From Book Burning to Canon
On the Destruction & Preservation of Sacred & Profane Texts
by Patrick Henry Reardon
I have been known to take advantage of the special sales that local libraries run now and then with a view to making their limited shelf space available to newer titles, and once in a while I thereby discover some work or other that I am happy to add to my own little collection. Glancing up over my desk right now I espy, for example, more than a score of the Loeb Classics acquired in this way, and just behind me is an original French work of Henri Bergson similarly obtained.
Such windfalls do not come very often, however, and I presume that the books left unsold at the end of such special sales will, in due course, find their way to the nearest incinerator. (Indeed, I once rescued more than 70 volumes of Migne, both Greek and Latin, that I detected in a large stack of books already condemned to the flames and awaiting execution. These are now housed in my family’s library, the deserving objects of filial respect and deep affection.) By and by, the last copies of many books will perish in this way, and humanity will never hear of them again. That is to say, we enlightened, broadminded folk of the late twentieth century, for all our vaunted liberalism and freedom of thought, still regularly practice the burning of books.
I cannot believe this is a bad thing, in principle. If an arsonist were to torch the whole lot of the “new titles” section of any popular bookstore on a given day, to say nothing of the paperback displays at the local pharmacist’s or grocer’s, it is probable that he would not impoverish human culture by the slightest fraction. It is likely, rather, that he would only be hastening, for those books, the otherwise determined hour of their due retribution. That most volumes should eventually be burned is a principle on which the human race has acted for centuries.
In a similar vein, just a few days ago I inquired of a well-known American literary critic which living novelists he most favored. None, he responded, and then went on to remark that Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were the last novelists he could take seriously. I felt gratified to hear his severe assessment, as it confirmed my own layman’s impression of the present state of the novel. To suggest that these newer novels are not worth reading is, on the other hand, to imply that someday they must relinquish their shelf space and head for the furnace.
Natural Book Selection
Nonetheless, I myself am not disposed to burn books prematurely, preferring to let a kind of natural selection make that ultimate determination in the name of history. In literature, as in biology, there is a case to be made for the survival of the fittest, and, as any librarian knows, some books just seem to disappear forever, all by themselves.
Moreover, there lives an instinct in me that does not like to burn books at all, if it can be avoided, and I am reluctant to assume the heady responsibility for doing so. Thus I do it very rarely. Even back when I feared that my growing children might stumble across the family’s copies of Collette and D. H. Lawrence, unto the harming of their minds and souls, I simply concealed the offending volumes in a secret place rather than throw them out. As a matter of fact, I hid those copies so well that I have never been able to find them again, which is probably just as well, for I cannot imagine reading that sort of thing during these final years as I await my summons to come before the Throne.
One is impressed that some works of inestimable value have come down to us from antiquity only by the thinnest threads of survival. If my memory is accurate on the point, for instance, Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars reached the age of print only by a single manuscript, which has since perished. It is a profoundly shuddering thought that the human race came so close to losing Suetonius altogether.
Even some important Christian works have reached us, humanly speaking, only by the narrowest margins of probability. For example, one thinks of how much poorer we would be without the works of St. Justin Martyr. One tries to imagine the yawning gap in our liturgical studies without Chapters 65–67 of the First Apology, or how incomplete would be the history of Christian metaphysics if we knew nothing of Justin’s theory of the logos spermatikos. Yet, except for a handful of quotations preserved in later authors, the texts of Justin have come down to us on but a single manuscript, Parisinus 450, bearing the date September 11, 1363. That is how close we came to losing Justin.
Besides Christian texts, I am reluctant to see burned any book of philosophy or religious thought. Not that I think all such books are necessarily of much value, taken individually and in isolation from the Tradition. For instance, should all the writings of George Berkeley or Jeremy Bentham suddenly perish, to say nothing of Bertrand Russell or John Dewey, one suspects that the history of thought could survive the blow. Still, I would not be the man to strike the match. Even though I am distressed with probably every line in William James and Arthur Schopenhauer, I would not be responsible for the loss of any of those lines.
When Whitehead commented that all of later philosophy could serve as footnotes to Plato, he was indicating its comprehensive value, I believe, and paying it a high compliment. In the measure that any philosopher or religious thinker can be assessed vis-à-vis the great tradition, the sapientia perennis et universalis, the ongoing and universal quest of metaphysics—even opposing that tradition, even attacking that tradition at root—I feel a personal disposition to preserve what he wrote. Mankind has exerted such mighty and mammoth efforts in the pursuit of Truth, and even when that pursuit has been sinful (as all things merely human will necessarily be), my own preference is that it not altogether perish—tantus labor non sit cassus.
Qualms at Ephesus
In this connection I render a confession—if not the confession of a sin, at least the avowal of a temptation: There is a certain verse of Holy Scripture that bothered me for a long time. For years I sort of regretted its presence in the Bible, nearly to the point that I occasionally almost wished that it weren’t there. The offending text in question, the verse of my disquiet, recounts a scene concerning the brethren of the young church at Ephesus—“Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men; and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver” (Acts 19:19).
Not everyone, I know, will share my nagging discomfort about the burning of those books at Ephesus. They seem to have been, after all, works of the dark arts, the scripts of sorcery, texts of witchcraft and satanic incantations. Why not burn such abominations on earth as God most surely burns them in hell? Indeed, as a priest of the Church I have occasionally set flames to such demonic pages myself, having received them from the willing hands of those newly rescued souls coming to the Lord and preparing for Baptism. It is not an uncommon thing for a priest to set fire to satanic texts surrendered to him by newly converted Christians.
What could it have been in me, then, that tended to regard the ancient Ephesian book burning with a faint tinge of regret? Academic curiosity, one suspects. The burning of books scandalizes the liberal in me, the devoted denizen of the campus, the professor disposed to give every view a fair hearing, the enemy of prejudice, the unrepentant librarian and chronic collector of old manuscripts and, more especially, old ideas. Thus I have sometimes found myself wondering about which books were burned at Ephesus in yesteryear. Did the number include those obscure mystical texts such as Socrates referred to near the end of the Phaedo, for example? Did there perish, that day, passages that would now throw light on the history of the Delphic oracle or the shrine of Epidaurus? Were it not for that rather violent enthusiasm of the Ephesian converts, would we perhaps know something more about the pagan philosophies and religions of the Mediterranean, and would not that very knowledge assist in scholarly historical reconstruction of the very world in which the gospel was first preached?
A Bonfire Too Small
These are not idle nor frivolous concerns. It seems probable that the efforts of the academic world were irremediably weakened by the sorts of things that transpired at Ephesus and elsewhere. Let me suggest a comparison. As a student of philosophy and religion, I would hate to think that a single one of the Vedas or the great Sutras might perish from the earth, to say nothing of the Pali Canon, the Upanishads, the Dao de Ching or the Analects. It is natural that the historian of religion should mourn such loss, much as the historian of art might mourn the early Christians’ destruction or mutilation of many pagan art works.
For all that, however, I do not really fault the Christian enthusiasts at Ephesus, and the disposition to do so I regard as a temptation, in the strict sense of the inclination to commit sin. Oh no, they knew exactly what they were doing, those Christians back at Ephesus. The Truth is Christ our Lord, and all other powers, including those of philosophy and religion, must flee from before his Throne. If any book, by any author, at any time or in any place, endangers the faith by which we are saved—the revelation by which we know the glory of God shining on the face of Christ—proper Christian sentiment requires that that book be burned. In the matter of our salvation, philosophy and religion will not do the job. St. Ambrose says, someplace, that “it was not agreeable to God to save his people by dialectics” (non in dialectica complacuit Deo salvum facere populum suum), and the Apostle Paul cannot even use the word “philosophy” without immediately speaking of “vain deceit” (Colossians 2:8). Even as we collect the Egyptian trinkets on the day of our deliverance, we must resolve to throw them into the sea before letting them be crafted into a golden calf.
Feeling ever so much better after the above confession, I am now of a mind to make yet another confession: Lately I have been tempted in the opposite direction. Nowadays I find myself wishing, or almost wishing, that the early Christians had burned even more books than they did. Indeed, I can name specific titles of books that I wish, or almost wish, had not survived. I suppose, however, that to say something so outrageous requires that I back up and explain the context of this new temptation.Gnosticism, Second Edition
Long interested in the history of general religious thought, and specifically preoccupied with the early encounter of the gospel with pagan religions and classical philosophy, I share modern scholarship’s appreciation for the recent discoveries of primary sources on primitive Christian heterodoxies, chiefly Gnosticism. Relative to this subject we have come a long way past depending solely on the critical material in Irenaeus, Clement and Tertullian. Ever since December 1945, when those two peasants found the jar at Nag Hammadi, modern study of the development of ancient Christian thought has been transformed. Joining these newly found documents with somewhat earlier discoveries, like the fragments from Akhmîn in 1886 and scores of other important finds, historians have been able to flesh out our familiarity with Gnostic theories in great detail. In addition, the English translations made available in such volumes as Edgar Hennecke’s New Testament Apocrypha (2 volumes, 1965) and James M. Robinson’s The Nag Hammadi Library (1977) allowed many non-specialists an easy access to that literature. (This includes the likes of me, who, being very lazy and irresolute in my youth, neglected to learn Coptic.) I applaud all of this.
Until very recently, moreover, I never dreamed that such scholarly development would create a whole new set of problems. When, in 1964, the magnificent textual critic Kurt Aland appropriately included translations (Latin, German and English) of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas as an appendix in his Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, the idea never crossed my mind that eventually Robert W. Funk and his so-called Jesus Seminar would presume to include that same Gnostic work on an equal footing with the four canonical Gospels in a popular volume entitled The Five Gospels.
These two publications are of quite different inspiration. Kurt Aland had in mind only to assist New Testament scholars by providing a more ample tracing of the various dominical sayings. Funk and company, in contrast, are trying to alter or destroy the canon of Holy Scripture. Aland’s great volume was a boon to textual scholarship, whereas the effort of Funk and his co-conspirators, designed for mass marketing through Macmillan and later in paperback through HarperCollins, is chiefly a boon to somebody’s bank account and contributes absolutely nothing to biblical scholarship.
This latter kind of publication, in fact, notwithstanding the academic credentials of its promoters, has little to do with scholarship. Otherwise, instead of inexpensive paperback translations of second-century texts, we would be seeing more hardback copies of Coptic and Syriac grammars. There just happens to be a big popular market out there right now for kooky religious ideas, and anyone who ever struggled his way through Irenaeus’s Adversus Haereses knows that ancient Gnosticism was full of kooky religious ideas. The scholarship claimed in these efforts is a contrivance and a joke. Weird notions of any sort, inexpensively available, are a hot item in a society infected with what appears to be terminal kookiness, and these publications are very much market driven. Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson, of Emory University, commented recently on the “consumerist consciousness” at their root.
Meanwhile the New Testament canon itself, in case one hasn’t noticed, is very much under attack. Not long ago Ronald F. Hock, of the University of Southern California, observed that the “distinction between canonical and noncanonical has disappeared, at least among scholars.” Dr. Hock is undoubtedly correct, himself having contributed to its disappearance by his own volume, The Life of Mary and the Birth of Jesus, also brought out as a mass market product (Ulysses Press). As the title probably suggests to most of us, Hock’s book borrows massively from the so-called Proto-Gospel of Saint James, a strange work of edification that the early Church wisely refused to declare canonical.
Loosening the Canon
Now if I had been paying close attention to my own presuppositions all this time, none of these developments should have surprised me. Never in my life did I believe that the biblical canon could stand on its own. It was always obvious to me that some other authority had to determine that canon: namely, the historical Church. That is to say, Matthew’s book got into the New Testament because Athanasius and his friends said so, and the Gospel of Thomas did not, because Athanasius and his friends said no. In neither instance did the canon determine itself; it was all spelled out by Athanasius and his friends (that is to say, the Nicene Creed, the Ecumenical Councils and the Fathers of the Church).
Looking back then, logically it should have seemed inevitable that the canon itself would someday be up for grabs, once the decision was made, several centuries ago, that Athanasius and his friends, while jolly good fellows, to be sure, and doubtless correct on most points, could not be accepted as final authorities. For many reasons, there was a great movement back then to separate canon from ecclesiology. Anyway, that fateful decision meant that the canon would now somehow have to stand on its own.
For a long while it did seem to do so. Christians disagreed widely on the meaning of the text, but they all agreed on the text. The text was absolute. The biblical canon was one of the components of that substantial and cohesive reality that C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” Each group, or even each Christian, might have a favorite book within it, but the canon was still the canon, the authoritative “measuring rod” of Christian thinking. Christians could always appeal to it for purposes of establishing doctrine and calling one another to account. As long as the canon stood, there were limits beyond which certain ideas could no longer be called Christian.
More specifically, as long as the canon was still canonical, so to speak, there were very definite markers about how to answer the question “What think ye of the Christ?” On the matter of the identity of Jesus Christ, in fact, there has been a wondrous unity of doctrine among Christians for a long time, notwithstanding the serious divisions among them on a host of other questions.
But certain fateful steps were taken several centuries ago. On that distant day when certain Christians decided that Athanasius and his friends were no longer to be regarded as final authorities in matters of dogma, the biblical canon itself was left precariously exposed, and today it appears very much under threat. According to the aforementioned Dr. Funk, the biblical canon simply “represents the orthodoxy that won out in the fourth century.” He goes on to explain that the concept has now outlived its usefulness. That is to say, Christians are more broadminded today; they will no longer be tied down by an arbitrary grouping of certain old books, now that we have acquired more collections of other old books from the same period. To say that one collection of old books should be preferred to another would be to submit to the narrow-minded views of Athanasius and his friends. The traditional canon, therefore, must go.
Nor is it merely incidental, I submit, that this contemporary attack on the canon is related to the recovery of Gnostic sources that had been intentionally excluded from that canon. The beginnings of concern for a literary canonicity in the Church can be traced precisely to the second-century battles of the Church with Gnosticism; the canon was established primarily for purposes of regarding certain ideas as heterodox, so it is no wonder that the modern resurgence of these very ideas should find expression in an attack on the authority of the canon.
So I now find that, in the matter of temptations, I have come full circle. My restless soul is no longer disposed, even as a temptation, to fault the book burners back at Ephesus. On the contrary, I bless their very memory, those dear incendiaries of such robust conviction and unerring instinct, and urge the construction of mighty, majestic shrines in their honor. Primary and prominent among the embellishments of these shrines there should stand, naturally, an eternal flame.
Oh, doubt this not—had even a single one of those accursed volumes survived the holy fire at Ephesus, it would certainly be coming out today in a paperback translation to be used as the textbook in some exotic three-credit course of the sort that now abound in our curricula. There was a time, and not so long ago, when I believed that discussion was the best method of discrediting ideas that needed to be discredited. Nowadays, however, the old Ephesian method is looking better all the time. There was something so wonderfully final about it.
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“From Book Burning to Canon” first appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95. This issue, as well as other issues, can be purchased at our online store. Read issues in digital format at the Touchstone digital archives! You can also subscribe to Touchstone at amazon.com to read on your Kindle.