How important is it that all Christians operate from the exact same Bible? You may be surprised to learn that for most of Church history, the (implicit) Christian answer was “not that important.” Why was this the case? And why isn’t it the case today? To get to the bottom of this, let’s talk about two general approaches to Scripture and doctrinal orthodoxy:
I. The Common Destination
One of the earliest Christian heresies was Marcionism. Its founder, Marcion of Sinope (c. 85- c. 160), claimed that the God of the Old Testament was an evil God, and not the same as the good God of the New Testament. In short, Marcion’s heresy is about trying to de-Judaize the Gospel, and this heresy leads him to try to purge the Scriptures of all of their Jewish elements. As you might imagine, Marcionites threw out the entire Old Testament. They also denied the inspiration of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or John. Instead, they had a Biblical canon consisting only of (heavily-edited versions of) the Gospel of Luke and some of St. Paul’s letters.
The Catholic response is fast and fierce, denouncing Marcionism as the heresy that it is, and affirming that the God of the Old Testament is one and the same good God as the God of the New. You might, at this point, expect them to explain just what the Old and New Testament are, to put forward a Catholic Christian canon to counter the Marcionite one. But they don’t. Instead, they go straight to the heart of the problem (the heresy that the God who created the world is different from the God who redeemed it), without focusing very much on the incomplete canon (which was, after all, merely a symptom of the underlying heresy).
In acting in this way, the early Christians were following the pattern laid down by Christ. He, too, skipped an obvious opportunity to set the canon of Scripture. In Mark 12, the Sadducees approach Him with a question meant to make the idea of bodily resurrection look ridiculous. Mark notes that this is because the Sadducees “say that there is no resurrection” (Mark 12:18), but he doesn’t mention why they say that.
As I’ve mentioned before, it’s because the Sadducees’ Bible only included the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). Several early witnesses attest to this. For example, St. Hippolytus of Rome (170-235 A.D.) said that the Sadducees “do not, however, devote attention to prophets, but neither do they to any other sages, except to the law of Moses only, in regard of which, however, they frame no interpretations.” Likewise, Origen (184-253) said that “although the Samaritans and Sadducees, who receive the books of Moses alone, would say that there were contained in them predictions regarding Christ, yet certainly not in Jerusalem, which is not even mentioned in the times of Moses, was the prophecy uttered.”
Jesus responds to the Sadducees’ skepticism about the resurrection by accusing them of knowing “neither the scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). Yet He doesn’t furnish them with a corrected list of inspired Scripture; instead, He shows them proof of the resurrection from their own Bible (Mk. 12:26-27; Exodus 3:6). His focus on isn’t ensuring that they have all of the right books, but that they read the books rightly.
And surely, Jesus and the early Christians have their priorities in the right order. After all, listen to how St. John explains the role of his Gospel: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31). John’s Gospel – indeed, the entire Bible – was never meant to be an exhaustive account of everything that Jesus said or did. Instead, the Scriptures are a sort of means to an end: they reveal God and His will to us, so that we can come to believe and be saved. Given this, it makes sense that Jesus, the Apostles, and the Church Fathers seem less interested in debating the details of which books are in the Biblical canon. The important thing is that you have an orthodox, saving faith. How you get there is of secondary importance.
II. The Common Departure
With the Protestant Reformation, the picture that I painted above is turned upon its head. If Jesus and the earliest Christians were concerned about making sure that everyone ended up at the same place (orthodoxy), the Reformers’ emphasis is ensuring that everyone departs from the same place. There are three reasons for this shift.
First, because the Reformers rejected the papacy, the infallibility of Church Councils, and the infallibility of Sacred Tradition. For example, Martin Luther argued at the Diet of Worms, that “councils contradict one another so that we, who build on them, ultimately no longer know where pope, council, Church, Christ, or we must stand.” But Church Councils, the papacy, and Sacred Tradition are the tools by which the Church leads believers to the common destination of orthodoxy, and of ensuring that everyone was interpreting the Scriptural (and Traditional) data in a harmonious way.
Second, the Reformers declare the exclusive authority of Scripture. Without the aid of the three tools listed above, how can Christians be expected to unanimously find their way to Christian orthodoxy? The Reformers suggested that Scripture alone would be sufficient. According to Martin Luther, as long as we have the Bible, we don’t anyone telling us what it means, because “nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.” So as long as we all have the Scriptures and are led by the same Holy Spirit, we will all agree upon everything.
Third, the Reformers reject doctrines taught in the Deuterocanon. It is important for Protestants that the canon doesn’t include the full 73 books of the Catholic Bible. Before the Reformation, it wasn’t particularly important whether or not someone recognized Second Maccabees as divinely inspired, as long as they believed in the message contained within the book. With the Reformation, you simultaneously see the rejection of 2 Maccabees as Scripture and the rejection of some of its teachings — so it becomes critically important to establish whether or not 2 Maccabees is orthodox and inspired. John Calvin, in his “Antidote” to the Council of Trent admits that support for some of the controversial Catholic teachings can be found in the Catholic Bible:
Add to this, that they provide themselves with new supports when they give full authority to the Apocryphal books. Out of the second of the Maccabees they will prove Purgatory and the worship of saints; out of Tobit satisfactions, exorcisms, and what not. From Ecclesiasticus [Sirach] they will borrow not a little.
So Catholics rightly find support for Purgatory and veneration (not worship) of the Saints in 2 Maccabees, for exorcisms in Tobit [and Matthew 10:8 and other parts of the New Testament, but who’s counting?], and so on. In other words, for Protestants to be right, they have to show not only that Christianity was supposed to have been sola Scriptura, but also that the Deuterocanon (the so-called “Apocrypha”) isn’t part of inspired Scripture.
III. The Result of the Reformation
The pre-Reformation Church focused almost exclusively upon making sure that everyone arrived at the fullness of the orthodox Catholic faith. How they got there – which books of the Bible they read, and how the understood what they read – was of secondary importance, as long as they arrived at the right place. With the Reformers, the emphasis becomes ensuring that everyone begins from the same starting place: the Bible alone. Eventually, this becomes more specific: everyone should start from the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. Then, led by the Spirit, they’ll interpret everything clearly.
Of course, this doesn’t work in real life, which is why there are so many Protestant denominations (not 33,000, but an enormous number nevertheless). It’s also why there are huge theological disputes within denominations. Between conservative Presbyterians and their liberal Presbyterians counterparts, for example, you’ll find disputes over everything from the morality of abortion to the historicity of the Resurrection… differences much larger than the differences between conservative Presbyterians and conservative Baptists, or between liberal Presbyterians and liberal Anglicans. Unlike comparable theological disputes within Catholicism, these fights are interminable and irresolvable, since there’s no authority capable of stepping in to settle the debate. From the common sola Scriptura starting place, but there’s no way of ensuring everyone arrives at a common destination. Thus, we’ve seen a steady and continual increase in new denominations and schisms, as Protestant Christianity becomes ever-more fractured and divided.
Ultimately, this shift from a common destination to a common point-of-departure matters for three reasons:
First, because the Protestant model is ultimately unbiblical, untraditional, and unworkable. It doesn’t reliably terminate in orthodox Christianity, and it doesn’t reliably lead to the formation or preservation of a single Christian Church. Nothing within the model seems capable of overcoming the dual “bugs” of heresy and schism.
Second, it explains why the canon of Scripture matters so much more now than it did before. If you want to persuade a Protestant that prayers for the souls in Purgatory are a proper part of Christian prayer, it won’t suffice (as it might have for, e.g., a Christian of the fourth century) to show that it’s been part of Christian Liturgy and prayer from the very beginning, or that the Church has routinely reaffirmed the orthodoxy and import of these prayers. Rather you’ll probably need to show that this is a teaching found in Scripture… which requires a prior sense of what does and doesn’t constitute as “Scripture.” Is it enough to show that these prayers are found in 2 Maccabees?
Before the Reformation, the Church’s canon of Scripture was clear (the Biblical list is given, for example, by the Council of Florence in 1442), but it wasn’t until the Council of Trent, in the wake of the Reformation, that the Church took the trouble to define this 73-book list infallibly. Given what we’ve just seen, that’s less surprising than it might be otherwise.
Third and finally, this shows why a fourth-century Catholic could get away with an incomplete canon in a way that a modern Protestant can’t. The fourth-century Catholic had all sorts of tools and failsafes guiding him in his faith: the papacy; the Councils of the Church (at least by midway through the century); the prominent bishops and theologians we now call the Church Fathers; the Liturgy (with all of the spiritually and theologically rich prayers of the Mass, for example); and the general lived experience of the Church. These tools and failsafes have been almost entirely stripped away (sometimes intentionally, sometimes otherwise) by the last half-millennium of Protestantism. As a religious system, it has been unflinching in its reliance upon Sacred Scripture alone as an authority to point believers towards orthodoxy… only to discover that it’s incapable of determining which books even belong in Scripture, and which don’t.