That Principle Is Tradition

Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes

Here is Part Thirty-Six of my series on the canon of Scripture. You can begin at the beginning, or just jump in here as we begin to wrap it all up!

A new day begins for our Protestant protagonist. As he lays his books and notes aside, he mentally runs through his conclusions concerning the canon of Scripture. He recognizes that for a Bible-only Christian, the prospect of a fallible canon is an unimaginable disaster….

You are standing in your living room with a cup of coffee in one hand and a piece of toast in the other, watching the dawn illuminate the eastern sky. You were up all night, but you know it was worth it. All the research that you have put into this subject of the deuterocanonical books and the canon of Scripture has made clear to you that there are two basic approaches to this question among Protestants:

First of all, there is the assertion by R.C. Sproul that Protestants must content themselves with a “fallible collection of infallible books.” When you first heard your pastor say that, you nearly keeled over! But now it has become clear to you why Dr. Sproul insists that this is the best that Protestants can hope for.

You understand now that the question of the canon boils down to the issue of authority. Who has the authority to discern which books are inspired Scripture and to proclaim that discernment? In order to preserve the Reformation pillar of ‘sola Scriptura’ (that is, Scripture and only Scripture is the authoritative basis for all our beliefs), Dr. Sproul feels that Christians must admit that there is no way we can claim to know for sure that our canon is infallible! Think about it – if Scripture alone is the only infallible, authoritative source of our beliefs, then in order for us to have an infallible canon, Scripture would have to include an inspired ‘table of contents’ (something along the lines of some extra verses at the end of the Gospel of John perhaps that read “And Jesus said unto his disciples, ‘Verily, these shall be the books which ye shall regard as Holy Scripture, namely, ….'”). Since we have no such thing, Dr. Sproul logically concludes that we will never know for sure.

So, in order to keep the principle of sola Scriptura in working order – you have to resort to the “fallible collection of infallible books” assumption! If your ‘life verse’ is Revelation 1:5, you just have to say “I’m hoping and praying with all my heart that Luther and Zwingli were wrong – that the book of Revelation and this verse upon which I’ve based my Christian walk are actually, really and truly Holy Scripture!

After all, the belief that there are 66 and only 66 books in the Bible is an extra-Biblical belief!

That’s not good enough for you. A lot of folks who believe that we cannot know that the 66-book canon is the correct one then go on to state that they derive a sense of security from ‘providence’ – in other words, the idea that God could not leave His church adrift in a foggy sea of ignorance, so OF COURSE the Protestant canon must be the right one – we just can’t ‘prove’ that!

But isn’t that what this whole Apocrypha question is about? Did God leave His church adrift in a foggy sea of ignorance for 1500 years after the Resurrection, until the Reformers came along to straighten things out?? The argument from “providence” runs into one great big difficulty: either the canon that included the Apocrypha for 1500 years was right, and the Protestant canon of the past 500 years is wrong, or the canon that included the Apocrypha for 1500 years was wrong, and the Protestant canon of the past 500 years is right. God either abandoned His church to the errors of the Apocrypha for hundreds and hundreds of years, or Protestants have been limping along with amputated Bibles since the Reformation! Unless you’re willing to say that there were NO Christians on earth for 1500 years before the Reformation, you’re claiming that God did leave His church adrift with a bungled canon for centuries and centuries….

Does it matter? It most certainly does! Everything Protestants believe hinges on the testimony of Holy Scripture, and on the answer to the central question which reverberates down through the ages: “Who do you say that I am?” There is simply no way to answer Jesus’ question with anything approaching certainty if we cannot say that we know that the books we consider to be Holy Scripture actually are Holy Scripture, and that we can be certain that no books of Scripture somehow got left out of that catalogue. Whether Protestants proclaim that Jesus is (in the words of C.S. Lewis) a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord, we must do so based on the evidence presented in the Scriptures, with the confidence that there are no other books of Scripture out there which would cause us to modify our position! The same goes for every other doctrine we place our faith in – we can be fully assured of the correctness of our beliefs only when we are fully assured that there is no other ‘Scripture’ out there which would cause us to change our mind! We can’t cut our canon to fit our theological bed! Our ‘Scriptures’ cannot be determined by our pre-existing convictions – if all our beliefs have to come from the Scriptures, it is ESSENTIAL that we know which books are in the Bible.

So, if the ‘fallible canon’ proposition isn’t good enough for you (and it’s apparently not good enough for many Christians), then you fall back on the second Protestant option: the urban legend (propagated by the popular authors) of a mythical land where all the Christians woke up one morning and just KNEW which books were Holy Scripture – no Church council told them this, because there is no authority for the Christian other than the authority of Holy Scripture! These Christians unanimously accepted the Hebrew canon, and rejected the deuterocanonical books. Christians spontaneously recognized New Testament Scripture when they heard it read to them in their churches and rejected anything spurious. “We can discern which books are Scripture by relying on the theology that we get from the books we have decided are Scripture!!” is the motto of this happy land – a land which can be found nowhere in the historical record….

Then, of course, there’s the inconvenient issue of the confusion among the Reformers concerning the canon. That has to be MAJORLY downplayed to make it sound like it was just a few minor questions that troubled a few folks for a few years, rather than over 100 years of ‘every man for himself’ as far as which books belonged in the Bible. According to this part of the fable, the spiritual descendants of the Reformers apparently just woke up one morning and KNEW which books belonged in the Bible– just as the first Christians had.

At that point, of course, you have to start making up criteria to explain the inclusion or exclusion of books, criteria like “was the book written by a prophet of God?” or “was the writer confirmed by acts of God?” Criteria such as these look so convincing at first glance, and yet upon further examination they prove to be completely unworkable. You have noticed that many different Protestant scholars point out the logical inconsistencies inherent in these ‘tests of canonicity.’ They note the heavy reliance on assumption. There is no way to know, they stress, if these criteria were actually consciously employed by the folks who determined the canon since there is no documentation of these criteria in the historical record. The well-respected Herman Ridderbos writes about this:

As their artificiality indicates, these arguments are a posteriori in character. To hold that the church was led to accept these writings by such criteria, in fact to even speak here of a criteria canonicitatis is to go too far. It is rather clear that we here have to do with more or less successful attempts to cover with arguments what had already been fixed for a long time and for the fixation of which such reasoning or such a criterion had never been employed.

In plain English, these ‘criteria’ are all after-the-fact attempts at explaining something that can’t be explained otherwise, at least not unless you are willing to admit that the first Christians devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles which were preserved in the ‘tradition’ – and reliance on this ‘tradition’ broke the stalemate of “the doctrine I read in the book of Romans appears to conflict with the doctrine I read in the book of James, so one of these books has got to go!” The Christian church didn’t solve this conundrum using ‘criteria’. Relying on the deposit of faith, they realized that both Romans and James agreed with the doctrine of the apostles, that is, with the tradition handed down from the apostles to the leadership of the church, and therefore both could be recognized as Holy Scripture.

Some popular authors go so far as to claim that Augustine used the criterion “of extreme and wonderful sufferings of certain martyrs” to prove that 2 Maccabees was canonical. But Augustine didn’t rely on such ‘criteria’ – as you have noted, Augustine declared that if you wanted to know which books were in the canon, you needed to rely on the judgment of the churches (which was informed by the tradition handed down to them from the apostles!) Lutheran scholar Édouard
Reuss, in his History of the Canon of the Holy Scriptures in the Christian Church, admits:

Whatever merit there may be otherwise in these remarks, they will do good in reminding our Protestant theologians that in any case the collection has been formed in accordance with a principle foreign to our church. That principle is tradition, the succession and authority of the bishops…. Thus, at all periods, under all regimes, for discipline as for dogma, hence also for the canon which is connected with both, tradition ruled the Church, inspired the doctors, opposed the strongest bulwark to heresy; tradition also undertook the task of directing the choice of the holy books. This choice, though its results have not been always and everywhere the same, may have been excellent, at least as good as was possible with the means and material at its disposal; but Protestant theology, which has no desire to elevate tradition, and professes in every other respect to insist on having it first verified, is bound to do the same with regard to the canon of Scripture; it is bound to seek out some other standard than the process which is the very thing to be verified.

“Tradition ruled the church, inspired the doctors, opposed the strongest bulwark to heresy; tradition also undertook the task of directing the choice of the holy books” – not the ‘traditions of men’ but “the tradition which you have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” You have found quotes from the Church Fathers showing that they believed the promise made by the apostle Paul that the Holy Spirit would “guard the good deposit” through the leaders of the church. Irenaeus’ guiding principle from the second century still rings true: “Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important questions 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?… 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?” Rufinus, following this reasoning, insisted that the “divine record” had been “handed down to the churches by the apostles and the deposit of the Holy Spirit.” Origen was sure that the Jewish leadership had no right to determine the canon for Christians – the Christians lacked for nothing that was necessary for their salvation, he wrote, and that included the knowledge of the canon of Scripture! In fact, he insisted that “as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved,
that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition.” Athanasius, too, followed the principle of reliance on the tradition handed down from the apostles: “But beyond these sayings [of the Bible], let us look at the very tradition, teaching and faith of the catholic church from the beginning, which the Lord gave, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept. Upon this the church is founded, and he who should fall away from it should not be a Christian, and should no longer be so called.” Augustine stated that the bishops of the Christian churches, and most especially the bishops of the churches founded by the apostles, could unite and discern what was God-breathed Scripture, and what wasn’t, based on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the tradition that had been handed down from bishop to bishop to bishop…. And you note that down through the ages following the councils of Hippo and Carthage, council after council ratified the decision of Hippo and Carthage, which is – there are 46 books in the Old Testament.

Since Protestants have rejected that possibility, all of these ‘criteria’ had to be invented to explain something that just can’t be explained otherwise….

For Part 37 please click here


On the third Sunday of Easter

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Great stuff.

    The Mormons performed one service: they cut to the chase and simply assert that, yes, the Spirit abandoned the Church for about 1700 years (until He sent an angel to dictate a bunch of unreadable King James fan fiction – oops! I mean an additional set of inspired scripture to a traveling con man – oops! I mean a new Prophet, containing stories about Jews moving to the New World and building an impressive civilization that, unlike the other civilizations in that time and place, left absolutely no trace of its existence in stone, genetics or any other way – talk about a miracle! – and that, coincidentally, the King James Bible is da bomb, except you don’t really need to bother reading it, as all the *good* parts are in the fan fiction. Ya know?)

    In practice, as far as I’ve ever run across out in the wild, the run of the mill Protestant and Evangelical believe that, yes, the spirit abandoned the Church for 1500 years, with the twist occasionally inserted that there was a Christian Church kinda like the New World Jewish culture the Mormons run on about – a ‘real’ Christian church that 1) left no trace of its existence; 2) converted no one for 1500 years; 3) was suppressed by the evil Catholic Church and 4) sprung Athena-like back into existence from the head of Luther in the early 1500s. (This explains the vast migrations of the 1500s, as millions of real Christians migrated to Germany where, at last, they could embrace true Christianity in public. Oh, wait – that never happened. Never mind.) Oh, yea, and these invisible Christian had a lock on what constitutes the Cannon.

    In other words, the problem your well-reasoned and thoroughly-researched case runs into is: people are rarely rational. Luther was remarkably irrational, remarkably immune to logic, facts, and reality in general – and he’s the model Protestant! A friend of mine has mentioned that one thing he likes to needle his Protestant family and friends on: why is so little of Luther’s work translated into English? (the answer is, of course, that it is embarrassing! Hard to keep the Luther as hero myth going when most of his writings reveal a petty, none-too-bright egomaniac.)

    Don’t get me wrong – I love what you’re doing here, keep it up, every year the Church gains fine Evangelicals on fire for Christ from the very process you went through – Praise God! Your work, along with that of Mark Shea and others, has helped pave that particular road back home. You guys are totally inspiring to us boring cradle Catholics.

    • You’ve got a point! I was the poster child for irrationality when I was an Evangelical, having attended Methodist, non-denominational, charismatic, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, and yet somehow believing that they all taught the same thing. Seriously??? My Methodist church baptized me as an infant, my non-denom and Baptist churches called that baptism invalid, and my charismatic church insisted that I wasn’t “saved” unless I spoke in tongues! Yet somehow I was oblivious to the disconnect….

      God can break through that. Once He showed me that the Catholic Church was correct to take Jesus at His word when He said, “This is My Body,” I was able to step back and really see the belief system that had dominated my life for what it was. I hope that when He does this for others, they might find something I wrote and say, “That makes sense.”

      Thank you for reading along! I really don’t find cradle Catholics boring. I think some of you are hysterically funny! 🙂

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