Is Tradition the Only Way to Know Which Books are in the Canon?

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

April 13, 2012

Over at the Parchment and Pen blog, Michael Patton has objected to the statement of faith of Together for the Gospel (T4G), particularly as it pertains to the relationship between tradition and canon:

Think of it another way: Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.

I imagine that Patton is quite aware of the similarities this argument has with standard Roman Catholic formulations. In fact, this is precisely the argument used by modern Roman Catholic apologists. For example, Patrick Madrid challenges the Protestant position on canon on the grounds that Christians do not have an “inspired table of contents” that would reveal “which books belong and which books do not.”[1]

Now, I think much of what Patton is striving for is commendable.  After all, doesn’t the uniform witness of the church (what we might call tradition) play some role in helping us know which books are canonical?  Yes, I think it does and I appreciate Patton’s emphasis in this regard (and I cover this in my forthcoming book, Canon Revisited).  However, I think the way that Patton has framed it is still problematic.  Steve Hays over at Triablogue has offered some helpful responses here.  I will offer a couple of my own:

First, would an “inspired table of contents” really solve the problem as Patton (and Catholics) maintain? Let us imagine for a moment that God had inspired another document in the first century which contained this ‘table of contents’ and had given it to the church.  We will call this the 28th book of the New Testament canon.  Would the existence of such a book satisfy Catholic concerns and thus eliminate the need for an appeal to church tradition?  Not at all.  Instead, they would simply ask the next logical question:  “On what basis do you know that this 28th book comes from God?”   And even if it were argued that God had given a 29th book saying the 28th book came from God, then the same objection would still apply: “Yes, but how do you know the 29th book came from God?”  And on it would go.

The Catholic (and Patton’s) objection about the need for a ‘table of contents,’ therefore, misses the point entirely.  Even if there were another document with such a ‘table of contents,’ this document would still need to be authenticated as part of the canon.  After all, what if there were multiple table-of-contents-type books floating around in the early church?  How would we know which one was from God? In the end, therefore, the Roman Catholic objection is, to some extent, artificial. Such a ‘table of contents’ would never satisfy their concerns, even if it existed, because they have already determined, a priori, that no document could ever be self-attesting.  In other words, built into the Roman Catholic model is that any written revelation (whether it contains a ‘table of contents’ or not) will require external approval and authentication from church tradition.

This leads naturally to my second concern.  As I have already noted, I think the consensus eventually reached by the church on the books of the NT can help us know which books are from God.  However, I would disagree with Patton (and the Catholics) that this is the only way to know (Patton said, “it is only through tradition…”).  Entirely overlooked in this regard is the intrinsic authority built into these books and how that intrinsic authority could play a role in their authentication.  The Catholic model so over-emphasizes church tradition as the only means of knowing that, at least in practice, they ignore the internal qualities of the books themselves.

The protestant reformers referred to this as the self-authenticating (autopistic) nature of Scripture.  It is simply the idea that the books themselves bear the qualities and attributes that can identify them as having come from God. This is not the place to offer a full defense of this idea; my point is simply that it has been a standard part of Reformed/protestant theology throughout church history and thus must be considered.

In sum, I believe that the consensus eventually reached by the church (what one might call ‘tradition’) is a way to know which books are canonical, but certainly not the only way.  As far as the protestant reformers were concerned, these books could speak for themselves.  After all, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me” (John 10:27).


[1] Patrick Madrid, “Sola Scriptura: A Blueprint for Anarchy,” in Not By Scripture Alone: A Catholic Critique of the Protestant Doctrine of Sola Scriptura, ed. Robert A. Sungenis (Santa Barbara: Queenship Publishing, 1997), 22.


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