On the Church and the Canon of Holy Scripture

St. Hilarion Troitsky 1886-1926

[R]eason left to itself will not stop at the abolition of the very books of Holy Scripture. Indeed, what is the basis for recognizing these or other books as Holy Scripture and genuine Apostolic works? There can only be one answer to this question: our recognition of certain books as Holy Scripture and authentic Apostolic works is based solely on faith in the Church and on trust in the authority of the Church. The books of Holy Scripture were written by the Apostles and entrusted to the custody of the Church. The Apostles, and particularly the Apostle Paul, even gave special proof of the genuineness of their Epistles, providing them with their own handwritten signature. The custodian of the authentic Epistles and all the Apostolic writings was the Church. Only she could judge the Apostolic value of her property. After all, the Church expressed in her decisions her teaching on the composition of Holy Scripture. Thus we must recognize as the New Testament precisely those twenty-seven well-known books which were recognized as the New Testament by the Church.

Blessed Augustine said: “Ego uero Euangelio non crederem, nisi me catholicae ecclesiae commouerat auctoritas.” For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. (Against the Epistle of Manichaeus called Fundamental 5.6) These words of Augustine express a great truth. If there is no Church, there will be no Holy Scripture either. Protestants and sectarians seemingly recognize and revere Holy Scripture; but does not their recognition hang in thin air? Let Protestants or sectarians completely and sincerely think out the question: why do we recognize exactly these books as Holy Scripture? To refer to one’s personal opinion is to refuse to give a reasonable answer. We cannot refer to scholarship either. The question of the origin and authenticity of the books of Holy Scripture is much debated in scholarly circles. This scholarly literature has already been growing for entire centuries. Piles of books have been written, but with no positive results. There are simply no results that could command the agreement of all. How can a Protestant refer to his “impartial” scholarship, when hopeless disputes go on, even concerning the authenticity of the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John? Let the Protestants resolve the question of the genuineness of the Pastoral Epistles of the Apostle Paul! But the representatives of Protestant scholarship all answer this question in different ways. The conservative scholars recognize them to be genuine works of the Apostle Paul. Others say that they are only based on authentic letters of Paul; in their present form they cannot possibly belong to him and they contain later additions. Still others declare the Pastoral Epistles to be complete later forgeries with a tendentious motive: that they were written to justify the newly established hierarchical structure and were written in the middle of the second century, and the name of the Apostle Paul has simply been falsely ascribed to them. To whom should we listen? Why this scholar and not another? Are there many people who are capable on their own of weighing the mass of contradictory arguments? And are there many people who are capable of entering into the fine points of scholarly investigation? There is no common authority and it is not known whom to listen to. Listening to all of them at the same time is impossible, since one goes to the woods, while another goes to the woodpile; one strives for the clouds, while another goes backwards; and yet another wants to go into the water.

 Doubt in the authenticity of the books of Holy Scripture arose with Protestantism itself. Indeed, Luther rejected the Epistle of James, calling it for some reason a straw letter. And the followers of Luther went incomparably further. Therefore, it is necessary to recognize that the concept of an absolute canon of Holy Scripture is exclusively a Church concept; outside of the Church it is totally inconceivable.

It is completely incomprehensible when sectarians want to talk about canonical and uncanonical books of Holy Scripture. Protestants study the history of the New Testament canon a good deal, but that very history is utterly devastating to the concept of canonicity outside the Church. History shows that the canon has not always and in all the [local] Churches been the same. A few centuries passed before the canon was fixed by conciliar decisions. For us there is nothing tempting in this, since we believe in the Church, and therefore her decisions are equally sacred, whether they belong to the second, fourth or twentieth century. But not so for the Protestants and others who deny the truth of the Church. For them, the history of the New Testament canon casts doubt upon the very concept of canonicity. The more consistent Protestants do not conceal this. For example, Adolf Jülicher concludes his study on the history of the New Testament canon with a very characteristic sentence: “The unassailable fact of the human and gradual genesis of the New Testament canon may serve the purpose of liberating us from the danger that this canon could turn from being a support into being an oppressive yoke.” (Holy Scripture and the Church)

 

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