A popular argument by online Roman Catholic (RC) apologists centers around the certainty of the biblical canon. The RC apologist will ask the Protestant, “how can you be sure you have the right books without the infallible authority of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC)”? Likewise, the RC apologist will claim that the biblical canon taught since Hippo/Carthage and throughout history is the RC canon (with the Protestant canon “missing” books) despite acknowledging Church fathers and theologians who expressed doubts about the deuterocanonical books.
In previous posts we have seen that the vote to make the RC canon an article of faith by the addition of an anathema was not overwhelming supported by the council members at Trent. If the exact contents of the biblical canon was crystal clear throughout history as the RC apologists maintain, and clearly defined by past councils, one would have expected solid support for making the canon an article of faith. Yet that was not the case, why?
If we look at some of the canon discussions that occurred at the Council of Trent both before and after the February 15th vote in 1546 (which according to Catholic historian Hubert Jedin “committed the Council to the wider canon”), we will get a glimpse into some of the uncertainty around the canon. What we will see is what Chadwick described as quoted in a previous post, “In the cold light of finality, the formulas look rigid against Protestants. Seen as the end of a long debate with differing opinions, the formulas have more nuance, more flexibility, than any Protestant hitherto supposed.”
Following on a previous post, after describing the vote on Feb 15th, Jedin goes back to summarize the discussions that occurred in prior meetings leading up to the vote and the final implication:
“This question was not only a matter of controversy between Catholics and Protestants: it was also the subject of a lively discussion even between Catholic theologians. St Jerome, that great authority in all scriptural questions, had accepted the Jewish canon of the Old Testament. Thc books of Judith, Esther, Tobias, Machabees, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, which the majority of the Fathers, on the authority of the Septuagint, treated as canonical, Jerome described as apocryphal, that is, as not included in the canon though suitable for the edification of the faithful…The general of the Franciscans Observant, Calvus, dealt thoroughly with the problems raised by Cajetan in a tract drawn up for the purposes of the Counci1. He defended the wider canon, and in particular the canonicity of the book of Baruch, the story of Susanna, that of Bel and the dragon, and the canticle of the three children (Benedicite). On the other hand, he refused to accept the oft-quoted Apostolic Canons as authoritative for the canonicity of the third book of Machabees. The general of the Augustinians, Seripando, on the contrary, was in sympathy with Erasmus and Cajetan and sought to harmonise their views with the Florentine decree on the ground that the protocanonical books of the Old Testament, as "canonical and authentic", belong the the canon fidei, while the deuterocanonical ones, as "canonical and ecclesiastical books", belong to the canon morum. Seripando, accordingly, follows the tendency which had made itself felt elsewhere also in pre-Tridentine Catholic theology, which was not to withhold the epithet "canonical" from the deuterocanonical books, yet to use it with certain restrictions.
The tracts of the two generals of Orders show that opinions diverged widely even within the Council. The prestige of the Augustinian general and that of the Bishop of Fano who sided with him, may have prompted Cervini to discuss the whole complex question in his class. It became evident that no one supported the subtle distinction between a canon fidei and a canon morum, though it met with a somewhat more favourable reception in the general congregation of 12 February when several of the Fathers deemed it useful, though not necessary. The majority agreed with the opinion of the general of the Servites, that controverted theological questions, which had already been the subject of discussion between Augustine and Jerome, should not be decided by the Council but should be allowed to remain open questions. The result of the above-mentioned vote of the general congregation of 15 February committed the Council to the wider canon, but inasmuch as it abstained from a theological discussion, the question of differences between books within the canon was left as it had been.” History of the Council of Trent, pgs 56-57
Additional details around the discussion in the general congregation of Feb 12th are provided by Duncker:
“Cardinal Cervini, reporting the previous day's discussion in his Classis, brought up the two points still to be settled : First, whether a distinction is to be made between Sacred Books from which the foundations of our teaching are drawn and those which, though truly canonical, are not so in the same sense as the former (Acts: "not of the same authority") but are received by the Church so that from them the multitude may be instructed, such as the books of Proverbs, Wisdom and so on. This distinction would seem to be pertinent (…Acts:…does not seem off the point), because this question is still much disputed and not yet determined by the Church, though Augustine and Jerome and other ancient writers often spoke of it.
After having mentioned incidentally that Cardinal Pacheco was against this distinction, Severoli (and the Acts) only say that "Although many esteemed it useful and even not less necessary (Acts: 'yet less necessary'), nevertheless the view of several (Acts: Of the majority') prevailed, that this question be left intact to posterity (Acts: 'be omitted and left*) as it was left to us by our Fathers." The General of the Servites, Bonucci, insisted, in his turn, ". . . that this question must surely be left intact (Acts omit this part of his statement) as, in points on which Jerome and Augustine disagree, the Church has not been accustomed to pass judgment (Acts: 'the Synod should not pass judgment, as the Church has not been accustomed to do so').”
…The question was not yet settled, for that same night the Cardinal legates reported to Rome that the point about the degrees of the books of the Old Testament, which had come up during the debate, had still to lie examined, as many of the ancient holy Doctors had said that some were canonical and suited to settle dogmas and that others did not have so much authority but were only "agiographi" (sacred writings).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol 15, pgs 285-286
The implication of the Tridentine decision on the Catholic canon is outlined by F. J. Crehan, S.J.:
“After sharp discussion the Council came to the decision that it received and held in honour pari pietatis affectu ac reverentia, with equal devotion and veneration, the books of Scripture and the divine and apostolic traditions (that is, those coming from Christ or the apostles) which concerned faith or morals. It did not mean that each book of Scripture was inspired in exactly the same way, as some modern theologians have claimed, for the Council was not comparing book with book but the body of Scripture with the body of apostolic tradition. …The further question, whether in the decree of Trent anything should be said about the status of books within the canon (that is, of the deuterocanonical books), was left to one side. Writing on 16 February 1546, the day after the debate, the legates report to Rome that there was general agreement not to enter into that question (Acta, x, 382) and the notice in the official account of the proceedings (Acts, V, 10), recording that there was a majority in favour of putting the books all on an equal footing but that nothing was put into the decree about it, seems to agree with this. The fact that the words pari pietatis affectu recipit do not appear in the decree, but another place, where they establish an equality between Scripture as a whole and Tradition, has led some theologians into a short-sighted attempt to twist the story of the Council. The legates cannot have been mistaken when they wrote that there was agreement not to enter into that difficult matter.” The Cambridge History of the Bible, pgs 199-202
So what does this all mean? First, it shows that the Catholic canon is imprecise in that it potentially contains books that are less authoritative and not adequate for proving dogma. A two-fold Catholic canon is still an open question according to the Council of Trent. Second, this imprecision translates into uncertainty for the faithful as the authority of any one book in the canon has intentionally been left undecided by the Catholic magisterium. Add to this the fact that a few books in the Vulgate were passed over in silence at the Council of Trent (3 & 4 Esdras, 3 Maccabees, Prayer of Manasseh), meaning that these books may or may not be inspired and deserving of a place in the canon, and we are left with an open Catholic canon containing books of potentially variable authority in matters of faith.
Likewise, the Catholic arguments against the Protestant canon as “missing books” or “inconsistent with church history” are also invalid in light of these facts. Where the Catholic Church has left the theological difficulties regarding the canon open, the Protestant canon could be a functional option from a Catholic point of view. As the Thomist, Scotist and Molinist schools of thought are all allowed to coexist in in areas of RC theology that are not precisely defined, a possible position to be held by a Roman Catholic is that the apocryphal books do not establish doctrine, which is quite close to the Protestant position in regard to these books. Jerome’s opinion of the biblical canon has not been rejected by the RCC, and Protestants have simply sided with Jerome as well as others throughout church history.
As such, the certainty that the standard RC apologist claims regarding their biblical canon is far from valid in my mind. The Council of Trent specifically chose not to provide clear answers to historical questions around the canon, leaving Catholics with uncertainty around the level of authority for individual books. The Protestant canon seems to provide far more certainty for understanding doctrine, as we have included in our canon all inspired books of God (none passed over in silence), all of which can be equally consulted in matters of faith (no degrees of authority). So while the "charisma of infallibility" possessed by the Catholic Church has been able to firmly establish the bodily assumption of Mary as dogma, they have been unable to adequately define the authoritative status of the components of Scripture in matters of doctrine. Once again, the facts of history do not align with the lofty claims of RC apologetics.