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Does it matter when the Canon of Sacred Scripture was settled? August 4, 2015

Posted by Tantumblogo in Basics, Bible, catachesis, Ecumenism, error, foolishness, General Catholic, history, Society, Tradition.

A commenter with an evangelical orientation left a comment on a recent post on the massive changes made to the traditional Breviary to produce the new Liturgy of the Hours (let alone the changes to the lectionary).  He gets a 15 yard penalty and loss of down for a non sequitur comment on a post that had nothing to do with the Canon of Scripture, but he opines that because the New Testament was written mere decades after the Resurrection and Ascension of our Savior Jesus Christ, that means protestants are right to rely on Sola Scriptura as the basis of all their belief.  Now, I could attack this claim from many directions – private interpretation leading to tens of thousands of competing sects each disagreeing with the other, routine failure to keep various bits of Scripture in context, the novelty of Sola Scriptura, unheard of prior to the 15th century, its complete rejection by all the ancient Churches (over and above the tendency of evangelicals to fixate on Catholic belief, the Orthodox, Copts, Chaldeans, all base belief on both Scripture and Tradition), etc.,  but I won’t.  The main claim was that because books that eventually wound up being included in the Canon of Scripture (settled by whom………oh that’s right, the Catholic Church) were available from a very early date, that means the faithful had all the truth they needed to properly observe the Faith absent Sacred Tradition.

But is this correct?  Is it sensical?  To start, while yes, I believe that the Gospels were written very early, even earlier than our protestant commentator claims (and St. Matthew was, of course, first*), there were also scads of apocrypha about, sometimes containing novel beliefs that contradicted the ultimate Canon of Scripture and causing great confusion among the faithful.  There was huge debate even among many books that wound up being included in the Canon itself, as to whether or not they were truly inspired.  It took many decades of very careful study and prayerful guidance before it was discerned that books like The Apocalypse of St. John, the 2nd and 3rd Letters of St. John, the 2nd Letter of St. Peter, etc were indeed inerrant and inspired works.  Meanwhile, dozens of books that many found to be very spiritually edifying – the Shephard of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, among others – were discerned after equally close study and review to be not inspired.

The point being, even with what eventually was discerned to be authentic, inspired Scripture floating around, it had to be discerned from that which was either inauthentic or, at least, judged to be uninspired (and judged by spiritual giants: Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, etc).  Over and above spiritually valid but uninspired works, there was also a whole panoply of strongly heretical, Gnostic-inspired works (totally 52 separate texts!) like the “Gospel of Thomas” and the “Gospel of Mary.”

All of these works, ranging from the very helpful but uninspired Shepherd of Hermas, to the blatantly heretical Gospel of Thomas, were available from very early on, as well, contemporaneously with the authentic, inspired Scripture.

This leaves aside just how common even the eventually accepted Books of the New Testament were, and how many could actually read them.  That’s an entirely different problem, and one that frequently escapes those ensconced in modernity, where virtually everyone can read and where there are literally hundreds of millions of bibles floating around.  In the early 1st century, all books had to be laboriously copied by hand onto fragile papyrus scrolls.  At best, each community of believers might have a partial set of the authentic books of the New Testament, and early on, in the timeframe referenced by the commenter, it is most likely that most had only very partial sets, or none at all.

Thus, in the early Church, inspired and inerrant Scripture was available, but so was a whole bunch of other stuff, some of it relatively benign, others horribly destructive and full of errors. Which was which was hotly debated even among many great Saints and Fathers of the early Church, with some very notable early Church leaders doubting whether works eventually included in the Canon of Scripture were actually inspired. If such division existed among very holy and learned souls, how were the faithful to discern, prior to the formal declaration of the Canon, that which was divinely inspired, and that which was not?  How was it determined that even those elements which came to make up the Canon of Scripture were inspired and thus, inerrant?

TRADITION.  St. Paul said in his Catholic Epistle to the Galatians that anyone who preached a Gospel other than that which he had conveyed to them – orally, that is, by oral TRADITION – even if he be an “angel,” let him be anathema.  St. Peter warns  that there is much in the then extant written Scripture that is confusing and that men would twist it to their own destruction, and counsels the faithful to judge these twisters of Scripture according to the Gospel which had already been revealed to them.  Which, mind, is exactly what the Church did when the protestant revolutionaries first proclaimed their novelties to the world – they judged them according to 1500 years of practice and belief, and found them wanting.

Tradition is the glue that held the early Church together, and which has been the binding force ever since.  Even after two thousand years of  having the works of the Bible available to us, it is ultimately Tradition, the continuing of belief and practice handed down from the Apostles to the very first believers by word of mouth, typically, then later reinforced in writing, that informs the right understanding and interpretation of that Scripture and ties the Church together, past, present, and future.

The Church maintains that Scripture and Tradition are each fully equal pillars upon which all belief and practice stands. This belief is shared by ALL the ancient Churches that date to the Roman times. We see that when a group rejects Tradition, it rapidly develops beliefs that are counter to those of the earliest Church and novel interpretations of Scripture almost invariably follow.  Personally – and it’s nothing but that, my personal belief – I believe that Tradition is slightly more important than Scripture, since even the earliest dates for the creation of Scripture mean there was a 10-15 year window when no Scripture existed, and all knowledge about belief and practice was based on Tradition, but even more, because it was Tradition itself that was much relied on to help settle the Canon of Scripture.  Those works being the most consistently in accord with the practice of the Faith handed on from one person, from one generation to the next, were held to be the most likely to be inspired and inerrant.  There were certainly other factors, as well, as I said, much debate, prayer, and reflection went into that vital process of determining the Canon, but Tradition informed and undergirded them all.

There is more that I could include but this post is already getting fairly long so I’ll leave it at that, for now.  I guess one more telling point I could make is that all the protestant revolutionaries, and their revolutionary antecedents (like Wycliffe and Jan of Hus) arrived at their novel conclusion that Scripture should be the sole rule of Faith not because they had some hard evidence or divine revelation to that effect, but because they found in Tradition things they did not like, or more significantly, did not want to live in accord with.  Thus, Luther threw out much Tradition (and Catholic interpretation of Scripture!) because he could not control his sensual appetites, so works inspired by but also efficacious of Grace had to go out the window.  The harsh, cold, and calculating Calvin envisioned a harsh, cold, and calculating God.  That later “reformers” like Melancthon had to come along and further “reform” (really, re-Catholicize) much of the radical belief of their various sect’s founders because of the horrors they inspired only confirms that these were men twisting Scripture to their own ends, just as St. Peter warned.  But fallen man loves to hear that salvation is easy, that a one-time altar call is sufficient to insure eternal salvation, that morality is fungible and God doesn’t really expect much from us, and so these errors have proven very persistent and difficult to eradicate.

*- the belief that St. Matthew’s Gospel was first was practically universal until the mid-19th century, when Bismarck, Chancellor of Germany, commissioned liberal protestant scholars, some of the first modernists, to investigate Scripture from a “modern scientific” viewpoint. This effort was marked with strong political overtones and an anti-Catholic bias (Bismarck being then engaged in his Kulturkampf with the Church). This was the birth of the historical-critical method, which has been attacking and undermining Scripture ever since.  It was these German advocates of the “higher criticism” which really began the advocacy that St. Mark’s Gospel was first.  However, more and more evidence is now telling against the “historical-critical” method, and many of its claims from 50-60 years ago, then touted as the final word in biblical scholarship, have now been overturned.  Much of that overturning has pointed back to the more traditional understanding of Scripture as being correct, including the traditional belief that St. Matthew’s Gospel was written first, and within a decade or so of Our Lord’s Ascension.



1. Ever mindful - August 4, 2015

Well said, well said….and the third ” leg of the stool” after Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, is Magisterial Teaching.

2. Baseballmom - August 4, 2015

My NO pastor swears by the “Mark was first” mantra… Any links or suggestions re the newer teaching on the order of Gospels would be GREATLY APPRECIATED! Thanks.

3. Sobieski - August 5, 2015

Edward Feser penned a series of excellent critiques on sola scriptura over at his blog, the first of which is here.

4. Margaret Costello - August 5, 2015

Great post! When asked “which came first” it’s always Sacred Tradition i.e. the Deposit of faith. Nothing was written down for years. Without Sacred Tradition we would neither have the Magisterium nor Sacred Scripture. If anything, SS comes last. Really liked the bit where you call out fallen man for his desire to have things easy (and emo to boot). God bless~

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