Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Would a Discovered Letter of Paul's Be Included in the Bible?

A few brief thoughts...

We know of course that St. Paul wrote other letters to churches which have now been lost.  Would a genuine discovery of such a letter--a discovery for which there's great evidence that it's Paul's--result in its being included in the Bible?  I have my doubts, but perhaps it could happen. (Note: I'm asking whether it would come to be printed in Bibles and not whether it would become canonical since, for some, a canonical book is understood as always having been canonical even if not printed in a Bible with other sacred texts).

 I suppose it also depends on whose Bible we're talking about.  For the Catholic Church, the Council of Trent decreed that twenty-seven books of the NT are sacred and canonical, so for Catholics the Bible could hardly be shortened but perhaps it could be lengthened.  Perhaps after a couple thousand more years it would be included!

I think many Protestants would feel uncomfortable with such an inclusion, though for Protestants who don't think much of tradition it's hard to see why they should.

Karl Barth, for instance, says that the canon remains open because no human authority can close it: "An absolute guarantee that the history of the Canon is closed, and therefore that what we know as the Canon is also closed, cannot be given either by the Church or by individuals in the Church according to the best and most satisfactory answers to this question" (The Doctrine of the Word of God).

Maybe Barth is right.  Maybe not.  Even if he's right, the question of whether it would be printed in Bible's remains open (after all, Protestants printed the apocrypha (Maccabees, Judith, etc.) in Bible's for many years even though they thought it was not inspired.

On the one hand, it might be thought that a negative answer to the question of (a) whether such a letter might be discovered and (b) whether if it were it discovered would be included in the Bible is based on the same reasoning: If the Bible is inspired by God one would expect that for 2000 years a canonical book would not go missing.  2000 years seems like a long time for a chunk of the Bible to be missing.  In addition, it might be thought that even if it were Paul's, that alone isn't sufficient for thinking it is inspired.  (Apostlicity was only one condition that the Church Father's used in the canonization process of putting a Bible (i.e. Book) together, and perhaps it's not a sufficient condition).

Against this one might argue that various churches in the first few centuries got along fine with only parts of the Bible, being sustained by the oral traditions and rituals passed on to them; moreover, the original autographs have been lost so the Bible's today are not perfectly complete.  The Eastern Orthodox philosophical theologian Richard Swinburne has recently argued that the process of canonization is always ongoing.  Perhaps more on that later.


  1. I was thinking that the RCChurch closed the canon, but apparently not completely.

  2. Interesting. I'm not convinced by the argument, though. Maybe I'll treat it in a separate post.