At Your Wits’ End

Here you have Part Eleven of my series on the canon of Scripture. You’ll want to begin HERE if you are new to the series, or if you’d just like to review. Are there 66 books in the Bible, as Protestants contend, or are there 73 as the Catholic Church maintains? Can Protestants say with certainty which books belong in their Bible, or must they concede that their 66 books are just a “fallible collection of infallible books”? Read on….

You lurch through the front door of your home and deposit the final armload of books on your dining room table. It has been an awful day, and the evening isn’t looking too good, either. The simple issue of “Which books make up the Apocrypha?” has mushroomed into an ugly question of “Which books belong in the canon of Holy Scripture”! Your pastor’s remark rang in your ears all the way home from church, reverberating with every slap of the windshield wipers. You have always admired Dr. R.C. Sproul, and now your pastor claims that Sproul believes that the Protestant canon is fallible? Fallible?? As in, possibly in error???

You grab a quick cup of coffee (it’s going to be a long night!) and seat yourself at the table. Where are those notes? You review what you discovered in the library this afternoon:

The earliest Bible manuscripts that we have date from the 4th century A.D. Some manuscripts down through the centuries contained only the New Testament, or are a collection of the Psalms, or a translation of this book or that book. But in every manuscript that contains the Old Testament books, the Apocryphal books are there, not separated or singled out from the other books, but mingled among them. This explains, of course, why Wycliffe (who translated the Bible into English over 100 years before Luther translated the Bible into German) included the Apocryphal books in his translation without separating them into a special section; he was just doing what every manuscript and translation had done for 1000 years.

Martin Luther started the ball rolling. He felt that some books simply did not measure up when compared to others and felt compelled to rank them according to his personal perception of their worth, citing also the fact that the “ancients” had their doubts about these books (although the “ancients” seem to have had their doubts about 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John as well, which apparently didn’t bother Luther…). While he did not actually delete any books from the Bible, he segregated many of them, telling readers of his German translation to go ahead and read those books if they wanted to – perhaps they could get something out of them, but he couldn’t. Fortunately, Luther added no books to the Bible, although he did allow himself the luxury of adding the word “alone” to Holy Scripture to strengthen his argument for justification by faith alone.

The Reformers included the Apocryphal books in their translations, placing them in a special section after the Old Testament books. Over the next 100 or so years there were many variations in content of the Apocryphal sections, so that it is hard to find two different translations with all the same Apocryphal books in them. Still, the Reformers felt compelled to include them, apparently because every Bible manuscript for 1100 years had included them.

Several editions of the King James Version of the Bible contained the Apocrypha (with three more books than in the Catholic Bible!), as did many Protestant Bible versions in Europe. In 1827 the Edinburgh Committee finally demanded that the funding for these be stopped on the grounds that the inclusion of the Apocrypha was obviously liable to give people the idea that those books were really Holy Scripture!

The poor New Testament fared no better than the Old. Many New Testament books after the Reformation were given exactly the same treatment as the Old Testament Apocrypha; they were placed in a special section after the New Testament books. Some versions demoted Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation to an appendix; many Reformers thought 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John deserved to be added to that list. Some versions declare the segregated books to be flat-out Apocryphal. A few versions of the Protestant New Testament, including editions of Wycliffe’s famous translation, included the book of “Laodiceans” as a legitimate New Testament book. Again, confusion reigned.

John Calvin was very wrong in his belief that “These books, called Apocrypha, have always been distinguished from the writings which were without difficulty called Holy Scripture.” As you have verified, these books were never placed in a separate section of the Bible until Martin Luther came along. Average people down through the ages, from (at least) the fourth century to the fifteenth, apparently lived and died without realizing that the Apocryphal books were somehow any different from any other books they heard read to them in church.

Neither the Lutheran system of “what preaches Christ” as a standard for deciding which books should be considered “chief,” or the Calvinist system of “the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit which enables us to distinguish [the Apocrypha] from other ecclesiastical books” works in practice. After all, didn’t both Luther and Calvin err in their beliefs concerning the canonicity of various New Testament books, and didn’t they disagree with each other on this subject? If the “testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit” couldn’t lead Luther and Calvin, the twin suns of the Protestant Reformation, to the same conclusion concerning the New Testament, then no one can claim to know by using this system which books belong in the Bible and which don’t.

Tyndale’s “methinketh” was at least honest….

A remark made by Reformed theologian Philip Schaff, the 19th-century author of The History of the Christian Church, has been gnawing at you since you read it this afternoon in the library. Schaff noted the refusal of Luther and Zwingli to recognize the book of Revelation as inspired Scripture, and opined sagely:

Zwingli and Luther were both wrong in their unfavorable judgment of the Revelation of ‘the Son of Thunder’.

SAYS WHO??? How do we KNOW that Luther and Zwingli were wrong about Revelation, and Philip Schaff was right??? Do we base our certainty on the fact that everyone else in this day and age agrees with us? That no reputable Protestant theologian questions the 66-book canon? Do we just “know because we know”???

You are at your wits’ end. How do we KNOW which books belong in the Bible and which don’t??? Do we know? R.C. Sproul’s “fallible collection of infallible books” would imply that we don’t, but you just can’t accept that. The face of a coworker drifts through your mind. He once challenged you on why you didn’t accept ‘The Gospel of Thomas’ as Holy Scripture. “There are five Gospels!” he told you, “your Bible is one short!” Fortunately, good old Josh McDowell came to your rescue again. Following his lead, you explained to your coworker that in the years after the writing of the New Testament books there were many counterfeits circulating, and the early Christians sorted out what was what based on their knowledge of the teachings of the apostles.

Wait – that’s it!
What did the early Christians believe about the Apocryphal books? Oh, for heaven’s sake, why have you been wasting so much time on the Reformers? You need to begin at the beginning! The Reformers who came 1500 years after the time of Jesus were obviously in no position to determine which books were Holy Scripture and which weren’t – they proved that by utterly messing up their canons! No, you’ve got to find out what was in the Bible back when the first Christians read it.

You feel better than you have all day!

For Part Twelve please click here


On the memorial of St. Thomas Aquinas

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Richard Webb said:

    I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed these little essays! I am only afraid you will get to the end of your little sojourn.

  2. Not for a while yet, I’m afraid! Protestant explanations of the discernment of the canon are legion, and it takes a great deal of time to give each its due, so we’ll be here for the foreseeable future!

    Thank you for the encouragement, Richard! I appreciate it!

  3. Mrk said:

    Still reading. It is curious, that you mostly cherry-picked notable characters’ pronouncements on the Canon, not necessarily on the reasoning on how the got there. I know it would muddy your case a little, and would also probably triple the necessary posts.

    • And a 38-post series is already long enough! 🙂

      Please be courteous – the word “cherry-pick” is generally used as an accusation of dishonesty. My objective at this stage of the series is to demonstrate the fact that the Reformers’ opinions concerning the canon were all over the map. To complement that, I introduced Dr. Sproul’s suggestion that Protestants simply can’t know if they have the correct canon. That POV can be quite a shock to Protestants the first time they hear it (I know it was to me!) This adds another layer to the tremendous variety of perspectives concerning the canon by men who would all be considered reliable Protestant voices (in other words, not liberal fringe). My purpose here was not to explain all the different opinions, but rather to get the reader to ask himself, why so many different opinions? In the absence of an inspired table of contents, how can I KNOW who’s right? That then will require some research on the reader’s part, and I realize that different Protestants will come to different conclusions.

  4. cca13b said:


    I have a question. When did the Reformers decide on the NT canon? Since there were debates going on, how long after the Reformation was the NT canon decided?


    • Hi, Christie!

      Thanks so much for linking to this series! It has given me a chance to discover your blog, which I greatly appreciate! Have you ever considered submitting your conversion story to Why I’m Catholic? I imagine it would be very compelling.

      Concerning your question, the best answer I’ve ever been able to find was in Bruce Metzer’s The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development and Significance. He stated that the “threefold division of the New Testament: ‘Gospels and Acts’, ‘Epistles and Holy Apostles’, and ‘Apocryphal New Testament,” was “an arrangement that persisted for nearly a century in half a dozen or more printings.”

      “A startling deviation among Lutheran editions of the Scriptures occurred in 1596 when Jacob Lucius published a Bible at Hamburg in which the four disputed books are given the title ‘Apocrypha,’ followed by the explanation ‘That is, books that are not held equal to the other holy Scripture.’ In the same year David Wolder, pastor of the Church of St. Peter at Hamburg, published a triglot Bible in Greek, Latin (two versions), and German, a table of contents of which designates the four books as ‘non canonical.’ In 1614 Lucius’ title and explanatory note reappear in a Bible issued at Goslar by J. Vogt. In Sweden the Gustavus Adolphus Bible (Stockholm, 1618) not only continues to separate the four dubious books at the end of the table of contents but also labels them with the caption Apocr(yphal) New Testament.”

      Metzger goes on to explain that the fiddling with the canon of the NT occurred among the ranks of those Reformers who adhered (at least in the beginning) to Lutheran doctrine.

      “In all the Bibles issued under the auspices of the Genevan Reformers and their followers, the New Testament books are presented in the traditional manner. It is the same with the official pronouncements of this school of Reformers.

      Among subsequent confessions of faith drawn up by Protestants, several identify by name the twenty-seven books of the New Testament canon, including the French Confession of Faith (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). The Thirty-Nine Articles, issued by the Church of England in 1563, though identifying by name the books of the Old Testament separately from those of the Apocrypha, concludes the two lists with the statement, “All the books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive and account them canonical” (Art. vi) None of the Confessional statements issued by the several Lutheran churches includes an explicit list of the canonical books.”

      I hope that addresses your question. If there’s anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask!

      By the way, your post “Thankful” brought tears to my eyes.

  5. Renee,

    Thank you for the information! I really appreciate it. Aw, I’m glad someone is reading my posts haha. I’m glad you liked them. Just trying to share my experience a little at a time 🙂 I’m considering writing a conversion story eventually! 🙂

    So, in the first quotation you gave me, which four NT books were those pastors talking about?

    So you’re saying that it was just 6 versions of the Bible that debated the NT? What about all the NT debates you were talking about earlier in your blog posts?

    When he says, ““In all the Bibles issued under the auspices of the Genevan Reformers and their followers, the New Testament books are presented in the traditional manner. It is the same with the official pronouncements of this school of Reformers.” Is he talked about 27 books here?


    • -So, in the first quotation you gave me, which four NT books were those pastors talking about?– When “four NT books” are mentioned, they are invariably the four that Luther downgraded: Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. Whenever you read about “seven NT books” being disparaged, added to those four would be 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John (those seven being the Antilegomena).

      -So you’re saying that it was just 6 versions of the Bible that debated the NT? What about all the NT debates you were talking about earlier in your blog posts?” – The NT debates were just that; each Reformer was expressing his opinion as to which books were canonical and which were outside the canon. Each of those Reformers did not produce his own Bible – they were merely weighing in on the discussion. It was this ongoing wrangling that influenced actual Bible publishers to “officially” declare certain books of the NT to be “apocryphal” in their editions of Holy Scripture.

      -When he says, ““In all the Bibles issued under the auspices of the Genevan Reformers and their followers, the New Testament books are presented in the traditional manner. It is the same with the official pronouncements of this school of Reformers.” Is he talked about 27 books here?- Yes, he’s talking about the Genevan Reformers producing Bibles with the 27 NT books we know and love. A quote from Lutheran J.A.O. Preus on this subject:

      “The Reformed were less interested in the question of Canon
      than were the Lutherans. Zwingli seems to have said very little
      except that he did not regard Revelation as “a book of the Bible.“
      Oecolampadius accepted the 27 books, but said, “we do not compare
      the Apocalypse, the Epistles of James, of Jude, and 2 Peter
      and 2 and 3 John with the rest.“ Calvin appears to have had
      virtually the same opinion, recognizing a difference but accepting
      all 27 books. Beza in 1564 in dedicating his edition of the Greek
      New Testament still recognizes the distinction between homologoumena
      and antilegomena, but he minimizes it.”

      To sum up, the Reformers were very badly confused about which books belong in the Bible – both the Old Testament (in which area modern-day Protestant authors will not admit to any “confusion” since they themselves consider the deuteros to be apocryphal), and the New (which confusion Protestant authors like Metzger and Preus have documented). In their confusion over the deuterocanonical books, Protestants placed them in a separate section, with each Bible publisher giving a different reason for why the deuterocanonicals – if not Scripture – were in their Bible at all (“so that no one may complain of lacking anything, and each may find what is to his taste,” “these books be not found in the Hebrew nor in the Chaldean and for that do not take of so great authority as be the other books of the Holy Bible, yet have the holy fathers always so esteemed them and worthily they call them … books of the church, or books mete to be read among the whole congregation namely for that they do agree with the other books of the Holy Bible and contain most godly examples and precepts of the fear and love of God and our neighbor. Wherefore they are diligently to be read” “I have not left them out, to the intent that the one should have no cause to complain,” etc.) Thus, we see that these publishers felt for some reason strongly compelled to include books which they believed to be uninspired in the same volume with Holy Writ – kind of a weird thing to do. Some Reformers went even farther, placing certain NT books in another separate section, using the same subjective reasoning. The point of the first nine installments of my (nearly interminable) series is to display what happened to the Reformers once they rejected the teaching authority of the Church – they were left with an uncertain canon of Scripture. Every decision they made as to which books to include or exclude was subjective, leading of course to the spectacle of different Reformers championing different canons. The subjectivity of the Protestant position has led modern-day Protestants like Dr. Sproul to opine that the Protestant canon is fallible, because his theology will not allow him to look for a human authority endowed by God with the authority to make infallible pronouncements. A fallible canon means that when a pastor steps behind a pulpit, he can only HOPE that whatever book he is basing his contentions upon is actually Holy Scripture, quite a problem for sola Scriptura adherents.

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