By DON FIER
We ended last week’s installment by showing that the apostles and early Christians accepted the 46-book Septuagint as the authentic Old Testament right from the Church’s beginning. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches, these 46 divinely inspired books constitute “an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture” (CCC, n. 121) and “bear witness to the whole divine pedagogy of God’s saving love” (CCC, n. 122). Dei Verbum (DV) explains that the canonically approved books of the Old Testament “contain a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. Christians should receive them with reverence” (DV, n. 15).
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, lists six reasons why the 46 books of the Old Testament are a critically important part of the Canon of the Bible: 1) They are all divinely inspired; 2) they bear witness to God’s redemptive love; 3) they prepare us for the final coming of Christ, even as they prepare Israel for His first coming; 4) they are an integral part of the liturgy; 5) they are integrated into the New Testament; and 6) they provide us with an indispensable understanding of God’s Providence (see The Faith, p. 35). And the Catechism further asserts that the Catholic Church “has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting the Old Testament under the pretext that the New has rendered it void” (CCC, n. 123). As previously discussed in segments on the senses of Scripture, many Old Testament events, people, things, and actions are signs or types which foreshadow or prefigure events, people, things, and actions in the New Testament and “are fulfilled in the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ” (CCC, Glossary).
We now turn our attention to the 27 canonical books of the New Testament. Their divinely inspired words were penned by at least eight different human authors over a period of approximately a half century. The first New Testament book, believed by many biblical scholars to be the Gospel of St. Matthew, was written about ten years after the death of Jesus; the last book to be written is believed to be the Revelation of St. John in the late first century. Clearly and undeniably, then, the Church and the faith existed before the Bible. In Where We Got the Bible, Fr. Henry Graham points out that “Our Blessed Lord Himself never, so far as we know, wrote a line of Scripture — certainly none that has been preserved” (pp. 18-19). In fact, His instruction to His apostles was not to write, but rather to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
The overriding purpose of the New Testament is to hand on “the ultimate truth of God’s Revelation” (CCC, n. 124). As expressed in Dei Verbum, “those matters which concern Christ the Lord are confirmed, His true teaching is more and more fully stated, the saving power of the divine work of Christ is preached, the story is told of the beginnings of the Church and its marvelous growth, and its glorious fulfillment is foretold” (DV, n. 20). Its 27 books consist of the four Gospels, which are “the heart of all the Scriptures” (CCC, n. 125), the Acts of the Apostles, 14 Pauline epistles, two of St. Peter, three of St. John, one each of St. James and St. Jude, and the Apocalypse or Revelation of St. John. All told, there are five historical books, 21 doctrinal books, and one prophetical book in the New Testament.
According to the Catechism, we can “distinguish three stages in the formation of the Gospels” (CCC, n. 126). In sequence, as summarized by Fr. Hardon, they are: 1) the actual historical events in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ; 2) the oral tradition, passed on by the apostles under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and 3) the written Gospels, which give us the honest truth about Jesus (see The Faith, p. 34). Dei Verbum emphasizes that “the sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus” (DV, n. 19).
Now, let’s return to the question of how the canonicity of biblical books was determined. For the first three or four centuries after Christ walked this earth, there was no Bible as we know it today. As discussed earlier, there was disagreement as to the number of books in the Old Testament. And beyond that, there were literally hundreds of other books written in the decades after Christ’s Ascension from which to choose (e.g., the Didache, the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, the Epistle of Barnabus, the Gospel of St. Thomas, etc.). Even among the Early Church fathers there was disagreement on which books should be included in the Canon of Scripture. For example, St. Jerome, whose late fourth-century Latin Vulgate became the official translation of the Catholic Church, didn’t think the seven Old Testament deuterocanonical books should be included. On this matter, he was in disagreement with St. Augustine.
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it was the bishops of the Catholic Church who ultimately determined the Canon of Scripture. Before ascending to Heaven, Jesus promised that His Vicar on earth and the bishops in union with him would be preserved from falling into error on matters of doctrine. In other words, just as God worked infallibly through human authors to write the words of Sacred Scripture, He likewise worked through the bishops of His Church to communicate precisely which books should comprise it.
It was Pope St. Damasus I at the Council of Rome in AD 382 who issued a decree that listed the canonical books of both the Old and New Testament. In the words of the decree, he declared “what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she ought to shun.” The Third Council of Carthage in AD 397 reaffirmed that Canon of Scripture. And St. Jerome, in obedience to Holy Mother Church, prepared his Latin Vulgate in accordance with the canon of 73 books — 46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Then in AD 419, the Fourth Council in Carthage confirmed once again the same list of canonical books, and it wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the canon was brought into question.
The Soul Of Sacred Theology
As we saw in last week’s installment, Protestantism rejected the seven deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. At the same time, Martin Luther also unsuccessfully attempted to set aside some of the New Testament books that conflicted with his new doctrine. It was at this point in history, at the Council of Trent, that the Church not only reaffirmed her centuries-long teaching of the 73 books that comprise the Canon of Scripture, but proclaimed it dogmatically. In the decree Sacrosancta, the council fathers wrote: “If anyone, however, should not accept the said books as sacred and canonical, entire with all their parts as they were wont to be read in the Catholic Church … anathema sit [let him be cut off from the Church].”
As we close our discussion on Sacred Scripture, it would be good to reflect briefly on its importance in the life of the Church. Both the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nn. 131-132) emphasize the essential nature it should play in the universal Church, and indeed, in the daily lives of all the faithful. The Council Fathers forcefully assert that “access to the Sacred Scriptures should be opened wide to the Christian faithful” (DV, n. 22), and that “the study of the ‘sacred page’ should be the very soul of sacred theology” (DV, n. 24).
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(Don Fier serves on the board of directors for The Catholic Servant, a Minneapolis-based monthly publication. He and his wife are the parents of seven children. Fier is a 2009 graduate of Ave Maria University’s Institute for Pastoral Theology. He is doing research for writing a definitive biography of Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)