The 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius, written for 367, is, together with items such as the Muratorian fragment, one of the most famous documents in the discussion of the history of the canon of the Old and New Testaments.
Not all of the letter survives, but what does survive is of great significance. First, a few comments on the extant portions of the letter as printed in the popular NPNF series.
Athanasius distinguishes between three groups of writings: (1) those that are in the “canon”; (2) “other books” that can be read but are not included in the canon; (3) “apocryphal writings,” by which Athanasius means, not those books that are included in some Bibles under the heading “Apocrypha,” but rather books by heretics that have similar names to the genuine books and pretend to the same antiquity for the purpose of “leading astray the simple.” While the first two categories have an edifying–and different–role in the life of the Christian and the Church, the third category does not.
What is the “canon” for Athanasius is essentially the same as what will be found in most Bibles used by Protestants today, though there are some differences in the ordering of the books. With respect to the Old Testament, the only differences from the familiar Hebrew Bible are (a) the inclusion of Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah (Athanasius classes Jeremiah, Baruch, Lamentations, and the Letter together as one book); and (b) the omission of Esther, which is included under (2). With respect to the New Testament, the contents are exactly the same as those of contemporary Protestant Bibles, though the Catholic Epistles are listed before Paul’s letters, and Hebrews, which is attributed to Paul, is included between 2 Thessalonians and the Pastoral Epistles.
The second category includes books that are usually referred to as “deuterocanonical”: the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd of Hermas. Athanasius commends these books (as did “the Fathers,” he says) “to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.” It is not clear that he means “reading” in a liturgical setting here, since he advises that they “be read” by these new believers. 1
The books of (2), however, are not to be used for the construction (or extraction) of doctrine. Before giving the list of canonical books, Athanasius writes that we “possess the Divine Scriptures for salvation”; and again, after giving the list, he reiterates this idea more forcefully: “These are the fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness.” This last sentence is especially important: “these alone” are distinguished from all other books, both those in category (2) and those in category (3). The Holy Scriptures of the canon are the only writings that can serve as a source of doctrine; those of (2) are “[merely] read.”
A translation of more of the letter, including a recently discovered fragment, is provided by David Brakke in “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter: Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon” (Harvard Theological Review 103 : 47-66).
If we examine what precedes and follows the NPNF text, we find confirmation of what was said above about the value of Scripture vis-a-vis other texts and authorities.
The primary, and in a sense the only, true teaching authority belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ (“it is he alone who is the true Teacher”), who gives us divine knowledge of piety by way of revelation (in contradistinction to all mere human opinion): “For the teaching of piety does not come from human beings; rather, it is the Lord who reveals his Father to those whom he wills because it is he who knows him.”
The Lord teaches the Apostles, but not only them–he also teaches “us all,” and the content of that teaching is the gospel: “Not they alone, brothers and sisters, are the ones to whom the Lord has become a teacher by revealing the mystery to them; rather, he is a teacher to us all. For Paul rejoices with his disciples that they have been taught about the gospel….”
It is true, of course, that there are human teachers like Athanasius (he also includes Paul and James in this category of subordinate teacher), but they are so only derivatively, after having been disciples. They can only teach what Jesus taught: “But even if these people teach, they are still called ‘disciples,’ for it is not they who are the originators of what they proclaim; rather, they are at the service of the words of the true Teacher….For the words that the disciples proclaim do not belong to them; rather, they are what they heard from the Savior. Therefore, even if it is Paul who teaches, it is nevertheless Christ who speaks in him.”
Athanasius therefore believes that he and his people can keep the customary festivals with a good conscience, knowing that in their celebrations the truth and authority of the doctrinal content of those celebrations is assured by the perfection and sufficiency of the true Scripture the Church possesses, qualities not shared by the writings of the heretics: “But for our part, let us now keep the feast according to the tradition of our ancestors, because we have the Holy Scriptures, which are sufficient to instruct us perfectly.” Complete instruction is to be found there, and if one attends to them with care, Athanasius says, he will be like the man spoken of in the first Psalm: “When we read them carefully with a good conscience, we will be ‘like the tree that grows upon places of flowing water, which brings forth its fruit in its season and whose leaves do not whither.'”
There follows the sections of the letter familiar from NPNF.
After those sections containing the canonical lists outlined above, Athanasius returns to the theme of the sufficiency of Christian Scripture in contradistinction to all other comers: “For what do the spiritual Scriptures lack that we should seek after these empty voices of unknown people?” The implied answer, of course, is “nothing.” The Trinity Itself is discoverable in Scripture. Thus Athanasius goes on, “Therefore, if we seek the faith, it is possible for us to discover it through (the Scriptures), so that we might believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
In the recently discovered fragment, Athanasius voices opposition to the Manichaeans, Marcion, the “people in Phrygia,” the Arians, and the Melitians. He takes the authority of Scripture as unquestionable, and in every instance he uses Scripture to expose these various heresies and refute them. There is, in this fragment, no other kind of appeal.
Finally, in the last sections of the letter that survive he returns to general remarks on Scripture’s sufficiency. We should reject the “apocryphal books,” “for the Scripture is perfect in every way”; and so, “let the teacher teach from the words of Scripture” and from no other source–a rank which Athanasius disavows for himself (“I have not written these things as if I were teaching, for I have not attained such a rank,” says the Bishop of Alexandria). Instead, he is passing on what he learned from his own teacher, Alexander of Alexandria. That is to say, he construes the church in this passage as a family and house that includes both clergy and laity in its function as “pillar and strength,” a community that is shaped by its shared organization around the inspired Scriptures: “I have thus informed you of everything I heard from my father [Alexander], as if I were with you and you with me in a single house, that is, ‘the church of God, the pillar and strength of truth.’ When we gather in a single place, let us purify it (the church) of every defilement, of double-heartedness, of fighting and childish arrogance. Let us be satisfied with only the Scripture inspired by God to instruct us.”
“In this way,” Athanasius says–that is, by acknowledging, hearing, and heeding Holy Scripture, to the exclusion of all other books, for the content of Christian doctrine–he and his people will “celebrate the feast as is fitting.” Anyone can celebrate the feast; but the manner in which it is done is determined by adherence to the canon of Scripture. These books are not believed to be divine because they have authority in the Church. Rather, they have authority in the Church because they are antecedently held to be divine–and that because they have their source in Jesus Christ, God Himself. As Athanasius writes, they are the books “included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine; to the end that any one who has fallen into error may condemn those who have led him astray; and that he who has continued steadfast in purity may again rejoice, having these things brought to his remembrance.”