One of the arguments that Catholics will use against the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura (“Scripture Alone”) is the “canon” argument. The “canon” refers to the list of inspired books that belong in the Bible. The Catholic argument is that Protestants can’t even know which books belong in the Bible without the help of the Catholic Church, since the Catholic Church is the one that “infallibly determined” which books go into it. Without this guarantee, Protestants can’t be sure that they have the correct canon. At least, that’s what Catholics believe.
Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all have a different canon, but the purpose of this article is not to address the precise books that fall into this list, but rather, whether or not a person can know infallibly (i.e., without the possibility of error) which books make up this list. Many Catholics seem to think that we can have “infallible certainty” on this, and in fact, insist that we must have this level of certainty. One Catholic source says:
"Only the Church, the infallible bearer of tradition, can furnish us invincible certainty as to the number of the Divinely inspired books of both the Old and the New Testament." (Online New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Scripture”)
Concerning the canon, and how we know which books are inspired, we all realize that no one alive today had anything to do with the formation of the canon, and therefore, we are dependent on others for this information. And, of course, we get this information from the writings of the early church. Now, the church did not “determine” the canon… the canon was “determined” by God. The early church fathers simply “recognized” the inspired books. But it doesn’t mean that recognizing the inspired books made those fathers infallible, nor that they needed to be infallible in order to recognize those books. Catholics just assume that the church is infallible, when there is no biblical evidence for it. (Another topic for another day)
But the truth is, we are all fallible creatures with fallible minds and hearts, and we all make fallible decisions. No matter what we end up choosing, or who we end up trusting, we all start out with fallibility… including the final authority(ies) that we choose to follow.
But we have to ask, how did the Old Testament saints know that Deuteronomy or Isaiah or Malachi were inspired books, when they didn’t have the Catholic Church there to tell them? Just like the fathers who recognized the books of the New Testament, they too, had to use their discernment, evaluate the available evidence, and reason with their fallible minds to come to a conclusion on their canon. But God does give us sufficient certainty on the canon today, just as He did for the Old Testament believers then. Once again, we don’t need to be infallible to recognize “the Infallible,” or else none of us would ever be able to recognize God and His dealings with us.
We so often see Catholics presenting a false dilemma concerning the canon: They say that either,
1) the early church fathers must have INFALLIBLY chosen the right books, or
2) they must have been WRONG in their choices
But these two are not the only options. The truth can be found somewhere in between those two extremes. For example, it is certainly possible to be fallible, yet correct. But I don’t believe that any human can have infallible certainty on the canon (or on anything else, for that matter). Infallible certainty is strictly God’s domain. But again, that doesn’t mean that He won’t give us sufficient certainty about the things of God.
Now, let us pose this important question: Is it mandatory for EVERY believer to have INFALLIBLE certainty on the FULL canon in order to be saved and to live for God?
If the answer is yes, then wouldn’t we have to say that out of the multitudes of godly people who lived before the fourth century, that not one was saved, or not one could live for God, until after the Councils of Carthage and Hippo (which supposedly settled the canon issue)?
If the answer to the above question is no, then why do Catholics put so much emphasis on INFALLIBLE certainty of the canon in the first place?
Actually, according to another Catholic Source, the first time that the canon of Scripture was infallibly declared was at the Council of Trent (1546):
“According to Catholic doctrine, the proximate criterion of the Biblical canon is the infallible decision of the Church. This decision was not given until rather late in the history of the Church (at the Council of Trent). Before that time there was some doubt about the canonicity of certain Biblical books, i.e., about their belonging to the canon.” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 3, page 29, Copyright 1967; Under “Canon, Biblical”)
The online “New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia” (Under “Canon of the Old Testament”) also confirms the above source:
“The Tridentine [i.e., from the Council of Trent] decrees from which the above list [of books] is extracted was the first infallible and effectually promulgated pronouncement on the Canon, addressed to the Church Universal.”
So, if these Catholic encyclopedias are correct, and if we really do need infallible certainty on the canon of Scripture, we find it strange that the Catholic Church waited for 1500 years before giving an infallible judgment on the canon.
But, Catholics can’t have it both ways. You can’t INSIST that we “really need” infallible certainty on the one hand, and on the other hand, say it’s no big deal that we DIDN’T have it until Trent in 1546. Again, the truth is, “infallible certainty” was not needed then, and is not needed now. If it were, then the Catholic Church has done a very poor job of providing this “certainty” for its members.
Another question is, why does the Catholic insist on the need for infallible certainty on the canon of Scripture for Protestants, when he (the Catholic) can’t have anywhere near this level of certainty on HIS OWN “canon” of Sacred Tradition… since he really doesn’t even know what it is? “Sacred Tradition” is supposedly equal to Scripture and is a critical part of the Catholic’s rule of faith, but can anyone tell us exactly what its contents are? No, they can’t. They always seem to dance around this question, when asked, and seem to purposely use extremely vague definitions for it. What kind of “certainty” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #82) can be derived from such a mysterious and nebulous Tradition? Does the Catholic Church have an official, infallible, and unchanging list of all of its “Sacred Traditions”? No, they don’t. We’re still waiting for a clear and meaningful defintion of “Sacred Tradition” before anyone can ever claim that it is “inspired.”
So, if the Catholic can demand from us an infallible list of the full contents of Scripture, then Protestants can also demand that Catholics provide an infallible list of the full contents of “Sacred Tradition” – so, please show us the list. Otherwise, demanding “infallible certainty” from anyone else, when you, yourself don’t have it, is hypocrisy.
So, the concept of “infallible certainty” on the canon is just another inflated Catholic claim that actually hurts the Catholic Church more than helps it. And furthermore, this canon argument does nothing to disprove “Sola Scriptura.”