Development of the Biblical Canon: Protestant Difficulties

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This is an abridged version of my portions of a lengthy dialogue (in two parts), originally with anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer.

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Can Protestant apologists make an argument that the concept of biblical books is biblical? Yes, they can. But can they make a rational biblical argument for numbering the New Testament books at twenty-seven? No, they can’t. The essence of the biblical books is that they are all inspired. But determining exactly which and how many books possess this characteristic, and why, is another matter entirely.

Protestants minimize the dissenting opinions in the Church fathers on the canon of Scripture, whereas they maximize them when it comes to, for example, Mary’s sinlessness and the Second Eve patristic motif. The only difference is that one involves a notion they accept, and the other, one that they reject; hence the historical bias and conveniently selective historical emphasis. But that’s not fair, open-minded inquiry. Rather than acknowledge the patristic consensus on Mary, Protestant polemicists dwell on the exceptions to the rule, as if this disproves anything (as the Catholic Church already agrees that exceptions will and do occur).

I could just as easily make a vacuous, specious argument that the 27-book New Testament canon is illegitimate because, up to 160 A. D. no one seemed to acknowledge the canonicity of the books of Acts, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation (that’s 10 out of 27 books). Justin Martyr (d. c. 165) didn’t recognize Philippians or 1 Timothy, and his Gospels included apocryphal material. Clement of Alexandria and Origen (before the mid-3rd century) seemed to think that the Epistle of Barnabas was inspired Scripture.

They thought the same about the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas (along with Irenaeus and Tertullian, in the latter instance). Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) also thought that The Apocalypse and Peter and the Gospel of Hebrews were Scripture, and Origen accepted the Acts of Paul. No Father got all the books right (and excluded others later decided to be uncanonical) until St. Athanasius in 367, more than 300 years after Christ’s death.

The famous Muratorian Canon of c. 190 excluded Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter and included The Apocalypse of Peter and Wisdom of Solomon. The Council of Nicaea in 325 questioned the canonicity of James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude. James wasn’t even quoted in the West until around 350 A.D.! Revelation was rejected by Cyril of Jerusalem, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nazianzen, and the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas were included in the Codex Sinaiticus in the late 4th century.

Yet when it comes to something like the Immaculate Conception, the fact that some altogether predictable anomalies in the Church fathers can be found is proof positive to many Protestants that the doctrine is illegitimate and to be discarded.

By the reasoning process of some Protestant apologists (which they apply to Marian doctrines), we ought to reject the New Testament canon, as there were so many anomalies in lists of the books well into the 4th century. Some local Catholic Councils made an authoritative list in 393 and 397 (which were authoritatively approved by two popes as binding on all the faithful), and this was accepted pretty much without question by all later Christians (except for the deuterocanonical books after the 16th century), as if the list itself were inspired.

Pope Innocent I concurred with and sanctioned the canonical ruling of the councils (in 393 and 397) of Hippo and Carthage (Letter to Exsuperius, Bishop of Toulouse) in 405. He also reiterated this in 414. Carthage and Hippo were preceded by a Roman Council (382) of identical opinion, and were further ratified by Pope Gelasius I in 495, as well as the 6th Council of Carthage in 419.

The Protestant reference work, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd edition, edited by F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, Oxford University Press, 1983, 232) states:

    A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (also known as the ‘Gelasian Decree’ because it was reproduced by Gelasius in 495), which is identical with the list given at Trent.

Patristics scholar William A. Jurgens, writes about the Council at Rome in 382:

Pope St. Damasus I is remembered as having commissioned Jerome’s translation of the Scriptures . . . St. Ambrose of Milan was instrumental in having a council meet in Rome . . . in 382 A.D. . . . Belonging also to the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. is a decree of which three parts are extant . . . The second part of the decree . . . is more familiarly known as the opening part of the Gelasian Decree, in regard to the canon of Scripture: De libris recipiendis vel non recipiendis. It is now commonly held that the part of the Gelasian Decree dealing with the accepted canon of Scripture is an authentic work of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D., and that Gelasius edited it again at the end of the fifth century, adding to it the catalog of the rejected books, . . . It is now almost universally accepted that these parts one and two of the Decree of Damasus are authentic parts of the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. In regard to the third part . . . opinion is still divided . . . The text of the Decree of Damasus may be found in Mansi, Vol. 8, 145-147; in Migne, PL 19, 787-793 . . . (The Faith of the Early Fathers, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1970, volume 1 of 3, 402, 404-405)

The list from 382 — which The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church deemed as “identical with the list given at Trent” includes: Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Tobit, Judith, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Baruch was included as part of Jeremiah, as in St. Athanasius’ list of 15 years previously. This is indeed identical with the Tridentine list, and comprises the seven “extra” deuterocanonical books in Catholic Bibles which Protestants reject from the canon as “apocryphal.” Nevertheless, there they are in the Council of 382.

The Council of Carthage accepted the same list, as detailed by Brooke Foss Westcott (A General Survey of the History of the Canon of the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan Baker Book House, 1980, reprinted from 6th edition of 1889, 440). Bruce questioned the authenticity of the Gelasian Decree, but note that he did not question the fact that the “Sixth Council of Carthage (419) re-enacted the ruling of the Third Council [Carthage, 397], again with the inclusion of the apocryphal books.”

Before 367, there were all sorts of books considered to be inspired and part of the New Testament (and a lack of acknowledgment of certain inspired books). The notion that there are no less and no more than twenty-seven is a concept of the mid-4th century at the earliest (St. Athanasius).

The Protestant difficulty (or at least the Protestant position, as argued by some apologists, like the anti-Catholic James White) may be summarized as follows:

1. True developments must be explicitly grounded in Scripture, or else they are arbitrary and “unbiblical” or “antibiblical” — therefore false.  James White says: “The text of Scripture provides the grounds, and most importantly, the limits for this development over time” (Roman Catholic Controversy, p. 83).

2. The Trinity and the Resurrection of Christ and the Virgin Birth, e.g., are thoroughly grounded in Scripture, and are therefore proper (but Catholics also hold to these beliefs).

3. The canon of the New Testament is (undeniably) not itself a “biblical doctrine.” The New Testament never gives a “text” for the authoritative listing of its books.

4. Therefore, the canon of the New Testament is not a legitimate development of doctrine (according to #1), and is, in fact, a corruption and a false teaching.

5. Therefore, in light of #4, the New Testament (i.e., in the 27-book form which has been passed down through the Catholic centuries to Luther and the Protestants as a received Tradition) cannot be used as a measuring-rod to judge the orthodoxy of other doctrines.

6. #5 being the case, the White criterion for legitimate developments is radically self-defeating, and must be discarded (along with sola Scriptura itself).

Catholic apologists are well aware of what the Protestant measuring-rod is. We want to know the process by which it is arrived at within Protestant presuppositions, and how and why this (epistemological) process is self-consistent and supposedly different in kind than the same sort of processes we would cite pertaining to the development of doctrines with which Protestants disagree. In other words, on what basis can Protestants absolutely bow to (Catholic) Church authority in one instance (the biblical canon), while they deny its binding nature in all others, and fall back to Scripture Alone, the very canon of which was proclaimed authoritatively by the Catholic Church?

How come no one in the early period seemed to know that the book of Acts was apostolic then (written, as it was, by Luke, whose Gospel was accepted early on)? We do not hold that a book is apostolic simply because Rome says so. The Church merely recognizes what is inherently inspired. But there still must be some authoritative recognition.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity developed under the same processes and conditions that “distinctively Catholic” doctrines developed under. The type of issues involved in the discussion on the development of the Trinity were touched upon by Lutheran (later, Orthodox) Church historian Jaroslav Pelikan:

Despite the elevation of the dogma of the Trinity to normative status as supposedly traditional doctrine by the Council of Nicea in 325, there was not a single Christian thinker East or West before Nicea who could qualify as consistently and impeccably orthodox. . . even the most saintly of the early church fathers seemed confused about such fundamental articles of faith as the Trinity and original sin. It was to be expected, because they were participants in the ongoing development, not transmitters of an unalloyed and untouched patrimony . . .. . . the lack of any one passage of Scripture in which the entire doctrine of the Trinity was affirmed. Strictly speaking, the Trinity is not a biblical doctrine, but a church doctrine that tries to make consistent sense of the biblical language and teaching. (The Melody of Theology: A Philosophical Dictionary, Cambridge, Masachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 1988, 52-54, “Development of Doctrine”, 257, “Trinity”)

In this sense, the Trinity and the canon are both issues which Protestants have to work through, in order for their argument against the “corrupt” status of Catholic developments to have any force at all, and to not be arbitrary or logically inconsistent.

The task of the Protestant is to come up with a consistent criterion of a legitimate development. The biblical canon is a unique issue, since all parties agree that it is utterly absent from Scripture itself. This creates great difficulties both for the sola Scriptura paradigm of formal authority, and also with regard to the Protestant polemic against and antipathy towards so-called “unbiblical” or “extrabiblical” Catholic doctrines which at least have some biblical indication — however insignificant the critic thinks it is.

Moreover, the Protestant has to explain how Tradition is wonderful and binding in one instance (the canon) but in no other. These are serious issues, and highly problematic.

The Alleged “Completeness” of the Old Testament Canon in the Light of Protestant Biblical Scholarship

There was a “general” canonical consensus with regard to the New Testament, but that wasn’t sufficient to resolve the problem. Likewise, there was a general consensus of the Jews with regard to the Old Testament which wasn’t totally sufficient, either, which suggests that the analogy Jason is drawing is much more akin to the Catholic perspective. Accordingly, Protestant biblical scholarship tells us that in the last four centuries before Christ:

It is clear that in those days the Jews had holy books to which they attached authority. It cannot be proved that there was already a complete Canon, although the expression ‘the holy books’ (1 Macc. 12:9) may point in that direction. (The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962 edition, 190, “Canon of the Old Testament”)

As for the New Testament period:

More than once the suggestion has been made that the synod of Jabneh or Jamnia, said to have been held about AD 90, closed the Canon of the Old Testament and fixed the limits of the Canon. To speak about the ‘synod of Jamnia’ at all, however, is to beg the question . . . It is true, certainly, that in the teaching-house of Jamnia, about AD 70-100, certain discussions were held, and certain decisions were made concerning some books of the Old Testament; but similar discussions were held both before and after that period . . . These discussions dealt chiefly with the question as to whether or not some books of the Old Testament (e.g. Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, Ezekiel) ‘soiled the hands’ or had to be ‘concealed’ . . . As regards the phrase ‘soil the hands’, the prevailing opinion is that it referred to the canonicity of the book in question . . . If indeed the canonicity of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles was disputed, we shall have to take the following view. On the whole these books were considered canonical. But with some, and probably with some Rabbis in particular, the question arose whether people were right in accepting their canonicity, as, e.g., Luther in later centuries found it difficult to consider Esther as a canonical book . . .We may presume that the twenty-two books mentioned by Josephus are identical with the thirty-nine books of which the Old Testament consists according to our reckoning . . . For the sake of completeness we must observe that Josephus also uses books which we count among the Apocrypha, e.g. 1 Esdras and the additions to Esther . . . (Ibid., 191)

Protestant apologist Norman Geisler concurs, with regard to the Jewish “Council of Jamnia”:

The so-called Council of Jamnia (c. A.D. 90), at which time this third section of writings is alleged to have been canonized, has not been explored. There was no council held with authority for Judaism. It was only a gathering of scholars. This being the case, there was no authorized body present to make or recognize the canon. Hence, no canonization took place at Jamnia. (From God to Us: How we Got our Bible, co-author William E. Nix, Chicago: Moody Press, 1974, 84)

The Jews of the Dispersion regarded several additional Greek books as equally inspired, viz. most of the Books printed in the AV and RV among the Apocrypha. During the first three centuries these were regularly used also in the Church . . . St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and others placed them on the same footing as the other OT books. (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, edited by F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 1989, 232, “Canon of Scripture”)In the Septuagint (LXX), which incorporated all [of the so-called “Apocryphal” books] except 2 Esdras, they were in no way differentiated from the other Books of the OT . . . Christians . . . at first received all the Books of the Septuagint equally as Scripture . . . Down to the 4th cent. the Church generally accepted all the Books of the Septuagint as canonical. Gk. and Lat. Fathers alike (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian) cite both classes of Books without distinction. In the 4th cent., however, many Gk. Fathers (e.g. Eusebius, Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Epiphanius, Gregory of Nazianzus) came to recognize a distinction between those canonical in Heb. and the rest, though the latter were still customarily cited as Scripture. St. Jerome . . . accepted this distinction, and introduced the term ‘apocrypha’ for the latter class . . . But with a few exceptions (e.g., Hilary, Rufinus), Western writers (esp. Augustine) continued to consider all as equally canonical . . . At the Reformation, Protestant leaders, ignoring the traditional acceptance of all the Books of the LXX in the early Church . . . refused the status of inspired Scripture to those Books of the Vulgate not to be found in the Heb. Canon. M. Luther, however, included the Apocrypha (except 1 and 2 Esd.) as an appendix to his translation of the Bible (1534), and in his preface allowed them to be ‘useful and good to be read’ . . . [the “Apocrypha” was] read as Scripture by the pre-Nicene Church and many post-Nicene Fathers . . . (Ibid., 70-71, “The Apocrypha”)

The early Christian Church inherited the LXX, and the NT writers commonly quoted the OT Books from it . . . In post-NT times, the Christian Fathers down to the later 4th cent. almost all regarded the LXX as the standard form of the OT and seldom referred to the Hebrew. (Ibid., 1260, “The Septuagint [‘LXX’]” )

The suggestion that a particular synod of Jamnia, held c. 100 A.D., finally settled the limits of the OT Canon, was made by H.E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to substantiate it. (Ibid., 726, “Jamnia or Jabneh”)

The great evangelical biblical scholar F. F. Bruce commented upon the New Testament use of older Jewish writings:

So thoroughly, indeed, did Christians appropriate the Septuagint as their version of the scriptures that the Jews became increasingly disenchanted with it . . . We cannot say with absolute certainty, for example, if Paul treated Esther or the Song of Solomon as scripture any more than we can say if those books belonged to the Bible which Jesus knew and used . . . the book of Wisdom was possibly in Paul’s mind as he dictated part of the first two chapters of Romans . . . [footnote 21: The exposure of pagan immorality in Rom. 1:18-32 echoes Wisdom 12-14; the attitude of righteous Jews criticized by Paul in Rom. 2:1-11 has affinities with passages in Wisdom 11-15]. The writer to the Hebrews probably had the martyrologies of 2 Maccabees 6:18-7:41 or 4 Maccabees 5:3-18:24 in view when he spoke of the tortures and other hardships which some endured through faith (Heb. 11:35b-38, and when he says in the same context that some were sawn in two he may allude to a document which described how the prophet Isaiah was so treated [footnote 23: Perhaps the Ascension of Isaiah . . . ] . . .The Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament (1979) has an index of Old Testament texts cited or alluded to in the New Testament, followed by an index of allusions not only to the ‘Septuagintal plus’ but also to several books not included in the Septuagint . . . only one is a straight quotation explicitly ascribed to its source. That is the quotation from ‘Enoch in the seventh generation from Adam’ in Jude 14 f; this comes recognizably from the apocalyptic book of Enoch (1 Enoch 1:9). Earlier in Jude’s letter the account of Michael’s dispute with the devil over the body of Moses may refer to a work called the Assumption of Moses or Ascension of Moses, but if so, the part of the work containing the incident has been lost (Jude 9).

There are, however, several quotations in the New Testament which are introduced as though they were taken from holy scripture, but their source can no longer be identified. For instance, the words ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’, quoted in Matthew 2:23 as ‘what was spoken by the prophets’, stand in that form in no known prophetical book . . . Again, in John 7:38 ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’ is introduced by the words ‘as the scripture has said’ – but which scripture is referred to? . . . there can be no certainty . . .

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:9, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard . . . ‘, introduced by the clause ‘as it is written’, resemble Isaiah 64:4, but they are not a direct quotation from it. Some church fathers say they come from a work called the Secrets of Elijah or Apocalypse of Elijah, but this work is not accessible to us and we do not know if it existed in Paul’s time . . . The naming of Moses’ opponents as Jannes and Jambres in 2 Timothy 3:8 may depend on some document no longer identifiable; the names, in varying forms, appear in a number of Jewish writings, mostly later than the date of the Pastoral Epistles . . . We have no idea what ‘the scripture’ is which says, according to James 4:5, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us’ . . .

When we think of Jesus and his Palestinian apostles . . . we cannot say confidently that they accepted Esther, Ecclesiastes or the Song of Songs as scripture, because the evidence is not available. We can argue only from probability, and arguments from probability are weighed differently by different judges. (The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988, 50-52, 41)

Jamnia and Qumran:

It is probably unwise to talk as if there was a Council or Synod of Jamnia which laid down the limits of the Old Testament canon . . .A common, and not unreasonable, account of the formation of the Old Testament canon is that it took shape in three stages . . . The Law was first canonized (early in the period after the return from the Babylonian exile), the Prophets next (late in the third century BC) . . . the third division, the Writings . . . remained open until the end of the first century AD, when it was ‘closed’ at Jamnia. But it must be pointed out that, for all its attractiveness, this account is completely hypothetical: there is no evidence for it, either in the Old Testament itself or elsewhere. We have evidence in the Old Testament of the public recognition of scripture as conveying the word of God, but that is not the same thing as canonization. (Ibid., 34, 36)

The discoveries made at Qumran, north-west of the Dead Sea, in the years following 1947 have greatly increased our knowledge of the history of the Hebrew Scriptures during the two centuries or more preceding AD 70 . . . All of the books of the Hebrew Bible are represented among them, with the exception of Esther. This exception may be accidental . . . or it may be significant: there is evidence of some doubt among Jews, as latter among Christians, about the status of Esther . . .

But the men of Qumran have left no statement indicating precisely which of the books represented in their library ranked as holy scripture in their estimation, and which did not . . .

But what of Tobit, Jubilees and Enoch, fragments of which were also found at Qumran? . . . were they reckoned canonical by the Qumran community? There is no evidence which would justify the answer ‘Yes’; on the other hand, we do not know enough to return the answer ‘No’. (Ibid., 38-40)

St. Athanasius was the first Church Father to list the 27 New Testament books as we have them today, and no others, as canonical, in 367. What is not often mentioned by Protestant apologists, however, is the fact that when he listed the Old Testament books, they were not identical to the Protestant 39:

As Athanasius includes Baruch and the ‘Letter of Jeremiah’ . . . so he probably includes the Greek additions to Daniel in the canonical book of that name, and the additions to Esther in the book of that name which he recommends for reading in the church, . . . Only those works which belong to the Hebrew Bible (apart from Esther) are worthy of inclusion in the canon (the additions to Jeremiah and Daniel make no appreciable difference to this principle . . . In practice Athanasius appears to have paid little attention to the formal distinction between those books which he listed in the canon and those which were suitable for the instruction of new Christians [he cites Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit] . . . and quoted from them freely, often with the same introductory formulae – ‘as it is written’, ‘as the scripture says’, etc. [footnote 46: He does not say in so many words why Esther is not included in the canon . . . ] (Bruce, ibid., 79-80)

Bruce notes that the Council of Hippo in 393 (“along the lines approved by Augustine”) and the Third Council of Carthage in 397:

. . . 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 in the west and of the greater part of the east . . . The Sixth Council of Carthage (419) re-enacted the ruling of the Third Council, again with the inclusion of the apocryphal books . . . Throughout the following centuries most users of the Bible made no distinction between the apocryphal books and the others: all alike were handed down as part of the Vulgate . . . The two Wycliffite versions of the complete Bible in English (1384, 1395) included the apocryphal books as a matter of course. (Ibid., 97, 99-100)

Prominent Protestant historian Philip Schaff concurs:

This canon [of Carthage – see above citation] remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session. (History of the Christian Church, vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1974 [originally 1910], 609-610)

Lastly, the Encyclopedia Britannica noted the “fluidity” of Jewish notions of the canon for some two generations after the apostolic age:

Differences of opinion also are recorded among the tannaim (rabbinical scholars of tradition who compiled the Mishna, or Oral Law) and amoraim (who created the Talmud, or Gemara) about the canonical status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. All this indicates a prolonged state of fluidity in respect of the canonization of the Ketuvim [“the Writings”]. A synod at Jabneh (c. 100 CE) seems to have ruled on the matter, but it took a generation or two before their decisions came to be unanimously accepted and the Ketuvim regarded as being definitively closed. (1985 edition, vol. 14 [Macropedia], 758, “Biblical Literature,” “Old Testament canon, texts, versions”)

 

A general consensus can be traced, yet not without numerous discrepancies and irresolvable differences, requiring an authoritative ecclesial proclamation (the Council of Carthage, or the semi-authoritative Jewish gathering at Jamnia, which operated by majority vote, much like Catholic councils) to settle it. In other words, the texts themselves were not sufficient to bring about the final result, as if some sort of “canonical sola Scriptura” mindset obtained, amongst either Jews or Christians. The Jews were still arguing about the canonicity of books written before 400 B. C. as late as 170-180 A. D., and had to rely on the previous judgments of scholars in Jamnia to finally decide the issue.

Likewise, Christians rely on the authoritative “human” judgments of the Councils of Carthage (397) and Hippo (393) and of Rome (in 382) to resolve their disputes, which lasted about nine generations, over the ongoing development of the New Testament canon. Our disputes over our canon, then, took almost as long as the Jewish disputes over theirs (almost 300 years from the end of the apostolic age, and 365 or so from the death of Jesus). If that isn’t quintessentially development of doctrine, then I don’t know what is.

What good is a “consensus” on the canon if it has a million holes in it? What good is a consensus that wasn’t identical to what later came to be accepted, for 365 years? How is this somehow a compelling argument (if an argument at allagainst development of doctrine? Protestants will cite Church fathers who dissent in one way or another on various aspects of the papacy or Catholic proof texts for same, yet when we cite the exact same sort of anomalies in the “consensus” concerning the New Testament canon, it’s not nullified and rendered irrelevant by incantation (with fairy dust) of the magical word “consensus,” as if this resolves the Protestant problem.

It does not. It cannot succeed, given certain indisputable facts of history. The actual determination of the canon required an authoritative believing community (the Catholic Church). History has shown that this alone was thoroughly inadequate to resolve the problems of differing opinions.

To recap: I have been examining the Protestant case which is seeking to prove that canonicity is an instance of development different in kind and essence from Catholic developmental arguments for the papacy, the Immaculate Conception, or any number of doctrines, and the results do not persuade me in the least that there is any difference.

The mere existence of New Testament books doesn’t prove that each was canonical, anymore than the mere existence of books later not deemed canonical proves that they were part of the canon. Inspiration or existence is a separate issue from canonicity. F. F. Bruce notes similar distinctions above. New Testament books and other books were present in the first century, but the nature of individual ones was disputed, all the way up until at least 367 A. D.

Likewise, Mary lived, and various aspects of her life and status in the framework of Christian theology were disputed (just as in, also, the interpretation of Christology and Jesus’ life) for centuries afterwards as well, becoming more and more defined as time went on. The Protestant doctrines of justification, symbolic baptism and Eucharist (and several other novelties, I would argue) took over 14 centuries to assume their shape (or to be invented at all), having been almost totally or entirely absent in Christian thought in the interim.

I recognize that there are differences in the rapidity of development and in strength of patristic sources; this does not overcome the difficulties in the Protestant acceptance of the canon within the framework of their own formal principle of sola Scriptura.

Eric Svendsen: a vocal anti-Catholic Protestant apologist, wrote on his own discussion board:

We don’t believe in the Roman Catholic acorn notion of “development of doctrine.” Nothing — absolutely nothing — added to the teaching of Scripture is binding on the conscience of the believer . . .

The canon of the Bible is not taught in Scripture; therefore, by Eric’s logic, it’s not “binding” on the believer.

I (and many others) find it a bit strange that sola Scriptura (the notion that the Bible is the ultimate authority in theological matters, above Church and Tradition) is not unambiguously found in Scripture itself.

27-Point Summary of the Protestant Scholarly Treatment of Historical Aspects of the Biblical Canon

1. In the four centuries previous to Christ, “it cannot be proved that there was already a complete Canon” (The New Bible Dictionary). See also, F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture.

2. There was no Jewish “synod of Jamnia” per se, but rather a series of scholarly discussions, from the period of 70-100 A.D., and even these did not finally settle the issue of the OT canon (The New Bible Dictionary; Norman Geisler, From God to Us: How we Got our BibleOxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture).

3. These discussions were still dealing with the disputed canonicity of books like Esther, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticles, and even Ezekiel after the death of Jesus and after most or all of the New Testament was completed (The New Bible Dictionary). So Paul and Jesus (or any New Testament writer) could hardly have assumed a commonly accepted Old Testament canon before this time.

4. The Jewish historian Josephus “also uses books which we count among the Apocrypha, e.g. 1 Esdras and the additions to Esther.” (The New Bible Dictionary)

5. The Jews of the Dispersion (particularly the Alexandrian, Greek-speaking Jews) regarded several additional Greek books as equally inspired, — i.e., the so-called Apocrypha. (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

6. “During the first three centuries these were regularly used also in the Church . . . St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and others placed them on the same footing as the other OT books.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

7. The Septuagint (LXX), incorporated all of the so-called “Apocryphal” books except 2 Esdras, and they were in no way differentiated from the other Books of the OT. (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

8. “Christians . . . at first received all the Books of the Septuagint equally as Scripture . . .Down to the 4th cent. the Church generally accepted all the Books of the Septuagint as canonical. Gk. and Lat. Fathers alike (e.g., Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian) cite both classes of Books without distinction . . . with a few exceptions (e.g., Hilary, Rufinus), Western writers (esp. Augustine) continued to consider all as equally canonical . . . [the “Apocrypha” was] read as Scripture by the pre-Nicene Church and many post-Nicene Fathers . . . ” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

9. “In the 4th cent., however, many Gk. Fathers. . . came to recognize a distinction between those canonical in Heb. and the rest, though the latter were still customarily cited as Scripture.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

10. “Luther, however, included the Apocrypha (except 1 and 2 Esd.) as an appendix to his translation of the Bible (1534), and in his preface allowed them to be ‘useful and good to be read'” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

11. “The NT writers commonly quoted the OT Books from [the Septuagint] . . . In post-NT times, the Christian Fathers down to the later 4th cent. almost all regarded the LXX as the standard form of the OT.” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

12. “We cannot say with absolute certainty, for example, if Paul treated Esther or the Song of Solomon [elsewhere Bruce adds Ecclesiastes] as scripture any more than we can say if those books belonged to the Bible which Jesus knew and used.” (Bruce, ibid.)

13. According to “The Nestle-Aland edition of the Greek New Testament (1979)” Jude 14 ff. is “a straight quotation . . . from the apocalyptic book of Enoch (1 Enoch 1:9).” (Bruce, ibid.)

14. “Several quotations in the New Testament . . . are introduced as though they were taken from holy scripture, but their source can no longer be identified. For instance, the words ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’, quoted in Matthew 2:23 as ‘what was spoken by the prophets’, . . . John 7:38 . . . is introduced by the words ‘as the scripture has said’ – but which scripture is referred to? . . . there can be no certainty . . . 1 Corinthians 2:9, . . . James 4:5 . . .” (Bruce, ibid.)

15. The Dead Sea Scrolls from the Qumran community revealed that they did not have Esther included in their canon. (Bruce, ibid.)

16. As for “Tobit, Jubilees and Enoch, fragments of which were also found at Qumran? . . . were they reckoned canonical by the Qumran community? There is no evidence which would justify the answer ‘Yes’; on the other hand, we do not know enough to return the answer ‘No’.” (Bruce, ibid.)

17. “As Athanasius includes Baruch and the ‘Letter of Jeremiah’ . . . so he probably includes the Greek additions to Daniel in the canonical book of that name . . .” (Bruce, ibid.)

18. St. Athanasius excludes Esther from the canon. (Bruce, ibid.)

19. “In practice Athanasius appears to have paid little attention to the formal distinction between those books which he listed in the canon and those which were suitable for the instruction of new Christians [he cites Wisdom of Solomon, Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, and Tobit] . . . and quoted from them freely, often with the same introductory formulae – ‘as it is written’, ‘as the scripture says’, etc.” (Bruce, ibid.)

20. The Councils of Hippo in 393 (“along the lines approved by Augustine”) and the Third Council of Carthage in 397: . . . appear to have been the first church councils to make a formal pronouncement on the canon . . .” (Bruce, ibid.)

21. The Councils of Hippo in 393 and the Carthage in 397 “simply endorsed what had become the general consensus of the churches in the west and of the greater part of the east . . .” (Bruce, ibid.)

22. Yet Hippo and Carthage, along with “The Sixth Council of Carthage (419)” included “the apocryphal books.” (Bruce, ibid.)

23. “Throughout the following centuries most users of the Bible made no distinction between the apocryphal books and the others: all alike were handed down as part of the Vulgate . . .” (Bruce, ibid.)

24. “Differences of opinion also are recorded among the tannaim(rabbinical scholars of tradition who compiled the Mishna, or Oral Law) and amoraim (who created the Talmud, or Gemara) about the canonical status of Proverbs, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Esther.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

25. “All this indicates a prolonged state of fluidity in respect of the canonization of the Ketuvim [“the Writings”]. A synod at Jabneh (c. 100 CE) seems to have ruled on the matter, but it took a generation or two before their decisions came to be unanimously accepted and the Ketuvim regarded as being definitively closed.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)

26. “A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament . . . which is identical with the list given at Trent.” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church)

27. “This canon [of Carthage] remained undisturbed till the sixteenth century, and was sanctioned by the council of Trent at its fourth session.” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church)

We have established beyond all doubt that the Old Testament canon was not yet closed during the entire New Testament and apostolic period; therefore, “general consensus” can’t be appealed to for those books. In both instances, Church authority is necessarily involved, and this runs contrary to sola Scriptura and the Protestant antipathy or frequent selectivity with regard to development of doctrine.

***

(originally 2-26-02 and 3-19-02, abridged with slight revisions and additions on 7-19-18)

Photo credit: ZanderSchubert (5-1-11) [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]

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