The Canon of Scripture Itself Cannot Be Drawn from Scripture Alone, but Is a Product of the Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Living Body of Christ the Church

Go to the Beginning of this Book Sola Scriptura or Prima Scriptura? (The Bible Alone or the Bible First?) – What Scripture Alone Testifies Concerning the Church as the Body of Christ Expressing Himself in Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium:  The Biblical Basis for the Early Church’s Formal Repudiation of Heretics, Which Is the Biblical Basis for Refuting Modern Doctrinally Liberal Christianity Which Likewise Rejects or Doubts Traditional Christian Faith and Morality

The Canon of Scripture Itself Cannot Be Drawn from Scripture Alone, but Is a Product of the Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Living Body of Christ the Church

The Formation of the New Testament Canon (Fixed 367-405 AD by the Catholic Magisterium of Overseer/Bishops, Patriarchs and Pope in Apostolic Succession as a Function of the “Profound Mystery” [Ephesians 5:32] of the Church as the Very Body of Christ and “Pillar and Foundation of the Truth” [1 Timothy 3:15])

Another glaring lack of Scriptural testimony for Protestant belief regards the Canon of Scripture. There is no Scriptural list of which books should or should not be in the Bible. Nowhere in Scripture alone is there even a principle to guide the complete formation of the “table of contents.” Jesus affirms the Scriptures of the Jews as inspired (without specifying which version – see below), 2 Peter refers to Paul’s letters as Scriptural, and a few other books quote other books as Scriptural, which explains the wide early acceptance throughout the Church of the Old Testament, the four Gospels and the letters of Paul. But some epistles and other books were written in certain areas and circulated in those areas but not in others, resulting in many different canons across Christendom (not including the different canons of some heretical groups). Many early New Testaments used by orthodox Christians did not have books like Hebrews, Revelation, 2, 3 John, 2 Peter, James, Jude, etc. Many orthodox New Testaments had books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didaché, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistles of Clement to the Corinthians, and so on. Because there was thus confusion about just which books were worthy to be read when Christians gathered on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist (scroll down to footnote 4 for much more on this point), 4 these many different local Christian canons of the New Testament eventually necessitated that the Catholic Church Magisterium settle the issue by considering the lived Sacred Tradition of the Church and discern with the Spirit’s direction and authoritatively declare for Christians which books were genuinely inspired Scriptural Canon and which were simply excellent books written by some of the earliest Church Fathers (Monuments of Tradition). The Magisterium, led by the Spirit according to Jesus’ promise to His Apostles and their successors, fixed the Canon of the New Testament over a period of 38 years: First of all Saint Athanasius, the greatest defender of the Divinity of Jesus against the Arian heretics since 325 AD (sheltered by the pope during his exile by the Arian heretics, who were Christianity’s first “Bible-only” Christians, see footnote 5 below),5 in 367 AD (near the end of his life) first proposed his list of the same 27 books we recognize as the New Testament today, arranged in different order. As he was the Patriarch of Alexandria, this meant the issue of which books were to be read in the Sunday Divine Liturgy was for the time being settled for those Christians under his jurisdiction, but it did not fix the Canon for the whole Church for all time. Although Athanasius as a Patriarch (overseer/bishop/eparch in charge of a particular cultural expression of Christianity) was an important member of the Catholic Magisterium, his list was not a collegiate magisterial action of the overseer/bishop/eparchs in union with the successor of Peter, collectively exercising their Holy-Spirit given charism of truth. Thus larger groups of overseer/bishop/eparchs (also in North Africa) later met in Council (at Hippo in 393 AD, just before Saint Augustine became Bishop of Hippo, and at Carthage in 397 AD) to together discuss Athanasius’ list and declare for the Christians under their collective jurisdiction what was to be considered the Canon of the New Testament to be used in Christian liturgies. The Councils of Hippo and Carthage confirmed Athanasius’ list, arranged in the order we know it today, the 397 AD Council of Carthage specifically referring to the need to confirm this list with “the Church beyond the sea” in Rome, and later Pope Innocent I in Rome in 405 AD indeed confirmed the findings of the Councils, resulting in the complete, fixed Canon of the New Testament as we know it today, recognized by the entire Christian Church under the authority of the Pope, ending all Canon disputes among orthodox, Catholic Christians. Conservative Protestant Christians unknowingly rely completely upon Catholic Sacred Tradition and the authoritative declarations of the Catholic Magisterium from 367 – 405AD to know with certainty the Canon of their own New Testament, which they simply adopted from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. Many Liberal Protestant Christian scholars currently propose different canons, often favoring the heretical Gospel of Thomas and devaluing large tracts of the traditional four gospels, precisely because they know the traditional Canon of Scripture is a product of the Catholic Magisterium which they as Protestant Christians consider unauthoritative and not binding upon their Christian faith.

One famous conservative/orthodox Protestant theologian (I believe it was R.C. Sproul) who studied the Traditional Canon of the Bible according to Protestant doctrine which does not accept the authority of Tradition, described the Canon of the Bible as a “Fallible List of Infallible Books.” If they remain true to Protestant “Bible Alone” doctrine, this description really is the very best orthodox Protestant Christians can possibly do to justify their faith that they have the correct Bible Canon to use as their “only authority” – and it does not inspire very much confidence. If the list itself is fallible, capable of error, then that means the list could be faulty, the list could contain some books which are not truly inspired and infallible (the way Luther and many Protestants after him treat the Letter of James); and likewise there could be books which were inspired by God and therefore infallible which are not in the traditional list of the Bible’s“Table of Contents” (as some doctrinally liberal Protestants claim that the heretical Gospel of Thomas and other works should be in the Bible Canon). So in practice the only reason Protestants can continue using their traditional Bible with certainty at all is by being unconsciously “Catholic at Heart” and accepting their New Testament in particular as if the Catholic Magisterium and its pinnacle in the pope (specifically Pope Innocent I) had real authority as the divinely-graced mouthpiece of the Living Body of Christ Himself, the Church, to settle all the early Christian controversies over the Bible’s Canon (see below).

Saint Athanasius, the Greatest Defender of the Divinity of Jesus Against the Arian Heretics, and the Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria Who in 367 AD First Collected Together the 27 Books All Christians Today Know as The New Testament, Did Not Believe in the Bible Alone but Also in the Tradition and Magisterium of the Catholic Church

As the first person to put together the present list, Saint Athanasius is the single human person most responsible for the 27-book New Testament Canon conservative Christians know and love, the single human person most responsible for the Bible which the Protestant Reformers said was their only authoritative source of knowing the Christian faith. So while I was still a Protestant Evangelical exploring the Catholic Church I found it very interesting to find out just what his opinion was on authoritative teaching in Christ’s Church. Did he believe “Scripture Alone” is what the Christian faith is founded on? No – in his First Letter to Serapion he says,

“It will not be out of place to consider the ancient tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which was revealed by the Lord, proclaimed by the apostles and guarded by the fathers [the overseer/bishop/eparchs who were the apostles’ successors, in whose line he himself is an overseer/bishop/eparch and Patriarch]. For upon this faith the Church is built, and if anyone were to lapse from it, he would no longer be a Christian either in fact or in name.”

Saint Athanasius was the premier defender of the Divinity of Jesus against the Arian heretics, writing the “Third Great Creed of Christendom” (after the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed), known as the Athanasian Creed, which is the definitive description of the Divinity of Jesus against the Arian heretics. So Patriarch Saint Athanasius knew better than most that Arianism could not be condemned on the basis of the Bible Alone, but only on the basis of the Bible as interpreted by the ancient Tradition of the Living Body of Christ, the Catholic Church, guarded by the Catholic overseers/bishops/ eparchs in Apostolic Succession. Later Saint Augustine, the greatest theologian of the Early Western Church (who became the Roman Catholic Overseer/Bishop of Hippo shortly after the 393 AD Council of Hippo which arranged the New Testament in its current order), although Scripture was central to his theology (as to all Catholic theology), would confirm the priority of the Living Body of Christ the Church which collected and canonized it over the Bible by saying that “I would not believe the Scripture if the Catholic Church had not told me to” (scroll down to Footnote 6 for more on how extremely Roman Catholic Saint Augustine was despite the Protestant Reformation’s [very selective] use of his theology).6

The Formation of the Old Testament Canon (Fixed in the Palestinian Form Protestants Use by the Anti-Christian Jews of 90 AD; the Septuagint Form Catholics Use Was Consistently Used by the Early Christian Church and Endorsed When the New Testament Canon Was Fixed)

Regarding the Old Testament Canon, it should be explained that doctrinally conservative Christians differ slightly in Old Testament Canon, because the pre-Christian Jews had no fixed Jewish Bible Canon. The community of Israel and what was left it after the scattering of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Babylonian Exile of the Southern Kingdom of Judah (made up mostly of the Tribe of Judah, the Jews) had instinctively recognized and used certain books as Scriptural in a gradual process of their ongoing history, but there were still disputes about just which books in addition to the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) deserved to be recognized as Scriptural (the Song of Songs and others were quite disputed). So different Jews used different Old Testament Bible canons. The two most commonly used Jewish canons at the time of Christ were the Hebrew Palestine Bible primarily used in Palestine and the Septuagint (LXX) Greek Bible translation primarily used everywhere else, which had 7 more books (since the Jews had continued to write about God’s dealings with them in the language they used after Alexander the Great had conquered the world) and additional chapters in Daniel and Esther (actually, some of these books were originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek, but the Hebrew originals were not copied as much in the Jewish diaspora which spoke Greek and so they were eventually lost). Protestant Christians use the Hebrew Palestine Canon, Catholic Christians use the Septuagint Canon, and those Eastern Orthodox Christians no longer in Catholic Communion are open to the possibility that both the Septuagint’s 7 extra books and a few others (like the Book of Enoch, which is quoted in the New Testament Letter of Jude) may be inspired. The difference is not significant, since no commonly-held Christian doctrine, nor any of the lesser doctrines on which conservative Christians disagree, depends upon the testimony of the handful of disputed Old Testament books. The Jews themselves did not decide the issue of the “only proper canon” of the Jewish Scriptures until 90 AD, and their decision to consider only the Hebrew Palestine Canon inspired (while still making liturgical use of the Septuagint Canon, as in Purim celebrations, where the Septuagint’s “extra” chapters of Esther are read) was based at least partly on simplifying their apologetics problems with Christians on the basis of detailed Messianic prophecies fulfilled in Jesus contained within the Septuagint’s extra 7 books (Luther apparently did not realize he was following the decision of ANTI-Christian Jews when he cited the Jewish judgement on the canon as part of his reason for adopting the Palestine Canon for Protestants). The Catholic Church accepts the Septuagint Canon not only on the basis of the fulfilled Messianic prophecies, but primarily because it was the Old Testament version that was actually used and quoted by all the New Testament writers. When Paul writes that “all Scripture is God-breathed,” he is writing in Greek to Timothy, a Greek Jew living in the Greek-speaking part of the world where all the Jews use the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, the Septuagint, with its 7 extra books, which are in fact alluded to in the New Testament although not quoted directly (note the Book of Enoch, not canonical for Protestants or Catholics, is quoted directly, and many Hebrew Old Testament books are not, so direct quotation alone is no guarantee of canonicity). The Apostolic Fathers – the generation of Church leaders which overlapped the generation of the Apostles and were even trained and ordained by them – do directly quote the Septuagint’s extra books – that is, they use the Greek Septuagint Old Testament the Apostles themselves used and taught them to use. The 393 and 397 AD Councils of Hippo and Carthage which first confirmed Saint Athanasius’ 27-Book New Testament Canon from among several New Testament canons used by earlier orthodox Christians (not by heretics, who also had some different New Testament canons) also endorsed the Septuagint Canon of the Old Testament on these bases. With a 15 century long Lived Tradition of Christian use of the Septuagint Canon of the Old Testament as Inspired Scripture, the entire Catholic Magisteriumformally dogmatically proclaimed this Canon of the Old Testament at the 16th Century 19th Ecumenical Council at Trent, after Luther had formally rejected it in favor of the Palestine Canon (the choice of the anti-Christian Jews of 90 AD!).

© Peter William John Baptiste SFO

Endnotes

1Currie, 32.

2Though still not compellingly taught, as the only possible interpretation, hence all the early heretical interpretations of the Bible Alone that only the authoritative Sacred Traditional interpretation of the Bible could debunk. The Arian heresy was a particularly thorough and sophisticated interpretation of the whole Bible (as used by orthodox Christians at the time – the final Canon had not yet been set by the Church, see below) which denied the Trinity and the Incarnation of God in Jesus, and objected to the use of these terms (and to The Nicene Creed’s definition of Jesus as “one in being with the Father”) specifically because they were not in the Bible the Arian heretics were the first “Bible-only” Christians!
3Which is why the actual, historical Early Christian Church did not practice “Scripture Alone” (except for some of the heretics who denied Christian fundamentals), but in fact practiced Scripture in concert with Tradition and the Magisterium in Apostolic Succession. Note that the very idea that the written Divine Revelation of the Scriptures which had been ongoing for thousands of years would end with the death of the last of Christ’s personally chosen Apostles is not from the Bible but from Catholic Sacred Tradition. Even the Evangelical Bible College I attended noted that the curse upon those who “add from or take away from this book” in the Book of Revelation refers only to the Book of Revelation, not the entire Bible. Revelation’s dating is open to question in any case (it may well not be the last book written – its Greek is much more primitive and “Hebraicized” than that of the Gospel of John, so if John himself wrote it it was likely written earlier, while he, a fisherman from Palestine, was still perfecting his written Greek). It is the Catholic Magisterium in the Councils of Hippo and Carthage in 393 and 397 AD which arranged the current order of the books with Revelation last, and it was not until this time that the Book of Revelation was universally regarded by orthodox Christians as Scriptural – it was one of the most hotly debated of the documents which was finally included by the Magisterium in the only official New Testament Canon.

4It is significant to note that the Early Church’s primary motivation for fixing the Canon of the New Testament in the first place was not in order to be sure just what was inspired written Revelation as the only source of revealed “building blocks” for Christian theology and doctrine, as Protestants might imagine. The Church, being mysteriously the Living Body of Christ Himself, animated by His Holy Spirit which led the ordained leaders of the Body (the Overseer/bishop/eparchs and Patriarchs and Pope) into “all the truth,” had existed, lived its life and passed on its life for decades before the New Testament documents were written, and for centuries before the New Testament was collected into the form we know it today and formally recognized as one body of inspired Scripture. The Church, “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” (1 Timothy 3:15) had formally condemned the Arian and many other heresies, and dogmatically proclaimed the fundamental Christian truths of the Divinity of Jesus and the Trinity and the Incarnation as the only proper way to interpret the Scriptures (against heretical interpretations) even before the Church fixed precisely what the Canon of the New Testament Scriptures was! The Lived Sacred Tradition of the Living Body of Christ Himself, with the Church’s authoritative offices, put down the heresies and formally defined the fundamental truths of Christianity even without a complete and fixed New Testament. But the primary way in which the Early Church lived its life on Earth was by participating mysteriously in the Heavenly “Lamb’s Supper” when Christians met as the Body of Christ on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy of the Eucharist (Eastern term) or Holy Mass (Western term), and Christians desired that only that which was certainly inspired by God be read in this Heavenly Liturgy. The Canon of the New Testament was fixed by the Early Christian Church primarily for the sake of the Liturgy of the Body of Christ the Church, not primarily for the sake of theology and fights with heretics (who in any case continued to interpret the fixed Canon of the New Testament differently than the way passed on at least implicitly in the Church’s Sacred Tradition even when they agreed with the fixed New Testament Canon).

5Saint Athanasius was actually exiled by Arians several times. The Arian heresy, which was a very thorough and sophisticated interpretation of the commonly agreed Scriptures (the full Canon had not yet been fixed) which interpreted that Christ’s being the “first-born of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) meant that Jesus was God’s first creation, through whom God had created everything else, but was not actually God, not actually Divine, had been formally condemned by the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325 AD. However, it took a very long time for it to die out, especially because Roman rulers supported it. The Arians, who had the support of many Roman rulers, caused confusion among many Christians because they claimed that the 325 AD Council’s declaration against Arianism that Jesus was “one in being with the Father” (not just one in purpose with a Father who “is greater than I,” according to the Arian interpretation) was not authoritative because neither this expression, nor the terms Trinity and Incarnation which orthodox Christians traditionally used to describe their faith in the Divinity of Jesus, was in the Scriptures (thus the Arians became the first “Bible only” Christians). Christianity had been legal since 313 AD but the official religion of the Roman Empire was still Roman paganism until near the end of the century, even though the majority of Romans had become Christians once it was legal to do so without persecution (slightly over half had already converted even during the persecutions). In the midst of this drawn-out Arian controversy Emperor Julian the Apostate attempted a pagan revival and renewed the persecution of Christians, exiling Athanasius yet again. The Arian heresy was not finally settled within the Roman Empire until the 2nd Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (Byzantium) in 381 AD, which formally declared not only Jesus but also the Holy Spirit Divine (this had been questioned by many non-Arian Christians who accepted the Divinity of Jesus), formally validating the term Trinity which had been used by orthodox Christians to describe their faith as implicitly handed-down to them in Tradition since Tertullian coined the term in the late 100s AD. The Arian Christians had had successful missions in barbarian lands, however, their deficient form of Christianity still being superior to primitive religion, and so orthodox, Catholic Christian missionaries (particularly the Benedictine Monks sent all over Europe by Pope Saint Gregory the Great) after the fall of the Roman Empire to the barbarians in 476 AD gradually over many centuries converted the barbarians not only from primitive paganism but also from Arian Christianity. Given the long-standing success of minority Arian Christianity, which justified itself against the Catholic Magisterium’s condemnation of it as heresy on the basis of “the Bible Alone” being authoritative, it is not surprising that so many Protestant “Bible only” Christians today are “liberal” Christians who are modern-day Arians, denying the Divinity of Jesus, or at least modern-day Semi-Arians, unsure if Jesus is Divine, since they have no authoritative interpretive tradition with which to judge between the orthodox and the Arian interpretations (both sopshisticated) of the Bible Alone.

6The Protestant Reformers claimed to follow Saint Augustine’s theology but did so only very selectively. Although his famous autobiography The Confessions of Saint Augustine is popular among Protestant Christians, it is usually reprinted without the chapters which demonstrate the simple fact that he was the Roman Catholic Bishop of the City of Hippo! A thorough reading of Saint Augustine’s voluminous writings reveals him to be about the most Catholic Christian one could imagine: he was a celibate Catholic priest and then bishop who founded a religious order (which Protestants, save for Anglo-Catholic Anglicans, do not have); he defended the Apostolic Succession of the authority of overseer/bishops/eparchs (which he believed he had) and the Apostolic Sacred Tradition guarded by it, using both to defend the orthodox Christian faith against the heretics; he identified and quoted the “deuterocanonical” Old Testament books accepted by the Catholic Church but not Protestants as Scriptural; he believed in and submitted to the papacy (whence his famous statement: “Rome has spoken. The matter is finished”); he affirmed the doctrine later known in the West as the Immaculate Conception of Mary as a necessary theological consequence of the Incarnation of God the Son in Jesus through Mary’s Virgin Birth; surrounded and outnumbered in his local area by Donatist heretics with their own bishop, he fought the Donatists (who were not gross heretics denying fundamentals, but principally differed from early Catholic Christians by their belief that sin in Church leaders invalidated their Apostolic authority in the Church – similar to what the Protestant Reformer Calvin taught), and criticized them sharply for leaving the Catholic Christian Communion and thus associating Christ the Bridegroom with “2 Brides” (so he would hardly look favorably upon Protestantism which has associated Christ with 35,000 Brides!). The Protestant Reformers, in forming their own doctrines on Original Sin and Grace, gravitated towards some of Augustine’s extreme statements about Original Sin (a theological term he coined, not used in the Christian East) and Grace in which he was directly contradicting the heretic Pelagius who claimed the opposite extreme, and ignored Augustine’s more mature and reflected theology and doctrine of Sin and Grace, closer to the definitions of the Church Council of Orange in 529 AD which specifically corrected some abuses of Augustine’s earlier and less reflected statements on the matter, which were initially merely extreme reactionary statements to Pelagius’ opposite extreme.

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