Saturday, November 03, 2012
DID THE CHURCH PROCLAIM THE CANON?
by Fr. Laurence Wells
Not many years ago the ineffable Bishop Bennison of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania caused great consternation by telling a conservative congregation, when someone quoted a Biblical text to him, “Well, the Church made up the Bible and therefore the Church can change the Bible.” His blunt statement was widely quoted, and rightly so, as a prize exhibit of where revisionist theology inevitable leads. If his premise is granted, his conclusion is hard to resist.
But honestly requires us to face up to the fact that Bishop Bennison’s assumption (“the Church made up the Bible”) is widely shared by many who would be surprised to learn that their view of Sacred Scripture is not very different from that of a radically modernist bishop. For example, we find Bp. Kallistos Ware writing (The Orthodox Church, New Edition, page 199), “It is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture; and it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority.” Whereas Bishop Bennison was blunt, Bishop Ware was genteel. But their assumptions are identical and their conclusions are not so far apart.
In the more nuanced form, the Bennison-Ware logic is not infrequently encountered even within the
I recall being told by one of our most learned and astute clergymen that
the Protestant concept of Scriptura Sola
collapses because “we must always remember that the Church proclaimed the
Canon.” (He did not seem to know the
difference between Scriptura sola and
Scriptura nuda, but that is another
discussion.) Continuing Church
This is written to counter some facile conclusions from faulty data, namely, that (1) the documents which make up our Bible circulated for a time in some pre-Canonical status, which therefore (2) had no inherent authority until the Church bestowed that authority, and (3) the Church still retains a high degree of control in what Scriptural teaching it obeys, what it disregards, and what it adds.
There are many who suppose that this great act of proclamation occurred (like the Constitution which emerged from the 1787 Philadelphia Convention) at one of the Seven Ecumenical Councils. But as far as the records show, this was not the case. When Arian and Athanasian parties faced each other at
in AD 325, they were bitterly divided over the Person of Jesus Christ. Yet both sides appealed to the same Holy
Scripture and even if there were a few fuzzy areas in the Canon (along with
some very solid areas), neither side tried to score points by arguing about the
Canon of either Testament or the Bible of the opposite party. In contrast to all the theological
controversies which wracked the Christian community in those early centuries,
disagreements over the Biblical Canon were few, local and minor. Of course it is tempting to project later 16th
century disputes into Patristic times.
But the records do not bear this out.
The differences, such as they were, related exclusively to the third and
last part of the New Testament, in which a number of writings, the so-called
Antilegomena, were not so much controverted as simply neglected. Nicaea
For those who wish to delve into the minutiae of how an official list of authoritative writings emerged in the Christian community, I would recommend F. F. Bruce’s The Canon of Scripture (IVP, 1988) and also Lee Martin McDonald’s The Biblical Canon (Hendrickson, 2007), a much bigger book which acknowledges its
debt to Bruce but does not always agree with him on details. The history is too complicated to be summed up in the simplisms of Bennison and Ware.
Very briefly, we can say that in AD 367 St Athanasius, in his capacity as Bishop of Alexandria, issued his usual Easter Letter announcing the date of the Paschal feast. (The Council of Nicaea had tasked him with this annual chore.) In that year, he found it necessary to lay down lists of the books of both Testaments. His list of the New Testament writings is the earliest document we possess which gives the New Testament exactly as we have it in our Bibles (and notably, this is one of very few things on which all of Christendom agrees). These lists of both Testaments were almost identical to the lists prepared by a local Council held at
around AD 363. The records of that
Council, however, are less than clear:
it may have overlooked the Book of Revelation, but that is not certain. Laodicea
Two points must be made concerning these “proclamations” of the Canon. First of all, neither Athanasius nor the bishops convened at
were putting books into the Bible. The purpose of the lists, as Athanasius made
very clear, was not to include
anything but to exclude false
writings. His first concern was
liturgical reading. He found it
necessary to counteract a tendency to read from documents not considered inspired
or authoritative. (The Congregation on
Divine Worship had to deal with a similar fad in the Roman Catholic Church in
the heady days immediately after Vatican II.)
Athanasius wrote, after listing the 27 books of the New Testament: Laodicea
“These are the ‘springs of salvation,’ [Isaiah 12. 3] so that one who is thirsty may be satisfied with the oracles which are in them. In these alone [!] is the teaching of true religion proclaimed as good news. Let no one add to these or take anything from them.” The allusion here to Rev.22. 18 surely seems to indicate a closed Canon, already in place when Athanasius wrote. Had he undertaken to compile something new, his adversaries would not have allowed that to pass. If the Arian party could raise an objection to homoousion as a new word, they would surely not have tolerated a new Canon to the New Testament.
Secondly, we find a wealth of evidence that an official list of writings was pretty much in place from a much earlier time. The so-called Muratorian Fragment (named for its 18th century discoverer, Lodovico Antonio Muratori) probably goes back to the end of the second century. It listed 21 of our 27 books, omitting Hebrews, James, I and II Peter, and II and III John. Oddly, it listed also the Wisdom of Solomon as a New Testament book. Not too much can be concluded from these anomalies, since the document is fragmentary and exists only in a late copy. But what is important to us here is that the Shepherd of Hermas was specifically excluded on the grounds that it was recently written. Certain Gnostic writers were also excluded as well.
In both the Easter Letter and the Muratorian fragment, the Canon was not something proclaimed but rather something defined, delimited, and safeguarded.
The concept of Canonicity must be carefully distinguished from the concept of Authority. The New Testament writings did not gain authority because they were canonized; instead, they were set apart and protected as “Canon” because they had inherent authority. Asking how this exclusive list had emerged by the time of Athanasius is somewhat like asking how the original ministry of “the Twelve” had quickly blossomed into the monarchical episcopate and threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon. The details are murky, but we can be sure that in neither case, ministry or canon, was this suddenly “proclaimed” by the Church.
St Irenaeus, who became bishop of Lyon, in Gaul, in AD 177, is one of our last traceable links to the
He was a pupil of St Polycarp of Apostolic Church Smyrna (AD
69—155), who wrote of his personal contacts with , the Beloved Disciple, “and with
others who had seen the Lord.” It was
the burden of Irenaeus to combat the serious threat of Gnosticism. As is well known, he emphasized The Apostolic
foundation of the Church. But he also
emphasized the importance of Christian Scripture in safeguarding the
Faith. F. F. Bruce writes, in Canon of Scripture, p. 175, St John
“In all of Irenaeus’s argument, moreover, scripture plays a dominant part. It is the abiding witness to the one living and true God, ‘whom the law announces, whom the prophets proclaim, whom Christ reveals, whom the apostles teach, whom the Church believes.’ Irenaeus is well able to distinguish ‘the writings of truth’ from ‘the multitude of apocryphal and spurious writings.’ …. Irenaeus nowhere in his extant writings sets down a list of New Testament books, but it is evident that he had a clear notion of their identity.”
But the NT Canon of St Irenaeus is not a complete mystery. We know that he quoted from Acts and the Pauline letters. More importantly, we know that he employed the concept of a “Fourfold Gospel,” listing Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, comparing them to the four quarters of the world, and condemning any who would add to this number. (Remember, the Canon was exclusive, not inclusive.)
We seem to have a tantalizing clue to the formation of the New Testament Canon in the very arrangement of Paul’s Epistles. It should be observed, by the way, that the Apostle to the Gentiles assumes in every extant letter that his writing will be received and read as authoritative Scripture. There is no diffident tone of “perhaps the Church will add this to her official list sometime in the future.” In the arrangement of Paul’s Epistles, the first, Romans, is the longest, and the last, the brief letter to Philemon, is the shortest. In between they come in order of descending length. This may well tell us that they were gathered not in some random fashion but by a careful editor who arranged them according to a literary convention of the ancient world, into a unified Corpus Paulinum. Why? Because this editor recognized the inherent authority of Apostolic writing. Bruce indulges himself in a delightful speculation that this careful editor was none other than Onesimus, the slave mentioned in Philemon, who could be the Onesimus who was recorded by Bishop of Ephesus by St Ignatius of
Frequently we encounter an argument that the Church is “older” than the Bible and therefore has some greater authority. This argument does not have all the facts on its side, as we find St Peter on the Day of Pentecost (commonly called the “Birthday of the Church”) citing the Book of Joel. Similarly, when Our Lord began His public preaching in the Nazareth Synagogue, we find Him taking a text from Isaiah. From its earliest inception, the Church had not only the concept of an authoritative Scripture, but a solid foundation in “the Law, the Prophets and the Writings” which we call the Old Testament (Luke 24:44). It is striking to find the Second Epistle of Peter, perhaps the latest document of the New Testament, referring to the Pauline writings:
“And account that the long-suffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also, according to the wisdom given to him, wrote unto you; as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; wherein are some things hard to be understood, which the ignorant and unsteadfast wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction (II Peter 3:15-16).”
Three things are notable here. II Peter was not written to any particular Church, but is a “Catholic Epistle” addressed to the Christian community at large. So the writer (I take him to be St Peter himself, but will not insist on it right now) applies Paul’s Epistles to the universal Church, not merely the seven local churches to which Paul wrote. Second, II Peter surely seems to think of the Pauline Epistles as a definite collection, not just a bunch of old letters floating around. But third, and unarguably so, he places them on a level with the “other scriptures,” that is to say, the sacred writings of
. The New Testament Canon was asserting itself
before the New Testament was even complete! Israel
Another example of this phenomenon is found in II Timothy 5:18-19, “For the scripture saith, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn”, And, “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” The first of these two citations (which Paul also introduced in 1 Cor. 9:9) comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. The second, however, is found in no Old Testament passage whatever, but comes from Matt. 10:10 (from a long discourse relating to the mission of the Twelve). This could be a bit of evidence for the writing of Matthew somewhat earlier than is commonly supposed. But even if Paul is quoting an earlier form of Matthew no longer available to us, we cannot escape the fact that Paul quoted Matthew as authoritative Scripture.
Modern writers have many good things to say on the “criteria of canonicity,” listing apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, liturgical usefulness, inspiration. But it is striking that the ancient writers have so little to say on the topic. When they spoke of this or that New Testament book under the rubric gegraptai (“it is written’), the Canon is simply assumed as a Datum. The Canon emerged, it surely seems, naturally, spontaneously and fairly quickly, as something the entire Christian community, orthodox and heretical alike, quietly accepted with no great fuss or ado. So the claim that “the Church proclaimed the canon” turns out to be a historical mirage and a triumphalist myth.
Just as the episcopate and priesthood emerged without any particular difficulty, and probably somewhat earlier, so the Canon appeared. In both these early developments we may see the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, leading the people of God into all truth. In the compiled New Testament, fenced in and set apart from all other writings, we have no human authority’s “proclamation.” But instead we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling to His sheep, and see the sheep following Him for they know His voice.