One of the most glaring problems within Protestantism is on the authority of the Bible: how do we know which Books are sacred Scripture? How can a Christian possibly know which Books belong in the Christian Holy Book without learning this from the Christian Church?
|Titian, John Calvin (16th c.)|
As Catholics, we’d argue that they can’t. An often overlooked point is that the Bible was written to the Church. St. Paul specifically addresses most of his Epistles to specific churches (see, e.g., Romans 1:7, 1 Cor. 1:1-2; 2 Cor. 1; Gal. 1:1-2; Eph. 1:1; etc.), and every Book in the New Testament was written to, and for, the Church. These Books were then preserved by the early Church, read publicly in the Liturgy, and solemnly declared as canonical: by the Council of Carthage in 397, by Pope Damasus shortly thereafter, all the way through to the Council of Trent.
But Protestants reject this Bible. They have a Bible, with seven of the Books (and portions of two more, Daniel and Esther) removed. The result is a Bible which was not used by a single Church Father, or endorsed by a single early Church Council.
That is, while they call it the “Bible,” it wasn’t the Bible that the early Christians would have used or recognized. How to get around this problem? The Reformer John Calvin addressed this issue by simply claiming that it’s obvious which Books belong in the Bible, as obvious as telling white from black:
As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste.
But of course, the canon of Scripture isn’t as obvious as telling black from white, or everyone would agree on which Books belong in the Bible. Calvin addressed this problem by claiming that the key was listening to the “the inward testimony of the Spirit.” With the Holy Spirit’s help, you could easily know which Books were truly Scripture:
Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit.
Calvin’s argument, known as the “self-attestation of Scripture,” is one that countless Protestants have reused,
often by proof-texting John 10:27 to say that the true Christians (the sheep) will hear Christ’s voice (and thus, know which Books are in the Bible, since the Bible is the word of God). So, for example, Michael Kruger at Reformed Theological Seminary trots this argument out in his recent book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. Justin Boulmay, a Protestant blogger, gently dismantles Kruger’s arguments for self-attestation.
So let’s address the obvious, glaring problems with this argument for the self-attestation of Scripture: the unanimous witness of the Church Fathers. There are three facts to consider.
|St. Cyril of Jerusalem|
- First, the early Church Fathers had different canons. That means that, even as Catholics, we have to recognize that the canon of Scripture wasn’t always as clear as it is today. For example, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, and St. Cyril each argued for a different canonical list. Yet Catholics, along with most Protestants, consider all three men Saints, and exemplars of the faith. This suggests that while the Holy Spirit remained, at all times, in control, He worked slowly and through the Church, rather than instantaneously, through each believer (as Calvin imagined).
- Second, no Church Father had the Protestant canon. Despite the various canons that the early Church Fathers used, none of them used the canon of Scripture that Protestants use today. Consider the implications. If Calvin is right that those with the inward guidance of the Holy Spirit will recognize the Protestant canon of Scripture, then not only are Athanasius, Augustine, and Cyril not Saints, but no known member of the early Church was a Saint. We would have to reject as non-Christian the very people, the very Christian communities, the very Church that brought all of us (Catholic and Protestant alike) the Bible. So, if John Calvin and his spiritual heirs are correct, the Early Church Fathers are neither our spiritual fathers, nor representations of the true (Spirit-led) Church. But even Calvin himself would reject this conclusion.
- Even Jerome didn’t buy into the idea of Self-Attestation. St. Jerome argued unsuccessfully for the Protestant canon, before deferring to the judgment of the Church. But even in his arguments for the Protestant canon, he wasn’t saying, “I’m guided by the Holy Spirit, so this is obvious to me.” Instead, he was making arguments based on textual criticism, and the Jewish canon, etc. So even the Father who came closest to having a Protestant Bible didn’t find the canon of Scripture obvious or self-evident.
Given Calvin’s high view of St. Augustine (he quoted him 232 times in The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, for example, while quoting no other Father more than 11 times), it’s instructive to hear what St. Augustine had to say on the matter. Not only did Augustine endorse the entire Catholic canon, but he explained the standard by which “the most skillful interpreter of the sacred writings,” ought to determine which Books were Scripture:
Louis Comfort Tiffany, stained glass window of St. Augustine (detail)Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.
There’s much more that can be said on this topic. For example, Neal Judisch at Called to Communion makes a number of good points, including this one:
Second, his [Calvin’s] own theory simply comes down to the idea that each individual can replace the Church’s activity in this regard – that although it’s demeaning to Scripture and indeed sacrilegious to say that the Spirit can tell the Church in Council which books are inspired and which are not, it’s God-honoring and perfectly pious to say that He does this with each particular person, as a kind of little church standing alone, one by one.Now Calvin, I honestly believe, didn’t see himself as doing this. But this was because he clouded the issue by assuming (as have many following him) that when something seems clear and evident to him it’s got to be because the Spirit is speaking directly to him, giving him the unvarnished news, as it were, whereas anyone who doesn’t see precisely the same thing must not enjoy that unmediated spiritual insight he has but is instead being blinded by some or other interpretive “filter.” The misled might feel just as inwardly certain about their own beliefs as he does, of course, but if so they’re just deluding themselves, mistaking their own unfounded psychological certainty for the testimony of God Himself.
Judisch’s point is astute, and we see Calvin’s tendency to assume that his own views were the result of the Holy Spirit guiding him, while everyone else’s views were delusional elsewhere in his writings, like on the issue of assurance of salvation and “evanescent grace”.