How Do We Know the New Testament Canon? Part 2- The Roman Catholic Model

In the previous post, we began  a series asking how we know these 27 books belong in the New Testament canon.  In this series I’ll be drawing freely on two books by Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited and The Question of Canon.  We will be examining two models for how to answer the question, beginning in this post with the Roman Catholic model.


The Roman Catholic Model of the New Testament Canon 

According to the Roman Catholic model, Scripture can’t be self-authenticating. Instead, it must be authenticated by some external authority. And for Roman Catholics, that external authority is the Church itself—the Magisterium—located in the bishops, cardinals, and ultimately the Pope. In short, Roman Catholics believe that the Church decided which books belonged to the canon. In the words of famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, “Scripture exists because the Church exists.” Or in the words of Catholic apologist Karl Keating, “The Catholic believes in inspiration because the Church tells him so.” So Scripture isn’t self-authenticated, like Protestants believe, but Church-authenticated.

This argument is one of the cornerstones of modern Catholic apologetics, and one of Rome’s chief critiques of Protestantism. A typical argument runs, ‘You Protestants talk about sola scriptura, but apart from the decisions of the Church Councils of Carthage, Hippo, and Trent you can’t even know what the Scripture consists of! The Bible doesn’t contain an inspired table of contents, but without an inspired table of contents, sola scriptura is just an empty word.’

If you listen to the conversion stories of ex-Protestant Roman Catholics, this is a common feature. They reached a point of mental anguish when they were asking, “If my Bible’s table of contents isn’t inspired, then how can I even know which books belong in the Bible apart from the Church telling me? But if that’s true, then how can I accept the Church’s word about the canon, and then not accept the Church’s word about Mary or the sacraments or the papacy? Isn’t that inconsistent? Am I not ungratefully biting the hand that has fed me?”

And so in order to have the kind of certainty they think they need about the canon, they swim the Tiber. Now they can sleep well at night. An infallible authority has answered their question, so they no longer have to rely on the supposedly circular argument that Scripture somehow authenticates itself.


Strengths of the Roman Catholic Model

Before critiquing it, let’s consider the strengths of this argument.

First, it’s true that the voice of the church through the ages plays a role in recognizing which books belong in the canon. Just as sola scriptura doesn’t mean “me and my Bible out in the woods,” so the canon isn’t determined by the Holy Spirit whispering the list of canonical books into each Christian’s ear. The fact that the church has almost universally recognized these books and not others ought to carry weight with us. After all, the sheep should be expected to recognize their shepherd’s voice.

It’s also true that the recognition of the canon was a process.It took time. And some books took longer to gain full recognition than others did. As we’ll see in future posts, this should hardly surprise us. After all, we’re not Mormons. We don’t believe that the 27 books of the NT were delivered by Gabriel on golden plates or dropped out of the sky in one complete leather-bound volume in 96 A.D. It was a process. And it took time for a consensus to develop about a few of the books.


Weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Model

Having said all that, however, the Roman Catholic model suffers from at least two major weaknesses.

First, we have to ask our Roman Catholic friends, would having an inspired table of contents really settle the question for you? Suppose God had inspired a 28th book of the NT that gave you a list of the books that belonged in the NT, would that really have given you the certainty that you demand? In reality, an inspired table of contents wouldn’t solve the problem—it would simply move it back a step. Because then you’d have to ask, “How can I be certain that this table of contents is inspired?” And if God had inspired a 29th book telling you that the 28th book was inspired, you’d have to ask, “How do I know the 29th book is inspired?” And on and on it would go in an infinite regress.

In short, this whole “inspired table of contents” argument is a red-herring. As Michael Kruger put it in Canon Revisited,

In the end, the Roman Catholic objection is to some extent artificial. Such a ‘table of contents’ would never satisfy their concerns, even if it were to exist, because they have already determined [from the outset] that no document could ever be self-attesting. In other words, built into the Roman Catholic model is [the idea] that any written revelation (whether it contains a table of contents or not) will require external approval and authentication from an infallible church.”

The buck of authority has to stop somewhere. The real difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants is over where the buck stops. For the Roman Catholic, the buck stops with God speaking through the Magisterium. For the Protestant, the buck stops with God speaking through the Scriptures. The church is indeed the pillar and support of the truth—but the church is not the standard of truth.  At the end of the day, there’s only one thing ever said to be “theopneustos” (“breathed out by God”). And it’s not the church, but the Holy Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16).

Second, appealing to an infallible church doesn’t really solve the problem either. This too simply moves the problem back a step. The next logical question is “On what basis do you believe the church to be infallible? What makes you so certain about that?” If you asked a Roman Catholic that question, he would likely point you to evidence from Scripture, evidence from reason, and evidence from church history—in other words, to the same kinds of evidence that Protestants use to answer the question “How do we know these 27 books are canonical?”

But if that kind of evidence can provide you with sufficient certainty about the infallibility of the Church, why can’t it provide sufficient certainty about the identity and infallibility of the canon?

If we’re going to have solid grounds for believing that these 27 books are the right ones, we’re going to need something besides an allegedly infallible church telling us so. The Roman Catholic model doesn’t answer the question–it simply moves the question back a step to “How do we know the church is infallible?” And even if I believed in an infallible church, history would persuade me that the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t it. But as I hope to show in coming posts, we don’t need an infallible church to have certainty about these books. We simply need an infallible God who is able to make his voice recognized. 

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