Two Canons: Scripture & Tradition
by Jimmy Akin
That is good. Protestants who say this recognize the authority of the apostles’ teaching; they simply need to see the mechanism by which we can recognize the apostles’ teachings.
1. THE CANON PRINCIPLE
How do we do that? The answer is that we recognize apostolic tradition the same way we recognized apostolic scripture. Today we are confronted with a variety of traditions, some apostolic and some merely human. In the same way the early Church was confronted with a body of scriptures, some apostolic and some merely human.
The early Church had to sort through these documents and figure out which were authentically apostolic writings — those by an apostle or an associate of an apostle — and which were merely human writings — those merely claiming to be by an apostle. The way they did this was by applying certain tests.
2. IS THE WORD OF GOD SELF-ATTESTING?
Some anti-Catholics, such as James White, are fond of claiming that the writer of Psalm 119 knew what God’s word was even though the Catholic Church wasn’t around to tell him what it was. But unless he was a prophet or had access to a prophet, the Psalmist did not have an infallibly known canon in his day. The canon was not yet finished, much less settled.
Anti-Catholics such as White claim that God’s word is self-authenticating, that it needs no witness. This claim is simply unbiblical. In scripture people regularly had to test revelation to see if it conveyed the word of God. This was not always obvious, even to the people to whom the revelation was given.
For example, in 1 Samuel 3, when God first spoke to Samuel, the boy prophet did not recognize the word of God. He thought it was the old priest Eli calling him, so he got up, went to where Eli was resting, and said, “Here I am, for you called me!” But Eli said, “I did not call; go and lie down again.” This happens three times: God calls Samuel and the young prophet, thinking it is Eli, hops up and rushes to see what he wants. Finally it dawns on the wicked old priest that God calling to the boy, so he tells him what to do the next time the voice addresses him. It turns out the young prophet was not able to recognize God’s voice, and the wicked priest Eli had to help him recognize the word of God. Obviously, God’s word was not self-attesting to Samuel!
Similarly, in 1 Kings 13 a man of God is sent from Judah to Bethel to prophecy. God tells him not to eat or drink until he gets back. But as he returns, an old prophet of God tells him the Lord has rescinded the command about eating and drinking. The man of God then goes home with the old prophet to have dinner. But while they are eating, a revelation comes that the order not to eat or drink is still in effect; the old prophet had been lying. This shows another instance where a prophet is not instantly able to discern between the voice of God and the voice of error. The man God sent to Bethel did not detect the fact that what the old prophet told him wasn’t God’s word. This purported revelation was not self-attesting as a fake word of God.
In Deuteronomy 13 and 18, God gives two tests to know whether a prophet is speaking the word of God. If the prophet makes a false prediction or says to worship other gods, he is not speaking for the Lord. The fact God gives these tests shows revelations must be tested because it is not always obvious what is and is not God’s word.
This is why Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21, “Stop despising prophesyings! Test all things and hold fast to that which is good!” The Bible thus explicitly tells us that we must test what is the word of God and what is not, just as 1 John 4:1 says, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”
So the word of God is not self-authenticating in the way some Protestant apologists allege. God invites and commands us to test any revelation purported to come from him. This includes scripture. If someone offers a book that purports to be scripture, it has to be tested to see if it is apostolic writing or merely human writing.
3. THE KEY TO CANONICITY
How do we know which books belong in the Bible? The early Church’s answer was: Those books which are apostolic belong in the canon of scripture. If a book had been handed down by the apostles as scripture (like the books of the Old Testament) of if it was written by one of the apostles or their associates (like the books of the New Testament), it belonged in the Bible. Apostolicity was thus the test for canonicity.
Protestant early Church historian J. N. D. Kelly writes:
“Unless a book could be shown to come from the pen of an apostle, or at least to have the authority of an apostle behind it, it was peremptorily rejected, however edifying or popular with the faithful it might be” (Early Christian Doctrines, 60).
But how could one know which books were apostolic? Certainly not by a book’s claim to be apostolic, since there were many false gospels and epistles circulating under the names of apostles. Neither did the Holy Spirit promise a revelation to each individual Christian of what books belonged in the Bible.
But how was the test for apostolicity carried out in the early Church? Basically, there were two tests, both of them involving tradition.
First, those books were reckoned as apostolic which agreed with the teachings the apostles handed on to the Church. Gnostic scriptures and other writings which did not agree with the apostolic tradition were rejected out of hand. This is something Evangelical scholars admit.
Protestant scripture scholar F. F. Bruce writes that,
“[The early Fathers] had recourse to the criterion of orthodoxy…. This appeal to the testimony of the churches of apostolic foundation was developed especially by Irenaeus…. When previously unknown Gospels or Acts began to circulate… the most important question to ask about any one of them was: What does it teach about the person and work of Christ? Does it maintain the apostolic witness to him…?” (The Canon of Scripture, 260).
Second, those books were regarded as apostolic which were preached in the various churches as being from the pen of an apostle or the associate of an apostle — not just its doctrines, but the book itself. If a given work was not regarded as apostolic and was not preached as such in the churches, then it was rejected. This was also an appeal to tradition because it looked to the tradition of the churches as a guide for apostolicity. If the tradition of the Churches did not recognize a book as apostolic, it was not canonized.
The fact that this was also used by the early Church to establish apostolicity is also something admitted by Protestant scholars. F. F. Bruce writes:
“It is remarkable, when one comes to think of it, that the four canonical Gospsels are anonymous, whereas the ‘Gospels’ which proliferated in the late second century and afterwards claim to have been written by apostles and other eyewitnesses. Catholic churchmen found it necessary, therefore, to defend the apostolic authenticity of the Gospels…. The apostolic authorship of Matthew and John as well established in tradition. But what of Mark and Luke? Their authorship was also well established in tradition” (ibid., 257).
But of course not all of the Churches agreed. Some Protestant apologists are fond of pointing out that the Muratorian fragment, an early canon list dating from the A.D. 170s, includes most of the New Testament. But they fail to point out that the Muratorian fragment also omitted certain works from its canon. It did not include Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John. Furthermore, it included works that the Protestant apologists would not regard as canonical: the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. So there was obvious disagreement on the extent of the canon.
Eventually, the New Testament canon was settled at the Council of Rome in the year 382 under Pope Damasus I. Up to this point, its specific books were not firmly settled.
Now a Protestant apologist will either have to agree that the men at the Council of Rome included all of the right books and only the right books in the canon or he has to disagree. If he disagrees, then he is going to have to disagree with the New Testament canon in the very Bible he uses, because it was the Council of Rome that established that canon.
But if he agrees that the Council of Rome included all the right books and only the right books in the New Testament canon then he is going to have to say that the early Church made an infallible decision (infallible because they included all the right and only the right books, thus making an inerrant decision under God’s providential guidance — which is infallible guidance). They made this infallible decision three hundred years after the death of the last apostle. But if Church councils are capable of arriving at infallible decisions three hundred years after the death of the last apostle, the Protestant apologist has no reason to claim they are incapable of this later on in Church history.
4. THE CANON OF TRADITION
The fact that when the Church made its decision it did so hundreds of years after the death of the last apostle is significant, but no less significant is the fact that when it made the decision it did so on the basis of tradition.
As we noted, the Church was confronted by conflicting traditions concerning which books should be included in scripture. Some traditions, for example, said that the book of Hebrews belonged in the canon; others said it did not. One of these traditions (the one indicating inclusion in the canon) was apostolic, the other (the one indicating exclusion) was merely human. In order to decide whether the book of Hebrews belongs in scripture, the Church had to decide in favor of one tradition over the other. Thus in order to settle the apostolicity of a scripture, it had to settle the apostolicity of a tradition.
As a result, the Church can not only make rulings of what is apostolic and what is not hundred of years after the death of the last apostle, it can also rule on which traditions are apostolic and which are not — and do so centuries into the Church age.
Therefore, the Church can rule on the canon of tradition the same way it ruled on the canon of scripture. The Church is the living Bride of Christ, and she recognizes the voice of her husband. She is able to point at proposed scriptures and say, “That one is apostolic; that one is not.” And she is able to point at proposed traditions and say, “That one is apostolic; that one is not. In this one I recognize the voice of my husband; in that one I do not.”
The mechanism by which we establish the canon of tradition is thus the same as the way we established the canon of scripture. The same principle works in both contexts. The Church is the witnesses to both canons.
5. TESTS FOR THE CANON OF TRADITION
Of course the Church has tests she uses to figure out what traditions are apostolic, just as she had tests to establish what scriptures were apostolic.
One test is whether a given tradition contradicts what has previously been revealed. As anti-Catholics often point out, proposed traditions must be tested against scripture. If a proposed tradition contradicts something God has said in scripture (or something said in already known apostolic tradition) then that shows it is merely a tradition of men and may be disregarded. The Church is thus more than happy to test proposed traditions against scripture.
Of course the Church also applied the flip-side of this test: In the early centuries any proposed scripture that did not match up with apostolic tradition was rejected from the canon of scripture. Thus when, in the second and third centuries, the writings of the Gnostics taught that Jesus was not God or that the God of the Old Testament was not the God of Jesus Christ, these books were summarily rejected on the basis of not matching up to the apostolic tradition.
Naturally, once a scripture has been tested and found to be canonical it is no longer subject to testing. Once a scripture has been shown to belong to the canon of scripture, it is no longer up for debate. Similarly, once a tradition has been tested and found to be canonical it is no longer subject up for debate either. Once a tradition has been shown to belong to the canon of tradition, it is no longer up subject to testing.
A Protestant apologist would not question whether a given book of the New Testament belongs in the canon based on whether it makes a statement that is difficult to reconcile with something said in another book. Once it has been found to be canonical, we can have confidence that it is God’s infallible word and any apparent difficulties arising between it any what God has said elsewhere can be solved. In the same way, once a tradition has been tested and found canonical, we can have confidence that it is God’s inerrant word and that any apparent difficulty arising between it and anything God has said elsewhere has a solution. If we can have confidence at superficial disharmonies in the canon of scripture, we can with the canon of tradition as well.
We know that when God speaks in scripture there are apparent difficulties which arise. Liberals use these to attack the inerrancy of scripture, and so conservatives produce books showing why these supposed discrepancies are nothing of the kind. But if God speaks in scripture in such a way that apparent discrepancies arise then we should expect the same thing to happen when God speaks elsewhere as well. That gives us no cause for alarm.
6. THE CANON PROBLEM
But the Protestant apologist has an even more fundamental problem because in order to justify his principle of sola scriptura or the “Bible only theory,” he would have to claim that we know what books belong in the Bible without acknowledging the authoritative role of apostolic tradition and the Church in finding this out. If, as on the Protestant theory, we must prove everything from scripture alone then we must be able to show what belongs in the canon of scripture from scripture alone.
In fact, we cannot even begin to use sola scriptura before we have identified what the scriptures are. If one claims to know what the scriptures are then one is making a claim of propositional knowledge, and which could only be revealed by God since we are talking about a supernatural subject, meaning he is making a claim to propositional revelation. But if all propositional revelation must be found in the Bible, then the list of the canon must itself be contained in the scriptures. The Protestant apologist must therefore show, from scripture alone, what books belong in the Bible.
But this is something he cannot do. There is no canon list contained in scripture. Many books of the Bible (in fact, virtually all of the books of the New Testament) are not quoted by other books of the Bible, much less explicitly quoted “as scripture” (something on which Protestant apologists, as a matter of necessity, are very big). And the Bible gives us no set of tests by which we can infallibly prove which exact books belong in it. The fact is that there is no “inspired contents page” in the Bible to tell us what belongs within its covers.
The Protestant apologist is in a fix. In order to use sola scriptura he is going to have to identify what the scriptures are, and since he is unable to do this from scripture alone, he is going to have to appeal to things outside of scripture to make his case, meaning that in the very act of doing this he undermines this case. There is no way for him to escape the canon of tradition.
Apostolic Tradition was the key to the canon in two ways — by telling us what doctrines apostolic books must teach (or not teach) and by telling us which books themselves were written by the apostles and their associates.
Ironically Protestants, who normally scoff at tradition in favor of the Bible, themselves are using a Bible based on tradition. In fact, most honest Protestants would admit that they hold to the books they do because when they first became Christians someone handed them (“traditioned” or “handed on”) copies of the Bible that contained those books!