Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Did Hippo, Carthage, or Rome's Bishop Settle the Canon?

Some Roman Catholics are under the false impression that the councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and/or Carthage (A.D. 397) authoritatively settled the canon of Scripture for the church - either directly or by endorsement by one or more Roman bishops. To be deep in history, however, is to cease to be so naive.

John of Damascus (lived from about A.D. 676 – 749) wrote on the canon of the New Testament:
The New Testament contains four gospels, that according to Matthew, that according to Mark, that according to Luke, that according to John; the Acts of the Holy Apostles by Luke the Evangelist; seven catholic epistles, viz. one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude; fourteen letters of the Apostle Paul; the Revelation of John the Evangelist; the Canons of the holy apostles, by Clement.
- John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 17

You will note that differs from our canon by the inclusion of the canons of Clement. He was wrong to include that work, but the fact remains that there was not a "catholic" (universal) canon of the New Testament even as late as the 8th century. There was widespread agreement by that time on the 27 books that we recognize were inspired, but there was no authoritative presence telling all Christians they must accept one set of books or another. Ask any Eastern Orthodox scholar when their church defined the canon - the answer will not be a date, and it may be a lecture on the difference between the eastern churches and those of the West.

On the Old Testament, John of Damascus similarly provides a list:
Observe, further, that there are two and twenty books of the Old Testament, one for each letter of the Hebrew tongue. For there are twenty-two letters of which five are double, and so they come to be twenty-seven. For the letters Caph, Mem, Nun, Pe, Sade are double. And thus the number of the books in this way is twenty-two, but is found to be twenty-seven because of the double character of five. For Ruth is joined on to Judges, and the Hebrews count them one book: the first and second books of Kings are counted one: and so are the third and fourth books of Kings: and also the first and second of Paraleipomena: and the first and second of Esdra. In this way, then, the books are collected together in four Pentateuchs and two others remain over, to form thus the canonical books. Five of them are of the Law, viz. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This which is the code of the Law, constitutes the first Pentateuch. Then comes another Pentateuch, the so-called Grapheia, or as they are called by some, the Hagiographa, which are the following: Jesus the Son of Nave, Judges along with Ruth, first and second Kings, which are one book, third and fourth Kings, which are one book, and the two books of the Paraleipomena which are one book. This is the second Pentateuch. The third Pentateuch is the books in verse, viz. Job, Psalms, Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes of Solomon and the Song of Songs of Solomon. The fourth Pentateuch is the Prophetical books, viz the twelve prophets constituting one book, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. Then come the two books of Esdra made into one, and Esther. There bare also the Panaretus, that is the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Jesus, which was published in Hebrew by the father of Sirach, and afterwards translated into Greek by his grandson, Jesus, the Son of Sirach. These are virtuous and noble, but are not counted nor were they placed in the ark.
- John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 17

You will notice that this is just the same (if we understand his "two books of Esdra" to refer to Ezra and Nehemiah, which seems probable and if we further assume that Lamentations is viewed as a part of Jeremiah, which is also probable) as our canon of the Old Testament, including the relegation of Wisdom and Sirach to a lesser status (useful, but not inspired).

What's more, we see that John of Damascus (iconophile though he may have been) shares a very high view of Scripture:
It is one and the same God Whom both the Old and the New Testament proclaim, Who is praised and glorified in the Trinity: I am come, saith the Lord, not to destroy the law but to fulfil it [St. Matt. v. 17.]. For He Himself worked out our salvation for which all Scripture and all mystery exists. And again, Search the Scriptures for they are they that testify of Me [St. John v. 39.]. And the Apostle says, God, Who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son [Heb. i. 1, 2.]. Through the Holy Spirit, therefore, both the law and the prophets, the evangelists and apostles and pastors and teachers, spake.

All Scripture, then, is given by inspiration of God and is also assuredly profitable [2 Tim. iii. 16.]. Wherefore to search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season [Ps. i. 3.], viz. orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean, actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation. For in these we find both exhortation to every virtue and dissuasion from every vice. If, therefore, we are lovers of learning, we shall also be learned in many things. For by care and toil and the grace of God the Giver, all things are accomplished. For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened [St. Luke xi. 10.]. Wherefore let us knock at that very fair garden of the Scriptures, so fragrant and sweet and blooming, with its varied sounds of spiritual and divinely-inspired birds ringing all round our ears, laying hold of our hearts, comforting the mourner, pacifying the angry and filling him with joy everlasting: which sets our mind on the gold-gleaming, brilliant back of the divine dove [Ps. lxviii. 13.], whose bright pinions bear up to the only-begotten Son and Heir of the Husbandman [St. Matt. xxi. 37.] of that spiritual Vineyard and bring us through Him to the Father of Lights [Jas. i. 17.]. But let us not knock carelessly but rather zealously and constantly: lest knocking we grow weary. For thus it will be opened to us. If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire. For ask thy Father, he saith, and He will shew thee: thy elders and they will tell thee [Deut. xxxii. 7.]. For there is not in every man that knowledge [1 Cor. viii. 7.]. Let us draw of the fountain of the garden perennial and purest waters springing into life eternal [St. John iv. 14.]. Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves.
- John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 17

Scriptures tell us what to believe and how to live. I would be very interested if someone wanted to try to find any comparable statement by John Damascene on oral tradition or (with still lower probability) the interpretative tradition of "the church."


1 comment:

Lucian said...

No, he/they didn't. (That again, maybe that statement is true for the Church of Rome, but.. no, it's not true for the whole Christian world).