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Sola Scriptura, the NT Canon and the Church
19-07-2008, 02:14 PM,
Sola Scriptura, the NT Canon and the Church
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Recovering from a fairly serious back problem, I have been unable to post for a while, except sporadically, but I have had time to do some reading, as well as converse with a couple of Anglican friends. One topic which came up might be of interest and prompt others to join in, and that was the question of the place of Tradition in the teaching of the Orthodox Church as opposed to the more Protestant view of Sola Scriptura.

One of my friends, who maintains the position that the C of E is a Protestant Church, casually remarked that 'of course, like the Catholics, you lot prefer your blessed tradition to the plain word of God in Scripture.' I tried to persuade him that this certainly misrepresented our view (and that it probably did the same for the RCs), but this is what I wrote to him.

I would be grateful for corrections, of course, and for comments.---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The difficulty with your position is that it can only be held by a Church which came into existence after there was a canon - and since my Church predates the canon, we should have looked rather silly for a long time proclaiming sola scriptura. Let me try to explain as best I can my understanding of these things - but do remember I am a recent convert to the BOC and may well speak in even more error than you say I do on other matters!

The canonical gospels are thought by many scholars to be amongst the earliest written; this I have from: Streeter, The Four Gospels (1930); Hanehman, The Muratorian Fragment (1992); J.A.T. Robinson, Redating the NT (1976); Metzger, The Canon of the NT (1987); but they were not the only ones in circulation.

Papias, who is the first witness to mention or quote any known gospel tradition writes (as recorded in Eusebius) of St. Mark:
Quote:This, also the presbyter (John?] said: Mark, having become Peter's interpreter, wrote down accurately all that he remembered, not indeed in order, of the things said and done by Christ. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed Him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he heard and to make no false statements. HE 3:39.15
He adds in HE 3.39.16:
Quote: 'So then Mark collected the oracles (logia) in the Hebrew language, and everyone interpreted as he was able.'

We only have those parts of the writings of Papias preserved by Eusebius, but in HE 3:39;4 he writes something instructive:
Quote:If anyone ever came who had followed the presbyters, I questioned him in regard to the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter or Phillip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other of the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that information from books would help so much as the word of a living and abiding voice.
So, that's how people in the early Church preferred their information - not much sola scriptura there, because there was no sole source.

Papias is, I think, the earliest to quote from any known written gospel traditions, but preferred the 'living and abiding voice' to the written word; nor was he the only one. The German scholar, Koester, in his Synoptische Uberlieferung bei den Apostolischen Vaten (1957), shows that gospel citations from the Apostolic Fathers are more likely to be drawn from oral traditions; either that, or they are quite extraordinarily free quotations from anything written, so different are they. (OK, this is my rusty German at work, but Hanheman agrees!)

Written gospels became used increasingly only as the oral tradition became unavailable because of death. These gospels were associated with various local Churches, and in the early second century there are no signs that any of them had all 4 that we use. Marcion, for example, employed only Luke, and there is no sign he knew any others.

The only surviving codices from the first half of the second century appear to have contained only one work each, with only one exception. The Fayyum fragments (P75) which includes Luke and John is the first multiple gospel codex we have - and that is c. 175-225 AD. The Egyptian Codex, P45, is the earliest fourfold gospel codex and is dated to the first half of the third century.

Again, this suggests that it was not until the later second century that codices of the 4 gospels were in circulation, which reinforces the idea that local Churches followed local tradition, which included the gospel they knew and the epistles handed down locally. We also know from Eusebius that the texts were enlarged to add stories from other traditions.

Thus we see a picture in which Christian communities gradually became aware of a variety of gospel texts and other documents of Apostolic origin. It is not until Justin Martyr (Dialogue) that we have direct quotations from more than two gospels. But Justin also cites saying of the Lord which are not in any of the 4 gospels, suggesting he had access to a compilation of the sayings of the Lord.

The Diatessaron which you seem to think implies a confusion, does no such thing if we place it in this context. Tatian's work was one of several 'harmonies'. which suggests that the fourfold gospel canon was still not established, and men felt it fine to combine written and oral sources from local tradition. Indeed, Tatian had all 4 gospels, but his harmony of them was accepted as having the same status; again, no canon evident around the 180s. Indeed, not until after the establishment of the canon was the Diatessaron replaced - and Tatian used not only the 4 gospels but also 'the gospel according to the Hebrews'. There are also parallels with the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.

In short, Tatian, like the rest of his contemporaries, knew many gospel traditions and considered none canonical (the same is true of the work of Victor of Capua, 546, and Theophilus of Antioch). Nowhere before Irenaeus (c.180-9) do we have a mention a fourfold gospel canon (Adv. Haer. 3.11.11). He suggests that by the end of the second century a canon of 4 gospels was being argued for.

We see the same story of adaption and tradition with the Pauline corpus. The East accepted a collection of 14 epistles as early as Origen - but the West did not do so until the late fourth century.

So, it is not until the 4th century that we get the Church, through its Councils, taking decisions about what was and was not canonical. I, of course, like to quote St. Anthansius' festal letter to you, but since you lost the last copy I sent, you can jolly well track it down for yourself.

Any way, this is too long, and I shall share it with my friends on the BOC. But I guess what I am saying in such a long-winded way, is that it is only thanks to the Church that you know what is and is not canonical in the NT. Your decision to accept the Church's book but not its reading of it is, of course, at the core of what divides us - but, I hope, does not embitter the cordial acerbity of our correspondence.

As I say, comments, corrections and additions all welcome.

In Christ,


In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Messages In This Thread
Sola Scriptura, the NT Canon and the Church - John Charmley - 19-07-2008, 02:14 PM
[] - Fr Gregory - 21-07-2008, 08:06 AM
[] - John Charmley - 24-07-2008, 10:13 PM
[] - John Charmley - 11-08-2008, 12:31 PM
[] - John Charmley - 27-08-2008, 02:56 PM
[] - Rick Henry - 27-08-2008, 04:59 PM

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