This was an email composed by my friend Rick...on his way to becoming a theologian.
Okay, I have many thoughts swirling around my head. I hope I can get them all out. First, thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking email. You bring up some interesting ideas...some I had never heard before (I'm not sure whether that is because these ideas are original to you, or because I have not read as widely as you, but either way it was very interesting).
Let's start with this: can we agree that the index of books we have in the Bible, the canon, is a tradition? It is traditional to include the the book of Revelation. Same with the four Gospels. This tradition has been handed down over the centuries. None of the the books of the Bible lists which books are infallible, but over generations a reliable list was formed and the tradition has been handed down generation after generation. Christians, over time, made a decision about what kinds of books would be in the Scriptures, and what kind will be left out, and we follow the tradition of their criteria. Again, it does not say in the Gospel of John, "Here is how you will know a book is inspired..." but at some point Christians made criteria, decided which books "fit," and have been following that tradition since. True?
Isn't it also true that the tradition of which books would be included was developed and articulated by a group of fallible men. Obviously third and forth century Christians have no claim to infallibility, right? So when they determine the valid secular proofs that will be used to decide, their choice of proofs is fallible. Perhaps they made a mistake, perhaps one of their proofs accidentally excluded certain texts that are infallible. Likewise, perhaps their fallible criteria was too lenient, and some books slipped in that were actually quite wrong (like James with all his talk about faith and works).
Yes, we can all agree that God inspired writers throughout time to write certain infallible books. But how do we, who are quite fallible (I prove myself fallible every day) know which are God-breathed, and which are just really interesting books? Can there be any conclusion other than this: we have a fallible list of infallible books? (this is an assertion that has been attributed to a certain Protestant author, but I can't confirm it so I won't give his name). Is that what we have? A fallible list of infallible books? How could it be otherwise, when fallible Christians many generations after the last apostle died, were the one's making the list?
If you read about the process by which the canon came to be, you cannot avoid the conclusion that many fallible people were voicing an opinion. After all, there was heated debate throughout the Church about which books should be included, and which should be excluded. Many did not want to include Hebrews, or Jude, or (especially) the Revelation of St. John. Others wanted to include the Revelation of St. Peter, or the Didache, or the letters of St. Clement. Different individual churches were reading different books, and excluding other books. There was absolutely no consensus on many books.
So, if you were to be transported back to the third century, how would you know which books were Scripture? After all, many different voices were giving conflicting accounts. And without a clear Bible to which you could refer, how would you know what to do when different heresies arose (and we know that there were dozens of deadly heresies prowling around at the time). What would you do? Who would you trust?
Well, St. Ignatius of Antioch was speaking to people who were mired in a situation just like yours (I'm still pretending you are a third century Christian). He said that if you want to know who is teaching the truth, look for the local bishop. The local bishop, you see, has teaching authority. From where does he get his authority? Well, he received his authority from the authority of another bishop, who received his from another, who, ultimately, received his from one of the Apostles (and, at that point, it really may have been just two or three steps back before you hit an Apostle). And the Apostles received their authority from Christ Jesus. Therefore, if you want to know who is teaching the orthodox, catholic faith, look for the apostolic bishop.
If you did anything else...if you choose to rely on your own understanding, or on your own canon of Scripture (remember, the canon will not be set for about another 200 years), well, then, you may have ended up believing in something resembling the DaVinci Code! Your only hope, if you wanted to maintain the Christian faith, would have been to seek the authority of the bishops, because it was they that maintained the authority of Christ (who gave authority to the Church).
Therefore, when the worldwide Church was confronted with the chaos of different books being read in different churches (and other books excluded), what did the Church do? Well, it called together the bishops--those with apostolic authority--and the bishops put their heads together and said, "Listen, Church, we know there has been lots of confusion out there about which books are infallible. Good news! We, the bishops, whose responsibility it is to shepherd the Church into all Truth, we who have teaching authority, we who have the authority to bind and loose, we've seen the problem, and we have come together. By our authority, granted to us from the Apostles themselves, we present to you...THE CANON." Trumpets blare, the crowd erupts in applause, everyone breaths a sigh of relief. "Glad that debate is over!" All in all, not a bad day for the catholic Church.
Okay, so, all of this, I'm sure, exhibits probably a third grade understanding of how it all went down. This is like learning about how a cell works in grade school. There is no question that by high school one of the teachers will say, "Well, its actually far more complicated than that..." I have no doubt. But that does not mean the picture book version is inaccurate.
My conclusion: the canon depends on the authority of the Church, made up of bishops, who get their authority from the apostles, who get their authority from Christ. We do not have a fallible list of infallible books because the Church has infallibly ruled which books are authoritative. Without the Church, the Bible becomes suspect. Without the Church, each individual would have to see whether the list of books they have is accurate, or just a incorrect tradition of men. Yes, at that point the Bible would indeed be suspect, and if the Bible is suspect, sola scriptura becomes a very hard sell.
Phew! All of this after Katherine McPhee lost. What a night!