What’s the big deal about the canon of Holy Scripture? The truth about Protestantism is not pretty – men like Martin Luther who saw a need to reform the Church Jesus established (i.e., the Catholic Church) decided to break away from that Church and begin their own doctrinal systems. These Reformers rejected the teaching of the Catholic Church on various issues, but could not agree with one another, either – and thus the various Protestant denominations were born, despite St. Paul’s warning against “denominations” (1 Cor 1:11-13). As the years passed, a “mythology” sprang up to cover up the ugliness of the split from the Holy Catholic Church, a mythology upon which Protestants rely to give them a reason to continue in good conscience their separation from the Church that Jesus established.
Their “foundation” myth is the story of how Martin Luther, a simple Augustinian monk, was called by God to strip away from the Church the “traditions of men” which had collected over the years, traditions with no basis in Scripture, like the belief in the necessity of Purgatory and the possibility of gaining indulgences, a reliance on the intercession of the saints, and the veneration of the Blessed Mother of God. These supposedly had “crept into” Christian doctrine over the centuries. Luther, so the myth goes, was enlightened by God to recognize “the true Gospel” when he read Romans 1:17 – “The just shall live by faith.” Luther understood by this verse not the obvious “the just shall live by faith,” but rather, “The just shall live BY FAITH ALONE!” After Luther boldly nailed his objections to the door of a church in Wittenberg, the megalomaniac Catholic Church insisted that she had the authority to correctly interpret Holy Scripture, and that Christians must abide by her decisions because of the authority vested in her by her divine Spouse. Luther wasn’t fooled by this – he had read the Bible for himself! He courageously declared, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason-for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves-I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen.” He fought valiantly to force the corrupt Church to change her wicked ways, but was finally forced to separate himself and his followers from her so that the pure, unadulterated Gospel might be proclaimed to all the world. And thus the twin pillars of Reformation theology, sola fide and sola Scriptura, were erected for the edification of true Christians. Many devout men, known as Reformers, joined the struggle to free Christians from the wickedness and snares of the Catholic Church – men who brought to the world the true Gospel, so that their spiritual descendants might live in the freedom to interpret the Bible for themselves according to the light God gives them….
As myths go, this one’s a doozy!
This “foundation” myth of the 1519 reboot of the Christian franchise is known and believed by millions of Protestants. Another myth in this cycle is the tale that “the first Christians believed and taught exactly what my Lutheran/Presbyterian/Methodist/Church of Christ/Baptist/Pentecostal/Church of the Brethren/non-denominational church believes and teaches” – obviously a very necessary myth, for if the first Christians believed and taught something other than what my Protestant denomination believes and teaches, then I most likely adhere to “another Gospel” (Gal 1:8) and am in great spiritual danger! Like the myth of the founding of Protestantism, this story is never investigated; it will not hold up under even a slight bit of scrutiny – it is simply assumed. The Protestant canon, made up of 66 hand-picked books, also features prominently in the Protestant cycle of mythology. As with all myths, there are numerous, conflicting versions of the tale of how this canon came to be, none of which can be historically verified….
And why does the issue of the canon of Scripture matter?
Think about it – Protestantism is based upon “Scripture alone” – imagine the consequences if the wrong books were in the Bible! How exactly could “Bible-believing Christians” function if their beliefs were based upon books that weren’t Holy Scripture, or if some books of Holy Scripture had been left out of the Protestant Bible, and Protestants were thus building their theologies without those books? What if the canon was up in the air for centuries, with no one really sure which books were Holy Scripture and which weren’t? How could sola Scriptura Christianity function in a case like that?
But even more fundamental is the question of authority – whence came the authority to declare certain books “Scripture” and other books “Apocrypha”? The Catholic Church insists that a 4th-century council of bishops, in union with the Pope, discerned the canon of Scripture. Protestants claim… well, there are MANY different stories concerning the discernment process, but all of these reject the authority of Catholic bishops to discern anything in a binding fashion. One Protestant explanation of the canon even goes so far as to claim that there is simply NO WAY to know if the Protestant canon is correct or not, but that’s okay….
If the canon of Scripture was somehow discerned by “extra-biblical” means, then “Scripture-alone,” one of the two foundational doctrines of Protestantism, is useless (because using “Scripture alone,” we can’t know which books are in the Bible, yet for Bible-alone Christians this knowledge is absolutely imperative!) That is why the canon of Scripture plays such a crucial role in Catholic/Protestant discussions. It is why you should be familiar with the prevailing Protestant myths concerning the discernment of the canon, so that you can be always ready with a defense….
This is Part 13 of my series on the canon of Scripture. You’ll want to go back to Part One to get started, if you haven’t already done so. Our Protestant hero is trying to figure out what the Bible of the early Christians looked like….
So, what can you find out about the subject of the Bible of the early Christians? Is there anything in all those books on your table that would help?
You begin with J.N.D. Kelly’s weighty tome, Early Christian Doctrines, which addresses the issue with these words:
It should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two, or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism… It always included, though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocryphal or deutero-canonical books.
So it sounds like the early Christians had the Apocryphal books in their Bible! Kelly adds:
In the ﬁrst centuries at any rate the Church seems to have accepted all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and treated them without question as Scripture.
As Scripture? Without question? The early Church was fooled by the Apocrypha?
You find more quotes in other books (from The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, and the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, respectively) along the same lines:
In view of these facts it may be asserted that the Church of the first centuries made no essential difference between the writings of the Hebrew canon and the so-called Apocrypha.
Down to the 4th century the church generally accepted all the books of the Septuagint as canonical. Greek and Latin Fathers alike cite both classes of Books without distinction.
The Oxford Dictionary also tells you:
In post-NT times, the Christian Fathers down to the later 4th century almost all regarded the LXX as the standard form of the OT . . .
What are they talking about, the “Septuagint” and the “LXX”? Various Bible dictionaries tell you that the LXX, also known as the Septuagint (meaning “seventy,” named after the number of translators) was a 3rd-century B.C., Greek version of the Old Testament. Unger’s Bible Dictionary explains:
The importance of the Septuagint from every angle can scarcely be overestimated…. The Septuagint was the Bible of early Christianity before the New Testament was written. After the New Testament Scriptures came on the
scene, they were added to the Septuagint to form the completed Scriptures of Christianity.
So, the Septuagint (the LXX) was the Bible of early Christianity…. But why did the first Christians, who were Jews, use a Greek version of the Bible? You remember your pastor mentioning once that most Jews in the first century B.C. actually lived outside Palestine, and did not speak Hebrew. He referred to Nehemiah 8, the story of when the Jews returned to the Promised Land from their exile under Nebuchadnezzar (around 530 B.C). Ezra needed interpreters to translate for the people when he read the Hebrew Scriptures to them – the people couldn’t understand Hebrew as they had grown up in exile. Those Jews grew up speaking Aramaic. Just as the Jews of Ezra’s time needed someone to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures for them, so did their descendants living outside Palestine. They would naturally need a Greek translation of the Scriptures, Greek being a very common language at that time. That translation was the Septuagint.
Okay, so there was a Hebrew version of the Old Testament, and a Greek version called the Septuagint. The early Christians used the Septuagint as their Old Testament. Apparently, the Septuagint contained the Apocrypha, and apparently the early Christians were fooled into believing that the Apocrypha was actually Holy Scripture!
An Introduction to the Books of the Apocrypha insists:
There can be no doubt that during the first two centuries all the books of the Greek Canon were regarded as Scripture.
The author explains the attitude of the early Christians towards the Apocryphal books of the Septuagint:
Nowhere in early Christian literature are the books of what we call the “Apocrypha” spoken of as “apocryphal books”. When the term “apocryphal” is applied to a book it refers to one belonging to some sect, and is used in an opprobrious sense…. During the first two centuries, at least, the early Church both east and west, as represented by Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, accepted all the books of the Apocrypha as inspired, i.e. as Scripture; the last two quote from almost every book. Here it may also be mentioned, as illustrating the estimation in which the books of the Apocrypha were held in the early Church; that in the catacombs scenes depicting episodes described in the books of Tobit, Judith, and the Maccabees are frequently to be met with.
Unger’s Bible Dictionary adds:
By the beginning of the second century AD, reaction against the Septuagint took place in Jewish circles. By this time, Christians had come to venerate the Septuagint as inspired and authoritative, and used it in controversies with the Jews to prove the messiahship of Jesus.
More digging produces this assertion from The Making of the New Testament:
Once Christians began using the LXX for missionary and apologetic purposes, it began to lose favor with the Jews. Their earlier acceptance of this version waned when they found how consistently and effectively it was used against them in arguments. More and more the LXX became identified as the Old Testament of the Christian church. This led to a Jewish rejection of the LXX in its current form….
If you’ve understood all of these Protestant sources correctly, the early Christians used a Greek version of the Old Testament called the Septuagint (LXX) as their Bible. In fact, we get our modern-day order of the books of the Old Testament from the Septuagint order, rather than from the Hebrew. The Septuagint apparently included the books of the Apocrypha, which the early Christians apparently considered to be inspired Scripture. At the beginning of the 2nd century, the Jews grew to dislike the Greek version of the Old Testament because Christians were using it to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.
Interesting…. So the early Christians believed the Apocrypha to be Holy Scripture. Why did they consider those books to be Scripture? On whose say-so? What gave them the idea that those uninspired writings were a legitimate part of the canon?
This is confusing. You’re going to have to go back to the Source – back to Jesus Himself. After all, if the early Christians soon went off the track and started using books that Jesus never accepted as authoritative, then you’ve pinpointed the beginning of all the confusion! Did Jesus and his hand-picked apostles commend the Apocryphal books in any way, shape or form to the early church?
You’re betting that the answer to that question will be a “NO!”
On the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord
Deo omnis gloria!