Today1 is the feast of Pope St. Damasus I, the pope who many believe to have issued the first authoritative list of the books of the Bible in 382–the Decree of Damasus.2 Up until that point, there was no official canon of Scripture. Nobody knew with any certainty how many books belonged in the Old Testament, much less the New. And because Scripture doesn’t and can’t testify to its own inspiration, we would have been in a great deal of trouble if it were our only authority.
But God is good and bestowed authority on the Church. The Church, inspired by God, then pronounced by the power of the Holy Spirit which books were also inspired by God. The whole question merits a far longer discussion than I’ve got time for at the moment, but I’ll give you the crux of the whole Catholic-Protestant debate in a nutshell, as seen by Karl Keating in Catholicism and Fundamentalism.
- The Gospels are fairly reliable historical texts. While historians don’t consider them Gospel truth,3 they’re generally considered to be accurate as regards the major events and themes of the life of Christ.
- The Gospels tell us Jesus claimed to be God. While he doesn’t say outright, “I am God,” statements like, “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58) and “The Father and I are one” (Jn 10:30) leave little room for any other interpretation.
- The Resurrection proves this claim. If you really want to hear me prove the divinity of Christ, watch this video. If you don’t have 40 minutes, suffice it to say that if he claimed to be God and then rose form the dead, he’s God.
- Jesus, who was divine, founded an inspired Church. Matthew 16:18-19. He gave Peter the keys and promised to protect his Church against error.
- The inspired Church gives us an inspired Bible. If you’re not convinced by the Decree of Damasus, we could find plenty of other authoritative lists. The date doesn’t matter so much for this discussion, just the fact of Scripture being canonized by the Church. Otherwise, how can we know which books belong? Augustine himself said, “I would not believe in the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.”
Note that this isn’t a circular argument; it starts with the Bible as a historical text and ends with the Bible as an inspired text–two distinct and largely unrelated claims. What’s key here is that the inspiration of Scripture rests on the inspiration of the Church. Without an inspired Church, the argument falls apart.
In fact, I’ve never heard a reasonable argument for the canon of Scripture that didn’t rely on Christ’s power at work in the Church. Sure, people have had personal experiences of the Spirit at work in various individual books, but to know for sure that God inspired each book? That requires some kind of outside authority–an authority nobody outside of Rome4 even claims. You might feel that you know for sure that John is inspired or Isaiah or Deuteronomy. But unless you have a Church, the best you’re going to get is a “fallible collection of infallible books.”5 I’m not willing to stake my life on a fallible collection.
As always, Chesterton says it better than I:
What is any man who has been in the real outer world, for instance, to make of the everlasting cry that Catholic traditions are condemned by the Bible? It indicates a jumble of topsy-turvy tests and tail-foremost arguments, of which I never could at any time see the sense. The ordinary sensible sceptic or pagan is standing in the street (in the supreme character of the man in the street) and he sees a procession go by of the priests of some strange cult, carrying their object of worship under a canopy, some of them wearing high head-dresses and carrying symbolical staffs, others carrying scrolls and sacred records, others carrying sacred images and lighted candles before them, others sacred relics in caskets or cases, and so on. I can understand the spectator saying, “This is all hocus-pocus”; I can even understand him, in moments of irritation, breaking up the procession, throwing down the images, tearing up the scrolls, dancing on the priests and anything else that might express that general view. I can understand his saying, “Your croziers are bosh, your candles are bosh, your statues and scrolls and relics and all the rest of it are bosh.” But in what conceivable frame of mind does he rush in to select one particular scroll of the scriptures of this one particular group (a scroll which had always belonged to them and been a part of their hocus-pocus, if it was hocus-pocus); why in the world should the man in the street say that one particular scroll was not bosh, but was the one and only truth by which all the other things were to be condemned? Why should it not be as superstitious to worship the scrolls as the statues, of that one particular procession? Why should it not be as reasonable to preserve the statues as the scrolls, by the tenets of that particular creed? To say to the priests, “Your statues and scrolls are condemned by our common sense,” is sensible. To say, “Your statues are condemned by your scrolls, and we are going to worship one part of your procession and wreck the rest,” is not sensible from any standpoint, least of all that of the man in the street.
Reject the whole of the Church if you like. Reject Saints and Mary and the Eucharist and the Pope AND Scripture. But to use the Scripture given to you by the pope to reject the pope? To take the Bible, which was far less certain to the early Church than was the virginity of Mary, and use it to reject Mary? Chesterton doesn’t think it makes any sense at all. I’m inclined to agree.