On the Canon of Scripture

More than twenty years ago I bought F.F. Bruce’s book, The Canon of Scripture. I have been dragging it around with me, through almost a dozen moves across wearyingly large swaths of the country, with the intention of one day reading it. In the intervening decades I have sold or given away the majority of my library, but I hung on to this volume, doggedly determined to read it.

I have finally started reading it in these last days. Okay, maybe the Apocalypse isn’t right around the corner, but one might almost think so, considering how long it took me to get around to this. I read a few other books by Bruce many years ago, and I retained the impression of him as an honest and fair-minded scholar. Nothing that I have read in the first third of the book contradicts that impression.

His fairly brief coverage of St Augustine’s view of the canon inspired me to write. On p. 95 he records the Doctor’s list of the books of the Old Testament. It is effectively identical to the list defined by the Council of Trent. St Augustine omits Lamentations and Baruch, but Bruce points out (p. 96) that they are included with Jeremiah. The Council lists Baruch but not Lamentations, which is included with Jeremiah.

Bruce writes (p. 97) that “Augustine’s ruling supplied a powerful precedent for the western church from his own day to the Reformation and beyond.” He proceeds to count off various councils and popes that (he would apparently have us believe) must be reckoned as having treated St Augustine’s canon as a precedent: the Council of Hippo (393), the Third Council of Carthage (397), Pope Innocent I, the Sixth Council of Carthage, etc.

It seems to me that there is something of an editing gaffe here, however. For, after having said that St Augustine set a precedent, he writes (in the very next paragraph) of the councils of Hippo and 3rd Carthage:

These appear to have been the first church councils to make a formal pronouncement on the canon. When they did so, they did not impose any innovation on the churches; they simply endorsed what had become the general consensus of the churches of the west and of the greater part of the east.

It seems contradictory to suggest that St Augustine set a precedent, in view of these subsequent remarks. In the first place, he began writing On Christian Doctrine (in which his canon list appears) in 396 or 397 (see here for the later date; the earlier date is given on page ix of this book), and so it wouldn’t be possible for this work to have influenced either Hippo or 3rd Carthage. Secondly, the precedence claim contradicts Bruce’s subsequent claim that this list reflected what had become the consensus of the west and most of the east: there simply wasn’t time for Augustine’s opinion to have become so widespread if in fact he was the source of it.

Perhaps most important, however, is the fact that it’s pretty clear St Augustine wasn’t just inventing this list himself. We may infer that this is so based upon what he says about how we may know the list of canonical books—which he tells us (in On Christian Doctrine II, viii, 12) immediately before providing the list (in II, viii, 13):

Accordingly, among the canonical Scriptures [the interpreter] will judge according to the following standard: to prefer those that are received by all the Catholic churches to those which some do not receive. Among those, again, which are not received by all, he will prefer such as have the sanction of the greater number and those of greater authority, to such as are held by the smaller number and those of less authority. If, however, he shall find that some books are held by the greater number of churches, and others by the churches of greater authority (though this is not a very likely thing to happen), I think that in such a case the authority on the two sides is to be looked upon as equal. [emphasis added]

I submit that it is unreasonable to suppose that St Augustine would offer a list of his own devising after having just declared that the canon must be determined by “all the Catholic churches.” For this reason it seems that Bruce’s remarks about the “precedent” set by Augustine are incorrect, but that his subsequent remarks about the consensus of the churches must be held both as consistent with Augustine’s views and more accurately reflective of the times. It’s my opinion that either the editors missed this contradiction in Bruce’s book, or that we might say that Augustine’s view subsequently became a kind of “precedent” for the Church as representative of what the whole Church taught in his time; in either case it does not seem that the obvious sense (if I am reading him correctly) of this remark is completely accurate.

Posted in Augustine, Canon of Scripture
One comment on “On the Canon of Scripture
  1. […] and so there was no need for a dogmatic definition. This is consistent with what we saw in yesterday’s post: namely, that the first conciliar definitions of the canon merely “endorsed what had become the […]

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