Scripture has authority, as both Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants will agree, because it is the Word of God. But Scripture is not the Word of God merely because the Church says it is. Scripture’s authority is derived from its intrinsic nature as a communication from God to man—it has an authority independent of the Church. In this chapter we want to examine the nature of that authority and the claim that Scripture is inspired by God and thereby trustworthy.
The basis on which Christians accept the inspiration of Scripture is because the Scriptures themselves make that claim. This is significant because if they did not claim divine inspiration for themselves then we would have no right to claim it for them. However, in 2 Peter 1:20-21, the apostle writes: ‘But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.’ Peter is unequivocally claiming that the prophetic Scriptures are not a human but a divine work, that the authors wrote under the control of the Holy Spirit, and therefore that the Scriptures come from God.1
The fullest statement on the divine inspiration of Scripture, however, is found in Paul’s second letter to Timothy (3:15-17):
Paul clearly states here that all Scripture is inspired by God. He is referring specifically to the Old Testament since the New Testament canon was not complete at the time he wrote, but the New Testament must also be covered by this statement for in 2 Peter 3:16 Peter refers to Paul’s writings (including this epistle to Timothy) as Scripture. The apostles were confident to make such claims for their own writings because Jesus had promised them that the Holy Spirit would guide them in all truth, thereby enabling them to write the New Testament Scriptures (John 16:13).
The words from 2 Timothy 3:15-17 are very important. The word used for ‘inspired’ literally means ‘God-breathed’. Though men wrote the Old and New Testaments, it is God who worked through them to write exactly what he wanted. By their own testimony the Scriptures are not merely the product of man, but are authored by God himself. This does not mean that men are not intimately involved in the process but rather that God, working through the personalities of the authors, so controlled the process and the individuals that the final product was exactly what he wanted said. And therefore, the Scriptures are infallible and inerrant because they are given by God and are an authoritative expression of his will and truth.
In his letter to Timothy, Paul tells his young coworker of the functions of the Word of God in the light of its divine inspiration. The Scriptures are ‘profitable’ or ‘useful’2 for instruction in doctrine—that is, they teach us what we are to believe and practise with respect to God and godliness—and they are also given to reprove and to correct false doctrine. The Word of God checks us where we are wrong and shows us how to correct ourselves; and this whole process of teaching, reproving and correcting trains us in righteousness. As we submit to the Word of God we are instructed in truth and directed how to live, and this makes us ‘adequate’ for every good work and for doing the will of God. The word Paul uses for adequate is artios, which means ‘complete’ (or ‘perfect’). So Paul is arguing that the Scriptures are sufficient for an individual to be perfectly equipped for knowing and doing the will of God in the areas of faith and morals, because they are authoritatively given for that purpose.
The Roman Catholic Church, as already shown, teaches that Scripture alone is not all-sufficient—it must be supplemented by a tradition which is equally inspired. But, as we shall see below, the Apostle Paul never claims that tradition is inspired, authoritative and profitable in the same way as the Word of God. If the Scriptures are not sufficient and God has indeed given the Church tradition as a separate source of revelation, why is this never mentioned in Scripture itself? After all, Paul is writing about the Old Testament in this passage and there existed, beside Scripture, an extensive Jewish tradition, directly related to it, to which he could have referred. But he did not do so. So while we are told in unequivocal terms that Scripture is inspired, the Word of God is completely silent about the inspiration of tradition.
To argue, as the Roman Catholic Church does, that 2 Timothy 3:15-17 says that Scripture is profitable but not sufficient as a rule of faith is to twist its meaning in order to defend a man-made tradition. This is not a new phenomenon. The Pharisees, according to Jesus, misinterpreted Scripture in order to adhere to their tradition and he condemned them for it (Matt. 15:1-9). But in both cases the Bible’s clear statement remains—Scripture is sufficient ‘for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work’.
The fact that Paul does not use the precise word ‘sufficient’ in the text just quoted in no way invalidates our statement. The sufficiency of Scripture, and therefore ‘sola scriptura’, is implicit in what he says and in the rest of biblical testimony.
The truth contained in the word ‘trinity’ stands upon exactly the same basis. The word itself is not found in Scripture. But it is a convenient term for summing up the general teaching of the Old and New Testaments on the nature of God. The teaching for which the word stands is in Scripture and therefore the use of the term is warranted. In like manner the terms ‘sufficiency’ or ‘sola scriptura’ sum up the overall teaching of Scripture about itself. Specific scriptural descriptions of the Word of God, which speak of its nature and function, lead us inescapably to this conclusion. The following are some of the words which tell us how God would have us regard his Word:
It is impossible to find a more convincing argument for the sufficiency of Scripture than these descriptions. And no such language is ever used about tradition in the Scriptures. Nowhere does it receive such commendation. We are told in explicit terms that Scripture is inspired, but never is that said of tradition. On the contrary, when the New Testament speaks of tradition it does so in words of warning (Matt. 15:2-6; Mark 7:3-13; Col. 2:8; 1 Pet. 1:18; Gal. 1:14). When we look at the overall teaching of Scripture about itself and tradition, it is surely clear that it teaches that Scripture is sufficient.
Any claim that such belief in Scripture was created by Paul and the other disciples must also be rejected. It is the express teaching of Jesus Christ himself. Christianity is founded upon the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God. His attitude to the Scriptures is supremely important. Since he is God, then all that he teaches must be true and authoritative.
Jesus clearly taught that Scripture is inspired by God. He regarded it as truth—infallible, inerrant, historically reliable, authoritative for living, and an all-sufficient rule of faith. He could say, for example, when speaking with the Pharisees or Sadducees, ‘Have you not read what God said?’ and then quote from Scripture (Matt. 22:31-32). In Matthew 4:4-10, Jesus repeatedly answers Satan by using the Old Testament as the Word of God, saying, ‘It is written.’ He maintained that not one jot or tittle would pass from the law until all was accomplished (Matt. 5:17) and that the Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35). In the prayer to his Father on the night before he was crucified, Jesus declared that ‘Thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). He affirmed the historicity of Adam (Matt. 19:4), Cain and Abel (Luke 11:51), Noah (Luke 17:26), Jonah (Matt. 12:40), the creation account (Mark 10:6-9), and the reality of heaven and hell (Mark 9:44-46).
Jesus also used the Word of God as an ultimate standard of authority when he came into conflict with other people. He rebuked men with Scripture; correcting their false concepts, teaching and misinterpretations of Scripture by using scriptural proofs. Matthew 22:23-33, for example, describes how Jesus told the Sadducees that they were greatly mistaken in their denial of the resurrection because they did not know the Scriptures or the power of God. Then he quoted a passage from the book of Genesis as an authoritative declaration from God to correct them. It is highly significant that Christ never appealed to tradition as a standard of authority; instead he used Scripture to correct the errors of tradition.
As Jesus is Lord over the Church, the Church must not only accept his teaching on the Scriptures; it must also adopt the same attitude towards them that he did. His entire life was submitted to the authority of Scripture. In quoting passages from the Old Testament during his conflict with Satan in the wilderness, Christ was applying them to his own life and thereby demonstrating that he was under the authority of Scripture. His victory was accomplished through obedience to the Scriptures, as he used them as the ultimate authority for every area of his life. At another time, speaking of his relationship with his Father, Jesus said, ‘I know him and keep his word’ (John 8:55). From beginning to end, Christ’s life and ministry were governed by the authority of Scripture. As well as testifying to the truth of the Scriptures by submitting himself to their authority, Christ also declared their inspiration as he fulfilled in his life, death and resurrection the Messianic prophecies they contained. Over and over again he said, ‘This is being done in order that that which is written might be fulfilled.’ Christ’s perfect fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures can be seen in any cursory examination of some of the more prominent Messianic prophecies:
There is only one man in history who was a Jew; a direct descendant of King David; born in Bethlehem before 70 A.D.; claimed to be the Son of God and Messiah; performed miracles; entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey being proclaimed as King; was betrayed by a friend for thirty pieces of silver; was scourged, beaten, spat upon and tortured by the Jews; was silent in his sufferings; suffered death by crucifixion; reportedly died for the sins of the world; was buried in a rich man’s tomb and three days later was reported to be resurrected. His name is Jesus Christ.
The canonical Scriptures whose prophecies are thus fulfilled in Christ are God’s inspired revelation to man. This is the testimony of the Bible to itself and the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ. As such they must be authoritative in all matters of faith.
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Given the authority of the canonical Scriptures, it is essential to ascertain what documents should be included within them. Here, too, there is an important disagreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, because Rome includes the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament canon. The term Apocrypha describes a group of fourteen or fifteen documents, written between the second century B.C. and the time of Christ. The Church of Rome has included twelve of these in the canon of the Old Testament. In particular those writings included by Rome are—The Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, Additions to Esther, Prayer of Azariah, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon. The Roman Church has to hold on to the notion of the direct inspiration of the Apocrypha because, as we will see later, some of its distinctive doctrines, including the existence of purgatory, hang on particular interpretations of texts found Only in the apocryphal books. If it can be shown that these books were not accepted by the early Church as part of the legitimate scriptural canon, then the legitimacy of these distinctive Roman doctrines is destroyed.
The first council in the history of the Western Church which officially defined the limits of the scriptural canon was the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which met in the mid-sixteenth century after the beginning of the Reformation. It included the apocryphal writings of Baruch, Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, Ecciesiasticus, Bel and the Dragon, an addition to the Book of Esther, and First and Second Maccabees in the canon of Scripture. To support its view, Trent pointed to the North African provincial Councils of Hippo in 393 A.D. and Carthage in 397 AD. under the leadership of Augustine, in which, it claimed, the ‘Church’ formally defined the content of the canon including the Apocrypha. However, this ignores the fact that there was an established, recognized canon in the Church long before these fourth-century councils took place. Origen (185-254 A.D.), for instance, stated that ‘no one should use for the proof of doctrine books not included among the canonized Scriptures’.3 Because these councils were geographically provincial, they could not speak for the Church as a whole. In addition, we shall see that the endorsement these councils gave to the Apocrypha was not of the kind that the Roman Catholic Church claims.
It is quite clear that the Hebrew Old Testament canon used by the Jews of Palestine at the time of Christ did not include the Apocrypha. All the evidence points to the fact that this Hebrew canon was comprised of the same thirty-nine books which exist in contemporary Protestant Bibles. Jesus refers to the Scriptures as comprising ‘the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms’ (Luke 24:44), which was a convenient summation of the traditional list of books and did not include the Apocrypha. Jesus and the New Testament authors never quote from the Apocrypha, though they quote prolifically from the vast majority of the Old Testament canonical books.
The first century Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that the Hebrew canon consisted of twenty-two books and did not include the Apocrypha.4 The difference between the thirty-nine books in Protestant Bibles and the twenty-two original books can be attributed to the fact that some books which are grouped together in the Hebrew canon were separated later. For example, the twelve minor prophets were originally considered to be one book. Josephus categorically rejects the Apocrypha as being truly inspired. The work of the first century Jew, Philo, seems to support Josephus, because although he wrote extensively on the Old Testament he never quoted from the Apocrypha. Even the Roman Catholic Church affirms the fact that the Jews did not accept the Apocrypha, in that it was not part of the Hebrew canon, and acknowledges that the Protestant Church follows the canon of the Jews. The New Catholic Encyclopedia states:
Some scholars have suggested that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, included the Apocrypha as part of the canon and that therefore there were two canons: a Palestinian one which did not include the Apocrypha; and an Alexandrian (Greek) version which did. This argument rests on the fact that the earliest copies we possess of the Septuagint, which were produced by Christians in the fourth century, include the Apocrypha. But it is probable that when the Septuagint came into existence six hundred years earlier it did not include the Apocrypha. We note, for instance, that Athanasius (c. 296-373), who was bishop of Alexandria (the city where the Septuagint was produced) did not include the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament canon. In addition to this, Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the fourth century, catalogued the Old Testament books which were canonical and which, he said, were translated by the Septuagint translators, and he also did not include the writings of the Apocrypha.6
The first list of the books of the Old Testament canon given to us by a Christian writer is from the pen of Melito of Sardis. His list is preserved in the writings of Eusebius, the Church historian.7 Melito tells us that he went to Palestine to ascertain the exact number of books which comprised the Hebrew canon, and he gives the names of the books and their number as twenty-two—a reaffirmation of the number given by Josephus. Origen8 also names twenty-two books in his list of the Hebrew canon. Epiphanius,9 Basil the Great,10 Gregory of Nazianzen11 and Hilary of Poitiers12 all agree with Josephus and Origen, and omit the writings of the Apocrypha.
After listing the twenty-two Old Testament books and the twenty-seven authorized canonical books of the New Testament, Athanasius wrote: ‘These are the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.13 He explicitly states that the canonical Scriptures alone were used for the determination of doctrine while the books of the Apocrypha held ecclesiastical sanction for reading only and were not considered part of the canon.14 This distinction is further amplified by Rufinus at the beginning of the fifth century.15 He is important as a witness to the exact nature of the canon of Scripture for he lived in Rome and wrote his comments on Scripture just a few years after the Councils of Hippo and Carthage under Augustine. He claims that the list he gives is that which the Fathers have handed down to the Church, and that these books alone are used to confirm doctrine and deduce proofs for the faith. He divides the writings circulating in the Church of his day into three broad categories. First, there is the canon of inspired Scripture of the Old and New Testaments which he enumerates. Secondly, there are what he calls ‘ecclesiastical’ writings which were read in the Church but were not authoritative for the defining of doctrine. He specifically mentions the Old Testament Apocrypha in this category. Then there was a third classification of writings which he designates as ‘apocryphal’, by which he means heretical writings which were not read in the Church.
Rufinus’ view is also confirmed by Jerome. He excluded the Apocrypha from his Latin translations of the Old Testament because he said it was not included in the canon of the Hebrews. He also argued that the writings of the Apocrypha were useful for edification and for reading in the Church but were not authoritative for the establishment or confirmation of doctrine, and confirmed that the Church of his day did not grant canonical status to the writings of the Apocrypha as they were not regarded as having been inspired by God. In commenting on the writings known as the Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus, Jerome concluded that:
Similarly, Gregory the Great affirmed the same view in relation to 1 Maccabees:
In the Greek Church, the leading Fathers all followed in the footsteps of Athanasius, Epiphanius and Cyril of Jerusalem in rejecting the Apocrypha as part of the canon For example, Anastasius, the patriarch of Antioch (560 A.D.) and of Byzantium (580 A.D.) both taught that the Old Testament canon consisted of twenty-two books, as did John of Damascus, writing two centuries later.
Rufinus, Jerome, Anastasius, Leontius, Gregory the Great, and John of Damascus all wrote after the provincial Councils Carthage and Hippo under Augustine. Therefore, to say that these councils somehow authoritatively established the canon of Scripture is not true. John Cosin, in his work The Scholastical History of the Canon, cites fifty-two major ecclesiastical writers from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries who affirmed the view of Jerome. Cardinal Cajetan, the great opponent of Luther in the sixteenth century, in his Commentary on all the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Testament which was dedicated to Pope Clement VII, fully supported Jerome’s teaching in separating the Apocrypha from the Hebrew canon. Cajetan’s analysis helps us to understand the meaning of the word ‘canon’ as employed by Augustine and the Council of Carthage:
The word ‘canon’, then, came to have two meanings—one broad and the other narrow. The books that were considered inspired and authoritative for the establishing of doctrine held a proto-canonical status. The apocryphal or ecclesiastical books, on the other hand, while not authoritative in defining doctrine were nonetheless valuable for the purpose of edification and held a secondary or deutero-canonical status. It is in this way that the Church historically has generally understood Augustine and the Council of Carthage.
In his writings Augustine lists the Apocrypha as part of the general canon.19 However, he also clearly affirms the fact that it was not accepted by the Jews as part of the canon of the Old Testament and it is clear from statements that he makes on other occasions that he held to the broad interpretation of the word ‘canon’ as described above:
Clearly, Augustine believed that the Church held the Apocrypha to be canonical in the broad sense that these writings provided a good example and an inspiration to perseverance in the faith.
The above quotations clearly demonstrate that the Councils of Hippo and Carthage did not establish the canon of the Scriptures, for their decrees on the Old Testament were unsupported by the Church’s earlier testimony and were not accepted afterwards. Right down to the time of the Reformation the clear testimony of the authorities in the Church as a whole affirms the view of Jerome, and it prevailed until the Council of Trent. Not until the mid-sixteenth century at Trent did the Roman Catholic Church approve the Apocrypha as part of the Old Testament canon. That such approval did not take place at Hippo or Carthage is affirmed in these comments by the New Catholic Encyclopedia:
Here is an authoritative Roman Catholic source affirming the fact that it was not until the sixteenth century that the Roman Catholic Church established the canon of the Old Testament. The Encyclopedia’s use of the word ‘uncertainty’ relative to the Church’s view on the Apocrypha down to the time of the Council of Trent is very misleading however. There was absolutely no doubt or uncertainty about the matter. The Apocrypha was not considered to be part of the Old Testament canon. But at least it is honest enough to give an accurate picture of when the Old Testament canon was truly and authoritatively determined by the Roman Church.
Our analysis has shown that the vast weight of historical evidence falls on the side of excluding the Apocrypha from the category of canonical Scripture. It is interesting to note that the only two Fathers of the early Church who are considered to be true biblical scholars, Jerome and Origen (and who both spent time in the area of Palestine and were therefore familiar with the Hebrew canon), rejected the Apocrypha. And the near unanimous opinion of the Church followed this view. And coupled with this historical evidence is the fact that these writings have serious internal difficulties in that they are characterized by heresies, inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies which invalidate their being given the status of Scripture.
What we have considered is highly significant. The Protestant Church is continually charged with upholding dogmas which first appeared very late in the history of the Church. The Reformers’ teaching on sola scriptura, the Roman Church claims, was unknown before the sixteenth century. But as the New Catholic Encyclopedia itself acknowledges, the truth is that it is the Roman Catholic Church which has introduced dogmas which are very late in the history of the Church, for this ruling on the canon comes in the middle of the sixteenth century! As we have seen, it is a ruling contrary to the testimony of the Jews to the canon of Scripture, to the general patristic witness of the Church and to the overall consensus of the Church right down to the time of the Reformation. What right does any council or individual have to change the canon received by the Jews, to whom according to the New Testament had been committed the very oracles of God?
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored The Christian Following Christ as Lord and Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, and is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. You can visit his website at: