By R.C. Sproul
How was the Canon established? By whose athority?
We have to remember that there was never a time when the Christian church was without Scripture; Paul cited the Old Testament many times. Since many of the early Christians were Jews they understood the covenant relationship between Christ and the church.
The church did not write the Scripture, the church received the Scripture and as early as the writing of 2 Peter it was being acknowledged that the apostolic writings were Scripture.
Some point to Martin Luther (for at least a time, Luther questioned the inclusion of the Book of James in the Canon) to argue that Luther is not believe that Scripture is infallible. This is wrong.
Luther argued repeatedly for the infallibility of Scripture – what he questioned was whether or not the Book of James was Scripture.
Luther never challenged the infallibility of Scripture; he challenged the infallibility of Rome.
So, if not Rome, then who?
It was Christ that the Father gives “all authority on heaven and on earth.” After Christ came the apostles (sent ones), Peter, Paul and the rest. Irenaeus understood this and argued that to reject the apostles was to reject the One who sent them; Christ.
From the very beginning the church had a “functional Canon”; you can see it in the writings of the New Testament – Peter refers to Paul’s writings as “other Scriptures” and Paul quotes from Luke’s Gospel in 1 Timothy.
From the earliest writings of the church fathers, the New Testament was treated as Scripture; although they did not customarily use the word “Scripture”, they did treat the apostolic writings with Scriptural authority. Quotations taken from the writings of the New Testament and cited as authoritative are found in the writings of Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, Justin Martyr and more.
There were some questions; it is not that the books were not used, only that the inclusion was not universal.
In 363 AD, the Council of Laodicea listed all the books except for Revelation and in 397 AD, the Third Council of Carthage included all of the present books of the New Testament.
Today, the chief difference between the Protestant Canon and the Roman Canon is the Apocrypha (a series of books written between the Testaments.) The Old Testament includes those books which the Jews considered Scripture; the debate is whether or not the Jews considered the Apocrypha to be Scripture. This debate is more difficult because the Hellenized Jews of Alexandria included the Apocrypha, the Hebrew Bible of the Palestinian Canon did not.
The Reformers did not include the Apocrypha because they were persuaded that it did not belong to the Hebrew Canon in Jesus’ day. Turretin wrote:
The Jewish church, to which the oracles of God were committed never considered them as canonical, but held the same canon with us (as admitted by Josephus, Against Apion,…) They are never quoted as canonical by Christ and the apostles like the others. And Christ, by dividing all the books of the Old Testament into three classes (the law, the Psalms and the prophets), clearly approves of the canon of the Jews and excludes from it those books that are not embraced in those classes…
For Calvin the Bible is objectively the Word of God and derives its authority from Him and not the church. The church does not create Scripture but receives it and submits to an authority that is already there.
Nothings therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. When the Church receives it, and gives it the stamp of her authority, she does not make that authentic which was otherwise doubtful or controverted but, acknowledging it as the truth of God, she, as in duty bounds shows her reverence by an unhesitating assent. 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.
We see that Scripture was Scripture as it was being written; it did not require the approval of the church. That the canon was “approved”/formalized in Carthage is a matter of history; we do not minimize the providence of God to safeguard His Word.