By Keith Thompson
One of the most common arguments against sola scriptura raised by Catholics is: if Scripture is the only authority then how do you know which books are inspired seeing as Scripture itself does not tell you? Or: if you hold to sola scriptura why do you hold to a New Testament canon which the authority of the Roman Catholic Church recognized? Is that not violating sola scriprtura? As Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid argues, “There is no ‘inspired table of contents’ in Scripture that tells us which books belong and which ones do not” (Patrick Madrid, Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy, ed. Robert Sungenis, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing Company, 1997], p. 22). This is a common argument from Catholic apologists and has been used by them to stump many Protestants on the issue of sola scriptura.
However, there are serious problems with this argument.
(1) It only applies to solo scriptura, that is the belief the Bible is the only authority, and not to sola scriptura which says Scripture is the ultimate authority. In sola scriptura there is nothing wrong with holding to outside authorities like the church as long as what it declares does not contradict and is consistent with Scripture at least implicitly (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1:6-7; 1:10). Thus, there is no problem with a sola scripturist affirming the church’s affirmation of the canon since the criteria the church used to recognize the canon in the fourth century can be validated biblically at least implicitly. For instance, the church used the criteria of apostolicity to decide if a New Testament book was Scripture (i.e., if a book was written by an apostle or companion of an apostle). Any good conservative New Testament introduction will give the internal arguments that a book was written by an apostle or someone close to one (e. g. Donald Guthrie’s, D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo’s etc). In regards to the criteria of antiquity the church used, we can look at the book’s internal content to discover if it was written in the first century or if it is a second century work. New Testament scholars do this regularly. Any good introduction will provide the internal arguments that a book was written in the first century. In regards to the criteria of orthodoxy the church used, we can see which books are internally consistent and which are not. So there is nothing inconsistent about a sola scripturist affirming the authority of the church in recognizing the canon, since when we go to the books it recognized, we see that its determination is consistent with Scripture at least implicitly.
(2) When making this argument Catholic apologists assume those at those fourth century councils who recognized the canon were Roman Catholics or were part of a Roman Catholic Church. However, no one at those councils believed what modern Rome claims one has to believe in order to be a Roman Catholic – teachings Romanism claims were always believed by the church (e.g. private and frequent confession to a priest over both venial and mortal sins, papal infallibility, the Assumption and Immaculate Conception of Mary, the mass as the same propitious sacrifice of Christ re-presented, the idea the pope alone has the authority to interpret Scripture etc). Hence, it is erroneous for modern Catholics to claim those at those councils which dealt with the canon were part of their modern religious system. It was the Christian church, not the papal system which discerned the canon in the fourth century.
(3) Protestants are much like the early church Christians prior to the Council’s of Hippo and Carthage. They held to certain books as inspired without a council being their ultimate authority on the issue. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, etc., all held to canonical books as inspired long before Carthage and Hippo were convened. They did not have a pope or council dictating to them what books must be accepted and rejected. If modern Romanists are going to condemn Protestants for doing this, then they must also condemn these earliest church fathers for doing it as well if they are going to be consistent.
Now, Rome falsely claims her tradition is the basis for the establishment of the biblical canon by the church in the 4th century when the Council of Hippo and Third Council of Carthage spoke on the list of books (Robert Sungenis, Point/Counterpoint: Protestant Objections and Catholic Answers, Not by Scripture Alone, [Queenship Publishing, 1997], p. 270). Rome’s views of tradition are (1) the idea the apostles handed on a body of oral teaching containing doctrine not found in Scripture; and (2) the idea that the tradition of the church clarifies the true meaning of Scripture.
However, the Council of Hippo and Third Council of Carthage from the 4th century which dealt with the canon never stated they knew what the canon was because they had teachings or traditions from the mouths of the apostles stating which biblical books were canon. Nor can we say they had a historic interpretation of the content of scripture and therefore came to the realization of the canon by that means. That makes no sense. Thus, Rome’s definitions of tradition can not be appealed to as the basis for the determinations of these councils concerning the canon. The councils did not use any so-called apostolic tradition for this. Instead, they used various criteria in order to discern the canon. They did not claim they had an oral teaching from the apostles stating which books were true. Their criteria for canonicity they used included: apostolicity (if the writer was an apostle or connected to an apostle), orthodoxy (if the content of the book was orthodox theologically), antiquity (if the book was early enough) and usage (if the book was used widely in the church prior to the council) (The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament, eds. Andreas J. Kostenberger, L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles, [B&H Publishing Group, 2009], p. 13).
In light of the aforementioned facts, it is completely erroneous for the Roman Catholic to claim the Roman Catholic Church gave Protestants the Bible, and that without Romanism or her alleged apostolic tradition, Protestant sola scripturists couldn’t discern the canon of Scripture.