You will hear it often when Catholics and Protestants are discussing their faith. The Protestant quotes a Scripture verse and points to the fact that the Bible is the final authority on faith and morals. But the Catholic will often say something like, “But without the Catholic Church’s Tradition, you Protestants would not have a Bible. The Catholic Church gave us the Bible, therefore you should submit to our Church.” Quite a statement… but is this really true?
Before answering him, we should start off by asking the Catholic a couple of important questions. First, we should ask, “What do you mean by saying the Catholic Church ‘gave us the Bible’?” Is he suggesting that the Catholic Church wrote the Bible? If so, this certainly cannot be the case, since the Old Testament was written long before the Catholic Church existed. Neither can they claim to have written the New Testament, since that was written by the apostles and their close associates. And the apostles knew nothing of those teachings which are uniquely Catholic.
What Catholics generally mean when they say that their Church gave us the Bible is that the Catholic Church, through certain councils, was responsible for revealing to us the “canon” of the Bible, i.e., which books are inspired by God and actually belong in the Bible.
If this is indeed what they mean, then we need to ask him our second question: “When did this happen?” And they will usually say that the canon was finally settled at the Council of Hippo (393 A.D.) and the Council of Carthage (397 A.D.), and it was later restated / reaffirmed at the Council of Trent (1546 A.D.).
This sounds really nice, but there are a number of problems with their claims.
Local, Not Ecumenical
Point #1 - The Councils of Hippo and Carthage were local or “provincial” councils (synods), and they could not “finally settle” the canon or any other issue that affected all the churches. They were not “ecumenical” councils, because their rulings were not binding on the whole church. The reason that this is a problem is because Catholics often stress the idea that we really “need” infallible certainty on the canon. But according to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the canon of Scripture was not “infallibly” declared until the Council of Trent did so in 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, McGraw Hill, Copyright 1967, Volume 3, “Canon, Biblical”, p. 29)
Likewise, the online “New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia” (Under “Canon of the Old Testament”) says:
“The Tridentine decrees [i.e., from the Council of Trent] 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, according to this, the church existed for over 1500 years without an infallibly-pronounced canon. Why is this, if “infallible certainty” is so important?
For more on infallible certainty and the canon, see our article here:
Point #2 - To make matters worse for Catholics, the canon given by the Councils of Hippo and Carthage does not match the canon which was given by the Council of Trent. This is because the canon of Hippo and Carthage comes from the Septuagint (the Old Testament in Greek – written sometime between 300 B.C. and 100 B.C.), while the Council of Trent specifically mentions using the canon of the Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin translation – written 382-405 A.D.):
“But if any one receive not, as sacred and canonical, the said books entire with all their parts, as they have been used to be read in the Catholic Church, and as they are contained in the old Latin vulgate edition; and knowingly and deliberately contemn the traditions aforesaid; let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Fourth Session) [Emphasis added]
The problem is that both canons contain a book called 1 Esdras, but the earlier 1 Esdras is different from the one at the Council of Trent. How do we know this? According to a chart in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, the Septuagint’s 1 Esdras is equivalent to the Vulgate’s 3 Esdras. And it specifically says, “The Council of Trent definitively removed it from the canon.” (New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967, Volume II, Bible, III, pp. 396-397) [Emphasis added]
So, Trent declared 3 Esdras in the Vulgate [1 Esdras of the Septuagint] to be uncanonical (not belonging in the Bible), and it was therefore removed from the canon. So, if this book was “removed” from the canon by Trent, it must have been there in the first place sometime earlier. And that is because it was there from the earlier councils, i.e., Hippo, Carthage, etc. So, by the Catholic Church’s own admission, the earlier canon was different from Trent’s, because it had an extra book. So the idea that Trent accepted and simply reaffirmed the earlier councils’ canon is wrong.
To confirm this with another Catholic source:
“Except for Jerome’s OT from the Hebrew, all other Lat renderings of the OT and NT were made from the Greek.” (The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999, page 1100)
The irony in all this is that according to the quote from Trent above, rather than affirming, this ecumenical council actually condemns with anathema the Councils of Carthage and Hippo because their canon did not match the Vulgate’s.
So, what if the Catholic says, “Ok, so the Catholic church gave us the Bible (i.e., the correct canon) at Trent instead of Carthage and Hippo, so what?” But, taking 1500 years to recognize the canon is not very reassuring, especially for a Church who insists on the need for infallible certainty. It certainly seems that Catholic “Tradition” failed to protect the early canon from error in this case.
There are a number of church historians / scholars and other sources who also point out this difference between the Septuagint’s canon and the canon of the Vulgate. See the details in this very informative article by William Webster:
Point #3 – The Protestant Bible contains 66 Books (39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New). The Bible that the Catholic Church claims to have given us contains 7 more Old Testament books than the Protestant Bible (and some additional verses in the books of Daniel and Esther).
These 7 extra books Catholics call the “Deuterocanonical” books. Protestants usually refer to them as the “Apocrypha,” and they do not consider them to be inspired, but Catholics do. But there are some problems with these books that we will deal with only briefly:
1) These books were not accepted by the Jews, and it was the Jews who knew the canon best because they were the ones who wrote the Old Testament.
2) Some of these books contain historical and geographical errors. Do we really want to accept the “inspiration” of a book which is not even reliable in worldly matters?
3) Some of the books teach doctrines which contradict the rest of the Scriptures.
4) There are a number of people throughout church history who denied the inspiration of the Apocrypha. One is Jerome, the very person who translated the Vulgate Bible (which the Catholic Church embraces). Catholic Cardinal Cajetan, who opposed Martin Luther and his teachings, also believed that the Apocrypha should not be used to confirm matters of faith, but only for edification. We could also mention Pope Gregory the Great, Athanasius (the bishop of Alexandria) and many others who believed that (at least some of) the Apocryphal books were not canonical.
Even the online New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says concerning the church fathers of the Middle Ages and their attitude toward the Apocrypha:
“Few are found to unequivocally acknowledge their canonicity.” (Under “Canon of the Old Testament”)
For much more information on the Apocrypha, see the William Webster link that we mentioned above.
Teachings Not Biblical
Point #4 - If the Catholic Church really did give us the Bible, then why do so many of its teachings either contradict the Scriptures, or cannot be found within its pages (e.g., doctrines like confession to a priest, Mary’s sinless birth and life, Mary’s Assumption into Heaven, indulgences, Purgatory, the Treasury of Merit, the office of pope, praying to saints, etc., etc.)? Interestingly, we find none of these in the Bible they claim to have given us.
Used by God
Point #5 - When it comes to spiritual deception the most dangerous lies are the ones that contain a certain amount of truth mixed in. And that is the case here. The “certain amount of truth mixed in” is that the Catholic Church was used, to some extent, in preserving and copying the Bible. But the Catholic Church did not “give us the Bible.” GOD did. It is HIS Word given to His people… the Old Testament given through the Jewish prophets, and the New Testament given through the Apostles and their close associates. The universal church of the New Testament just recognized the inspired Scriptures… it did not create or establish them. It was simply used by God in identifying the canon.
But apparently, some Catholics believe that if God uses someone, then we must submit to them.” But this does not logically or necessarily follow because God can use anybody or anything, good or bad, to accomplish His will. But this only proves that God is sovereign. God has used a whale (Jonah 1:17), a rooster (Matthew 26:74-75), and even a donkey (Numbers 22:22-34) to do His will, but that doesn’t mean that we are to submit to whales, roosters or donkeys, does it?
God can also use evil men to prophesy (John 11:49-52), but are we expected to yield to them? Obviously not. God can even use the devil to accomplish His will (Job 1:6-12; 42:10), but does this mean that we should be obedient to Satan? Again, the point is, just because God has USED a person or group in some way to bring about His will, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we must now submit to them. We should only submit to a person or church whose teachings are biblical.
This same misguided reasoning would also require us to submit to Judaism, the religion of the Jews (including any of its un-Christian traditions), since God used the Jews to write and preserve three-fourths of the Bible which we have today (the Old Testament). After all, it was to the Jews that the oracles of God were first given (Romans 3:2). In light of this, the Jews would have more right to claim to have “given us the Bible” than the Catholic Church has.
So Where Did it Come From?
Many Catholics act as though there was nothing but utter confusion over the canon in the early church and the multitudes were desperate to find someone, an infallible authority, who could “determine” the canon for them. Then the Catholic Church stepped in with their councils and saved the day… or at least that’s what many Catholics would like us to believe. But it was not so.
Ok, so where did we get the Bible from, if it wasn’t from the Catholic Church?
Demanding an answer to questions like “Who gave us the Bible?” is actually misleading. There is no one person or group that is responsible for giving us the Bible. Just as the books of the Old Testament were, little by little, accumulated over the years by God’s people who recognized His Spirit moving in His prophets (and eventually writing it down)… it was the same with the apostles and the New Testament. It was a gradual process with many believers involved over time. And just as the Jews recognized Old Testament Scripture without an infallible authority, it was the same with the early Christians.
Although the councils did help, to a certain extent, to crystallize the canon in the minds of the early Christians, these councils, for the most part, merely affirmed the books that were already widely accepted. They were simply attempting to make it “official.”
Even though there were some doubts concerning a few of the books that would eventually end up in the canon, there was, collectively, a general consensus among Christians on most of the books. Only a few of them were actually disputed.
It is said that virtually the whole New Testament could be reproduced simply from the writings of the Ante-Nicene church fathers (those who lived before the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.). So, the early church was already familiar with the canon of Scripture at this time.
In all fairness, the Catholic Church (i.e., the Church of Rome) did have a role in preserving and copying the Scriptures, as we mentioned earlier. But this doesn’t mean that “the Bible comes from them.”
The implications of all this are sobering and far-reaching. When Catholics say that the Catholic Church gave us the Bible, they are in effect saying that this Church (along with its “Tradition”) is the final authority, and that we must submit to them. They are implying that the Bible gets its authority from that Church and only they have the authority to properly interpret it. But this is certainly not true. The universal church recognized the inspired writings. However, the Scriptures are not “church-breathed,” but God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Simply recognizing something (the canon) is not the same thing as being responsible for its existence. The Bible no more owes its existence to the Catholic Church than gravity owes its existence to Sir Isaac Newton.
The idea of the Catholic Church giving the Bible to the world is yet another boastful (but empty) claim coming from the Catholic side. One has to wonder… how many of the Catholic Church’s claims need to be exposed as false, before the “lay Catholic” in the pew will see the light? How many exaggerated claims from his leaders must he endure before he breaks free of the Catholic Church’s shackles? Hopefully, very few.