Just for Catholics

The Canon: Which Books are Inspired?

Question: You believe that the Bible is the sole authority for doctrine. However the Bible itself does not list which books are inspired and which are not. For the first four centuries many books were debated as whether or not they were inspired or not. How then can you know if a book is not missing? Or one is included that shouldn't be? The Bible would not exist without the Catholic Church's authority to say it is inspired. It seems you have no way of knowing it is inspired if you deny the authority of the Catholic Church who decided which was inspired and which was not. The Bible is a Church book.

Another person wrote: The Catholic Church gave us the Bible. You should therefore follow the interpretation of the Bible given by the Catholic Church.

Answer: The canon is the set of inspired books that make up the Holy Scriptures, the written Word of God. They are called ‘canonical’ because they are the rule, the standard of faith. ‘Canon’ is derived from a Greek word, kanon, meaning a measuring-rod. No matter how valuable and useful, other human writings are not canonical because they are not inspired. Human writings are fallible (can be mistaken) and could not be called the Word of God.

The canon is not ‘determined’ by the church or church leaders. The church did not give us the Bible. Rather, God gave the Bible to His people, the church, and not the other way around. Every book written by the inspiration of God is, by definition, canonical. It is canonical because it is the Word of God, not because of any human decision to regard it as such. Therefore the canon of the Scripture was completed when the last book of the New Testament was written, even though all Christians did not yet possess all the canonical books collected in one book.

The New Testament books were given to the churches as sacred Scripture. During the apostolic age, Christians were aware that new books were being added to the Scriptures, which were of equal authority to the Old Testament scriptures. These books and epistles were copied, circulated among the churches, and passed on to succeeding generations. There was a general consensus among Christians on most books of the New Testament, though there were some doubts about a few. By the fourth century, there was a general agreement on all books of the New Testament, both in the eastern and the western church. The Eastern Orthodox Church was the first to formally identify the 27 books of the New Testament in A.D. 367. The canonical books were listed in Athanasius' Easter letter from Alexandria. Later on the Western church accepted the same books at the councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and Carthage (A.D. 397). Having received from the Jews the books of the Old Testament and from our Christian forefathers the books of the New, today we possess the complete Bible.

Catholic apologists often argue about the canon, either to discredit Sola Scriptura (the Bible is the sole, infallible rule of faith), or to elevate the authority of the magisterium and tradition. They employ three basic arguments, all of which are fallacious.

1. The canon cannot be ascertained from Scripture alone

No, we cannot, but we don’t have to either. The Bible is not a doctrine to be determined from the Bible itself. Rather, Scripture was given by God to His people as the infallible rule of faith, and as such it has been recognized and handled to succeeding generations. There is no inspired table of contents in the Bible, but there is something even better. Our confidence that we possess all the correct books of the Bible rests in the goodness and omnipotence of our God who both gave and preserved His Word for His children. In His wise providence, God has so directed His people (fallible and imperfect as they are) to recognize for certain His Holy Word. The Good Shepherd had promised that His sheep would hear His voice, and that they will not be mislead by the voice of a stranger - and that is exactly what happened, and what continues to happen to this day. “My sheep hear my voice!”

2 The canon cannot be known apart from church tradition.

In a sense, this is true. Our forefathers cherished and preserved the sacred writings, and the Lord directed the church to a general consensus on all the books. We have received from their hands the 27 books of the New Testament. We may call this ‘tradition’ - a heritage that is passed on from one generation to the next.

This ‘tradition’ has nothing to do with the concept of ‘Sacred Tradition' of the Roman Catholic Church. The ‘table of contents’ was not passed orally from one bishop to the other, until somebody decided to publish it! Rather, the books that were already regarded as Scripture by the churches were included in the list of canonical books- and passed on to us.

3.The canon cannot be known with certainty apart from the infallible magisterium.

We are told that unless we rely on the decision of the infallible Church magisterium, we have no sure basis for knowing the extent of the canon. How can we be sure that the early Christians did not exclude an inspired book, or included a book that is not inspired?

It would be nice to have an infallible magisterium to declare infallibly the list of canonical books. Unfortunately, there are two big problems with this fantasy. First, historically it did not happen that way. Secondly, how can we know that the magisterium is infallible to start with?

From the Roman Catholic standpoint, it was not until the sixteenth century at the Council of Trent, that a general council declared ‘infallibly’ the books of the Bible. (The councils of Hippo and Carthage were local synods, and could not be considered infallible, since the list of Old Testament books was different from that given by Trent. Indeed, if Trent is correct, then Hippo and Carthage were not merely fallible, but actually mistaken). Yet for fifteen hundred years and more, Christians had built their life and hope on the teaching of those books, being fully confident that they are the Word of God, even though there was no declaration by an infallible magisterium. Today, Evangelicals continue to walk in the steps of their forefathers, having full assurance of the authenticity of the books of the Bible, apart from any ‘infallible’ declaration by a group of bishops.

Similarly, the Jewish people recognized a corpus of books that they called 'sacred Scriptures' (which we now call the Old Testament). The Lord Jesus and His apostles reasoned with the Jews from the Scriptures, implying of course that there was a canon that was generally recognized by God's people. Yet, it is clear that the same Jews that recognized the canonical books were not themselves 'infallible.' Jesus does not attribute infallibility to the leaders whose forefathers had first acknowledged the books of the sacred Scriptures. As a matter of fact, they were mistaken on many issues of doctrine and morals, to the extent that they crucified the Messiah prophesied in the same Writings.

We can be confident that God has providentially worked in history so that we now possess in our hands the inspired writings. Moreover, we would be wise to follow Jesus and His apostles not to attribute infallibility to the church He used to that end.

Secondly, the need for an infallible magisterium creates an additional logical problem. If we cannot know for certain the canon of Scripture apart from an infallible authority, how can we know for certain that the Roman claim to infallibility is certainly true? To say that the magisterium teaches that the magisterium is infallible is begging the question. Nor is it possible to argue from the Bible that the magisterium is infallible, for that presupposes that the canon of the Bible is known for certain (apart from the infallible declaration by the magisterium).

Conclusion

We thank God for giving us His Word in written form. Rather than waste our time arguing on the canon of the New Testament, about which Catholics and Protestants agree, we should move on to study these sacred books to learn God's will and to correct false doctrines that have crept into the churches.

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A