Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Thoughts on the Canon

I hate to take issue with the worthy Paragraph Farmer, but a recent post contains an inaccuracy I have to point out:
Those whom we Catholics pray for as our "separated brethren" face a dilemma, given that we and they agree on most of the canon, and it's this: given that the bishops of the early church in council discerned the definitive list of biblical books for the Old and New Testaments, how does it make sense to take their word on most of the canon and then quibble about seven books on the OT list?

The protestant position would seem to imply that God was on a coffee break when that part of the canon was approved.

Actually, the early church in council did not officially pronounce on the canon as an article of faith. The first promulgation of the Roman Catholic canon as a dogma came at the Council of Trent in 1542, as the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
The Tridentine decrees ... was the first infallible and effectually promulgated pronouncement on the Canon, addressed to the Church Universal.
In fact, until the Counter-Reformation there was always a strong "minority report" within the church on the extent of the Old Testament canon, holding that only those books contained in the Hebrew Bible should be taken as canonical. This position was taken, among others, by Origen, Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and Jerome. Regrettably, this freedom of conscience was removed when the Council of Trent decided to make the "majority report" de fide.

As a scholar, I'm sometimes sorry that Protestants aren't more familiar with the Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books. These books could be fruitfully employed for teaching about the "inter-testamental" period that provides such rich background for the New Testament, and which lay Protestants (yes, and lay Catholics, despite their canon) seem to know very little about.

On the other hand, I don't regret the loss of the Apocrypha as Scripture. It would be tiresome to be forced to take seriously the bourgeois ramblings of Ecclesiasticus as the Word of God, and it would be painful, if occasionally amusing, to watch inerrantists try to rescue the historicity of the book of Judith. On the whole, I think the Reformation got this decision right.


bob jones said...


Always good to hear from you. My reference to the "early (pre-1546)church" was based on what James Akin writes here:

To wit:

The canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was finally settled at the Council of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same canon was affirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the Council of Carthage in 397. In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the canon in a letter to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year 419, reaffirmed the canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to "confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church." All of these canons were identical to the modern Catholic Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonicals.

This exact same canon was implicitly affirmed at the seventh ecumenical council, II Nicaea (787), which approved the results of the 419 Council of Carthage, and explicitly reaffirmed at the ecumenical councils of Florence (1442), Trent (1546), Vatican I (1870), and Vatican II (1965)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps another point to consider: it is my understanding that the LXX appears to have served as the Apostle Paul's primary text as well as the primary text of many Apostolic Fathers. Perhaps, Patrick and Ed, both the Protestants and the Catholics have it wrong AND it is the Orthodox Church that honors the earliest and thus most authoritative canon.

Anonymous said...

... (and the most authoritative translation).

Derek Olsen said...

Give up the Kyrie Pantocrator (Prayer of Manasseh), Benedictus Es and Benedicite omnia opera (Add. to Daniel)? I think not! The latter two are staples of the Offices and have shaped Benedictine/Catholic/Anglican spirituality for centuries.

theswain said...

Several things to respond to, both in the original and in the comments.

I'm not at all certain that the Reformation got this right, since even though it is based largely on Jerome, we don't actually know what the Hebrew bible looked like before mid-second century. So to take mid-second century as evidence of the Hebrew canon earlier (without looking at those earlier texts which the Reformation didn't do) is fishy if you ask me.

The "minority report" is just that: a minority report of four respected fathers, but only four. In fact, even Jerome's express wishes not to include the deutero's in the Vulgate were ignored and they were added from the earliest point we have evidence of. The view of Jerome was not revived again until Luther.

Turning to the comments, I'd be interested in the reputed canons of the "ecumenical councils" of Nicea and Florence that promulgated the current RC canon as "article of faith." The other councils mentioned in the quote, while important, are all local.
There is also the question of how much credence such pronouncements were given: are they truly addressing a question of what IS the canon of the scriptures? Are other texts being used authoritatively? Or are they merely affirming what is their own long practice? If the latter, why?

To the next comment, there is no such thing as "the LXX": it wasn't a single translation with some sort of authoritative body behind it. That Paul seems to use a Greek translation is true, but to claim that this means that on all questions or even on any questions we should then turn to Breton for the Hebrew Bible text is just not a good thing.
On the other hand, it would be a very good thing if more Christians and Jews, both scholar and lay, were interested in the Old Greek texts and that better and more modern translations of the Old Greek were available.

Anonymous said...

Larry, Larry... Yes, true, there may not have been an original LXX, though this is not entirely as certain as you conclude if there is even a small kernel of truth to the Ptolemaic commission. But, let's accept your argument nonetheless... the Greek texts did evolve into collections and Paul may have drawn on one such collection. Moreover, even if he did not and relied on a series of uncollected texts, a canon did develop from the Greek texts that the Orthodox Church accepts and this can fairly be called the LXX. Admittedly, it was an anachronism for me to conflate this canon with texts used by Paul but I assumed, incorrectly I guess, that the people reading this blog would appreciate the gist of what was saying, namely that Paul and some of the Apostolic Fathers appear to have relied primarily, if not exclusively, on Greek texts not Hebrew ones and so may also have accepted a wider collection of texts than that preserved in the Jewish canon.