Did the Catholic Church Set the Canon?

The latest in the ongoing dialogue with Reese. He’s in red, I’m the rest. Today, we’re looking at whether the Catholic Church gave us the Bible.

7) The canon was not “set” by a Catholic authority, but rather the existing de facto standard was ratified. If one’s faith was “shaky” in the absence of the decision of a council, then all Christians prior to that council had a shaky faith, and that’s obviously not the case. The logic on that argument doesn’t hold up to your normal standard.

Actually, there were legitimate differences: there was a dispute over whether the Deuterocanon was inspired, and whether it should be canonized even if it was [the Catholic position was clearly the majority view, but there were certainly others], certain New Testament books, like Hebrews, and 2 Peter, Revelation were of questionable canonicity and inspiration, and certain books from the Hebrew Canon (like Esther) were also questioned. Mark Shea does a good job of retracing this history in his book By What Authority? I highly suggest it for a great (and quick) read on the subject.

But beyond that, I don’t think that the early pre-canonization Christians were in the same boat at all. They didn’t rely upon the Bible as a sole rule of faith: they relied upon the Bible and Tradition. So even if you weren’t sure if Hebrews (for example) was inspired or not, it agreed with the orthodox Faith, so you read it. They were big adherents to the whole of Apostolic Faith, whether passed on by letter, or by word of mouth. Post-Reformation Christians have cut off the living Tradition in the Church, so they’re not in the same boat.

That’s why it’s interesting to me that you cite to this “existing de facto standard” as proof of the canon. First, this is an appeal to Sacred Tradition: the idea that we can trust the followers of Christ to have faithfully preserved His teachings (even if some of them failed to follow them). Second, the de facto canon generally included the Deuterocanon. Third, the same Christians who formed the de facto canon you cite to also unanimously believe in the Eucharist, praying to the dead, purgatory, a very high view of Mary, etc. I don’t think you can choose to believe just those things the early Christians believe in common with you: either embrace the fullness of the early Church, or reject Her. (Certainly, there’s room on some issues to say, “they seem divided,” or “their answer is unclear,” but on the issues I mentioned before, that’s not the case).

I suppose that I omitted one important answer: Sacred Tradition is a Catholic authority, just not one that Protestants often think of. The external perspective of the Church seems to be one where popes just go around making up crazy stuff to see who’ll believe it. It’s a grossly inaccurate view. In truth, the Church’s role is never to create dogma. It’s to clarify truths already accepted by the Church: usually, these dogmatic clarifications only occur when those truths start to be questioned; other times (as here), orthodox Christians will hold multiple views on the right answer, and the Church is needed to authoritatively and infallibly steer orthodoxy towards the right course.


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