Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
Defending the sufficiency of Scripture, part 4

Continued from part 3 « In the continuing correspondence with my Catholic apologist, he responds, in lieu of a lengthier reply, with a single criticism which has been implicit in his earlier objections. This criticism is one so commonly leveled by Catholics that it seems important to evaluate it on their own terms. (For an […]

Continued from part 3 «

In the continuing correspondence with my Catholic apologist, he responds, in lieu of a lengthier reply, with a single criticism which has been implicit in his earlier objections. This criticism is one so commonly leveled by Catholics that it seems important to evaluate it on their own terms. (For an evaluation according to biblical presuppositions, wherein the Bible is presupposed and is thus immune in any case, see chapter 3 of The Wisdom Of God.) The criticism is as follows:

Ignoring for the moment all the arguments about what Catholic doctrines, if any, are true, you still have not answered the problem: if there is no infallible teaching authority, how do you know that the canon of Scripture contains the right books; and all the right books; and only the right books; especially if the Church went off the rails in the early 2nd century?

Now, the simple response to this, which I presented, is to ask when the canon of Scripture was actually infallibly defined by the Roman Catholic Church itself—and how anyone before that time knew that they had the correct Scriptures either. The answer to this question is that an infallible definition only took place at the fourth session of the Council of Trent, in 1546; which is obviously problematic for anyone living before that time—a vast tract of the church’s history. If the Catholic considers an infallible decree to be so vital, then on his own terms he demands too much. However, perhaps in recognition of this, my apologist responds—

Athanasius lists our present 27 NT books in 367. The Council of Carthage decided authoritatively in 397. This was confirmed by the Council of Trent in the 16th century.

To which I reply:

Athanasius also rejected Esther, Tobit, Sirach, Wisdom, and Judith from the canon, saying that they were merely edifying; and the books of Maccabees he excludes entirely from his list. In regards to this fact, it ought to be noted that he states, “no mention is to be made of the apocryphal works. They are the invention of heretics” (Athanasius, Thirty-ninth letter; cited from F F Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, p 79 (ISBN-13 978-0-8308-1258-5)). I don’t know if he specifically intended to imply that Maccabees 1-4 were heretical, but in any case, he is obviously in quite stark disagreement with what the Catholic Church now regards as the infallibly defined canon, passed down from the earliest times. You can hardly appeal to his view of the New Testament while ignoring his view of the Old, as if the Bible were not a single compendium.

Similarly, Origen, nearly two centuries earlier, named “twenty-two books of the {Old} Testament, according to the tradition of the Hebrews, corresponding to the number of letters in their alphabet” (Eesebius, Ecclesiastical History, ibid, p 73-74), and then goes on to list all the Protestant books of the Old Testament (but accidentally forgetting the minor prophets, thus listing only 21 of the 22). He explicitly excludes the books of Maccabees, and mentions the other “Septuagintal plus” not at all; except, oddly, to bundle the Letter of Jeremiah into Jeremiah itself. The reason he does not include the other works is because they were not in the Hebrew Bible; even though they were translated into the Septuagint, he recognized that this does not imply canonicity.

Going even further back, we find Athanasius and Origen were following the example of Melito of Sardis (AD 170). He also cites only the contents of the Hebrew Bible when listing the Old Testament canon. And, back to Athanasius, his contemporary Jerome also rejected as apocryphal (that is, pseudepigraphal) the Septuagintal plus, which the Roman Church now includes in its canon. As F F Bruce says of Jerome, “He and Origen stand alone among the early church fathers for their expertise as biblical scholars” (ibid, p 93).

Despite this, even from the earliest times the various apocryphal works, and later on even others never before included, were read in churches. This was due largely to a lack of perceived need for a strictly defined canon, and was spurred by the influence of the lesser but very influential biblical scholars who accepted the Septuagintal plus—Justin Martyr, very early, and later of course Augustine, among others (cf Bruce, Canon, p 98-99). However, the knowledge of the distinction between the canon and the pseudepigrapha was certainly never lost, even though it was not practiced in church tradition. Hugh of St Victor, around 1133-1141, specifies the canon of the Old Testament as that of the Hebrew Bible, while acknowledging that there are other books which are read in church for edification, though not being canonical: namely Tobit, Judith, Maccabees, Wisdom etc. The view represented by Jerome was by no means rejected or ignored, even if it was not strictly practiced.

This of course ties in with your assertion regarding the Council of Carthage. At the same time that Jerome, in Antioch, followed the tradition of many earlier fathers in holding only the Hebrew Old Testament as canonical, the third Council of Carthage decided the opposite. You say that this was an authoritative decision. I am intrigued by this statement. Authoritative upon whom? The whole church? It would appear that greater scholars knew better, and certainly this decision was not accepted by Jerome, or apparently by at least some later scholars within the church who still recognized a distinction between canonical and edifying books even in the twelfth century onward. If the decree of Carthage was authoritative, why did the rest of the church not submit to it? Why was Jerome’s view not rejected, rather than being affirmed despite its neglect?

Additionally, how do you know that Carthage was authoritative? Was it decided so at the time? You can hardly say that Trent determined it to be so, since that would merely entail cherry-picking of an earlier decision which happened to agree with theirs, declaring it authoritative after the fact. Furthermore, does authoritative mean infallible? That was my question, after all—when was the canon infallibly defined? So again, how do you know that the decree of Carthage was infallible? And does this mean that all the councils of Carthage were infallible? If so, again, how do you know; if not, why not?

In addition to these questions, I must ask about 1 Esdras (what Trent calls 3 Esdras). Both Carthage and Hippo declared this book to be canonical; yet Trent did not. It was silent as regards to its canonicity. Now, since Trent was drawing up an exclusive list of which books are canonical, it is evident that by not explicitly including 1 Esdras, it implicitly excluded it from the canon. The words of the council are quite clear, after all: “It has thought it proper, moreover, to insert in this decree a list of the sacred books, lest a doubt might arise in the mind of someone as to which are the books received by this council” (The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, translated by H J Schroeder; Fourth Session, The Canonical Scriptures, p 1718). The list is intended to dispel all doubt about the canon of Scripture; so anything not on that list is not canon.

If that is the case, then obviously Carthage (and presumably Hippo) was not authoritative despite your claim; nor infallible, since it is contradicted by Trent. One cannot have two infallible but contradictory decrees. However, if we go against the plain meaning of Trent’s decree, as some Catholic apologists and theologians have, and say that it was not actually excluding 1 Esdras from the canon, but rather merely did not adjudicate one way or the other—well, then I am afraid that your claim of an infallible canon is refuted (as well as Trent’s intent that there be no doubt about it). If Trent was silent on 1 Esdras, such that it may or may not be canon, then you do not know whether it is or not. That being the case, you yourself certainly do not “know that the canon of Scripture contains the right books; and all the right books; and only the right books”—as you so eloquently phrased it. So either you must admit that the church did not have an infallible list of the inspired Scriptures until the sixteenth century at Trent, and that Hippo and Carthage were not authoritative councils (or I suppose you could reject Trent, but that will hardly help!); or you must admit that the Catholic Church still has no infallibly defined canon—which hardly puts you in a strong position to be demanding one from me!

However, in reality, the varied Catholic explanations for Trent’s passing over 1 Esdras demonstrates that, practicably, you cannot actually choose either of these options. Since Trent is silent on 1 Esdras, and since the magisterium has not infallibly defined why, it is merely your own personal interpretation as to whether or not this means that Esdras is part of the canon. Whichever is true, without the Church specifically declaring one way or the other, you actually don’t know. Therefore, you are left in the situation of having neither any confidence in Hippo and Carthage, nor any confidence in the canon of the Roman Church. So although you tell me that the canon was defined authoritatively at Carthage, you are in fact wrong. And although you imply possession of an infallible canon in asking me how I know that I have all of Scripture and only Scripture—as if there was by necessity something greater than God’s word by which we must know it is his—your implication is false.

This is hardly surprising to me, since we see in the tradition of the church both those who accepted the Septuagintal plus, and those who rejected it. Tradition, as I have said, is not homogeneous, but heterogeneous. Just exactly how the Catholic Church picks and chooses which teachings it will decide are “infallible Tradition”, and which are merely aberrant, remains quite opaque to me—but suffice to say that the picking and choosing itself is abundantly transparent.

2 comments

  1. orthodox

    Bnonn: The answer to this question is that an infallible definition only took place at the fourth session of the Council of Trent, in 1546; which is obviously problematic for anyone living before that time.

    O: Which is irrelevant. Prior to that time, (for catholics) knowledge of the canon came from tradition. An authority that you do not have.

    Bnonn: However, the knowledge of the distinction between the canon and the pseudepigrapha was certainly never lost, even though it was not practiced in church tradition. Hugh of St Victor, around 1133-1141, specifies the canon of the Old Testament as that of the Hebrew Bible, while acknowledging that there are other books which are read in church for edification, though not being canonical

    O: Assuming what you haven’t proven, namely that these books are “pseudepigrapha”.

    It’s easy when you can just assume what you have to prove, isn’t it?

    Bnonn: At the same time that Jerome, in Antioch, followed the tradition of many earlier fathers in holding only the Hebrew Old Testament

    O: Assuming that Jerome’s list was “the” Hebrew canon, which again conflicts with other evidence.

    Bnonn: In addition to these questions, I must ask about 1 Esdras (what Trent calls 3 Esdras). Both Carthage and Hippo declared this book to be canonical; yet Trent did not.

    O: I’m happy if Carthage and Hippo considered it canonical, since Orthodoxy does too. I agree it is slightly more likely that they did. However it is by no means certain since we find Jerome and Origen naming the books according to an older naming scheme.

    “Origen writes “Esdras, first and second in one, Ezra, that is, ‘an assistant'”. St. Jerome in his Preface to Samuel and Kings lists this book as “the eighth, Ezra, which itself is likewise divided amongst Greeks and Latins into two books”

    Now if Ezra/Nehemiah was considered two books as early as Origen among Christians, then there is no certainty that Hippo didn’t mean the same.

    Bnonn: Now, since Trent was drawing up an exclusive list of which books are canonical, it is evident that by not explicitly including 1 Esdras, it implicitly excluded it from the canon.

    I presume you mean exhaustive. It doesn’t seem certain to me that it is meant to be exhaustive.

  2. Lucian

    Needless to say, what You’re implying about the OT Scriptures could be done as easily to the NT. Yet, You refrain from applying the same strain of thought as regards them. Question: why?

    Likewise: –and please pardon me for asking this– : have You ever actually read the Fathers? (the ones You quote, at least…)

  I don’t post ill-considered articles and I don’t sponsor ill-considered comments. Take a moment to review what you’ve written…