On The Protestant Doctrine of Inspiration

"That God cannot lie, is no advantage to your argument, because it is no proof that priests cannot, or that the Bible cannot." Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine – God cannot lie

We err when we assume inspiration requires inerrancy, as though the doctrine of Sacred Scriptures would be unreliable if the text were not inerrant. When Protestants ascribe inerrancy (in its modern theological formulation and understanding) to Sacred Scripture, they are subscribing to a view of inspiration that goes beyond what Sacred Scripture says about itself. Moreover, the concept of inerrancy is not derived from Sacred Scripture, but is a theological presupposition imposed upon the Word of God. As such, it is a divinization of the text and a desacrilization of the doctrine. Practically speaking, the divinization of the text forces us to spend time and energy focusing on side issues (like proving that the Bible is scientifically accurate) instead of focusing on Jesus Christ. And what did Jesus say about himself? “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me”. (John 14:6) The Sacred Scriptures are not the way, but the means through which the way is revealed to us. Christ alone is the divine self-expression of the Father; the text is the guidepost pointing us to Christ, the medium through which the Holy Spirit works to bring us to faith in Christ. For this purpose the Sacred Scriptures were given to us as the inspired revelation of God the Word — to make us wise unto salvation, and are therefore profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness.

Unfortunately, many Fundamentalists and Evangelicals assume inspiration requires inerrancy. If you extract the material regarding inerrancy from their statements, what is left is an entirely inadequate description of inspiration. As an example, the following is the statement of Moody Bible Institute, modified to remove the references to (and consequences of) inerrancy.

The Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments, is a divine revelation. Revelation is God’s making Himself known to men. God has revealed himself in a limited way in creation. But the Bible is a form of special revelation. The Bible is “special” revelation in the sense that it goes beyond what may be known about God through nature. It is divine in origin, since in the Bible God makes known things which otherwise could never be known.


The Bible is unique because it is God’s revelation recorded in human language. According to II Timothy 3:16–17 the words of Scripture are “God breathed” or inspired. This implies that God is the source or origin of what is recorded in Scripture. God, through the Holy Spirit, used human authors and human language to make himself known to men.[1]

There is nothing in this altered statement about the Scriptures making us wise unto salvation, no unpacking of the statement that Scripture is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness, nothing about the manner in which Scripture brings us to perfection, or how by means of the Scripture we are thoroughly furnished unto good works (2 Tim 3:15-16). There is no mention of how the special revelation of the ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, and incomprehensible God can be contained within the limits of human language, and no discussion of how the infinite God can be circumscribed by the finite mind. In other words, the doctrinal statement of Moody Bible Institute asserts inerrancy rather than inspiration.

I have tried this experiment with a variety of doctrinal statements, and have come up short every time. This leads me to conclude that the 20th century Evangelical Protestant Church have replaced inspiration with inerrancy (and its corollary, infallibility). In doing so, they began to argue over trivial issues (like science vs. religion) that have nothing to do with the Christ who is revealed in the Scriptures. It is past time to remove the false idol of inerrancy from the temple of our hearts.


Bibliography

Moody Bible Institute. (n.d.). The Inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from Moody Bible Institute: http://www.moodyministries.net/crp_MainPage.aspx?id=600


Endnotes

[1] (Moody Bible Institute n.d.)

Verbal Inerrancy, Literalism, and the Re-opening of the Canon

The Bible is always right.

Inerrancy

In modern statements of faith, the connection between inspiration and inerrancy is made plain, such that Christians believe the concept of inerrancy is necessary to properly define inspiration. But that is incorrect. In fact, the idea that the scriptures are trustworthy and infallible is an ancient Christian teaching, whereas the idea that the Scriptures are inerrant is a modern conceit.

First, it depends what exactly is inerrant: the Sacred Scriptures that make us wise unto salvation (the forma), or the text—the peculiar combination of marks on a page (the materia), which change from language to language, and from translation to translation. These textual differences can be significant. A particular word may have a subtle range of meanings in Hebrew, but when that word is translated into Greek, the translator picks one word to represent the primary meaning. Thus the act of translation is an act of textual interpretation.

Second, if one postulates the verbal (and plenary) inerrancy of the autographs (being the original peculiar combination of marks on a page), this postulate then drives the task of textual criticism. No longer do textual critics seek determine the authoritative text (a theological enterprise), but instead seek the recovery of the original text (a critical enterprise), which they deem authoritative by virtue of its being original.[1] The search for the original text is itself an act of textual interpretation. Although textual criticism proceeds on the basis of rules, and gives the appearance of being scientific, the rules are in fact arbitrary, based on assumptions made before one approaches the text. For example, if you favor the Masoretic text of the Old Testament, your rules will give primacy to that text and other texts will be of secondary importance.[2]

Verbal inerrancy in the autographs necessitates the understanding that only the original author was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and that subsequent corrections, additions, and deletions by later copyists and/or churchmen are corruptions.[3] The clear implication is that the word of a particular man (the author) was inspired; indeed, that the author was himself inspired. When Peter writes of the “holy men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2Pe 1:21), the assumption is this applies to the particular man or prophet who initially produced the writing, as opposed to the later copyists and churchmen who modified the text in one way or another. This means that passages deemed by both conservative and liberal scholars to have not been part of the original text are suspect, even though the extant texts are part of the canon of Sacred Scripture. The natural result is the re-opening of the canon of scripture and the excision of suspect texts from Sacred Scripture. The obsession with verbal inerrancy logically leads to the error of Marcion.

There is another way of thinking about all this. What if we ignore the minor errors of scripture? As a practical matter, we do that already. Do we really care that 1 Kings 4:26 says that Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses, whereas 2 Chron 9:25 says Solomon had four thousand? No, of course not. We recognize that a copyist made an error and move on. It is not germane to the subject at hand, and represents no threat to the inspiration and trustworthiness of Scripture. The only way this becomes a problem is if we begin to incorporate modern understandings of inspiration into our thinking, which requires a series of rationales and tendentious arguments for each and every difficult passage in the Bible.

A literalistic understanding of Sacred Scripture can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, the United Methodist Minister Richard Hagenston writes of the direct contradiction contained in the final verses of Psalm 51. In his analysis of this passage, verses 16-17 indicates that God does not want sacrifice, while verses 18-19 says that God is pleased with sacrifices. So which is it?[4]

For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
Then shalt thou be pleased with the sacrifices of righteousness, with burnt offering and whole burnt offering: then shall they offer bullocks upon thine altar. (Ps 51:16-19)

You, dear reader, may find it interesting to compare different approaches to this passage. Richard Hagenston’s approach is to take the text at face value. The text means exactly what it says, and has no deeper meaning. The literal interpretation is the only interpretation, you might say. And having said that, we are left with a rather glaring contradiction.

Most other Bible scholars would look at this passage in its context of the Psalm as a whole. Since the overall theme is of repentance, verses 16-17 would indicate that God prefers repentance to sacrifice; verses 18–19 says that God is pleased with sacrifices when they are offered with a repentant heart. But note that this interpretation goes beyond the literal meaning of the text, and depends upon the idea that the text contains deeper meanings than the mere literal reading can reveal.

To a strict literalist, the passage in Psalm 51 represents a contradiction, which is clearly an error. The accumulated weight of these errors (and others, of different types) drives some, like the scholar Bart Ehrman, to a loss of faith in God. For others, like Richard Hagenston, these errors drive them to a loss of faith in the Bible, and a questioning of doctrinal orthodoxy. All because we conflate inspiration and innerancy. God help us.

 


 

Bibliography

Hagenston, R. (2014, September 29). 8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible. Retrieved October 4, 2014, from Patheos.com: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/09/29/8-things-your-pastor-will-never-tell-you-about-the-bible/

 


 

[1] The search for the original text ignores the fact that the bible has a history, and that the collection of texts into the canon existing today was curated by the Church. The search for the original text must yield to the search for the authoritative text.  In turn, this means that we can only understand the bible within the community that curated it, within the “matrix that includes the thoughts and writings of the early church: its bishops, priests, poets, monks, theologians, and artists.” (Miller 2012)

[2] Favoring the Masoretic text may seem reasonable, as (apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls) it is the most ancient extant Hebrew text. There is a marked preference for translating the Old Testament from the Hebrew text, a preference that goes back to the Renaissance Humanists who argued for a return to the sources. The rallying cry of this movement was the Latin phrase “ad fontes“, meaning “to the sources.” The reformers, being products of their time, thought that using Hebrew sources rather than the Greek translation was right and proper.

[3] Interesting examples include the following: 1) The epilogue of John 21 may have been added later. The original Gospel appears to end at Jn 20:31. 2) The pericope on the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53 – 8:11) is not in the oldest and best-attested manuscripts. 3) The oldest manuscripts for the Gospel of Mark do not include Mk 16:9-20; instead, it ends rather abruptly with the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene. This all results in the following question: if the Sacred Scriptures were inerrant in the original manuscripts, and these texts were not part of the original text, are they then Scripture? Do we excise them from our bibles? And if so, how is this different from what the heretic Marcion tried to do?

[4] (Hagenston 2014)

Sola Scriptura and the Church

The Branch Theory of the Church

The Branch Theory of the Church

In his blog post entitled Questions about Sola Scriptura, Robin Phillips raises some very good questions about the relationship between Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and the Church. If the primary or only source of spiritual authority is the Bible, how do we determine which Church Body or tradition properly interprets the Bible? Which set of doctrines are authoritative in the life of the Church? Of the individual Christian (if there is any such thing as a Christian apart from the Church?)

If Scripture is your primary authority, it becomes difficult to determine exactly which secondary authority may be used to interpret the Sacred Scriptures. Indeed, Protestantism — following the lead of Martin Luther — asserts the primacy of reason and the individual conscience as a means of interpreting Scripture. It must therefore be acknowledged that any number of people have approached the scriptures prayerfully, with great care, and in all sincerity, and have devised all manner of doctrinal systems from the pages of Sacred Scripture. Which dogmatic system is correct, and how do we know? There are many different contradictory positions within Protestantism, and differences on doctrine seem invariably to give rise to new denominations.

If you are a Protestant, you will likely point to your church or denomination as the true and visible church because it best understands the Bible. If you are Lutheran, you will point the the Lutheran Confessions as your guide to the understanding of Scriptures, and claim your Church as the true and visible Church, (although which branch of Lutheran, and on what basis do you decide?) If you belong to some other Church communion (Rome, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, etc.), you will point to the traditions of the fathers as a guide to understanding the Scriptures; the question then becomes which tradition, and which set of church fathers?

The problem is that if the Scriptures are self-authenticating, which is to say they attest to their own inspiration apart from the Church, then it becomes extremely difficult to determine which is the true and visible Church. The answer, according to some, is to differentiate between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible church, comprised of all the saints of God past, present, and future, is the true church; the visible church is the local manifestation of the invisible church — indeed, is a branch of the one, true Church. Thus, the branch theory of the Church, first postulated by the Church of England.

The problem with the branch theory is that it separates church and doctrine, in that a church may be doctrinally in error, and even heretical, and yet be a branch of the one, true church. Sola Scriptura and the Branch Theory provides no objective way to determine truth from error, making the choice of visible church a subjective affair. Moreover, it is almost impossible to draw any objective criteria by which a particular group claiming the name of Christian may be understood as apart from the invisible church. Indeed, that is the point, in that the saints are known to God alone. Thus, does it even matter which visible Church we belong to as long as we are part of the invisible Church?

As Robin Phillips points out, there is an element of circular reasoning at work here. We say the Scriptures are inspired by God, but so do other religions. How do we know our Scriptures are inspired, apart from some testimony external to the Scriptures themselves? And if we accept an external source that attests to the inspiration of Scripture, how then may we hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (especially as interpreted by the modern Fundamentalists and Evangelicals as Solo Scriptura, also known as Nuda Scriptura, the naked Scriptures?)

It is possible to accept a subsidiary authority attesting to a superior authority. Indeed, this is the general position of Lutherans, who accept the Lutheran Confessions and the testimony of the Church Fathers as secondary and tertiary authorities. Yet this does not resolve the question of which doctrinal system, derived from Scripture Alone, is correct.

The idea of Scripture Alone creates more problems than it solves. The sole reason for the assertion of the Scripture Alone was to separate Scripture from the Church of Rome. If that is the rationale, then the foundation for Scripture Alone is weak indeed.

On the Impossibility of an Inerrant Extant Text

Chart of Biblical Manuscripts

Manuscript Chart

Our existing (extant) biblical texts have quite a number of problems. Today, a literary work can be produced and reproduced almost without error, which fact colors our understanding of the ancient world. Part of our problem is that books as we know them today did not exist. Instead, of a book, think of a scroll — a single, long piece of paper rolled around a central spindle. Not only was the paper expensive, but the reproduction of the book was a long, laborious process. Moreover, in the scribal culture that existed prior to the Hellenistic era, literary texts as we know them today did not exist. But let us focus on the production of scrolls in the Hellenistic era, primarily using the arguments of Bart Ehrman, the popular author and James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.

[Books] could not be produced en mass (no printing presses). And since they had to be copied by hand, one at a time, slowly and painstakingly, most books were not mass produced. Those few that were produced in multiple copies were not all alike, for the scribes who copied texts inevitably made alterations in those texts—changing the words they copied either by accident (via a slip of the pen or other carelessness) or by design (when the scribe intentionally altered the words he copied). Anyone reading a book in antiquity could never be completely sure that he or she was reading what the author had written. The words could have been altered. In fact, they probably had been, if only just a little. (Ehrman 2005, 46)

The production of books in the ancient world was much different. Today, I write and edit a book on a computer. The book then goes through an editorial process, whereby a third party goes over the book to find flaws in its content and presentation. Eventually the book is typeset, printed, and the galley’s edited by the author to ensure the book is what the author intended. Finally the book is mass-produced and made available for sale. Authorship in the ancient world was much different.

In the ancient world, since books were not mass produced and there were no publishing companies or bookstores, things were different. Usually an author would write a book, and possibly have a group of friends read it or listen to it being read aloud. This would provide a chance for editing some of the book’s contents. Then when the author was finished with the book, he or she would have copies made for a few friends and acquaintances. This, then, was the act of publication, when the book was no longer solely in the author’s control but in the hands of others. If these others wanted extra copies …they would have to arrange to have copies made, say, by a local scribe who made copies for a living, or by a literate slave who copied texts as part of his household duties. (Ehrman 2005, 46)

In the ancient world, once a book was published, it was outside the author’s control. Anything could happen to the text, and often did.

[C]opies produced this way could end up being quite different from the originals. Testimony comes to us from ancient writers themselves. …In a famous essay on the problem of anger, the Roman philosopher Seneca points out that there is a difference between anger directed as what has caused us harm and anger at what can to nothing to hurt us. To illustrate the latter category he mentions “certain inanimate things, such as the manuscript which we often hurl from us because it is written in too small a script or tear up because it is full of mistakes.” …A humorous example comes to us from the epigrams of the witty Roman poet Martial, who, in one poem, lets his reader know

“If any poems in those sheets, reader, seem to you either too obscure or not quite good Latin, not mine is the mistake: the copyist spoiled them in his haste to complete for you his tale of verses. But if you think that not he, but I am at fault, then I will believe that you have no intelligence. “Yet, see, those are bad.” As if I denied what is plain! They are bad, but you don’t make better.”  (Ehrman 2005, 46-47)

As Bart Ehrman writes: “Copying texts allowed for the possibilities of manual error; and the problem was widely recognized throughout antiquity. (Ehrman 2005, 47) Thus, prior to the development of the professional copyists used by the Masoretes, the reproduction of the biblical texts was fraught with problems, leading to different families of texts containing different errors. Thus, the modern argument that inerrancy applies only to the autographs, to the original texts created by the original author. To this argument, we will let the following statement of Dr. Marvin R. Vincent serve as a the final word on this subject.

Nothing can be more puerile or more desperate than the effort to vindicate the divine inspiration of Scripture by the assertion of the verbal inerrancy of the autographs, and to erect that assertion into a test of orthodoxy. For:

1. There is no possible means of verifying the assertion, since the autographs have utterly disappeared.

2. It assumes a mechanical dictation of the ipsissima verba [the very words] to the writers, which is contradicted by the whole character and structure of the Bible.

3. It is of no practical value, since it furnishes no means of deciding between various readings or discrepant statements.

4. It is founded upon a pure assumption as to the character of inspiration – namely, that inspiration involves verbal inerrancy, which is the very thing to be proved, and which could only be proved only by producing inerrant autographs. [In other words, the definition is a tautology.]

5. If a written, inspired revelation is necessary for mankind, and if such a revelation, in order to be inspired, must be verbally inerrant, the necessity has not been met. There is no verbally inerrant, and therefore no inspired, revelation in writing. The autographs have vanished, and no divine guidance or interposition has prevented mistakes in transcription or in printing. The text of Scripture, in the best form in which critical scholarship can exhibit it, presents numerous errors and discrepancies. (Vincent 1899, 3)

Bibliography

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005.

Vincent, Marvin R. A History of the Textual Criticism of the New Testament. Edited by Shailer Matthews. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1899.

 

 

Johann Gerhard, the Apocrypha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls (updated)

Johann Gerhard

Johann Gerhard

Johann Gerhard, the Apocrypha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Johann Gerhard is the premier Lutheran scholastic, and is considered to be the Lutheran version of Thomas Aquinas. In his 17th century book “On the Nature of Theology and Scripture”, Gerhard writes of the distinction between books in the “codex of the Old Testament” that the papists consider canonical, and those they consider apocryphal.

The apocryphal books of the Old Testament are all the rest contained in the codex of the Old Testament besides the canonical books. We can arrange them in two classes. First, some are apocryphal by confession of the papists themselves, though they are contained in the Greek or Latin Codex of the Bible. …Second, some are considered canonical by the papists, though they are in fact apocryphal. [Emphasis added.] (Gerhard 2006, 91)

Gerhard argues against the Latins regarding both canonicity of any Apocryphal book. Moreover, he provides various reason why some books are considered apocryphal. First, “books whose origin is hidden”; second, “books that contain myths, errors, and lies”; third, because “every canonical book of the Old Testament is written in the Prophetic language, namely, Hebrew.” (Gerhard 2006, 91) Unfortunately, Gerhard’s arguments are flawed.

First Argument

His first argument is that the Apocrypha are not inspired, and therefore not canonical.

  • Every canonical book of the Old Testament was written by a prophet by impulse and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
  • The Apocrypha were not written by prophets (and by extension, under the impulse and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
  • Therefore, the Apocrypha are not canonical.
    (Gerhard 2006, 92)

As we all likely agree to the first and major premise, we need not explore that further. The second, or minor premise, is problematic. Gerhard argues that the last Old Testament prophet was Malachi, and therefore concludes that since the Apocrypha were produced after the prophet Malachi, they were not written by prophets. “Those books we listed were written after the time of Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament. From Malachi until John the Baptist one can point out no prophet among the people of Israel; therefore he concludes the prophetic writing of the Old Testament.” (Gerhard 2006, 92) I note that this is a tautology, in that the conclusion of the argument is required by the premise.

From my youth I remember hearing the argument that the line of the prophets ended with the prophet Malachi, ushering in the intertestamental period. The evidence for this point of view was typological. The Scriptures describe the period prior to the prophet Samuel as follows: “And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no open vision.” (1 Sam 3:1) Thus, goes the argument, the period prior to Samuel is the type of which the period prior to John the Baptist is the fulfillment.[1] But this is an argument from two seemingly analogous conditions, rather than from evidence. Gerhard provides an additional argument, which is that Malachi is the seal of the Old Testament, for it was Malachi who prophesied of John the Baptist. (Gerhard 2006, 92)

Second Argument

Gerhard’s second argument is based on the external form of the Old Testament, or the language.

  • Every canonical book of the Old Testament is written in the prophetic language, namely, Hebrew.
  • Those controversial books were not written in Hebrew.
  • Ergo. [The controversial books are not canonical.]
    (Gerhard 2006, 93)

I note for the record that Johann Gerhard wrote in the seventeenth century, well prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is unfair to find fault with his assumption that the Apocrypha were not written in Hebrew (although how someone could continue to make that claim in the late 20th and early 21st century escapes me.)

Regarding the Apocrypha among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Michael E. Stone writes of the so-called Apocrypha written in Aramaic and Hebrew, the languages of the Old Testament:

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls were a number of manuscripts of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, including ten manuscripts of the Book of Enoch in the original Aramaic (until then copies were extant only in an Ethiopic translation of a Greek translation of a Semitic original), which were vital to answering many questions about its origins. Dating of the manuscripts by their script shows that certain parts of Enoch are at least as old as the third century BCE. Fragments of Ben Sira in Hebrew, Tobit in Aramaic, the Epistle of Jeremiah in Greek, and others were also found at Qumran.

Gerhard notes that Jerome translated Tobit and Judith from Chaldaic into Latin, but did not consider them to be Canonical. Jerome is an anomaly among the fathers of the early church, in that he preferred the Hebrew text over the Septuagint, the text that was in common use among the early church (which usage even Gerhard admits).

Gerhard’s argument that Hebrew is the “prophetic language” is a problem, in that it argues against the canonicity of the New Testament. Gerhard is not alone in this regard: F.F. Bruce, writing in 1954, shortly after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, also cites the then generally accepted claim that the Apocrypha were written in Greek.

The books of the Apocrypha, while they were written in Greek or translated into Greek by Jews, first received canonical recognition from Greek-speaking Christians. The early Greek Fathers acknowledged in theory that these books were not on the same canonical level as the books in the Hebrew Bible, but in practice they made little distinction between the two classes. (Bruce 2008)

Third Argument

Gerhard’s third argument is from the subject matter of the Apocrypha, which he claims is different than that of the Protestant Old Testament.

  • Every canonical book of the Old Testament contains prophecies about Christ, promised in the Old Testament but revealed in the New.
  • Those controversial books do not contain prophecies about Christ.
  • Ergo. [The controversial books are not canonical.]

With all due respect to Johann Gerhard, but this claim is nonsense, as can be demonstrated by the following list:

  • Mat 2:16 – Herod’s decree of slaying innocent children was prophesied in Wis. 11:7 – slaying the holy innocents.
  • Mat 6:19-20 – Jesus’ statement about laying up for yourselves treasure in heaven follows Sirach 29:11 – lay up your treasure.
  • Mat 7:12 – Jesus’ golden rule “do unto others” is the converse of Tobit 4:15 – what you hate, do not do to others.
  • Mat 7:16, 20 – Jesus’ statement “you will know them by their fruits” follows Sirach 27:6 – the fruit discloses the cultivation.
  • Mat 9:36 – the people were “like sheep without a shepherd” is same as Judith 11:19 – sheep without a shepherd.
  • Mat 11:25 – Jesus’ description “Lord of heaven and earth” is the same as Tobit 7:18 – Lord of heaven and earth.
  • Mat 12:42 – Jesus refers to the wisdom of Solomon which was recorded and made part of the so-called deuterocanonical or apocryphal books.
  • Mat 16:18 – Jesus’ reference to the “power of death” and “gates of Hades” references Wisdom 16:13.
  • Mat 22:25; Mar 12:20; Luk 20:29 – Gospel writers refer to the canonicity of Tobit 3:8 and 7:11 regarding the seven brothers.
  • Mat 24:15 – the “desolating sacrilege” Jesus refers to is also taken from 1 Macc. 1:54 and 2 Macc. 8:17.
  • Mat 24:16 – let those “flee to the mountains” is taken from 1 Macc. 2:28.
  • Mat 27:43 – if He is God’s Son, let God deliver him from His adversaries follows Wisdom 2:18.
  • Mar 4:5, 16-17 – Jesus’ description of seeds falling on rocky ground and having no root follows Sirach 40:15.
  • Mar 9:48 – description of hell where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched references Judith 16:17.
  • Luk 1:42 – Elizabeth’s declaration of Mary’s blessedness above all women follows Uzziah’s declaration in Judith 13:18.
  • Luk 1:52 – Mary’s Magnificat addressing the mighty falling from their thrones and replaced by lowly follows Sirach 10:14.
  • Luk 2:29 – Simeon’s declaration that he is ready to die after seeing the Child Jesus follows Tobit 11:9.
  • Luk 13:29 – the Lord’s description of men coming from east and west to rejoice in God follows Baruch 4:37.
  • Luk 21:24 – Jesus’ usage of “fall by the edge of the sword” follows Sirach 28:18.
  • Luk 24:4 and Acts 1:10 – Luke’s description of the two men in dazzling apparel reminds us of 2 Macc. 3:26.
  • Joh 1:3 – all things were made through Him, the Word, follows Wisdom 9:1.
  • Joh 3:13 – who has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven references Baruch 3:29.
  • Joh 4:48; Acts 5:12; 15:12; 2 Cor. 12:12 – Jesus’, Luke’s and Paul’s usage of “signs and wonders” follows Wisdom 8:8.
  • Joh 5:18 – Jesus claiming that God is His Father follows Wisdom 2:16.
  • Joh 6:35-59 – Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse is foreshadowed in Sirach 24:21.
  • Joh 10:22 – the identification of the feast of the dedication is taken from 1 Macc. 4:59.
  • Joh 15:6 – branches that don’t bear fruit and are cut down follows Wis. 4:5 where branches are broken off.
  • Acts 1:15 – Luke’s reference to the 120 may be a reference to 1 Macc. 3:55 – leaders of tens / restoration of the twelve.
  • Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6 – Peter’s and Paul’s statement that God shows no partiality references Sirach 35:12.
  • Acts 17:29 – description of false gods as like gold and silver made by men follows Wisdom 13:10.
  • Rom 1:18-25 – Paul’s teaching on the knowledge of the Creator and the ignorance and sin of idolatry follows Wis. 13:1-10.
  • Rom 1:20 – specifically, God’s existence being evident in nature follows Wis. 13:1.
  • Rom 1:23 – the sin of worshipping mortal man, birds, animals and reptiles follows Wis. 11:15; 12:24-27; 13:10; 14:8; 15:7.
  • Rom 1:24-27 – this idolatry results in all kinds of sexual perversion which follows Wis. 14:12, 24-27.
  • Rom 4:17 – Abraham is a father of many nations follows Sirach 44:19.
  • Rom 5:12 – description of death and sin entering into the world is similar to Wisdom 2:24.
  • Rom 9:21 – usage of the potter and the clay, making two kinds of vessels follows Wisdom 15:7. (The image of the potter is also used in Jeremiah 18:4, but not with the idea of a vessel of honor and a vessel of dishonor.)
  • 1 Cor 2:16 – Paul’s question, “who has known the mind of the Lord?” references Wisdom 9:13.
  • 1 Cor 6:12-13; 10:23-26 – warning that, while all things are good, beware of gluttony, follows Sirach 36:18 and 37:28-30.
  • 1 Cor 8:5-6 – Paul acknowledging many “gods” but one Lord follows Wis. 13:3.
  • 1 Cor 10:1 – Paul’s description of our fathers being under the cloud passing through the sea refers to Wisdom 19:7.
  • 1 Cor 10:20 – what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God refers to Baruch 4:7.
  • 1 Cor 15:29 – if no expectation of resurrection, it would be foolish to be baptized on their behalf follows 2 Macc. 12:43-45.
  • Eph 1:17 – Paul’s prayer for a “spirit of wisdom” follows the prayer for the spirit of wisdom in Wisdom 7:7.
  • Eph 6:14 – Paul describing the breastplate of righteousness is the same as Wis. 5:18. See also Isaiah 59:17 and 1Thess. 5:8.
  • Eph 6:13-17 – in fact, the whole discussion of armor, helmet, breastplate, sword, shield follows Wis. 5:17-20.
  • 1 Tim 6:15 – Paul’s description of God as Sovereign and King of kings is from 2 Macc. 12:15; 13:4.
  • 2 Tim 4:8 – Paul’s description of a crown of righteousness is similar to Wisdom 5:16.
  • Heb 4:12 – Paul’s description of God’s word as a sword is similar to Wisdom 18:15.
  • Heb 11:5 – Enoch being taken up is also referenced in Wis 4:10 and Sir 44:16. See also 2 Kings 2:1-13 & Sir 48:9 regarding Elijah.
  • Heb 11:35 – The author teaches about the martyrdom of the mother and her sons described in 2 Macc. 6:18, 7:1-42.
  • Heb 12:12 – the description “drooping hands” and “weak knees” comes from Sirach 25:23.
  • Jam 1:19 – let every man be quick to hear and slow to respond follows Sirach 5:11.
  • Jam 2:23 – it was reckoned to him as righteousness follows 1 Macc. 2:52 – it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
  • Jam 3:13 – James’ instruction to perform works in meekness follows Sirach 3:17.
  • Jam 5:3 – describing silver which rusts and laying up treasure follows Sirach 29:10-11.
  • Jam 5:6 – condemning and killing the “righteous man” follows Wisdom 2:10-20.
  • 1 Pet 1:6-7 – Peter teaches about testing faith by purgatorial fire as described in Wisdom 3:5-6 and Sirach 2:5.
  • 1 Pet 1:17 – God judging each one according to his deeds refers to Sirach 16:12 – God judges man according to his deeds.
  • 2 Pet 2:7 – God’s rescue of a righteous man (Lot) is also described in Wisdom 10:6.
  • Rev 1:4; 8:3-4 – Discussion of the seven spirits and the prayers ascending as incense before the throne of God, also described in Tobit 12:15.
  • Rev 1:18; Mat 16:18 – power of life over death and gates of Hades follows Wis. 16:13.
  • Rev 2:12 – reference to the two-edged sword is similar to the description of God’s Word in Wisdom 18:16.
  • Rev 5:7 – God is described as seated on His throne, and this is the same description used in Sirach 1:8.
  • Rev 8:3-4 – prayers of the saints presented to God by the hand of an angel follows Tobit 12:12,15.
  • Rev 8:7 – raining of hail and fire to the earth follows Wisdom 16:22 and Sirach 39:29.
  • Rev 9:3 – raining of locusts on the earth follows Wisdom 16:9.
  • Rev 11:19 – the vision of the ark of the covenant (Mary) in a cloud of glory was prophesied in 2 Macc. 2:7.
  • Rev 17:14 – description of God as King of kings follows 2 Macc. 13:4.
  • Rev 19:1 – the cry “Hallelujah” at the coming of the new Jerusalem follows Tobit 13:18.
  • Rev 19:11 – the description of the Lord on a white horse in the heavens follows 2 Macc. 3:25; 11:8.
  • Rev 19:16 – description of our Lord as King of kings is taken from 2 Macc. 13:4.
  • Rev 21:19 – the description of the new Jerusalem filled with precious stones is prophesied in Tobit 13:17.

Fourth Argument

Gerhard’s fourth argument is that the Apocryphal books do not have the witness of the Israelitic Church (by which he means the Jewish people.)

  • The canonical books of the Old Testament have the witness of the Israelitic church.
  • Those controversial books lack the witness of the Israelitic Church.
  • Ergo. [The controversial books are not canonical.]

We learn from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures was quite fluid in the years leading up to the fall of Jerusalem. (Tigchelaar 2009) Judaism is now understood to have been more accepting of a diverse canon of the Hebrew Scriptures in the time of Christ than it was to become after the Masoretes completed their work.

The Samaritans held that only the five books of Moses were scripture, although their version of the first five books of Moses were slightly different. The Samaritan Pentateuch is a more ancient form of the Torah than the Masoretic text, but also agrees more closely with the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Lieber 2013)

It has been widely (although not universally) understood that the Sadducees considered only the first five books of Moses to be scripture.[2] This view was prevalent among some of the church fathers, but modern scholars think the fathers were conflating the Samaritans and the Sadducees.[3] If the latest scholarship is correct, the canon for both the Sadducees and Pharisees covered what we know today as the Hebrew Scriptures, aka. the Old Testament. By contrast, the Jewish Diaspora, sometimes called the Hellenists, used the Septuagint (LXX) in their synagogues. The canon of the LXX was itself quite fluid, containing numerous books written after the time of Ezra.

Whoever deposited the Dead Sea Scrolls (popularly identified as the Essenes), appears to have used the Septuagint canon, with the possible exception of the book of Esther. The Essenes, who supposedly hid the Dead Sea Scrolls, disappeared following the destruction of Israel in A.D. 70. Likewise the Sadducees, being the party of the temple, disappeared following the destruction of the temple. The only Jewish sects to survive? The Pharisees and the Samaritans, of which only the Pharisees were active among the Jewish Diaspora. Historical evidence suggests the Jews and the Christians each made their own determination as to what was in the canon of scripture. Moreover, it has been suggested that the Hebrew canon was restricted in an attempt to remove support for the Messiahship of Jesus.[4] This process seems to have begun with the school of Jewish law founded by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai in the city of Jamnia. Late 19th to mid-20th biblical scholarship suggested the existence of a Council of Jamnia which decided on a definitive Jewish canon. F.F. Bruce describes their work as follows:

After the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. a new Sanhedrin or council of elders, consisting of Jewish scholars, was constituted at Jamnia in Western Palestine. They reviewed the whole field of Jewish religion and law, and held long discussions on the scope of the Canon of Hebrew Scripture. They debated whether certain books should not be excluded, and whether certain others should not he admitted: but in the end they did not exclude any book which already enjoyed canonical recognition, nor did they admit any book which had not previously received such recognition. (Bruce 2008)

Although F.F. Bruce describes the makeup and work of the Council of Jamnia, it is no longer certain that such a council took place. Moreover, if it took place, the council actually met to look into other matters entirely. We do know that alterations of the text of the Hebrew Scriptures were underway by the time of Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD). From this it is clear that the Christians used the Septuagint as their canon of scripture, while the Jews gradually settled on a more restricted canon.[5]

Gerhard goes on to provide a variety of proofs for his position, all of which are meaningless in the face of what we now know to be true about the state of the Jewish canon during the time of Christ.

Fifth Argument

Gerhard’s fifth argument is that the Apocrypha are not supported as Scripture by the primitive Christian Church.

  • Books that are truly canonical have the supporting testimony of the primitive Christian Church.
  • Those controversial books lack the unanimous witness of the primitive church.
  • Therefore they are not canonical.

It is perhaps unfair to pile on this way, but when a luminary such as Gerhard makes such a bold and unsupported statement, it needs to be refuted. Henceforth, a list of statements regarding the Apocrypha from the Primitive Church through the Post-Nicene era.

  • The Didache (ca. 50-70 A.D.)

    “You shall not waver with regard to your decisions [Sir. 1:28]. Do not be someone who stretches out his hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving [Sir. 4:31]” (Didache 4:5).

    The Letter of Barnabas (ca. 74 A.D.)

    “Since, therefore, [Christ] was about to be manifested and to suffer in the flesh, his suffering was foreshown. For the prophet speaks against evil, ‘Woe to their soul, because they have counseled an evil counsel against themselves’ [Is. 3:9], saying, ‘Let us bind the righteous man because he is displeasing to us’ [Wis. 2:12.]” (Letter of Barnabas 6:7).

  • Clement of Rome (ca. 80 A.D.)

    “By the word of his might [God] established all things, and by his word he can overthrow them. ‘Who shall say to him, “What have you done?” or who shall resist the power of his strength?’ [Wis. 12:12]” (Letter to the Corinthians 27:5).

  • Polycarp of Smyrna (ca. 135 A.D.)

    “Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood [1 Pet. 2:17].
    . . . When you can do good, defer it not, because ‘alms delivers from death’ [Tob. 4:10, 12:9]. Be all of you subject to one another [1 Pet. 5:5], having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles [1 Pet. 2:12], and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But woe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed [Is. 52:5]!” (Letter to the Philadelphians 10).

  • Irenaeus (ca. 189 A.D.)

    “Those . . . who are believed to be presbyters by many, but serve their own lusts and do not place the fear of God supreme in their hearts, but conduct themselves with contempt toward others and are puffed up with the pride of holding the chief seat [Mat 23:6] and work evil deeds in secret, saying ‘No man sees us,’ shall be convicted by the Word, who does not judge after outward appearance, nor looks upon the countenance, but the heart; and they shall hear those words to be found in Daniel the prophet: ‘O you seed of Canaan and not of Judah, beauty has deceived you and lust perverted your heart’ [Dan. 13:56]. You that have grown old in wicked days, now your sins which you have committed before have come to light, for you have pronounced false judgments and have been accustomed to condemn the innocent and to let the guilty go free, although the Lord says, ‘You shall not slay the innocent and the righteous’ [Dan. 13:52, citing Ex. 23:7]” (Against Heresies 4:26:3; Daniel 13 is not in the Protestant Bible).

    “Jeremiah the prophet has pointed out that as many believers as God has prepared for this purpose, to multiply those left on the earth, should both be under the rule of the saints and to minister to this [new] Jerusalem and that [his] kingdom shall be in it, saying, ‘Look around Jerusalem toward the east and behold the joy which comes to you from God himself. Behold, your sons whom you have sent forth shall come: They shall come in a band from the east to the west. . . . God shall go before with you in the light of his splendor, with the mercy and righteousness which proceed from him’ [Bar. 4:36—5:9]” (ibid., 5:35:1; Baruch was often considered part of Jeremiah, as it is here).

  • Hippolytus (ca. 204 A.D.)

    “What is narrated here [in the story of Susannah] happened at a later time, although it is placed at the front of the book [of Daniel], for it was a custom with the writers to narrate many things in an inverted order in their writings. . . . [W]e ought to give heed, beloved, fearing lest anyone be overtaken in any transgression and risk the loss of his soul, knowing as we do that God is the judge of all and the Word himself is the eye which nothing that is done in the world escapes. Therefore, always watchful in heart and pure in life, let us imitate Susannah” (Commentary on Daniel; the story of Susannah [Dan. 13] is not in the Protestant Bible).

  • Cyprian of Carthage (ca.248, 253 A.D.)

    “In Genesis [it says], ‘And God tested Abraham and said to him, “Take your only son whom you love, Isaac, and go to the high land and offer him there as a burnt offering . . .”’ [Gen. 22:1–2]. . . . Of this same thing in the Wisdom of Solomon [it says], ‘Although in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality . . .’ [Wis. 3:4]. Of this same thing in the Maccabees [it says], ‘Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness’ [1 Macc. 2:52; see Jas. 2:21–23]” (Treatises 7:3:15).

    “So Daniel, too, when he was required to worship the idol Bel, which the people and the king then worshipped, in asserting the honor of his God, broke forth with full faith and freedom, saying, ‘I worship nothing but the Lord my God, who created the heaven and the earth’ [Dan. 14:5]” (Letters 55:5; Daniel 14 is not in the Protestant Bible).

  • Council of Rome (ca. 382 A.D.)

    “Now indeed we must treat of the divine scriptures, what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she ought to shun. The order of the Old Testament begins here: Genesis, one book; Exodus, one book; Leviticus, one book; Numbers, one book; Deuteronomy, one book; Joshua [Son of] Nave, one book; Judges, one book; Ruth, one book; Kings, four books [that is, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings]; Paralipomenon [Chronicles], two books; Psalms, one book; Solomon, three books: Proverbs, one book, Ecclesiastes, one book, [and] Canticle of Canticles [Song of Songs], one book; likewise Wisdom, one book; Ecclesiasticus [Sirach], one book . . . . Likewise the order of the historical [books]: Job, one book; Tobit, one book; Esdras, two books [Ezra and Nehemiah]; Esther, one book; Judith, one book; Maccabees, two books” (Decree of Pope Damasus).

  • Council of Hippo (ca. 393 A.D.)

    “[It has been decided] that besides the canonical scriptures nothing be read in church under the name of divine Scripture. But the canonical scriptures are
    as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the Son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, the Kings, four books, the Chronicles, two books, Job, the Psalter, the five books of Solomon [Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and a portion of the Psalms], the twelve books of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, Ezra, two books, Maccabees, two books . . .” (Canon 36).

    Council of Carthage III (ca. 397 A.D.)

    “[It has been decided] that nothing except the canonical scriptures should be read in the Church under the name of the divine scriptures. But the canonical scriptures are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, Paralipomenon, two books, Job, the Psalter of David, five books of Solomon, twelve books of the prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees . . .” (Canon 47).

  • Augustine (ca. 397, 421 A.D.)

    “The whole canon of the scriptures, however, in which we say that consideration is to be applied, is contained in these books: the five of Moses . . . and one book of Joshua [Son of] Nave, one of Judges; one little book which is called Ruth . . . then the four of Kingdoms, and the two of Paralipomenon . . . . [T]here are also others too, of a different order . . . such as Job and Tobit and Esther and Judith and the two books of Maccabees, and the two of Esdras . . . . Then there are the prophets, in which there is one book of the Psalms of David, and three of Solomon. . . . But as to those two books, one of which is entitled Wisdom and the other of which is entitled Ecclesiasticus and which are called ‘of Solomon’ because of a certain similarity to his books, it is held most certainly that they were written by Jesus Sirach. They must, however, be accounted among the prophetic books, because of the authority which is deservedly accredited to them” (Christian Instruction 2:8:13).

    “We read in the books of the Maccabees [2 Macc. 12:43] that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament writings, the authority of the Catholic Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at his altar the commendation of the dead has its place” (The Care to be Had for the Dead 1:3).

  • The Apostolic Constitutions (ca. 400 A.D.)

    “Now women also prophesied. Of old, Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron [Ex. 15:20], and after her, Deborah [Judges. 4:4], and after these Huldah [2 Kgs. 22:14] and Judith [Judith 8], the former under Josiah and the latter under Darius” (Apostolic Constitutions 8:2).

    Jerome (ca. 401 A.D.)

    “What sin have I committed if I follow the judgment of the churches? But he who brings charges against me for relating [in my preface to the book of Daniel] the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susannah [Dan. 13], the Song of the Three Children [Dan. 3:29–68, RSV-CE], and the story of Bel and the Dragon [Dan. 14], which are not found in the Hebrew volume, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. I was not relating my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they are wont to make against us. If I did not reply to their views in my preface, in the interest of brevity, lest it seem that I was composing not a preface, but a book, I believe I added promptly the remark, for I said, ‘This is not the time to discuss such matters’” (Against Rufinius 11:33).

  • Pope Innocent I (ca. 408 A.D.)

    “A brief addition shows what books really are received in the canon. These are the things of which you desired to be informed verbally: of Moses, five books, that is, of Genesis, of Exodus, of Leviticus, of Numbers, of Deuteronomy, and Joshua, of Judges, one book, of Kings, four books, and also Ruth, of the prophets, sixteen books, of Solomon, five books, the Psalms. Likewise of the histories, Job, one book, of Tobit, one book, Esther, one, Judith, one, of the Maccabees, two, of Esdras, two, Paralipomenon, two books . . .” (Letters 7).

A Final Word

I don’t want to pile onto Johann Gerhard, as he was arguing from the knowledge that was available at that time, and in support of a Lutheran orthodoxy in which the canonical issues had been settled. Yet it is remarkable how current Gerhard’s arguments are, despite all the knowledge that has accumulated since his time. Evangelical bible scholars, with all the evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls right in front of them, behave like the old comedy trope of the policeman standing in front of some remarkable carnage, yet announcing to the assembled crowd: “Move along, folks. Nothing to see here.”


Bibliography

Bruce, F. F. “The Canon of Scripture.” BiblicalStudies.org.uk. Edited by Robert I Bradshaw. Religious & Theological Students Fellowship. March 2008. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/canon_bruce.pdf (accessed January 4, 2014).

Gerhard, Johann. On the Nature of Theology and Scripture. Translated by Richard J. Dinda. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Lieber, Chavie. “The Other Torah.” Tablet Magazine. May 14, 2013. http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/132004/the-other-torah (accessed December 27, 2013).

Tigchelaar, Eiber. “How did the Qumran Scrolls Transform our Views of the Canonical Process?” Lirias: Home Lirias. 2009. https://lirias.kuleuven.be/bitstream/123456789/253557/3/tigchelaar-canon.doc (accessed January 02, 2014).


[1] This argument does not appear to be widespread among Protestants; at least I can find no independent verification of it.

[2] Ross, Allen. The Sadducees. 2006. https://bible.org/seriespage/sadducees

[3] The primary difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was not the canon itself, but the use to which they put the canon. The Sadducees were strict literalists; it if couldn’t be found in scripture, it wasn’t part of Judaism. By contrast, the Pharisees had a body of tradition which served to enhance or interpret scripture; some of these regulations were extra-scriptural, in that they could not be traced back to scriptural texts. For this reason, the Sadducees rejected the traditions and regulations of the Pharisees. (Skarsaune, Oskar. In the Shadow of the Temple. IVP Academic. 2002. pp. 109-111)

[4] For example, Baruch 3 can be interpreted as supporting the identification of Wisdom with Christ, especially as regards the Incarnation.

[5] Justin Martyr argues forcefully that the Jews artificially truncated their canon of Scripture to eliminate passages that demonstrate that Jesus was the promised Messiah. (P. Schaff, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus 1884, Chapters LXXI and LXXII)

John Calvin, the Church, and the Canon

John Calvin

John Calvin

John Calvin, in his argument against the role of the Church in the canonical process, does discuss the role of the Holy Spirit. However, he seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit works in the individual, but not in and through the Church.

A most pernicious error has very generally prevailed—viz. that Scripture is of importance only in so far as conceded to it by the suffrage of the Church; as if the eternal and inviolable truth of God could depend on the will of men. With great insult to the Holy Spirit, it is asked, who can assure us that the Scriptures proceeded from God; who guarantee that they have come down safe and unimpaired to our times; who persuade us that this book is to be received with reverence, and that one expunged from the list, did not the Church regulate all these things with certainty? On the determination of the Church, therefore, it is said, depend both the reverence which is due to Scripture, and the books which are to be admitted into the canon. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 74-75)

Calvin then argues that since the apostles and prophets existed prior to the Church, that the inspiration of the Scriptures is intrinsic apart from the Church.

These ravings are admirably refuted by a single expression of an apostle. Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” (Eph. 2:20). If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist. Nor is there any room for the cavil, that though the Church derives her first beginning from thence, it still remains doubtful what writings are to be attributed to the apostles and prophets, until her Judgment is interposed. For if the Christian Church was founded at first on the writings of the prophets, and the preaching of the apostles, that doctrine, wheresoever it may be found, was certainly ascertained and sanctioned antecedently to the Church, since, but for this, the Church herself never could have existed. Nothings therefore can be more absurd than the fiction, that the power of judging Scripture is in the Church, and that on her nod its certainty depends. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 75)

John Calvin is correct that the inspiration of the Scriptures precedes its recognition by the Church. But if the Church’s determination of the canon is invalid, what does John Calvin offer in its place? Why, the Holy Spirit who enlightens the individual believer’s heart.

Let it therefore be held as fixed, that those who are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture; that Scripture, carrying its own evidence along with it, deigns not to submit to proofs and arguments, but owes the full conviction with which we ought to receive it to the testimony of the Spirit. Enlightened by him, we no longer believe, either on our own Judgment or that of others, that the Scriptures are from God; but, in a way superior to human Judgment, feel perfectly assured—as much so as if we beheld the divine image visibly impressed on it—that it came to us, by the instrumentality of men, from the very mouth of God. We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our Judgment, but we subject our intellect and Judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.

Such, then, is a conviction which asks not for reasons; such, a knowledge which accords with the highest reason, namely knowledge in which the mind rests more firmly and securely than in any reasons; such in fine, the conviction which revelation from heaven alone can produce. I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of the reality. I do not dwell on this subject at present, because we will return to it again: only let us now understand that the only true faith is that which the Spirit of God seals on our hearts. (Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion 2005, 78-79)

It is curious that John Calvin reason’s his way to a dismissal of human reason, but instead posits some ephemeral, mystical revelation of inspiration to the individual believer. Of course, John Calvin then modifies this by reference to the “children of the renovated Church” made up of the “elect only”, who “shall be taught of the Lord” (Isaiah 54:13). So Calvin’s argument isn’t so much against the Church bearing witness to the canon of Scripture, but to the Roman Catholic Church bearing said witness.

In essence, John Calvin’s predisposition against the Roman Catholic Church colors his view of canonicity. We can break down his argument like this: 1) The Holy Spirit works within His true church. 2) The Roman Catholics do not constitute a true Church. 3) Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not work within the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin makes another argument: 1) The Holy Spirit works upon the hearts of the elect. 2) The Roman Catholic Church contains none of the elect. 3) Therefore, the Holy Spirit does not work within the Roman Catholic Church. And finally, with regard to the canon of Scripture: 1) The Holy Spirit works to reveal the canon of Scripture to His Church. 2) The Roman Catholic Church is not a true Church. 3) Therefore, the Roman Catholic canon of Scripture was not revealed by the Holy Spirit.[1]

Bibliography

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

 

 

 


[1] I may not have constructed these syllogisms correctly, but you get the point.

Inspiration and Canonicity

A scroll of the Book of Esther

A scroll of the Book of Esther

Inspiration and Canonicity

The typical Protestant, if he or she were asked, would likely tell you the scriptures contained 66 books. They might even be able to name them. However, the Latins would tell you Sacred Scripture consisted of 77 books, while the Orthodox would say 81. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church would also say 81, but includes a New Testament canon of 35 books and adds additional books to the Old Testament, while numbering them according to the Hebrew scriptures instead of the Septuagint. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is also unusual in having both a narrow canon and a broader canon, although the difference escapes me. (Cowley 1994) And there are other groups, like the Syriac churches and the Coptic Orthodox Church, which have different canonical criteria. (Halnon n.d.) The group Islamic Awareness has an interesting take on problem, entitled “To Every Church a Canon”. Under that heading they produce eight different canons of scripture: the Anglican Church, the Armenian Church, the Coptic Church, the Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Protestant Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Syriac Church. (Islamic Awareness n.d.) How curious that it takes the Muslims to inform us the canon of Scripture is not as settled as we like to think.

Canonicity and the Self-Authenticating Scripture

Protestants are told the scriptures are self-authenticating; because the scriptures are God’s word, they have the power to convince us of their truth. This idea is promoted as a means of determining whether a particular book is canonical or not. However plausible this may sound, this is not a useful principle for determining canonicity. The self-authenticating principle can draw one astray into all manner of enthusiasms, allowing an individual or group to determine their own canon of scripture. This was the error of Marcion, who is the first one to devise a Christian canon that “self-authenticated” his preexisting heresies.

The problem is in the nature of canonicity, which is the principle (or principles) by which the scope of the canon is determined. Scholars debate two different approaches: the Community-Canon approach, and the Intrinsic-Canon approach. John C. Peckham defines the Community-Canon as “a collection of books deemed authoritative by a given community”, and the Intrinsic-Canon as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” (Peckham 2011) Peckham’s explanation of the Intrinsic-Canon approach allows for the community’s recognition of certain texts as authoritative.

Objections to the pure Community-Canon approach include the hostile reaction of the community of faith to the prophets. Even Jeremiah’s writings were not immediately recognized as scripture. John C. Peckham writes: “The biblical concept of a true prophet refers to one divinely authorized to speak for God (Jer 15:19; Acts 3:18, 21).28 There is then, by definition, a divinely appointed authority belonging to true prophets that is thereby inconsistent with the epistemological primacy of the community.” Peckham raises another interesting question: “What Constitutes a Legitimate and/or Adequate Community?” (Peckham 2011) There were various canons circulating in the early church; seemingly each Bishop had his own opinion. And there were different communities of faith which considered themselves Christian, and considered themselves to have the authority to determine canonical issues. Among these was the heretic Marcion, whose canon did not include the Old Testament, and included only some of the New Testament. The Gnostics had a variety of texts that were rejected by the surviving Christian Community.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Community-Canon approach is that it uses an epistemological[1] criterion (one determined by propositional knowledge) to determine the suitability of a book for inclusion into the canon. If the Biblical canon is a list of authoritative and inspired books compiled by the Christian community, then only the Christian community can recognize and define that list. If, however, canonicity is an epistemic criterion, then individuals and groups can reason their way towards producing different lists. William Abraham describes the key difference between these two views.

The older way was prepared to leave scripture as both a gift of the Holy Spirit and as subject to the ongoing activity of the Spirit without worrying overmuch about epistemology. In my terms, the older way was content to leave scripture as a means of grace. The new fashion was to give primacy to ideas of revelation and inspiration as applying in some unique fashion to the Bible, and to limit scripture to the Bible. (Abraham 1998)

For us to understand this argument, we must discuss the development of an epistemological role in theology — the foundation, source, and validity of revelatory truth. Richard Foley comments: “For the medievals, religious authority and tradition were seen as repositories of wisdom”. According to Foley, it was the enlightenment views of men like Descartes and Locke who “regarded tradition and authority as potential sources of error and took reason to be the corrective”. (Foley 2001, 13) But interestingly, this view did not originate with Locke and Descartes, but has its roots in the writings of Aquinas. William Abraham develops this thesis following this quote from the French theologian Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, who claims Thomas Aquinas inherited the following crucial assumption from the Middle Ages:

[T]he practice of including the Fathers, the conciliar canons and even the pontifical decrees and (more rarely) the more outstanding treatises of the theologians, in the Scriptura Sacra, or again, without distinguishing, in the divina pagina [interpretation of scripture].[2] This is a practice of long standing; there seems no doubt but that it arises from the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ][3], which …had passed into canonical collections, and into those chapters which dealt with sources and rules. (Abraham 1998, ix)

For William Abraham, and likely with Protestants in general, the implications are quite startling. “‘Scripture’ was not originally confined to the Bible; it had a much wider frame of reference. …What we see emerging in what follows is a quite different range of sense and reference. Over time, Scripture was cut back to apply materially to the Bible; and its primary function lay in that of operating as an authority.” (Abraham 1998, ix) According to Abraham, via Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, Aquinas was the first to distinguish the authority of the Bible from that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. (Abraham 1998, x) Thus it was Thomas Aquinas that laid the foundations for the Reformation’s rejection of the Bible as interpreted by the Father’s and the Councils, and in favor of the Bible as interpreted by Reason and Conscience.

As we have spoken unfavorably of the Community-Canon approach, and particularly with its reliance upon human reason and epistemological criteria, we must now consider the Intrinsic Canon approach. If we deal with the two views atomistically, they seem like alternate and opposing approaches. However, we have already noted that the Intrinsic-Canon approach does not preclude the community’s involvement in recognizing that a particular book is authoritative and inspired. Therefore, in practical terms, the two approaches are much the same.

John C. Peckam’s arguments against the Community-Approach apply to the Intrinsic-Canon approach as well. As previously mentioned, Peckham defines the Intrinsic-Canon approach as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” There is something important missing here: is a book inspired apart from its being part of a collection of authoritative books? Historically speaking, the answer is yes, because we know that it took time after a book was written before the community began to be use and refer to it as Scripture. Moreover, there is a difference between a book’s being useful within a community and a book’s being viewed as inspired Scripture. In nearly every case (with the possible exception of 1 Tim 5:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16)[4], what the New Testament authors speak of as Scripture is the Old Testament; only rarely do the New Testament books imply the creation of new Scripture, and the implications are unclear.

Moreover, the inclusion of the community into the recognition of an authoritative collection of documents creates another problem: which community, using which criteria? John C. Peckam writes:

If each community is authoritative to determine their own canon, then since mutually exclusive canons of sacred writings are posited by various communities, the “Christian canon” is not authoritative over and against the canon of any other community but is authoritative only within the community or communities that determine and/or recognize it. This amounts to a canonical relativism that is mutually exclusive to a universally authoritative biblical canon (cf. Matt 24:14; 28:19–20; Acts 17:30; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16). (Peckham 2011)

The question of Community-Canon vs. Intrinsic-Canon is an example of Systematic Theology (or Dogmatics) run amock. The church has a long history of organizing its dogma around various themes, but the Western Church has taken this to extremes. The Western way of doing theology, going back further than Aquinas, has been to reason one’s way to the truth. This tendency increased with the onset of the Protestant Reformation which promoted the primacy of reason and the individual conscience as a means of interpreting Scripture. What began as organization around simple themes has developed into uncountable definitions of terms and increasingly complex theological taxonomies. The question of canonicity is part of that pattern.

Canonicity and the Holy Spirit

One thing that is left out of the previous definitions and discussions regarding canonicity is the role of the Holy Spirit in determining and preserving the canon of Scripture. The concept of the self-authenticating role of the Scripture provides no room for God to act. Apart from providing His authority and power to the canon, God appears to have no role in the canonical process.

If we desire to describe the role of the Holy Spirit in the canonical process, how might we begin? With the idea of Inspiration, as described in the Bible. The apostle Peter writes: “Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet 1:21). The Holy Ghost is described in the Old Testament as the breath of God; thus comes the idea of inspiration, or “God-breathed”.[5] Of the inspiration of Scripture, the apostle Paul writes:

But continue thou in the things which thou hast learned and hast been assured of, knowing of whom thou hast learned them; And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2 Pet 3:14-17)

All scripture is “given by inspiration of God.” It is the spiration or breath of God, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The function of scripture is to “make us wise unto salvation”, which salvation comes “through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” This aligns well with Christ’s description of the role of the Holy Spirit: “When the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me” (Joh 15:26). Just as Jesus reveals the Father to us, the Holy Spirit reveals to us the person and work of Christ Jesus.

Jesus calls the Comforter “the Spirit of Truth” (Joh 14:17) To the Father, Jesus prays: “Thy word is truth” (Joh 17:17). Of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says: “The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (Joh 14:26).

We see from the New Testament that Holy Spirit who inspired the Hebrew Scriptures is the same as the Holy Spirit who works in and through the Church. Jude writes: “These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit. But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 19-21). From this we understand that those who separate themselves from the Church separate themselves from the Holy Spirit. As they have not the Spirit, they are unable to pray in the Holy Spirit. Thus the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, works in and through the Church, which is Christ’s body, just as He works in and through the Scriptures.

The apostle Paul writes to Timothy of the Church: “These things write I unto thee, …that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 14-15). The “church of the living God” is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” We need to unpack this a bit. The pillar and ground both refer to the metaphor of the church as a building made up of living stones, with Christ as the cornerstone and the apostles as the foundation (1 Pet 2:5-7; Eph 2:20). The ground should be understood as providing stability; it does not shift, causing the edifice to collapse (Mat 7:24-27). The ground also refers to the “good ground” that brings forth much fruit (Mat 13:23). (The role of a pillar is to hold up and support the roof, and refers to God’s “upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3).

Returning to the subject of canonicity, we see the Holy Spirit working in and through the Scripture (the Intrinsic-Canon), just as we see the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church (the Community-Canon). These two explanations of canonicity are not mutually exclusive, but neither makes any sense apart from the Holy Spirit. And how does the Holy Spirit work through Scripture and the Church to produce and maintain the canon? It’s a mystery.

The work of the Holy Spirit is a mystery. We can’t define it, we can’t categorize it, and we can’t explain it. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit (Joh 3:8). When we try to define, categorize, and explain canonicity apart from the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we are raising human reason to a place of primacy. We are telling God how to do His job. If the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth, our job is simply to plug into the truth and let the Holy Spirit do His work without interference from us.

 

Bibliography

Abraham, William J. Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cowley, R. W. “The Biblical Canon Of The Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today.” Islamic Awareness. 1994. http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Bible/Text/Canon/ethiopican.html (accessed December 23, 2008).

Foley, Richard. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Halnon, Dennis. “Early Christian History.” The Reality of the Biblical Canon. n.d. http://www.earlychristianhistory.info/canon.html (accessed December 23, 2008).

Islamic Awareness. “Canon of the Bible.” Islamic Awareness. n.d. http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Bible/Text/Canon/ (accessed December 23, 2008).

Peckham, John C. “Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination.” Themelios 36, no. 2 (August 2011): 203-215.

 

 

 


[1] Epistomology is a philosophical concept having to do with the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge.

[2] Divina pagina refers to the interpretation of Scripture, (McGinn 1998, 127) and is one of the three early medieval terms used for theology, the other two being sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura (Fiorenza 1991)

[3] Tradition attributes the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ] to Pope Gelasius I, who was Pope from 492-496. The second part of the Decretum Gelasianum is a list of canonical scriptures. The list includes the Old Testament Scriptures which the Protestants consider to be Apocryphal, and the entire New Testament with the exception of 2 Corinthians. The third part discusses the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The fourth part makes the ecumenical councils authoritative and receives the works of a number of the church fathers. Finally, the fifth part contains a list of books compiled or recognized by heretics and schismatics, works which are not received by the church. It is possible that the list of Apocryphal books represents a tradition that can be traced back to Pope Gelasius, but was not actually written by him.

[4] What Peter refers to as “other scriptures” clearly refers to the Old Testament. It is not certain that Peter intends to place Paul’s writings into that category, although this is implied. Nor does Peter say which of Paul’s many epistles were to be considered as Scripture; we know that Paul wrote more letters than just the ones preserved in the New Testament. And just because Peter may have considered Paul’s writings to be Scripture does not mean they were part of the community’s “collection of authoritative books”. Nevertheless, Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield makes a cogent argument that Peter was indeed declaring Paul’s epistles to be Scripture. It should be noted that Warfield is in error when he says Paul authenticates Luke’s Gospel; he could just as easily have been authenticating Matthew’s Gospel. Compare Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7, & 1 Timothy 5:18. Also Paul could have been referring only to his first quote from Proverbs as Scripture, as the second quote is little more than the explanation of the first. (Warfield 1882)

[5] Ruach Elohim (Spirit or Breath of God)