Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

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Bible, III (Canon)

[New Catholic Encyclopedia]

Canonicity, the history of the canon, and the history of the religious books rejected from the official canon of the Bible are concepts that are quite distinct the concept of the inspiration of the Bible. After an introductory section on the canon of Scripture in general, this article treats of the history of the OT c the history of the NT canon, the apocryphal (or rejected) books of the OT, and the apocrypha of the NT.


Understanding of the canon of Sacred Scriptures in general requires clarification of the terminology used in this matter, the relationship between inspiration and canonicity, the criterion of the canon for the Catholic Church, and the criteria used in other Christian Churches.

Terminology. The Greek word kanôn, from which the English word canon is a direct borrowing, signifies (1) a cane, a straight rod; (2) a measuring rod; and (3) a norm, a law. In the last sense the term is used for a law, or canon, of *Canon Law. In regard to the Bible the term was first used to designate the idea of the Sacred Scripture as the norm of true religion, but was soon employed also in the sense of norm or list defining what books constitute the Sacred Scriptures. It is in the last sense that the term is used throughout this article. The Catholic canon of the Bible is the list of books that the Catholic Church officially declares to be inspired by God and presents as such to the faithful (see CANON, BIBLICAL).

Disagreement on which books are inspired already existed among the early Jews; the Palestinian Jews accepted a shorter list than did the Alexandrian Jews. In the first Christian centuries those books that were recognized by all were called homologoúmenoi, the books "agreed upon"; those not accepted by all were called antilegómenoi, "contradicted" or amphiballómenoi, "doubtful." Since the 16th century the terms introduced by Sixtus of Siena have superseded the old terms, so that the homologoúmenoi are now called protocanonical, and the antilegómenoi are called deuterocanonical. Catholics today accept both protocanonical and deuterocanonical books as inspired and part of the canon. Protestants generally reject the deuterocanonical books and call them apocryphal. Catholics reserve the term apocryphal for books other than the deuterocanonical books, e.g., the Gospel of James. This latter category of books, which Catholics call apocryphal, are called pseudepigraphical ("falsely titled") by Protestants. See BIBLE, III (CANON), 4, 5.

Inspiration and Canonicity. All the books in the canon are inspired, but it is debated whether or not there is or could be any inspired book that, because of its loss, is not in the canon. The Church has not settled the question. The more general opinion is that some inspired books probably have been lost. In 1 Cor 5.9, St. Paul refers to a previous letter of his, and in 2 Cor. 2.3-9; 7.8-12 he refers to an earlier letter different from 1 Corinthians. However, not all agree on these conclusions. In Col 4.16 Paul speaks of a letter that he wrote to the Laodiceans, which as such is not extant, although it may possibly be our Ephesians. The OT, too, mentions lost books, which may have been inspired (1 Chr 29.29; 2 Chr 9.29; 12.15).

Catholic Criterion of Canonicity. The problem of the criterion of the canon remains only partially solved. Catholics hold that the proximate and ultimate criterion is the infallible decision of the Church in listing its sacred and canonical books. St. Augustine says (C. epist. fund. 5.5; CSEL 25:197): "I would not believe the Gospel, if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me."

But the question remains: By what means did the church determine the matter? The testimony of Christ and the Apostles, who cite the OT as a sacred work, is indicative of the inspiration of the books they cite. Their testimony may suffice for the entire OT, inasmuch as they often quote from the Septuagint (LXX), which contained both protocanonical and deuterocanonical books. Once the inspiration of 2 Peter is established, the fact that 2 Pt 3.16 refers to certain Pauline Epistles in conjunction with other Scriptures (i.e., the OT) suffices to show the inspiration of genuinely Pauline writings. Some hold that the Church in determining the canon preserves a revelation left by the Apostles on this matter. It is difficult to suppose, however, that the Apostles left behind an explicit tradition about the canon. The history of the canon shows too many doubts and fluctuations for this theory to be plausible.

M. J. Lagrange and S. Zarb hold that apostolic authorship suffices to establish inspiration for the NT, and prophetic authorship for the OT. In this case, although Mark and Luke were not Apostles, they wrote down the gospel as preached respectively by Peter and Paul, who thus became the ultimate authors of the second and third Gospels. Christ gave the Apostles a special understanding of the kingdom (Mk 4.11) and promised special guidance (Jn 14.16; 16.13) so that their word was received as the word of God (Lk 10.16; 1 Thes 2.13). Thus, although apostolicity and inspiration are not the same, yet, when the Apostles wrote, they were inspired. Tradition supports this theory. The *Muratorian Canon excludes the Shepherd of *Hermas as not apostolic. St. Justin (Apol. 1.67; PG 6.429) says the Gospels are "memoirs" of the Apostles. Origen (Periarchon 1.4; PG 11:118) says: "It is manifestly preached in the churches . . . that that Spirit inspired each of the holy prophets and Apostles." St. Irenaeus (Adv. haer. 3.1.1; PG 7:844) says of the Apostles: They then preached it, but afterwards, by the will of God, handed it down to us in the Scriptures." Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4.2.1; CorpChrist 1:547) says: "The evangelical instrument has the Apostles as authors, on whom this duty of promulgating the gospel was imposed by God Himself." St. Augustine (C. adv. leg. 1.20.39: PL 42:626) says that if the apocrypha attributed to Andrew and John "were really theirs, they would have been accepted by the Church."

Opponents of this view note that not all books of the OT are by prophets and say the patristic texts merely show that these books were traditionally accepted, but they do not make apostolicity a criterion. K. Rahner suggests that the NT is willed by God as a constituent element of the Church and is inspired in that sense and that the Church is able to recognize its own constituent elements. Although Y. M. J. Congar accepts this view in general, he objects that it minimizes the role of Apostles and prophets. He admits that inspiration was a grace of the primitive Church, but he holds that it was primarily a personal grace of the Apostles.

Protestant Criteria of Canonicity. Early Protestant attempts to solve the problem made the criteria subjective: Luther made the criterion consist in the intensity with which Christ is preached according to the principle of justification by faith alone, and therefore he excluded James from the canon. Others, especially Calvin, appealed to the interior testimony of God given to each reader, or to the edifying nature of the matter, or to its sublimity and simplicity.

More recent Protestant attempts have sought a more objective criterion. T. Zahn tried to explain the origin of the canon by saying that the early Christians used the present canonical books in public worship and eventually came to revere them as sacred. The liturgical reading of the words and acts of Jesus strengthened the religious life of the Assembly. To this one may object: why was canonical acceptance not given to works like the Shepherd of Hermas, or to the first Epistle of Clement (which also was read at public worship)? A. von Harnack suggested that all the men of the first generation had charisma, and so all that they wrote was considered inspired. The Roman Church, to defend itself against Montanists and other dissidents, in A.D. 180 drew up a closed list of inspired works. Against von Harnack's view is the objection that the Church never put charismatic utterances on the same plane as apostolic teaching. R. H. Grutzmacher tries to find a middle way between the historical and authoritative approach. According to him, historical criticism chooses a number of books, as early as possible in origin, from which each Christian by an inner light chooses those on which to found his faith. The Church aids this choice, having worked on the canon for centuries and having settled on those books that experience shows useful for salvation. Another Protestant, G. B. Smith, concludes that only when one admits a divine authority in the Church can there be an infallible canon. Liberal Protestants, because of a loose concept of inspiration, show little concern with the problem of the criterion of the canon.

Bibliography: H. OPPEL, KANON: Zur Bedeutungsgeschichte des Wortes und seiner lateinischen Entsprechungern (regulanorma) (Leipzig 1937). L. WENGER, "Canon in den römischen Rechtsquellen und in den Papyri: Eine Wortstudie" SBWien (PhilosHist) 220.2 (1942). H. HÖPFL DBSuppl 1:1022-45. S. ZARB De historia canonis utriusque testamenti (2d ed. Rome 1934). K. RAHNER, Inspiration in the Bible, tr. C. H. HENKEY (New York 1961). Y. M. J. CONGAR, "Inspiration des écritures canoniques et apostolicité de l'Église," RevScPhilTh 45 (1961) 32-42. G. B. SMITH, "Can the Distinction between Canonical and Non-canonical Writings be Maintained?" Biblical World, NS 37 (1911) 19-29. J. VAN DODEWAARD, EncDictBibl 308-314. T. VON ZAHN, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons, 2 v. (Erlangen 1888-92) 1:83; Einige Bemerkungen zu A. Harnacks Prüfung der Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons (Leipzig 1889). A. VON HARNACK, Die Entstehung des Neuen Testaments und die wichtigsten Folgen der neuen Schöpfung (Beitrage zur Einleitung in das N.T. 6; Leipzig 1914). R. H. GRÜTZMACHER, Die Haltbarkeit des Kanonbegriffes: Theologische Studien Th. Zahn dargebracht (Leipzig 1900).



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