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Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism

October 31 is only three days away. For Protestants, it is Reformation Day, the date in 1517 on which Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to that famous door in Wittenberg, Germany. Since I returned to the Catholic Church in April 2007, each year the commemoration has become a time of reflection about my own journey and the puzzles that led me back to the Church of my youth.

One of those puzzles was the relationship between the Church, Tradition, and the canon of Scripture. As a Protestant, I claimed to reject the normative role that Tradition plays in the development of Christian doctrine. But at times I seemed to rely on it. For example, on the content of the biblical canon – whether the Old Testament includes the deuterocanonical books (or “Apocrypha”), as the Catholic Church holds and Protestantism rejects. I would appeal to the exclusion of these books as canonical by the Jewish Council of Jamnia (A.D. 90-100) as well as doubts about those books raised by St. Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, and a few other Church Fathers.

My reasoning, however, was extra-biblical. For it appealed to an authoritative leadership that has the power to recognize and certify books as canonical that were subsequently recognized as such by certain Fathers embedded in a tradition that, as a Protestant, I thought more authoritative than the tradition that certified what has come to be known as the Catholic canon. This latter tradition, rejected by Protestants, includes St. Augustine as well as the Council of Hippo (A.D. 393), the Third Council of Carthage (A.D. 397), the Fourth Council of Carthage (A.D. 419), and the Council of Florence (A.D. 1441).

But if, according to my Protestant self, a Jewish council and a few Church Fathers are the grounds on which I am justified in saying what is the proper scope of the Old Testament canon, then what of New Testament canonicity? So, ironically, given my Protestant understanding of ecclesiology, the sort of authority and tradition that apparently provided me warrant to exclude the deuterocanonical books from Scripture – binding magisterial authority with historical continuity – is missing from the Church during the development of New Testament canonicity.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, maintains that this magisterial authority was in fact present in the early Church and thus gave its leadership the power to recognize and fix the New Testament canon. So, ironically, the Protestant case for a deuterocanonical-absent Old Testament canon depends on Catholic intuitions about a tradition of magisterial authority.

         Belief that the Bible consists only of sixty-six books is not a claim of Scripture

This led to two other tensions. First, in defense of the Protestant Old Testament canon, I argued, as noted above, that although some of the Church’s leading theologians and several regional councils accepted what is known today as the Catholic canon, others disagreed and embraced what is known today as the Protestant canon. It soon became clear to me that this did not help my case, since by employing this argumentative strategy, I conceded the central point of Catholicism: the Church is logically prior to the Scriptures. That is, if the Church, until the Council of Florence’s ecumenical declaration in 1441, can live with a certain degree of ambiguity about the content of the Old Testament canon, that means that sola scriptura was never a fundamental principle of authentic Christianity.

After all, if Scripture alone applies to the Bible as a whole, then we cannot know to which particular collection of books this principle applies until the Bible’s content is settled. Thus, to concede an officially unsettled canon for Christianity’s first fifteen centuries seems to make the Catholic argument that sola scriptura was a sixteenth-century invention and, therefore, not an essential Christian doctrine.

Second, because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture – as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s apostles – any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical theological knowledge. Take, for example, a portion of the revised and expanded Evangelical Theological Society statement of faith suggested (and eventually rejected by the membership) by two ETS members following my return to the Catholic Church [1]. It states that, “this written word of God consists of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments and is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behavior.”

But the belief that the Bible consists only of sixty-six books is not a claim of Scripture, since one cannot find the list in it, but a claim about Scripture as a whole. That is, the whole has a property – i.e., “consisting of sixty-six books,” – that is not found in any of the parts. In other words, if the sixty-six books are the supreme authority on matters of belief, and the number of books is a belief, and one cannot find that belief in any of the books, then the belief that Scripture consists of sixty-six particular books is an extra-biblical belief, an item of theological knowledge that is prima facie non-biblical.

For the Catholic, this is not a problem, since the Bible is the book of the Church, and thus there is an organic unity between the fixing of the canon and the development of doctrine and Christian practice.

Although I am forever indebted to my Evangelical brethren for instilling and nurturing in me a deep love of Scripture, it was that love that eventually led me to the Church that had the authority to distinguish Scripture from other things.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).