By Kenneth Howell
OBJECTOR: The Roman Catholic Church added seven books to the Old Testament at the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. We Protestants accept thirty-nine books of the Old Testament, all written in Hebrew with a few parts in Aramaic, while you Catholics accept seven additional books, making forty-six. It seems that these seven were added by the Catholic Church later. The Bible speaks against adding to or subtracting from the word of God. In Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32 and Revelation 22:18–19 the word of God warns strenuously against changing God’s word. The Catholic Church has violated this command.
CATHOLIC: Historically, these seven “additional” books, known as the deuterocanonicals, were not added to Scripture at the Council of Trent. The history of the canon (what books should be included in Scripture) is complex, but it is clear that the deuterocanonicals were in the canon long before the Council of Trent. For example, Augustine in the fifth century includes these books in his list of the Old Testament books in On Christian Doctrine (book 2, chapter 8, section 13). This is only one of many witnesses to the use of these seven books in early Christianity. The Third Council of Carthage in 397 declared essentially the same thing. So, it can’t be said that the Council of Trent introduced books that were excluded previously.
OBJECTOR: The historical references to Augustine and early councils prove only that there was confusion in the early Church about this matter, not that the canon was bigger than the thirty-nine books received by Protestants. For example, we know from Athanasius that he included some of the deuterocanonical books in what he called apocryphal writings (cf. Easter Letter 39). So we can conclude that the Church Fathers did not agree among themselves about which books should be included in Scripture.
CATHOLIC: Yes, I am familiar with Athanasius’s letter, but my point was that the Catholic Church did not add these books. The historical sources I cited, and others like them, show that at least a good majority of the Church recognized the deuterocanonicals as part of Scripture. Athanasius’s list shows only that there was variation among early Church canons.
OBJECTOR: That presents a problem for the Catholic, because the Council of Trent was supposed to base its decrees on the unanimous consent of the Fathers. If they did not universally agree on the extent of the canon, then how could they impose the deuterocanonicals on the Church in the sixteenth century? The imposition was without justification.
CATHOLIC: Good question. The answer is that while individual Fathers can err, they are considered infallible when they speak unanimously. “In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers” (Dei Filius 2).
Also, councils’ decrees are not based solely on consent of the Fathers. Tradition proves that the Church had settled the canon for practical purposes by the fourth century and infallibly in the sixteenth century. From the early centuries through the Middle Ages, theologians, mystical writers, and bishops quoted from the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. This practice gave the Council of Trent the necessary confidence that God was speaking about the authority of these books through the common practice of the Church for ages. It seems that the list of Athanasius and a few other writers were an isolated view in antiquity. The majority recognized the deuterocanonicals.
OBJECTOR: Catholics, then, were not sure what to believe until they decided the canon of Scripture was closed.
CATHOLIC: That notion would cause Protestants more concern than Catholics. If I understand the traditional Protestant position correctly, your doctrine of sola scriptura makes it imperative to have a closed canon so that you can know exactly which books are in Scripture and which books are not. You disclaim any dependence on any church and rely solely on the Bible. So it is crucial for you to know the exact extent of the canon. Notice that a closed canon was not so crucial in the early Church because we rely on the Holy Spirit guiding the Church to determine both the extent of the canon and the proper interpretation of Scripture in controversial matters.
OBJECTOR: It is true that we rely only on Scripture. This doesn’t mean that we don’t consult earlier pronouncements, but ultimately we say that our interpretations must rely on Scripture alone. In regard to the canon, this protects us from adding more and more books to the Bible. The canon is closed.
CATHOLIC: Then the question I have is: Which canon? The history of the canon is complicated and there are different versions of that history given by different scholars, regardless of their church affiliation. Which version of that history is best or most accurate is a question beyond my knowledge and yours, but a few things seem clear. First, there was more than one canon among the Jews prior to the advent of Christ as Messiah. The Septuagint, translated about 200 years before Christ by Alexandrian Jews, included the deuterocanonicals. Apparently the canon used in Palestine at the time of Jesus did not include these books. There was more than one canon among the Jews. Which canon do you accept?
OBJECTOR: The one accepted by Jesus and the apostles. This is what some call the Palestinian canon of thirty-nine books.
CATHOLIC: So what is your view of the Septuagint?
OBJECTOR: It was a helpful translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, but it is not authoritative. Like any translation, it may be right at certain points and wrong at others.
CATHOLIC: The New Testament writers—including the apostles and their workers (e.g. Luke, Mark)—quote from the Septuagint as Scripture. Most of the quotations in the letter to the Hebrews are from the Septuagint. Doesn’t this make it more legitimate?
OBJECTOR: All it means is that it was a good translation for the people of that day because Greek was the common language (lingua franca) of that day. But it doesn’t mean that the New Testament writers accepted the deuterocanonicals. Proof of this is that the New Testament writers never quote from these seven apocryphal books.
CATHOLIC: So if they had quoted from them, you would acknowledge their place in the canon of Scripture?
OBJECTOR: Yes. Quotation in the New Testament would validate their inspired character.
CATHOLIC: I see two problems with your criterion of quotation. First, it seems that there are books in the Old Testament that are never quoted in the New Testament. If being quoted in the New Testament is the criterion of acceptance, then we have to reject those books (such as Obadiah) that are not quoted. There is only one possible allusion to Obadiah 21 in Revelation 11:15, but even here the linguistic parallel is very loose. Should we reject Obadiah as non-canonical because there is no direct quotation? Your Bible accepts Obadiah.
The second problem is this: If you accept allusion to Old Testament books as a criterion, then there are plenty of instances in the New Testament where the writers are alluding to the deuterocanonicals. For example, 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” The first two phrases are a melding of Isaiah 64:4 and 52:15, while the last one is a rewording of Sirach 1:10: “He supplied her [wisdom] to those who love him.” Paul’s allusion to Sirach seems purposeful, as both contexts are talking about wisdom. In essence, Paul is using biblical language from both Isaiah and Sirach because he has learned them by heart. So, if quotation and allusion are the criteria, then we must accept Sirach as well as Isaiah.
OBJECTOR: Maybe the lack of quotation from certain Old Testament books in the New Testament means only that the inspired writer could not think of anything in that book that was relevant to his immediate point.
CATHOLIC: Precisely. That is why quotation in the New Testament is not a good criterion for deciding which books in the Old Testament are really Scripture. The New Testament writers clearly quoted from the Septuagint as did the early Fathers of the Church. This suggests that they were looking at the Septuagint as a faithful translation that could be said to be the word of God. But you say that the deuterocanonicals in the Septuagint cannot be accepted as inspired.
OBJECTOR: So, on what basis do you accept which books are in the Old Testament? I don’t see any way to know which books are in it unless we rely on the New Testament.
CATHOLIC: The New Testament is part of the picture, but it’s not everything. I would say that the practice of the Church is the ultimate criterion. What the New Testament writers started the Church Fathers continued. Both groups either quoted from or alluded to the deuterocanonicals from time to time. This seems to have been the majority practice in the early centuries of Christianity even though some questioned the validity of the deuterocanonicals. As time moved on, the Church more and more acknowledged their inspired character by using them as Scripture.
OBJECTOR: I would say that their increased use over time shows only that the Roman view was taking hold in the Middle Ages. The Protestant Reformers were right to reject them and to return to the pure word of God.
CATHOLIC: One reason the Protestant Reformers rejected the deuterocanonicals is that these books give support to doctrines and practices they rejected. For example, in 2 Maccabees 12:43–45 we find a reference to praying for the dead. This text shows that the Jews offered expiatory sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple for the dead. We are told explicitly, “If he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (v. 44). Most Protestants objected to the practice of praying and offering Masses for the dead. Because the Catholic Church could appeal to this text as scriptural support for the practice, they had to reject the books of Scripture where it is so clearly mentioned.
OBJECTOR: But if the books of the Maccabees were not part of the canon of Scripture in the first place, it was not wrong to reject the practice of praying for the dead.
CATHOLIC: Notice the circularity of your position. Because, as I have shown, the deuterocanonicals were accepted in the canon long before the Protestant Reformation, their reason for removing them from the canon clearly was motivated by a theological reason. To reject these books on the basis of a theological position is to reject a part of Scripture because it does not agree with your theology. But this move contradicts the Protestant claim to base its theology on Scripture alone. If you are attempting to base your theology only on Scripture, then you have to know which books are to be included in Scripture ahead of time. If you base your acceptance or rejection of certain books on a prior conclusion of your theology, then your theology is dictating your Scripture and not the other way around.