You will hear the argument as such phrased to the Protestant.
“You state you believe the Bible alone. Well how can you know which books are in the Bible using the Bible alone? You accept the current canon of Scripture because the Catholic Church gave it to you. They decided which books belong in the Bible, and without their work, there would be no Bible.”
Protestants, in giving the understatement of the century, find this language offensive. Rightfully so. This is the stock argument used by Catholic apologists, and they make it central to their case. There is a certain sense in which this is a true statement. We understand the extent of the canon of Scripture through the Church in some way. The canon we use comes from the mind of the Church through the centuries.
Yet to say the Church “decided” the canon of Scripture is I would submit not the way Catholics should be speaking. When Pope Leo XIII talked about the Scriptures, he stated with confidence:
This supernatural revelation, according to the belief of the universal Church, is contained both in unwritten Tradition, and in written Books, which are therefore called sacred and canonical because, "being written under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author and as such have been delivered to the Church." (Providentimus Deus, 1)Note well the conclusion of the paragraph above. The books of the Bible are not called canonical because The Church has “decided” which books to call Scripture, and which books to view as non-canonical. Rather, that decision was made simply by the fact that the Scriptures had God for their author. At the very moment of their writing, they were the canon of scripture was then delivered to the Church. Pope Leo describes the Church in a passive role when it comes to the canon.
This argument is also a weak argument, since if a Protestant is smart, he can blast it right back in the face of the Catholic. Thankfully, the majority of those Protestants who attack Catholicism lack this intelligence, being blinded by their bias. Yet let us not give them the chance. When we make the “canon” argument, we assert that one must have, in a chapter and verse format, the Word of God, otherwise we cannot follow the Word of God. The Protestant need ask but one question to stop this entire argument dead in its tracks:
The argument is compelling. The Catholic cannot produce such a list. Indeed, the Catholic Church would never produce such a list. To reduce Sacred Tradition to a juridical form of chapter and verse solely is not what the Church has in mind. While part of the tradition is indeed written down (The Sacred Scriptures), elsewhere this is carried out in the lived experience of the Church throughout the ages, guided by The Holy Spirit. Yet we do not deny this lived tradition even if we lack a chapter and verse list. Sometimes Catholics will attempt to dodge this by saying “we at least have recourse should we need such a list, we go to the Magesterium.” Yet the Catholic Church does not view the unwritten Tradition in this way, and would never give such a list.
Show me where the Church, in chapter and verse form, has given us the extent of what you Catholics call Sacred Tradition. Otherwise, how can you follow Sacred Tradition if you do not know the exact extent of it? I only ask that you hold yourself to the same standards you show to us.
Some will say I am arguing semantics. No matter what, they will say, the Catholic Church played a special role in the revelation of the canon of Scriptures. Yet I think this is more than mere semantics. If anything, I think it cuts right to the heart of the question of authority. Is the Church the servant of the truth or its master? The Bible tells us that Christ says he is the truth. Is the church above Christ? Rather, St. Paul teaches us that the church is the “pillar and foundation of the truth.” Ultimately, she does not “decide” what truth is. The truth has already been decided from before the creation of the world. The truth has always existed, and that truth if Jesus Christ. The Church upholds that truth. Truth rests upon the pillars of the Church. Truth makes his home within the Church, the Body of Christ. The Church upholds this truth, giving Christ to the world. When questions arise that require clarification, it is the Holy Spirit who guides the Church, solely for the purpose of upholding that which has always existed, and was delivered “once for all unto the saints” as the Apostle Jude tells us.
With this established, we are now ready to begin dealing with the actual evidence Protestants give for their doctrine of Sola Scriptura. This will be done in future installments.