I. Tradition: Catholic Commentary
Fr. John A. Hardon, S. J.
Tradition first means all of divine revelation, from the dawn of human history to the end of the apostolic age, as passed on from one generation of believers to the next, and as preserved under divine guidance by the Church established by Christ. Sacred Tradition more technically also means, within this transmitted revelation, that part of God’s revealed word which is not contained in Sacred Scripture. (Pocket Catholic Dictionary, New York: Doubleday Image, 1980, 437)
Catholicism believes that the whole content of God’s revealed word is not limited to the biblical page. But it also sees that the Bible and tradition are intimately related, in fact are interdependent . . . The two may not be separated . . . Moreover, both have been left with the Church and in the Church as a `sacred deposit,’ which may not be profaned either by adulteration or competition with mere human wisdom. (The Catholic Catechism, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 47-48)
James Cardinal Gibbons
The Church is the divinely appointed Custodian and Interpreter of the Bible . . . God never intended the Bible to be the Christian’s rule of faith, independently of the living authority of the Church. (The Faith of Our Fathers, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, revised edition, 1917, 63)
Because they are inspired by the Holy Ghost, the Scriptures, and especially the New Testament, are always for the Catholic too, the classical source of Christianity. They present, so to speak, the conscious mind of the Church. But the Catholic is convinced that the Church has also what might be called a subconscious mind. It consists of those remembrances, ordinances and traditions of primitive Christianity received directly from Christ but handed on only orally by the Apostles, which were not expressly formulated in Holy Scripture, although in the strictest sense they embody a primitive Christian deposit of faith. This extra-Biblical stream of tradition must have existed from the beginning, since the first disciples, like their Divine Master, at first spread the Good News only orally, and it was by oral teaching alone that they aroused the faith of the first Christian communities. (The Roots of the Reformation, translated by Cecily Hastings, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1951 [portion of One and Holy, 1948], 57-58)
Christian tradition, unlike all others, is a living and perpetual revolution . . . The presence of a strong element of human conservatism in the Church should not obscure the fact that the Christian tradition, supernatural in its source, is something absolutely opposed to human traditionalism.
For the living tradition of Catholicism is like the breath of a physical body. It renews life by repelling stagnation. It is a constant, quiet, peaceful revolution against death . . .
To those who have no personal experience of this thing, but who see only the outer crust of dead, human conservatism that tends to form around the Church the way barnacles gather on the hull of a ship, all this talk of revolution sounds foolish . . .
The notion of dogma terrifies men who do not understand the Church. They cannot conceive that a religious doctrine may receive a clear and definite and authoritative statement without at once becoming static and rigid and inert and losing all its vitality. And in their frantic anxiety to escape from any such conception they take refuge in a system of beliefs that is vague and fluid, a system in which truths pass like mists and waver and vary like shadows. They make their own personal selection of ghosts, in this pale, indefinite twilight of the mind, and take care never to bring them out into the full brightness of the sun for fear of a full view of their unsubstantiality. (Seeds of Contemplation, New York: Dell, 1949, 77-78, 80-81)
II. Defenses of Tradition / Critiques of Sola Scriptura
John Michael Talbot
I cannot return to my former strict fundamentalist thinking. This thinking placed absolute authority in the Bible, totally writing off tradition as “perversion of the Word” . . . The oral and written traditions of the early church produced the written Word; therefore, the written Word can only be properly interpreted by going back to examine the witness of the early Church fathers in order to establish what those traditions were . . . Consequently, a Catholic too has a zeal for the Word. But that Word is not limited to a black-and-white page that never grows or breathes. That Word is a living Word . . . That Word is a living Jesus! Nor is it solely interpreted by private individuals who set up their own separate churches, but rather by an authority traceable to Jesus and the apostles in Scripture and tradition through apostolic succession. (Changes: A Spiritual Journal, New York: Crossroad, 1984, 94-95)
James Cardinal Gibbons
“When our Redeemer . . . established His Church, did He intend that His Gospel should be disseminated by the circulation of the Bible, or by the living voice of His disciples? . . . I answer most emphatically that it was by preaching alone that He intended to convert the nations . . . No nation has ever yet been converted by the agency of Bible Associations.
Jesus Himself never wrote a line of Scripture . . . When He sends them on their Apostolic errand, He says: . . . “Preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). . . The Apostles are never reported to have circulated a single volume of the Holy Scripture . . .
Thus we see that in . . . the New Dispensation the people were to be guided by a living authority, and not by their private interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, until the religious revolution of the 16th century, it was a thing unheard of . . . that people should be governed by the dead letter of the law either in civil or ecclesiastical affairs . . . The Word of God, as well as the civil law, must have an interpreter, by whose decision we are obliged to abide . . .
It is clear that the Scriptures could not at any period have been accessible to everyone. They could not have been accessible to the primitive Christians, because they were not all written for a long time after the establishment of Christianity . . . And what would have become of them if the Bible alone had been their guide?
The art of printing was not invented till the 15th century (1440). How utterly impossible it was to supply everyone with a copy of the Scriptures from the 4th to the 15th century! . . .
But even if the Bible were at all times accessible to everyone, how many millions exist . . . who are not accessible to the Bible because they are incapable of reading the Word of God! (The Faith of Our Fathers, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, revised edition, 1917, 65-70, 72)
If no Christian had ever put pen to paper, there would have still been a stream of oral tradition which would have reached right down to our own day . . . We do not pretend that there is . . . a whole deposit of tradition which has never yet seen the light of day. But we do contend that you cannot expect every single element of that tradition to appear in written form among the scarce literary relics that have come down to us from the first two centuries. A belief may happen to be old without happening to have been written down in the very earliest times, especially since we know that there was in the early church a disciplina arcani, a system by which Sacramental doctrine was expounded, not to all comers, but only to those who were actually under instruction . . .
There is a very long step between a pious belief which has carried weight with a few thousands of simple souls, and a belief which is sufficiently embedded in the structure of Christian tradition to be quoted, by a learned and responsible author, as an accepted fact. It does not appear earlier in literature? But consider what a proportion of earlier literature has perished. Oral tradition is untrustworthy? We think so, because we live in an age when everybody reads and derives his knowledge from reading; in more primitive circumstances memory is more tenacious. (The Belief of Catholics, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1927, 130-132)
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
An exegesis in which the Bible no longer lives and is understood within the living organism of the Church becomes archaeology . . . The last word about the Word of God as Word of God does not in this conception belong to the legitimate pastors, the Magisterium, but to the expert, the professor with his ever-provisional results always subject to revisions . . .
The science of the specialists has erected a fence around the garden of Scripture to which the nonexpert now no longer has entry . . . Every Catholic must have the courage to believe that his faith (in communion with that of the Church) surpasses every “new Magisterium” of the experts, of the intellectuals. It is a prejudice . . . if it is asserted that the text is understandable only if its origin and development are studied. (The Ratzinger Report, with Vittorio Messori, translated by Salvator Attanasio & Graham Harrison, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985, 75-76)
G. K. Chesterton
I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy . . .
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead . . . The two ideas of democracy and tradition . . . are the same idea. (Orthodoxy, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1959 [originally 1908], 47-48)
To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes . . . and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? . . .
Nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution . . . But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion . . . This principle applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as to institutions, to convention as well as to conviction. (The Thing, New York: Sheed & Ward, 1929, 29, 35-36)
What do [Protestants] think Catholics believe about Scripture? That it is second to the Church and that the Church teaches things quite independent of it. They think that we, like the Pharisees condemned by Jesus, confuse human tradition with divine revelation . . .
There are at least four things wrong with the “sola Scriptura” doctrine:
First, it separates Church and Scripture. They are not two rival horses in the authority race. Rather, they are one rider (the Church) on one horse (Scripture). The Church as writer, canonizer and interpreter of Scripture is not another source of revelation, but the . . . guardian and teacher of the one source, Scripture. We are not taught by a teacher without a book or by a book without a teacher . . .
Second, “sola Scriptura” is logically self-contradictory, for it says we should believe only Scripture, but Scripture itself never says this . . .
Third, “sola Scriptura” violates the principle of causality: that an effect cannot be greater than its cause. The Church (the Apostles) wrote Scripture, and the successors of the Apostles (the bishops of the Church) decided on the canon . . . If Scripture is infallible, then its cause, the Church, must also be infallible.
Fourth, there is the practical argument that private interpretation leads to denominationalism . . . But denominationalism is an intolerable scandal by scriptural standards – see John 17 and 1 Corinthians 1.
Fifth, “sola Scriptura” is unhistorical. Why? Because the first generation of Christians did not have the New Testament, only the Church to teach them . . .
The Catholic Church does not claim to be divinely inspired to add any new doctrines, only protected to preserve and interpret the old ones, “the deposit of faith.” It does not foster additions but guards against subtractions. All the doctrines of the Church derive from Scripture. In fact, Aquinas identifies sacred teaching with Scripture. (“Protestant, Catholic Views on the Bible,” National Catholic Register, 3 November 1991)
The New Testament . . . is by no means an exhaustive expression of . . . apostolic tradition . . . Oral tradition . . . is more comprehensive than the Bible, for it attests a mass of ritual and religious usage, of customs and rules, which is only slightly indicated in the Bible. (The Spirit of Catholicism, translated by Justin McCann, revised edition, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1954 [originally 1924], 155)
The Church in her magisterium is the first to recognise that she is subject to the Word of God . . .It is now absolutely clear, not only that Scripture is inspired, but that there is no other ecclesiastical document of which the same may be said, even a solemn definition of Pope or Council . . . The Bible alone can be said to have God for its author . . .
The very thing that Protestants affirm about the supreme authority, unique of its kind, of Scripture, is likewise affirmed by the Church of today, as always, without reserve and with unequalled precision. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A. V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, 161-162)
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
The Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism has ever felt it so . . . This is shown in the determination . . . of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone . . . Our popular religion scarcely recognizes the fact of the twelve long ages which lie between the Councils of Nicaea and Trent . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant. (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Notre Dame, Indiana: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1989 [originally 1845], 7-8)
J. Derek Holmes, in a book about Newman’s view of Scripture, summarizes this seminal thinker’s ideas:
In 1845 . . . Newman pointed out some other limitations of the Scriptures . . . The mere letter of the Bible could not contain the fulness of revelation; Scripture itself could not solve the questions of canonicity or inspiration; its style was indirect and its structure was unsystematic so that even definitions of the Church depended on obscure sentences . . . The inspiration of Scripture was as difficult to establish from the text of the Bible as the doctrine of apostolic succession . . .
The Bible did not contain a complete secular history, and there was no reason why it should contain a complete account of religious truth. It was unreasonable to demand an adequate scriptural foundation for Church doctrines, if the impression gained from the Bible was of writers who took solemn and sacred truths for granted and who did not give a complete or full treatment of the sense of revelation . . . Scripture did not interpret itself, often startling facts were narrated simply, needing the understanding of the Church, and even essential truths were not made clear . . .
Newman, it must be emphasized, held a “one-source theory” of revelation. He believed that the Church and Tradition taught the truth, while Scripture verified, vindicated or proved that teaching. The Bible and Tradition made up the joint rule of faith, antiquity strengthened the faint but real intimations of doctrine given in Scripture, the Bible was interpreted by Tradition which was verified by Scripture . . . The Bible was never intended to teach doctrine to the majority of Christians, but was written for those already instructed in doctrine . . .
It might be possible for an individual Christian to gain the whole truth from the Bible, but the chances were `very seriously against a given individual’ doing so in practice. (On the Inspiration of Scripture, with Robert Murray, Washington, D. C.: Corpus Books, 1967, 7-8, 10-11, 15-16)
Newman, bristling with insight, as always, gets right to the core of the issue in the following examples of his marvelous prose, with which we conclude this section:
That Scripture is the Rule of Faith is in fact an assumption so congenial to the state of mind and course of thought usual among Protestants, that it seems to them rather a truism than a truth. If they are in controversy with Catholics on any point of faith, they at once ask, ‘Where do you find it in Scripture?’ and if Catholics reply, as they must do, that it is not necessarily in Scripture in order to be true, nothing can persuade them that such an answer is not an evasion, and a triumph to themselves. Yet it is by no means self-evident that all religious truth is to be found in a number of works, however sacred, which were written at different times, and did not always form one book; and in fact it is a doctrine very hard to prove . . . It [is] . . . an assumption so deeply sunk into the popular mind, that it is a work of great difficulty to obtain from its maintainers an acknowledgment that it is an assumption. (Grammar of Assent, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1955 [originally 1870], 296)
It may be objected that there is no allusion to Catholic doctrines, even where one would think there must have been, had they been in the inspired writer’s mind . . . That is, the tone of the New Testament is unsacramental; and the impression it leaves on the mind is not that of a Priesthood and its attendant system. This may be objected, yet . . . when the sacred writers were aiming at one thing, they did not go out of their way ever so little to introduce another. The fashion of this day, indeed, is ever to speak about all religious things at once . . . and those who are imbued with the spirit which this implies, doubtless will find it difficult to understand how the sacred writers could help speaking of what was very near their subject, when it was not their subject. (Discussions and Arguments, London: 1872, 181)
Induction is the instrument of physics, and deduction only is the instrument of theology. There the simple question is, What is revealed? All doctrinal knowledge flows from one fountainhead . . . If we would solve new questions, it must be by consulting old answers. The notion of doctrinal knowledge absolutely novel, and of simple addition from without, is intolerable to Catholic ears . . . Revelation is all in all in doctrine; the Apostles its sole depository, the inferential method its sole instrument, and ecclesiastical authority its sole sanction . . .
“Avowals such as these fall strange upon the ear of men whose first principle is the search for truth, and whose starting points of search are things material and sensible. They scorn any process of inquiry not founded on experiment . . . Catholicism, forsooth, ‘confines the intellect,’ because it holds that God’s intellect is greater than theirs, and that what He has done, man cannot improve. And what in some sort justifies them to themselves in this extravagance is the circumstance that there is a religion close at their doors which, discarding so severe a tone, has actually adopted their own principle of inquiry. Protestantism treats Scripture just as they deal with nature; it takes the sacred text as a large collection of phenomena, from which, by an inductive process, each individual Christian may arrive at just those religious conclusions which approve themselves to his own judgment. It considers faith a mere modification of reason, . . . Sympathy, then, if no other reason, throws experimental philosophers into alliance with the enemies of Catholicism. (The Idea of a University, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1959 [originally 1852], 228-230)
It is not the necessary result of unity of profession, nor is it the fact, that the Church imposes dogmatic statements on the interior assent of those who cannot apprehend them. The difficulty is removed by the dogma of the Church’s infallibility, and of the consequent duty of `implicit faith’ in her word. The ‘One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church’ is an article of the Creed, and an article, which, inclusive of her infallibility, all men, high and low, can easily master and accept with a real and operative assent. It stands in the place of all abstruse propositions in a Catholic’s mind, for to believe in her word is virtually to believe in them all. Even what he cannot understand, at least he can believe to be true; and he believes it to be true because he believes in the Church . . .
It also stands to reason, that a doctrine, so deep and so various, as the revealed ‘depositum’ of faith, cannot be brought home to us and made our own all at once. No mind, however large, however penetrating, can directly and fully by one act understand any one truth, however simple . . .
In the act of believing it at all, we forthwith commit ourselves by anticipation to believe truths which at present we do not believe, because they have never come before us; we limit henceforth the range of our private judgment in prospect by the conditions, whatever they are, of that dogma . . .
He who believes in the ‘depositum’ of Revelation, believes in all the doctrines of the ‘depositum;’ . . . whether he knows little or much, he has the intention of believing all that there is to believe whenever and as soon as it is brought home to him, if he believes in Revelation at all. All that he knows now as revealed, and all that he shall know, and all that there is to know, he embraces it all in his intention by one act of faith; otherwise, it is but an accident that he believes this or that, not because it is a revelation . . .
And thus it is, that by believing the word of the Church implicitly, that is, by believing all that that word does or shall declare itself to contain, every Catholic, according to his intellectual capacity, supplements the shortcomings of his knowledge without blunting his real assent to what is elementary, and takes upon himself from the first the whole truth of revelation, progressing from one apprehension of it to another according to his opportunities of doing so. (Grammar of Assent, 129-131)
III. Perspicuity: Catholic Critiques
James Cardinal Gibbons
Is the Bible a book intelligible to all? Far from it; it is full of obscurities and difficulties not only for the illiterate, but even for the learned. St. Peter himself informs us . . . “that no prophecy of Scripture is made by private interpretation” (2 Pet 1:20) . . .
The Fathers of the Church, though many of them spent their whole lives in the study of the Scriptures, are unanimous in pronouncing the Bible a book full of knotty difficulties. And yet we find in our days pedants, with a mere smattering of Biblical knowledge, who see no obscurity at all in the Word of God, and who presume to expound it from Genesis to Revelation. (Gibbons, ibid., 70)
No book interprets itself . . . Nor can it be said that being a divinely inspired book, its prime Author, the Holy Ghost, will guide the reader to the right meaning. The Holy Ghost cannot guide readers to contradictory meanings, and we know that many passages of Scripture have been interpreted by various people in an absolutely contrary sense . . . Every work of literature has its literal and figurative passages, its allusions to conditions of its own time and place, and various other peculiarities which constitute its distinctive feature. Shakespeare and Dante have had hosts of interpreters, learned men, scholars of highest repute, yet reaching different and often contradictory conclusions. (Things Catholics are Asked About, New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1927, 119)
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman
The early Church always did consider Scripture to be . . . a book with very recondite meanings . . . as regards its entire teaching. They considered that it was full of mysteries. Therefore, saying that Scripture has deep meanings, is not an hypothesis invented to meet this particular difficulty, that the Church doctrines are not on its surface, but is an acknowledged principle of interpretation independent of it. (Discussions and Arguments, London: 1872, 194-195)
Surely then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation . . . The gift of inspiration requires as its complement the gift of infallibility. (In Holmes, ibid., Newman’s essay “On the Inspiration of Scripture,” , 111-112)
IV. The Canon of the Bible
A. Protestant Observations
1. The New Bible Dictionary
The epistolary material in the New Testament . . . possesses from the beginning a certain claim, if not to inspiration, at least to be an authoritative and adequate teaching on points of doctrine and conduct; yet it is clear that no letter is written for other than specific recipients in a specific historical situation . . .
The Pauline corpus . . . from the start would enjoy high status as a body of authoritative Christian literature . . . There is no corresponding evidence for any such corpora of non-Pauline writings at so early a date.
In no case does any writing explicitly or implicitly claim that it alone preserves tradition. There is no sense, at this stage, of a Canon of Scripture, a closed list to which addition may not be made. This would appear to be due to two factors: the existence of an oral tradition and the presence of apostles, apostolic disciples, and prophets, who were the foci and the interpreters of the dominical traditions . . .
As regards the Gospels, Clement (First Epistle, c. A.D. 90) quotes material akin to the Synoptics yet in a form not strictly identical with any particular Gospel; nor does he introduce the words with any formula of scriptural citation. John is unknown to him. Ignatius of Antioch (martyred c. A.D. 115) speaks frequently of `the gospel’: yet in all cases his words are patient of the interpretation that it is the message, not a document, of which he speaks . . . Whether John was known to him remains a matter of debate, in which the strongest case appears to be that it was not . . .
There is considerable and wide knowledge of the Pauline Corpus in the Apostolic Fathers . . . Yet, highly valued as his letters evidently were, there is little introduction of quotations as scriptural. . . .
Even where the gospel was highly prized (e.g. Ignatius or Papias), it is apparently in an oral rather than a written form. Barnabas is chiefly concerned to expound the Old Testament . . . Most of the Apostolic Fathers utilize what we anachronistically term ‘apocryphal’ or ‘extra-canonical’ material: it was evidently not so to them. We are still in a period when the New Testament writings are not clearly demarcated from other edifying material. . . .
It was towards the close of the 2nd century that awareness of the concept of a canon and scriptural status begins to reveal itself . . . The challenge of heretical teachers . . . was largely instrumental in stimulating this . . .
About this same time, Acts comes out of oblivion: previously it is scarcely known or quoted. . . Not all the books now included in the Canon are decided upon in any one church . . .
[By 200 there was] a wide-embracing concept of the Canon but also . . . marginal uncertainties, omissions, and the inclusion of writings later rejected as apocryphal . . .
Into the 3rd century . . . uncertainty remains in the case of Hebrews, some of the Catholic Epistles, and the Revelation of John. Uncanonical Gospels are cited, . . . and some works of the Apostolic Fathers such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd, and the First Epistle of Clement, are cited as canonical or scriptural. . .
The position in the Church in the 3rd century is well summarized by Eusebius . . . he places as ‘disputed, nevertheless known to most’ James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John . . .and the Revelation of John. . .
Hebrews . . . remained in dispute for several centuries . . . In the West doubts persisted from the earliest days . . . Jerome reported that in his day the opinion of Rome was still against authenticity . . .
For inclusion in this corpus there appear to have competed with all these such works as the Shepherd, Barnabas, the Didache, the Clementine ‘correspondence’, all of which seem to have been sporadically recognized and utilized as scriptural. . .
In the East the definitive point is the 39th Paschal Letter of Athanasius in A.D. 367. Here we find for the first time a New Testament of exact bounds as known to us. . . In the West the Canon was fixed by conciliar decision at Carthage in 397, when a like list to that of Athanasius was agreed upon.” (J. D. Douglas, editor, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962, 195-198)
2. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church
The Four Gospels and the 13 Epistles by St. Paul, had come to be accepted c.130 and were placed on the same footing with the Old Testament between 170 and 220. The other New Testament writings were received later. Doubts persisted, especially in the case of Hebrews, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John and Revelation . . .
The principle that only the Church has the right to declare a book canonical is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Churches, and the Church of England.” (F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, editors, Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2nd edition, 1983, 232)
Brooke Foss Westcott
It cannot be denied that the Canon was fixed gradually . . .As long as the traditional rule of Apostolic doctrine was generally held in the Church, there was no need to confirm it by the written Rule. The dogmatic and constant use of the New Testament was not made necessary by the terms of the controversy or the wants of the congregation . . . But in the course of time . . . heretics arose who claimed to be possessed of other traditionary rules . . . Dissensions arose within the Church itself, and the appeal to the written word of the Apostles became natural and decisive . . .
It will be impossible to close up every avenue of doubt, and the Canon, like all else that has a moral value, can be determined only with practical and not with demonstrative certainty.” (A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1980 [originally 6th edition, 1889], 4-6, 502)
G. C. Berkouwer
Men want to express explicitly that the church did not critically, by means of its own sifting and weighing, create its own canon, but that it was instead subjected to the canon in all its priority . . . There is an increasing awareness that no honor is being paid to the canon by neglecting its mode of coming into being . . . The description of the canon as a creation of the church is not in the least a uniquely Roman Catholic one . . .
The Roman Catholics emphatically reject the view that the church posits her own canon. They claim only that, when the canonical process has come to a close, the magisterial church provides certainty . . . Behind this we find the well-known distinction between the canonical essence of Holy Scripture (‘quoad se’), as it is grounded in divine inspiration, and the confirmation of these books as canonical by the church (‘quoad nos’) . . . The church can . . . only point to and name that canonical which is in itself already truly canonical. Yet, found amid the relativity of the varied historical considerations and judgments of the first few centuries, this authority is of great importance . . .
It is not possible to identify this canon of the apostolic ‘a priori’ with a list of the twenty-seven New Testament books . . . Nor does the Scripture itself testify to its boundaries. (Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1975, translated from Dutch edition of 1967 by Jack B. Rogers, 77-78, 84)
B. Catholic Observations
As the difficulty for Protestantism is obvious and fairly treated in the above Protestant sources, there is little need to cite Catholic opinion at length. Two quotations will suffice:
Scripture itself does not state what writings make Scripture . . . It was the Church which decided which were inspired writings, and formed them into the New Testament . . . It is all very well to say that Scripture is inspired, but we must also know what is and what is not Scripture. It was the Church that made this decision and thus made the Bible . . . The Church which made the Bible, likewise interprets the Bible. (Scott, ibid., 119-120)
J. Derek Holmes, on Cardinal Newman’s Views
Newman claimed that the objections brought against the Catholic system were paralleled by those which could be brought against the canon of Scripture . . . The canon of Scripture and Catholic doctrines rested on the same foundation, and those who disputed the latter should also question the former . . . Church doctrines might only be obscurely gathered from Scripture, but Scripture was only obscurely gathered from history. It was impossible to accept the canon of Scripture without the authority of the ancient Church; the Bible and the Catholic system went together and the denial of one would lead to the denial of the other. The internal evidence of Scripture was inadequate for, or even contrary to, the idea of inspiration. It was impossible to believe in the infallibility of the Bible without accepting the infallibility of the ancient Church which also taught other, Catholic, doctrines . . . Revelation was not plainly in Scripture alone, but in the exposition of the Church and explanations of the Fathers. (Holmes, ibid., 11-12)
(originally 9-14-92; from the 750-page first draft of my first book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism)