In centuries past, the church was faced with the important task of recognizing which books belong in the Bible.
This subject, the canon, is answered several times already on the CathApol Blog, but Sproul Sr's spin on this is worth taking another look at it. An important part of the wording here, perhaps a Freudian slip, "the church was faced with the important task of recognizing which books belong in the Bible." The canon is not explicitly expressed in Scripture, rather it comes to us by the Holy Ghost through His Church. It is interesting to note that Sproul states that it was "the church" which was "faced with the important task..." Most Protestants have a real hard time admitting that this responsibility was left to the Church, so kudos for Dr. Sproul in this regard.
The Bible itself is not a single book but a collection of many individual books. What the church sought to establish was what we call the canon of sacred Scripture.
The word canon comes from a Greek word that means “standard or measuring rod.” So the canon of sacred Scripture delineates the standard that the church used in receiving the Word of God. As is often the case, it is the work of heretics that forces the church to define her doctrines with greater and greater precision.
We saw the Nicene Creed as a response to the heresy of Arius in the fourth century, and we saw the Council of Chalcedon as a response to the fifth-century heresies of Eutyches and Nestorius, with respect to the church’s understanding of the person of Christ. In like manner, the first list of canonical books of the New Testament that we have was produced by a heretic named Marcion.Marcion’s New Testament was an expurgated version of the original biblical documents. Marcion was convinced that the God of the Old Testament was at best a demiurge (a creator god who is the originator of evil) who in many respects is defective in being and character. Thus, any reference to that god in the New Testament in a positive relationship to Jesus had to be edited out. And so we receive from Marcion a bare-bones profile of Jesus and His teaching, divorced from the Old Testament. Over against this heresy, the church had to define the full measure of the apostolic writings, which they did in establishing the New Testament and Old Testament canon.
Marcion was a figure in the Early Church in the early to mid second century. His heresy was more related to his belief in the God of the Old Testament being evil and Jesus was the God of the New Testament who came to destroy the God of the Old Testament. He was also quite anti-Jewish (as were many in the Early Church) and saw no value in the Jewish Scriptures of what Christians call the Old Testament. The fact that Marcion's New Testament canon was different from other canons of the day is not really a unique matter - as there were several canons in existence. Some of the books which were widely accepted as canonical in the first century, even into the 4th century, included books like the Epistles of St. Clement (the third pope after St. Peter) which were eventually excluded from the final canon of the Christian Church. So again, the canon variation of Marcion was not really the reason he was branded a heretic - though he really did butcher the Christian canon.
Another crisis emerged much later in the sixteenth century, in the midst of the Protestant Reformation. Though the central debate, what historians call the material cause of the Reformation, focused on the doctrine of justification, the underlying dispute was the secondary issue of authority. In Luther’s defense of sola fide or faith alone, he was reminded by the Roman Catholic Church that she had already made judgments in her papal encyclicals and in her historical documents in ways that ran counter to Luther’s theses. And in the middle of that controversy, Luther affirmed the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura, namely that the conscience is bound by sacred Scripture alone, that is, the Bible is the only source of divine, special revelation that we have. In response, the Roman Catholic Church at the fourth session of the Council of Trent declared that God’s special revelation is contained both in sacred Scripture and in the tradition of the church. This position, called a dual-source view of revelation, was reaffirmed by subsequent papal encyclicals. And so we see the dispute between Scripture alone versus Scripture plus tradition. In that controversy, the issue had to do with something that was an addition to the Bible, namely, the church’s tradition.
I find it a bit ironic that Sproul prefaces the above paragraph with the fact that dogmatic definitions in the Church most often are in response to heresy/heretics - and this paragraph opens by pointing out the "crisis" which "emerged much later in the sixteenth century, in the midst of the Protestant Reformation." Moreover, the subject he opens with is that of the Canon of Sacred Scripture - which is also dogmatically defined in the Fourth Session of the Council of Trent!
Since that time, the opposite problem has emerged, and that is not so much the question of what is added to Scripture, but rather what has been subtracted from it. We face now an issue not of Scripture addition but of Scripture reduction. The issue that we face in our day is not merely the question of sola Scriptura but also the question of tota Scriptura, which has to do with embracing the whole counsel of God as it is revealed in the entirety of sacred Scripture. There have been many attempts in the last century to seek a canon within the canon. That is to say, restricted portions of Scripture are deemed as God’s revelation, not the whole of Scripture. In this case, we have seen movements that have been described by historians as neo-Marcionite. That is, the activity of canon reduction sought by the heretic Marcion in the early church has now been replicated in our day.
Now of course we, Catholics, say that this neo-Marcionite activity began with the "Reformers" who removed seven books from the accepted canon of the Old Testament. That canon which was codified at the Council of Trent, was originally stated by several local councils in the late 4th Century (Councils of Hippo, Carthage and Rome) and every approved translation of Scripture from that time forward included the total canon, or perhaps I should say was the tota scriptura. The "Reformers" (I put that word in quotes, because they truly didn't "reform" anything, they formed "new" churches) removed from the canon that which Catholics refer to as the Deuterocanonicals. Protestants often erroneously call these books "The Apocrypha," but that is a misnomer. Apocrypha means "hidden" books, and the Deuterocanonicals were never "hidden" - they are simply the "second" (hence "deutero") canon. What we, Catholics, would call "apocryphal" might be many of the books which were not known for many years and yet are (sometimes falsely) attributed to earlier, even apostolic authors and many are considered Gnostic writings. Some books, however, are not questioned for the authenticity of the author, such as the Epistles of St. Clement, our third pope after St. Peter, but did not meet the canon criteria set forth by the Church through the Holy Ghost.
Perhaps most famous for this in the twentieth century was the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who made a significant distinction between what he called kerygma and myth. He taught that the Scriptures contained truths of historical value and of theological value that were salvific in their content, but that those truths were hidden and contained within a husk of mythology. For the Bible to be relevant to modern man, it must be demythologized. The husks must be broken in order that the kernel of truth buried under the mythological husk can be brought to the surface.
Beyond the radical reductionism of Bultmann, we have seen more recently attempts among professing evangelicals, and even within the Reformed community, to seek a different type of reduction of Scripture. We have seen views of so-called “limited inspiration” or “limited inerrancy.” That is to say, the Spirit’s inspiration of the Bible is not holistic, but rather is limited to matters of faith and doctrine. In this scenario, proponents suggest we can distinguish between doctrinal matters that are of divine origin and what the Bible teaches in matters of science and history, and, in some cases, ethics. Therefore, there are portions within the Bible that are not equally inspired by God. In this case, we see the reappearance of a canon within a canon. The problem that arises is a serious one. Perhaps most severe is the question, who is it who decides what part of the Bible really belongs to the canon? Once we remove ourselves from a view of tota Scriptura, we are free then to pick and choose what portions of Scripture are normative for Christian faith and life, just like picking cherries from a tree.
And this would PRECISELY be the reason why Christians should reject "the Protestant Canon!" Men who LEFT the authority of the Catholic Church in the 16th century in their own neo-Marcionite way decided to remove the Deuterocanonical books from the Canon of Sacred Scripture. Certainly they have rationalizations as to why they did this, but what they lack is the AUTHORITY to do it!
To do this we would have to revisit the teaching of Jesus, wherein He said that man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We would have to change it, to have our Lord say that we do not live by bread alone but by only some of the words that come to us from God. In this case, the Bible is reduced to the status where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. This is an issue that the church has to face in every generation, and it has reappeared today in some of the most surprising places. We’re finding, in seminaries that call themselves Reformed, professors advocating this type of canon within the canon. The church must say an emphatic “no” to these departures from orthodox Christianity, and she must reaffirm her faith not only in sola Scriptura, but in tota Scriptura as well.
Again, in order for Dr. Sproul's position to be consistent, he would need to reject the "Protestant Canon" and accept the "Catholic Canon" as decreed by the Council of Trent, which was first put forth by the Councils of Cathage, Hippo and Rome in the late 4th century - and was used by St. Jerome in the translation of Scripture into the Vulgate (common tongue) about the same time.
Permission to use this article is granted so long as the wording is not altered, which I have not done - in fact, Dr. Sproul's wording is complete here. I have simply inserted my response/rebuttal to his words, which is also permissible based upon "Fair Use" according to copyright law.