Sunday, May 25, 2014

Michuta on Augustine on the Canon - Some Mistakes Corrected

One of the faults of Gary Michuta's "Why are Catholic Bibles Bigger," is its apparent uncritical reliance on a number of secondary sources, especially Breen's "General and Critical Introduction," (here is one problem that came from that) and Gigot's "General Introduction." In the section on Augustine, Michuta seems to draw mostly from Charles J. Costello's "St. Augustine's Doctrine on the Inspiration and Canonicity of Scripture."  Unfortunately, it seems that Michuta did not dig deep enough into Augustine in preparing to write his book.

Michuta - evidently relying on Costello - states: "Augustine calls Sirach 'Holy Scripture' and states plainly that the book contains the words of a prophet." (p. 158)  Unfortunately for Michuta (and perhaps also for Costello), Augustine took back this particular claim, later in his life.
Moreover, I do not seem to have correctly called prophetic the words in this passage: "Why is earth and ashes proud?" [Sirach 10:9] for the book in which this is read is not the work of one whom we can be certain that he should be called a prophet. 
Augustine, Retractions, Section 3 of the Retractions regarding On Genesis Against the Manicheans, p. 43, The Fathers of the Church, Volume 60, Sister M. Inez Bogan, R.S.M. translator.(as previously posted here)

Keep in mind that Augustine's Retractions were written around 426-27 - over thirty years after the famous Council of Hippo that identified Sirach as canonical (in some sense).  It's unclear what this change of position on Augustine's part is based on mature reflection, Jerome's influence, or other factors.  You may recall that Augustine had recognized the conflict between the Jewish canon and the Christian canon in City of God, Book 18, Chapter 36:

After these three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, during the same period of the liberation of the people from the Babylonian servitude Esdras also wrote, who is historical rather than prophetical, as is also the book called Esther, which is found to relate, for the praise of God, events not far from those times; unless, perhaps, Esdras is to be understood as prophesying of Christ in that passage where, on a question having arisen among certain young men as to what is the strongest thing, when one had said kings, another wine, the third women, who for the most part rule kings, yet that same third youth demonstrated that the truth is victorious over all. For by consulting the Gospel we learn that Christ is the Truth. From this time, when the temple was rebuilt, down to the time of Aristobulus, the Jews had not kings but princes; and the reckoning of their dates is found, not in the Holy Scriptures which are called canonical, but in others, among which are also the books of the Maccabees. These are held as canonical, not by the Jews, but by the Church, on account of the extreme and wonderful sufferings of certain martyrs, who, before Christ had come in the flesh, contended for the law of God even unto death, and endured most grievous and horrible evils.
It is interesting to note that Michuta quotes only the sentence beginning "These are held as canonical," without providing the preceding sentence (whether due to his reliance on Costello is unclear).  Regardless of his reasons for omitting that sentence, the sentence does suggest that Augustine is distinguishing between books that are edifying reading and books that are actually inspired.  After all, it would be hard to have an inspired book without a prophet.

Moreover, in the next chapter, Augustine clearly adopts the Jewish view of cessation of prophecy after Ezra (Esdras) (Book 18, Chapter 37):

In the time of our prophets, then, whose writings had already come to the knowledge of almost all nations, the philosophers of the nations had not yet arisen—at least, not those who were called by that name, which originated with Pythagoras the Samian, who was becoming famous at the time when the Jewish captivity ended. Much more, then, are the other philosophers found to be later than the prophets. For even Socrates the Athenian, the master of all who were then most famous, holding the pre-eminence in that department that is called the moral or active, is found after Esdras in the chronicles. Plato also was born not much later, who far out went the other disciples of Socrates.

Similarly, Augustine provides more clues in the next chapter (Book 18, Chapter 38):
What of Enoch, the seventh from Adam? Does not the canonical epistle of the Apostle Jude declare that he prophesied? [Jude 14] But the writings of these men could not be held as authoritative either among the Jews or us, on account of their too great antiquity, which made it seem needful to regard them with suspicion, lest false things should be set forth instead of true. ... But the purity of the canon has not admitted these writings, not because the authority of these men who pleased God is rejected, but because they are not believed to be theirs. Nor ought it to appear strange if writings for which so great antiquity is claimed are held in suspicion, seeing that in the very history of the kings of Judah and Israel containing their acts, which we believe to belong to the canonical Scripture, very many things are mentioned which are not explained there, but are said to be found in other books which the prophets wrote, the very names of these prophets being sometimes given, and yet they are not found in the canon which the people of God received. Now I confess the reason of this is hidden from me; only I think that even those men, to whom certainly the Holy Spirit revealed those things which ought to be held as of religious authority, might write some things as men by historical diligence, and others as prophets by divine inspiration; and these things were so distinct, that it was judged that the former should be ascribed to themselves, but the latter to God speaking through them: and so the one pertained to the abundance of knowledge, the other to the authority of religion. In that authority the canon is guarded. So that, if any writings outside of it are now brought forward under the name of the ancient prophets, they cannot serve even as an aid to knowledge, because it is uncertain whether they are genuine; and on this account they are not trusted, especially those of them in which some things are found that are even contrary to the truth of the canonical books, so that it is quite apparent they do not belong to them.
Notice that Augustine apparently has room for certain books as canonical books that lack prophetic authority but are an "aid to knowledge." 

We see some questions in Augustine's head even back in 396 when he wrote "On Christian Doctrine."  In discussing the canon (book 2, chapter 8, section 13) he wrote: 
For two books, one called Wisdom and the other Ecclesiasticus, are ascribed to Solomon from a certain resemblance of style, but the most likely opinion is that they were written by Jesus the son of Sirach. Still they are to be reckoned among the prophetical books, since they have attained recognition as being authoritative.
Still, even this list - coming after the council of Hippo - is presented with the following caveat (book 2, chapter 8, sections 12-13):

Now, in regard to the canonical Scriptures, he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches; and among these, of course, a high place must be given to such as have been thought worthy to be the seat of an apostle and to receive epistles. Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures he will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal.

13. Now the whole canon of Scripture on which we say this judgment is to be exercised, is contained in the following books:
Augustine is still asserting - after Hippo - that the individual must exercise judgment, despite the fact that Augustine believes that the individual should weigh the testimony of the churches (plural) in making the judgment.

There's another puzzle in considering Augustine's canon.  In On Christian Doctrine, at Book 2, Chapter 8, Section 13, Augustine lists within his canon: "the two of Ezra, which last look more like a sequel to the continuous regular history which terminates with the books of Kings and Chronicles."  While such a description is not unambiguous, it would be a good description of LXX Esdras A (aka "the Book of Esdras" or "the First Book of Esdras" ).  That book begins with an excerpt from 2 Chronicles, adds material from Ezra and Nehemiah, reordering some of the Ezra material, and adding a small amount of unique material.

I say, "unique material," because the material is not canonical.  The material, however, is described by the Encyclopedia Britannica this way: "The only new material is the “Tale of the Three Guardsmen,” a Persian folk story that was slightly altered to fit a Jewish context."

Michuta does have an interesting section on The Book of Esdras (pp. 238-42) in which he remarkably argues that the Roman Catholic canon is still open with respect to this book.  Michuta fails to apprise the reader of the source of the distinguishable material. He notes that "A few Church Fathers may have used Esdras as a canonical book, but this usage disappeared around the fifth century, although it remained in the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint" (emphasis Michuta's).  Michuta does not note there - or in the Augustine section - that Augustine is one of those fathers.

In particular, in City of God, at book 18, chapter 36, quoted at more length above, Augustine wrote:
After these three prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, during the same period of the liberation of the people from the Babylonian servitude Esdras also wrote, who is historical rather than prophetical, as is also the book called Esther, which is found to relate, for the praise of God, events not far from those times; unless, perhaps, Esdras is to be understood as prophesying of Christ in that passage where, on a question having arisen among certain young men as to what is the strongest thing, when one had said kings, another wine, the third women, who for the most part rule kings, yet that same third youth demonstrated that the truth is victorious over all.
This passage is Book of Esdras, chapters 3 and 4, the "unique" material from that book.  This seems to be pretty clear evidence that Augustine (and by extension, probably also the North African bishops who met in council at Hippo and Carthage) viewed the Book of Esdras as one of the two canonical books (rather than considering Ezra and Nehemiah as separate books).

I don't mean to suggest for a second that we should adopt the Book of Esdras as canonical on Augustine's say-so. I do think Augustine was wise to retract his error regarding Sirach (and presumably Wisdom as well, as he ascribes both of those writings to the same author, not to Solomon).  Likewise, I do not mean to suggest that we should hold the canon as tentatively as Augustine did or that we need to use precisely the same methods he did to come to the conclusions to which he came.  The point is, instead, to clear up some misinformation about Augustine - and to provide some important nuance regarding Augustine's use of the term "canonical," as not always implying that the books in question are inspired.

-TurretinFan

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