One of the strangest parts of Protestantism, from an outsider’s perspective, is the combination of sola Scriptura (the belief that all Christian teachings must come from Scripture, a teaching not itself found in Scripture) and the belief that the Bible is only 66 books long.
What makes this view so odd is twofold. First, the teaching that the Bible is 66 books long is, of course, not a teaching found in Scripture. There’s no inspired table of contents, as it were. The second oddity is that the 66-Book Protestant Bible wasn’t used by any of the early Christians, nor was such a Bible ever used by the Catholic Church or the Orthodox Church or the Coptic Church, nor was such a Bible even used by Martin Luther or John Calvin. This belief that the Bible is only 66 books long also contradicts the Council of Florence, a pre-Reformation Ecumenical Council attended by Catholics, Orthodox, and Copts.
It would be as if a group were to spring up tomorrow and declare that all Christian teachings must be drawn from the Gospel of Luke, without being able to explain why all teachings must come on from Scripture or only from these Scriptures. So why would anyone believe in the 66-book canon? Nathan Busenitz at The Master’s Seminary gives the standard defense:
For those who might wonder, “Why don’t Protestants accept the Apocrypha?” the ultimate answer is that Jesus never affirmed it as being part of Scripture. And neither did the apostles.
Many of the early church fathers did not regard the Apocryphal books as being canonical either. They considered them to be helpful for the edification of the church, but they did not see them as authoritative. Even the fifth-century scholar Jerome (who translated the Latin Vulgate — which became the standard Roman Catholic version of the Middle Ages) acknowledged that the Apocryphal books were not to be regarded as either authoritative or canonical.
The first of these arguments is that books like Judith and Wisdom should be rejected because Jesus never quoted them, or affirmed them as ‘being part of Scripture.” But Jesus and the Apostles never quote from Ruth, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Judges, etc., and yet Protestants include all of these books in their Bibles. So that “ultimate answer” argument doesn’t make sense. Or else it’s just a brazen double standard.
But what about the other argument, that St. Jerome endorsed the same Old Testament canon that Protestants now affirm? That’s true… ish. But there are a few things you should know.
First, Jerome is often used in a dishonest way. By saying that “even” Jerome “acknowledged” this view, it would be easy to get the impression that Jerome’s view on the canon were the norm at the time. That’s false. Jerome and Rufinus stand alone amongst the early Christians in arguing for the 66-book canon, and remarkably, neither of them actually used the canon. As Busenitz notes, Jerome translated most of the Latin Vulgate, the standard Bible used throughout all of Western Christianity for over a millennium, and that Bible includes the very Scriptures that Protestants think shouldn’t be in there.
Second, Jerome actually cites books beyond the 66-book canon as Scripture. For example, in a letter to Eustochium written after Jerome denied the canonicity of the Deuterocanon, we find him quoting one of these books, Sirach, as Scripture: “for does not the scripture say: ‘Burden not yourself above your power?'” Ignoring all of that nuance to present him as holding the modern Protestant view is worse than inaccurate: it’s untrue.
Third, the canon of Scripture was still an unsettled question at the time. This is itself glaring evidence that the early Christians didn’t think that everything had to come from “Scripture alone.” There’s a big difference between a Catholic saying “this teaching hasn’t been clearly defined, but I think the right answer is X” and one who says “this teaching has been clearly defined, but I disagree and hold to X anyways.” Which leads too…
Fourth, Jerome is a Roman Catholic to the core. To take just a few of the more obvious instances in which Jerome made clear that his deepest desire was to believe the orthodox faith of the Roman Catholic Church, here he is contrasting Roman Catholicism from Origenism, in an argument against Rufinus:
“The Latin reader,” he [Rufinus] says, “will find nothing here discordant from our faith.” What faith is this which he calls his? Is it the faith by which the Roman Church is distinguished? Or is it the faith which is contained in the works of Origen? If he answers the Roman, then we are the Catholics, since we have adopted none of Origen’s errors in our translations. But if Origen’s blasphemy is his faith, then, though he tries to fix on me the charge of inconsistency, he proves himself to be a heretic.
And despite living in the East, Jerome wrote to the pope to settle the theological question about the natures of Christ. Here he is, in his own words:
Since the East, shattered as it is by the long-standing feuds, subsisting between its peoples, is bit by bit tearing into shreds the seamless vest of the Lord, woven from the top throughout, [John 19:23] since the foxes are destroying the vineyard of Christ, [Song of Songs 2:15] and since among the broken cisterns that hold no water it is hard to discover the sealed fountain and the garden inclosed, [Song of Songs 4:12] I think it my duty to consult the chair of Peter, and to turn to a church whose faith has been praised by Paul. I appeal for spiritual food to the church whence I have received the garb of Christ. The wide space of sea and land that lies between us cannot deter me from searching for the pearl of great price. [Matthew 13:46] Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered together. [Matthew 24:28] Evil children have squandered their patrimony; you alone keep your heritage intact. The fruitful soil of Rome, when it receives the pure seed of the Lord, bears fruit an hundredfold; but here the seed grain is choked in the furrows and nothing grows but darnel or oats. [Matthew 13:22-23] In the West the Sun of righteousness [Malachi 4:2] is even now rising; in the East, Lucifer, who fell from heaven, Luke 10:18 has once more set his throne above the stars. [Isaiah 14:12] You are the light of the world, Matthew 5:14 you are the salt of the earth, [Matthew 5:13] you are vessels of gold and of silver. Here are vessels of wood or of earth, 2 Timothy 2:20 which wait for the rod of iron, [Revelation 2:27] and eternal fire.
Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! [Matthew 16:18] This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. [Exodus 12:22] This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. [Genesis 7:23] But since by reason of my sins I have betaken myself to this desert which lies between Syria and the uncivilized waste, I cannot, owing to the great distance between us, always ask of your sanctity the holy thing of the Lord. Consequently I here follow the Egyptian confessors who share your faith, and anchor my frail craft under the shadow of their great argosies. I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; [Matthew 12:30] he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist.
So if you really care about what St. Jerome has to say, by all means follow his example. Enter into full union with the Bishop of Rome and believe the saving faith that the Roman Catholic Church believes. If you don’t care about what Jerome believes, then why bring him up at all?
As I said above, Jerome wasn’t saying “I reject the Catholic Church’s position on the contents of Scripture.” He readily affirmed the Church’s teachings, but (quite reasonably) wasn’t initially clear what the Church’s teaching was on this subject.