Sacred Tradition and the Development of the New Testament Canon

In 2 Timothy 3:16-17 St. Paul writes “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 

What is “all” Scripture?  At the time of his writing, St. Paul would have been referring to the Old Testament – the writings Timothy had known from childhood (2 Timothy 3:15).  And while the apostles were careful to appoint successors so positions in church leadership were filled and continuous, they, like Christ, did not leave a compiled book of Scripture as we know the New Testament today.  They did leave a number of writings, and these were being circulated through the various Christian communities and proclaimed during the liturgy.  But it remained to the Church to discern which of these writings were actually Scripture, and that process took place over the early centuries of the Church.  The Catechism recognizes this as a work of Sacred Tradition:

CCC83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus’ teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit.  The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition. 

CCC120 It was by the apostolic Tradition that the Church discerned which writings are to be included in the list of the sacred books.  This complete list is called the canon of Scripture.  It includes 46 books for the Old Testament (45 if we count Jeremiah and Lamentations as one) and 27 for the New.

This work of discerning the New Testament canon was a process.  Wikipedia gives a good, referenced summary of how some of this played out.

“By the early 3rd century, Origen may have been using the same twenty-seven books as in the present New Testament canon, though there were still disputes over the acceptance of the Letter to the Hebrews, James, II Peter, II John, III John, Jude and Revelation, known as the Antilegomena.  Likewise, the Muratorian fragment is evidence that perhaps as early as 200, there existed a set of Christian writings somewhat similar to the twenty-seven book NT canon, which included four gospels and argued against objections to them.  Thus, while there was a good measure of debate in the Early Church over the New Testament canon, the major writings are claimed to have been accepted by almost all Christians by the middle of the 3rd century.

In his Easter letter of 367, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, gave a list of the books that would become the twenty-seven-book NT canon, and he used the word ‘canonized’ in regard to them.  The first council that accepted the present canon of the New Testament may have been the Synod of Hippo Regius in North Africa (393).  A brief summary of the acts was read at and accepted by the Councils of Carthage in 397 and 419.  These councils were under the authority of St. Augustine, who regarded the canon as already closed.  Pope Damasus I’s Council of Rome in 382, if the Decretum Gelasianum is correctly associated with it, issued a biblical canon identical to that mentioned above, or, if not, the list is at least a 6th-century compilation.  Likewise, Damasus’ commissioning of the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible, c.  383, was instrumental in the fixation of the canon in the West.  In c.  405, Pope Innocent I sent a list of the sacred books to a Gallic bishop, Exsuperius of Toulouse.  Christian scholars assert that, when these bishops and councils spoke on the matter, however, they were not defining something new but instead ‘were ratifying what had already become the mind of the Church.’

Thus, some claim that, from the 4th century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon, and that, by the 5th century, the Eastern Church, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon.”

There are also a few books accepted by some of the early Christian communities that ultimately were not included in the canon of Scripture.  Some examples:

“The Shepherd of Hermas, sometimes just called The Shepherd, is a Christian literary work of the late first half of the second century, considered a valuable book by many Christians, and considered canonical scripture by some of the early Church fathers such as Irenaeus.  The Shepherd was very popular amongst Christians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries.  It is found in the Codex Sinaiticus, and it is listed between the Acts of the Apostles and the Acts of Paul in the stichometrical list of the Codex Claromontanus.”

“The Didache, also known as The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations, is a brief anonymous early Christian treatise written in Koine Greek, dated by modern scholars to the first, or (less commonly) second century AD…

The Didache is considered part of the group of second-generation Christian writings known as the Apostolic Fathers.  The work was considered by some Church Fathers to be a part of the New Testament, while being rejected by others as spurious or non-canonical.  In the end, it was not accepted into the New Testament canon.”

“The First Epistle of Clement is a letter addressed to the Christians in the city of Corinth.…

The epistle was publicly read from time to time in Corinth, and by the 4th century this usage had spread to other churches.  It was included in the 5th century Codex Alexandrinus, which contained the entire Old and New Testaments.  It was included with the Gospel of John in the fragmentary early Greek and Akhmimic Coptic papyrus designated Papyrus 6.  First Clement is listed as canonical in ‘Canon 85’ of the Canons of the Apostles, showing that First Clement had canonical rank in at least some regions of early Christendom.”

Many people, both Catholic and Protestant have little understanding that the development of the New Testament was a process that took place during the early centuries of the Church. This process was guided by the Holy Spirit and ultimately brought to resolution through the Church.  Along with determining the canon, the Church rejected many works known to be spurious, such as the Gnostic texts that had been written and put into circulation.  Non-Christians often have the opinion these texts were rejected by the Church because the Church wanted to “control” the story of Christ in such a way that it promoted and protected the Church itself.  From the Catholic perspective, these texts were rejected because Sacred Tradition allowed the Church to know they weren’t of apostolic origin at all, even though many of the texts bear the names of the apostles.

Within Protestantism, the reality that the canon of Scripture was determined by the Church can pose a serious problem for their belief in sola-Scriptura.  The Bible did not come to us as one composed book with a table of contents, but rather individual writings in circulation among the various Christian communities.  As seen above, there were books that were ultimately included in the canon of Scripture that were often disputed as being canonical in the early communities. There were other books that were proclaimed by some communities during the liturgy and viewed to be Scripture, but were ultimately rejected by the Church as part of Sacred Scripture.  If one professes the only infallible authority is Scripture, and the determination of which books belong in Scripture was not given as part of Scripture itself, then the most Protestants can say is they have an infallible book with a fallible table of contents. 

It can be interesting to see how Protestantism tries to wrestle with this issue:

“There originally was no church council to decide what books were to be included in the canon.  They were recognized by the consensus of the entire body of the church not by a council of bishops.  The books were written under the inspiration of God, they were canonical the moment they were written.  A council was not necessary to affirm what was already true.  No book became canonical by the action of a church council in the same way the Old Testament books were not decided upon by the Sanhedrin.  What the council did was to determine which books did not meet the tests for canonicity.

Of course, it’s not really accurate to say the 27 books of the New Testament were recognized by the consensus of the entire body of the Church, as shown above.  The problem with this particular view is fairly obvious to me.  While books were indeed originally in circulation without the benefit of a Church Council, historically we know there were books included in the canon that were often disputed, and others were often accepted within the communities that ultimately ended up being rejected.  And while it’s true the Church’s decision is not what made a book inspired, the idea that all the councils did was to determine which books were false seems a bit of a stretch.  If the councils determined which books were false, does not that imply they also had to determine which books were true?

Here’s another view that is problematic:

“100-400 AD: For whatever reason, the canon was not formally closed until about 400 AD.  Contrary to what the Roman Catholic church teaches, it was an African synod that made the historic proclamation, entrenching the 27 books as the canon.  Rome had nothing to do with it!  It was not an initiative of the church at Rome.”

What this view fails to realize of course is that it was St. Augustine who led those councils (a Catholic bishop in communion with the Pope), and Hippo and Carthage were Roman African provinces.  And the councils and list of books were ratified by Pope Damascus, who had already commissioned the translation of the Bible into Latin ten years before these councils with the exact same list of New Testament books.  Why Latin?  Because it, along with Greek (the original language of the New Testament texts) were the two most common languages of the Roman empire.  It was the intent of the Church to make Scripture available in a language that would allow more people access to God’s written word.

The entirely of this next article provides support of the development of the New Testament canon that aligns with the information I provided above from Wikipedia.  It also highlights the dilemma often found within Protestantism when there is a recognition the canon of Scripture wasn’t include in the infallible texts, but most certainly does not want to credit the Church for her role in defining an infallible canon of Scripture:

“The term ‘canon’ is used to describe the books that are divinely inspired and therefore belong in the Bible.  The difficulty in determining the biblical canon is that the Bible does not give us a list of the books that belong in the Bible.  Determining the canon was a process conducted first by Jewish rabbis and scholars and later by early Christians.  Ultimately, it was God who decided what books belonged in the biblical canon.  A book of Scripture belonged in the canon from the moment God inspired its writing.  It was simply a matter of God’s convincing His human followers which books should be included in the Bible…..

Again, it is crucial to remember that the church did not determine the canon.  No early church council decided on the canon.  It was God, and God alone, who determined which books belonged in the Bible.  It was simply a matter of God’s imparting to His followers what He had already decided.  The human process of collecting the books of the Bible was flawed, but God, in His sovereignty, and despite our ignorance and stubbornness, brought the early church to the recognition of the books He had inspired.”

Since sola-Scriptura professes only Scripture itself is infallible, holding strictly to that can only result in an infallible text but a fallible table of contents.  There is a “begrudging” acceptance of that fact among Protestants who have studied the issue, and a great deal of effort is made to minimize the role the Church played to determine an infallible table of contents.  For Catholics, this struggle does not exist.  We realize “God imparts to his followers” many things through the authority of the Church, Sacred Tradition and the training of “specialists” through apostolic succession.  Producing an infallible table of contents for the New Testament is but one such example. 

My next post will explore the role of the Church in the Old Testament canon. 

One thought on “Sacred Tradition and the Development of the New Testament Canon

  1. Pingback: Hebrew Language #6 Hebrew Literature #3 Halakhah | Bijbelvorser = Bible Researcher

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