The New Testament Canon is a “Late” Doctrine

Which books were inspired by God? The answer to this question is not found in the Bible itself. It necessarily has to appeal to Catholic tradition.

Gutenberg Bible on display at the New York Public Library
Gutenberg Bible on display at the New York Public Library (photo: Joshua Keller, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Protestants disbelieve “late-developing” Catholic doctrines, yet the New Testament canon is of the same nature.

Protestant apologists can make an argument that the concept of biblical books is biblical. But they can't make a rational biblical argument for numbering the New Testament books at 27.

The essence of the biblical books is that they are all inspired. But determining exactly which and how many books possess this characteristic, and why, is another matter entirely. And it itself is not a biblical argument. It necessarily has to appeal to Christian (Catholic) tradition.

There are always exceptions to the rule. Catholics don't say that all Church fathers agree on any given doctrine; only that there was a great consensus; precisely as with the canon of Scripture. Protestants minimize the dissenting opinions on the canon of Scripture, whereas they maximize them when it comes to, for example, Mary's sinlessness and the Second Eve patristic motif.

The only difference is that one involves a notion they accept, and the other, one that they reject; hence the historical bias and conveniently selective historical emphasis.

But that's not logically consistent. Rather than acknowledge the patristic consensus on Mary, Protestant polemicists dwell on the exceptions to the rule, as if this disproves anything (as the Catholic Church already agrees that exceptions will and do occur).

I could just as easily make a specious argument that the 27-book New Testament canon is illegitimate because, up to A.D. 160 no one seemed to acknowledge the canonicity of the books of Acts, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, 3 John, Jude and Revelation (10 out of 27 books). Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) didn't recognize Philippians or 1 Timothy, and his Gospels included apocryphal material. Clement of Alexandria and Origen (before the mid-3rd century) seemed to think that the Epistle of Barnabas was inspired Scripture.

They thought the same about the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas (along with Irenaeus and Tertullian, in the latter instance). Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) believed that The Apocalypse and Peter and the Gospel of Hebrews were Scripture, and Origen accepted the Acts of Paul. No Church father got all the books right (and excluded others later decided to be uncanonical) until St. Athanasius in 367, more than 300 years after Christ's death.

The famous Muratorian Canon of c. 190 excluded Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter and included The Apocalypse of Peter and Wisdom of Solomon. The Council of Nicaea in 325 questioned the canonicity of James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John and Jude. James wasn't even quoted in the West until around 350 A.D.! Revelation was rejected by Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen, and the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas were included in the Codex Sinaiticus in the late fourth century.

How come no one in the early period seemed to know that the book of Acts was apostolic then (written, as it was, by Luke, whose Gospel was accepted early on)? We don't hold that a book is apostolic simply because Rome says so. The Church merely recognizes what is inherently what it is: an inspired document. But there still must be some authoritative recognition.

By the Protestant reasoning process, then (i.e., those who tell us we must reject all “late-arriving” doctrines), we ought to reject the New Testament canon, as there were so many anomalies in lists of the books well into the fourth century.

Pope Innocent I concurred with and sanctioned the rulings regarding the canon of the councils of Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397 (Letter to Exsuperius, Bishop of Toulouse) in 405 (he also reiterated this in 414). Carthage and Hippo were preceded by a Roman Council (382) of identical opinion, and were further ratified by Pope Gelasius I in 495, as well as the Sixth Council of Carthage in 419.

The 27-book canon was subsequently accepted pretty much without question by all Christians, as if the list itself were inspired. But that list was an example of binding tradition and Church authority: of precisely the sort that Protestants say they reject (as contrary to sola Scriptura).

To summarize this analogical argument:

1. True developments must be explicitly grounded in Scripture, or else they are arbitrary and “unbiblical” or “antibiblical” — therefore false. Prominent Protestant anti-Catholic apologist James White stated: “The text of Scripture provides the grounds, and most importantly, the limits for this development over time” (Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 83).

2. The Trinity and the resurrection of Christ and the virgin birth, are thoroughly grounded in Scripture, and are therefore proper.

3. The canon of the New Testament is (undeniably) not itself a “biblical doctrine.” The New Testament never gives a “text” for the authoritative listing of its books.

4. Therefore, the canon of the New Testament is not a legitimate development of doctrine (according to White’s criterion), and would be, therefore, a corruption and a false teaching.

5. Therefore, the New Testament (i.e., in the 27-book form which has been passed down to Luther and the Protestants as a received tradition) cannot be used as a measuring-rod to judge the orthodoxy of other doctrines.

6. Therefore, the White criterion for legitimate developments is self-defeating, and must be discarded (along with sola Scriptura itself).

To reiterate: the question above is whether Protestantism is logically consistent with regard to the canon and other developments that proceed on scarcely any different principles. On what basis can the Protestant absolutely bow to Catholic Church authority in that one instance (the canon), while denying its binding nature in all others, falling back to Scripture Alone: the very canon of which was proclaimed authoritatively by the Catholic Church?

The evidence of canonicity was widespread and specific in the early centuries, yet there were many anomalies, and we know of no one who was able to “get” what every Protestant with a black leather Bible “knows” today, until A.D. 367.

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