Swimming the Tiber 3: Whence Cometh Scripture, Thither Go I

Where does Scripture actually come from? The Holy Spirit, of course. But by what means? Did the Spirit grasp a pen and write it down? Did Christ? Did the Father? Of course not. No one of reason adheres to such claims. (I include certain heretics when I say “no one of reason.”)

So by what human means do the Scriptures come down to us? For when I absolve God of their physical origin, I leave only two options: lesser spirits and human beings. God forbid I attribute Holy Writ to demonic possession; loyal angels do not possess the bodies of men; and spirits by definition have no physical form. That leaves only human action as the physical source of Scripture. But which human actions?

I shall not concern myself with the lengthy debates of the authorship of individual books. Suffice it to say that I accept (as I always have) the traditional attributions of the Books of Holy Scripture, and I will continue to adhere to Church teaching in this matter, should the Church (in her wisdom) alter the specifics of those attributions (as it has with the author of Hebrews, for example). The most relevant question, after all, is not the author of individual passages of Scripture; such disputation does not harm the whole body of work, as its detractors suggest, but helps us better to understand the context. Instead, the relevant question is the compilation of Scripture. If we can trust the compilation of Scripture, then we can trust Scripture, disregarding whether Paul wrote Hebrews, whether it was indeed a letter by design (or a sermon made into a letter), and other minutiae (including therein, for example, the exact date of the composition of Isaiah 39 versus Isaiah 40, or Isaiah 55 versus Isaiah 56).

How, then, has Scripture been compiled? The official compilation for Catholics is most frequently identified as the Synod of Hippo in AD 393. Protestants identify this as canonizing their New Testament, but trace their Old Testament to the Judaic Council of Jamnia in the late 1st century AD (nevermind that this council may or may not have occurred, and nevermind that any post-Christ Jewish canon would necessarily oppose doctrines of those upstart anti-Jewish Christians). To reinforce their removal of the so-called Apocrypha, Protestants insist upon the principle of universal acceptance, pointing to the Jewish canon as authoritative for the Old Testament.

Again, nevermind that Jewish authorities, by the second century, would have opposed any books which reinforced Christian doctrine over Jewish doctrine.

Other arguments exist. For example, “We should only accept those Old Testament books which we have in their original Hebrew.” Well, this is quite the misnomer. In the first place, we don’t have any texts in their entirety in the original Hebrew. The closest we have is the Masoretic text, which has no significant extant copies older than the Aleppo Codex from AD 930, though a few smaller pieces remain from earlier. This is based on Jewish oral tradition, and generally follows older Hebrew texts, but has notable differences from several of the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts. This makes it unreliable as an ultimate source of “original” Hebrew, though it may well be close enough. But the real problem is that demanding Hebrew originals for, say, the “Apocrypha,” is impossible–most scholars agree that the Maccabees, among others, were originally composed in Greek. So any Hebrew versions would be hardly original. For an example a little closer to home, consider that in the Book of Daniel, the original language was nearly half Aramaic (Daniel 2:4-7:28), with the rest being Hebrew. Should we dismiss those chapters as non-canonical as well?

Then there is the appeal to authority. “Jerome repudiated the Apocrypha!” it is claimed. (I think there is a certain irony in Protestants appealing to St. Jerome, but I will return to that in a later post.) Jerome’s preference not to include a translation of the Deuterocanon in his Vulgate depended on a lack of original Hebrew texts; as we have already pointed out, and as it was made clear to Jerome, that isn’t entirely relevant. Jerome went on to translate the Deuterocanon anyway, and included it in the Vulgate. He did not do so under protest, but rather willingly. Is the short-term disputation of Jerome more powerful than his lifelong acceptance of Church teaching? Certainly not, lest St. Augustine’s tryst with Manichaeism eliminate his later baptism, ordination, and saintly life.

The other saints, appealed to in a similar manner, likewise accepted–or even promulgated–the canon put forth at the Synod of Hippo, then ratified at the Councils of Carthage and by the papacy in the decades to follow. Those Church fathers whose opinions are so highly valued–St. Augustine by the Calvinists, St. Athanasius by all who acknowledge the divinity of Christ, and so on–agreed not with the Protestant canon, but with the one decided by the Church. The one decided altogether, at once, Old Testament and New. I have heard Protestants say that the Holy Spirit worked through the Church, despite her faults, to establish the New Testament canon at these points. Does the Holy Spirit often exert influence in one sentence, then fail to do so in the next? Does the Holy Spirit direct a single document put forward by an ecumenical council to be both accurate (of the New Testament) and heretically inaccurate (of the Old)? On the contrary, as is appropriate, when a document is heretical, all of its statements are thrown into doubt, and none are kept sure unless confirmed by some other method.

But there was never a method that confirmed the New Testament canon without confirming at least some of the Deuterocanon within the Old. Is the Holy Spirit so weak that he should fail to establish the canon in even one place throughout the history of the Church? Is the Church so weak that the gates of hell should overtake her with a false canon of Scripture? Certainly not.

The typical response is to discount the historical canon altogether. The canon is reached by careful examination under a set of principles–apostolic authority and consistent content, for example. The Protestant canon, then, is never closed; but it is simultaneously never really questioned. I have heard of no Protestants adding the Shepherd of Hermas, once treated as canonical by several Church Fathers (but rejected by the Church under the authority of the Holy Spirit). The Didache, likewise, has never been added. There is no outcry for other documents of certain apostolic authority, such as the two letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians which are no longer extant; unlike the desperate search for the remains of Noah’s ark, there has been no concerted Protestant effort to find what may well be valuable canonical documents.

How many times have you genuinely questioned the canon of the New Testament, only to arrive at exactly the same list as the Church? Better yet, how often have you arrived at a different list? No, on the contrary, Protestants–excluding heretics who embrace Gnostic gospels–flatly and implicitly accept the canon of the New Testament put forth by the Church… while still rejecting her authority on the Old Testament.

I thought and acted in this way for years.

And you may do so even now.

So I ask you: if not from the Holy Spirit through the Church, whence cometh Scripture?

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