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The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 7: Which are the Inspired Books?"

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In our sketch of apologetics in chapter 2, we said that the only way to be sure which books are inspired is to accept the decision of the Church. Actually, the Church was in no hurry to give definitive statements on this subject. Why?

We saw in chapter 6 that Form Criticism shows the Church has something more basic than the Gospels, its own ongoing teaching. Up to the time of Luther, people did not basically depend on Scripture, they simply followed the oral teaching of the Church, which, as we said, is primary. Jesus never told the Apostles: Write Some books, give out copies, tell people to figure them out for themselves. This is what the "Reformers" implied. It is foolish. Copies were very expensive, not everyone could read, and the study of Scripture is quite difficult, One should know the original languages, genres, history and culture among other things. In addition, the Second Epistle of Peter tells us (3:15-16) that in the Epistles of St. Paul there are many things that are hard are hard to understand: the unlearned and unstable twist them to their own destruction. The "Reformers" surely proved that right.

Instead, we find in Second Timothy 1:13: "Hold to the form of sound teaching which you heard from me." And again in 2:2: "The things which you heard from me, through many witnesses, hand on to trustworthy men, who will be able in turn to teach others."

Not strange then that the Church saw no urgent need to draw up a canon, that is, a list of inspired books. St. Justin Martyr, in his defense of Christianity to the Jew Trypho (Dialogue, chapter 32, cf. 68) says he will use only the Scripture that the Jews would accept - a natural move in such a dialogue.

There was an unofficial list in the Muratorian Fragment - which was found at Milan. It dates from late second century, and does give a list of books. However we see in it some early hesitations. Not mentioned are the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistles of James and Peter. It rejects some pseudo-Pauline letters to Laodicea, and Gnostic, Marcionite and Montanist writings in general. From this we gather that a stimulus to make a list came from the existence of heretical writings. Marcion rejected the entire Old Testament, and three Gospels, keeping part of Luke and some of St. Paul's Epistles.

While most of the books of Old and New Testament were accepted by the Church from the beginning, there were some hesitations, such as those about the so-called Deuterocanonicals, which are, in general those books that are found in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament) but not in the Hebrew Old Testament. (They include in general: Sirach, Wisdom, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith and additions to Esther and Daniel).

There were also other hesitations, for example, the Epistle to the Hebrews was accepted very early in the East, chiefly at Alexandria, but the west did not accept it until the fourth century. In reverse, the Apocalypse/ Revelation was accepted early in the west, only later in the East. Many fathers - chiefly: Justin, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian and Hippolytus believed the John who was its author was the Apostle John. Other fathers, chiefly: Denis of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom thought it was not the Apostle John.

St. Augustine accepted the longer canon (list - including the deuterocanonicals) and defended it in his De Doctrina Christiana 8. At the Council of Hippo, his diocese, in 393 AD the longer canon was accepted, and repeated and confirmed in the 3rd and 4th Councils of Carthage in 397 and 418. At the end of the decree was a request to Pope Boniface to confirm it. In 405 St. Exsuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, wrote to Pope Innocent I, asking him for a ruling. The Pope wrote back to him, repeating the list drawn up by the Councils. As a result there was much unanimity in the west in the 5th century, though the East was slower to accept, waiting until the 7th century.

But even in the west there was some difficulty, especially under the influence of St. Jerome, who tended to favor the shorter canon (without the deuterocanonicals). So Pope Gregory I spoke of First Macchabees as useful for edification but not canonical. Cardinal Cajetan, about a thousand years later, expressed a similar view even after the Decree for the Jacobites of the Council of Florence (1441: DS 1335).

The really final settlement came from the Council of Trent, against the errors of Luther, in 1546 (DS 1501-05). It accepted the same list as the African councils.

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