Canon and authority–a common Catholic argument analyzed

Canon and authority–a common Catholic argument analyzed June 14, 2015


One of the strongest Catholic arguments against Protestantism is the challenge, “how do you explain the canon of the New Testament on sola scriptura principles?” At the same time, Catholics often throw away their advantage by silly overstatement. It is nonsense to say, for instance, that “there was no Bible for 300 years,” and it is not self-evident that the Church that canonized the Bible was simply identical to the contemporary “Roman Catholic Church,” or that accepting the canon automatically means accepting the Catholic understanding of church authority as a whole.

As in so many similar debates, I think that the correct position, and the early Church’s position (which is generally, broadly speaking, the same thing), transcends both Protestant and Catholic views, although the Catholic view, properly nuanced, is basically correct.

The legitimate Protestant criticisms of the way Catholics often present their case are:

1. Scripture is defined in formal rather than material terms–as a canon rather than as particular content. That’s how you get what sound to Protestant like crazy statements such as “there was no Bible until the fourth century.” This means “there was no fully defined, universally accepted, precise canon until the fourth century.” (I’d go further and say, “until the sixteenth,” if you really want to define it that precisely.) But to many Protestants it seems pretty silly to use the term “Bible” to mean “a fully defined, precise canon.” “The Bible” is a name for the material that the Church has recognized to be divinely inspired. Clearly such material existed long before the fourth century.

2. This brings us to the most common complaint, which is that Catholics confuse the recognition of Scripture with the creation of Scripture. The Church acknowledges that God has inspired certain books. The Church does not make them inspired, and thus to many Protestants it seems blasphemous to say such things as “the Church created Scripture.” The common Catholic usage here follows on the first point. If “Scripture” means “a list” rather than divinely inspired content, then it makes sense to say that the Church created the list. But again, to many Protestants that seems to miss the point pretty badly and focus on formalities rather than Spirit-inspired content.

3. And finally, there’s the question of what we mean by “the Church” when we speak of the Church determining the canon. That’s really the fundamental question between Catholics and Protestants, I think. And again, I think the answer is both/and rather than either/or. Protestants are right that the Church is the body of believers, not just the hierarchy. But many of them see no point in a hierarchy at all, and they are wrong. The Church, properly ordered, is led by bishops in apostolic succession in communion with the Bishop of Rome. And obviously the early Church, which discerned that certain books were inspired by God, was so ordered. However, Catholics spoil their excellent case when they insist on the hierarchical nature of the canon-recognition process. The evidence indicates that this process was mostly a matter of reception by particular communities of believers and then a lengthy process of sorting out the differences between various local canonical traditions. Of course bishops, including Rome, played a key role. But Catholics often speak of the process as if all the bishops got together and issued a decree one day, and that’s not how it happened.

Now for the major Protestant alternatives, which I think are untenable:

1. Protestants often argue that Scripture is “self-authenticating.” This builds on legitimate point 2, of course–the Holy Spirit both inspires Scripture in the first place and witnesses that it is inspired. But clearly this witness speaks to the Church as a whole and not to individuals in isolation. Not recognizing this is perhaps the greatest error of garden-variety American Protestantism. Fortunately, many folks are recognizing this error and moving to a healthier understanding of how Christians hear the Spirit–in community with each other. That being said, I find that many Protestants use the term “self-authenticating” as a magic formula to avoid thinking about the canonical process at all. If you challenge it, you are challenging Scripture somehow. I have trouble explaining this attitude so as to make sense of it, because I don’t think it does make sense.

2. Many other Protestants (or sometimes the same Protestants) argue in a more rationalistic fashion that the early Church used certain objective criteria in determining canonicity, such as apostolic authorship. This website is a pretty standard example of that approach. Now obviously there were criteria that the early Church used, but the formal lists one finds on Protestant apologetics websites make the process seem much more cut and dried than it really was. Furthermore, modern scholarship frequently disagrees with the early Church’s decision. For instance, the vast majority of scholars think that Peter did not write 2 Peter. Even pretty conservative scholars like Ben Witherington believe that only part of 2 Peter is authentic. Whether you say “2 Peter is authentic and the scholars are just wrong” or “it doesn’t matter whether Peter wrote it, because it’s inspired by Scripture anyway,” clearly some factor is at work other than an objective determination of whether the evidence indicates that Peter wrote it. 
3. A final common objection is that the “early Church” isn’t the same thing as the “Roman Catholic Church.” This is perhaps particularly common among Anglicans and others less likely to go with the first two approaches. For many moderate Protestants, the judgments of the Church as a whole are to be taken very seriously, while the modern “Roman Catholic Church” is seen as just one among many fragments of the Church. This is the perspective with which I’m most in sympathy, but as Newman showed, it’s very naive insofar as it doesn’t acknowledge that the early “Catholic Church” was itself one among many contenders. The canon was forged in controversies with Marcionites and Gnostics who had their own rival canons. It wasn’t just “the list of books that everyone agreed on.”

So to boil the matter down, I think that the attempts of many Protestants to evade the question of Church authority are in vain. Rather, there are two questions that need to be answered on both sides:

a. How is the early Church related to the Church today? Are all Trinitarian Christians its heirs, or just those in communion with Rome, or some other subset of Trinitarian Christianity?

b. Why do we treat the canonical decisions of the early Church differently than other decisions the early Church made?

Note that both of these questions need to be answered by both sides. Catholics can’t just assume a simple identity of the Roman Communion with the early Catholic Church. Nor can they simply argue “we should accept everything the early Church accepted,” because there were beliefs and practices of the early Church that Catholics don’t accept today (like the very harsh attitude to Jews or some of the cultural beliefs about women). But Catholics do have coherent and reasonable answers to these questions.

If Protestants are to have a reasonable answer, it would go (in my opinion) along these lines:

a. All Trinitarian Christians are heirs of the early Catholic Church, not because the early Church was “just everybody” but because the formative doctrinal choices of the early Church were of particular importance and have proved consistently over the centuries to be the right ones. The differences between early Catholics and Marcionites or Arians are fundamental to our identity as Christians in a way that Catholic-Protestant differences aren’t. And this is clearly recognized by the Catholic Church today, since “Rome” acknowledges Trinitarian Protestants as baptized brothers and sisters and makes a sharp distinction between them and such groups as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

b. These fundamentally constitutive acts of the early Church include (but are not limited to) the recognition of the core books of the canon. From this perspective, some disagreement about canon is possible where the early Church disagreed. The only point where that disagreement is still alive today is with regard to the “deuterocanonical” books of the OT. For moderate, ecumenical Protestants (such as Anglicans) the question of whether these books are fully canonical is not terribly important. They clearly should be used and treated with honor, but there are some good reasons to question whether they are fully inspired in the way that the books of the Hebrew canon and the NT canon are.


For this argument to work, it needs to be nuanced, I think, by a recognition of the importance of Rome within the broader Church. I am convinced that the bishops of Rome do have a divinely ordained role to play in safeguarding orthodoxy. I am not convinced that everything they condemn is to be condemned, but I am convinced that they have never accepted into the canonical heritage of the Church (I’m using this phrase to mean more than just books, but also defined doctrines, liturgical practices, etc.) something that is fundamentally incompatible with it. This is the main place where I differ from most Anglicans and other ecumenical Protestants, who generally see Catholicism simply as “the biggest denomination”–an important ecumenical partner because of its size and its links with tradition, but not qualitatively different from other Christian bodies. That’s why I keep trying to convert personally, but my conviction that all Trinitarian Christians are members of the Church keeps pulling me back.

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