Reply to “CPA” on Catholic Apologists & the Biblical Canon

Reply to “CPA” on Catholic Apologists & the Biblical Canon May 16, 2017

The Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin, which displays the Book of Kells (Ireland: c. 800) every year. Photograph by Bro. Jeffrey Pioquinto, SJ (3-16-15) [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]


CPA’s words (he is a Lutheran professor of history) will be in green. Words of Catholics (and/or Catholic apologists – real or alleged) that CPA or I cite, will be in blue.

* * * * *

CPA has decided to highlight the alleged profound ignorance of “Internet Catholic apologists” concerning the matter of the Church and the canon of Scripture, by citing several reputed examples of same (I and others did press him to do this, so to that extent, it can be regarded as a “reply” to me). His latest paper is called Response to Critics of My Post Below [no longer online for the public].

CPA writes:

A number of commentators also feel I am slandering the Catholic church by responding to this attack as if it represented Catholic teaching. I think I made it clear that I was referring to popular, but widespread, Catholic apologetic arguments.

I agree that he is not doing the former, but I deny that the latter is true vis-a-vis actual “Catholic apologists” (as opposed to any Catholic Tom, Dick, or Harry who may “do apologetics” on some discussion board or blog somewhere).

If someone wants more examples of what I am talking about, read on. The following are some typical quotations all of which imply that there was such a fog of hundreds of books contending for scriptural authority up to the fourth century that Christians before then could not be sure that any book was Scripture:

Note well the extraordinary claims being made here. Assuming that we can take CPA’s language at face value and that he has some semblance of control over the relation of his written words to his thoughts and opinions, the following propositions flow indubitably from the above:

x) The citations he then proceeds to provide offer evidence of his previous assertions in his previous paper.

y) They are “typical” examples (somehow determined to be such in his “half-hour or so search” on the Internet), and thus his conclusions about them can be generalized to the larger category of “Catholic apologetics” (in this case, regarding the biblical canon).

A) Each one (“all of which”) is said to “imply” that there were “hundreds of books contending for scriptural authority.”

B) Based on A, each citation is said to “imply” that Christians before the 4th century “could not be sure that any book was Scripture.”

These are CPA’s claims (the last two henceforth referred to as propositions A and B, as I go through each citation). He thinks (again, if we can take his words at face value; literally) that Catholic apologists en masse believe that hundreds of books were contenders as biblical books up to 400 A.D. and that no one could be sure that any single book was Scripture till then. We will examine each citation he provides to see if indeed they provide any solid evidence for these contentions or not. If they don’t, his argument fails (even if a minority of them prove his point, his argument fails, since he claimed this for “all” of them, and as proof of a widespread lamentable tendency). I will show that he will get tripped up by his own words and the falsity of his argument and its false premises and non-factuality.

He provides seven citations, undocumented (apparently thinking that links technology suffices for his “documentation” — I say he is using this as an excuse to avoid having to type out or cut-and-paste the relevant documentary information; but that’s the least of his problems). I will provide the documentation, and examine the context in each case, and then decide whether each meets the criteria of A and B.

Example Number One comes from a Fr. Arnold Damen S.J. (1815-1890): his tract: THE CHURCH OR THE BIBLE: The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, reprinted for the Internet by Our Lady of the Rosary Library, in Prospect, Kentucky. I grant that a Jesuit priest writing such a tract can be regarded as an “apologist.”

Not only sixty-five years did Christ leave the Church He had established without a Bible, but over three hundred years. The Church of God was established and went on spreading itself over the whole globe without a Bible for more than three hundred years. In all that time the people did not know what constituted the Bible.

I wouldn’t argue in the manner that this priest does at all (it leaves much to be desired, in my humble opinion), but does his tract prove CPA’s contentions A and B? No. His language of “did not know” the Bible can easily be interpreted as the equivalent of “not having the certainty of knowing the entire canon of the Bible.” He’s talking about the canon, not inspiration of individual books.

In fact, in another example, his reasoning suggests that his “did not know” means (in context) “didn’t know the Bible that was actually there,” because he also makes this statement:

Not only for three hundred years was the world left without the Bible, but for one thousand four hundred years the Christian world was left without the Sacred Book. Before the art of printing was invented, Bibles were rare things; Bibles were costly things. Now, you must all be aware, if you have read history at all, that the art of printing was invented only a little more than four hundred years ago . . .

Some of his statements, however, arguably confirm CPA’s B; particularly the following:

All of these gospels were spread among the people, and the people did not know which of these were inspired and which were false and spurious. Even the learned themselves were disputing whether preference should be given to the Gospel of Simon or that of Matthew . . .

I still think he was talking in generalities. First of all, he is referring primarily to the masses (“the people”). He contrasts them with the “learned” — who were engaging disputes (thus itself proving that he thinks that they had a notion that some books could be identified as biblical and inspired, and others could not). It doesn’t necessarily follow that he thought that no one could be sure of any book. One might reasonably interpret his words in that way, but it is not absolutely proven, because he doesn’t give us enough information.

As for A, Fr. Damen mentions “many false gospels” and five by name. He refers to “Many spurious epistles,” not naming any individually. Can “many” (including five named heretical books) be construed as “hundreds”? Possibly (if not very plausibly), but again, we don’t have enough information. So I have to conclude that this source confirms neither A nor B, though it comes close to confirming B. Let’s see if CPA does even remotely as well with his other sources in his effort to prove his point.

Example Number Two [link now defunct] is the blog, which can be regarded as apologetic, at least in part. Whether the individuals who write for it can properly be classed as “apologists” I would have to study further (and I have already devoted far too much time to this project as it is). CPA cites the article, “The Sola Scriptura Error: The Carnival of the Reformation.”

The Catholic Church didn’t compile the Bible until almost 400 A.D. and until that point various churches (all Catholic) had various pieces of the Bible. How did these Christians function without the entirety of Scripture?

First of all, this is also clearly talking about canonization. It’s a fact that the canon was established (i.e., made a matter of indisputable dogma) in councils of 393 and 397, and later approved by popes. This is undeniable. It is also agreed by all Church historians that the first person who listed exactly the 27 NT books as we know them, was St. Athanasius in 367, in his Festal Epistle. why it is objectionable to point this out is beyond me.

Secondly, “had various pieces of the Bible” perhaps implies that they correctly knew that those books were biblical books, and inspired. The writer, Jay, asks:

How do you know the Bible is true? Without recognizing the authority of the Church, you can’t be sure. The answer I continually hear these days is that we have a fallible collection of infallible books. This is just silly. First, how do you know the individual books are infallible? Don’t give me a history lesson, I can find other books that would be rated infallible under that scheme. Don’t suggest the Apostles wrote it there are books by the Apostles that aren’t infallible as well as Biblical books by non-Apostles. Second, if your collection is infallible you must be suggesting that there could be other Divinely Inspired books available.

With his Lutheran sola Scriptura glasses on, CPA no doubt thinks this is a terrible denigration of the Bible. But it is not at all, because it is based on historical fact. One has to realize, too, that in the early Church many would have believed that inspired biblical books were self-attesting, just as they do today. Indeed, many books are. I can say that as a Catholic, and not contradict any teaching of my Church. But the problem was that people disagreed on particulars. Church Father x thinks biblical book a is not part of the Bible, and that unbiblical book b is. Church Father y believes exactly the opposite, etc. They both believed that you could determine whether a book was biblical or not by reading it (internal evidence). St. Augustine thought that the Deuterocanon was part of the Bible. St. Jerome did not. Etc., etc.

This is obviously a flawed epistemology, if it is based purely on private judgment, rather than binding Church authority, because it did not in fact lead to a total consensus. Only a Church proclamation could do that. So one can accept in principle that notion that a biblical book gives internal evidence of its inspired, revelational status, yet recognize that fallible human beings in fact; in history, came to different conclusions about different books. It is (this is a crucial distinction) this latter sense that Catholics usually are talking about in discussions of the canon. Technically speaking, it’s an epistemological and practical argument, as opposed to a theological or spiritual one. The former is not contradictory to the latter (where one could state that inspiration of certain books is internally apparent, etc.). It’s not an “either/or” scenario.

Granted, there was a large core consensus, as CPA noted. We know that, but being “85%” sure of the Bible does not solve the problem. A 15% uncertainty still leaves the door wide open for heresies and heretical books to be smuggled into the Church, failing an authoritative pronouncement on the canon.

That said, does this blog confirm CPA’s propositions A and B? No, not at all. Nothing is said about “hundreds” of competing books (the biggest claim is “other books”). So A is not bolstered. As for B, the writer doesn’t ever deny that no one could know any individual book is inspired. It can’t be stressed enough that discussions on canonicity and the entire canon are not discussions about individual inspiration.

The argument could have been better expressed. It’s not the way I would argue it. But that is the case with almost any argument (including CPA’s; I myself have found many big holes in it), and people are at different levels of ability. These are very complex topics, as many are in theology. In any event, this is no evidence to support CPA’s A and B.

Example Number Three is from Dwight Longenecker [later, Fr. Dwight Longenecker], who is indeed a published Catholic apologist, and active on the Internet (though not as much as many others), and a friend of mine (he helped promote my first book in England). His article, “‘What is Truth?’An Examination of Sola Scriptura,” was published in The Coming Home Journal. This is definitely mainstream Catholic Internet apologetics. But does it prove what CPA contends? Well, let’s see!

This, therefore, draws our attention to another deep problem with sola scriptura. Not only is the Bible itself impotent to prove its own inspiration or ensure its own interpretation, it could not specify exactly which of the hundreds of books were to be considered inspired Scripture.

The latter clause is a truism. The Bible does not provide a list of its own books. He does mention “hundreds of books,” so that is in favor of A. But it is obvious (self-evident) that the Bible can’t name its own books. “The Bible” is a human document, insofar as it was compiled. It’s a divine revelation in its writing but it didn’t drop down out of heaven with its canon and parameters already determined. Men did that.

The Bible is also not entirely self-interpreting. The easiest proof of that is to look at the history of Protestantism. At best, they can only say that sin and ignorance counts for the divergence of doctrine, but that (though it contains some truth and insight) is far too simplistic. I have challenged Protestants to tell me how many denominations would be necessary to cause them to question their first premises. 2 million? 2 billion? 2 trillion? At what point is the system in which such sectarianism occurs ever questioned? The high numbers are merely a reductio ad absurdum. As far as I am concerned, any number of churches or Christian sects beyond one is radically unbiblical and scandalous.

As for the claim of “hundreds” of competing books thought to be canonical by some, I don’t know if that’s true or not. It may be. Is this simply a claim made by Catholics? No. At least one Protestant article I found seems to agree: “Who Selected the Documents That Are Included in the Bible?” [2nd article down] The author, Dan Vander Lugt, has earned degrees from Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary. He wrote (emphasis added):

First-century Christians circulated documents — either written or approved by the apostles — which contained an authoritative explanation of the accounts concerning Jesus’ life and teaching. These documents often quoted from each other and presented the same gospel message from different perspectives and in different styles. Hundreds of other documents were written and circulated, but the church quickly rejected spurious documents and established the authority of those that were genuine.

Indeed, Protestant apologist Norman Geisler, in his book on the canon, From God to Us: How we Got Our Bible (co-author William E. Nix, Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), writes concerning the New Testament pseudepigrapha:

The exact number of these books is difficult to determine. By the ninth century, Photius listed some 280 of them. Since then more have been brought to light. (p. 114; emphasis added)

He proceeds to list by name no less than 43 of these (pp. 114-116): 21 Gospels, 8 variants of Acts, 4 epistles, 7 Apocalypses, and three additional works.

This being the case,CPA’s proposition A as some terrible deficiency (supposedly confined to Catholic apologists) is greatly brought into question. If in fact there were this many competing claimants, then why is it wrong for Catholics to simply point it out? It’s a matter of historical fact to be determined. The argument would, rather, seem to then become one of relative strength, and how much doubt there actually was. That is a much more complex discussion, and one (I suspect) best left to historians and other scholars.

But back to Fr. Dwight Longenecker: what about CPA’s proposition B: that Fr. Dwight is supposedly saying that no one could know that any book was inspired. This is contradicted in the following words (which presuppose that folks knew what Scripture was before it was finally canonized):

The Scriptures were written by the people of God, for the people of God. They were read by the people of God, used to teach the people of God, and used for the worship of the people of God. Maybe the best way to describe the Bible is to say that it is the story of the relationship between God and His people the Church both the Old Testament Church and the New Testament Church. The Bible was never just a list of things a theological textbook about God telling His people what they must believe. Neither was it merely a set of rules to be obeyed. Instead the Bible was first and foremost the story of Gods loving relationship with humanity.

Furthermore, the same people who wrote the Scriptures used the Scriptures, prayed the Scriptures and learned from the Scriptures chose which holy writings should be included as Scripture.

So far, then, we have one agreement with CPA’s claim and one possible agreement out of six instances, and even the former is of dubious significance, since I’ve produced two reputable Protestant apologists or scholars who agree that hundreds of other claimants as biblical books were floating around.

Example Number Four [link now defunct] is from a website called Defending the Faith, and is written by a Troy Martz (with whom I am unfamiliar).

Without an INFALLIBLE authority, we cannot even know what books are the Word of God and which are works of Satan!!! Here is the gist of the question: How do you know that the Gospel attributed to Matthew is true and the Gospel attributed to Thomas is false?”

I think this is excessive and overstated language. But without the rest of the statement, in context, a misleading impression is given, and the exact nature of the argument is not perceived. He continues:

And don’t tell me that it is because Scripture says it is inspired — so does the Book of Mormon and the Koran! That also rules out the “I believe/feel it is so it must be” argument based on feelings. Remember that Mohammad and Joseph Smith both thought that they were inspired by God. If you use this as the basis for your canon of Scripture, then you must include the Book of Mormon and the Koran to your Bible.

In other words, it is an argument about epistemology (precisely as I clarified above, with regard to these arguments when made by Catholics), not about inspiration or even canonicity per se. It’s a legitimate question of logical circularity and the impossibility of rationally proving something about a document based on its own claims alone, without independent confirmation.

I would argue that the Bible has offered confirmation of itself through fulfilled prophecy and so forth, but that would not determine every individual book as inspired (and much of it would have to do with Old Testament books, anyway). But a simple claim of inspiration is not proof, because that would apply to Mormons and Muslims also.

So the argument is that the Church gives a certainty (and its authority is established on other non-circular grounds also) that cannot be had through the Bible alone. One must distinguish between an individual believing a book to be inspired, and being certain that it is, by additional means (the Church). Much of this discussion turns on that distinction. But it is apparently lost on CPA, because he doesn’t show any awareness of it, and so assumes things about what these people wrote that do not necessarily follow. Nevertheless, I’ll give CPA this one as a “possibly” for proposition B. As the writer says nothing about completing books, let alone “hundreds,” he offers no proof for that claim.

Example Number Five [link now defunct] is from George Sim Johnston, a well-known Catholic writer, on

Who, then, decided that [the book of Philemon] was Scripture? The Catholic Church. And it took several centuries to do so.

This is self-evident, if it is discussing canonization, as it obviously is. It’s a good short article on the subject. Johnston writes:

It was not until the Council of Carthage (397) and a subsequent decree by Pope Innocent I that Christendom had a fixed New Testament canon.

That’s correct, as a matter of historical fact. As I noted, no one even listed the 27 NT books in one place till St. Athanasius had done so a mere 30 years earlier.

Prior to that date, scores of spurious gospels and “apostolic” writings were floating around the Mediterranean basin: the Gospel of Thomas, the “Shepherd” of Hermas, St. Paul’s Letter to the Laodiceans, and so forth.

“Scores” is not “hundreds,” so this offers no proof for A, once again. But since Photius thought there were 280, this is small change.

But, according to Protestants, the Catholic Church was corrupt and idolatrous by the fourth century and so had lost whatever authority it originally had. On what basis, then, do they accept the canon of the New Testament? Luther and Calvin were both fuzzy on the subject. Luther dropped seven books from the Old Testament, the so-called Apocrypha in the Protestant Bible; his pretext for doing so was that orthodox Jews had done it at the synod of Jamnia around 100 A. D.; but that synod was explicitly anti-Christian, and so its decisions about Scripture make an odd benchmark for Christians.

Indeed; these are excellent questions for Protestants. Johnston, like the others, is making an epistemological argument, having to do with the objective grounds for certainty, over against merely subjective grounds and individual feelings (which can easily be led astray, as we all well know):

Scripture, our Evangelical friends tell us, is the inerrant Word of God. Quite right, the Catholic replies; but how do you know this to be true? It’s not an easy question for Protestants, because, having jettisoned Tradition and the Church, they have no objective authority for the claims they make for Scripture. There is no list of canonical books anywhere in the Bible, nor does any book (with the exception of St. John’s Apocalypse) claim to be inspired. So, how does a “Bible Christian” know the Bible is the Word of God?

This gets to the heart of the Catholic objection to Protestant arguments on the canon. Maybe CPA and others will realize this in due course. Johnston says nothing about not knowing that “any” book is inspired, so is no evidence for that assertion (proposition B). So out of five examples, with two propositions examined for each, we have one instance of A and two possible instances of B. Even if we grant that those two constitute agreement, it is only a 30% ratio, whereas CPA claimed that all the sources agreed on both counts. Personally, I deny both “possible” cases and deny that the “hundreds” charge has any relevance, in light of Geisler and the other Protestant I cited.

Example Number Six [link now defunct] comes from Catholic Enquiry Centre, an outreach of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

The Catholic Church existed before any of the books of the New Testament were written. The Catholic Church is the mother of the New Testament. It was written in its entirety by Catholics. If she had not scrutinized carefully the writings of her children, rejecting some and approving others as worthy of inclusion in the canon of the New Testament, there would be no New Testament today. If she had not declared the books composing the New Testament to be the inspired word of God, we would not know it.

This is obviously again an epistemological argument: we “know” because the Church has made this a certain proposition in its particulars, whereas in the early centuries there was (too) much dispute and confusion (though there was also significant consensus). This piece is more an argument against sola Scriptura than about the canon. There are no particular statements relevant to either A or B, so no proof of those contentions is offered.

Example Number Seven [link now defunct] is from a web page called What Think You of Christ?: SOME THINGS CATHOLIC. I’ve never heard of it, either (but then, no doubt, I haven’t heard of lots of things).

By the year 390 A.D. many spiritual books were in circulation among the various local churches, so the Church convoked the Council of Hippo in 393 A.D. to determine which books were the inspired ones. After diligent study the council accepted some as inspired, rejected others, and finally issued an official list of books which today comprise the New Testament. This official list was later confirmed by the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D. This declaration of the Catholic Church is the sole authority for all Christians for their belief in the inspired character of the Bible.

“Many” books is not “hundreds” (if that question is even relevant anymore). Nor is it asserted that an individual could not know a book was inspired without the Church telling him so (thus, no proof for either A or B is present here). An authoritative pronouncement is a different thing from a subjective spiritual discernment. All these articles, as far as I can tell, are discussing the former, and not discussing the latter (except indirectly). Because this distinction is lost on CPA, he comes to wrong conclusions.

Thus, the grand total of seven examples with regard to CPA’s two claims are as follows:

Proposition A: one out of seven (Example Number Three), and it is highly questionable whether this is even objectionable at all.

Proposition B: two possibilities out of seven (Examples One and Four), with none offering positive, absolute proof.

Total: 3 out of 14 at best (1 out of 14 at worst), whereas CPA claimed that they all affirmed both things.

This is pathetic, and of course it means that he has not proven at all what he set out to prove. He keeps digging himself in deeper and deeper. Furthermore, let’s not forget that his original, even more extravagant claims (that Catholic apologists supposedly assert en masse that the Church “created” or “wrote” Scripture in the 4th century) have not been affirmed or proven in the least.

Thus, I conclude that CPA’s argument remains an abysmal failure on all counts. The only things he has gotten right on this are those things where we Catholics already agree with him; hence they constitute no argument against either Catholicism itself or its apologists: flawed though they may be (as we all are). At best, all he can say is that some arguments were guilty of imprecision of language and a certain sloppiness in dealing with complex historical facts. And even those factors are well in evidence in his own present arguments, I think.

I believe there are far more important matters that CPA can devote himself to (and that applies to me, too, come to think of it, but I can never resist a challenge: especially one dogmatically asserted).

"You are assuming bad motives on the Cardinals in sending the Dubia. That is not ..."

Pope Francis DID Answer the Dubia ..."
"He's not obliged to do anything, if that is his decision, and you have no ..."

Pope Francis DID Answer the Dubia ..."
"I think you are missing my point. I post a comment and you give me ..."

Pope Francis DID Answer the Dubia ..."
"I’d never heard of this woman before I read this article. It sounds like she ..."

Audrey Assad’s Deconversion Story: Objective Analysis

Browse Our Archives