What does the Roman Catholic Church believe about the canon of Scripture? This question is of utmost importance for discussions between Protestants and Catholics. If we can find common ground here, we will have a wonderful inerrant basis to ground our debates. To that end, I would like to explore how the Roman Catholic Church fits into two different models of canonicity.
In recent years, Dr. John Peckham has done some phenomenal work in advancing our understanding of the canon of Scripture and its relevance as our authority. He has described the two models of canonicity we will discuss.
The first is the community canon model. In this model, the religious community determines the canon. “The canon is defined as a set of writings that are selected by the community as a standard”1. In other words, the community functions as the primary authority for itself, and any authority found in Scripture derives ultimately from the church.
The second is the intrinsic canon model. In this model, canonicity is based on the “intrinsic merits” of the text. Recognition of canonicity is important for functional authority, but the authority of the text is intrinsic, not deriving from any other source but God. Peckham advocates for this perspective.2
Although any attempt at clean categorization will have some shortcomings, Peckham’s two models are a very helpful paradigm for understanding canonicity in all religious communities.
In describing the community canon model, Peckham cites Roman Catholicism as an example. Specifically, he says that Scripture derives its authority from tradition in the Roman Catholic model. > The first example of this model is canonicity determined by the authority of tradition. Representative of this is the Roman Catholic Church which accepts as canonical those books which have been declared so by the institution. Specifically, books were accepted on the basis of “tradition and liturgical use.”3
In one sense, this is without dispute. Traditional and liturgical use is certainly a basis for Rome’s definition of the canon, but is it the sole or primary basis? The answer is a resounding no.
Peckham sets out four criteria for intrinsic canonicity: 1. The text must have prophetic or apostolic origin. 2. The text must have antiquity (i.e. it must come from the time of the supposed writer). 3. The text must have consistency, congruity, and continuity with previous revelation. 4. The text must be self-authenticating.4 Notably, he excludes usage as a criterion.
I struggle to see any substantial difference between the first two criteria. If a text has legitimate prophetic or apostolic authority, by necessity, it will meet the standard for antiquity. If it does not meet the standard for antiquity, we could not reasonably say that it meets the criterion for propheticity or apostolicity. Thus, the second criterion is a corollary for the first.
With that in mind, I would offer a slight adjustment to Peckham’s list, offering only three criteria: 1. The text must have prophetic or apostolic origin. 2. The text must have consistency, congruity, and continuity with previous revelation. 3. The text must be self-authenticating.
Dei Verbum is perhaps the clearest exposition of a doctrine of Scripture in modern Roman Catholicism. For this reason, I think it best to turn to this document to evaluate where Roman Catholicism stands in relation to Peckham’s canon models.
Dei Verbum, Article 11, says: > For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. Note the rationale the Roman Church gives for acceptance of the canon. She first accepts the canon of Scripture based on its inspiration. This affirmation aligns with Peckham’s criterion of self-authentification. He says, “[Their] true canonical merit lies in the providence of God in the revelation, inspiration, preservation, and recognition of the canon.”5
Second, Dei Verbum points to the handing down of the Scriptures as a basis. This is certainly related to the concept of tradition, but what is the source of this handing down? It is not the early Church Fathers or the present Magisterium; instead, the true source is the Apostles themselves and the prophets before them. The church certainly serves as a steward of the tradition, but the authority of tradition and the Scriptures comes directly from the Apostles. Thus, Peckham’s first and second criteria are met. The Catholic Church accepts the Scriptures based on their apostolic origin.
Finally, Dei Verbum speaks absolutely on the coherence of Scripture: > God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.6 Admittedly, as far as I am aware, the Catholic Church does not seem to use this coherence as a basis for accepting the Scriptures, but she certainly believes in the coherence of Scripture. And she certainly would not condemn the use of this criterion apologetically to prove the veracity of the Scriptures.
So where does the Roman Catholic Church stand between the extremes of intrinsic canonicity and community canonicity.
For Roman Catholics, the canon is not “defined as a set of writings that are selected by the community as a standard.” Instead, God defines the canon through the derivative authority he gives to the prophets and apostles. Authority does not reside in the community to determine the canon, but only to recognize it, and the Roman Church explicitly points to the belief of the Apostles as a trustworthy basis for accepting the canon.
So while the Roman Catholic Church does not use every criteria that Peckham sets forth in the intrinsic canon Model, and while the Roman Catholic Church certainly uses tradition as one basis for accepting Scripture, the Roman Catholic Church is much closer to the intrinsic canon model than the community canon model.
This is critically important for dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics. If Protestants want to make any headway, they must be willing to accurately articulate their opponent’s position, particularly from the official documents of the Roman Catholic Church. Until this happens, we cannot expect Catholics to hear to any arguments against their position.
John C. Peckham, “The Canon and Biblical Authority: A Critical Comparison of Two Models of Canonicity,” Trinity Journal 28, no. 2 (2007): 231.↩︎