On the one hand, we Protestants tell Catholics that the church did not authoritatively decide the canon, but rather recognized those books which were recognized by the early church as authoritative. On the other hand, the early church found it difficult to discern any canonical list that was accepted by ecclesiastical consensus (the consensus of the church abroad).
The closest measure of ecclesiastical consensus can be determined from the Council of Hippo, and the 3rd and 4th Councils of Carthage. But, perhaps to the surprise of us Protestants, these councils accepted the apocryphal books as canonical. Thus, if we were judging by the testimony of the church abroad about which books bear the Spirit’s power, we would have to concede that the apocryphal books are authoritative. Protestants, however, simply don’t recognize the consensus of the early church on this matter. This raises an important question: Is it up the individuals to decide for themselves (such as in the Reformation confirming the opinions of Athanasius and Jerome) or for the church abroad to decide? In other words, what does the Protestant rejection of the apocrypha imply about the criterion for canonization? Where does authority come from if not from the acceptance of the church abroad? Or how can one know from whence comes the authority of the Spirit through scripture if not by the testimony of the church abroad?
Note the reasons for the Protestant rejection listed in most Protestant accounts: 1) the Jewish Scripture was considered canonical by Jesus and his disciples, and therefore must be considered the Bible of the church, and 2) historical inaccuracy of the apocrypha. These reasons, however, appear incomplete. The Christian community went beyond the Bible of the Jewish canon when it canonized the writings of the apostles and their companions. Secondly, historical inaccuracy is based on the authority of scholarly criticism, not the consensus of the church abroad, but the standards of scholarly criticism differ from one scholar to the next.
It appears to me, at the present, that the Protestant standards for canonicity are relatively arbitrary and lead logically to subjectivism in determining which books are canonical and which ones are not. Something is also to be said of the apparent arbitrary acceptance of only certain of the decrees of the early theological councils (e.g. Nicaea and Chalcedon) as authoritative for the church, but not others. In spite of the Protestant motto sola scriptura, even the conservative evangelicals overwhelmingly do not allow people to be called “Christian” unless they affirm these councils. To put it yet another way, if the church does not have the authority to establish the canon, but only to recognize and affirm that which is already authoritative, then why do Protestants not affirm and recognize those books which were recognized by the early church as authoritative? How does one know which books are to be recognized as authoritative, or, as bearing the “secrete testimony of the Spirit” (Calvin) if not through the early ecclesiastical consensus?
Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture is self authenticated … And the certainty it deserves with us, ti attains by the testimony of the Spirit. (Institutes, 1.7.5)
But if the scripture is self authenticating through the voice of the Spirit, then how is this voice to be measured if not by the testimony of the church to whom this Spirit speaks? Regardless of whether the church is to establish the canon or simply recognize the canon, Protestants must explain what the criterion for recognition is if it’s not by the consensus of the church abroad (whether that refer to the early church or the church throughout the ages).