In Michael Kruger’s 2012 publication, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, he wrestles with the Roman Catholic understanding of canon and Scripture and gives several helpful critiques, which I’ll list below (and in a later blog post). By way of reminder, Rome holds to a “trifold authority structure that includes Scripture, tradition, and the Magisterium (the church’s teaching authority)” (p. 39; cf. Dei Vernbum, 2.9-10).
In Rome’s view, the canon (Scripture) is determined by the church. Rome rejects the Reformation principle of sola scriptura because she believes there needs to be an external source of authority that tells us what the canon is. So Karl Rahner said, “[Scripture] exists because the church exists,” and one 16th century Catholic cardinal said “The Scriptures have only as much force as the fables of Aesop, if destitute of the authority of the church.” Or, in the words of Hans Kung, “Without the Church there would be no New Testament.”
Here is Kruger’s helpful critical evaluation of Rome’s view that the canon is derived from the church or caused by the church.
“1) Although the New Testament was not completed all at once, the apostolic teaching was the substance of what would later become the New Testament. And it was this apostolic teaching, along with the prophets, that formed the foundation for the church, rather than the other way around. As Ephesians 2:20 affirms, the church was ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.’ The church is always the creatura verbi (‘creation of the Word’). [Stephen] Chapman sums it up: ‘The biblical canon is not a creation of the church, the church is instead a creation of the biblical canon.’”
“2) The earliest Christians did have a canon, namely, the Old Testament itself (Rom. 15:4, 1 Cor. 10:6, 2 Tim. 3:15-16), which seems to have existed just fine prior to the founding of the church. There are no reasons to think that the Israel of Jesus’ day had any infallible revelation from God that helped it choose the books of the Old Testament canon.”
“3) From the very earliest days, believers received Paul’s letters as Scripture (1 Thes. 2:13), Paul clearly intended them to be received as Scripture (Gal. 1:1-24), and even other writers thought they were Scripture (2 Pet. 3:16). Thus, the Scriptures themselves never give the impression that their authority was ‘derivative’ from the church, or from some future ecclesiastical decision.”
“4) It was not until the Council of Trent in 1546 that the Roman Catholic Church ever made a formal and official declaration on the canon of the Bible, particularly the Apocrypha. In light of this scenario, what can we make of the Roman Catholic claim that ‘without the church there would be no New Testament’? Are we to believe that the church had no canon for over fifteen hundred years, until the Council of Trent? The history of the church makes it clear that the church did, in fact, have a functioning canon long before the Council of Trent (or even the fourth-century councils).”
“J. I. Packer sums it up well: ‘The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity…Newton did not create gravity but recognized it.”
rev shane lems