Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears’ Faulty Case for the Protestant Canon

A reader e-mailed me a few questions regarding arguments raised by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, in their book Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. It’s a good example of how important it is to check out the facts of those people trying to disprove Catholicism. For example, they start out their argument for the Protestant Bible (and against the Catholic Deuterocanon) by saying, on page 52:

The thirty-nine books of the Old Testament and twenty-seven books of the New Testament graciously preserved by God in the Bible are the inspired Word of God. The church recognized that these books constitute the complete canon inspired by God and received them as uniquely authoritative because they are God speaking to his people. F.F. Bruce says:
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa – at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397 – but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.

The idea that the Councils of Carthage and Hippo codified the Protestant canon is just staggeringly wrong. While those Councils laid out which Books were in the Bible, they explicitly declared the Catholic Bible as the correct canon of Scripture.  Here’s what the Council of Carthage said, in its own words:

It was also determined that besides the Canonical Scriptures nothing be read in the Church under the title of divine Scriptures. The Canonical Scriptures are these: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings [that is, First and Second Samuel and First and Second Kings], two books of Paraleipomena [that is, First and Second Chronicles], Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, [that is, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus] the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees. Of the New Testament: four books of the Gospels, one book of the Acts of the Apostles, thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same [writer] to the Hebrews, two Epistles of the Apostle Peter, three of John, one of James, one of Jude, one book of the Apocalypse of John. Let this be made known also to our brother and fellow-priest Boniface, or to other bishops of those parts, for the purpose of confirming that Canon. because we have received from our fathers that those books must be read in the Church. Let it also be allowed that the Passions of Martyrs be read when their festivals are kept.

The Catholic Deuterocanon, those Books we think are Scripture which Protestants usually don’t,  includes Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch (including the Epistle of Jeremy, a.k.a., Baruch 6), 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the the longer versions of Esther and Daniel. So every Book of the Catholic Bible is listed as being Divine Scripture.

This means that when Driscoll and Breshears claim that the Protestant “thirty-nine books of the Old Testament” were recognized as the appropriate Old Testament canon at Carthage,  they apparently haven’t done even basic research before writing a book on the subject.  Had they, they would have realized that both Hippo and Carthage support the Catholic Bible… the very Bible they’re trying to discredit.

Now, not only does the Council of Carthage support the Catholic Bible.  It also supports things like:

  • Holding Masses for dead Saints (you see reference to it in the section I underlined);
  • The priesthood (to call Pope Boniface a “fellow-priest,” you must first recognize the validity of the priesthood);
  • Submission to the pope.  After all, as F.F. Bruce noted above, this was a North African regional Council, yet they (a) submitted their canons to Pope Boniface, and (b) referred to him as a “fellow-priest.”  If you’re not familiar,  “fellow-priest” is a Petrine title: it’s how the first pope, Peter, describes himself in 1 Peter 5:1. So this is a nod that Boniface is the successor to Peter.

And all that’s just in the short passage I quoted.  The Council of Carthage is no enemy of the Catholic Church, and Protestants who (a) rely upon it for their canon, or (b) try and claim it supports Protestantism, should probably read its canons first.  The Synod of Hippo fares no better: its decrees were ratified by the Council of Carthage (in Canon 34), and Hippo’s bishop was St. Augustine, a well known defender of the Deuterocanonical Books.

This is worse than sloppy.  Driscoll and Breshears are actually leading people astray by making wildly untrue claims about history — facts which would take perhaps a few minutes to check in the digital age.  Many Protestants believe in the Protestant Bible precisely because of such falsehoods.  Frankly, I can understand your average Christian not diving into the canons of the Council of Carthage to find out for himself what they say: that’s completely reasonable.  But that puts all the more responsibility on apologists and scholars to get their facts right: people are trusting them on something as foundational as which Bible is correct.

And regardless of the topic, shouldn’t someone writing a book on a subject check their basic facts first?  After all, Marc Driscoll is a high-profile pastor whose views carry a lot of weight, and Gerry Breshears is a seminary professor.  If the people teaching this stuff aren’t checking basic facts, who is?  And for the record, I checked, and a Google search for the phrase “Council of Carthage” would have corrected this error at once (either of the top two results).

It wasn’t as if this was an incidental detail: their major argument is that the early Church believed in the Protestant canon, and their support is simply non-existent. Their facts don’t get better as they go along, either.  On the next page (pg. 53), they write:

Beginning two hundred and fifty years before Christ, Greek-speaking Jews living in Alexandria translated the Old Testament into Greek, calling it the Septuagint. For some unknown reason, they changed the content of several books, added many books, and rearranged the order of the books.

Early Christians followed Jesus and used the same books as found in the Hebrew Bible today. But as the center of Christianity moved away from Jerusalem and Christians read and worshiped more in Greek than Hebrew, there was more openness to the books of the Septuagint . There was a long and complicated debate about the validity and status of these books. Eventually the Roman Catholic Church adopted many of the books of the Septuagint into its Latin version, called the Vulgate. They referred to them as deuterocanonical, meaning they were canonized later.

I’m pleased that they at least realized that the Greek version of the Bible which existed at the time of Christ included the Deuterocanonical Books.  But they get basically everything else wrong:

  1. The Jews at the time of Christ weren’t uniform in regards to the canon of Scripture. Driscoll and Breshears claim that, for no apparent reason, the Hellenists simply added some Books and rearranged the Scriptures.  In fact, the Sadducees, Pharisees, Hellenists, and Qumran community each used different Bibles, and even within the factions of the Pharisees and Hellenists, there were multiple canons of Scripture. I’ve written more on this subject here, here, and here (the first two are about the Sadducees, the third is about the Qumran community- the Jews who gave us the Dead Sea scrolls). Also, I was involved in a debate on this topic, starting around comment # 260 here.
  2. Jesus used the Greek Version of the Bible. This is the version that Driscoll and Breshears as some bizarre aberration from the Jewish  It seems as if the Savior of the World was okay with the Catholic Bible. I’ve written more on that here.
  3. Deuterocanonical doesn’t mean “canonized later. It means “secondary canon.” I’ll explain that momentarily.
  4. No early Christian used the Protestant Bible. Not a single early Christian that we know of used the Protestant Bible. More on that here.
Before the Church officially declared the canon, there were Books which everyone was sure of (called the Protocanon or Homologoumena), and the Books which were “spoken against” (the Deuterocanon or Antilegomena). I listed the Old Testament Deuterocanon above, but there’s also a New Testament Deuterocanon. It includes: the Book of James, 2 John, 3 John, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Revelation. These were the Books which there was controversy about.  For what it’s worth, Martin Luther actually wanted to throw out both the Old and New Testament Deuterocanon
You actually get a hint of that controversy in the bit I quoted from the Council of Carthage, above.  They
affirm the canonicity of the “thirteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul, one epistle of the same to the Hebrews. The other Thirteen were obvious enough that they didn’t need to be spelled out, but Hebrews had to be mentioned as canonical by name.  
Conclusion
Genuine confusion existed in the early Church as to whether Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, 1 and 2 Maccabees,  James, 2 John, 3 John, Hebrews, 2 Peter, and Revelation were canonical.  The Church said yes to each of these (in places like Hippo and Carthage), and it was on that basis alone that we know that these are, in fact, Divinely inspired.  So we can see from this history, not only that the Catholic Bible is the correct one, but that the Church was instrumental in establishing the Bible.  These are the two points which Driscoll and Breshears set out to prove, and they failed on both counts.
To the extent that they succeeded in persuading anyone, it’s only because the picture that they painted was almost completely false.  They simply make false claims about what the early Jews believed, what the early Church believed, and what the Councils of Hippo and Carthage said.  When the Truth comes out, their apologetic for the Protestant canon shatters.  
This is why it’s incumbent upon apologists to try and be careful in presenting facts — so as not to accidentally lead people into falsehoods — and why we, as readers, should try to fact-check suspicious sounding claims whenever possible.

14 Comments

  1. Absolutely fantastic post. Yet even after all of that, we haven’t even tackled the biggest elephant in the room. If Driscoll and Breshear’s trust the Church’s authority in defining the canon, then why not in other matters of the faith?

  2. What about this point in isolation:

    ” One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not bec(ome?) authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and generally apostolic authority, direct or indirect.”

    I’ve heard this a lot from prots. You would grant it, right? Not sure what work it does, but some people think it supremely clever to point out.

    1. That is a “loaded question”, “anachronistic” and “overly simple”. It limits the responses to that which it assumes is true. It considers what we have today and considers it was always so. And it does not consider other problems which had to be surmounted to arrive at the canon we have today.

      The classic example of a loaded question is, “are you still beating your wife?” Obviously, if the answer is yes, the fellow admits to beating his wife. If the answer is no, the fellow admits he used to beat his wife.

      Yes, it is true that the many in the Church already considered the 27 books of the New Testament to be inspired. But that is not the entire truth. There were also some people in the Church who did not consider certain of the books to be inspired or canonical. One that comes prominently to mind is the book of Hebrews, whose authorship was questioned early on. In addition, there were many other New Testament books which were considered inspired by some but which did not make it into the Canon. The Shepherd of Hermas comes prominently to mind.

      Therefore the question as stated is loaded, leading one to the conclusion it has assumed is the correct answer. Anachronistic, assuming that things were yesterday as they are today. And overly simplistic, since some of those books which are included in the New Testament today were challenged by some and other books which are not included were highly regarded and would have been included by others.

  3. Brandon,

    Thank you! And I agree — that’s why I mentioned some of the other obviously-Catholic things that Carthage said. If they’re untrustworthy Catholics, why listen to them? And if they’re trustworthy enough for us to rely on them for the Bible, why not actually listen to what they have to say?

    Driscoll and Breshears want to get around this by saying that the Council is merely point out the obvious. On page 54, they quote J.I. Packer for the proposition that “The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity.”

    But this ignores that (1) it was high-ranking members of the Church who were the human authors of the New Testament, and that (2) the Church was the Institution which once and for all settled the disputes as to the authenticity of Books like James, etc. — at least until Luther.

    Viewing the Church’s relationship to the Bible like Newton’s relationship to the law of gravity leaves you with another obvious problem — Newton’s fallible, so it’s possible his gravitational theories were wrong … and, in fact, they were, at least for sufficiently large and small objects. That’s where the field of quantum physics comes in.

    So we trust the Bible to the extent that we can trust the Church. You can’t saw off the branch and save the fruit.

    I’m excited to read your book, by the way – the buzz has really been something. In Christ,

    Joe

  4. HocCogitat,

    I agree with you that this point doesn’t seem to help the Protestant case. I think it’s based on a misunderstanding of what Catholics actually believe.

    In any case, I’m not sure that the logic is even internally coherent. Driscoll and Breshears claim both that the Protestant canon was always received “as uniquely authoritative,” and that there “was a long and complicated debate about the validity and status of” the Old Testament Deuterocanon. Either the canon was clear to everyone, or it wasn’t. I don’t see how they can have it both ways.

    Historically, certain Books were obvious: the Protocanon. Certain Books were disputed: the Deuterocanon. The canon was settled all once, largely ending the dispute as to the Deuterocanon and reaffirming what almost everyone knew about the Protocanon. There was (and is) some dissent in the East, but that’s because they actually have a yet-larger canon.

    Now, that said, one point that they make is true: “The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list” (thanks for catching my typo, by the way). The Church’s job isn’t to invent Truth, but to recognize It. This still doesn’t help the Protestant argument, since we agree.

    Besides, the early Christians generally acknowledged that the Church does have the power to establish what the Truth is. Otherwise, why have Councils?

    God bless,

    Joe

  5. Hey Joe,

    Thank you very much for writing this. Very well done. It has been mind-blowing to me the amount of misinformation/lying that is done by Protestants/evangelicals regarding church history in order to try to justify themselves.

    Have you tried to contact Driscoll and Breshears regarding this? I don’t know anything about Breshears, but I’ve heard that Driscoll is a very humble man is very open to correction.

    I’ve emailed a bit with the guy who runs this blog: http://driscollwatch.wordpress.com/
    He’s told me that he’s been able to communicate with Mark and that has been very receptive/open.

    Brantly

  6. Brantly,

    I looked for their e-mail addresses a bit online, but came up short. I suppose, if nothing else, I can just e-mail Mars Hill.

    I’m glad to hear that Discoll is humble about these things — I saw that in another instance, after a blogger criticized one of his posts for being sexist, he took it down. I really do think it was sloppiness here rather than deception, so hopefully (a) he’ll find my rebuke gentle , as a brother Christian, and (b) he’ll respond favorably to it. I’ll let you know if anything develops. God bless,

    Joe

  7. Great post, Joe! I would only add one important point regarding the canon. It is a common Protestant and modern Catholic mistake to assume that “canonical” means “inspired”…as if the Biblical canon is (or was designed to be) a list of all the books which are recognized exclusively to be Divinely inspired, whereas all non-canonical material is definitely not inspired. Yet, this is not the case. Rather, all that “canonical” (from the Greek term “kanon”, meaning “rule”) refers to are those books which the Church has formally approved to read publicly at the Liturgy (the Mass). This is what the Biblical canon actually is.

    Now, the bigger issue here is that, in the ancient Church (and even today), it is recognized that Apostolic Tradition is passed down from one generation to another primarily through the Liturgy – that is – through the formal worship of the Church. This is based on the ancient Catholic principal of “lex orandi, lex credendi”. That is, “As the Church worships, so the Church believes.” So, in ancient times, definite and unquestionable Apostolic Tradition was recognized as anything that was approved to be part of the Liturgy (ex. “How do we know that it’s okay to baptize infants?” “Because we do it in the Liturgical life of the Church, and we always did it.” For the Liturgy developed by simply following the example of the Apostles and their immediate successors, per Phil 4:9:

    “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.”

    See also 1Cor 11:2. So, the Liturgy and the content of teh Liturgy was the primary deposit of Apostolic Tradition, and what was experienced in the Liturgy (the formal and public worship of the Church) was considered reliably Orthodox, and so formally binding on all Christians. And Scripture was part of this “greater whole” of the Church’s Liturgical worship.

    Pax,

    Brock

  8. Great post!

    I think the first error happened when the authors used the quote from F. F. Bruce to support their position concerning the entire canon of scripture without realizing (?) that F. F. Bruce is actually talking about the NT canon *only*. (I recognized the quote right away from his essay on the reliability of the NT documents.)

    The fact that F. F. Bruce is discussing the NT canon *only* is discernible from the quoted text, but a casual reader could easily miss that and assume the quote supports the claim simply because it follows the claim.

    My guess is the other points were are just the repetition of opinions widely held in their social circles, which I’m starting to think is the primary vehicle for transmitting the Protestant Faith.

  9. Brock, good point and good support from Scripture. It seems clear that the Early Church Fathers would have found the sort of sola Scriptura practiced by modern Evangelicals totally alien.

    David,good catch on F. F. Bruce. That said, I find the whole idea that Evangelicals can rely on those part of the canon that they like, and ignore the rest, senseless. After all Canon 24 isn’t about setting “the New Testament canon,” but about declaring the entirety of Divine Scripture, once and for all.

    If Evangelicals think that Carthage (a) can’t do that, or (b) got it wrong, then it doesn’t make sense to rely on that same exact list when it happens to suit them.

    As for your last comment, I agree that particular social circles and cliques seem (at least to me, as an outsider) to have an inordinate amount of influence, such that when a handful of guys go wrong, they take an awful lot of folks with them. There just seem to be far fewer institutional and traditional checks to stop people from wandering off the deep end. Again, outsider’s perspective, so take it with a grain of salt.

    God bless!

    Joe

  10. Manda,

    That link is really misleading, but there’s a kernel of truth. Catholic Answers explains:

    “But there is another possibility, and that is Toulouse, France, where a council was held in 1229. And, yes, that council dealt with the Bible. It was organized in reaction to the Albigensian or Catharist heresy, which held that there are two gods and that marriage is evil because all matter (and thus physical flesh) is evil. From this the heretics concluded that fornication could be no sin, and they even encouraged suicide among their members. In order to promulgate their sect, the Albigensians published an inaccurate translation of the Bible in the vernacular language (rather like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of today publishing their severely flawed New World Translation of the Bible, which has been deliberately mistranslated to support the sect’s claims). Had it been an accurate translation, the Church would not have been concerned. Vernacular versions had been appearing for centuries. But what came from the hands of the Albigensians was an adulterated Bible. The bishops at Toulouse forbade the reading of it because it was inaccurate. In this they were caring for their flocks, just as a Protestant minister of today might tell his flock not to read the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation.”

    That last sentence is a good one. I expect that any Christian Bookstore worth its salt bans the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation or the Mormons’ Joseph Smith Edition of the Bible, because they’re inaccurate translations with false and spiritually misleading footnotes. The same logic applies here.

    Most of the Catholic “history” you’ll read regarding the Catholic Church and the Bible is false. The only reason that the Reformers even had the Bible was because the Church faithfully preserved, copied, and disseminated it for centuries. The Latin Vulgate was the first full-length Book published when the printing press was invented.

    It’s true that the Church has always been hesitant about people simply being left with the Bible (without anyone there to explain the confusing parts), but She can hardly be blamed for that. Look at how well that’s worked out for Protestantism. All of us should have the humility of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:30-31. Read Scripture, but read it in harmony with the Church.

    God bless,

    Joe.

  11. Brock,

    You did very good work. The Baptist you’re talking with keeps proposing various ways of establishing an objective canon that rely on Tradition — determining whether the Book was Apostolic in origin, etc. That makes sense, frankly. But we only know who the authors are because of the Church Fathers.

    So we can either have (a) a faith grounded in Patristics, or (b) a faith which treats the Church Fathers as folks who know less about the whole Christianity thing than we moderns. Only (a) brings us to the Bible.

    In Christ,

    Joe

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