Variations on the Canon

This post sets out some contradictory opinions concerning the canon of Scripture and its interpretation. I confess to being a tad confused on the issue at the moment. In brief comments following the quotations I attempt to grapple with their divergent voices without pretending to harmonize them, to provoke the problem without resolving it.

“[I]n 393 at Hippo and 397 at Carthage, the Church formally testified that the twenty-seven books which we have in the New Textament are to be received as apostolic.
We receive these Scriptures on their own authority. They are the Word of God, and they speak to us as such. Nevertheless, God has given us a secondary earthly testimony concerning them. [...] The Church points to the sixty-six books of the Bible. During the Christian aeon, the Church is responsible to keep and preserve the same kind of testimony concerning the entire Bible that the Church gave in her younger years, when Israel had been entrusted with the Old Testament books.
When modern groups and sects point to other books than what God has given (e.g., Mormons and the Book of Mormon, Roman Catholics and the Apocrypha, etc.), they are exhibiting more than just their unbelief. They are also showing their radical detachment from the ancient and historical Church.”
—–Douglass Wilson, Mother Kirk (Canon Press, 2001), 52-53.

“In the western (Latin) church, on the other hand, though there has been some variety of opinion, in general theologians have regarded these [Apocryphal] books as canonical. More than one local synodical council (e.g., Hippo, 393, and Carthage, 397 and 419) justified and authorized their use as scripture.”
—–From the “Introduction” to The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha, 3rd ed. (OUP, 2001), 6.

“In the matter of canonical scriptures he should follow the authority of the great majority of catholic churches, including of course those that were found worthy to have apostolic seats and receive apostolic letters. He will apply this principle to the canonical scriptures: to prefer those accepted by all catholic churches to those which some do not accept. As for those not universally accepted, he should prefer those accepted by a majority of churches, and by the more authoritative ones, to those supported by fewer churches, or by churches of lesser authority. Should he find that some scriptures are accepted by the majority of churches, but others by the more authoritative ones (though in fact he could not possibly find this situation) I think that they should be considered to have equal authority.
The Complete canon of scripture, on which I say that our attention should be concentrated, includes the following books: . . . Job, Tobias, Esther, Judith, and the two books of Maccabees and the two of Ezra, which rather seem to follow on from the chronologically ordered account which ends with Kings and Chronicles.”
—-St. Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana, R.P.H. Green trans.(Penguin, 1997), 35-36.

“But a most pernicious error widely prevails that Scripture has only so much weight as is conceded to it by the consent of the church.
[T]he highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God IN person speaks in it. . . . We ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit. [...] For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s heart before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. [...] Scripture indeed is self-authenticated.”
—-John Calvin Institutes, Battles trans. (Westminster, 1960), 74-80.

To begin, I notice that Douglass Wilson gives “second place” to the Church’s role in determining what is Scripture and what isn’t. Indeed, perhaps Wilson makes greater mention of the Church’s role than Calvin in the first book of the Institutes. But then he pulls what is at best a slip of the pen, at worst a sleight of hand. He draws a line in the sand and puts the Church’s “secondary earthly testimony . . . concerning the sixty-six books of the Bible” on one side and “Roman Catholics and the Apocrypha” on the other side. We must bring to light the interpretation concealed herein: at least with respect to this question, Roman Catholics do not constitute the Church. A more generous interpretation would be that Roman Catholics are truly in the Church but have misunderstood the relationship of the Church to Scripture: it is not equal in authority (versus the Catechism of the Catholic Church) but “secondary,” since Scripture testifies to its own status through the individual work of the Holy Spirit. Wilson is clearly in line with Calvin on this point.
Wilson and Calvin are free to hold whatever position they wish, but is Wilson’s interpretation of the facts sensible? First, Wilson brings up the councils of Hippo and Carthage as examples of “secondary testimony.” However, biblical scholar Michael Coogan, writing in the Introduction to the OUP Apocrypha, reminds us that the Apocryphal books were “canonized” at those same councils. Therefore, Wilson uses the evidence selectively when he coaxes the councils over to “the Church” side of the line, since they could just as easily have gone to the side of “Roman Catholics and the Apocrypha.” Secondly, Wilson implicitly excludes Augustine from “the Church,” or (following the second interpretation) at least marginalizes him. Now, it is true that when quoting the Apocrypha, some of the fathers noted their status outside the Greek and Hebrew testaments. For example, Jerome’s Vulgate originally included prefaces to the Ap. books, prefaces elided from later editions. Consequently, many medieval theologians assumed their canonical status. But to turn to Augustine: if one takes Peter Lombard’s widely popular Sentences as an essentially Augustinian work, it is almost incontrovertible that the Bishop of Hippo was the most influential patristic from his own day to Calvin’s. Indeed, the latter quotes Augustine more than any other authority other than Scripture, following the preference of every major Western theologian after the thirteenth-century condemnations of Aristotelianism. But Calvin also selects the Augustine which suits him; at least he does so in book one of the Institutes, where he corrects a Romanish mis-reading of one Augustine’s Contra Manichaeos. But when it comes to the canon and the “witness” to the truth of Scripture, Calvin seems to ignore Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, which says more about Scripture in general and the nature of interpretation than any other of the Bishop’s works. Where Augustine clearly asserts the authority of the Church over Scripture (see above), Calvin opts for the subjective “inward testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Wilson would point out that Augustine the individual does not coincide with “the Church.” Yes, but when Wilson says that “the Church testifies” and mentions councils, he can only mean that “voices” in the Church testify. Indeed they do, and for a thousand years Augustine’s rang the loudest and most authoritative (I should mention that the De Doctrina was the most copied of A’s works in the high middle ages).
“You killed my son.”
“The Ninth Commandment…”
“I do not accept that verse as canonical.”
“The Church has always . . . .”
“Ah, but the “inward testimony of the Spirit” asserts the contrary.”

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5 Responses to Variations on the Canon

  1. kepha says:

    Mr. Saunders,

    Great thoughts! I hope you don’t mind me adding my own humble, undergraduate thoughts.

    The Protestant Reformation, clearly a movement of the Holy Spirit, brought about a development of understanding of Sacred Scripture. The Church of Rome, not heeding the inspired letter to her from St. Paul, to the effect that she too could be cut off if presumptuous of her status (cf. Rm 11:17-24), developed an erroneous ecclesiological consciousness. The Protestant Reformation — not a single Reformer — challenged this developed understanding with a development of their own, namely, a developed understanding of Sacred Scripture. This development had its roots in the Catholicism before Rome, in the Fathers of the Church. The Reformed Protestant teaching concerning Scripture is, in my opinion, the most crystalized of this development. The authority of Sacred Scripture comes from their own nature as “God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Unless something of an equal nature can be found, then the writings of the Holy Spirit stand alone. The Church indeed played a key role in centuries past in the gathering of the Sacred Writings, but, as is the case with all witnesses, even though “we believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified,” it is “no longer because of what [she] said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this One is indeed the Savior of the world” (Jn 4:39, 42). Candles are only needed in times of darkness. Upon finding the light of day, they are no longer needed. Nevertheless, we reverence them for the role they played.

    I wonder about St. Augustine’s acceptance of the deutero-canonicals and his later influence upon Western Christianity, because I heard Dr. James White assert that St. Augustine only accepted these venerable writings because he believed them to be a part of the Hebrew collection. Have you ever heard this ? If so, what do you think about it?

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  4. Thanks for the comments, kepha.

    You say: “This development had its roots in the Catholicism before Rome, in the Fathers of the Church. The Reformed Protestant teaching concerning Scripture is, in my opinion, the most crystalized of this development.”

    All true, but I guess what I was trying to highlight was the selective nature of this tracing of roots, insofar as, for example, Calvin relies on Augustine only he agrees with him. Of course, that’s simply the nature of interpretation, isn’t it? The Roman Catholics read the Fathers through RC colored eyes, the Protestants through Protestant eyes.

    You quote several verses from Scripture in support of your view that the Church gathers the Scriptures, but then stands aside and lets their “light” shine through. Not to take a cheap shot, but what is your answer to the charge that this begs the question? That is to say, isn’t it circular reasoning (petitio principii) to argue from Scripture that Scripture testifies to its own validity?

    Thanks Again,
    B Saunders

  5. kepha says:

    Happy Fourth of July!

    I wasn’t using Scripture to prove Scripture alone, so much as I was simply using a wonderful example (I think, anyway) of the role of a witness. Much like St. John the Baptist, a witness witnesses to something, but once one comes to that which is witnessed to (in this case it is the God-breathed Scriptures), then the witness steps aside. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” said St. John the Baptist (Jn 3:30).

    Here’s another way to look at it: St. John led St. Andrew to “‘the Lamb of God’” (Jn 1:36; cf. Jn 1:35-37), but once he encountered Jesus he no longer followed Jesus because of St. John’s testimony. He followed Jesus because Jesus beckoned him to “Come” and “see” (Jn 1:39). Likewise, Andrew found his brother Simon and exclaimed: “‘We have found the Messiah!’” (Jn 1:41) But it was not because of Andrew’s testimony that Peter himself would later profess Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).

    Again, I’m speaking of the nature of testimony; in this case, human testimony to the things of God.

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