Thomas Cardinal Cajetan’s Old Testament Canon

Cardinal Cajetan was an opponent of Martin Luther but Cajetan's Old Testament Canon views were in opposition to what his church would later dogmatize.
1870 (oil on canvas) painting of Martin Luther and Thomas Cardinal Cajetan during the controversy over Luther’s 95 Theses. By Pauwels, Ferdinand Wilhelm (source).

Thomas Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534) is best known for challenging Martin Luther, early in Luther’s 16th century effort to reform corruption in the Western church. Cajetan was a leading theologian and papal legate in Augsburg who served as a spokesman for Catholic opposition to Luther. In many respects, the historical record paints Cajetan as an intelligent, measured interlocutor. Sympathy with the need for reform and agreement with some positions of his opponent(s) are evident in his views. With this perspective in mind, what can we learn from Cajetan’s Old Testament canon views?

A little background…

Recognition of the Scriptural canon is a favorite topic of mine, particularly that of the Old Testament. My previous post contends with a false, modern apologetic claim that seeks to place universal recognition (or declaration) of the Scriptural canon in 4th century Rome. In this post, I want to examine something on the other end of the historical continuum (16th century Rome). This accurate history lies within the Roman Catholic church, in the views of Cardinal Cajetan. My time on social media suggests most modern Catholics are unaware of the specifics of Cajetan’s Old Testament canon views.

Before I jump in, I must give credit and extend my gratitude to Dr. Edmon Gallagher. Dr. Gallagher is the source of the translation of the commentary with Cajetan’s Old Testament canon views below. He authors a blog with some of the most balanced, well-researched, and informative articles on canon matters. What’s more, his book The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis, co-authored by Dr. John Meade, has become one of the most valued books on my shelf. It’s an incredibly useful, well-organized reference on canon lists of the early church. If purchasing the book isn’t practical for you, his page has a number of great articles, too.

Cajetan’s Old Testament Canon in his own words

In concluding his commentary on Esther, Cajetan includes the following views on the OT. His original commentary is here (481-482, the final two pages):

“And in this place [after Esther] we conclude the commentaries on the historical books of the Old Testament. For the rest (i.e., Judith, Tobit, and the books of the Maccabees) are reckoned by divine Jerome as outside the canonical books and he places them among the apocrypha, with the book of Wisdom [of Solomon] and Ecclesiasticus (Sirach), as is clear in the Prologus Galeatus. Nor ought you be disturbed if you find somewhere those books reckoned among the canonical, whether in the sacred councils or among the sacred teachers. For the words of both councils and teachers ought to be brought back to the revision of Jerome, and according to his opinion expressed to bishops Chromatius and Heliodorus, those books [today’s aprocrypha/deuterocanonical books] (and if there are any other similar in the canon of the Bible), are not canonical, i.e., [they] are not normative to confirm those things which are of the faith. But they can be called canonical (that is, normative) for the edification of the faithful, as received and authorized in the canon of the Bible. For with this distinction you can discern the things said by Augustine in book 2 of De doctrina christiana, and written in the Council of Florence under Eugene IV, and written in the provincial councils of Carthage and Laodicea, and by Popes Innocent and Gelasius.”

To the praise and glory of Almighty God, at Rome in the year of salvation 1532, but in the 64th year of my life, on the 19th day of July, Amen.[1]The Latin text: “Et hoc in loco terminamus commentaria librorum historialium veteris testamenti: nam reliqui (videlicet Iudith, Tobiæ and Maccabæorum libri) a diuo Hieronymo extra canonicos … Continue reading

There is an amazing amount of historical insight jam-packed into this paragraph. For modern readers, Cardinal Cajetan does far more than share his opinion on the canonical books of the OT, he gives us a window into a number of other matters of historical significance. In doing so, he also paints a picture of the pre-Tridentine church that is very different from that which modern apologists portray. To start, consider the timing. This is written more than a decade after Luther’s excommunication and more than a decade before the Council of Trent dogmatically established Rome’s position on the canon of Scripture.

What can we discern in Cajetan’s commentary?

Here are some other observations about Cajetan’s commentary that may not be readily apparent.

1. He recognizes an ecclesiastical/doctrinal distinction.

Most apologists and lay people today don’t understand this distinction, much less do they know it existed for centuries. It finds description in the first “canon” list we have from 367 AD (Athanasius’ Letter 39 is the earliest known use of the term). Most people think of the Council of Trent as having definitively “decided” the canon. It’s important to understand that in making a dogmatic decision, Trent dissolved this historical distinction. For those, like Athanasius, Jerome and others, who made this disctinction, the apocryphal/ecclesiastical books were still highly regarded and found acceptance as class of literature for edification of the faithful. A common practical difference included their approval to be read but not to be used for establishing doctrine. The Council of Trent disallows viewing these books as inferior, in opposition to an extensive and early Christian tradition.

2. He uses the term “canon” with far less precision that we do today.

It is important to note that the term “deuterocanon” doesn’t exist when Cajetan writes this commentary, however, as just mentioned, a distinction between ecclesiastical/apocryphal and canon-proper does. Note the flexibility with which Cajetan uses the term “canon.” Speaking of ecclesiastical/apocryphal books, he says: “those books…in the canon of the Bible…are not canonical…But they can be called canonical.” How’s that for confusing? As long as one understands his distinction, it’s not.

In Cajetan’s mind, the term “canon” has a much broader meaning than it does today. Throughout church history, the terms “Scripture” (Greek: γραφὴ, graphē), “canon,” and “inspired” were often used with less precision. That does NOT mean people didn’t recognize a distinction between books. “Suitable for doctrine” and “edifying” are not equivalent. Even today, we might describe being “inspired” by a sermon, the writing of favorite theologian or church father, by someone’s testimony, or even by a good book. We may even speck of good food as “divine.” That does not mean we view these things as God-breathed, infallible, and on-par with His Word. His sheep hear His voice, not the words used to describe it (John 10:27).

Greek writers like Athanasius and Eusebius do seem to use “canon” with more precision (it derives from a Greek word and concept). The broader definition, as seen with Cajetan, may be peculiar to the development of Latin. Indeed, the larger canon of OT Scripture the Catholic church uses today, is a distinctly Latin tradition. Other traditions like Ethiopian Orthodox have an even larger canon but it doesn’t match that of Roman Catholicism. It also comes later.

3. He seeks to reconcile apparent contradictions in history.

This is really fascinating. One needs to understand historical developments well to see this in Cajetan’s remarks. Two historical events, both occurring after Cajetan’s death, have dramatically shaped our modern thinking about the Biblical canon. First, the Council of Trent dissolved a longstanding (but not universal) ecclesiastical/doctrinal distinction by dogmatically equating the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books with Scripture-proper. Second, in the 19th century, Protestant Bibles began to exclude apocryphal books in print. Today, views are more black-and-white and along denominational lines. For Catholics, the contested books are Scripture and included. For Protestants, they are not and are excluded. Unfortunately, the modern tendency is for Catholics to pretend like they were always considered equal, by everyone, and for many Protestants to treat them as almost heretical. Both of these extremes exhibit unhelpful ignorance. Nevertheless, the boundary line drawn by Protestants (and Jews) around God’s spoken Word, suitable for doctrine, is most historical.

Rather than viewing things in black-and-white terms, Cajetan seeks to reconcile apparent historical contradictions. In doing so, he is actually implying something of a universal, historical position that aligns with Classical Protestantism and modern scholarship. When he says: “For with this distinction you can discern the things…” he lists positions (including Augustine and the Council of Florence) that include the apocryphal books, but qualifies them with his prior statement that they “can be called canonical…for the edification of the faithful.” Cajetan implies that in using the word “canon” they did NOT mean they were Scripture-proper or suitable for defining matters of faith (i.e. doctrine). While modern Protestants may not generally understand this, Catholics are quick to dismiss opposing positions like this as “stray private opinions.” It’s likely many would question Cajetan’s knowledge history. It is the modern apologists and their disciples who are out-of-touch with history.

4. He views councils before this time as reformable.

It is common to hear modern apologists claim the Council of Trent only reaffirmed prior “decisions.” For Cajetan, the statement: “the words of both councils and teachers ought to be brought back to the revision of Jerome” makes it clear he understood any official canon list produced prior to 1532 to be non-binding, fallible, and in need of reform. Many today will acknowledge Florence didn’t dogmatize its list but one also needs to consider shifting definitions of dogma through history. In any case, Cajetan certainly opposes many of the modern apologetic claims.

5. He does NOT mention the Council of Rome in 382 or Damasus I.

Cajetan names the following councils: Laodicea (before 381), Carthage (plural, he probably means Hippo in 393 and Carthage in 397), and Florence (1449). The dates of these councils are significant. Scholarship suggests Laodicea may have been as early as 342. Whatever the case, this list spans either side of the Council of Rome in 382. Cajetan is clearly NOT inline with modern apologists. The latter have, in the last 3-4 decades, introduced the novel idea that the Council of Rome in 382 settled the canon. Again, this claim is the subject of a prior post.


Few today would think of Thomas Cardinal Cajetan as sympathetic to Protestant views on anything. However, his views on the Old Testament canon are nothing less. Beyond just representing a Biblical canon tradition in opposition to that which his church later dogmatizes, his views certainly warrant deeper examination in other areas. How would he have reacted to Trent? Reading his concluding commentary on the book of Esther, one must wonder.


1The Latin text: “Et hoc in loco terminamus commentaria librorum historialium veteris testamenti: nam reliqui (videlicet Iudith, Tobiæ and Maccabæorum libri) a diuo Hieronymo extra canonicos libros supputatur, and inter apocrypha locatur, cum libro Sapientiae and Ecclesiastico: vt patet in prologo galeato. Nec turberis nouitie si alicubi repereris libros istos inter canonicos supputari, vel in sacris conciliis vel in sacris doctoribus. Nam ad Hieronymi limam reducenda sunt tam verba conciliorum quam doctorum: and iuxta illius sententiam ad Chromatium and Heliodorum episcopos, libri isti (and si qui alii sunt in canone Bibliæ similes) non sunt canonici, hoc est non sunt regulares firmandum ea quae sunt fidei. possunt tamen dici canonici (hoc est regulares) ad ædificationem fidelium: vt pote in canone Bibliæ ad hoc recepti and authorati. cum hac enim distinctione discernere poteris and dicta Augustini in secundo de doctrina Christiana, and scripta in concilio Florentino sub Eugenio quarto: scriptaque in prouincialibus conciliis Chartaginensi and Laodicensi, and ab Innocentio ac Gelacio pontificibus Ad laudem and gloriam omnipotentis Dei: Romae anno salutis millesimo quingentesimo trigesimo secundo: ætatis vero meæ sexagesimo quarto, die decimanona Iulii, amen.”

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