Scripture, Authority, and Tradition Part 6

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The Protestant Reformation

This was the hardest post in the whole series for me to complete.  It was changed many times because I have mixed feelings regarding the Reformation.  From a historical and theological perspective, the Reformation was an act of rebellion.  The church fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch – who was a church leader during the time of the apostles – considered rebellion against a bishop to be rebellion against God.  Being in the West, the Reformers’ bishops were Roman Catholic.

From the earliest days of the church, submission to church authority was important.  But considering the state of the Roman Catholic West in the 16th century, rebellion may have been a necessary evil. By Martin Luther’s time, the selling of indulgences to forgive sins and teachings on purgatory were popular in the West.  Church services and scriptures were only available in Latin, so the general population, while probably having some knowledge of Latin, could not engage deeply.

In 1517, a Roman Catholic monk named Martin Luther began the Reformation by questioning the sale of indulgences.  In a few years, we’ll be upon the 500 year anniversary of that event.  I believe it is good for us to reflect on the positive and negative aspects of the Reformation.  It has shaped Western culture and religion far deeper than we realize.

The Positive

The Reformation began as a revolt against the moral decay and corruption within the Roman Church.  Aside from challenging indulgence sales and purgatory, Luther also opposed the Roman Church by allowing the Bible to be translated into local languages.  Luther’s insistence that everyone own a Bible in their own language was good.

Roman Catholic authority had become almost like a dictatorship in which the Roman Pope decreed himself to be the sole authority of every Christian on earth (though the Eastern Churches rejected that claim).  While Luther’s challenge of papal supremacy was good, the Reformers’ later decision to reject ALL ecclesiastical authority and tradition was not good.

Luther also held to various aspects of church tradition such as the perpetual virginity of Mary (which was not widely doubted until the 19th or 20th centuries) and the actual presence of the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist.

The Negative

The cries of sola scriptura (only scripture) made every man his own pope.  Rather than uniting Christians – as the early reformers naively believed would happen – it divided them.  Several hundred years later, every person is still their own pope and we have tens of thousands of denominations.  Unfortunately, a “plain reading of the Bible” caused great division, bloody fights, and innumerable opinions about interpretation.

torn book by kyzMy second complaint: scripture was changed.  Shortly after the reformation began, some Protestants cut several books out of the Bible that the whole Church (including Jesus’ apostles) considered scripture*.  Those who did not remove them, included them in the back of the Old Testament in an appendix called “The Apocrypha,” which is Greek for “hidden.”  For more details on this, see my footnote below.

A precedent was set that any scripture that does not fit well with a man’s theology can be removed or diminished.  Books that were removed include Tobit, Maccabees, Judith, Wisdom of Sirach, and some others.  The implications of this are obvious: Christianity can become whatever anyone wants by carefully crafting their own biblical canon.  Sadly, I’ve seen Christians do this with several New Testament books in which the authorship is disputed by some modern scholars, so they feel no need to be theologically “bound” by those books.

Continue to Part VII here

* Since writing this article a couple of years ago, I have learned a bit more and recently received some constructive criticism from a reader (see below).  I want to mention that even from the earlier times of the Church there was often some degree of distinction between the books included in the Hebrew canon and those in the Greek Christian scriptures (the Septuagint).  Here is a summary from a popular Orthodox catechism called These Truths We Hold:

The Deutero-canonical books appeared as part of Holy Scripture with the translation of the Hebrew Scripture into Greek by Alexandrian Jews who had been gathered together for that purpose in Egypt just prior to the New Testament times. Over the centuries, however, these books have been disputed by many; many hold them to have little or no value as Scripture.

However, both the Orthodox and Roman Catholics accept them as part of the Biblical Canon, whereas, since the Reformation, most Protestants have rejected them as being spurious. Although the Orthodox Church accepts these books as being canonical, and treasures them and uses them liturgically, she does not use them as primary sources in the definition of her dogmas.

The book Orthodox Dogmatic Theology by Protobresbyter Michael Pomazansky confirms the above.  When reading many of the saints and fathers of the Church, you will find that they readily quote passages from these Deutero-canonical books, treating them no differently than any other scripture.  In other words, while they are not the primary scriptural authority, they are still considered to be authoritative.  Contrast that with the teachings of the early Calvinists and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, Article 3:

“The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the Canon of Scripture; and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”

4 thoughts on “Scripture, Authority, and Tradition Part 6

  1. Good article, but I take issue with a couple of statements. “Because of the cries of sola scriptura (only scripture), it was deemed that every person must interpret the Bible for themselves and decide what it means to them.” Martin Luther did not deem this. When you say, “it was deemed that every person…”, to whom are you referring as doing the deeming? This should be reworded or qualified or else you will leave the unlearned with the impression that this was a doctrinal point of the Reformation.

    Also, you say, “Within one hundred years of declaring sola scriptura, the Protestants cut several books out of the Bible that the whole Church (including Jesus’ apostles) considered scripture.  Now, every man is their own pope, and a precedent was set that any scripture that does not fit well with your theology can be removed.  …  The implications of this are obvious: Christianity can become whatever anyone wants by carefully crafting their own biblical canon.” I would consider Jerome as the greatest linguist of the church fathers, would you not consider him as part of the “whole Church”? Jerome only considered the Hebrew Scriptures as canonical and included the Greek OT texts (that you mentioned) and additions as an appendix in the back. And he is good company with Melito, Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Hilary, Gregory of Nazianzius, among others who only accepted the Hebrew texts as canonical.

    Perhaps Athanasius declared the position of the Greek texts best when he said, “There are other books besides these, indeed not received as canonical but having been appointed by our fathers to be read to those just approaching and wishing to be instructed in the word of godliness”. Martin Lutheran agreed with this high regard for the Greek texts, saying, “books which are not held equal to the sacred Scriptures, and nevertheless are useful and good to read.” So I would throw the separation of the Greek OT texts from Hebrew at the feet of the church fathers rather than Luther. The Greek texts you mentioned were included in Luther’s Bible.

    1. Hi Mike, thank you for the constructive criticism. I have updated the blog and strongly considered your comments. I have learned much since originally posting this series a couple of years ago and I know there are probably a number of my old blogs that could use either revision or deletion. I have left many of them “as is” as long as there is nothing heretical or overtly misleading because of time constraints and because this blog has served a bit as a journal for me to see where I started and where I am now.

      Regarding the deuterocanonical books, please see my update in the blog. In short, from the sources I have read, they are considered scripture, but not the primary authoritative scripture that the protocanonical books hold. In many of the teachings of the fathers (from St. Maximos the Confessor to modern saints like Porphyrios and Paisios) I find these deuterocanonical books quoted just as readily as the others with no distinction being made between. In fact, Elder Porphyrios strongly encouraged everyone to read the Wisdom of Sirach and the other scriptures frequently (in the book Wounded by Love). With that said, I realize that many Orthodox do make some distinction between the two, and so I have updated the blog to reflect that.

      1. Don't revise anything November 5, 2022 — 2:12 pm

        No, you don’t have to revise anything. All you have to do is check the oldest and most complete codices, like Sinaiticus. They include all or most of the Deuterocanonical books and they predate Jerome’s Vulgate. The Dead Sea scrolls included at least three Deuterocanonical books.

        The fact that some Deuterocanonical books are excluded from some early Christian canons doesn’t change the fact that the overwhelming majority of the early Church accepted them as canonical. Period.

    2. I disagree with you 8 years later! November 5, 2022 — 1:39 pm

      It’s irrelevant that some early Church fathers like Melito and Cyril were using unorthodox Old Testament canons since the canon was still open during their lifetimes. Once the Church had closed the canon through a series of councils held over a period spanning the 4th and 5th centuries AD, the Orthodox Christian canon was accepted throughout the Church, with some very small variations here and there.

      So you cannot justify Martin Luther’s exclusion of the Deuterocanonical books from the Bible by saying that some 2nd and 3rd century Christians had excluded them too. Those Christians had lived BEFORE the Church had finalized the canon, Martin Luther lived AFTER that.

      What’s more, many early Church fathers and even bishops made mistakes too. Just because SOME of them used unorthodox canons of the Old Testament doesn’t mean we should do the same. Cyril of Jerusalem didn’t list Revelation among the canonical books. He was wrong. Clement of Alexandria believed that the Revelation of Peter was holy scripture. He was wrong. Irenaeus referred to the Shepherd of Hermas as “scripture” (graphe) and even quoted it in Against Heresies. He was wrong.

      Furthermore, not all of the Deuterocanonical books were rejected by all of the Church fathers whose names you’ve listed in your post. For example, Hilary considered the Book of Judith to be sacred scripture. Jerome wrote in his Prologue to Judith that the book had been deemed to be sacred scripture by the Synod of Nicaea. Melito considered the Wisdom of Solomon to be canonical.

      Therefore, it’s ludicrous to claim that the exclusion of the Deuterocanonical books from the Protestant canon is in keeping with the teachings of the early Church fathers since the overwhelming majority of them accepted the Deuterocanonical books as sacred scripture and those who did not still included some of them, like Judith and the Wisdom of Solomon.

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