Why Didn’t Nicaea Address the Canon Question?

Mar 1st, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Proponents of sola scriptura, especially those who would like to believe that the early Church fathers espoused this doctrine, have an important question to consider. Why didn’t the Church address the canon issue at Nicaea?

The Church gathered in 325 AD to settle the Arian controversy, but assuming that the Scriptures alone are infallible, it seems inconceivable that any council could reliably settle a doctrine of faith, especially one so critical, if she had not first settled the question of which books could be considered as an infallible basis for such a decision.

One might object that such a question is only a concern for those who believe in solo scriptura, but this is false because there is no principled distinction between solo and sola scriptura. Another objection might be that the Church, widely and by general consensus, knew the canon, at least of the New Testament. But the New Testament canon was still in question at the time as no authoritative council would consider the matter for two more generations. To use such an objection would be to base certainty on doubt, an inconsistency that simply won’t suffice.

The reality we are left to consider is that the Church gathered and under the full weight of her authority made a critical theological decision, and the question of the canon never came up. This is inconceivable if the Church had ever considered the Scriptures the sole source of infallibility.

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  1. Great point, Tim.

    Another objection might be that the Church, widely and by general consensus, knew the canon, at least of the New Testament. But the New Testament canon was still in question at the time

    I would offer the supporting evidence that the Codex Sinaiticus, which is one of the oldest surviving mostly-complete biblical manuscripts, and which was written around the time of the Council of Nicaea, contained the Epistle of Barnabas and parts of the Shepherd of Hermas.

  2. Devin,
    That’s true. Thanks for pointing it out.

  3. Let me play advocate for a sort of opposing view.

    Do we know for sure that Nicea did not settle the canon issue?
    It would seem that some of the Acts of the Council of Nicea are missing, according to the Catholic Encylopedia

    Jerome in his prologue to Judith
    says: “…But because this book is found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures, I have acquiesced to your request, indeed a demand, and works having been set aside from which I was forcibly curtailed…

    Its would seem from this statement that the canon was addressed at Nicea.

  4. Tap, I was unaware of that quotation. I’m not sure what to make of it. St. Athanasius’s canon does not contain Judith for example. Why not if it was settled at Nicaea? Could he be contradicting an ecumenical council? It also seems clear that at least at some point, St. Jerome denied the deutero-canonicals as inspired.

    Perhaps if it was addressed at the council it was address in such a secondary way that it was clearly not formulated as dogma.

    Interesting stuff to think about! Thanks for bringing it up.

  5. “It would seem that some of the Acts of the Council of Nicea are missing, according to the Catholic Encylopedia.”

    The encyclopedia seems to resolve the question though:

    “There has long existed a dispute as to the number of the canons of First Nicaea. All the collections of canons, whether in Latin or Greek, composed in the fourth and fifth centuries agree in attributing to this Council only the twenty canons, which we possess today. ”

    The 20 canons make no mention of establishing a canon.

  6. The extra canons I believe were from Sardica and mistakenly taken in Rome to be form Nicea for a time until this belief was corrected.

  7. Perry, thank for that correction. If you don’t mind me asking, would it be then that St. Jerome confused the use of Judith in Sardica as nicene, or perhaps was this a transcription error where Jerome used the word “council” but a transcriber add the word “Nicene” thinking perhaps that thats the council that Jerome was referring to.?

  8. Tap,

    I haven’t a clue why Jerome says that. Jerome was mostly living in the East and the mistake was limited to Rome and N. Africa. We don’t have any data from Nicea that would indicate why Jerome says as much, at least not as far as I know.

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