Thursday, May 21, 2009

Whose Bible is the Authoritative Canon of Scripture?

In my last column I raised questions concerning the range of the canon of scripture and who determines what constitutes the Bible. These may not seem like essential questions for many of us, for most of us are probably Protestants who have lived all of our lives knowing one Bible that includes thirty-nine books we call the Old Testament and twenty-seven books we refer to as the New Testament.

But the questions are relevant from both a theological and historical perspective, for various traditions within the Christian faith differ in the books accepted as holy writ. Indeed, throughout the history of the church, the canon of scripture has been debated and has never really been conclusively settled except within each specific tradition.

Space prevents an extensive discussion of the differences between canons across time and space spectra of Christianity, and so I will mostly concentrate on the variations between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles. However, we should be aware that churches in the Eastern Church also differ in what they view as canonical.

For example, early in its history, the Syrian Church accepted as scripture a writing known as the Diatessaron, an amalgamation of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John into one, and fourteen letters associated with Paul, including a third letter to the Corinthians. Later, this tradition would accept the four Gospels, along with the Pauline corpus, but it rejected II Peter, II and III John, Jude, and Revelation.

The Ethiopian Church, which has existed since the early centuries of Christianity, recognizes forty-six books as the books of the Old Testament and thirty-five writings as their New Testament, which includes the twenty-seven traditional books as well as eight additional writings not found in other Christian canons.

These examples may be insignificant to many of us, for many of us are unaware that these other Christian traditions exist. But they should raise questions concerning who determines the scope of the Christian canon. However, in the history of the Western Church, the most significant differences between two canons of scripture involve the variations between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Old Testaments.

The Roman Catholic Old Testament follows what is known as the Alexandrian Canon, which is associated with the Septuagint, an ancient Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. This canon consists not only of books accepted by Protestants, called protocanonical by Roman Catholics, but also additional books known by Roman Catholics as deuterocanonical. Protestants do not accept these additional books as canonical and refer to them as apocryphal.

The Roman Church affirmed its canon long before the birth of Protestantism, and has reaffirmed it at the Council of Trent in 1546, and in more recent history at Vatican Councils I (1870) and II (1960s). Yet, Protestants deny this canon and only recognize the shorter number of books. What brought about the difference between the canons of these two Christian traditions?

The deuterocanonical books came under serious scrutiny and were rejected as scripture by leaders of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. This was due in part to the popularity, brought on by the Renaissance, of reading ancient texts in their original languages. Protestant Reformers, who were greatly influenced by the Renaissance, sought to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, thus favoring the Palestinian Canon, which contained the shorter list of books.

But the most significant reasons for excluding these deuterocanonical or apocryphal books were theological. Most Reformers attacked central theological teachings of the Roman Church, and so they dismissed certain books as teaching such false doctrines. From the position of attacking these doctrines, they then determined that these books were not divinely inspired, and thus should not be considered scripture.

However, although some Protestant leaders refused to see these books as canonical, they did include the deuterocanonical books in their translations, designating them as useful for devotional reading. Even the Authorized Version of 1611, better known as the King James Version, included these books and placed them between the Old and New Testaments.

In 1647, however, the Westminster Confession of Faith declared these books as non-canonical in the Protestant Church stating that they, “not being of divine inspiration, are not a part of the Scripture.” Eventually these books would be omitted from Bibles published by Protestant Bible Societies, forever sealing the fate of these books in the Protestant tradition.

It should also be mentioned that some Reformers, most notably Martin Luther, also questioned some of the New Testament books. Luther doubted the canonicity of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation, but he was particularly troubled by James due to its emphasis on salvation by works, which was in direct opposition to the central tenet of his theology.

Once again we see that looking into the historical process of the acceptance of some books and the rejection of others raises certain questions for us today. First, although we hold to our own canons of scripture within our traditions, are we willing to admit the validity of other canons to other traditions? Following this, we must ask what we mean when we say that scripture is inspired by God and how we determine which books are inspired and which are not. Finally, and perhaps more seriously, we must once again come face to face with the question over the Bible as the sole source of Christian faith and life.


Linda Ginn said...

A study group I attend on Sunday afternoons at the church I attend has been looking at the development of the English bible for several months, and the manuscript tradition as a prelude to that. While we were focused on the manuscript tradition, I was amazed to realize the depth and variety of topics studied by researchers (not just who wrote or may have written what, but tools of writing, flat media materials like papyrus and vellum, employment of the amanuensis, methods of getting the writings from place to place, etc.).

Another interest of mine during this year of study has been the art of the illuminated manuscripts: addition of images and color in small areas like corners and capitals, the increasing and sometimes bewildering complexity of the artwork, the reduction of the art in the face of commercial interests of publishing and distribution. Much variety of skill is apparent in some of these illuminations. I wonder about the artists and calligraphers, whether the production of art for them was an act of devotion and worship, or a task for pay.

I agree with you that the questions of how the canons were determined, the reasons why they were set, and the historicity of the bibles we read are important. Whose influence was important in the editing of this version, or the translation of that one? I suspect that, for some people, to question these things is to question the foundations of faith. Some will not ever do that, preferring to trust that their bible has been preserved and protected by God and has been transmitted down through time exactly as it has always been. I guess it’s apparent I’m not in that camp.

The discovery of early documents (like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus codices), advancement of manuscript study, and development of textual criticism should (IMO) and have prompted attempts to produce the very best translations that are possible. This is appropriate in the study of scriptures, just as we expect it to inform our knowledge of medicine, botany, etc. Yet to do so, for some people, is to entertain doubt.

What I find about myself during this last year is a stronger confidence in the scriptures than I have known for quite a while. I confess to skepticism. When I consider the political implications of the development of theology, and the power associated with orthodoxy vs heresy, I have mistrusted the patristic leaders for some time. There was much to protect, there was ground not to lose. There was a hierarchy of power that developed agendas to sustain itself. During this last year of study, I have had time to consider that the scriptures we have been reading all our lives have been translated and edited and corrected by men (and a few women) who, though they are imperfect humans, are and were also honorable people who loved the scriptures they studies. Thanks be to God.

Jay Damien said...

It's a question of authority. Whose authority does one accept? Various Orthodox Churches added to the original Bible. Protestants subtracted from it, accepting Martin Luther's rejection of Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Wisdom, and 1 and 2 Maccabees but NOT his rejection of Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation.

My authority is the Church founded by Jesus Christ whose own first-century writings she named the New Testament and who named the contents of the Old Testament and formed the Bible at the close of the fourth Christian century. Jesus didn't leave us a book -- He left us a Church. The Church, guided by the Spirit, produced the Bible.

To answer Linda, monks produced the illuminated biblical manuscripts as a lifetime labor of love. You may wish to read "IN THE BEGINNING, BIBLES BEFORE THE YEAR 1000" published in 2006 by the Smithsonian.