A Catholic Response to Wayne Grudem on the Canon of the Old Testament

Dr. Wayne Grudem attempts to defend the Protestant view of the Old Testament canon and refute the Catholic view of the same in his Systematic Theology. His arguments in favor of the Protestant Old Testament canon based on Jewish tradition will be addressed first, followed by his arguments from church history.  Lastly, a few challenges for Grudem and other Protestants on determining the canon will be posed.

Arguments from Jewish Tradition

Grudem begins his arguments from Jewish Tradition with the claim that revelation ceased after 435 B.C and that 1 and 2 Maccabees were not “worthy to be included with the collections of God’s words from earlier years.”1 This seems to be a problematic position since Grudem must demonstrate upon what basis he determines there were no further additions to the Old Testament canon and that 1 and 2 Maccabees were not worthy to be included in the canon.  If Grudem claims that the canon was settled by 435 B.C. then he must explain why the canonicity of Esther, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs were disputed among the Jews as late as the second century.  The Catholic Encyclopedia confirms the dispute of these books as it reads “[i]t is an incontestable fact that the sacredness of certain parts of the Palestinian Bible (Esther, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles) was disputed by some rabbis as late as the second century of the Christian Era (Mishna, Yadaim, III, 5; Babylonian Talmud, Megilla, fol. 7)”2  If Grudem claims that the protocanonicals alone are inspired because the Jews after the time of Christ determined so, then he must explain upon what basis do unbelieving Jews determine the canon for Christians?   Curiously Grudem doesn’t note when the Jews determined their canon.  Instead he points to “Jewish literature outside of the Old Testament”3 as evidence that prophecy ceased after 435 B.C., implying upon this basis that the writings afterwards, such as 1 and 2 Maccabees, could not have been considered Scripture.  He cites 1 Maccabees 4:45-46 as an example of such literature.  However, the passage cited gives no indication that revelation ceased but merely asserts that there were not any prophets at that time and in that particular place.  It is possible for there to have been a lack of prophets at that time and in that place while still affirming the view that there were prophets before and after such a time.  Furthermore, if prophecy had completely ceased after “435 B.C.” as Grudem asserts, why does the Book of Wisdom 2:18-20 clearly predict what will happen at the crucifixion of Jesus?

As a side note, it is interesting that Grudem appeals to Jewish literature and tradition outside of the Old Testament in order to defend his view of the canon.  However, one must question the consistency of such a position.  Grudem defends the doctrine of Sola Scriptura, the view that the Bible is the final authority in matters of faith and practice for the Christian.  Yet, Grudem appeals to extra-Biblical tradition in order to determine the canon.  In effect, he has placed tradition over the Scriptures in order to determine what constitutes Scripture.

Next, Grudem cites a quote from Josephus to further substantiate his assertion that prophecy ceased after 435 B.C.  The quote reads “[f]rom Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets”4 It should be noted that Josephus does not say prophecy ceased but that an exact succession of the prophets could not be recorded.  This does not mean that there could not have been prophets appearing periodically between 435 B.C. and the coming of Christ.  (For an extensive refutation of the use of Josephus to demonstrate that prophets and prophecy ceased after 435 B.C. see Gary Michuta’s article on this issue.5 For evidence that a number of Rabbis after Josephus believed prophecy continued after the 5th century B.C. see the same.)  Furthermore, a glaring problem exists with Grudem’s view that prophecy ceased after 435 B.C. since an unbelieving Jew may simply ask: if prophecy ceased after 435 B.C., why then do you, as a Christian, believe the New Testament canon is of prophetic origin?

Grudem appeals to the Qumran community that waited for a prophetic voice more authoritative than previous prophets.6 However; this does not mean that the Qumran community believed that all prophecy ceased after 435 B.C. since it is possible to believe at the same time that prophecy continued and the Messiah Himself is more authoritative than the prophets through which he spoke.

Grudem claims that the writings after 435 B.C. did not have as much authority among the Jews as previous writings.7 There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that all Jews prior to Christ believed such.  Perhaps some groups of Jews believed as such; however, there is evidence many Jews believed the deuterocanonicals were considered to be Scripture, even though Grudem claims “these books [the deuterocanonicals] were never accepted by the Jews as Scripture”.8  For example, the Jews of the Diaspora accepted the deuterocanonicals as part of the canon.  The Catholic Encyclopedia notes “[t]he ancient Greek Old Testament known as the Septuagint was the vehicle which conveyed these additional Scriptures [the deuterocanonicals] into the Catholic Church. The Septuagint version was the Bible of the Greek-speaking, or Hellenist, Jews, whose intellectual and literary centre was Alexandria…The oldest extant copies date from the fourth and fifth centuries of our era, and were therefore made by Christian hands; nevertheless scholars generally admit that these faithfully represent the Old Testament as it was current among the Hellenist or Alexandrian Jews in the age immediately preceding Christ.”9

Grudem writes “Apparently there was full agreement between Jesus and his disciples, on the one hand, and the Jewish leaders or Jewish people, on the other hand, that additions to the Old Testament canon had ceased after the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. This fact is confirmed by the quotations of Jesus and the New Testament authors from the Old Testament…but not once do they cite any statement from the books of the Apocrypha or any other writings as having divine authority”10 This appears to be ad hoc since the New Testament doesn’t quote from books such as “Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Canticles…Esdras and Nehemias”.11  By Grudem’s logic, since these books are not quoted in the New Testament, these books should not be a part of the Old Testament canon.  It also should be noted that Grudem must also determine which books constitute the New Testament canon in order to determine how many times and which books of the Old Testament are quoted in the New Testament.  Moreover, if a citation of the Old Testament in the New Testament as “having divine authority” automatically means the book should be included in the canon then that would mean the book from which St. James cites as “Scripture” in James 4:5 is also part of the Old Testament canon.  The problem with this argument is that we do not know which book from which St. James quoted.  This is also a problematic argument since St. Jude quotes from the Assumption of Moses and 1 Enoch as if they had divine authority, yet Grudem would not accept these books as canonical.

Arguments from Church History

Grudem claims that “the earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture”12 This is a curious statement since the famous Protestant historian J.N.D. Kelly wrote the exact opposite.  Kelly wrote “[i]t should be observed that the Old Testament thus admitted as authoritative in the Church was somewhat bulkier and more comprehensive than the twenty-two, or twenty-four, books of the Hebrew Bible of Palestinian Judaism…It always included though with varying degrees of recognition, the so-called Apocrypha, or deuterocanonical books…For the great majority, however, the deuterocanonical writings ranked as Scripture in the fullest sense.”13 Evidence for this can be found in Ante-Nicene writtings and Church Fathers such as Polycarp, 1 Clement, Barnabas, Tertullian (technically an ecclesiastical writer and not a church father), Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian.14

Grudem claims Jerome did not believe the deuterocanonicals belonged in the canon.15 This can potentially be misleading since it is only half true.  It is true that at one point in St. Jerome’s life he rejected the canon, but later in his life when the church determined the deuterocanonicals were part of the canon, he changed his position out of obedience to the Church.  St. Jerome wrote “[f]or the studies of the Hebrews rebuke us and find fault with us, to translate this for the ears of Latins contrary to their canon. But it is better to be judging the opinion of the Pharisees to displease and to be subject to the commands of bishops” and “[w]hat sin have I committed if I followed the judgment of the churches? But he who brings charges against me for relating the objections that the Hebrews are wont to raise against the story of Susanna, the Son of the Three Children, and the story of Bel and the Dragon, which are not found in the Hebrew volume, proves that he is just a foolish sycophant. For I was not relating my own personal views, but rather the remarks that they [the Jews] are wont to make against us.”16

Grudem claims the deuterocanonicals were not cited in the New Testament and this caused many to view them suspiciously.17 As it has already been noted, lack of citations doesn’t mean the deuterocanonicals are excluded from the Old Testament since a number of the protocanonical books are not cited in the New Testament.  However, the New Testament alludes to many deuterocanonical texts.  For example, Hebrews 11:35 is a clear reference to 2 Maccabees 7:1-9 and Matthew 27:41-43 is a clear reference to Wisdom 2:12-20.

Grudem cites Melito of Sardis as an early witness to his position, though he admits Melito did not include Esther in his list.18 It is true some in the early church questions the authority of some, and sometimes all, of the deuterocanonicals but this was to be expected since the church had not definitively determined which books were canonical yet.  He also notes Eusebius who quoted Origen as one who rejected the deuterocanonicals, as well as St. Athanasius.19 Yet, Grudem does not note that Origen accepted Sussana, Tobit and Judith.20 Neither does Grudem note that St. Athanasius believed Baruch and the additions to Daniel belonged in the canon.21 Those who questioned the deuterocanonicals were in the minority but the majority of Christians recognized the deuterocanonicals as Scripture, as noted in the quotation by Kelly above.

Grudem also cites E. J. Young, who noted there were “historical, chronological, and geographical errors” in the deuterocanonicals.22 Such critiques of the deuterocanonicals by Protestants are ad hoc since there are the same kinds of difficulties in the protocanonicals.  For example, 1 Sam. 17:50 states that David cut of the head of Goliath but 2 Samuel 21:19 says Elhanan killed Goliath the Gittite.  2 Sam. 8:4 says David’s horsemen in battle over Hadadezer numbered 1,700 while 1 Chron. 18:4 says 7,000.  1 Sam 10:6 says Saul was 30 years old when he began to reign, 1 Sam. 13:1 said he was only one year old when he began to reign and he reigned over Israel two years.  Naturally, Grudem, and other Protestants, would attempt to explain these difficulties yet their commitment to searching for explanations for the difficulties in the deuterocanonicals is questionable. Grudem, in the same quotation by E.J. Young, claims that the Book of Wisdom 11:17 teaches “the creation of the world out of pre-existent matter”.23 This is a gross misrepresentation of the Book of Wisdom since the verse actually reads “[f]or your all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter, did not lack the means to send upon them a multitude of bears, or bold lions”.24 How can one say that a claim to make “the world out of formless matter” means that the world was created “out of pre-existent matter”?

Grudem claims that the Catholic Church, only at the Council of Trent in 1546, officially declared the deuterocanonicals to be part of the Old Testament canon.25 This is not exactly true, since it depends on what one means by “officially declared”.  Catholic Apologist, Jimmy Akin, notes that “[t]he canon of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was finally settled at the Council of Rome in 382, under the authority of Pope Damasus I. It was soon reaffirmed on numerous occasions. The same canon was affirmed at the Council of Hippo in 393 and at the Council of Carthage in 397. In 405 Pope Innocent I reaffirmed the canon in a letter to Bishop Exuperius of Toulouse. Another council at Carthage, this one in the year 419, reaffirmed the canon of its predecessors and asked Pope Boniface to ‘confirm this canon, for these are the things which we have received from our fathers to be read in church.’ All of these canons were identical to the modern Catholic Bible, and all of them included the deuterocanonicals.”26 In addition to these councils, the deuterocanonicals were included in the list of the canon at the Ecumenical Council of Florence in the mid-fifteenth century, decades before the Protestant rebellion against the Church began.

Grudem argues “Catholics would hold that the church has the authority to constitute a literary work as ‘Scripture,’ while Protestants have held that the church cannot make something to be Scripture, but can only recognize what God has already cause to be written as his own words.”27 Of course, Grudem does not cite where Catholics teach such a view since this is simply a straw-man.  Catholics, like Protestants, do not believe that they have the authority to make a literary book Scripture; rather, Catholics, guided by the Holy Spirit, simply recognize that which was God-breathed.

A Challenge for Grudem, and Protestants in General

  1.  If Sola Scriptura is true, where does the Bible indicate which books are to be considered canonical?  If you have to go to a source outside the Bible then you have violated Sola Scriptura, which is the view that the Bible is the final authority in matters of faith and practice.  Since the canon is a matter of faith, where does the Bible indicated which books are canonical?
  2. Who has the authority to define the canon? (If your answer is “God”, whose opinion of what God chose to be in the canon?)  How do you know they have the authority to define the canon?  If you believe that no one has the authority to determine which books are in the Bible, then how do you know which books are from God?
  3. Since the Jews did not determine which books belong in the canon until the second century (and the Jews of the Diaspora included the deuterocanonicals in their canon), and yet most early Christians accepted the deuterocanonicals as Scripture, upon what basis should a Christian determine the canon based upon the decision of unbelieving Jews over against the testimony of the early church?
  4. Jesus and the Apostles mostly quoted from the Septuagint, which contained the deutercanonicals.  Why did they quote from the Septuagint without warning the people to avoid the deuterocanonicals if the deuterocanonicals weren’t canonical?

Suggested reading:  Tom Brown’s Article The Canon Question http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/01/the-canon-question/


1 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 56

2  Reid, George. “Canon of the Old Testament.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 21 Jun. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03267a.htm&gt;.

3 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 56

4 Josephus, Against Apion, 1.41

5 Michuta, Flavius Josephus Rejected the Deuterocanon,. http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=5&ved=0CF8QFjAE&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.handsonapologetics.com%2FDeuteroQuestions%2FJosephus%2520and%2520the%2520closing%2520of%2520the%2520canon.doc&ei=zsLjT6fdCoq29QSBiZzlCQ&usg=AFQjCNHce06QZ80XSLnb_QWHEINrOThMYA&sig2=nC8v2T8ix2lMR3WcH_cfpA

6 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 56

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid, p. 57

9 Reid, George. “Canon of the Old Testament.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 21 Jun. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03267a.htm&gt;.

10 Grudem, Systematic Theology, pp. 56-57

11 Reid, George. “Canon of the Old Testament.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 21 Jun. 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03267a.htm&gt;.

12 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 57

13 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp 53-55.

14 Ibid, p. 54

15 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 57

16 Tom Brown, The Canon Questionhttp://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/01/the-canon-question/

17 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 58

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 Tom Brown, The Canon Questionhttp://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/01/the-canon-question/

21 Ibid.

22 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 59 quoting E. J. Young, “The Canon of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, pp. 167-168.

23 Ibid.

24 Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, 2006.

25 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 59

26 Akin “Defending the Deuterocanonicals.” http://www.ewtn.com/library/answers/deuteros.htm

27 Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 59

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