Lord Jesus, give us a pope secundum Cor Tuum, after Your own Heart!
In an effort to distract myself from checking for news of the papal election every 5 minutes – here is Part 27 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Part One can be found here – to make sense of all this, you really need to begin at the beginning. Our Protestant hero has discovered the writings of a second-century bishop named Irenaeus of Lyons, who suggests that consultation with “the most ancient churches” will be an aid in answering questions that are not addressed in Holy Scripture. Might that help with discerning the canon of Scripture?
Irenaeus insists that in order to escape being deceived by the claims of the heretics, Christians needed to listen to the teaching of the churches in union with the teaching of the “greatest and most ancient church known to all,” the church in Rome. You notice especially that Irenaeus is not insisting that any one person can claim to get this right. Irenaeus was himself the bishop of Lyons, France; he is not proclaiming ‘Listen to ME if you want it straight from the horse’s mouth!’ In other words, no one person can be counted on for an answer to a question like ‘what are the contents of the canon?’ The truth lies, Irenaeus stresses, in the unity of the faith taught by the bishops as a group in union with the bishop of Rome. Irenaeus seems supremely unconcerned that the Christians of his time possessed no canon of Scripture. He actually writes:
Let us suppose that the apostles had left us no written records. Would we not have been able to follow the precepts of the tradition that they handed down to those to whom they entrusted the churches? It is this precept of tradition that is followed by many barbarian nations that believe in Christ who know nothing of the use of writing, or ink.
He REALLY has faith in ‘the tradition’! Jesus didn’t leave us a list of inspired Scripture, nor did the apostles. But the first Christians, who so serenely accepted the deuterocanonical books as Holy Scripture, appear to have functioned on the principle that Jesus and the apostles did leave behind ‘the good deposit’ that was, through the work of the Holy Spirit, capable of keeping the church on the right track in the years to come. Apparently, when the first Christians finally decided that it was time to determine which books were Holy Scripture and which weren’t, it was this principle that they relied on – the leadership of the churches would be able to make this determination through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The apostles (to whom Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose) were so successful at passing on this ‘good deposit’ (and OF COURSE they were successful, since the church leaders guarded it with the “help of the Holy Spirit” who cannot fail!) that those church leaders were capable of determining authoritatively what was Holy Scripture and what wasn’t. As Irenaeus wrote:
Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches?
“Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important questions among us?” The canon of Scripture would definitely qualify as important! “How should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings?” Well, there is one writing they did not leave us – there is no inspired list of the canon of Scripture. “Should we not have recourse to the most ancient churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?” “Would it not be necessary to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the churches?”
Is that what happened? Is that how we got our Bible? Did the deposit of faith guide the leadership of the churches? Were the “most ancient churches” consulted in order to “learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question?” Is that how the deuterocanonical books finally, after their initial acceptance by the Christian community, got weeded out?
You write these principles as you understand them on a blank page in your notebook:
No one person is capable of determining single-handedly what is Scripture and what isn’t.
In order to break the 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” we need to be 100% sure that we’ve got our theology straight – look what happened to Marcion! And the only way to be 100% sure that we’ve got our theology straight is to make sure that we have devoted ourselves to the teaching of the apostles. The early Christians did this, not by relying on the New Testament (since its contents hadn’t been settled yet – in fact, those contents were part of the very question that needed to be settled!) but rather by clinging to the ‘good deposit’ of apostolic teaching handed down with the help of the Holy Spirit.
The first Christians believed that the rabbinical power to “bind and loose” had been handed over to the Christian church (Matthew 16:19). The leadership of the churches is capable of meeting together and making authoritative decisions – just as Jesus gave his apostles the authority to “bind and loose,” so the leadership, made up of men who were ordained by men who were ordained by men who were ordained by the apostles, can discern through the leading of the Holy Spirit which books are Holy Scripture, and their discernment can be binding because of the authority passed on to them as the ones entrusted with “guarding the good deposit.”
The first Christians did not believe that Christianity was to be based on a written record of the apostles’ teaching or that everything they needed to know had been written down. They believed that the faith which had been “once delivered unto the saints” (or “the faith which was once for all entrusted to the saints” as your NIV puts it) was contained both in Scripture and in the ‘good deposit’ guarded by the church. They apparently took quite literally the words that Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:15:
“…. that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
You check this verse in your NIV, and it comes out substantially the same:
“…the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
The first Christians really believed that the church was the pillar and foundation of truth, just as 1 Timothy 3:15 asserts. That would explain their lack of concern over a settled canon of Scripture…. The church was capable of preserving and passing on the truth….
Well, this at least sounds like a working theory….
On the memorial of St. Luigi Orione
Deo omnis gloria!