Polemical Canon Fodder [Commentary on Browne: Article VI (1)]

When Protestants declare that the Bible is their highest authority, a typical rejoinder from Roman Catholics is, “And where did the Bible come from?” The implication is that the Bible was canonized by the (Roman) Catholic Church, thereby indicating that the Church’s authority is even higher than that of the Bible. This way of thinking is evident from the words that are used to characterize the Canon in popular Romanist treatments of the subject. For example, The Catholic Encyclopedia holds that the books of the Bible were “adjudged to have a uniquely Divine and authoritative quality,” with canonicity being “the extrinsic dignity belonging to writings which have been officially declared as of sacred origin and authority.”[1] Regarding the New Testament in particular, we are told that it was only “at the close of the first decade of the fifth century [that] the entire Western Church was in possession of the full Canon of the New Testament.”[2] Similarly, according to Scripture Catholic it was the Church that “determine[d] what books were inspired” and “belong[ed] in [the Bible].”[3] Catholic Answers is particularly forthright:

The plain fact of the matter is that the canon of the Bible was not settled in the first years of the Church. It was settled only after repeated (and perhaps heated) discussions, and the final listing was determined by the pope and Catholic bishops. This is an inescapable fact, no matter how many people wish to escape from it.[4]

The ongoing popularity of this canard is remarkable, considering that the Roman Catholics’ own Vatican I overthrows it entirely:

These books [“the complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts”] the church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the church.[5]

The notion that the biblical Canon was authoritatively declared by the Roman Church is not new either, as Browne (writing before Vatican I) mentions this view in his discussion of Article VI:

The Roman Church holds, that we receive the Scriptures, both of the old and new Testament, simply on the authority of the Church. It is said, that the Canon was not fixed till the end of the fourth century; and it is inferred, that the Church then, by its plenary authority, determined which books were Scripture, and which were not. Thus virtually the Church has been made to hold a position superior to the Scriptures, as not only “a witness and keeper,” but also a judge “of Holy Writ.” And though, in the first instance, such authority is conceded to the Church of the fourth century; yet, by implication and consequence, the same authority is claimed for the Church of this day; that is, not for the Church Universal, but for that portion of it which has claimed, as its exclusive title, the name of Catholic, i. e. the Church of Rome.

Since Browne evidently does not accept this, it might be supposed he must instead hold the Protestant view that we know which books are canonical based on “the witness which the Spirit bears with our own spirits that they are the Word of God.” In actuality, Browne holds that canonicity can be ascertained through a combination of ecclesiastical authority, internal witness of the Scriptures themselves, and external testimony regarding the same:

The Church of England rejects altogether neither the authority of the Church, nor the internal testimony of the Scriptures. Yet she is not satisfied to rest her faith solely on the authoritative decree of any council in the fourth or fifth, still less in any later century; neither can she consent to forego all external testimony, and trust to an internal witness alone, knowing that, as Satan can transform himself into an angel of light, so it is possible, that what seems the guidance of God’s Spirit may, if not proved, be really the suggestion of evil spirits. Hence we think that there is need of the external word, and of the Church, to teach; lest what seems a light within be but darkness counterfeiting light: and we know, that the fertile source of almost every fanatical error, recorded in history, has been a reliance on inward illumination, to the neglect of outward testimony.

The details of this approach as laid out by Browne are left to the reader’s perusal. Suffice to say that while contemporary treatments of the subject may suggest that our only two options for knowing the Canon are ecclesiastical fideism or subjective illuminations of the Spirit, Browne shows that another approach is possible.[6]


  1. George Reid, “Canon of the Old Testament,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03267a.htm.
  2. George Reid, “Canon of the New Testament,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 3 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908), https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03274a.htm.
  3. J. Salza, “How was the Canon of Scripture Determined?” Scripture Catholic, https://www.scripturecatholic.com/canon-scripture-determined/.
  4. Catholic Answers Staff, “Was the Canon of Scripture Determined before the Church Councils That Decided It?” Catholic Answers, https://www.catholic.com/qa/was-the-canon-of-scripture-determined-before-the-church-councils-that-decided-it.
  5. Council Fathers, “Decrees of the First Vatican Council,” Session 3, Ch. 2, #6‒7 (1870), Papal Encyclicals Online, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum20.htm.
  6. For further reading on the biblical Canon, see F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988, repr. IVP Academic, 2018); Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and its Background in Early Judaism (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008); Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012); Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013); and Edmon L. Gallagher and John D. Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).


James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. His writing has appeared in Cranmer Theological Journal, Journal of Classical Theology, and American Reformer, as well as other publications.

'Polemical Canon Fodder [Commentary on Browne: Article VI (1)]' has no comments

Be the first to comment this post!

Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican