In Regard to the Canonical Scriptures

Susanna and the Elders

Welcome to Part 30 of my series on the discernment of the canon of Scripture. Please begin with Part One here.

We are examining the views of the 3rd– and 4th-century Christians as regards the canon. While the Christians of the 1st and 2nd century had no qualms about calling the deuterocanonicals Holy Scripture, 3rd and 4th century Christians had begun to question the discrepancy between the Hebrew canon and the Christian canon. Several Church Fathers of this era call the deuterocanonical books “ecclesiastical” rather than “canonical.” However, Church Fathers who suggest that the deuterocanonicals should be counted among the ecclesiastical (Church) books are not saying that they are not inspired Scripture (see the quotation from Rufinus below) – they are merely recognizing that while these books are not found in the Hebrew canon, they ARE found in the Christian canon. The arguments of the popular authors on this subject are very misleading.

The previously quoted assurance by Origen that God would never leave His Church in the lurch really says it all: “And, forsooth, when we notice such things [like the story of Susanna not being found in the Hebrew canon of the Old Testament], we are forthwith to reject as spurious the copies in use in our churches, and enjoin the brotherhood to put away the sacred books current among them, and to coax the Jews, and persuade them to give us copies which shall be untampered with, and free from forgery? Are we to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures has ministered to the edification of all the churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things?”

The entire Protestant argument is based on the insistence that Origen was wrong – that God did allow Christians, for hundreds of years, to use a Bible that had been “tampered with” and was full of “forgeries.” They insist that, yes, we are to suppose that that Providence which in the sacred Scriptures ministered to the edification of all the churches of Christ, had no thought for those bought with a price, for whom Christ died; whom, although His Son, God who is love spared not, but gave Him up for us all, that with Him He might freely give us all things!

Like Origen, I don’t buy that….

Hmm…. Many sources cite Geisler and Nix’s objection to the Deuterocanon:

There were many individuals who vehemently opposed them [the deuterocanonicals], for example, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, Jerome.

So Geisler and Nix think that Origen “vehemently opposed” the deuterocanonicals, along with three other Fathers. That’s odd, considering his spirited defense of the story of Susanna that you just read. But again, according to the principle set forward by Irenaeus, one man’s objection meant very little – no one could authoritatively discern the canon except the bishops meeting in council, in union with the bishop of Rome. Still, you decide to take a head count of Church Fathers from the 1st century through the 4th to determine who actually spoke out against the deuterocanonicals and who accepted them. After all, by now you’re getting pretty tired of these claims made by the popular authors – they rarely seem to pan out!

It is kind of hard to pin some of these Fathers down when it comes to the deuterocanonicals. Some of them will make statements in one place that seem to dismiss the deuteros, and then in another place they quote from them in ways that show that they considered them to be Holy Scripture! (You also note that when a Church Father vacillates like this, the Protestant popular sources tend to only mention the apparent rejection of the deuterocanonicals – you have to keep checking all by yourself to find any positive remarks that the Father in question might have made. Even when what the Father in question said was mostly positive, the popular authors cling to the negative!) You count up 29 early Christian sources who, by quoting from deuterocanonical books in the same manner that they quote from Scripture, or by making comments that indicate their belief in the canonicity of the deuterocanonicals, or both, apparently believed those books to be Holy Scripture:

– the author of the Didache

– the author of the Shepherd of Hermas

– the author of the Epistle of Barnabas

– Clement of Rome

– Polycarp

– Athenagoras

– Irenaeus

– Tertullian

– Hippolytus

– Clement of Alexandria

– Cyprian of Carthage

– Origen (despite what Geisler and Nix claim, you find that Origen actually calls the deuterocanonicals “Divine Scriptures,” “Holy Scripture,” and “the divine word,” as well as using the formula “It is written…” before quotations from deuterocanonical books – pretty odd if he rejected their inspiration. )

– Dionysius of Alexandria

– Archelaus

– Methodius

– Lactantius

– Aphraates

– Alexander of Alexandria

– Cyril of Jerusalem (Cyril lists the canonical books of the Old Testament, and includes among them Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah. He himself quoted from Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach and the deuterocanonical sections of Daniel in his Catechetical Lectures, citing the latter with the formula “It is written….” No real “vehement opposition” here…).

– Athanasius (again, despite Geisler and Nix’s insistence that Athanasius “vehemently opposed” the Apocrypha, he places Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah in his list of the “canon.” He says that the other deuterocanonicals and the book of Esther are books which “are not placed in the canon, but which the Fathers decreed should be read to those who have lately come into the fold and seek to be catechized, and who study to learn the Christian doctrine.” Athanasius then establishes a third category for “Apocrypha” – the deuterocanonicals and Esther are not among them.)

– Hilary of Poitiers (who in his defense of the doctrine of the Trinity actually writes “Such suggestions [as the heretics make] are inconsistent with the clear sense of Scripture. ‘For all things,’ as the Prophet says, ‘were made out of nothing’….” That “prophet” he refers to is the author of 2 Maccabees!)

– Basil the Great (a 4th-century bishop of Caesarea, Basil quotes from Baruch, Wisdom, Judith, and the extra parts of Daniel as Holy Scripture, and holds up the Maccabean martyrs as an example to be followed by Christians.)

– Gregory of Nazianzus (he apparently rejected the book of Revelation as well as Esther. While excluding the deuterocanonical books from “the most ancient Hebrew wisdom,” he still quotes from Baruch, Wisdom, Judith, Sirach and the extra parts of Daniel as Holy Scripture, and holds the Maccabean martyrs up, as did so many Church Fathers, as “men of old days illustrious for piety… brave to the shedding of blood” in the same roll call of faith with the patriarchs of the Old Testament.)

– John Chrysostom (he considered Baruch to be part of the book of Jeremiah, and he quotes from the extra parts of Daniel as well as passages from the books of Wisdom and Tobit as Scripture.)

– Ambrose

– Rufinus (he did separate the books of the Old Testament into the “canonical” [meaning the ones he knew were accepted by the Jews] and the “ecclesiastical” [meaning the ones accepted by the Christians, “ecclesia” meaning “church”]. You note that many popular authors seize upon this to show that he and others like him “knew” that the ecclesiastical books didn’t belong in the Bible! However, Rufinus objected to the rejection of the deuterocanonicals by pointing to Jewish converts to Christianity, none of whom tried to remove the deuteros from the Christian Bible to make it more like the Hebrew Bible. In his words, “In all this abundance of learned men, [Jews who have converted to Christianity], has there been one who has dared to make havoc of the divine record handed down to the churches by the apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit?” And note what he said: Rufinus is falling back on what has been handed down to the churches by the apostles, and the deposit of the Holy Spirit! Those Christians really did believe that God the Holy Spirit was supernaturally aiding them in guarding the good deposit!)

– Augustine of Hippo (This Church Father even outlines the process he recommends for discerning the canon: “Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical epistles he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive.” Wow! This sounds like what Irenaeus insisted upon nearly 200 years before Augustine’s time! – “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?”)

– John Cassian

– Theodoret of Cyrus

The popular authors try really hard at this point to make it look like a lot of Church Fathers accepted the modern-day Protestant canon. They have to fudge quite a bit, though, because even the Fathers who endorse a minimalist, pared-down canon of the Old Testament all “slip up” on a few books of the Deuterocanon like Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah, or subtract a few books from the New Testament in their zeal to downsize, or state, like Rufinus, that the deuterocanonical books are ecclesiastical (used by the church) and therefore part of “the divine record handed down to the churches by the apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit”! But you have to give the popular authors credit for trying – they try really, really hard to shoehorn the oversized canons of the Fathers into the Protestant 66-book Bible!

The writings of Origen are a good case in point. When Origen and other Christian writers proclaim that there are twenty-two books in the Hebrew canon, the popular authors insist that this means that the Hebrew canon is the correct one! A few comments from Protestant scholar F.F. Bruce say otherwise:

…it was plain to him [Origen] that, when dealing with the Jews, he could appeal to no authoritative scriptures but those which they acknowledged as canonical.

But in replying to Julius Africanus [who questioned Origen’s use of the story of Susanna as if it were inspired Scripture] he points out that there are many things in the Greek Bible which are not found in the Hebrew text, and the church cannot be expected to give them all up.

He [Origen] is certainly unwilling to deviate from the regular practice of the church.

And H.B. Swete makes the same case when speaking of Augustine:

From the end of the fourth century the inclusion of the non-canonical books in Western lists is a matter of course. Even Augustine has no scruples on the subject. He makes the books of the Old Testament forty-four…. His judgement was that of his Church.

So, you’ve counted up 29 Fathers who endorsed the deuterocanonical books. The popular authors seem to pounce on any whiff of indecision, whereas you’ve tried to give these men’s views a fair hearing. Again, why are the popular authors so keen on proving their point? A little objective scholarship would be a real breath of fresh air, but these guys are more like salesmen moving in for the kill! The quote from Geisler and Nix is a fine example of hyperbole:

There were many individuals who vehemently opposed them [the deuterocanonicals], for example, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen, Jerome.

Many?? As far as you can tell, Athanasius, Cyril and Origen did no such thing. Yet Geisler and Nix exaggerate these Fathers’ objections out of proportion, AND try to make it sound like they are just the “tip of the iceberg!”

So, how many Fathers really did oppose the deuterocanonical books?

For Part 31 please click here


On the memorial of St. Josef Bilczewski

Deo omnis gloria!


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