Here is Part 35 of my series on the canon of Scripture. It all began waaaaay back here.
One reason Protestants think their version of “how we got our Bible” sounds reasonable is because they envision a very different early church than the one described in historical accounts. Many Protestants think of the early Christians as being very, very loosely organized. When they hear that the first Christians met in house churches, they imagine a Protestant kind of house church, i.e., me, my brother Louie, his wife and kids, their neighbor Roxanne and her dog – no pastor, no one who actually leads the “congregation,” just a group of believers who interpret the 66-book Bible according to their own lights. To imagine that people like this very quickly became confused about the Old Testament canon of Scripture is pretty easy (Louie isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed), and so the fiction that the Church stupidly embraced the Septuagint, despite the fact that their Jewish contemporaries could have set them straight if they’d just asked, seems plausible. Thank God Jerome came along and rectified things!
The historical reality looks very different. Christians had leaders from the very beginning. Jesus commissioned the apostles. We see in the book of Acts that the apostles appointed deacons to help them with their workload. The apostles also set about training other men to lead the churches they established. Grab a copy of a King James version of the Bible, and read the footnote at the very end of 2 Timothy: “The second epistle unto Timotheus, ordained the first bishop of the church of the Ephesians…” Read the footnote at the end of the book of Titus: “It was written to Titus, ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretians….” Check out Philippians 1:1: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons“.
So? So those house churches weren’t made up of groups of believers who split off from other groups of believers because they couldn’t agree on doctrine, as so many Protestant start-ups are. Hear the words of St. Ignatius of Antioch, martyred circa 107 A.D.:
Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth ] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.
In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrin of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church…
Now it becomes you also not to treat your bishop too familiarly on account of his youth, but to yield him all reverence, having respect to the power of God the Father, as I have known even holy presbyters [i.e. priests] do, not judging rashly, from the manifest youthful appearance [of their bishop], but as being themselves prudent in God, submitting to him, or rather not to him, but to the Father of Jesus Christ, the bishop of us all. It is therefore fitting that you should, after no hypocritical fashion, obey [your bishop], in honour of Him who has willed us [so to do], since he that does not so deceives not [by such conduct] the bishop that is visible, but seeks to mock Him that is invisible….I exhort you to study to do all things with a divine harmony, while your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ,… As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters.
He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God.
It’s as simple as this: You couldn’t start your own house church. In order to be a REAL Christian, you had to “assemble with the Church!” Otherwise, you were setting yourself in opposition to the bishop! St. Ignatius took pains to explain that each area had one bishop (he himself was the third bishop of Antioch, St. Peter being the first, and St. Evodius the second.) One of his letters was addressed to another eventual martyr for the Faith, St. Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Each of the churches to whom Ignatius addressed one of his letters had a bishop, and he warned Christians that they must do nothing church-related without the bishop:
See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.
The first- and second-century Christians were most certainly not a disorganized band of stragglers! They were taught by men who had been ordained by men who had been ordained by the apostles. The Church hierarchy was obsessed with the faithful transmission of the deposit of Faith. So how could the early Christians have dropped the ball concerning the Hebrew canon? They didn’t – the apostles bequeathed to them the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT, which contained the deuterocanonical books. As St. Justin Martyr wrote to Trypho some time before 150 A.D. – he relied on the Septuagint version, but he understood that the Jewish leaders had removed several books from their canon “by which this very man who was crucified is proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as being crucified, and as dying.” So, when St. Justin disputed with Trypho, he stuck to the Hebrew canon. Otherwise, he used the Christian Scriptures.
Bottom line: Protestants tend to think of the early Christians as being as discombobulated as modern-day Protestants. Historically, that notion is simply untenable.
While the Church hierarchy was obsessed with the faithful transmission of the deposit of Faith, they were NOT sola Scriptura Christians. They obviously took their time (nearly four centuries!) making a decision on the canon of Scripture. If the Church had depended on Scripture alone, that fact would be inexplicable. The Church relied, however, on their leadership to convey the truths of the faith to the world. The faithful did not read their leatherbound King James version at home by the light of a guttering flame – the Scriptures were read to them and explained to them at Mass. This goes a long way towards explaining the almost lackadaisical approach to the composition of Biblical manuscripts. The Church had decided which books were Holy Scripture, and that was the necessary thing….
Back to the fourth century…. While the discernment process was beginning, Jerome died. The translation that Jerome had been working on (the Vulgate) began to circulate. It was not Jerome’s work alone. Jerome had translated the books contained in the Protestant Old Testament, as well as Tobias, Judith, the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel and Esther, and the four Gospels. The rest of the books of the Bible were taken from other manuscripts – the Old Latin Bible contributed the book of Baruch, Acts, the Epistles and Revelation (we do not know who revised these) as well as unrevised translations of 1 and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom and Sirach.
So how did those other books get into the Vulgate Version – the Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras that were included in the Protestant Apocrypha? Protestant scholar F.F. Bruce writes:
It became customary to add to copies of the Latin Bible a few books which Jerome had not even included among those which were to be read ‘for the edification of the people’, notably 3 and 4 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh. Of these, 3 Esdras (or the ‘Greek Ezra’) is the 1 Esdras of the Septuagint (and of the common English Apocrypha); 4 Esdras (the ‘Apocalypse of Ezra’), frequently referred to as 4 Ezra, is the 2 Esdras of the common English Apocrypha (it had never been included in the Septuagint); the Prayer of Manasseh…[which] like 4 Esdras, had never belonged to the Septuagint.
In fact, over the years other books were included in manuscripts, including “Paul’s Epistle to the Laodiceans,” the “Shepherd of Hermas,” “1 Clement,” and the “Epistle of Barnabas.” You note that the Catholic Church stuck to her guns – when delineating what Catholics believe constitutes Holy Scripture at the Council of Trent, they affirmed the inspiration and confirmed the canonicity of the seven deuterocanonical books, as well as the deuterocanonical portions of Esther and Daniel – exactly as the Councils of Hippo and Carthage had 1000 years earlier. They did not include the Prayer of Manasseh or 3 and 4 Esdras in their canon (but in the Reformation free-for-all those books ended up in the Protestant Apocrypha.) The Epistle to the Laodiceans was included as Holy Scripture in Wycliffe’s New Testament, as he dissented from Catholic teaching, declining to be instructed by the Church as to which books actually belonged in the canon.
F.F. Bruce discusses what happened in the years after the Council of Trent:
The decree of Trent was repromulgated by the first Vatican Council of 1869-70, which explained further that the biblical books were not acknowledged as canonical because they had first been produced by human intelligence and then canonized by the church’s authority, but rather because they had God for their author, being inspired by the Holy Spirit and then entrusted to the church.
Bruce’s footnote cites the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, ch. 2 (‘Of Revelation’)” from the First Vatican Council. Looking this up for yourself, you read:
The complete books of the old and the new Testament with all their parts, as they are listed in the decree of the said council and as they are found in the old Latin Vulgate edition, are to be received as sacred and canonical. These books the church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the church.
Online you find the rather brief “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation – Dei Verbum” from the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s. In Chapter 3, “Sacred Scripture, Its Inspiration and Divine Interpretation” you find these paragraphs:
Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the apostles (see Jn 20:31; II Tim 3:16; II Pet 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind”. (II Tim 3:16-17, Greek text)
This sounds pretty much like what you’ve always believed – the Bible, all of it, teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation!”
You find mention of church councils down through the ages ratifying the decision of the councils of Hippo and Carthage. Individuals expressed doubts (apparently influenced by Jerome’s prefaces to books in the Vulgate) concerning various books over the ensuing centuries, but you have learned that the opinion of one individual is merely – the opinion of one individual! It is becoming clear to you how the Reformers determined their conflicting canons – they rejected the decision of the councils, trusted their own lights, and picked and chose as they saw fit among the opinions of individuals in the early church! That is why so many of them decided that Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation were not really Holy Scripture!
In other words, in searching for the ‘true canon’, the Reformers returned to the errors of individuals in the early church!
You can see how the Reformers used their own subjective criteria to pick and choose among the books of Scripture, which led only to what Reuss calls “the embarrassments, the hesitations, the inconsistencies of the old Protestant theology on the question of the canon.” Calvin, for instance, argues that the deuterocanonical books must be rejected because the Church Father Jerome rejected them. However, when faced with the fact that influential Church Fathers expressed doubts concerning an epistle (2 Peter) that Calvin happened to like and agree with, suddenly the testimony of the Church Fathers doesn’t carry so much weight. He stated:
“The fact that Eusebius says that doubts were formerly entertained on it ought not to deter us from reading it…. I therefore lay down that if the Epistle be deemed worthy of credit it proceeded from Peter, not that he wrote it himself, but that some one of this disciples at his command included in it what the necessity of the times required….”
Calvin determined that 2 Peter belonged in the Bible, despite the doubts of numerous Church Fathers, simply because Calvin liked 2 Peter and thought it belonged in the Bible.
F.F. Bruce points out that Luther engaged in the same subjective practice when it came to placing Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation in an appendix, but accepting 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John:
Luther knew that those books [Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation]had been disputed in earlier days: that, however, is not his main reason for relegating them to a secondary status. He appears to have had no difficulty with 2 Peter or 2 or 3 John, which had also been disputed. His main reason is that in the four relegated books he could not find that clear promotion of Christ which was the principle note of holy scripture.
So Luther’s appeal to the ‘ancients’ was made to bolster a decision he had already come to! And the deuterocanonical books do contain support for doctrines that Protestants disagree with, don’t they? Is that why Calvin found it advisable to just “follow Jerome”?
You see now that Calvin was badly mistaken when he wrote against the Catholic claim that church councils had discerned a canon of Scripture:
They allege an old catalogue, which they call the Canon, and say that it originated in a decision of the Church. But I again ask, In what council was that Canon published? Here they must be dumb. Besides, I wish to know what they believe that Canon to be. For I see that the ancients are little agreed with regard to it.
Individual “ancients” were certainly “little agreed with regard to” the canon – but as you understand from the writings of the Church Father Irenaeus – no one individual can be trusted to get it right. It was the bishops of the church meeting in council who were guided by the Holy Spirit to discern the books of the canon of Scripture, and they sent their canon to the church in Rome to be ratified by the bishop there.
Calvin wrote “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.”
These councils, as far as you can tell, didn’t claim to be “judging Scripture” as Calvin alleges – as you read in the “Dogmatic Constitution”
These books the church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the church.
While not claiming to be “judging Scripture,” the councils certainly did claim to have the authority to ‘discern’ Holy Scripture and to set a canon. In fact, Jesus had something to say on that subject, didn’t He? What if He had been there when Luther and Eck were disputing over the canonicity of the book of 2 Maccabees, or when Zwingli was offended by a doctrine that he disagreed with (the invocation of angels in Revelation 8:3-4) and tried to throw the Book of Revelation out of the canon? In our God-given biblical model for settling disagreements (Mt 18:17), Jesus told us to “take it to the church” which has the authority to make a judgment. That was what happened – the question of the canon was submitted to the church, and the church, not individuals, discerned the canon.
And that canon included the deuterocanonical books.
On the memorial of St. Stanisław ze Szczepanowa
Deo omnis gloria!