The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said Council and as they are found in the old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical.
These books the Church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the Church.
-Council of Vatican I: Third Session: Chapter 2
Since this is argument, that without the Church there will be no Bible, comes up so frequently in arguments with high church apologists, I believe that it will be useful to summarise my reply to this argument.
There are several variants which this argument take. What I will contend is that those variants which are true are trivial, but those variants which are substantive are evidently false.
Variant (1) Without the Church there will be no Bible
Taking this claim in its vaguest and broadest sense possible, this is actually entirely true, but completely trivial. If by Church one includes Christ and the Apostles, then obviously if there was no Church, and thereby no apostles, there would be no Bible, if for no other reason then that the Apostles wrote substantive parts of the New Testament! So obviously we must affirm the Church’s necessity to the Bible’s existence in this most basic sense.
There is another sense in which this claim is also true, but also somewhat trivial and uncontroversial. Obviously after the apostles wrote the New Testament they didn’t just upload it unto some cloud server and we download it from there. The apostolic writings were passed down, or “traditioned”, to other Christians and their clerics who made copies of those letters and continue to pass it down. Just as Bible publishers today print copies of the Bible and sell and distribute it to Christians, likewise did the Christians of the past copy and distribute the New Testament. This is also likewise true, but as I said, completely uncontroversial and trivial. No one denies that we need the Church, that is Christians, to copy and distribute the Scriptures to subsequent churches and Christians.
Variant (2) The Church Authorised the Bible
This claim is a lot stronger, much more substantive, and as such a lot more controversial. Let’s deal with the weakest and least controversial sense first.
Now, again, if by “the Church” authorised the Bible one means that the apostles authorised the teachings of the Old and New Testament, in addition to the prophet’s authority, which they promulgated in their letters and gospels, that is again perfectly true, but once more, completely trivial. Obviously the authority of the Bible is derivative of the authority of the prophets and the apostles, and in this entirely true but trivial sense the Church authorised the Bible.
However what the high church apologist normally means is the more specific, and thereby much more controversial sense, that the Church Councils authorised the Bible. Now this is a substantive claim, but one which is very difficult to sustain for various reasons.
First, that is not the language of the councils themselves. As the Council of Carthage (397 AD) states, after listing out the canonical books, that those are the books which “we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church”. The council and subsequent churches received, not authorised, the books. The council no more “authorised” what they have received than does a captain “authorise” the orders which he receives from his colonel. This is in fact a very old argument going back to John Calvin himself.
Moreover, the proposition that the Bible’s authority is derivative of the councils’ authority will entail the absurd contrapositive proposition that for 300 years before the councils authorised the Bible the New Testament wasn’t authoritative at all. Imagine if after St Paul sent his epistle to the Corinthians he got the following response: “Thank you for your letter. But we have to wait for a church council to pronounce on whether your letter is authoritative before we can obey it. So in the meantime we are totally going to marry our dogs.” That’s just ridiculous. An apostolic writing or teaching is authoritative by virtue of the authority of the apostle who authored it, not by virtue of some conciliar recognition or pronouncements centuries later. The apostles could exercise their authority there and then, they didn’t need their authority to be confirmed a few centuries later by some council. Those apostolic letters were binding and authoritative anterior to the existence of any conciliar pronouncements.
Now, it maybe replied that while obviously they would not dare say that the councils have an authority superior to that of the apostles, nor presume to say that the apostles’ authority is subordinate to the councils’, there is an entirely legitimate epistemic question of how we can know which books are of apostolic origin and as such authoritative.
This is an entirely legitimate concern and we turn to our final formulation.
Variant (3) Without the Church we cannot Know what is the Bible
We need to be very careful here to distinguish between two different questions.
(1) Which books were written by the apostles?
(2) Which books are authoritative?
The answer to the latter question is unambiguously those books of apostolic origin, those penned by the apostles or apostolic men or confirmed by them.
Now the main controverted point during the Gnostic controversy concerned the authority of books, point (2). The Gnostic claimed that their books were authoritative, not on the basis that they were written by the apostles, but on the basis that they record secret unwritten oral communications or traditions from the apostles only the Gnostics were aware of. (Does this sound familiar?) The argument of Irenaeus against this is that whatever the apostles taught authoritatively, they taught by virtue of publicly distributed and known written documents, there is no such secret oral communications or traditions. And furthermore, and this is an important point, we know of such written documents by virtue of it being passed down by successive churches.
This actually leads us back to our discussion on Variant (1). Now obviously official church records, the church Fathers, church historians and even councils provide us with important evidence as to which books of the New Testament are of apostolic origin. However this is not the same as that somehow all those records, patristic, or conciliar writings were infallibly authoritarive. They give us good, probable, morally certain, evidence sufficient for faith and practice and to determine which books are of apostolic origin. As an analogy, when the Queen gives her assent to a bill passed by both Houses of Parliament, that bill becomes statute and the law of the land. Subsequently the statute appears on the official website of the parliament and the Supreme Court. Now, the statute as it can be found on the website gives us good reliable evidence on what is the law of the land. What we wouldn’t say however is that the website “authorises” the statutes. That’s absurd. The authority of the statutes are derivative of the authority of the Queen in Parliament. The website merely reports those statutes after the fact. Likewise the books of the Bible are authoritative by virtue of apostolic or prophetic authority. Subsequently churches merely pass on those books after the fact, and the writings of the Church Fathers gives us good reliable evidence of which books are of apostolic origin. What the church Fathers do not do however is to “authorise” the books.
To this it may be objected that how can we believe that certain books are infallible on the basis of a fallible list determined by the methods of historical research and fallible reason? I have addressed these epistemological questions, especially the dubious epistemological foundationalism premise, here and here. However a brief reply can be given here that an infallible Church wouldn’t solve this either. Even if we grant the existence of extrabiblical infallible ecclesiastical documents, there is no such infallible list of infallible ecclesiastical documents either. To determine which ecclesiastical documents are infallible, you will still need to use you fallible reason, the studies of historical research to determine the literary form of the document in question, and its authenticity and historical context, in order determine if it is in fact an infallible document. In fact recently in Eastern Orthodox circles there was a controversy about whether universalism was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Apparently the document supposedly condemning that was a post-conciliar addition and was not part of the council itself. (For a further discussion, see here.) The point however is that let the ecumenical council be ever so infallible, which documents are part of that council is properly a conclusion of history and reason based on the fallible methods of historical analysis. Thus even infallible Church documents themselves are “based” on fallible reason. If this is no problem for church documents, it isn’t a problem for determining infallible books of the Bible by fallible historical research.
Conclusion: Confusing the Epistemic Issues with the Theological
Most of the time high church apologetics involves a confusion between epistemic questions with theological ones. Normally they begin with dubious epistemic foundationalist assumptions which structures our understanding of divine revelation according to this framework. Thus the certainty of derived or inferred propositions is only as certain as the certainty of its epistemic foundations.
I have dealt with these issues at sufficient length in my above linked articles and I won’t rehearse them. However there is an entirely legitimate concern about how some of the books we receive today were doubted by the church Fathers in the past. This is especially with regards the antilegomena books, Hebrews, James, Revelation, etc. It is here where I would favour the Lutheran approach of treating those as a sort of secondary canon given the existence of some doubts concerning their authenticity, while the undoubted books, the homologoumena, provided us with sufficient materials for faith, practice and salvation. For more I would recommend this post here.
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In addition, there’s this quote from John Behr, an Orthodox, in ‘On the Way to Nicaea’:
“If the locus of authority is fixed solely in Scripture, and “canon” is understood exclusively in the sense of a “list” of authoritative books, then accounting for that list becomes problematic; if, on the other hand, Scripture is subsumed under tradition, on the grounds that the Church predates the writings of the New Testament (conveniently forgetting, in a Marcionite fashion, the existence of Scripture- the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets), then again a problem arises from the lack of a criterion or canon, this time for differentiating, as is often done, between “Tradition” and “traditions”- all traditions are venerable, though some more so than others, yet the basis for this distinction is never clarified.”