When our last lesson came to its untimely end, I was in the middle of relating the substance of some conversations I had with Scott Hahn while I was still a Protestant minister. In fact, Scott was just about to ask me the question that eventually sent me over the edge.
Scott's question was like a bell tolling the end of my life as an Evangelical Protestant.
Scott: Ken, it is a simple fact that the list of books to be included in the canon of Scripture -- the list you still have in your New Testament -- was decided by Catholic bishops in a series of Church Councils, primarily Hippo in 393 A.D. and Carthage in 397 and 419 A.D. There's no way to get around this. This is inarguable. This is where you received the New Testament you have in your Bible today -- precisely those 27 books, no more, no less. So here's my question: Did the Holy Spirit lead the Church in those councils to an infallible decision, yes or no?
Of course I could see immediately that this was a trick question, a loaded question.
I needed time to think. As a Protestant, I did not believe that the Holy Spirit led the Church to infallible decisions and kept the Church from error – even in essential matters of faith and practice and even when all the bishops in the world met in Ecumenical Council. And these councils in North Africa were regional councils, although their decisions were affirmed by Rome.
No. I believed as Luther believed and viewed the decisions of Popes and Councils as inherently fallible, no matter what the topic, no matter what the level of importance to Christians.
But in Scott's question I heard something of the subtlety of the pharisees when they asked Jesus, "John's baptism -- where did it come from? Was it from heaven or from men?" (Matthew 21:25). I knew that if I answered, 'No, the decisions of those councils from "from men" and fallible,' then Scott would say, 'Then I suppose you don't know for sure that you have the right books in your Bible, do you?'
On the other hand, if I answered, 'Yes, the Holy Spirit led those councils to an infallible decision,' their decision was "from heaven", Scott would respond, 'Welcome to the Catholic Church!'
So instead I tried to derail Scott's line of thought and defuse his argument by raising a classic red herring I've heard Protestant apologists raise repeatedly since I've been a Catholic.
Here's what I said and how the conversation proceeded.
Scott: But of course! I'm not saying -- and the Catholic Church has never said -- that the Church somehow created the canon by its authoritative decree. Obviously, God did that through the process of inspiration. The canon existed from the moment the last inspired book was penned. What the councils did was recognize the canon and make formal declaration of which books should be included and which should not be included. And the question I'm asking you is: do you believe the Holy Spirit led those bishops to an infallibly correct decision? Yes or no?
Beginning to feel somewhat hemmed in, I tried to circumvent the question.
Ken: Scott, it's not like it was a difficult decision. There may not have been perfect agreement among Christians over the issue of "which books" to receive as inspired and canonical, but it was nearly perfect!
Scott: Ken, we've already gone over this. About 25% of the New Testament we now have was disputed to some degree in the early centuries of the Church. Read the first church historian, Eusebius. As late as 330 A.D. he's writing about the canon of Scripture and listing the New Testament as containing only one epistle of John and one of Peter. He's referring to James, 2 Peter and Jude as "disputed writings." He's describing the Apocalypse of John as a book accepted by some but "rejected" by others. You call this "nearly perfect" agreement?
Ken: OK. I hear you. I guess I would say that yes, the Holy Spirit led those councils to an infallible decision. But only this time and only on this issue! After all, the issue of which books Christians will consider inspired and infallible and authoritative for Church teaching is so foundational, so critical, so consequential that in this case I believe God would not allow the Church to err and thereby lead all Christians forever astray. In this case, God would protect his Church.
Essentially, I agree with what Reformed philosopher Greg Bahnsen has said:
Add [to the historical evidences for the various books of the canon] the conviction that God controls history and promised he would build his church and we can be assured "the God ordained recognition of the canon would be providentially accomplished" Otherwise we have no sure Word of God and are left with skepticism.
Ken: Yes, of course. If we don't know for sure which books to treat as inspired then we can't know which books to build our theology from, which books to take our teaching from. So on this I agree with you: God must have led the Church to the truth -- not on every issue, but on this issue of the canon.
Scott: Well, now you've got me scratching my head.
Ken: Why? I just agreed with you. You win the point. The Holy Spirit led those councils to an infallibly true decision with respect to the canon of Scripture.
Scott: Well, I'm just wondering something. Are you aware that at those same councils at Hippo and Carthage the seven Old Testament books we Catholics accept as inspired and you Protestants reject and do not include in your Bibles were also confirmed as inspired and canonical?
Ken: I didn't know that.
Scott: Yes. And there's more. I don't mean to paint you into a corner, but are you aware that those same councils also formally affirmed the decisions of the Council of Constantinople held 20 years earlier, at which the Church recognized the authority of the Bishop of Rome?
Ken: Well, the councils were wrong about those things.
Scott: So your saying the Holy Spirit led the bishops at those councils infallibly when it came to determining the 27 books of the New Testament canon, but not when it came to determining the Old Testament canon and affirming the authority of the Bishop of Rome? So God made sure Christians had the correct New Testament, but didn't mind if we have the wrong Old Testament? Forgive me, but it seems like on all the issues you disagree with (the Old Testament Canon, the authority of the Bishop of Rome) the decisions of these councils were wrong. And on the issues you agree with (the New Testament canon), not only were they right, but infallibly led by the Spirit! Doesn't this seem a bit convenient? I'm wondering if you agree with them at this point because they were infallibly led or believe they were infallibly led at this point because you agree with them. Which is it?
Ken: Look, let's continue this later. I don't feel so good.
My Protestant worldview began to unravel. The foundation began to shift. The building began to crumble the moment I realized that essentially I had been relying all along on decisions of the Catholic Church to give me the very Bible I then used against that same Church.
In order to have an authoritative New Testament I had implicitly accepted the authority of the Catholic Church, which I then turned around and rejected on the authority of the New Testament.
I had to sit in Rome’s lap in order to slap her in the face.
In order to use the Bible as my "infallible rule", I had to believe the Holy Spirit had led the Church "infallibly" when it assembled that Bible at those Catholic Councils. But then, in order to escape becoming Catholic, I had to believe the Holy Spirit had led the Church infallibly only when it assembled that Bible. And even then, only the New Testament!
On nearly everything else, the Church was wrong.
It was wrong about the canon of the Old Testament. It was wrong about the authority of the Bishop of Rome. It was wrong about baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist -- all teachings universally accepted at the time those councils were held in Hippo and Carthage.
But it was right on the New Testament canon -- the one point with which I happened to agree. In fact, when it came to that decision, it was infallibly led by the Spirit.
It began to dawn on me that I the only way I could have the foundation I needed to be a Protestant -- an inspired, infallible canon of Scripture -- was to first be a Catholic.
And so I became a Catholic so that I could be a Protestant. And then at some point the thought occurred to me, 'Why not just be a Catholic?'
And that's essentially how it happened.