Many Evangelical Christians are now questioning foundational truths they have traditionally accepted.
For example, in the midst of contemporary theological confusion, there are Evangelicals looking at the Roman Catholic Church as an attractive option. After all, it is ancient, with a long stable tradition. I understand this attraction of Roman Catholicism. My family on my father’s side has a long tradition in the Roman Catholic Church going back through Ireland many centuries ago.
I did not share my father’s faith growing up.
Instead, as a nonbeliever, I came to believe that Jesus the Messiah is the Truth (John 14:6) through a couple of Evangelical Christians when I was twenty years old. Since that time, I have sought, every day, to form my life around Jesus and his truth, as I ask daily for the help of the Holy Spirit.
I also began a process of theological exploration, seeking to know theological truth. I was confronted with a question in my late twenties that helped me wrestle with the best way to determine what was theologically true. If, like me, you want to know the best way to find the truth about Jesus, then hopefully what I discovered will be able to help you too. In particular, I found myself wrestling to understand the fundamental difference in how Protestants and Roman Catholics determine final truth.
“I found myself wrestling to understand the fundamental difference in how Protestants and Roman Catholics determine final truth.”
At that time, I was running my family’s trucking company and, on the side, I was working on a master’s in the philosophy of religion at the University of Calgary (Canada). My major professor, Dr. Hugo Meynell (he has since passed away), was a devout Roman Catholic and we had some very interesting and candid conversations both inside and outside the classroom about the ultimate standard for the truths about Jesus.
Dr. Meynell’s expertise was in how we know what was true (the field of epistemology).
We often focused on how we know what is true about Jesus’ teachings.
When it comes to how we know what is spiritually true, here are some of the practical questions that come up:
- Are the 66 books of the Bibles the best and final source of knowledge about God and Jesus?
- Can we rely on the Orthodox Tradition?
- Are there reasons to trust the Book of Mormon?
- Is the Koran a reliable source of information about biblical figures?
- Can we rely on Roman Catholic Tradition?
For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on only one question: whether we should see Scripture itself as our final authority or we should see the Roman Catholic as the prior authority through which we receive (and interpret) the Scripture. If we answer this fundamental question between the Protestant and Roman Catholic perspectives, it will help answer the other questions. I will explain how answering this question answers other questions at the end of this post.
“If we answer this fundamental question between the Protestant and Roman Catholic perspectives, it will help answer the other questions.”
Here is how I learned to answer this question. One day in class, Dr. Meynell asserted that Scripture taught that church leaders (priests) should be celibate men. “Actually,” I said, “doesn’t Scripture teach us to appoint elders, with children, to be the leaders of a local church? In fact, isn’t raising children one of the prerequisites in 1 Timothy 3:5 before appointment as an elder?”
“So, they should not only be married; they should show they can lead the local church by how they have led their children,” I concluded.
It was a very tense moment.
Dr. Meynell then challenged me with his own question. “If you trusted the Roman Catholic Church to give you the Bible,” he said, “why don’t you trust the Roman Catholic Church to interpret the Bible for you?”
“If you trusted the Roman Catholic Church to give you the Bible,” he said, “why don’t you trust the Roman Catholic Church to interpret the Bible for you?”
His question forced me to personally investigate whether the New Testament was already authoritative over the church because its message created the earliest churches and it contained the words of Jesus (from his apostles) or because church leaders in the 300s made it authoritative?
The following is a brief outline of what I discovered.
Jesus Gave His Teachings to the Apostles
Just before his ascension back to heaven, Jesus committed his words and teachings to his apostles. They were commissioned by him to train other people to trust and follow Jesus—to be his disciples. Jesus told them that they were to baptize everyone who wanted to be a disciple and teach them to obey all of his commandments.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18–20)
As Matthew 28:18-20 indicates, the apostles became the messengers of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus had previously assured the apostles that the Holy Spirit would ensure that they present his authoritative teaching accurately (John 14:24-26). As with the prophets of the Old Testament, God’s Spirit would ensure that the message of the apostles was truly the word of God and that the apostles would correctly teach what Jesus entrusted to them.
The Teachings of the Apostles
The proper place to begin in understanding the nature of the New Testament, then, is to look not just to the Gospels and the explicit words of Jesus, but to all the teachings of the apostles. In this way we see that both the Old Testament writings and the teachings of the apostles fit together and claim to be the authoritative word of God.
the first Christians devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching’—because they were not just the apostles’ teaching, they were the inspired teachings of Jesus Christ himself.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:42)
Jesus Christ and his words were God’s final message for the human race.
In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Therefore, the writers of the New Testament urged Christians to uphold and defend these teachings. From this point at which they were written and moving forward, God would provide no new gospel, no other path, and no other way (Jude 3).
“From this point at which they were written and moving forward, God would provide no new gospel, no other path, and no other way.”
It was natural, then, that the writings of the apostles, and those closely associated with them, quickly assumed the status of inspired Scripture. Even as the writings of the New Testament were being completed, the apostle Peter referred to Paul’s writings as “scripture” (2 Peter 3:15-16), and in the same verse from Paul, two texts, one from the Old Testament and one from the Gospel of Luke, are introduced by the phrase, “the scripture says” (1 Timothy 5:18).
In this way, a written record of Jesus’ teachings—given through the apostles—was made available in an objective form. The apostles’ teachings were the theological foundation for these churches, and the written record of their teachings were quickly considered divinely inspired and foundational. The recognition of these books as the authoritative standard, as the apostles’ teachings spread throughout the world.
The Books Containing the Teachings of the Apostles
The books in the New Testament were all written before the end of the first century (before AD 100). Michael Kruger, an expert in the formation of the canon of Scripture, describes the attitude of the church’s leaders in the period just after the apostles:
Early Christians had a high view of the apostolic office, viewing the apostles as the very mouthpiece of Christ himself. Thus any document containing apostolic teaching would have been received as an authoritative written text (and the beginning of the canon).
The apostles’ teachings were the basis for the formation of the earliest churches. The writings of the apostles were their teachings established in written documents.
“The writings of the apostles were their teachings established in written documents.”
Before long, however, other Christian writings were created by people. But these writings did not carry the same apostolic authority. Some of them even contained teachings that we contrary to what the apostles had taught.
In order to protect the early Christians from false teaching after the death of all the apostles, the early leaders clarified and delineated the apostolic writings. Kruger describes the historical reality:
Not only was there a “core” canon of the New Testament books that were well established from early time, but disagreements over peripheral canonical books were less problematic than is often portrayed.
By AD 170 the concept of the New Testament Canon was firmly established, and the main contents were set in place.
“By AD 170 the concept of the New Testament Canon was firmly established, and the main contents were set in place.”
There were three main criteria by which early Christians recognized the authoritative books that had established the church and were to be the measure or standard of the Christian faith:
- The book had to be written by apostolic authors (or those who were closely associated with apostles),
- The book taught the orthodox faith of the apostles, and
- The book had been widely accepted in earliest churches from the beginning.
As the early church clarified the final list of authoritative books, they affirmed that the church itself had been established by the words and works of Jesus as communicated by the apostles (Eph. 2:20).
The Final Objective Standard
The written works associated with the apostles are the objective norm by which all teachings, all churches, and all leaders are to measure and evaluate themselves.
What gave the New Testament canon its authority is that it contained the teachings of Jesus given through his apostles or those closely associated with the apostles. Those teachings created the church. Then, between AD 250 and 367, the leaders of the church at that time met in councils to officially recognize the books that had been and were to continue to be the authoritative words of the apostles. They settled upon the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
Here is a crucial point: these councils did not invent something new; rather, based on criteria such as apostolicity and historic church usage, they made official what had already been church practice and belief for centuries.
“They made official what had already been church practice and belief for centuries.”
Kruger explains, “The canon was like a seedling sprouting from the soil of early Christianity—although it was not fully a tree until the fourth century, it was there in nuce, from the beginning.”
Here is a point to emphasize: the church did not create the apostolic teaching; the apostolic teaching created the church.
Stated differently, councils that were held did not invent the New Testament canon; rather, they recognized the practices and the beliefs of early Christians who had accepted these books from earlier times. As F. F. Bruce in The New Testament Documents explains,
The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and general apostolic authority, direct or indirect.…What these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.
In recognizing the New Testament canon, the early believers held that Christians, church leaders, and churches themselves were subject to the objective record of the apostles’ teachings.
“The early believers held that Christians, church leaders, and churches themselves were subject to the objective record of the apostles’ teachings.”
Clark Pinnock sums up the authority of the Bible over any church or ancient or modern form of Christianity:
By accepting the norm of Scripture, the church declared that there was a standard outside herself to which she intended to be subject for all time….The church can fall into error and needs the Bible to measure herself by. In turn, the church serves the canon by continuing in the truth and faithfully proclaiming the Word of God.
So, when I learned these truths, it was my job to gently represent them to my friend and philosophy professor, Dr. Meynell. I had learned so much from him. I loved contending for the truth of Jesus with him in conversations with students from other religions and from atheistic or agnostic positions.
I was able to join with him in celebrating so many good things about the Roman Catholic Church. For example, I love their good works around the world, especially on behalf of the poor.
But I did not agree with Dr. Meynell on our final authority for the truth about Jesus.
The teachings of the apostles in the New Testament were intended to be our final authority. In the New Testament, we find no authority for celibate priests as leaders of the local church, nor is there for penance or confession to a priest as a pre-requisite for the forgiveness of certain sins, or for purgatory as a place after death that cleanses sins that Jesus’ blood does not cover. (These are examples of key doctrines within Catholic Tradition.)
“The teachings of the apostles in the New Testament were intended to be our final authority.”
They are not in the New Testament and so I must conclude that these beliefs and practices are not truths that the apostles of Jesus teach me to follow.
This understanding of the apostles’ teaching also helps me with other questions I brought up in the beginning of this post.
- The traditions of the Orthodox Church (many of which are rooted in the 400s and which have many similarities to the teachings of Roman Catholicism) too are subject to the teaching of the apostles. Those that are not in step with the New Testament must be rejected.
- What about the Koran? Its writings are from the 600s, yet its adherents claim that its teachings on biblical matters are more accurate than biblical teachings where they differ. Yet, since the New Testament contains the authoritative teaching given to us from Jesus himself, everything the Koran says is subject to the higher truth of the apostles. As one example, the Koran says Jesus did not die on the cross. Yet, the writings of the apostles say that he did die on the cross and by doing that, he took away my sins.
- What about the sacred texts of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? According to Latter-Day Saints, divine revelation was given to Joseph Smith in the late 1800s (e.g., the Book of Mormon was given to him by an angel). But the teachings of the Latter-Day Saints contradict core teachings of the New Testament, including its teaching that Jesus was a created being, with Lucifer as one of his many spirit brothers (Doctrine & Covenants 76:25-27; 93:21). Because these teachings are contrary to the New Testament, we cannot accept them.
The point should be clear. The New Testament is the teaching of the apostles and our final authority.
“The New Testament is the teaching of the apostles and our final authority.”
It triumphs over all other authorities.
In order to be faithful to Jesus, all churches and religions, ancient and modern, need to humble themselves under the apostles’ teachings, recognizing it as the truth to which they must align.
It is our final authority on what constitutes God’s truth.
 David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation, 2nd Ed. (IVP Academic, 2018).
 Michael Kruger, The Question of Canon (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
 Michael Kruger, The Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012).
 Clark Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (Harper and Row, 1984), 52.
 See Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
 This is an important fact that is in contradistinction to the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, a fact definitively articulated by Oscar Cullmann in the advanced debates leading up to Vatican II; see, “The Tradition,” in The Early Church (London: SCM Press, 1956).
 Michael Kruger, “10 Misconceptions about the NT Canon: #10: Athanasius’ Festal Letter (367 A.D.) Is the First Complete List of New Testament Books,” Canon Fodder, December 11, 2012, https://www.michaeljkruger.com/10-misconceptions-about-the-nt-canon-10-athanasius-festal-letter-367-a-d-is-the-first-complete-list-of-new-testament-books/ (accessed September 9, 2018).
 Michael Kruger, The Question of Canon (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 210.
 Pinnock, The Scripture Principle, 81-82.
 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1981), 27:
 Clark H. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (New York: Harper and Row, 1984), p. 48.