The Power of Judging Scripture

The Death of Judas Maccabeus

Here is Part 28 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Part One can be found here. Our Protestant hero has discovered the concept of Holy Tradition in the writings of the early Christians. Believing, as they did, that the Church was the ‘pillar and foundation of the truth,’ those early Christians relied on their leaders to faithfully preserve and hand down the doctrine taught by the apostles. How does this tie into the eventual discernment of the canon of Scripture?

Maybe, just maybe you have finally stumbled upon the key to this whole mystery, the answer to the question of how we can break out of the vicious cycle that plagued Luther as well as so many of the Reformers: “The book of James says ‘by works a man is justified, and not by faith only’ – but this contradicts the doctrine Paul preaches in the book of Romans! Therefore, the book of James contradicts the rest of the Bible and has got to go!” The answer to the dilemma was suggested to you by the first Christians, who devoted themselves to ‘the teaching of the apostles’ – not only, as you might have thought, to the teachings of the apostles written in the pages of the New Testament (which as you note would lead you directly back to the ‘James contradicts Paul – one of them has got to go!’ dilemma) but also to the teachings of the apostles as preserved in the ‘tradition’. The first Christians, you have found, believed that the church was “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:16), and that the doctrine of the apostles must be handed down from bishop to bishop and guarded “with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (2 Tim 1:14). As The Authority of the New Testament Scriptures puts it:

The apostles laid the foundation in their kerygma, witness, and doctrine. They delivered to the church the apostolic tradition, warned against false doctrine, and separated the true from the false. The church received the tradition and the doctrine of the apostles, orally and in written form, and it lived just as well by the one as the other.

This belief that God somehow preserved the teaching of the apostles in oral form down through the ages is entirely new to you. Somehow you had always just assumed that God’s word had to be written down – that was your assurance that it hadn’t been tampered with! After all, writing seems so solid, so reliable, whereas oral transmission of the faith has to pass through the brains and mouths of so many fallible, corruptible individuals….

You remember, though, the objections of many skeptics when it comes to the written Word. “How do you know these documents haven’t been altered? The earliest New Testament manuscripts we have don’t go back to the first century; they are copies of copies of copies – copies which could have been altered from the original! In fact, who says that the originals accurately portrayed the events of the life of Christ? Haven’t the words of Jesus been ’embellished’? You have no proof that Jesus really said “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” other than the insistence of the apostle John – and John wasn’t even there when Jesus supposedly uttered these words! Upon what do you base your belief that the written Word of God has not been altered down through the ages??”

To which you would of course reply that the Holy Spirit has supernaturally guarded the written Word down through the ages to ensure that God’s Truth be preserved. And if you can believe that the written Word, passed down from fallible, corruptible copyist to fallible, corruptible copyist from century to century to century, has been preserved from alteration, why is it such a leap of faith to believe that God the Holy Spirit would have been able to preserve the teachings of the apostles in oral form in the church Jesus established, especially since that is evidently exactly what He did at least up until the time the complete canon of Scripture was discerned? Especially since we know that the apostle Paul promised (in 2 Tim 1:13-14) that He would!

With the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit, this doctrine or ‘tradition’ spoken of in 1 Corinthians 11: 2 and 2 Thessalonians 2:15 could be preserved down through the years and serve as the determining factor when it came time to discern an infallible canon of Scripture. If a book had not been in use in the church down through the ages, or if it had but was not believed to stem from the apostles or their closest companions, it was not ‘apostolic’ and therefore not discerned as part of the written ‘deposit of faith’ (and this could be determined by consulting with the bishops of the various churches). And if a book, no matter how popular it may have been in some quarters, contradicted the ‘doctrine of the apostles,’ that is, the oral ‘deposit of faith,’ then it was not discerned as part of the written ‘deposit of faith’ left to us. So, the solution to the ‘James contradicts Paul/Paul contradicts James’ dilemma was quite straightforward – the church didn’t measure the book of James or any other book solely up against other books of Scripture, but also against the doctrine of the apostles which was handed down both in Scripture and in the oral tradition faithfully preserved by the church! Similarly, no one individual alone could claim to be able to settle the canon issue – the early Christians believed that the truth lay in the unity of the faith taught by the bishops as a group in union with the bishop of Rome.

You page through your reference material to see how that worked out in practice….

You note many references to the fact that individual Church Fathers all had different ideas on which books were Scripture and which weren’t:

Clement of Rome (a first-century bishop) accepted the Epistle of Barnabas as Holy Scripture. He accepted and quotes from the book of Wisdom as well, and he holds “the blessed Judith” up alongside Esther as “women, being strengthened by the grace of God” – in fact he claims that “the Lord delivered Holophernes (the antagonist in the book of Judith) into the hands of a woman (Judith).” You notice that in Irenaeus’ list of the bishops of Rome he mentions “in the third place from the apostles” this bishop Clement – it was Clement who wrote “1 Clement,” an epistle to the still-squabbling church in Corinth that some early Christians considered to be Holy Scripture and a rightful book of the New Testament. You can see why they believed this – Irenaeus says that this Clement “had seen the blessed apostles and conversed with them, and still had their preaching ringing in his ears and their authentic tradition before his eyes.” When considering which books had apostolic authority, some Christians assumed that 1 Clement, most likely written in the last decade of the first century, surely fit that bill, along with the book of Hebrews (author unknown), and perhaps 2 Peter (which you remember Calvin felt was probably written by a disciple of the apostle Peter and therefore had “apostolic authority” and belonged in the Bible.)

Irenaeus of Lyons (a second-century bishop) quoted from or alluded to all the books of our New Testament except Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude, as well as to Baruch, Wisdom, 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas, which he considered to be inspired Scripture. He vehemently rejects the ‘Gospel of Truth’ and the ‘Gospel of Judas.’

Clement of Alexandria (2nd to 3rd century) did not accept 2 Timothy or Philemon as Scripture – he did accept the deuterocanonical books as well as many others – 1 Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas, among others.

Origen (2nd to 3rd century) accepted the Epistle of Barnabas, but he doubted that the books of James, 2 Peter, and 2 and 3 John belonged in the Bible.

Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) rejected the Gospel of Thomas. He also rejected the book of Revelation, while including Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in his canon of the Old Testament.

Athanasius (3rd to 4th century) accepted all the disputed books of the New Testament, and lumped together the deuterocanonical books, Esther, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache as books “which the Fathers decreed should be read….”

It’s a good thing Irenaeus didn’t insist that any individual could get it right (since you note that the above Fathers all disagreed with one another), nor did Irenaeus claim that the truth would be determined by majority vote. He said that the bishops were the rightful guardians of the truth handed down from the Apostles – one bishop might not be aware that John had written the book of Revelation, but by consulting with the bishop of John’s church in Ephesus he might find that out. Just as Paul wrote in Ephesians, each member of the body needs the other members! Together the leadership of the body of Christ could discern the canon, and the bishop of Rome (the church which Irenaeus considered to be “the greatest and most ancient”) would review and ratify their decision.

So much for the claims of different Reformers that ‘so-and-so’ in the ancient Church accepted or rejected books like 2 Peter or Hebrews – so what? The opinion of one individual Church Father didn’t really count for much (just as the opinion of one Reformer like Martin Luther or John Calvin didn’t really count for much!) How can the opinion of one fallible individual be depended upon when it comes to discerning the canon of Scripture?

That reminds you of the quote from Calvin that you read in the library:

Nothing, therefore, can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends.

Hmmm…. Well, it depends on how you mean that! Nobody can MAKE an uninspired writing into Holy Scripture, so if Calvin meant that a particular denomination can’t choose certain books and say, “These books are now Holy Scripture, because we say so,” he was right! The canon of Scripture was discerned, meaning that the books written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit were recognized as being Holy Scripture, not made into Holy Scripture when some person or some group said “Presto-chango!”

But, if “the power of judging Scripture” means the power to discern a canon in an authoritative manner, the power to recognize the inspired books and declare beyond the shadow of a doubt that these books are God-given Holy Scripture, and that no other books belong in the canon, then….

Well, somebody HAD BETTER be able to make an authoritative pronouncement! Because otherwise, you’re left with personal opinion, with guesswork and hoping… and doubting! With Irenaeus, and Clement, and Origen, and Cyril, and Athanasius, and Luther, and Karlstadt, and Calvin – each proposing a different canon….

There HAS TO be a way to KNOW we’ve got the right canon! There HAS TO be “certainty”!

Was Calvin wrong? Does this “power of judging Scripture” belong to the Church?

For Part 29, please click here


On the memorial of Bl. Robert Dalby and Bl. John Amias

Deo omnis gloria!


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