Jewish Canon Not Closed in 1st C.; Catholic Canon & Protestant Criticisms; “Fallible List of Infallible Books”
The late Steve Hays (1959-2020) was a Calvinist (and anti-Catholic) apologist, who was very active on his blog, called Triablogue (now continued by Jason Engwer). His 695-page self-published book, Catholicism — a collection of articles from his site — has graciously been made available for free. On 9 September 2006, Hays was quite — almost extraordinarily — charitable towards me. He wrote then:
I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of being a traitor or apostate or infidel. . . . I have nothing to say, one way or the other, regarding his state of grace. But his sincerity is unquestionable. I also don’t dislike him. . . . I don’t think there’s anything malicious about Armstrong—unlike some people who come to mind. In addition, I don’t think I’ve ever said he was unintelligent. For the record, it’s obvious that Armstrong has a quick, nimble mind.
Two-and-a-half years later, starting in April 2009 and up through December 2011 (in the following quotations) his opinion radically changed, and he claimed that I have “an evil character,” am “actually evil,” “ego-maniac, narcissist,” “idolater,” “self-idolater,” “hack who pretends to be a professional apologist,” given to “chicanery,” one who doesn’t “do any real research,” “a stalwart enemy of the faith . . . no better than [the atheists] Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens,” with an intent to “destroy faith in God’s word,” “schizophrenic,” “emotionally unhinged,” one who “doesn’t trust in the merit of Christ alone for salvation,” “has no peace of mind,” “a bipolar solipsist,” “split-personality,” and a “bad” man. He wasn’t one to mince words! See more gory details.
I feel no need whatsoever to reciprocate these silly and sinful insults. I just wanted the record to be known. I’ve always maintained that Hays was a very intelligent man, but habitually a sophist in methodology; sincere and well-meaning, but tragically and systematically wrong and misguided regarding Catholicism. That’s what I’m addressing, not the state of his heart and soul (let alone his eternal destiny). It’s a theological discussion. This is one of many planned critiques of his book (see my reasons why I decided to do this). Rather than list them all here, interested readers are directed to the “Steve Hays” section of my Anti-Catholicism web page, where they will all be listed. My Bible citations are from the RSV. Steve’s words will be in blue.
[Chapter 8: Canonics]
The canon question
[T]he OT didn’t need to be formally canonized. The cutoff was the intertestamental period. You might say the scriptures are canonical by default. The end of public revelation marks the end of the canon. The termination of prophecy terminated the canon. [p. 377]
[M]any scholars think the OT canon was settled long before the Christian era. [p. 382]
In fact, according to prominent Protestant scholars and reference sources, the Jewish canon was not closed when the NT was written:
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, ed. J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1962 ed., 190, “Canon of the Old Testament”)
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 . . . 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)
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. (Norman Geisler, 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, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 1989, 232, “Canon of Scripture”)
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. (F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1988, 34, 36)
Hays describes F. F. Bruce as “a renowned NT scholar” (p. 382).
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)
For much more along these lines, see:
Development of Doctrine: Esp. the Canon (vs. Jason Engwer) [19 March 2002; most in-depth]
Dialogue on Doctrinal Development (Papacy & NT Canon) (vs. Jason Engwer) [2-26-02]
Development of the Biblical Canon: Protestant Difficulties [2-26-02 and 3-19-02, abridged with slight revisions and additions on 7-19-18]
Why Seven More Books in Catholic Bibles? [9-14-15]
How to Defend the Deuterocanon (or ‘Apocrypha’) [National Catholic Register, 3-12-17]
Hays objected that a Catholic mentioned the councils of Hippo and Carthage as evidence for the Catholic canon:
Even on Catholic grounds, they’re not infallible. They don’t presume to speak to or for the universal church. [p. 390]
The Church councils at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419) listed the deuterocanonical (so-called “apocryphal”) books as Scripture. F. F. Bruce stated:
Augustine’s ruling supplied a powerful precedent for the western church from his own day to the Reformation and beyond . . . 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. (Ibid., 97)
Pope Innocent I concurred with and sanctioned the canonical ruling of the above councils (Letter to Exsuperius, Bishop of Toulouse) in 405 (mentioned by Bruce, ibid., 97). Here is that letter:
Which books really are received in the canon, this brief addition shows. These therefore are the things of which you desired to be informed. Five books of Moses, that is, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, and Joshua the son of Nun, and Judges, and the four books of Kings [i.e., 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings] together with Ruth, sixteen books of the Prophets, five books of Solomon, [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus] and the Psalms. Also of the historical books, one book of Job, one of Tobit, one of Esther, one of Judith, two of Maccabees, two of Ezra [i.e., Ezra and Nehemiah], two of Chronicles. And of the New Testament: of the Gospels four. Epistles of the apostle Paul fourteen [including Hebrews]. Epistles of John three. Epistles of Peter two. Epistle of Jude. Epistle of James. Acts of the Apostles. John’s Apocalypse. But the rest of the books, which appear under the name of Matthias or of James the Less, or under the name of Peter and John (which were written by a certain Leucius), or under the name of Andrew (which were written by the philosophers Xenocharides and Leonidas), or under the name of Thomas, and whatever others there may be, you should know they are not only to be rejected but also condemned.
The pope’s definitive statement makes it magisterial and applicable to the universal Catholic Church (reiterated again in the ecumenical council of Trent). The canon had never been seriously challenged until the onset of Protestantism. Hays appears to be unaware of Pope Innocent I’s letter and its implications, since neither “Innocent I,” nor “Exsuperius,” nor the year “405” ever appear in his 695-page book.
In any event, these are the decrees that outlined and verified which books were canonical, and they included the deuterocanon. Protestants haven’t come up with anything comparable in this general patristic time period, so usually what they do is bring up critic of the deuterocanon, St. Jerome ad nauseam. But that doesn’t go very far, because they themselves don’t regard the fathers as authoritative, as Hays has repeated over and over in his book, and Catholics don’t think one father’s views are magisterial or conclusive, either. So we’re left with the councils of Hippo and Carthage and Pope Innocent I’s letter from AD 405.
The internal evidence for the canon is infallible. The self-witness of Scripture is infallible. That may not suffice to cover the entire canon, but it’s infallible with respect to what is covered. [p. 391]
The very essence of the “problem” of determining the canon is to determine all of it. So what good is a position that “may not suffice to cover the entire canon”? It is little help at all. It only confirms (assuming this criterion is effective and definitive) some of the books. The Catholic pronouncements of the patristic period covered all of the Bible. I find this to be remarkably shoddy and insufficient argumentation. It seems that Hays himself should have recognized that, but he doesn’t seem to have been aware of the serious methodological flaw in his approach. See my papers:
[E]ven if the process by which evangelicals arrive at the canon is fallible, if God intends for evangelicals to discover the true canon by such means, the conclusion can be fully warranted despite the fallibility of the methods. [p. 392]
Of course (God can do whatever he wants, so this is theoretically possible), but again, the problem is that there is no objective, determinative, non-subjective way to prove whether God has done that. It’s not an argument. It’s merely an assertion of a possible action of God. So the Protestant is inevitably left with his mere fallible process to determine the canon. Catholics, on the other hand, have infallible papal authority and the magisterium to lay the matter to rest for good. And that is how God intended it to be. We know this by the constant (inspired, inerrant) biblical motifs of truth, certainty, etc., that I discussed earlier in this series.
That being the case, I submit that God would surely (it seems to me) want the contents of the biblical canon of inspired revelation to be among this category of certain and truthful things (which includes all major Christian beliefs). He chose not to settle the question in the Bible itself, and instead allowed men in the Church to take over 350 years to iron it out (which is still a lot less time than the Church took to fully develop trinitarianism and Christology).
But suppose, for argument’s sake, that the Protestant canon might be mistaken in some particulars. If we’re doing the best we can with the information God has put at our disposal, that’s an innocent mistake. Unless God will punish us for error through no fault of our own, what’s the big deal? [p. 392]
Suppose for argument’s sake that the Protestant canon might mistakenly include a book that ought to be excluded or exclude a book that ought to be included. Suppose it isn’t possible to be certain. But if we’re mistaken through no fault of our own, because the evidence is inconclusive, is that something we should fret over? Unless God is going to punish Christians for unavoidable mistakes, how is that our responsibility? [p. 397]
The “big deal” and the thing that a conscientious Protestant ought to “fret over” would be yet more falsehood incipient in Protestantism. God doesn’t like falsehood (that’s crystal-clear throughout the Bible), and Satan is the father of lies. If a well-meaning, well-intended Christian mistakenly thinks a book is inspired revelation and in fact it isn’t, then he or she may draw theology from it that is false. This process could easily and quickly “snowball” to the extent that someone has the canon wrong. It’s obviously not a good thing, and I believe that if Hays had thought about it more deeply and for a longer time, he would have eventually agreed with this point.
What, exactly, is the nature of the Catholic claim? Is it an ontological claim regarding the nature of Scripture? Is the claim that there’s no intrinsic difference between what counts as Scripture and what doesn’t? Is it that an ecumenical council could just as well vote the Gospel of John out of the canon and vote the Gospel of Thomas into the canon? Does it come down to raw, arbitrary ecclesiastical authority? [p. 396]
None of the above. The Protestant position (so they tell us) makes more sense because it places churches and traditions beneath Scripture. This seems obvious because the Bible is inspired and infallible, and men and traditions (which make up churches) are fallible and quite prone to error. So how can it be otherwise? It doesn’t follow at all, however, that Catholics are placing Church above Scripture, in simply pointing out that human authority was needed in order to determine the canon. An analogy or comparison might be in order, to further explain this.
All (i.e., serious, observant Christian believers of all stripes, not “pick-and-choose” / intellectually dishonest theological liberals) agree that the Bible must be properly interpreted. Protestants, to their credit, place a huge emphasis on learning to study the Bible wisely and intelligently (the sciences of exegesis and hermeneutics). Just because learning and study are needed to correctly read the Bible and to attain to truth in theology, doesn’t mean that, therefore, the Bible did not already contain truth, or that human interpretation is “higher” than “God-breathed” biblical inspiration.
Likewise, it was necessary for human church councils to decide on the specific books that were to be included in the biblical canon. This doesn’t imply in the least that the councils (let alone the Church) are “above” Scripture, any more than a Christian communion authoritatively declaring in its creed that Jesus is God in the flesh, makes them “higher” than He is, or superior.
Proclamation of an existing reality has nothing to do with some supposed “superiority” of category. Both the Bible and theological truth remain what they are at all times. But God is able to (and indeed does) protect human beings from error insofar as they make binding claims about the biblical canon. Catholics believe that God (the Holy Spirit: John 14-16) willed to protect the Catholic Church from error, and that He is certainly capable of doing so, because He can do anything. In conclusion, here are the Catholic magisterial documents having to do with this question:
First Vatican Council (1870): These the Church holds to be sacred and canonical; not because, having been carefully composed by mere human industry, they were afterward approved by her authority; not because they contain revelation, with no admixture of error; but because, having been written by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, they have God for their author, and have been delivered as such to the Church herself. (Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, chapter II; emphasis added)
Second Vatican Council (1962-1965): The divinely-revealed realities which are contained and presented in the text of sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For Holy Mother Church relying on the faith of the apostolic age, accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts, on the grounds that they were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn. 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:19-21; 3:15-16), they have God as their author, and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation [Dei Verbum], Chapter III, 11; emphasis added)
I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Protestant apologist who is aware of the two conciliar statements above, and includes consideration of them in his criticism of the Catholic Church regarding the canon. As a result, we get the wild charges and speculations (like those of Hays above) about what the Catholic Church supposedly thinks about Holy Scripture, and how we allegedly place the Church above Scripture.
Is it an epistemological argument regarding the certainty or uncertainty of the canon? [p. 396]
That’s a fairly accurate description of our view of the canon, yes. It’s both epistemological and also pragmatic and practical for the Christian life of discipleship. The Christian (rather obviously, I think) must know which books are in the Bible, so he or she can attribute to them the sublime authority of inspiration, and, conversely, not wrongly attribute to non-canonical books the characteristic of divine inspiration.
It’s just a historical accident that Trent canonized some intertestamental books rather than others. [p. 396]
Nonsense. This is more desperate argumentation. Even the non-Catholic Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church disagrees with this ludicrous characterization of the relevant historical data:
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 . . . (Oxford University Press, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, 1989, 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’]” )
That’s not “historical accident”; that’s consensus in the crucial early centuries of the Church. Trent simply reiterated what had been decided between AD 393 and 405. And they did because of (as usual) opposition to what had already been held just a bit less definitively (Protestants introducing novel ideas about the biblical canon).
Is the canon a fallible list of infallible books?
Hays cites (on p. 399) a rather famous (and intellectually honest!) quotation from the late Presbyterian theologian, R. C. Sproul: “The historic Protestant position shared by Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and so on, has been that the canon of Scripture is a fallible collection of infallible books.”
I believe this distinction originated with Sproul’s mentor, John Gerstner, which Sproul popularized. But it’s unclear what that distinction really means. If each and every book in the collection is infallible, then in what sense is the collection still fallible? [p. 399]
All agree that the books (whichever ones they are) that are actually canonical / biblical are infallible, as well as inspired (a much higher quality). What Sproul highlighted was that the means by which the Protestant determines the canon (having rejected the Catholic solution and authority) is itself a fallible process, and one not properly categorized under sola Scriptura: the Protestant rule of faith. It’s an exception to the rule of how Protestants determine things, in other words. Hays himself recognized this earlier in his book.
Is the canon said to be fallible because the evidence for the canon, while adequate, is less than conclusive or rationally compelling? Or is the canon said to be fallible because any uninspired human judgment is fallible no matter how conclusive the evidence? [p. 399]
Both, assuming the Protestant perspective on the rule of faith.
I think the Gerstner/Sproul formulation is too equivocal to be useful. [p. 400]
That’s fine and dandy for him, but he hasn’t shown it to be false. I say that Sproul and his mentor Gerstner were honestly grappling with the dilemma posed by the all-important Protestant adoption of sola Scriptura, while Hays had his head in the sand, trying to pretend that it wasn’t a dilemma at all. Wishing an internal difficulty away isn’t a solution.
Suppose the church gave us the Bible?
We don’t accept the Tridentine canon of the OT. [p. 401]
But the early Church by and large did. I’ll accept their collective judgment over that of Protestants 1100 years later, thank you.
The ancient church disagreed on the scope of the OT canon. [p. 401]
Not nearly as much as Hays thinks (and as I’ve backed up with Protestant scholars). As I already noted, even the great F. F. Bruce agreed that the councils at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419), following St. Augustine (Protestants’ favorite Church father, by far) “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. (Ibid., 97). “Consensus” means “consensus” (general and significant and widespread — though not unanimous — agreement. It’s Bruce who asserted this, not myself: the despised, lowly Catholic apologist.
So even assuming, for discussion purposes, that God supernaturally guided the ancient church to give Christians the right Bible, this carries no presumption that God supernaturally guides the church in other respects, or that God continuously guides the church. [p. 401]
That’s right (logically, albeit assuming Protestant ecclesiological presuppositions), but it’s an odd and implausible scenario: God guiding a Church only once and never at any other time. I think Sproul had realized its implausibility also, which is why this troubled him. It made little sense. The very notion smacks of desperation to uphold a system — sola Scriptura — that was already as leaky as a bucket with a hundred holes (see my book about it).
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Photo credit: The Whore of Babylon (workshop of Lucas Cranach): colorized illustration from Martin Luther’s 1534 translation of the Bible [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Summary: The late Steve Hays was a Calvinist and anti-Catholic writer and apologist. This is one of my many critiques of Hays’ “Catholicism”: a 695-page self-published volume.