Both traditionalist Roman Catholics and secular skeptics will often make use of a the same argument in order to further their respective agendas. Both Roman Catholics and unbelieving skeptics seek to undermine the authority of the Bible. The Catholic Church wants to establish the Catholic bishops as an equal or higher authority, while secular skeptics are seeking to remove biblical authority altogether. Their argument starts at a common point of agreement in their positions—the Bible was created by the Church around 400 A.D. Their arguments then take two slightly different twists.
Since the Church created the Bible centuries after Jesus, the Church is the ultimate authority in religious matters—not the Bible. While the Bible and the Church are technically equal in authority, since both speak for God, the Church existed first, and its creating the Bible implies that the Bible’s authority itself is derived from that of the Catholic bishops. If the Bible is infallible (incapable of error), it’s only because the Church that created the Bible is infallible.
The Catholic Conclusion: You need to become a Roman Catholic and accept the Catholic Church’s interpretation of the Scriptures as the only acceptable interpretation, even if what the Church tells you appears to contradict the instructions you are given in the Bible.
Since the Church created the Bible centuries after Jesus, the Bible has no more authority than the Church that created it. Even if God had inspired some Scripture, the Church could have picked the wrong books. There were hundreds of books that competed for a position in the New Testament. How are we to know that the right books were selected?
The Liberal-Skeptical Conclusion: We can really put whatever books we want into our Bibles. The books I don’t like I won’t include in my personal Bible.
I recently dealt with the liberal version of this argument with a person who had asked me about it on my website. In my years in the Theology Department at St. Louis University—a Jesuit, Roman Catholic theology department—I dealt with the Catholic version of the argument all the time. A friend of mine who was a monk tried it on me, as did the department’s resident Catholic traditionalist. A little historical background on the New Testament canon can help answer this question. Unfortunately, believers who are ignorant of Church History and of classical Christian theology are at a major disadvantage when critics—liberal or Catholic—raise this objection.
The decision people have in mind when they say the Church created the Bible around 400 A.D. is the Third Council of Carthage, a provincial meeting of Christian leaders about 396 A.D. This council affirmed that the books that had a rightful claim to divine inspiration were the books in the present-day New Testament. This “decision” was later reaffirmed by the Sixth Council of Carthage in 419 A.D., a decision forwarded on to other bishops throughout the known world. Several observations need to be made about this event however, observations that spin both the Catholic and liberal version of the objection on their heads.
The bishops at Carthage understood themselves to be submitting to the Bible, not creating the Bible. They were fighting against a host of heretical books that were then being produced by Gnostic sects. Their goal was that the Church would submit itself to the real Bible, the one inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore bearing complete and total authority in all manners to which it speaks.
Indeed, the language the council uses is not that “the Church hereby creates the Bible, with the following books...” Rather, they say, the Church “receives” the following books.... This statement—“We receive”—is a statement of submission to God. It could be summarized as follows: God has given only these New Testament books, so we submit to these books by receiving them as the Word of the living God. By using the phrase “we receive,” the Church was emphasizing that is saw itself under these books, not over them.
I’ll lay it on the line. There is no reference in all the literature of the early Church that describes the Church as having “created” the Bible or having “produced” the Scriptures. Rather, they saw the biblical books as writings given by God through his holy apostles, books the Church obediently receives as an authority over the Church, an authority to which the Church must submit itself.
The churches had come to the same conclusion previously. The earliest canon of Scripture of which we have record is the Muratorian canon from about 150 A.D. A canon (literally a reed or measuring rod) was a list of books that were included in the Bible. Lists became needed for a number of reasons. To begin with, of course, the different biblical books were usually written on separate scrolls—they were individual books, not chapters in a single book. Also, heretics came into the churches seeking to remove biblical books that contradicted their own teachings, or seeking to add books of their own.
One of the earliest of Christian heretics was Marcion, and his heresies occasioned the writing down of the Muratorian canon in Italy. Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was an evil God, while the God of the New Testament was a God of love. Marcion therefore rejected the Old Testament and those parts of the New that sounded too much like the Old. (He was only left with parts of Luke and a few of Paul’s letters. Funny how that works.)
The Muratorian canon lists the books read in the Italian churches as Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, all of Paul’s letters, James, John’s letters, Jude and Revelation. He fails to mention only Hebrews and Peter’s letters—and this only fifty years after the last of the apostles had died. About 170 A.D., Irenaeus lists the same books as appear in the New Testament today, as did Clement of Alexandria around 200 A.D. To suggest that the Church failed to agree substantially on the contents of the Christian Bible until almost 400 A.D. is an argument based on deception. The church had always received the New Testament books as the authoritative Word of God.
A number of modern scholars have promoted the idea that hundreds of books were competing for a position in the New Testament canon. In a sense, they are correct—in the same sense that the books in the Book of Mormon are competing for a position in the Christian Bible today. But, just like today, Christians then knew which books belonged and which were bogus Gnostic frauds—they didn’t have to debate the question!
The Fathers of the Church categorically rejected Gnostic additions to the canon without need for discussion. Some briefly considered a couple books—particularly the Shepherd of Hermas—that were sound in doctrine. But the apostolic community did not produce these books, though the books were good books, and these books clearly recognized the writings of the New Testament as a higher authority than themselves.
Jesus had given authority to apostles, messengers who carried his full authority. Among the tests they relied upon to discern which books were authentically from God and which were not, the Fathers of the Church looked at a book’s...
Apostolicity: The instruction given by these apostles, like that given by the prophets of the Old Testament, was overseen and inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore to be preached in the churches and included in the canon. Close companions of apostles may have been the authors of some of the books—Luke, Paul’s companion, wrote Luke and Acts, just as Peter’s co-worker Mark wrote a gospel, one that the early church viewed as “Peter’s” gospel. The reason Hebrews was not always included on some canonical lists was precisely because no one knew for certain who had written it. Paul? Barnabas? Apollos? Still, Hebrews was clearly a product of the apostolic community and passed the other tests as well.
Universality: Had churches all over the known world accepted the book, or was it just a regional variation? It was to be expected that some of the shortest of books may not have made it to some outlying rural areas, but did churches all over read them?
Antiquity: Had the book been accepted by Christians in the Church’s earliest days? If a book didn’t appear until the third century, it was definitely a fraud. But the books they decided on had all been in use since the days of the apostles. The Gospel of Thomas was definitely out!
Theology: A final point involved the theology of the books. If the book contradicted any book that was known to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, then the errant book was obviously not in the canon. The amazing point, of course, is that all the books chosen passed all four tests.
I'll grant (over against Catholics) that the men who collected the Books into a single canon WERE fallible. No human being since the apostles has been INCAPABLE of error in matters of doctrine. The traditional Protestant stance is that the church's act of collecting the books into a single volume was “a fallible collecting of infallible books.” In other words, was it possible that the men who collected the books were mistaken in some way? Yes. It was possible. The books—not the men who collected them—are infallible and inerrant. The books—not the fourth century bishops—were directly inspired by the Holy Spirit. Is it likely that they blew it and let some un-inspired books into the canon? No. It's very, very unlikely. Don't let anyone make an unwarranted modality shift at this point. “Could” and “Did” are different. To say that error was possible is not the same as saying that error actually happened. A skeptic would have to first demonstrate where the early Christians went wrong in discerning which books were inspired. And, I'm confident, they can't do this.
The reason we receive the current books in our Bibles as canonical is not because Rome tells us to, nor is it because it's a “tradition”. The reason we receive them as canonical is because they continue to bear witness to their Divine inspiration and apostolic authority, just as they did when earlier Christians received them in, say, the fourth century. We apply the same tests today that they applied then, and we come to the same conclusions.
The experience of Marcion should show us that we simply can’t pick and choose which books of the Bible we’ll keep and which ones we’ll get rid of. His experience demonstrates that as soon as you chuck one piece of it out the window, you quickly have to throw out more and more until you have nothing left. I think it was actually Thomas Aquinas who remarked that if you believe the parts of the Bible you agree with and not the parts you don’t agree with, you don’t believe in God but in yourself.
And one of the amazing things about the New Testament is the way one biblical author vouches for another. Jesus spoke for his apostles, saying that the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything he had taught them (John 14:26). Peter vouches for Paul, speaking of his writings as “scriptures” in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Jesus also speaks for the Old Testament, referring to its 3-fold division (what Jews today call the Tanak, the “T” for Torah or Law of Moses, the “N” for Nebiim or Prophets, the “K” for Kethuvim, or Writings/Psalms). Jesus says “Everything must be fulfilled which is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). If you throw out one book, soon you have to throw out all of them, because they testify to each other's authority. Don’t like Paul? You have to reject Peter as well, then. And to reject Peter is to reject Jesus who commissioned him, which is to reject God himself. The Bible is not a buffet where you can pick and choose. It comes to us from God as a package deal.