A common refrain by Catholics is that the Roman Catholic Church gave the canon of scripture to man. It is reasoned that without the Roman Catholic Church the world would not even know which books to accept as scripture. This is used to argue for the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Consider these statements. “Yes, the Catholic Church did give the world the Bible. The Catholic Church wrote the New Testament. Then, took the Jewish scriptures and combined them with the New Testament to form the Bible” (Did the Catholic Church Give us the Bible? By De Maria, catholic365.com). “The Old Testament books were written well before Jesus’ incarnation, and all of the New Testament books were written by roughly the end of the first century A.D. But the Bible as a whole was not officially compiled until the late fourth century, illustrating that it was the Catholic church who determined the canon…” (Who Compiled the Bible and When? By Tom Nash, catholic.com).
Is this true? How do we respond to this? Here is my brief reply. First, there is a distinction between what God has determined and what man recognizes or declares. Norman Geisler and William Nix have well stated, “Canonicity is determined by God. A book is not inspired because men made it canonical; it is canonical because God inspired it… canonicity is determined or established authoritatively by God; it is merely discovered by man. The incorrect view places the church over canon whereas the proper view places the church under canon” (Norman Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, p. 221-222). Let me illustrate, when Paul wrote an epistle to the church, it had authority whether or not the church accepted what was written. J.I. Packer said this, “The church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the books that make it up” (Geisler and Nix, p. 211).
Second, the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, were in use long before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence. These books were authoritative before any Roman councils occurred. This is admitted by Roman Catholics.
Third, New Testament writings were being circulated among local churches long before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence (e.g. Colossians 4:16; 1 Timothy 5:18 cf. Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7; 2 Peter 3:14-16). I realize that the Roman Catholic Church claims that it existed at this point, and was the first church. However, there is no historical evidence that its organizational structure existed at this time (e.g. Universal Bishop, Separate Priesthood, Clergy – laity) or many of its practices (e.g. prayer to Mary, sprinkling, etc.). Four, there was acceptance of the New Testament books before any Roman councils declared their acceptance. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 A.D.). “On the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read…” (First Apology of Justin, Chapter 67). This sounds like Ephesians 2:19-20. Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.) compared the New Testament writers and their writings to the trumpets at Jericho. He said, “Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets. Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John also sounded the trumpet through his epistles, and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles. And now that last one comes, the one who said, ‘I think God displays us apostles last’ (1 Corinthians 4:9 B.H.), and in fourteen of his epistles, thundering with trumpets, he casts down the walls of Jericho and all the devices of idolatry and dogmas of philosophers, all the way to the foundations” (Origen, Homilies on Joshua, Homily 7 nd.edu). Origen does acknowledge that some disputed the books of Hebrews, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, James and Jude (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable, p. 25). Most of the books were received without dispute. They were regarded as homologoumena (acknowledged). The books which some disputed were regarded as antilegomena (disputed). Eusebius (c. 265-340 A.D.) “mentions as generally acknowledged all the books of our New Testament except James, Jude, 2 Peter, and 2 & 3 John which were disputed by some, but recognized by the majority” (F.F. Bruce, p. 25 cf. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History Book 3, Chapters 3, 24, 25). Athanasius (c. 367 A.D.) listed the New Testament books as the same 27 in use today.
This was before the councils of Hippo in 393 A.D. and of Carthage in 397 A.D. (Geisler and Nix, p. 293).
Fifth, the Catholic Church has not been in sole possession of the Bible. David J. Riggs has written, “The Catholic claim of giving the Bible to the world cannot be true because they have not been the sole possessor of the Bible at any time. Some of the most valuable Greek Bibles and versions have been handed down to us from non-Roman Catholic sources. A notable example of this is the Codex Sinaiticus which was found in the Monastery of St. Catherine (of the Greek Orthodox Church) at Mount Sinai in 1844 and is now found in the British Museum. It contains all of the New Testament and all but a portion of the Old Testament. Scholars are certain that this manuscript was made early in the fourth century, not later than 350 A.D…. this manuscript has never been in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. Another valuable manuscript that has never been possessed by the Roman Catholic Church is Codex Alexandrianus. It too is now on exhibit in the manuscript room of the British Museum in London. It was a gift from the Patriarch of Constantinople (of the Greek Orthodox Church) to Charles I in 1628… scholars are certain that this manuscript was also made in the fourth century” (David J. Riggs, Did The Catholic Church Give Us the Bible?).
Sixth, even if the Roman Catholic Church could prove that they were responsible for compiling the canon of scriptures this would not prove that they are the true church. If a cult leader hands me a Bible, would that make him a true Christian? If the town drunk gives me a Bible, does that make him a true Christian? David Riggs points out, “God has at times used evil agencies to accomplish His purpose (Jeremiah 27:6-8; 43;10; Habakkuk 1:5-11; John 11:49-52).”
Why did it take time for an official list to come forth? Geisler and Nix provides these thoughts: “First, communication and transportation were slow in those days. Hence, it took much longer for the believers in the West to become fully aware of the evidence for books first written and circulated in the East, and vice versa. Second, the first centuries of the church (prior to A.D. 313) were times of great persecution that did not provide the resources nor allow for research … Third, there was no widespread need to list the precise books of the canon until there was a serious challenge to the canonical books, which had already been accepted for centuries. That challenge did not become acute until Marcion published his heretical canon (with only Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles) in the middle of the second century … Along with his gnosticism there were many apocryphal gospels and epistles written in the second and third centuries … Since those books claimed divine authority, it was necessary for the universal church to define precisely the limits of the canon that had been determined by God and recognized earlier by the people of God” (Geisler and Nix, p. 231).