Friday, October 28, 2011

Francis Beckwith was misled, now he misleads

Francis Beckwith has used the occasion of “Reformation Day” to put out his own account of the “canon” argument, entitled Reformation Day – and What Led Me To Back to Catholicism. But rather, we should think, he’s been misled, and now he’s trying to mislead others.

One commenter chided him for having trotted out “the same tired old arguments” which “(if you studied this stuff in any detail) you would have to know better than to make these baldly partisan and misleading statements.” But the blind lead the blind, and some of them like it that way.

Beckwith: if, according to my Protestant self, a Jewish council and a few Church Fathers are the grounds on which I am justified in saying what is the proper scope of the Old Testament canon …

He is wrong about this. The “council of Jamnia” was not when the canon was fixed. Jamnia was not even a council. It was a group of Rabbinical scholars.

On the other hand, the Canon of the Old Testament was widely known and attested in the first century. Jesus in Luke 24:44 named “the law, the prophets and the writings”. This was Jesus citing a fixed canon of the Old Testament. These were precisely the 39 books of the Old Testament that we have today. And Josephus wrote in Contra Apionem of a fixed canon in his own day, which was not disputed. What you have here is a Canon of the Old Testament that was recognized in precisely the same way that Protestants say the New Testament was recognized.

the central point of Catholicism: the Church is logically prior to the Scriptures.

This is very clearly a false statement, based on the fact that the Old Testament Scriptures were already widely attested.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, maintains that this magisterial authority was in fact present in the early Church and thus gave its leadership the power to recognize and fix the New Testament canon. So, ironically, the Protestant case for a deuterocanonical-absent Old Testament canon depends on Catholic intuitions about a tradition of magisterial authority.

Jesus recognized “a deuterocanonical-absent Old Testament canon” (Luke 24:44). There was no “magisterial authority” in the early church. That much is clear from the fact that an emperor had to call the first general council (Nicea), and an emperor, in fact, called each of the first seven councils.

And aside from that, he is here equivocating on the word “church”. It is a gross assumption on his part to anachronistically read back today’s Roman “leadership” into the early church.

In fact, the way that the Old Testament canon became “recognized” based on the authority of the prophets, or the lack thereof, is precisely the same way the New Testament writings were “recognized” and “received” as Scripture.

There is very good evidence that Paul’s letters were collected and distributed during his own lifetime. Note that Peter recognized the collected writings of Paul as “Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:14-16).

The “church” of the day had no “power to recognize and fix” the New Testament canon. The “church” “leadership” in the early centuries held in their hands a body of writings that came from the Apostles, and the only thing they could do was to recognize them as “authoritative”. Any questions about documents had more to do with “whether the Apostles wrote or authorized this or that document” rather than anything to do with saying “this is a fixed canon”.

to concede an officially unsettled canon for Christianity’s first fifteen centuries seems to make the Catholic argument that sola scriptura was a sixteenth-century invention and, therefore, not an essential Christian doctrine.

On the contrary, the Scriptures are the God-breathed Word of God, always recognized as such – there is nothing more essential than the Scriptures. The Jews recognized a prophet – or not – and the New Testament Christians, beginning with Jesus (Luke 24:44) recognized the Old Testament, and Peter (2 Peter 3:14-16) knew of “all of [Paul’s] letters” and recognized them as Scriptures. Nobody sat down and said, “we recognize a canon of 39 books”. They had a stack of books that were recognized as authoritative from a prophet, and when they added them all up, they came up with the number 39. It was the same thing with the New Testament.

Second, because the list of canonical books is itself not found in Scripture – as one can find the Ten Commandments or the names of Christ’s apostles – any such list, whether Protestant or Catholic, would be an item of extra-biblical theological knowledge.

Also not true. Each book was “recognized” individually, and the “canon” is an artifact of, a result of that process.

But the belief that the Bible consists only of sixty-six books is not a claim of Scripture, since one cannot find the list in it, but a claim about Scripture as a whole. That is, the whole has a property – i.e., “consisting of sixty-six books,” – that is not found in any of the parts.

Not true. “66-ness” is not a property of the Scriptures, it is an artifact.

HT: David H.


  1. Beckwith doesn't interact with the best Protestant arguments, even in summary form. Some of his objections to Protestantism could be reformulated as objections to Catholicism. He rightly rejects such objections when applied to his own belief system (e.g., Catholics rely on means outside their rule of faith to arrive at their rule). He ought to reject those objections when they're brought against Protestantism as well. He doesn't.

    For those interested in reading more about a Protestant approach to the canon, I wrote a series of posts on the subject here. And here's an index of links to a lot of our other material on canonical issues.