A Formal Pronouncement on the Canon


Here is Part 34 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Part One began here.

Drumroll, please! The moment we have all been waiting for: the discernment of the canon….

You try to make sense of this odd story. According to scholarly sources, the first Christians, the people taught directly by the apostles (all Jewish) and by men like Timothy and Titus whom the apostles ordained, wholeheartedly embraced the deuterocanonical books, and they were obviously in a position to know what the apostles approved and disapproved of as far as the canon went! And yet the popular authors imply that through the first four centuries of Christianity, the church was wandering in darkness, blindly groping its way towards the ‘correct’ canon, coming ever closer, ever closer, until finally the light dawned and Jerome proclaimed the Hebrew canon to be the real one! To you, this really doesn’t sound so much like “enlightment” as it sounds like creeping doubt! The problem with this theory is that the popular authors are beginning with the assumption that the modern-day Protestant canon is the right one. That cannot be assumed – it must be proven!
Isn’t that what this is all about? What canon did Jesus use? What canon did the apostles bequeath to the churches? What books did Christians rely on for four hundred years till Jerome came along? Jesus and the apostles used the Septuagint (the ISBE calls it “the Bible of our Lord and His apostles”!), and yet never warned their followers that it contained books which were not Holy Scripture.

And what about the fact that the book of Wisdom prophesies so clearly about the death of the Messiah that the Jewish leaders quoted from it as they watched Jesus die on the cross – did the writer of Wisdom just “get lucky” when he wrote that spectacular passage? What about the fact that the Archangel Raphael in the book of Tobit declares: “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stand and serve before the Glory of the Lord”? The supposedly uninspired author who made up the nonsense in the book of Tobit just happened to be right about this hitherto unknown factthere are seven angels who stand before God’s throne, as confirmed hundreds of years later by Revelation chapter 1 (“Grace to you and peace, from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne”) and chapter 8 (“And I saw the seven angels who stand before God….”). Just a lucky hunch??? Kind of hard to believe….

The Christians in the first, second and third century used the Deuterocanon as a part of their Scriptures, realizing only that they couldn’t quote from it when they debated Jewish opponents, since the Jews (who closed their canon at least 60 years after Jesus ascended into heaven) didn’t recognize the canonicity of those books. Did Jerome, at the end of the fourth century, finally realize ‘the truth’ and try to wake everybody up? Did Christians reject this ‘truth’ and then continue to blunder about in the dark, clinging to their belief that seven uninspired and noncanonical books were actually the inspired Word of God for another millennium until the Protestant church was born? So no one realized what the REAL canon of Scripture was until the Reformers finally got their act together and backed Jerome up???

And why lie about the Catholic Church’s involvement in all this, pretending that Christianity had a 66-book canon down through the ages until the Catholics added 7 books to their Bibles to bolster their sagging theology? It is sooo historically clear that no one ever used a Bible with 66 books in it until the Reformers came along!

So far you have found that Jerome’s canon, far from being representative of enlightened fourth-century opinion, was just Jerome’s canon! Like every other Church Father, Jerome had his own ideas about which books belonged in the canon, and which did not. One thing you can be absolutely certain of: Jerome was not infallible. If you accept his canon, you are going against the opinion of every other Church Father, and you are going against the beliefs of the 4th-century church! Rufinus, a former friend of Jerome’s, disagreed vehemently with his insistence on the 66-book canon, and wrote a scathing denunciation of it:

…is it conceivable that they [the apostles] could not foresee through the Spirit that a time would come, after nearly 400 years, when the church would find out that the apostles had not delivered to them the truth of the Old Testament, and would send an embassy [meaning Jerome!] to those whom the apostles spoke of as the circumcision, begging and beseeching them to dole out to them some small portion of the truth which was in their possession, and that the church would through this embassy confess that she had been for all those 400 years in error….

Even as Jerome suggested that the deuterocanonicals might be second-class books because of Jewish objections to them, the church leadership began the process of discernment. Meeting in council in the year 393 A.D. in the north African town of Hippo, a group of bishops (apparently relying on the ‘deposit of faith’ and believing that they were being led by the Holy Spirit) discerned which books were ‘divine Scripture’ and which weren’t. You find a list of the Old Testament books that they accepted:

Besides the canonical Scriptures [let] nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture. But the canonical Scriptures are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua (the son of Nun), Judges, Ruth, the Kings, four books [our I and 2 Samuel, and I and 2 Kings], the Chronicles, two books, Job, the Psalter, the five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Song of Solomon, Sirach], the twelve books of the Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Ezra, two books, Maccabees, two books.

That’s the same Old Testament canon that you find in your great-aunt’s Bible. Although the proceedings of the council of Hippo have been lost, it appears that this list discerned by the bishops meeting in council was then sent to the bishop of Rome, asking him to ratify it – and he did.

This is exactly what Irenaeus had insisted upon some 200 years earlier in his “Against Heresies”! 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, because the leadership of the churches had guarded the good deposit entrusted to them by the apostles!

Another council meeting four years later in the north African city of Carthage came to the same conclusion as the Council of Hippo:

[The Council has decided] that nothing except the Canonical Scriptures should be read in the church under the name of the Divine Scriptures. But the Canonical Scriptures are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings [our 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings], Paralipomenon two books [our 1 and 2 Chronicles], Job, the Psalter of David, five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, Song of Solomon, Sirach], twelve books of the Prophets, Isaias, Jeremias, Daniel, Ezechiel, Tobias, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras [our Ezra and Nehemiah], two books of the Machabees. Moreover, of the New Testament: Four books of the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles one book, thirteen epistles of Paul the Apostle, one of the same to the Hebrews, two of Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, the Apocalypse of John.

The council made a point of noting that “the transmarine Church shall be consulted,” that is, the church that lies over the ocean (i.e., Rome) concerning the confirmation of the canon.

Was this canon forced on the great ‘silent majority’ of Christians who ‘knew better’ than to accept Baruch, Sirach, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees and the additional parts of Esther and Daniel as Holy Scripture? The Canon of Scripture addresses the Councils of Hippo and Carthage:

These appear to have been the first church councils to make a formal pronouncement on the canon. When they did so, they did not impose any innovation on the churches; they simply endorsed what had become the general consensus of the churches of the west and of the greater part of the east.

The Canon of the Bible makes this observation:

In relation to the New Testament, the synods which drew up lists of the sacred books show the view of some leading father like Augustine, along with what custom had sanctioned. In this department no member of the synod exercised his critical faculty; a number together would decide such questions summarily. Bishops proceed in the track of tradition or authority.

Another council meeting in Carthage in the year 419 came to the same conclusion concerning the canon of Scripture, and once again followed protocol by insisting that their list of books “be sent to our brother and fellow-bishop, Boniface [the bishop of Rome], and to the other bishops of those parts, that they may confirm this canon, for these are the things that we have received from our fathers to be read in church.”

“These are the things that we have received from our fathers to be read in church” – just as you remember reading in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.

These events marked the discernment of the canon. Now, in this day of ‘satellite news’ we expect that everyone should immediately take an interest in this issue, but of course the world of the fourth and fifth century was a different place. Hippo and Carthage, local councils, began the discernment process. No one rushed to standardize Bible manuscripts, which is odd if they agreed with the Reformers on the doctrine of ‘Scripture alone!’ They depended, however, on the doctrine of “the church, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth” and still relied on the teaching of the bishops to guide them! You find that church council after church council from Hippo in 393 A.D. down to the time of the Council of Florence in 1442 (way before the Reformation) affirmed the canon of those 46 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New. Not one Old Testament manuscript, from the fourth century down to the Reformation, makes use of the truncated canon of Jerome. And the Council of Trent, in the face of all the Reformation confusion over which books were Holy Scripture and which weren’t, finally banned further discussion of the issue, using the same list of books that went all the way back to Hippo and Carthage. As Philip Schaff (no friend of the Catholic canon) wrote:

This canon remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session.

You find the popular authors deliberately misunderstanding the situation at this point. The fact that there were still different opinions on which books belonged in the canon, they say, somehow proves that the discernment of the various councils wasn’t valid. But all that the popular authors manage to prove is that individuals dissented from the decision reached at Hippo and Carthage. The Church considered the matter clarified – there were 73 books in the canon. Individuals continued to bicker about it; reading the objections of Jerome in his Prologues, they asked if perhaps the councils had erred. Take as an example a 5th-century bishop, Exuperius, who knew Jerome personally. He wrote a letter to Pope Innocent I in 417, asking him to clarify the canon. The pope responded with a list of books identical to those of Hippo and Carthage. Centuries later, Pope Nicholas I referred to the list drawn up by Pope Innocent I as part of the universal law of the Church! In other words, the subject of the canon continued to be debated by individuals who accepted Jerome’s reasoning in his Prologues, yet council after council discerned the same canon, and pope after pope reaffirmed it. The Council of Florence decreed in 1442 that:

…the saints of both Testaments have spoken with the inspiration of the same Holy Spirit, whose books, which are contained under the following titles it accepts and venerates: The five books of Moses, Josue, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemias, Tobias, Judith, Esther, Job, the Psalms of David, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles, Wisdom. Ecclesiasticus [Sirach], Isaiah, Jeremiah with Baruch, Ezechiel, Daniel, twelve Prophets, and the Books of Maccabees.

You note that this occurred decades before the birth of Martin Luther! That’s the last nail in the coffin of the conspiracy theory that the deuterocanonicals were ADDED to the Catholic Bible in reaction to the Reformation! That myth is dead and buried!

It is true, though, that around the time of the Reformation, there were still Catholics who were asking whether the deuterocanonicals really belonged in the Bible. You find that Protestant apologists can really make hay with this, since they don’t accept the idea that the decision of church councils which have been ratified by the bishop of Rome have any real meaning. Since the Church was not based on “the Bible alone,” but on the Bible and Tradition, such questioning just wasn’t the big deal that it would be in a “sola Scriptura” context. The Reformers, however, basically tore the canon apart and rebuilt “custom canons” to suit their theological fancy – they had no one in authority over them to rebuke them. So in 1546 when the Catholic hierarchy met in council at Trent they solemnly reiterated that this canon, discerned so long ago at the 4th and 5th century councils, was without question the canon of Scripture, and, because of the Reformation free-for-all, declared the subject closed once and for all. After the confirmation of the 73 books at Trent, there was, for Catholics, no more discussion.

You note that the popular authors still offer no hint of how Protestants can KNOW that the books in the Protestant canon are the right ones, especially in the face of all the evidence against that claim! Trust the Hebrew canon, closed many decades after the Resurrection, after the right to “bind and loose” had long since been given over to the leadership of the Christian church, they say! Rely on Jerome’s canon, because it’s the right one, they say! And who says it’s the right one? Jerome, and only Jerome, siding with the people who utterly reject the Christian canon of Scripture, and even he waffled back and forth….

And THAT’S supposed to settle things??

For Part 35 please click here


On the memorial of St. Waldetrudis

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. russ said:

    This is great . So many times people bring up Jerome and want to insist that his word was definitive, yet the pope shut him down and disagreed with his opinion of the canon! They don’t mention that part. The other frustrating thing is that some Protestants cling to Jerome and trust his judgement regarding the canon, but at the same time reject this man’s judgment when it comes to his views of the Eucharist, authority of Rome etc.
    This is a very pivotal chapter in your series Renee and I pray that Protestants of good faith and reason will be willing to listen to what you have to say.

  2. Thank you!

    Because Protestants misunderstand and/or reject the decision-making process used by the Church, they feel that the continued objections of individuals down through the ages (all of whom were influenced by Jerome’s Prologues) somehow prove that the councils erred. If Jesus hadn’t told his disciples to “take it to the Church” when there was a difference of opinion, that might be a reasonable objection. But He established a Church which can, under certain conditions, make infallible judgments. That is our security that we have the correct canon of Scripture.

    What is their assurance?

  3. Donna said:

    I’m kind of new to the Catholic Church and new to the deuterocanonicals. Where is the passage in Wisdom you referred to–I’m dying to know!

  4. luvadoxi said:

    Thank you Renee–that is just amazing!

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