When I left off our studies of early church history revealed it was the Catholic Church and its leaders who’d canonized scripture. Without going into too much more detail on the subject I’d like to share the impact of this realization.Like many Protestants I was taught that as early as 300 A.D. the Catholic Church had become apostate (meaning it had abandoned the true teachings of Christ) and that because of persecution the “real “church and “real” Christians went “underground,” so to speak. But history was telling us a different story.
In the latter part of the 4th century it was the Catholic Church that prayed and debated over which books were scripture. It was the Catholic Church, it’s councils and Pope who finally canonized the 73 books of the Bible and declared them to be sacred scripture. What I was taught regarding the “apostate” Catholic Church didn’t jive with what I was learning about the canonization of Scripture. This left me with a few questions:
If the Catholic Church had been apostate as early as the third century, then how could they have been led by the Holy Spirit to put the books of the Bible together as a complete canon of Scripture?
- If the Catholic Church had been apostate when the Bible was canonized then why did I and other Protestants for that matter accept the Bible they canonized? How could we trust the decision of an “apostate church?”
- And even if the Catholic Church hadn’t been apostate at this point, what or who gave them the authority to canonize scripture?
- Why did the early church accept the Councils’ and Popes’ decisions as authoritative?
To hold on to the belief that the early Catholic Church was apostate meant the infallibility of the canon of Scripture was questionable. How could I accept a canon of scripture from an apostate church? But the other side of coin was also disturbing, if the Catholic Church wasn’t apostate then I’d been taught and was holding onto false teachings about this church. I think it was the third question that kept nagging at me the most. What or who gave the Catholic Church the authority to canonize Scripture? Why did the early church accept the Councils’ and Popes’ decisions as authoritative?
Note: I started to re-read the book of Acts at this point. As I read chapter 15 I couldn’t help but note the authority of the Council at Jerusalem as it made decisions regarding the Gentiles and circumcision. The Apostles made a binding decision on this matter. Each individual Christian wasn’t told to go and read Scripture and ask the Holy Spirit to lead them to their own doctrinal truth. And they weren’t told that, “hey doctrine doesn’t matter, do whatever you like as long as you love Jesus.” No, the issue was brought up to the Council and the Council issued an authoritative letter instructing them. This letter even pointed out that some were teaching “without our authorization.”
Was this a picture of what God intended for the Church? An authoritative Church leadership? One that had the authority to make decisions and declare who was and was not “sent.” I remember thinking that this is not what the Protestant Church looked like. My experience was that when one leader didn’t agree with the teaching of another he would go and start his own church. There was no such thing as binding authority on matters of faith and morals in my experience as a Protestant.
During this time a really frightening thought crossed my mind, if the Catholic Church had the authority in the early church to convene councils and the authority to make decisions for the church then it would make sense that other church councils and decisions by the Catholic Church would be authoritative too. If they had the authority to decide what was Sacred Scripture then it would stand to reason that they would have authority over other matters. Which begs the question, if they once had this authority then do they still have this authority? If not when did they lose this authority and who had the right to revoke it?
These were important questions to Scott and me because authority was at the heart of the problems we had with sola scriptura and with the Protestant churches we’d visited. Under sola scriptura there is no binding authority over the conscience of believers. And yet it was clear to us that in the early church these councils and Popes had authority over the church. Enough authority to canonize the scripture…whiched seemed like an awful lot of authority. We couldn’t imagine a church today canonizing scripture and all of Christianity for centuries to come accepting that decision. Exactly where did this authority that the early Catholic Church had come from?
It was at this point in our journey when Scott and I knew we were faced with a decision: To continue to move forward and objectively examine for ourselves the teachings of the Catholic Church and compare them against the teachings of the early church and our Protestant beliefs or to abandon this journey and deem it foolishness. The second option looked really good to us, afterall we just knew the Catholic Church and it’s doctrines couldn’t be true.