Monday, September 24, 2012

The canon of scripture, Damasus, and the "Gelasian Decree"


In some non-Catholic circles, there exists an argument against Pope Damasus having decreed the canon of Scripture at a council in Rome, ca 382 A.D. Here is an example from the One Fold blog arguing against Catholic apologist John Martignoni:
What John is referring to when he says the “canon was set at the Council of Rome in 382 A.D,” is actually a list from the Gelasian Decree produced in the sixth century and sometimes falsely attributed to the council of Rome.
A similar claim is made by Protestant historian F.F. Bruce:
What is commonly called the Gelasian decree on books which are to be received and not received takes its name from Pope Gelasius (492-496). It gives a list of biblical books as they appeared in the Vulgate, with the Apocrypha [sic] interspersed among the others. In some manuscripts, indeed, it is attributed to Pope Damasus, as though it had been promulgated by him at the Council of Rome in 382. But actually it appears to have been a private compilation drawn up somewhere in Italy in the early sixth century. (Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, p. 97)
One of the apologetic reasons for claiming the 382 decree on the canon is false is because the text in question includes the longer Catholic canon with 7+ books1––what Bruce calls the "Apocrypha." Catholics today refer to these texts as the Deuterocanon. Those opposed to the authenticity of the 382 decree are apparently averse to admitting to the antiquity of the Catholic canon. Admittedly, this is peculiar, because One Fold, perhaps following the admission on page 97 of Bruce, admits that the longer Catholic canon was declared at Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), just a few years later anyway.
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. (ibid. 97)
It's worth noting that Bruce admits the longer Catholic canon was "already the general practice" of the early Christian communities.

Nevertheless, what of the authenticity of Pope Damasus proclaiming the longer canon in 382? Catholic historian William Jurgens writes as follows:
The first part of this decree has long been known as the Decree of Damasus, and concerns the Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts. The second part of the decree is more familiarly known as the opening part of the Gelasian Decree, in regard to the canon of Scripture: De libris recipiendis vel non recipiendis. It is now commonly held that the part of the Gelasian Decree dealing with the accepted canon of Scripture is an authentic work of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. and that Gelasius edited it again at the end of the fifth century, adding to it the catalog of the rejected books, the apocrypha. It is now almost universally accepted that these parts one and two of the Decree of Damasus are authentic parts of the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. (Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1, p. 404)
So, according to Jurgens, both Damasus and Gelasius included the canonical list, but Gelasius added additional forbidden texts. Whether this took place at the "end of the fifth" century or the "sixth" century, as Bruce asserts, they are apparently speaking of the same Gelasian text. The question is whether or not what Gelasius wrote in the 5th/6th century was an innovation from the 382 Decree of Damasus as One Fold and Bruce assert.

It seems to me, the Decree of Damasus in 382 at the council of Rome is the more historically sound. Here's why. In 1912, the author Ernst von Dobsch├╝tz, gave his historical rationale for doubting that Damasus made a decree on the canon at Rome in 382. He points out that in the Gelasian decree is a quotation from St. Augustine dating from 416. Therefore, he denies that any other part of the decree could have originally been from Damasus in 382. From this, he concludes that the entirety of Damasus' decree has "no historical value." We see, of course, that this is specious reasoning. After all, if Damasus declared a canonical list in 382, and Gelasius in the 5th/6th century added to that a quote from Augustine, that would not erase Damasus' original declaration.

All these dates and names can be confusing. But here's the apparent timeline:
  • 382 - Pope Damasus makes his decree on the larger Catholic canon
  • 416 - Augustine makes his comments.
  • 5th/6th century - Gelasius takes Damasus' decree, and edits it, adding to it the Augustinian quote and lists other apocryphal texts
If Gelasius added an Augustinian quote, it has no effect on what Damasus declared. Yet von Dobsch├╝tz concludes the entire Decree of Damasus is worthless. Bruce apparently echoes this historical view by calling into question the dating of the canonical list in Damasus' decree.

Another Protestant resource confirms Jurgens and the timeline I have posited above:
A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (also known as the 'Gelasian Decree' because it was reproduced by Gelasius in 495), which is identical with the list given at Trent. (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., p. 232)
Thus, we have sound evidence that the longer Catholic canon found acceptance from councils ancient and more recent including Rome (382), Hippo (393), Carthage (397), Nicea II (797), Florence (1442)Trent (1546) and Vatican I (1870). It is this canonical list that has found consistency throughout the centuries.


1For the text of the decree on the canon at the council at Rome (382), see Gary Michuta's Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger, page 126-127, or refer to the Latin text here.

4 comments:

  1. in their efforts to survive,protestant must continue to protest about everything:yet these are mere babies who were born only yesterday;fragmented people without a history.

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    1. LOL..."The truth will always set you free, but sometimes it will hurt or even make you miserable first."

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  2. Name calling, rhetoric, and condescending...your comments are those of pharisees, not of true Christ followers (wether catholic or christian)

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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