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Don Stewart :: Did the Roman Catholic Church Have the Right to Decide Which Books Belong in the New Testament Canon?

Don Stewart

The Roman Catholic Church contends that it is their right to determine which books belong in the canon of Scripture. Do they have the right to determine which books belong in the New Testament canon?

Argument For The Authority Of The Roman Catholic Church

Those who argue that the Roman Catholic Church should have authority in matters of biblical authority and interpretation usually list the following reasons.

1. God Established The Church As His Voice Upon The Earth

God established the Roman Catholic Church as His voice upon the earth. It alone has the power to speak for Him on all matters. Therefore it has the right to determine which books belong in the canon.

2. The Church Existed Before The New Testament

Since the church came before the New Testament, the church should have authority over it. Therefore the final authority on all matters of faith should come from the church.

The Roman Catholic Church, therefore, may add or delete things to Scripture as the need arises. It alone has the keys to properly understand the Bible.

The Issue Would Be Settled

It these arguments are true, then the question of the canon can be settled once and for all. We only need to discover what the Roman Catholic Church has to say about the matter. Their word would be final.

The Roman Catholic Church Has The Right New Testament Books

The Roman Catholic Church certainly does have an appropriate New Testament canon. There is no difference of opinion between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism with respect to the extent of the New Testament. What should we make of all of this?

The Problems With Roman Catholic Position

While the Roman Catholic position would solve the problem with respect to the extent of the canon, it cannot be sustained for several reasons.

1. The Idea Is Not Biblical

The position that the Roman Catholic Church has authority over the Bible's message is not biblical. We find no evidence that the Roman Catholic Church, as an organization, has any authority to continue to speak for God on any subject. There is not the slightest hint in the Bible that the Scripture must submit to the organized church on the earth - let alone the Roman Catholic Church.

2. There Was Written Scripture Before Church

While the early church did not have the New Testament, they did have a written Scripture - the Old Testament. The Old Testament existed before the New Testament Church and it was cited as authoritative in all matters in which it spoke.

3. The New Testament Was Built Upon Teachings Of Christ

The spoken Word of God is that which brought the New Testament church into existence - the teachings of Jesus Christ. The Church was built on the foundation of the teachings of the Apostles and prophets and their explanation of the words and deeds of Jesus. Paul wrote.

[The church was] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20).

This teaching of Christ is what made up the New Testament. The Apostles and prophets were not built upon the church - the church was built upon them and their teaching.

4. Only Jesus' Apostles Had This Unique Authority

The ability to speak God's authoritative words to humanity was only given to Jesus' apostles. This authority was granted to them alone. There is no evidence whatsoever that Jesus' authority extended beyond the lifetime of the apostles.

5. What About The Eastern Orthodox Church?

The claims of the Eastern Orthodox Church do not seem to have been considered in the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Why isn't the final authority in them rather than the Roman Catholic Church? What makes the Roman Catholic Church the one true church?

6. They Already Have Made Mistakes About The Canon

The Roman Catholic Church has already made a mistake with respect to the Old Testament Canon. They have added the books of the Apocrypha to Old Testament Scripture without any good historical or biblical reasons. These books contain a number of doctrines that are contradictory with the Scripture as well as many historical and geographical errors. Yet the Roman Catholic Church declared these faulty books authoritative. Consequently they have already demonstrated their imperfections by declaring these books Scriptural.

7. Their Historical Attitude Toward Bible Translation Has Been Terrible

In the past, the Roman Catholic Church has not been at all friendly toward idea that the masses should read the Bible for themselves. They have made this clear. Consequently we find the Roman Catholic Church having taken extreme measures to stop Bible translation. For many years they burned many more Bibles than they ordered to be published.

There is also a terrible history of the church officially murdering people who desired to translate the Word of God in order that the common people could understand it. While this has changed in recent times it was certainly not the case in the past.


The issue of the extent of the New Testament canon could be easily decided if we could just appeal to some external authority. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be that authority in the following manner.

First, they argue that God established the Roman Catholic Church as His divine institution here upon the earth. Furthermore, since the church came into existence before the writing of the New Testament the church should have authority over it. The Apostle, who originally received Jesus' authority, passed this authority on to their successors. This apostolic authority remains with the Roman Catholic Church to this day.

While these arguments would settle the issue of the extent of the canon they cannot be upheld.

Scripture does not say anything regarding the authority of the church on this matter or any other matter. In addition, the church did not come before the Scriptures - the Old Testament and the words of Jesus were binding on them from the beginning.

Only Jesus' immediate disciples had the authority to speak for him. This authority was not passed on. In addition, the situation with the Eastern Orthodox Church has been overlooked.

As a practical matter, the Roman Catholic Church has already been mistaken in the past about the canon as well as persecuting those who wanted the Scripture in the hands of the people. There is no history of any divine guidance of the Roman Catholic Church on these matters.

Consequently the final authority for all matters of faith and practice should rest solely on the Bible not upon any external organization.


The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.


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