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In the Crosshairs of the Canon

How exploring the development of the Bible can lead to a deeper appreciation of the Catholic Church

After the pizza arrived, Paul began by explaining to his companions what the Bible study he was leading would look like for the year. They would begin by discussing how the Bible came into being. He knew there would be some controversy, but as a seasoned Catholic apologist leading five Protestants in an ecumenical consideration of Scripture, Paul was prepared for tough questions.

The other members—Steve, Sarah, Elizabeth, Roger, and Scott—were open-minded Evangelical Christians who Paul thought sincerely desired to grow closer to Christ, even to the point of rethinking their firmly held theological beliefs. As an Evangelical convert to Catholicism, Paul understood where they were coming from. His aim was to provide an atmosphere where they would feel comfortable asking the tough theological questions no Protestant wants to ask.

The origin and development of the Bible was one of the topics Paul found most compelling about Catholic theology. He decided studying how the Bible came into existence would be a good place to begin, since the Bible is at the heart of sacred theology. Paul realized also that the Protestant members would find the study of the Bible’s origins attractive, since they claimed to base their beliefs solely on Scripture.

How We Got the Bible

After opening with a prayer, Paul asked if anyone knew how we got the Bible. The members of the study exchanged stares. Elizabeth said, “I got mine at WalMart.”

Steve chuckled along with the rest. “Wasn’t the King James Version the first Bible?” he asked.

“Actually, it wasn’t,” Paul replied. “The King James Version is a beautiful English translation of the Bible. Does anyone know what languages the original books of the Bible were written in?”

Roger thought he knew the answer. “Hebrew and Greek.”

“Right. Small portions were also written in Aramaic. The King James Version is one of the earlier translations into the English language. There are a number of more modern translations in the English language based off the original Hebrew and Greek. Okay, does anyone know what a canon is?”

“A cannon is a large gun that shoots cannonballs,” Elizabeth said. “But what does that have to do with the Bible?”

“Well, the canon I’m referring to is the list of books that belong in Scripture. It’s derived from the Greek word kanon, meaning ‘standard’ or ‘rule.’ An example of this would be the Roman Catholic canon, which contains seven more Old Testament books than the Protestant canon. The books of Tobit, Judith, First and Second Maccabbees, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Baruch, as well as small portions of Esther and Daniel, are found in the Catholic Old Testament. This reflects the canon of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The Hebrew Masoretic Text doesn’t contain these books. Catholics refer to them as deuterocanonicals. Protestants call them apocrypha.”

“Didn’t the apostles receive the Bible?” Sarah asked. “I mean, they sure quoted from it a lot.”

Before Paul could respond, Roger broke in, “The apostles couldn’t have received the Bible. They were the ones who wrote most of the New Testament, although Jesus never told them to. The Bible was collected by the early church, before it was corrupted by Catholicism.”

“The early Church did in fact decide which books belonged in the canon and which ones didn’t,” said Paul. “However, I would argue that the early Church was entirely Catholic. The Bible was developed in a process that wasn’t completed until the end of the fourth century A.D. However, from the beginning the members of the early Church believed in the Real Presence of Jesus in Holy Communion, and they viewed the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice. They believed in the important role baptism plays in the normal salvation process. They also believed in the authority of bishops and priests, especially the bishop of Rome, the pope, who was looked to as supreme authority by all the churches spread across the known world.”

“Either way,” said Sarah, “how did the canon come into being?”

“The canon developed over time,” Roger explained. “The process began, I think, with Marcion, who was a heretic. Marcion decided the Old Testament didn’t belong in the Bible. This was due primarily to the fact that he disliked Judaism. He even edited out sections of the Gospel of Luke and of Paul’s epistles he felt Judaism had influenced. He also decided the Gospel of Luke and Paul’s letters were the only sacred texts. In response to Marcion’s error, various Christians decided which books belonged in the canon and which ones didn’t.”

Elizabeth sat up. “You mean he just started cutting things out he didn’t like? How egotistical.”

Paul was impressed with Roger’s knowledge of Church history. “What Roger said is correct. One minor explanatory note: It wasn’t merely ‘various Christians’ who decided the extent of the canon but bishops of the Catholic Church like Augustine and Athanasius. There are two important.aspects of the canonization process we should pay careful attention to. The first is the development of the Old Testament canon. The second the development of the New Testament canon.”

“I don’t understand,” Scott responded. “Didn’t these bishops know which books belonged? Why did the canon have to develop?”

“They were trying to determine which books belonged,” Paul replied. “I would imagine the process involved vigorous theological debate.”

“But they didn’t have a Bible to argue from,” said Scott. “So how could they have theological debates?”

“Aye, there’s the rub,” said Paul. “If the Bible is the only source of doctrine, how were theological issues dealt with before there was a Bible? How was the content of the Bible itself decided upon? If you need a Bible to get doctrine, but you obviously need to use doctrine to get a Bible, then you’ve got a pretty big problem.

“The Bible of the early Church was apostolic tradition. You need to realize the earliest Church fathers, like Clement and Ignatius, were disciples of the apostles themselves. What Jesus taught was faithfully passed by the apostles to their own disciples. This was in accordance with what Paul commanded Timothy while planting a church: ‘And what you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.’ This is found in the second verse of the second chapter of the second book of Timothy.”

“Well,” Sarah said, “what did the process of deciding the Bible look like?”

What Did the Process Look Like?

Paul thought for a moment. “Actually, it was quite complicated. We need to remember that the Holy Spirit is the one who determined the canon of Scripture. Just as the Holy Spirit worked through fallible men to write infallibly, so he worked through fallible men to infallibly decide which books belong in the canon.

“For most of the third century, about 22 of our 27 New Testament books were universally agreed upon. Some communities used more of the New Testament than others, while others used books not found in our New Testament. Some churches even viewed 1 Clement, the Didache, and the Shepherd of Hermas as inspired writings.”

Scott, looking frustrated, asked, “When did the New Testament we have first appear?”

“In A.D. 367, in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius.”

“Paul,” Roger interjected, “Athanasius, the hero of orthodoxy, didn’t include the apocrypha in his canon. So why do you?”

“Actually, that’s not entirely correct. Athanasius did include the deuterocanonical book, Wisdom of Solomon. And it’s possible he included Baruch in either Jeremiah or Lamentations, as was sometimes done. However, the book of Esther was absent from his canon. Does this mean we should exclude Esther from our Bible? Athanasius wasn’t infallible.”

“When was the first time the whole Bible was included?” Sarah asked.

“Well, the first time every book found in the Protestant canon was used is 382 at the Council of Rome. However, that council included the deuterocanonicals found in the Catholic canon. The Bible from that time on was identical to the Catholic Bible of today. This may be seen by the decisions ratified at the council of Hippo in 393, and the Third Council of Carthage in 397.”

Roger shook his head and said, “Jerome didn’t believe the apocryphal books were inspired. He wrote they didn’t belong in the Bible.”

“Actually, Jerome included them in his Latin translation of Scripture, known as the Vulgate. What he wrote was that certain Jews he knew didn’t include them in their Bible. In addition, at the dawn of the fifth century, after Jerome finished his translation, Bishop Exuperous of Toulouse wrote a letter to Pope Innocent I, asking which books were considered Sacred Scripture. The Pope responded with a list identical to the Catholic Bible of today. The Catholic canon remained virtually unchallenged for the next thousand years. These decisions were echoed at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 and infallibly declared at the Council of Florence in 1441.”

At this point, Elizabeth asked a serious question. “How did the early church decide which books belonged in Scripture and which ones didn’t?”

“It was self-evident to Spirit-filled believers which books belonged,” Scott said. “The Spirit testified to the inspired books.”

“Here’s an interesting exercise,” Paul said. “Which of these quotations is from the Bible and which ones are not?” He pulled out a sheet of paper and began reading. “‘There she lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses.’

“Or this one: ‘Of rebel angels, by whose aid.aspiring to set himself in glory above his peers he trusted to have equaled the most High.’

“The next one says, ‘In that day, the Lord will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.’

“The final one reads, ‘For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test that we may have poof of his gentleness and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.’”

“Well, the first one is obviously not biblical,” said Scott. “The second one sounds biblical, but I’m not certain. The third one sounds more like Greek mythology or something than a passage from the Bible. However, I think the fourth one is from the Psalms. It’s one of the many prophecies concerning Jesus.”

“Well, Scott, you’re wrong about the first one. It comes from Ezekiel 23:20 in the New International Version, and it refers to Israel’s idolatry. It uses the idea of God as spouse and explains idolatry as a form of adultery. The second quotation is not biblical at all—it’s from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The third one comes from Isaiah 27:1 in the NIV. You were correct, in part, about the last quotation. It does come from the Bible, but it comes from a book you don’t consider canonical, the Wisdom of Solomon 2:18–20 in the New American Bible. The internal witness of the Spirit didn’t seem to help you much on this test, but don’t feel bad. History has shown it hasn’t helped other individuals, either.”

Scott, feeling somewhat set up, asked, “Then how was the canon determined?”

The Canon Determined

“With regard to the Old Testament, the council fathers stuck to the Septuagint, which was the most common translation in use by the early Church,” Paul explained. “It was also the version most often quoted in the New Testament. There were three main qualities used by the early Church to decide which books belonged in the New Testament: apostolicity, catholicity, and orthodoxy. Did an apostle write the book or did it have apostolic authority backing it? Was it used in the majority of the churches founded by apostles? And did it conform to the traditions faithfully passed on by the apostles? The criteria of apostolic tradition was the determining factor.”

Roger seemed frustrated and confused. “Are you telling me great theologians like Martin Luther were wrong? If the Bible is supposed to include all those extra books in the Old Testament, then why was Luther convinced they didn’t belong?”

“That’s a good question, Roger. It’s important to realize Luther, like Athanasius, wasn’t infallible. In fact, it wasn’t just the deuterocanonicals Luther excluded from his Bible but also the books of Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. He even called James an ‘epistle of straw.’ The Reformation clearly demonstrates the fallacy of believing the Holy Spirit will enlighten each individual Christian as to the extent of the canon. It was in this period the canon received its first challenges in over a thousand years. Most of the reformers followed Luther in removing Revelation from the canon. A good example of this is the Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli.

“The Council of Trent in 1556 infallibly declared the extent of the canon in response to the reformers. Some of the descendants of the reformers removed Song of Songs, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Luke, and Acts, while others added 1 Clement and 3 Corinthians. Most of the reformers, however, were unanimous in their rejection of the inspiration of the deuterocanonicals.”

“Why did the reformers reject the apocrypha?” asked Roger, who insisted on using the Protestant term.

“They followed Luther in this because they found, as he had, that the Hebrew Masoretic Text of the eleventh century didn’t include them. The Jews in Europe with whom they were familiar excluded the deuterocanonicals from their canon.”

“Well, if the Jews don’t use them, why should we? After all, isn’t it their Old Testament?”

“First of all, some Jews do use them. Ethiopian Jews and others from Africa use the deuterocanonicals to this day. Secondly, there was no consensus in Judaism until well after the early Church had been formed. By that time the Church wasn’t under the authority of the rabbis. The Church had received her authority from Jesus himself.

“After the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70, Jewish scholars at Jamnia, or Yavneh, argued about the status of books like Esther, Daniel, Ecclesiastes and Ezekiel. Only later did they form a canon, excluding both the deuterocanonicals and the Christian New Testament. Before this time there was no consensus in Judaism as to what constituted the canon of Scripture.”

Scott, sipping a Coke, spoke up. “But the Bible is still infallible.”

“Sure,” Paul agreed. “But how do you know the Bible is infallible, and how do you know it doesn’t include the deuterocanonicals?”

“I don’t know about the deuterocanonicals for sure—anymore—but I do know the Bible is infallible. It is the most historically accurate document of antiquity, and it contains prophecy fulfillment.”

“Scott, I agree the Bible is historically accurate, but a historically accurate document is no more than that: a historical document. A particular historian may have written an accurate document, but that doesn’t mean it is divinely inspired. In addition, the presence of prophecy doesn’t guarantee the Bible is infallible, either. Hypothetically, it’s possible God’s prophets made predictions that were recorded by historians, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they recorded infallibly. The Bible is guaranteed infallible only if the decisions the Catholic Church made in deciding the canon were infallible.”

“I don’t need to follow church councils, I have the Bible,” Scott retorted.. “Second Timothy 3:16 states, in the NIV, ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.’”

“Notice it says ‘all Scripture,’ not ‘only Scripture.’”

“Don’t you think you’re reading into the text, Paul?”

“No. Reading into the text is when you read something which is not actually there. It actually states ‘all Scripture.’ Interpreting that passage as implying only Scripture, as you seem to be doing, would be reading into the text. In addition, how do you know 2 Timothy is inspired by God? Many liberal scholars now are even doubting if Paul wrote the book or not. My point is you don’t have a reliable Bible unless the Catholic Church’s decision regarding the canon was infallible.”

Roger felt he should join in. “R.C. Sproul says we have a ‘fallible collection of infallible books,’ so we don’t need the Catholic Church to be infallible.”

“We Don’t Need the Catholic Church”

“Saying the Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books is a self-defeating statement. If the collection was fallible, then the collectors may have made mistakes. One of their mistakes may have been the inclusion of certain books, like 2 Timothy for example. We have no way of knowing if any of the particular books are infallible unless the entire collection is itself infallible. Humans make errors all the time. If the Holy Spirit didn’t keep the authors of the Bible—who were themselves fallible—free from error in writing the Bible, would you still consider it divinely inspired?”

“Of course not.”

“Then why would you consider them inspired if the Holy Spirit didn’t keep the fallible Catholic bishops free from error when deciding which books belonged?”

“Okay, I see your point. But how do you know the Bible is the Word of God?”

“Well, when we study history we find the Bible trustworthy. We can know what Jesus did and said. He told his apostles he would send them the Spirit to lead them into all truth. Jesus’ resurrection, which is the only adequate explanation for his empty tomb, proved his divinity. So we can trust what he told his disciples. Jesus hands Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, a symbol of not only authority but of dynastic succession. So the Holy Spirit leads the offices of the apostles and their successors, the bishops, into all truth. ‘The Church,’ as 1 Timothy 3:15 informs us, is ‘the pillar and bulwark of the truth.’

“So when the episcopal successors to the apostles were exercising their offices in the form of ecumenical councils, the Holy Spirit kept them free from error. This goes for not only when they determined which books belonged in Scripture, but also when they determined Jesus was both fully man and fully God, as well as the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and all of the other Catholic dogmas.”

“So what you’re saying,” Sarah said, “is the only logical way to have a divinely inspired Bible is if the Catholic Church is correct?”

“I’m saying the only way to be sure the Bible is the Bible is if the Catholic Church is correct. If one rejects the authority of the Catholic Church, then it is up to each individual Christian to decide, by relying on the Holy Spirit, which books belong in the Bible, if any, and not rely on the traditions of men like Martin Luther. However, history has shown this method produces a schizophrenic Christianity.”

There was one piece of pizza left in the box when the meeting was over. That night the Protestant members of the Bible study had a lot on their minds. They began to realize there’s much more to the Catholic Church than they first thought. What surprised them most was that exploring the Bible was leading them to a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church.

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