Question about the formation of the Protestant Canon of Scripture

Question about the formation of the Protestant Canon of Scripture December 17, 2015

A reader writes:

Since I last wrote to you (about Dum Diversas), I have been received and confirmed into the Church. Thank you for your kind and respectful answers to my honest questions, and thank you so much for writing By What Authority. That book was the nail in the coffin of my Protestant life 😉

I have a question I hope you or your readers can answer for me, because I can’t seem to find anything concrete about it. (Maybe I’m just a poor researcher.) When I was learning about the deuterocanon (including by reading several of your articles about it), some sources noted that Martin Luther, along with denying the inspiration of the deuterocanonical books, also rejected NT books like Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. Yet, all of these books appear in every modern Protestant Bible. One of these articles described it as “an accident of history” that the NT books remained while the OT books were jettisoned. I’m really curious for more information about this “accident of history.” I don’t really believe history has accidents, in general; there were people behind every decision in the Reformation, and if sources are extant I’d be interested to see their reasoning for agreeing with Luther on half of the Bible and disagreeing on the other half.

You’d need to talk to a historian or scholar of the canon to get the details on how the sausage was made.  I do know the KJV originally had the deuterocanon but the Long Parliament under Cromwell ditched it as too Romish. (Imagine Obama signing an executive order banishing Hebrews and 2 Chronicles from the Bible and you get the hang of how weird this is.) Why Luther was heeded on the OT and ignored on the NT is something I don’t know.  The Jerome Commentary may have some info on the formation of the canon in Protestantism.


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  • The Eh’theist

    Your reader might find F.F. Bruce The Canon of Scripture helpful. Bruce tried to present as accurate a description of the canon process as he could, with a good deal of attention paid to the debate about the canon among Protestants in the later chapters.

    • Charles E Flynn

      From the description of the book:

      Winner of two 1990 Christianity Today Awards: Readers’ Choice (1st place; theology & doctrine) and Critics’ Choice (1st place; theology & doctrine). A 1989 ECPA Gold Medallion Award winner!

  • wineinthewater

    You might have to dig for the long, but the short of it was that Christian attachment to the New Testament was stronger than attachment to some admittedly less noted OT books. Luther wanted to reshape the Bible to make it mesh more seamlessly with his theology, but common Christian sentiment simply would not tolerate removal of NT books. It was just a bridge too far.

  • Chris BSomething

    There was no precedent in recent history for rejecting these NT books, and I think even Luther was a bit half hearted about his complaint, and prone to hyperbole. However rejecting these OT books did have recent precedent. The idea they weren’t canonical did have some adherents within Catholicism up until Trent made its proclamation.

    • HornOrSilk

      They were proclaimed canonical before Trent. For example, Florence.

      • Chris BSomething

        Yes, but not with the authority of an ecumenical council. What the Pope said on that topic at Florence is not part of the definitive canons.

        • HornOrSilk

          The union with the Coptics was more than “what the Pope said.”

          • Chris BSomething

            Not sure what you’re getting at.