Who Gave Us the Bible?
James  McCarthy

Some defenders of the Roman Catholic Church argue that the Magisterium is the rightful interpreter and authoritative teacher of Scripture, because the Church gave Christianity the Bible. If it were not for the Church, they argue, no one could know with certainty even which books belong in the Bible.

This argument is based on faulty assumptions. The early Christians did not receive the Bible from the Roman Catholic Church. They received the Bible from the Holy Spirit who inspired it. Catholics who argue to the contrary are not representing the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Speaking of the books of both Testaments, the First Vatican Council stated:

These books 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. –First Vatican Council i

The process of writing and recognizing the New Testament books began long before the Roman Catholic Church even existed. The night before the Lord was crucified, He told His disciples that they, empowered by the Holy Spirit, would bear witness to His life and teaching:

When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me, and you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning. –John 15:26-27

Through the Holy Spirit, the disciples would also receive further revelation:

I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. He shall glorify Me; for He shall take of Mine, and shall disclose it to you. –John 16:12-14

In certain writings of the apostles and their associates, the first Christians recognized the prophetic and authoritative teaching of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had taught, "My sheep hear My voice . . . and they follow Me" (John 10:27). In these writings, the early Christians heard the Savior’s voice. They compared the doctrinal content of these new writings to that of the Old Testament Scriptures and found agreement. They applied the teaching to their lives and experienced its transforming power. In these writings, they recognized the dynamic interaction between book and reader that is unique to Scripture:

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. –Hebrews 4:12

The writings were self-authenticating. They demonstrated by their uniquely divine wisdom and power that God was their author. F. F. Bruce wrote:

Divine authority is by its very nature self-evidencing; and one of the profoundest doctrines recovered by the Reformers is the doctrine of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, by which testimony is borne within the believer’s heart to the divine character of the Holy Scripture. ii

Calvin commented:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. iii

The early Christians read, copied, and circulated the books widely. Teachers began to quote the books as authoritative in their own sermons and letters. Within the lifetime of the apostles, some of the writings were already considered God-given "wisdom" (2 Peter 3:15) on par with "the rest of the Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16).

The history of the events leading to the universal acceptance of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as inspired Scripture spans several centuries and is beyond the scope of this article. However, it should be noted that the role that church councils played in the process is often overstated by Roman Catholics.

The first councils to have addressed the question as to which books were inspired and were rightfully part of the Bible appear to have been the North African Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397). The list of books accepted by the Council of Hippo no longer exists. The Council of Carthage, however, is believed to have repeated the same list and its decree on the matter is extant.

Both councils were regional synods. They were not universal or ecumenical councils. About 50 bishops from the provinces of Africa attended each. These councils did not have authority to speak for the whole fourth-century church.

It is also important to note that by the time these councils addressed the matter at the close of the fourth century, the canon or list of books recognized as forming the New Testament was well established. F. F. Bruce comments:

What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council. When at last a Church Council, the Synod of Carthage in A.D. 397, listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity. iv

Furthermore, the decision reached by these councils has never been universally accepted. The controversy centers around writings referred to by Roman Catholic scholars as the deuterocanonicals and by Protestant scholars as the Apocrypha. In that non-Catholics have never accepted the decision of the councils to accept the Apocrypha as part of the Bible, it can hardly be argued that were it not for the Roman Catholic Church no one would know with certainty which books belong in the Bible.


i. First Vatican Council, session 3, chapter 2.
ii. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1950), p. 111.
iii. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 1, Chapter 7, no. 5. Published by John T. McNeill, ed., The Library of Christian Classics, (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), vol. 20, p. 80.
iv. F. F. Bruce, The Books and the Parchments, (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1050), p. 111.
Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1995).

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