When we left off on Sola Scriptura before, I was relating the substance of conversations I had with Jimmy Akin while I was still a Protestant minister. In fact, Jimmy was just about to ask the question that eventually sent me over the edge. It went like this:
Jimmy: Ken, it is a simple fact that the list of books to be included in the canon of Scripture—the list you still have in your New Testament—was decided at councils of the Catholic Church, primarily Hippo in 393 A.D. and Carthage in 397 and 419 A.D. This is where you received the 27 books you have in your New Testament. Here’s my question for you: Did the Holy Spirit lead the Church to an infallible decision with respect to those New Testament books, yes or no?
I could see immediately that this was a loaded question. It reminded me of the subtlety of the Pharisees when they asked Jesus, “John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?”
I needed time to think.
Looking back I can see that from the moment I began to grapple with this question, at some level I knew I was in trouble. It was like a bell tolling the end of my existence as a Bible-only Christian. As a Protestant, I did not believe that the Holy Spirit led the Church to infallible decisions—even in essential matters of faith and practice. Rather, I believed as Luther believed: the decisions of popes and councils are inherently fallible, no matter what the topic or level of importance to Christian theology.
Thinking again about Jimmy’s question, I knew that if I answered, “No, the decisions of those councils were inherently fallible,“ that sly Jimmy Akin would respond, “So then, you don’t know for sure that you’ve got the right books in your New Testament, do you? Why don’t you study the issue and make your own decision the same way you do with respect to the teaching of the New Testament?”
On the other hand, if I answered, “Yes, the Holy Spirit led those councils to a decision I can trust as true and binding,” then Jimmy would respond, “Welcome to the Catholic Church, Ken!”
So instead I tried to defuse his argument.
Ken: Jimmy, those councils didn’t decide the canon of inspired Scripture. God created the canon when he inspired the apostles to write down what He wanted us to know. Those councils merely recognized what God had done!
Jimmy: But, of course! I’m not saying—and the Catholic Church has never said—that the Church somehow created the canon by its authoritative decree. What the councils did was recognize the canon and make formal declaration of which books should be received as belonging to it. And the question I’m asking is: do you believe the Holy Spirit led those councils to an infallibly correct “recognition” of the canon? Yes or no?
Beginning to feel hemmed in, I tried to circumvent the question.
Ken: Well, it’s not like it was a difficult decision! Essentially, everyone knew which books were inspired and canonical!
Jimmy: Ken, that’s simply not true. Even Protestant New Testament scholars like Bruce Metzger admit that about 25% of the New Testament was disputed to some degree in the early centuries of the Church. Read Eusebius. As late as 330 A.D. he’s describing the New Testament as containing only one epistle of John and one of Peter. He’s referring to James, 2 Peter and Jude as “disputed writings.” He’s describing the Apocalypse of John as a book accepted by some but “rejected” by others. It’s not true that “everyone knew!”
Ken: Well, I suppose I do believe the Holy Spirit led the Church to an infallible decision with regard to the canon. After all, the alternative would be skepticism! How would we know from which books to take our teaching and build our theology? Yes, since Scripture is our very foundation, I don’t believe God would allow the Church to err at this point.
Jimmy: So you believe the Holy Spirit led those councils to an infallible decision on the issue of the canon?
Ken: Yes. God must have.
Jimmy: Well, now you’ve got me scratching my head. Are you aware that the extent of the Old Testament canon was also decided at those very same councils, and it included the seven books we Catholics accept as inspired and you Protestants reject?
Ken: I didn’t know that.
Jimmy: And there’s more. Are you aware that those same councils also formally affirmed the decisions of the Council of Constantinople held 20 years earlier, at which the Church recognized the authority of the Bishop of Rome?
Ken: Well, the councils were wrong about those things.
Jimmy: So your saying the Holy Spirit led those councils to an infallible decision on the New Testament, but not on the Old Testament, and not when considering the authority of the Bishop of Rome?
Ken: I suppose that’s what I’m saying. Yes.
Jimmy: Forgive me, but doesn’t it seem a bit convenient that when you disagree with the councils, the Holy Spirit wasn’t leading them, but when you agree with the councils, not only was the Holy Spirit leading them, but infallibly so?
Ken: Look, let’s continue this later. I don’t feel so good.
As I’ve said, my Protestant worldview began to unravel the moment I tired to solve this problem of the canon.
In order to have an authoritative New Testament, I had implicitly accepted the authority of the Catholic Church—an authority I then turned around and rejected on the authority of the New Testament.
In other words, in order to take the Bible as my “infallible rule,” I had to believe the Holy Spirit had led the Church “infallibly” when it assembled the Bible at those ecumenical councils. But then, in order to escape becoming Catholic, I had to believe the Holy Spirit had led the Church infallibly only when it assembled that Bible. And even then, only the New Testament!
On nearly everything else—as far as I was concerned—the Church was wrong: was wrong about the canon of the Old Testament, wrong about the authority of the Bishop of Rome, wrong about baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist—all teachings universally accepted at the time those councils were which decided the New Testament.
It began to dawn on me that the only way I could have the foundation I needed to be a Protestant and to dispute the teachings of the Catholic Church (an inspired, infallible Scripture) was to first be a Catholic. Essentially, I would have to sit on Rome’s lap in order to slap her in the face.
At some point the thought occurred to me: “Why not just be a Catholic?”