Why we prize freedom of conscience

Luther was famously intransigent at the 1521 Diet of Worms. Legend has him saying, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” What he actually said was this: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” As [Wheaton College Theology Professor Jennifer] McNutt pointed out, this is the witness of a bound conscience, not a free conscience, if by free we mean able to go where it wishes. We prize freedom of conscience because we respect consciences that are bound. If we design a political system, we’re wise to frame a right of conscience. For bound consciences have an extraordinary capacity to resist compulsion, and it is never wise to compel what cannot be compelled.

(R.R. Reno, First Things, January 2018 (emphasis added), whose paywall crumbles over the course of a month)

* * * * *

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Who vandalized the Old Testament?!

I read a very good devotional Monday on Wisdom of Solomon 5:15 – 6:3. I wanted to share it, together with an excerpt from this book of the Bible.

But I couldn’t find a hypertext English version online, and therein lies a tale.

The content of the Christian biblical canon is a fairly vexed topic, which is one reason why lurid fantasies like Dan Brown’s capture people’s attention. I was going to try give you a thumbnail Orthodox version, and try not to load it up with hyperlinks. But a version that was simultaneously truthful and concise eluded me. So here goes a pretty defective version.

When the New Testament was being written, there was no New Testament yet. (Gee! Thanks, Mr. Obvious!) New Testament references to Scripture generally are almost invariably to the Old Testament, the exception that come to mind being II Peter 3:15-16, where the Apostle Peter refers to unidentified writings of the Apostle Paul implicitly as “scriptures.”

One of the most notable New Testament scriptures that, in referring to “scripture,” refers to the Old Testament is that favorite sola scriptura prooftext, II Timothy 3:14-17. Read in the Protestant way, but in historic context, it teaches not that the Christian Bible is all you need to be “perfect,” but that the Old Testament is all you need.

But I digress. What was the Old Testament? That had not then been defined authoritatively. Why should it have been? In “New Testament times,” there had never come any point when Jews said “okay, scripture’s all done now; we’re just waiting for Messiah.”

Many Jews of the diaspora were Greek speakers first, Hebrew second if at all.  There was, consequently, in those “New Testament times,” a Greek translation and collection of Hebrew writings called the Septuagint. It included books that remain in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles but are omitted from Protestant Bibles – one of which is Wisdom of Solomon, whence my difficulty finding an online hypertext version.

The New Testament repeatedly (340 times, by one source) quotes the Septuagint and much less often (33 times by that same source) quoted Hebrew texts. Here’s a table of the references, using the Roman Catholic numbering and divisions of books.

Centuries into the Christian era, the Jews formally closed their canon. They chose a 39-book “Masoretic” canon rather than the canon of Septuagint. There’s some Christian suspicion that they did so because some of the prophesies most clearly fulfilled by Christ are in books they omitted.

So why do more mainstream Protestants omit books with pointed Messianic prophesies? I honestly am having difficulty finding an argument that doesn’t sound like I’m setting up a straw man. I probably could do better with time, but the most sympathetic and credible account I’ve found is from the Orthodox Wiki:

The differences [of the Orthodox Old Testament canon] with the Protestant canon are based on the 16th century misunderstanding of Martin Luther. When he was translating the Old Testament into German, he mistakenly believed that the oldest source for the Old Testament would be in Hebrew, so he found and used the so-called Masoretic Text (MT), a 9th century Jewish canon compiled largely in reaction to Christian claims that the Old Testament Scriptures belonged to the Church.

I’m frankly making a judgment call here about the relative credibility of “scholars.” I discount sectarian internet cranks like Jim Searcy who, in claiming that Jesus and the New Testament writers never quoted the Septuagint, sound as if they could as well be arguing that Jesus never drank wine, or that “leaven” in the New Testament is always a bad thing. (Large red text on a turquoise background is a dead give-away, isn’t it?) They are not mainstream Protestants, but some kind of particularly deluded Fundamentalists.

I’m not likely to welcome comments from King James Only, New Testament Don’t Quote No Stinkin’ Septuagint types, but I’d welcome some Protestant accounts, especially those that aren’t circular (e.g, we reject from the canon those books that teach error and only retain those books that teach the truth, as we understand the truth, based on the correct Bible canon), to explain my tendentious question: Why do you prefer, to the Bible Jesus and the New Testament writers apparently used, a Hebrew canon that was not settled until centuries into the Christian era? Just because it’s in Hebrew?

Other Sources:

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.