Describe how the development of the Biblical Canon is an example of the interaction of the Scriptures, Holy Tradition and the Magisterium (An Essay)

“To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Isaiah 8:20, KJV

So often the words of Holy Scripture are used to justify Scripture as a rule unto itself. And yet, Scripture not only does not teach that it is the only rule of faith, it also does not teach which books comprise it in a definitive manner. We also know that the Bible is a collection of books—it is not a singular entity discovered as is alleged of the Quran or the Book of Mormon and associated writings “found” by Joseph Smith. Rather, understanding which of the ancient writings of the Jewish people comprise the Old Testament, and which of the early Church writings comprise the New Testament, was an active interaction between the available texts and the life of the Church. Specific books found their approbation and eventual canonization through the liturgical life of the Church. The liturgical hermeneutic is set forth by Dr. Scott Hahn in his writings (Hahn, 101-136). The goal of the present essay is to offer some reflections on how the Canon varies between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, with an emphasis on the unique position that Eastern Catholics face with this issue. Through this tension, I argue that the same principles that led to the first 73 books of the Catholic Bible to be canonized could offer a path for reconciliation about books not yet canonized by Catholics.

First, there is the matter of what separates a Catholic Bible from most Eastern Orthodox understandings. As the schism between Catholics and Orthodox has made Orthodox unable to hold a council that they would genuinely call ecumenical, the Orthodox canon is not as strictly codified as that of the Catholic Church. Church Fathers in the East and West comprised a list of books that was used liturgically, with an emphasis on the New Testament. In response to the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church held the Council of Trent. After listing the 73 books that comprise the Catholic canon of Scripture, a Council Canon states:

“If anyone does not receive as sacred and canonical the books of Holy Scripture, entire and with all their parts, as the sacred Synod of Trent has enumerated them, or denies that they have been divinely inspired, anathema sit.” (CF,  218)

 

This response was driven by the fact that Protestants lowered the size of their canon of Scripture to 66 books instead of 73, and that among the 66 books certain sections that have originals only in Greek (e.g., Esther and Daniel) were rejected. It is clear that the Magisterial teachings have harsh words for that difference of the canon.

In contrast, the Orthodox have a different canon which includes the books in the Catholic Bible, but also includes some other writings. Does Trent therefore condemn the Orthodox for having a different canon of Scripture? I would argue that this is not the case based on two main lines of thinking. First, it is important to note that the canon from Trent issues judgment for those who would remove books from the Catholic Bible. That other Christians in the East have other books in their canon is not the focus of Trent. Next, it is important to note that with regard to Biblical Scholarship, the Latin Vulgate was never meant to be normative for all Catholics. Its venerable place in the Latin Rite does not make the Greek Scriptures irrelevant. Instead, calls to understand the Greek texts are clearly made by the Magisterium, as can be seen in the Papal Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, which states that the use of the Vulgate “concerns only the Latin Church” (CF 233). Thus, authentic traditions of using the Greek Bible might point the way to reconciling books in the Orthodox Bible not found in the Catholic Bible.

Along these lines, there is the liturgical hermeneutic that emphasizes that the Orthodox canon of Scripture has something to offer to the whole Church. As Eastern Christians in communion with Rome, Eastern Catholics utilize the Prayer of Manasseh, which is listed as apocryphal in the Latin Vulgate, but is part of the Orthodox canon. This prayer is referred to in the beginning rites of confession, and is recited during Great Compline. Reflecting upon other disputed books of Scripture such as the Apocalypse and 2 Peter, their liturgical use eventually led to their acceptance into the canon. The sensus fidelium bore forth the validity of these books. In our own day, as ecumenism is leading to more and more rapproachment between and Catholics and Orthodox, the liturgical use of the Prayer of Manasseh that exists in the Byzantine Catholic Churches may offer fertile ground whereby the differences in the Catholic and Orthodox Canons of Scripture could be reconciled. Through the prayers of our holy fathers, may these discrepancies end in the same manner as they once did with other books of Scripture, through liturgical reflections, and the unified voice of our Bishops.

Works Cited

Dupuis, Jaccques (ed.) The Christian Faith-Doctrinal Documents of the Catholic Church. Alba House. 2001. Print.

Hahn, Scott Worship in Word; Toward a Liturgical Hermeneutic. Letter and Spirit 1: 101-136. 2005. Print

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5 thoughts on “Describe how the development of the Biblical Canon is an example of the interaction of the Scriptures, Holy Tradition and the Magisterium (An Essay)

  1. Pingback: FRIDAY BYZANTINE EDITION | Big Pulpit

    • Hello, thanks for stopping by.
      The wikipedia page on the Biblical canon has a helpful table. As you can see at this link, the Prayer of Manasseh, Psalm 151, 3 and 4 Maccabbees, parts of 3rd and 4th Ezra (aka parts of 3rd Esdras) are variably accepted by different Orthodox jurisdictions. The Prayer of Manasseh is pretty universally held with esteem by Eastern Christians, however, and its liturgical value as seen in Great Compline and the mention of it during the Byzantine Rite of Confession is such that its incorporation may be fitting for all Catholics, Eastern and Western. This may help send a loving message to the Orthodox, at least that’s an argument that I try to make in this brief essay.

  2. Well done – I tend to agree about the intent of Trent simply affirming certain books, rather than commenting one way or another about others.

    • Thanks, Sam. I think the key lesson I had learned in reading and reflecting on this issue is the fact that Tridentine canons on the canon (to be punny) were not listing the canon in a “go no further sense”. There was an attack on the sins of omission committed by Protestants, but no statements on sins of “commission” by Orthodox Christians, who have a slightly larger canon of Scripture. That the future would include the Catholics learning from the Orthodox, and in a sense, the Eastern Catholics who use these books, may be something we will see in a future reunited Church. It’s a prayer of my own, at least.

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