Formation of the canon?

I recently heard a prominent Protestant biblical scholar state that the Catholic Church did not make the canonized New Testament books authoritative but only recognized books that were already authoritative or inspired from the time they were first written. To me this seems to be only partially true while minimizing the role that the Church played by using criteria to establish which books were to be included. I don’t understand how one minimizes the importance of the role that the Catholic Church played in canonization. This issue seems to be avoided by many bible only churches. I guess my question is how does a bible only believer deal with the role the Catholic Church played in canonization?

Protistants claim it was in their right to remove whatever book they wanted to from the bible, because technically the canon wasn’t set until Trent. However, the canon was in fact already agreed upon as early as 390 AD in the synods of Hippo, Carthiage I, Carthiage II, and these synods were accepted as valid in subsequent ecumenical counsoles (which are in fact, accepted by E. Orthodox).

At the end of the day, the reformers were in not position to remove 7 books from the bible, and Luther certainly had no right to try and remove James, Hebrews & Revelation (and I think even Jude).

Mostly they don’t. They ignore it in much the same way as the scholar above has.

What they DON’T recognize or acknowledge is authority displayed by the Church in determing the canon.
Remember that up until the canon was determined in the 380-140 ADtimeframe, different regions of the Church used different canons. Some accepted “The Shepard of Hermes” while others rejected “Revelation” and so forth. So each region of the Church had to submit to the Authority of the Church in council which meant some had to accept or reject books not previously accepted or rejected by them.

Under the Protestant model, if it had really existed at the time, each Church community would have been free to accept or reject the canon independant of the findings of the Councils and Pope. And you can be sure they would have since when the protestant model was established the first thing they did was change the canon.


This is a good point. I never really thought about it but if the Protestant model was used back then we would have much more confusion historically speaking of what constitutes orthodox teaching and practices.It seems that if Protestants are eager to practice historical Christianity they are faced with that reality. This is a topic I have found perplexing insofar as many of my Protestant friends tend to minimize the importance of canonization.

OOPS :blush::blush:
The above should read 380-410 AD, not 140

Sorry - Mea Culpa


Many of the more fundemental Protestants (the non-denominationals etc) are indeed trying to “recreate” the early church and yet they generally ignore (if they even know about them) another wonderful source of information called collectively - The Early Church Fathers.
These writings support the things like liturgical worship, the primacy of the Roman Bishop and many more things that they find “too Catholic”.


Absolutely true, I belonged to one of those churches for many years and always found my probing questions about the historical origins of our faith answered rather unconvincingly until I finally committed the time to reading and studying them for myself. That was it for me, end of story…For pragmatic reasons it seems hard to understand how one is to justify their belief in SS while simultaneously denying the validity of the institution that played such a role in its history. It seems you have to deny authority while simultaneously accepting it if you accept SS.

I read a real good, honest book on the formation of the canon by a Baptist author, and he acknowledges that for Protestants, the canon is still an open question. He asks, why should the church today be held to decisions about the canon made in the 4th century? And indeed, why? If you deny the authority of the Catholic councils, you deny also their authority to determine scripture. Hence, the question of what scripture is can still be debated.

In fact, the liberal modernist Protestants scholars have come to deny much of scripture. Reducing it. Which is the nature of Protestantism, reductionism. Since the initial Reformation, more and more aspects of Christian belief have been found to rest on Catholic tradition, and now the modern liberals have realized that scripture itself rests on tradition, and so, for them, scripture can no longer be considered inspired.

The very logic of the Reformation, Sola Scriptura, reduces scripture itself to zero. What a twist of irony. But it is the Reformation followed to its inexorable conclusion.

I think one of the salient points is that without having the texts of the councils, free of interpolations, it is hard to ascertain what the local regional synods felt their scope was in term of confirming existing practice** or** refuting “canonical” errors.
For example, the Roman list is often cited but it is understood that it contains an interpolation by Augustine, thus putting its historical value at doubt.

I would certainly not wish to discount the “doctrinal development” aspect of the canon as arrived at by the councils. Certainly given that the canon was determined in it’s present from some 300-400 years after the events means that much was written and discerned before the councils met.

What the councils did, I believe, was to “review” and “codify” and settle certain issues of contention etc. The councils did this in a manner that promoted unity through fraternal humility to the Will of God in His Church. The fact that the Church, east and west, accepted the canon without serious dispute is a testiment to that fraternal humility and universal desire for unity within The church.

The fact that this canon remained entirely unchanged for the 1000 plus years between the councils at the end of the 4th century and the Council of Trent when it was oficially closed, seems a further testiment to the validity of the canon as established by the early Church councils.


Do you believe that the regional synods of Carthage and Hippo were widely disseminated? I know that for a specific region yes but I have not read anything to indicate they had been on a large scale. This concept of being “established” at Hippo and Carthage has far as I have read has never been established as being the case.

Except later ecumenical counciles specifically “accepted all previous counciles and synods”, thus the canon was standardized, intitally with the only difference of Easterners retaining a few books from the greek Septuigant which no Bishop has affirmed as being canonical.

Oh…I hate to go off on a tangent but are you stating that Oriental Orthodoxy’s canon was not approved by an bishops?

In general though, I am not talking about Trent, but more about whether the canon was truly top down (as much as regional synods can be) or more organic in the first 1000 years lets say.

Don’t know much about Oriental Orthodoxy so will not comment.

I’d say that they were both Top down and Bottom up.
They dealt with what was commonly and widely accepted and thus were an organic development of the Church.
They also dealt with some “sticking points” like Hermes and Revelation. In this they would have been acting “top down” by making the determination to include or excude a particular book.

I gathered this listing of councils and declarations that might be of help. I’d be interested in any other councils, synods etc. that might be pertinant.
Bible Canon Councils Approving
Council of Rome (382)
Local church council under the authority of Pope Damasus, (366-384) gave a complete list of canonical books of the OT and NT which is identical with the list later approved by the Council of Trent.
Council of Hippo (393)
Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)
Council of Carthage (397)
Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)
Pope Innocent I, Bishop of Rome, 401-417 (405)
Responded to a request by Exuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, with a list of canonical books of Scripture; this list was the same as later approved by the Council of Trent.
Council of Carthage (419)
Local North African Church council in union with and under the authority of the Bishop of Rome approved a list of OT and NT canon (same as later approved by the Council of Trent)
The Council of Nicea (787)
The Council of Nicea II in 787 ratified the same canon as authoritative for the Eastern Churches.
Council of Florence, an ecumenical council (1441)
Complete list of OT and NT canon was drawn up; this list later adopted by the Fathers of the Council of Trent


I was talking about the Council of Rome. What document we have from that council appears to be interpolated because it contains a quote from Augustine. You could look that up, if you have not already, under the Dasamine List (sp?)
Okay, let me ask it this why. I do not think there is any existing information that says that Hippo and Carthage specially dealt with an issue concerning Revelation or the Shepherd of Hermes.
I believe that people THINK they did but its not been proven. Does that make sense? In other words, what the councils decided, debated, or anything is lost to history outside of the lists themselves.

Of course this cuts both ways. We cannot prove that they DID or they did deal with this or that specific issue or the precise prcedures involved etc. What we DO know is that the lists they produced are the ones that stood for 1000 years before the “reformers” started messing with them.


Nope, no formal approval was given to any book outside of Hippo, Carthage and Trent. All synods and councils agreed on the same books.

S0 how can it be said that the councils estabslished them or that we submit to the authority of these earlier councils if we have not established whether they “established” it for the church or “confirmed” what organically developed?

Ok, so understanding that the local regional synods were prior to the formal split in 451, how did they, Oriental Orthodox, decide to have a larger canon? I have not been able to find a book specifically dealing with the canon of these churches.

The formal split was not in 451, we didn’t split until 1054 at the earliest. At least in terms of a more or less objectivly unreconcilable split. There were attempts, but they lasted a short time and ultimitly failed. The Orthodox would ultimatly accept many concils and synods after 451.

As far as the Orientals and eastern Christians, they accept the basic findings of the councils, but see no reason to declare them doctrainal. They view the canon as tradition.

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