I’m going to comment on some recent claims by Francis Beckwith.
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.
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.
i) If the church is logically prior to the Bible, where does that leave Intertestamental Jews?
ii) It’s quite possible to have a correct understanding of something without having that formalized in some official statement. For instance, if you grow up in a particular culture, you pick up many unwritten rules by process of osmosis. You don’t need to read an official rulebook to know what the rules are. Rather, that’s an unspoken cultural assumption which you share in common with fellow members of the same culture. Something you learn through observation and imitation.
For instance, ancient Jews who attended the synagogue every Saturday, or went to Jerusalem on annual feast days, would acquire an informal knowledge of Jewish belief and practice.
At the same time, the Scriptures set a standard against which to measure this acculturated understanding of the faith.
iii) In Catholicism, until Trent, you had two competing traditions of the canon which coexisted–the Augustinian and the Hieronymian. What this means is that God enabled some Catholics to have a correct understanding of the canon while he also allowed other Catholics to fall into error concerning the canon. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, as if everyone has to get it right for anyone to get it right. The true canon was always available to pre-Tridentine Catholics. It’s not as if books were missing.
iv) Beckwith defaults to ecclesiastical recognition of the canon, but that only pushes the issue back a step, for recognition of the magisterium is also a historical process. Moreover, many parties did not or do not recognize the claims of Rome. Therefore, if Beckwith needs the magisterium to back up the Bible, he also needs something to back up the magisterium.
v) It’s also funny to see how oblivious he is to the parallel implications of his own position. Where was the church before Trent? If believers could get along all those years without the church defining the canon, then on that issue (among others) they were doing without the guidance of the church for 1500 years.
Keep in mind, too, that the Tridentine canon is just a historical accident. An afterthought. If it hadn’t been for the Reformation, there’s no reason to think that even now the Roman church would have a formal canon of Scripture. So who needs the magisterium? The timing is so haphazard and belated.
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.
I’ve dealt with that objection (among others) here: