Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Luther, Apologists and the Canon

Very often, RC apologists will claim that Luther wanted to remove books from the Bible, usually the Epistle of St. James is used as an example. Luther supposedly, on his own authority, wanted to remove the Epistle of St. James from the canon. I think this argument, like the 20,000-denominations-from-Sola-Scriptura argument belongs on the trash heap of apologetics.

First, regarding the questioning of the authenticity and authority of the antilegomana (books spoken against, i.e. challenged as to their authenticity) being something Luther invented. I will point out that the category of antilegomena is a very old one, and questioning the authority of the antilegomena has an ancient pedigree, going back to Jerome and even further. More than that, Cajetan (the Cardinal by whom Luther was examined for heresy) and Erasmus both questioned the authenticity of the antilegomena, and they were Luther's contemporaries.

Regarding Erasmus, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:

In these publications the attitude of Erasmus towards the text of the New Testament is an extremely radical one, even if he did not follow out all its logical consequences. In his opinion the Epistle of St. James shows few signs of the Apostolic spirit; the Epistle to the Ephesians has not the diction of St. Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews he assigns with some hesitation to Clement of Rome. In exegesis he favoured a cold rationalism and treated the Biblical narratives just as he did ancient classical myths, and interpreted them in a subjective and figurative, or, as he called it, allegorical, sense.
(The Catholic Encyclopedia

In a similar way to Luther, Erasmus thought that the Epistle of St. James did not have the "apostolic spirit". Yet somehow Erasmus escapes the wrath of RC apologists for "editing" the Bible.

Bruce Metzger wrote regarding Cajetan:

Even Cardinal Cajetan, Luther's opponent at Augsburg in 1518, gave an unhesitating approval to the Hebrew canon in his Commentary on All the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Testament, which he dedicated in 1532 to pope Clement VII. He expressly called attention to Jerome's separation of the canonical from the uncanonical books, and maintained that the latter must not be relied upon to establish points of faith, but used only for the edification of the faithful.
(Bruce Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, p. 180)

Once again, we find a RC theologian saying something Luther more or less said, yet he too escapes the wrath of RC apologists.

The issue was settled for RCs by Trent, but Trent settled this after Luther had died. In other words, Luther's questioning of the antilegomena fell within the range of RC orthodoxy during his lifetime. For this reason, among others, the charge Luther on his own authority simply decided to remove some books is simply wrong--Luther was not behaving any differently from some of the ECFs as well as contemporary scholarship, when he challenged the anilegomena. He also included the disputed books in his edition of the Bible, so if Luther wanted to remove the antilegomena he sure missed the opportunity!


Anonymous said...

Actually, the issue was settled for "RCs" by the Council of Florence, in its *Cantate Domino* (otherwise known as the "Decretum pro Jacobitis") of 1442; Trent simply reaffirmed (in the face of Protestant denials) the canonicity of those books.

And, as you are probably aware, the canonicity of those same books (which most Protestants today seem to characterize as a subset of the larger quantity of rejected books known as "apocrypha," but which Catholics and Orthodox regard as "deuterocanonical") was originally determined by a series of local councils throughout the Mediterranean world in the second half of the fourth century, among them notably the Council of Rome in 382, the Councils of Carthage of 391 and 393 and the Council of Rome of 419 or 420 -- and this despite St. Jerome's opinion on the subject (which Erasmus followed). This was the same canon (NT as well as OT) which Florence dogmatized in 1442 and Trent reaffirmed in 1547.

For the Orthodox, there was no "binding" or "dogmatic" endorsement of these Fourth Century councils. Before modern times, however, there were no Orthodox leaders or scholars who endorsed the "Jewish/Protestant" OT Canon. Rather, this lack of a "dogmatizing" of this canon has meant that some Orthodox churches have felt free to include further books with their Old Testaments -- such as the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 3 and 4 Maccabees and 3 and 4 Esdras. (Non-Chalcedonian Eastern churches include yet further books still, such as various Books of Enoch by the Ethiopians.) Some Orthodox, perhaps the majority historically by far, have regarded the Council of Jerusalem of 1672, which did in fact dogmatically prescribe the same OT Canon as the Catholics, as having "quasi-ecumenical" authority, but not all agree.

The German Lutheran scholar Martin Hengel published an interesting little book on the Septuagint a few years ago, which I read with interest and appreciation. However, I was startled to read in it Hengel's assertion that the Orthodox are now coming around to rejecting the OT Canon decreed by the Council of Jerusalem, and agreeing with that of the Protestants, especially as his only authority for the statement seemed to be "conversations" between Orthodox and Protestant scholars. His conclusions do not at all correspond with the impression that I have acquired through my reading of Orthodox literature on the subject.

William Tighe

Edward Reiss said...

Welcome Dr. Tighe!

I have a question. Was the decree regarding the canon at Florence infallibly declared? I ask, because if it was, how could Cajetan and Erasmus ignore it? It would seem to me that, they didn't know the decree, they ignored the decree, or they knew the decree but did not consider it dogmatically binding.

If I recall correctly, Cajetan submitted to the authority of Trent once the decree of Trent was published, so it would appear he thought Trent settled the matter where Florence did not.


William Tighe said...

Cajetan died in 1534, over a decade before Trent began.

As to the decree "Cantate Domino" of the Council of Florence, it is a dogmatic decree with an anathema attached to any who deny it, so it is as infallible as any other such decree. I suspect that any doubt about it reflects a larger doubt concerning the Council of Florence itself. The Council had opened at Basel in 1431, and when Pope Eugenius IV transferred it to Ferrara, then Florence, in 1438, about half the delegates trooped off to Italy, while the other half remained in Basel, ultimately defying the pope and declaring him excommunicated and deposed. (The reason for transferring the council to Italy was because the Byzantine delegation agreed to come West as far as Italy they refused to go farther.) Eventually the Council in Basel dwindled away almost to nothing, its "antipope" (the widowed Duke Amadeus of Savoy) resigning, but it continued long after Florence, dissolving itself only in 1449, six or seven years after the Council of Florence had come to an end. Down to the Reformation, there were "conciliarists" in the Catholic Church, especially in France, who insisted that Basel had been the true council and Florence an "anti-council," although they dwindled away to nothing, save among the French Gallicans, after Trent. I suspect that Erasmus' sympathies may have turned in that direction as well, although he was too "politic" a character to be willing to alienate any pope by saying so openly.

I have never been able to find a clear explanation as to why "Cantate Domino" issued a decree defining the Canon (both OT and NT). But since "Cantate Domino" was actually a decree of union between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Church of Egypt, by which the latter was made to renounce its "Monophysite errors" (the union, although accepted by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, lasted only a few years), I suspect that the (unstated) reason was to exclude those other books, above and beyond the deuterocanonical books, that the Copts included (and I think still include) in their Old Testament.

I think that Cajetan, a very judicious and balanced theologian and canonist, may have regarded the exact status of Florence as uncertain, and so perhaps the question as not definitively settled.

I mailed you a couple of xeroxed articles this morning, which bear on the question of the Christian OT Canon.

joel said...

Since, according to undoubted Scripture, Christ's sheep know His voice, shouldn't we expect the Church to know infallibly what are the books of Scripture and what aren't? Can the Lutheran church remain agnostic on the antilegomena and still be a true church?

Edward Reiss said...


Thanks for stopping by!

If we take your argument at face value, then doesn't this critique also accrue to the RCC? The reason I ask is that the canon was not settled until the 15th century.

In any case, what is necessary for the Church, as far as Lutherans are concerned, is not the Scriptures, but the Gospel. What we say is that the best place to find what the Gospel is, is in the Apostolic writings. Hence, they are the best way to establish doctrine--not tradition apart from the Scriptures.

joel said...


thank you very kindly for your reply. If you have time, I would covet a further response. You raised an excellent point--the RCC could also be critiqued as you suggested--but here's the thing: the RCC settled the canon, authoritatively and definitively (in its own eyes at least), even if it took them 15 centuries to do so. Lutherans have no mechanism, no definitive authority by which to settle the canon--ever.

The best place to find the Gospel is in the Apostolic writings, but that begs the question that Lutherans can't fully answer: which writings are the apostolic ones?

Do you think that the church described in the (unquestioned) sacred writings has the authority to pronounce which writings are canonical?

Edward Reiss said...


"The best place to find the Gospel is in the Apostolic writings, but that begs the question that Lutherans can't fully answer: which writings are the apostolic ones?"

The ones the Church uses, and has used. Just because we don't have a list does not mean we don't have a canon--the two things are different. What you write also implies that only what is proclaimed by an official synod/council or what ever is sure, which I don't believe by any means. The Book of Concord contains true Apostolic doctrine, but it does not exhaust Apostolic doctrine.

joel said...


I like your answer: open-ended as any good theological statement should be. Moreover, your affirmation that the canon of Scripture is simply what the Church has used and uses implies a healthy doctrine of Providence.

But isn't the doctrine of Providence undermined by Luther and others' hard speeches against books that the Church has historically considered inspired Scripture?

Edward Reiss said...


"But isn't the doctrine of Providence undermined by Luther and others' hard speeches against books that the Church has historically considered inspired Scripture?"

Luther is not our pope, so even if he, or another theologian makes statements against this or that book of the Bible, it does not mean we are beholden to that statement. We are beholden to the Scriptures and the Confessions.

Also, the books were included in his translation, so he didn't actually remove anything.

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