A Custom-Made Canon?

Raphael Takes Leave of Tobit and Tobias

Here is Part 24 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Part One began way back here.

According to popular Protestant authors, the first Christians used various “criteria” to determine whether certain books were actually Scripture or not. It was through this process, they will tell you, that the canon of Scripture was discerned.

Indeed? Proof, please? This claim is really somewhat vague! WHICH early Christians subjected wannabe books to these infallible criteria? WHEN did these Christians live? Was there an OFFICIAL process culminating in some sort of an announcement, or did consensus develop gradually? Hopefully the decision was reached pretty early on – after all, Bible-only, sola Scriptura Christians of the first and second century HAD TO, by definition, have a Bible – otherwise, how’s sola Scriptura gonna work?! So where’s the historical documentation of this discernment process that resulted in the 66-book Protestant canon?

Catholic apologist Steve Ray, in the story of his conversion called Crossing the Tiber, gives a priceless example:

“Anti-Catholic tract author Norman Olson writes [concerning the books of the New Testament] in Church Fathers and Scripture, ‘Canonists also determined which books belonged to the Scriptures, as people were confused concerning which writings were valid and which ones were not.’ I wrote Mr. Olson a letter, to which I never received an answer. I asked him, ‘Can you tell me who these canonists were and what Church they belonged to? Also, were they part of some organization that had the authority to make such a profound determination? Did they write down the determination and decisions, and, if so, where would I be able to get a copy? What criteria did they use to pick the twenty-seven books? Why do we accept their determination as binding on us today? How do we know they were right?'”

I think you can see why Steve never received an answer to his letter! The Protestant version of events is as vague as all get-out, for a very good reason! To admit the historical facts is to admit that the bishops of the Holy Catholic Church discerned the canon of the New Testament as well as the Old, and Protestants are short seven books of Scripture!

Our Protestant hero is determined to find out the truth about the canon – how was it discerned, when and by whom, and most importantly: Do the deuterocanonical books belong in there or not? Is there any historical proof that the first Christians believed the deuterocanonical books to be Holy Scripture?

Back to your histories of the early church…. Your historical reference books claim that the first Christians accepted the deuterocanonicals and quoted from them as if they were Scripture. What can you find out about that? The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia reminds you that

Among the Church Fathers the Apocrypha were in common use from the earliest times.

These “Church Fathers” were the early Christians whose letters or books we now refer back to when we want to know what the first Christians believed. You note that these folks seemed to have had no idea that the deuterocanonicals were not Holy Scripture. In fact, among them the deuterocanonical books were definitely “recognized as authoritative by the people of God!” As J.N.D. Kelly puts it:

In the first two centuries . . . the Church seems to have accept all, or most of, these additional books as inspired and to have treated them without question as Scripture. Quotations from Wisdom, for example, occur in 1 Clement and Barnabas. . . Polycarp cites Tobit, and the Didache, Ecclesiasticus [Sirach]. Irenaeus refers to Wisdom, the History of Susannah, Bel and the Dragon [i.e., the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel], and Baruch. The use made of the Apocrypha by Tertullian, Hippolytus, Cyprian and Clement of Alexandria is too frequent for detailed references to be necessary.

What catches your eye in that list is the Church Father named Polycarp. He is said to have been a disciple of the apostle John – did he regard Tobit and Sirach as inspired Scripture?

Gee, you would think the apostles would have instructed the first Christians whether these books were or were not Holy Scripture, something along the lines of “Don’t be fooled by the fact that I’ve taken some material in my letter to the Romans and in one of my letters to the Corinthians from the Apocryphal books of Wisdom and Sirach. Don’t get the wrong idea – those books don’t belong in the Bible!”

In fact, weren’t the apostles kind of morally obligated to help their disciples sort that kind of thing out? Knowing which books are in the Bible is of the utmost importance if you base your beliefs on Scripture alone! The above quote (you double-check just to make sure that it is from a Protestant source) says the Apocryphal books “were in common use from the earliest times.”

Of course, the Fathers could have been wrong, but it is odd that the apostles would have left the first Christians with the impression that those books belonged in the Bible. McDonald and Porter insist:

If [the early Christians] received a closed and endorsed biblical canon from Jesus, they nowhere discuss it or show any awareness of it. The earliest Christians undoubtedly followed Jesus’ lead in matters related to Scripture, but it is not clear that Jesus endorsed any fixed biblical canon. At least, no evidence that he did currently exists. If his followers had received a canon from him that approximates or is equal to our current Protestant OT canon, then they apparently lost it, since they never refer to it or to Jesus’ endorsement of it. When the church fathers and church councils began to deliberate and recognize a canon of Scripture in the fourth century, they never attributed any of their lists to a tradition from Jesus or some other tradition passed on by him through the apostles.

Somehow you’re not surprised that none of the websites or the popular paperbacks make mention of the fact that the Christians of the first two centuries treated the deuterocanonicals “without question as Scripture.” Once again, you had to go to Bible dictionaries and scholarly works for that information. According to popular sources, the first Christians weren’t fooled by the deuterocanonicals – it was the Catholics who added them to the Bible centuries later. Martin Luther saw through this, and the rest of the Reformers followed his lead. False, false, false! Any mention of the acceptance of the deuterocanonical books by the first Christians has been seriously downplayed and even studiously ignored by popular sources. It’s almost as if there’s this “urban legend” of how the canon of Scripture was decided, a legend that everybody’s happy with and nobody disputes. But why? – when the information is right there in the library for anybody to look up?

The more you look into this, the more it appears that the Christians of the first two centuries weren’t too terribly worried about the Old Testament canon. The deuterocanonicals, as part of the Septuagint, were accepted as Holy Scripture. The makeup of the New Testament apparently posed a problem for the first Christians, though, as evidenced by the fact that Polycarp, John’s disciple, considered the “Didache” to be part of the New Testament.

As you delve into this, you see that anything ‘apostolic’ seems to have been looked upon as authoritative and was considered to be Scripture. After all, Peter refers to Paul’s writings as “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:16. When Jesus commissioned the apostles, He gave them the authority to speak in His name (Lk 10:16) – that certainly made their writings Holy Scripture! The appellation ‘apostolic’ also seems to have applied to anyone closely associated with the apostles, which explains the acceptance of the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts (also written by Luke). But using this reasoning, an epistle like Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians, written in the last decade of the first century by someone who may have been closely associated with Paul, was considered by many to be Scripture. Add to this the fact that there were in the first two centuries of Christianity many writings out there that claimed to have been written by apostles: the infamous “Gospel of Thomas,” the “Gospel of Peter,” and the “Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans,” to name a few.

How to sort all of this out? Early Christian policy was explained in the “Didascalia Apostolorum,” an early-third-century church manual. Christians were warned not to be fooled by fancy packaging – they had to check the ingredients!

For you are not to attend to the names of the apostles, but to the nature of the things, and their settled opinions. For we know that Simon and Cleobius, and their followers, have compiled poisonous books under the name of Christ and of His disciples, and do carry them about in order to deceive you who love Christ, and us His servants.

Bluntly put, just because a book has the name of an apostle attached to it, you can’t immediately assume that it’s genuine! What does the book teach (“the nature of things”), and do the churches recognize this book as apostolic (“their settled opinions”)?

A bishop by the name of Serapion in the second-century church in Antioch wrote a very interesting letter to the church at Rhossos, explaining to believers there how he knows that the “Gospel of Peter” is not authentic. Serapion writes:

For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.

In other words, what the bishop is saying is: Where in the world did the “Gospel of Peter” come from? This second-century bishop claims that that REAL writings of the apostles had been handed down within the church – so anything that just “popped up” out of nowhere was pretty easy to spot as a forgery. He’d never heard of the “Gospel of Peter” and neither had any of his fellow church leaders – therefore, the “Gospel of Peter” smelled fishy….

By the end of the second century the question of which books belonged in the New Testament and which didn’t had become a real issue. Heretical sects like the Gnostics were siphoning believers out of the churches. The Gnostics claimed that they possessed “special knowledge” (gnosis) that was the key to understanding the Scriptures, and one of them, a fellow named Marcion, took it upon himself to decide the canon of Scripture.

As you read further, the story of Marcion becomes weirdly familiar. Marcion, it appears, had an interesting theory. He claimed to have grasped the main message of the Scriptures. The God proclaimed by Jesus the Messiah was a God of love, and therefore, the God of the Old Testament was… a fraud! According to Marcion, if you accepted Jesus’ gospel of love, then you had to reject the Law…. and the God of the Jews as well! For that reason, the Old Testament was OBVIOUSLY not inspired Scripture. In fact, neither were three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark and John. Marcion’s idol was the apostle Paul, the only one who (according to Marcion) got Jesus’ teaching right. Therefore, ten of Paul’s epistles (the ones Marcion agreed with) along with the Gospel of Luke (Paul’s assistant) were Holy Scripture, minus the first two chapters of Luke (which Marcion did not agree with). Et voilà! We have our own little custom-made canon of Scripture!

You purse your lips in distaste. As ludicrous as Marcion’s selection process sounds, it also sounds all too familiar…. Throughout your investigation of this subject, authors – from Martin Luther on down to the popular authors of today – have been suggesting this same process of deciding which books are Scripture by comparing them with what you already believe! You page back through your notes to find that quote:

With Luther the Reformation was based on justification by faith…. Then those Scriptures which manifestly supported the fundamental principle were held to be ipso facto inspired, and the measure of their support of it determined the degree of their authority. Thus the doctrine of justification by faith is not accepted because it is found in the Bible; but the Bible is accepted because it contains this doctrine.

Marcion ended up with a travesty of the Bible – no one accepts his notions nowadays. But by using apparently the same process, Martin Luther was ready to demote Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation. The popular sources that you have relied on suggest that this strategy is the one used in the discernment of the Protestant canon – but one look at Marcion’s canon and you know that that couldn’t be right….

Is this how we’ve decided on the canon of Scripture??? This vicious cycle of “We get our theology from the inspired books of Holy Scripture – and we know which books are Scripture by testing them against our theology?”

Do we have our own little custom-made canon?

Is that why the deuterocanonicals were thrown out???

For Part 25 please click here


On the memorial of St. Giovan Giuseppe della Croce

Deo omnis gloria!


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