic I thought I’d jump in here. What Fr. Manning is saying here is not the way I think he would explain things in writing. The nature of a live interview is that you move on quickly and Fr. Manning is clearly a good interview subject. He doesn’t get bogged down in esoteric details that the audience would only yawn at and that Larry King wouldn’t let him fully explain.

    It is important to remember this was not a Catechetical classroom, a theology lecture or even an apologetics discussion. It was a popular TV interview. Yes, there was an element of catechesis and apology to the interview but it was still live, popular newstainment television.

    That said, if one understand the Catholic teaching in this area it seems pretty clear that if Fr. Mannin were given the opportunity to fully explain in a catechetical or apologetic what he said on in this clip he would be right in line with the main thought of Catholic belief and well within the bounds of what is dogmatically defined.

    The straight teaching can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church Here particularly paragraphs 846-849 and also in the Vatican II document Lumin Gentium (light of the people) Lumen Gentium paragraph 16 in section II. Please be aware these are not apologetic materials so they are relying on a presumption that the reader has some familiarity with certain catholic concepts a couple of which I will try to address. I’m just saying, if you insist on interpreting what is written in a Catholic context through with a very solidly protestant definition and understanding of key words you may reach erroneous conclusions about what is really meant by what is said.

    I’ll state the Catholic teaching on this first and then explain and elaborate.

    1) The only way that anyone can be saved (go to heaven) is by the merits of Jesus Christ and his sacrifice at Calvary. Without the merits of Jesus Christ it is absolutely impossible for anyone to get to heaven. No work or effort by man is sufficient to earn him eternal reward.

    2) The Church is the body of Christ on earth God’s grace and the merits of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice flow out from Christs body, the Church. Outside of the Church there is no salvation.

    3) “The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.”

    4) Faith in God and in Jesus Christ and the Church (the body of christ on earth) Fully participating in the sacramental life of the Catholic Church is the ‘ordinary’ means of salvation – meaning the only way that Jesus Christ gave knowledge of to the Apostles and that they have handed down through the Church.

    5) If anyone knows or strongly suspects that a) God Exists, b) Jesus is Savior, c) the Catholic Church is the Church Jesus founded and refuses to a) pray and believe and have faith, b) seek to know Jesus and be baptized c) Participate in the sacramental life of the Church. AND they persist in this until the moment of death then they will be damned. Period. End of story.

    6) “Through no fault of their own” is the key turning point. If “through no fault of their own” a person has not had the opportunity to know God, Christ or Church to be true AND given what knowledge they do have they SINCERELY seek God, AND moved by GRACE “try in their Actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too MAY achieve eternal salvation. CCC 846 & Lumen Gentium 16

    Now some explanation. I’ve hinted in how I’ve presented this at they key points of explanation. The first two are culpability and invincible ignorance. These are fundamental concepts of Catholic theology that are reflected in what is stated above. If someone is blameless for not knowing about God, or about some aspect of theology or the Church (or blameless for having a false understanding) then they are invincibly ignorant. They don’t know AND they are blameless for not knowing. What exactly the precise conditions for establishing that a particular person is invincibly ignorant are left undefined – that is God’s judgment not man’s. BUT…. Just not knowing is not sufficient. If one has not bothered to seek, or has ignored opportunities etc. etc. that is not ‘blameless.’

    Culpability is similar in that regards one’s personal fault or degree of actual responsibility or blame but regarding sin as opposed to belief. This refers to the second set of criteria – living a holy life according to the dictates of ones conscience. This does not refer to EARNING ones way on ones own merits. It refers to with God’s grace trying all ones life to live according to one’s best understanding of what is right. What it does refer to is one’s culpability -blameful guilt – for committing serious (mortal) sin. I’ll pass on explaining mortal sin vs. venial. Calvin didn’t recognize the distinction, the Church does.

    There is some room within dogmatic definitions here for Catholics to take different stances on exactly what paragraph 16 of Lumen Gentium and Paragraph 846 of the CCC means precisely. I will not go into too much esoterics, but we are dealing primarily here with a brief statement from Lumen Gentium from Vatican II. The council was primarily pastoral and was not primarily doctrinal. The statement we are considering comes at the end of a long line of Catholic dogmatic statements particularly at Florence and Trent. The form of the statement is not dogmatic. Lumen Gentium does turn the flat statements of Trent and Florence inside out. So far there has been no Council since Vatican II and no sitting Pope has chosen to issue a formal Papal statement on how to interpret this, and there certainly hasn’t been an “Ex Cathedra” clarification. It is left to Catholics in good conscience to understand this and interpret as best they can. However, it is clear that this is not a free pass at all! Nor does it mean that a Muslim can “earn his way to heaven by the practices of Islam.”

    I’m going a bit beyond my competence in what follows in this paragraph and trying to articulate my own thoughts not those of any solid Catholic source. We have to remember sin S – I – N If someone is a)ignorant of Christ and his Church and b) is not culpable for serious sin because with the assistance of God’s grace they did their level best to live an upright life according to what they could understand and never knowingly and freely chose to do anything contrary what they knew to be right and never failed through their own free choice to do those things they knew to be good THEN not being culpable for any serious sin (because they had allowed God’s grace to work within them to live according to what they understood) we can expect that such people MAY go to heaven. Even the May is conditional. This is a door with no guarantee from the Church to be open. This is not a promise to non-Christians that if you just do a good job of living your particular faith (Islam, Buddhism, paganism, Hinduism, or Native American Spirituality) you have a very good chance at being saved.

    All of this is left up to God in his perfect judgement and infinite mercy. Some solid, good, Catholic theologians think God might be VERY merciful and the standards of “culpability” and “invincible ignorance” may be generous enough that a broad majority of ordinary folk may ultimately be saved. Other solid, good, Catholic theologians hold fast to “outside the Church there is no salvation” and that psycho-babble responsibility shirking isn’t going to fly with God and that the vast majority of people in the world have not really cared to seek God at all and have not allowed God’s grace to prevent them from committing mortal sins and that thus nearly everyone who is not a formal member of the Catholic Church and living the sacramental life of the Church is in grave danger of being damned including a healthy share of Catholic for whom they ardently pray a priest will be available for a final confession and last rites.

    The Church has however banned certain theologians (Hans Kung is the most notable) from teaching Catholic Theology specifically for teaching Universal Salvation. In the Catholic context that means teaching that everyone or practically everyone will be saved. What ever we don’t know about God’s mercy, we do know that hell will not be empty. At the same time, in the 1950s there was a schismatic sect lead by a certain Fr. Feeney, generally known as the Feeneyites. They were for a good number of years suppressed by the Church and Fr. Feeney was ex-communicated I think. However, they were reconciled eventually. They held to an extremely strict sotorology and held that absolutely no one who was not formally part of the Catholic Church could possibly be saved implying as a logical conclusion that every single person who was not a baptized Catholic as well as being in a state of grace, was damned. To be reconciled to the Church, as best as I can understand it is that they formally allowed that possibly by means of an Angel God might give some people the opportunity to be actually baptized and that this might happen invisibly so that there is no way we can tell for sure that someone was not actually baptized by an Angel. That was sufficient and remains sufficient to keep them in communion with the Catholic Church but it represents the extreme.

    One final note. Protestant are our separated brothers and sisters and by virtue of a trinitarian baptism are imperfectly part of Christ’s Church and thus are in a different category than non-Christians discussed above, although some of the same principles apply with different specifics.

  14. Russ,

    Besides making at least a dozen typos and not managing to properly close an italics tag my HTML Links don’t show up at all and I forgot to link to one article than addresses pretty much the same question.

    I tried to imbed these in the text above.
    Catechism of the Catholic Church Article 1, Part 9 – relevant paragraphs 846-848

    Catechism of the Catholic Church Article 2 Part 2 paragraph 1131 is relevant

    Lumen Gentium section 16 is relevant.

    Here is a decent discussion directly related to my summary:

  15. GNW_ Paul,

    I am familiar with your above mentioned assertions on the soteriological stances within the Roman Catholic Church. And I am very honored that you went to such great lengths in typing out your response as a semi-apologetic to Fr. Manning’s Larry King interview. Honestly, thanks for your effort on that. Of course, as a Protestant I have a different view with many of the above mentioned points, but you and I seem to realize that at present, it is acceptable to disagree for the sake of the broader discussion.

    However, I still believe that the *apologetic* point (question) still remains with which I ended my last comment. Perhaps Doug could speak to that. I hope that all involved have had a great Christmas, and I wish all involved a happy New Year.

  16. I don’t really know how it would fit. First, does his view actually express the RC Church’s dogma? This sounds like, at best, a very liberal interpretation. I think the RC position is that one “may” be saved, not that there should be any confidence that one “will” be saved (in the examples given). Second, the RC Church is only one possible reflection of how authority was meant to work – other traditions do not think so. My post was really meant to deal with the early centuries, and what one could know from those people – I am not sure how this relates.

  17. Doug, Thanks for letting me comment on this and accepting my lengthy and flawed comment.

    I would say that the video clip by itself is ambiguous. As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t assume that Fr. Manning meant exactly what it sounds like he said. He was speaking rather loosely and off the cuff. I think he got the heart of it correct – a muslim might be save – but leaves out a lot of conditions due to time constraints. There are several sloppy statements that if taken quite literally are just plain wrong. But I wouldn’t take those statements to accurately represent Fr. Manning without further investigation.

    Fr. Manning’s statement if taken at face value as representing his actual beliefe would be unorthodox. If he were to publish an article that promoted exactly what he said and emphasizing that “Muslim’s can be saved by practicing Islam,” or continued to speak forcefully that such was his understanding it is very likely that the Congregation for Doctrine would investigate the matter and begin a dialogue to straighten him out.

    However, It seems likely that Fr. Manning would clarify much along the lines of my previous comments tending toward the “liberal” position.

    The award in 2006 is irrelevant. It wasn’t any endorsement of his theology and was in recognition of his TV ministry and to take it as a personal endorsement of BXVI would be an error.

  18. Pingback: Is Christian Orthodoxy a Logical Deduction? « Doug Beaumont.Org

  19. Please forgive the late posting to such an interesting discussion.

    While I am a Protestant, even though I’m not exactly protesting anything, I do have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I even grew up going to a Roman Catholic School, attending Mass, and going to CCD. So please don’t take my comments as an attack personally upon you or your beliefs. Upon reading the numbered passages you cited I cannot reconcile those to the Scriptures in particular, and the Gospel message in general. I would point to Romans 1. It states that people are without excuse because God has shown it to them. “It” being the Truth. If a person were to sincerely seek God, as the common interpretation of CCC 847-848, stipulates, they would “find” the One True God. If “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all come to repentance and the knowledge of Jesus Christ,” then He would not, could not leave an honest seeker adrift.
    If a person of a different religion, never having received the fruits of the Gospel of Jesus, can be saved then there was no need for Jesus to die on the Cross.

    I apologize to Mr. Beaumont, as this posting is almost entirely off-topic.

  20. Matthew,

    I am hopeful that we are not all that far appart in our understanding. I certainly agree that Romans 1 and 2 is a great place to start.

    Starting with the Catechism you looked to 847-848, but did you look at 846?

    **** CCC 846********
    How are we to understand this affirmation, often repeated by the Church Fathers? Re-formulated positively, it means that all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body:

    Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and Baptism, and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through Baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it.
    So it is clear, the Church doesn’t disagree with you on this point. Salvation is through Jesus Christ alone. 847-848 must be understood as further explanation of 846 and they do no change that all salvation is through Christ alone. Rather, as 848 puts it “in ways known to himself God can lead those who, through no fault of their own, are ignorant of the Gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please Him.”

    You reference the very end of Rom 1:20 “So they are without excuse” and I agree, but it is also important to recognize why they are without excuse. The are without excuse because God is revealed to them through his creation and that truth is suppressed by their wickedness.

    *** ****Rom 1:18-21 ****
    For the wrath of God is revealed from the heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has ben clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse, for although they knew God they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened.”
    I think this is important because it demonstrates that even without the scriptures, the covenant, the testimony of the faithful, it is POSSIBLE that God can be known and honored through man’s reason and observation of nature.

    I think it is helpful to remember that Paul is talking not about individuals but about societies and also that Paul isn’t actually intending to answer the specific question we have at hand. Still, I think it is germain that Paul does make clear that nature does reveal God and that man through reason can come to worship God and have knowledge of natural law and that is the very reason that they can be found guilty.

    I think Rom 2-16 is pertinent as a whole, but Rom 2:14-16 is most directly related to our question. Especially the final half verse “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” We aren’t the Judge and we shouldn’t presume to be. God is the Judge.

    **** Rom 2:14-16****************
    When the Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

    So, to wrap it up, 1) The only reason “man” (outside of the Law of Israel and also the Christian Faith) can stand condemned is because “they” are guilty of not observing what “they” can know from nature about God. 2) Someone can come to know God and natural law without knowing “the Law” or “the Church” and 3) God will judge the secrets of all men – not us. Remember that Rom 2 begins with a very strong admonition to Christians not to “pass judgement” on others.

    So, at the very least, since we are NOT TO JUDGE and GOD will Judge and it is possible for some person or group to come to know something of God and His law from nature and reason, It is at least POSSIBLE that some may be saved without visible participation in the Faith of Jesus Christ “in ways known to himself God.”

    The alternative is to take away a Judgement that Paul specifically reserves for God alone and to deny that such people can really be guilty of sin, since it would mean denying there was any way at all possible that they could have know how to live so as to avoid sinning. Thus they would incur God’s Wrath without actually being culpable.

    The Church has never defined what that mechanism might be. Baptism of Desire is very commonly theorized and widely accepted. Another possibility is that an Angel might visit a righteous man before death and offer him the Gospel. We don’t know. I lean towards the thought that such situations are not overly abundant. Others tend to believe that very many may be saved. The Church teaches that a) there is hope for the salvation of every individual and b) every single person on earth is given enough grace to be saved if they avail themselves of it . (No one is condemned to hell from birth, everyone has a chance at salvation).

    If Doug Beaumont wants, we can certainly move this to another forum. The thread from “Called to Communion” I posted above might be appropriate. There are certainly Catholics there who can articulate these things more concisely and quickly than I manage and there are often other Protestants who are very good at challenging the Catholic position.

    Thanks for the interaction Matthew. Peace!


  21. Pingback: Does Christianity Need the Bible? « Ratio Christi- Apologetics At The Ohio State University

  22. Hi Doug,

    You wrote, “Part of that evidence has been said to be the fact that even if we had no ancient manuscripts from which to derive our current Bible translations, we could reconstruct all but 11 verses of the NT just by reading the Church Fathers (e.g., McDowell, Geisler, Rhodes, et al.), but this has been disproven as an apologetic urban legend.” You linked to my blog for evidence of this. My post is only partially correct, however. While it’s true that it’s false that we could not reconstruct all but eleven verses from the Ante-Nicene fathers alone, if we include the Post-Nicene fathers the claim is close to the truth. See


  23. Yes, it is interesting how little such an important argument even gets considered. I think that for those who take sola scriptura to mean “only source of truth” it just does not compute.

  24. Pingback: Is Christianity True Apart From The Bible? | Thomistic Bent

  25. Pingback: Preservation of Message « Matthew 10:16 – Shrewd Dove Apologetics

  26. Great article. It’s the first one I’ve found that’s actually stepped back and taken an honest look at the necessity of having the Bible instead of just instantly defending how “viable” the Bible is.
    Personally, if Obama went “Hitler” and took all the Bibles in America and burned them, I wouldn’t care. The Bible doesn’t ultimately define my faith, nor should it. I didn’t come to faith because of the Bible, and my choice whether or not to ultimately continue to remain in the faith won’t be because of the Bible but rather out of my own will.

  27. Right here is the perfect webpage for anyone who hopes to understand this topic.
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  28. Pingback: Thomistic Arguments for Christianity | Soul Device

  29. Pingback: Thomistic Arguments for Christianity | THINKAPOLOGETICS.COM

  30. Pingback: The Biblical Canon and Christian Tradition | Soul Device

  31. Pingback: Tiber Treading No More | Soul Device

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