The Canon & Athanasius

Question:

Eric Svendsen writes this about the canon: “the New Testament canon that we currently have was first recognized (not determined) by the Eastern church (not Rome), represented by Athanasius in his Easter Letter (mid fourth century). Rome had adopted a New Testament canon that excluded Hebrews, but eventually adopted the New Testament canon decided upon by the Eastern church by naming the same books at the synods of Carthage and Hippo (late fourth century, early fifth century).” What do you have to say about that?

Answer:

I think Dr. Svendsen needs to revisit this question since he has obviously missed some big points.

#1 – Eric’s view of historical ecclesiology is false. There was no such thing as an “Eastern Church” apart from the One Church Jesus established. Eric must try to do this since any representative of the “Roman” Church getting *anything* right is too much for him to handle, and obviously causes great difficulties for his low church position. He attempts, quite unsuccessfully, to distance Athanasius from the “Roman” Church, yet this same Athanasius was vindicated and supported by the Roman See:

“It behooved all of you to write to us, so that the justice of it might be seen as emanating from all…And above all, why was nothing written to us about the Church of the Alexandrians? Are you ignorant that the custom has been to write first to us, and then for a just decision to be passed from this place? If then, any such suspicion rested upon the bishop there [Athanasius], notice of it ought to have been written to the Church here. But now, after they have done as they pleased, they want to obtain our concurrence, although we never condemned him [Athanasius]. Not thus are the constitutions of Paul, not thus the traditions of the Fathers. This is another form of procedure, and a novel practice. I beseech you, bear with me willingly: what I write about this is for the common good. For what we have received from the blessed Apostle Peter, these things I signify to you.” (Pope St. Julius, quoted from Jurgens, p.346)

#2 – The 27 books which Athanasius listed in his Festal Letters in 367 A.D. were agreed upon by the Church [Roman Synod in 382 A.D., the North African Councils of Hippo (393 A.D.) and Carthage (397 A.D.), and finally ratified by Pope Innocent I in 401 A.D.]. For example, the Council of Hippo declares: “Besides the canonical Scriptures, nothing shall be read, in the church, under the title of ‘divine writings.'” Then, it goes on to define the canon, and says “Concerning the confirmation of this canon, the transmarine Church (Rome) shall be consulted.” Moreover, if the Church had instead opted for some other list (like say the Muratorian Fragment) other than the one proposed by Athanasius, would Eric Svendsen say, with a straight face, the inspired collection of books that he holds in his hand today would be the same as Athanasius’ list? I doubt it.

#3 – The books which Athanasius proposed as inspired hardly fell from heaven and hit him on the head. The same letter that Dr. Svendsen relies on to inform us of Athanasius’ canon is the same letter that states this:

“[T]he divinely inspired Scripture, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the FATHERS; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true BRETHREN, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and HANDED DOWN, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.” (St. Athanasius, Festal Letter XXXIX, 3)

As the above citation indicates, the Scriptures were delivered by the *fathers* and *handed down* to Athanasius, a very Catholic way of preserving truth for sure! It is clear, therefore, that the Patriarch of Alexandria hardly determined the canon by himself, but instead relied on the episcopacy’s ecclesiastical tradition (literally) to transmit the collection of inspired writings.

John Pacheco
The Catholic Legate
May 25, 2001

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