Merely A Matter of Perception

I got to see sin up close and personal this week. I saw its intention. I saw its form. I saw its effects. It was ugly. You may wonder what particular sin that it is I saw. And while that would be a discussion that has merit and would be productive on another occasion, it isn’t the point that I wish to make now. Because the fact of the matter is that sin is sin. One sin is just as ugly to God as another (Isaiah 59:2). It is a sobering fact that any sin we habitually commit severs us from our relationship with God (John 8:34). It really does not matter what that sin is, per se. Oh, we may deceive ourselves from time to time with the idea that “my sin” is not as bad as “your sin.” But such is simply deception. It is a lie; a falsehood that Satan tells us to try to get us to believe that sin is not really all that serious. Sin is deadly serious.

Take someone who is addicted to drugs as an example. Here is a sin that is generally recognized in society. We see the drug addict and we think, “How said for him that he is so possessed by such a thing.” We know that he is possessed by his drugs, because we see his desire for them. We see the craving. We see the “joy” he gets from using them. We see the consummation that results from such use. We see the gutter-filled-trashed-out effects of their use. And we see the addict return time after time to the same estate. We wonder, “How could anyone live like that?” They live like that because the ultimate goal of Satan is to so deceive someone as to make them think that there is nothing wrong with their sinful situation. Our pity for such a one should not be due to the condition, but the deception.

And we ask, “How could one be so deceived so as to be involved in such a pathetic suit?” The truth however, is that we frequently live the same way. Satan has deceived many of us as well. Many live in a state of societally approved addictions that while outwardly appear perfectly benign, inwardly they destroy us just as cancerously as the sin of the drug addict. These addictions display much more subtle and deceptive effects. These effects sometimes even robe themselves in a facade of righteousness so as to have the appearance of something decent. We see such effects in the faces of those who turn their nose in disgust at the addictions of others without even acknowledging that their own addiction is equally as deadly. Do we see in these the same symptoms? The craving? The possession? The “joy?” The consummation? Indeed, who is the more deceived?

Today is the day that the religious world calls “Easter.” It is the end of the Jewish Passover. It is the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. I’m not saying that there is anything especially holy about this Sunday out of all of the other Sundays in the year. They are all equally holy as far as God is concerned. Christians remember the resurrection of Jesus every Sunday. Historically, however, this is that time of the year and many do take time to reflect upon that event. So why bring up such a “depressing” subject at such a time? Because it was for precisely this reason that Jesus gave himself on the cross. So that we could be free from the possession of sin. He was resurrected so that we could walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4). Indeed, to habitually fail to examine our own lives, to habitually fail to reflect upon what God has done for us when we were possessed in sin, is an addiction of an equally worse and deceptive kind. It is equally being in the possession of sin. What greater triumph could Satan have than to cause us to cease to examine our own personal sin on a daily basis and the relationship of forgiveness that we have with God as a result of the vicarious sacrifice of Christ? What greater triumph than to deceive us into thinking that our sinful situation is any better than that of others?

I learned a little more about the love of God and Jesus this week, because I saw in my experience something that God must see in all humanity — a great and tremendous need for salvation from sin. Not just of those with visible addictions, but those of us with the invisible one’s as well. God once told Samuel, “… for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). We may look outwardly and see all kinds of wrongs and evils in this world, and even do so justifiably. However, if we look outward while failing to look inward, our sin is merely a matter of perception, and that of an equally deceptive sort. May God bless us with HIS eyes so as to look upon the things that we ought to look upon, both outward and inward, in our daily walk with Him.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

This past Thursday evening, (April 1st 2004) we went to the Berryville Community Center and watched a high school choir production of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” You may be familiar with the story. An emperor is more concerned with his own vanities than he is with the affairs of his kingdom. Two flattering and seductive villains persuade the king that they can make the finest set of clothes in all the empire for him, but the clothes are so sheer that only the “wisest” will see them. They take all of the emperor’s money, dupe him with “invisible clothes,” and abscond the empire before the truth is discovered. While the emperor’s subjects all remark at how beautiful the clothes are (not wanting to be considered anything but wise), a small boy finally exposes the truth that the emperor is naked. Having had his “eye’s opened,” and learned a valuable lesson about deception the emperor is a wiser and humbler public servant.

While considering the basic plot of this story, I thought, “How so much like many in the religious world today.” There are millions who allow themselves to be deceived religiously on a regular basis due to some of the same mistakes the emperor made. Considering that, let’s notice some ways in which we may be deceived. First, we are most likely to be deceived when we value things more than truth. Second, deceptive people generally employ flattering tongues, never dealing honestly and plainly with others. Third, we may be deceived when we buy into the notion that we will not be “wise” if we don’t accept the deception.

When we value things more than we value truth, we are more likely to be deceived. The emperor deeply valued his personal attire, so, when someone came knocking that could offer him something superior in that area, he was susceptible, valuing his vanity more than truth. Today, we hear of people being deceived in things they value as well. How many widows have been cheated out of their life savings because someone came along and told them their house was going to collapse if they didn’t fix the “foundation?” How many of us have fallen victim to “free vacation” scams? How many have been deceived by real estate ventures for the “free on site offer?” Houses, vacations, property—those are all things that we ought to value less than truth, but many do not. It is no different in the religious world today. Many come selling “self-help,” “motivation,” “emotional satisfaction,” “personal relationships,” and “personal worship experiences” all in the name of religion. Millions buy into these scheme’s every year, because they love self-experience and emotionalism more than they love truth. If they would investigate the truth, then they would know the fraud immediately and who is doing what is right. Proverbs 23:23 says, “Buy the truth, and sell it not; also wisdom, and instruction, and understanding.” We must value truth above all else, if we are not to be deceived.

Deceptive people generally employ flattering tongues, never dealing honestly and plainly with others. Those who desired to sell the emperor his new set of clothes told the emperor what distinguished tastes he had in clothing, what polished refinement in style, and what discerning eye in fashion. Obviously, these deceivers couldn’t have been wrong in their assessment of him, so when they promised to deliver the best clothing possible, they must have been right in that as well. If they had told the emperor that they were there to steal his money and convince him to parade around town naked, no doubt he would have rejected them immediately. In the religious world today, many use flattery and other forms of deceit to sway the multitudes in their favor. Little do you hear of people preaching on the subjects of sin, the necessity of repentance, hell or the necessity of righteous living. Most sermons are preached on “love,” tolerance (of sin), forgiveness (without repentance), and other “feel good” themes. And while there is nothing wrong in preaching on positive subjects, preaching on them to the exclusion of the other is deceptive and flattering. It assumes the hearer doesn’t need to change, doesn’t need to be warned, and can’t handle the honest truth on such “controversial” subjects. Most would rather have their ears scratched than to have to deal with hard teachings that require personal sacrifice. Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 2:3-5, “For our exhortation was not of deceit, nor of uncleanness, nor in guile: But as we were allowed of God to be put in trust with the gospel, even so we speak; not as pleasing men, but God, which trieth our hearts. For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness.” Next time someone tries to butter you up, religiously, beware. The likelihood is that the person who causes you to reflect negatively on yourself is telling you the truth.

Those who are often deceived usually are so deceived because to be otherwise would mean that they were not “wise.” The emperor’s subjects deceived themselves because they thought that if they told the truth, then there would be no wisdom in them. Then, that deception grew throughout the whole empire because no one had the courage enough to stand up to the majority who thought they were wise. Who wants to be thought of that way? Today, those who have the truth are often ridiculed as not understanding God’s love, mercy, and grace. And indeed, who wants to be thought of as not understanding those things? We all want to understand God’s love, mercy, and grace. So to be accused of not understanding it, places one into the position of not being “wise” in matters of religion. And, the more people who believe that you “just don’t understand those things,” the more foolish one appears. Notice I said, “appears,” because it is not how one appears that truly demonstrates one’s understanding of something, but what one believes in comparison to the truth. Paul wrote, “Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” ( 1 Corinthians 1:20, 21). Those who preach and teach the truth are often the one’s who appear most foolish. But it is not man’s wisdom that truly judges whether something is wise or not, but God’s.

The Bible warns us that sin is deceitful ( Hebrews 3:13). Will we, like the emperor, don a set of clothing that is no clothing at all? Or will we enrobe ourselves in the garments of truth and salvation? Let us always be on our guard, prizing truth above all else, preaching the plain and simply gospel, not mindful of other men’s flatteries, and seeking the wisdom that is from above. By following after these things, we will protect ourselves against the one deceiver that is opposed to all, Satan himself ( John 8:44).

Test All Things

By Mike Riley 4/12/2016

In order to confirm the validity of prophesyings (any kind of teaching by supernatural gifts) in the first century church, the apostle Paul instructed the Thessalonian Christians to “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 – NKJV).

Christianity Based On Confirmed Truth

Christianity is not a religion for the gullible. It appeals to man’s intellect and ability to understand right from wrong. God has never expected man to accept any statement at face value (Acts 17:11). From the beginning, He confirmed His superiority and the truth of His word with signs, wonders, and miracles (cf. Exodus 3:1-6; Exodus 4:19; Hebrews 2:3-4). Thus, we know the Bible to be true.

Examination Of Evidence

Paul commands us to “test all things.” We are not to receive the words of others without discernment. We must examine that which is presented to us. In reference to teachers, John said, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). No man or group of men is above examination (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). It matters not how long a belief has been held, how pious a man appears, or with what vehemence a thing is declared. What matters is whether or not it agrees with God&#39s word, the truth (John 17:17).

Reject False Teaching

Furthermore, we are to “hold fast what is good.” That which does not agree with the gospel is to be rejected, along with the teacher who promotes it (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 John 9-11). This is true regardless of the popularity of the doctrine or man. On the other hand, all things in agreement with God’s word are to be received. In fact, it is the obligation of each man to accept the truth. Honesty demands it, even if we must give our life (Rev. 2:10).

Some professed believers in Christ are too lazy to “test all things,” and too irresolute to “hold fast what is good.” Others are worried about the “trouble” testing will cause, or the dogmatism with which they will be accused by holding fast. Instead of being concerned with honoring God and knowing the truth, they are concerned about offending man. All such men are a shame to the Lord and His church. When enough people adopt these attitudes, truth suffers and souls are lost. Therefore, let us not be of that number!


Do you test all things? Do you compare what your preacher or teacher says with what the Bible teaches (Acts 17:11)? If not, why not? Do you hold fast what is good? Are you willing to cling to the truth no matter what others may say or do? If not, why not?

Brethren, let’s not be gullible or lazy. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” Accept God’s truth and reject error, lest you be condemned by God (cf. Isaiah 8:19-22).

The Sins of Benedict Arnold

 We’ve all heard of the famous traitor Benedict Arnold, heralded in our American history classes as one of the most infamous traitors to the United States during the revolutionary war. But did you know that Arnold was first a General in the Continental Army and a war hero? That’s right, he was credited with the victory against the British at the battle of Saratoga and even was wounded in the leg in battle. Yet, that’s not how history remembers the name Benedict Arnold.

After this battle, Arnold had to retire from active combat and settled down into a desk job. He married a British sympathizer, though he didn’t consider it a big deal at the time. He was bitter that the Congress hadn’t recognized his accomplishments and given him a promotion. He also wasn’t a very popular person with civilians, and was accused of using his public office to advance his personal fortune. For this accusation he was court marshaled and found guilty. It was a minor offense and the only thing the board demanded was a letter of reprimand. Washington didn’t even mail it to him, just stuck it in a file, but with all of the other bitterness that Arnold had felt, that was the last straw. His wife was a British sympathizer and she put him in contact with some of the enemy. Arnold could have disclosed some very critical information and was going to do that when the courier taking his messages were intercepted. Washington found out about it and sought to have Arnold arrested, but he fled to British lines. He became a General for the British Army and lived in England for the rest of his days, to the delight of his wife, who desired that more than anything.

One lesson we learn from Arnold’s life is that little things build up into big things. Arnold didn’t get up one morning and say, “I think I’ll be a traitor today.” Gradually, over time, the circumstances of his life wore on him until he felt compelled to act in the way he did. The same can be true for our life. Multiple small annoyances can build up to the point that we lash out at our family and friends. We need to battle such annoyances with contentment and thanksgiving. When we learn to be thankful for everything around us, then we won’t be annoyed at something that doesn’t go our way. When we become content with our circumstances, then annoyances won’t have any meaning as they will be accepted as part of our life. Arnold didn’t understand the value of thanksgiving and contentment. Paul wrote, “for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philippians 4:11). We need to be on constant guard that we are not so led into sin.

Another lesson that we learn is that our lives are open books for others to read and we need to be keenly aware of that. Arnold’s use of public funds for personal profit was something that should never have happened. A Christian has a great responsibility to let his light shine to all who are around (Matthew 5:16). This means that our lives are open for inspection at any point and at any time. Christians cannot afford to have “secrets” to which others are not privy. We must learn to “provide things honest in the sight of all men” (Romans 12:17).

Finally, we learn that Arnold didn’t choose his company very wisely when he married a British sympathizer. The people that we associate with and especially the person that we eventually marry, will have more influence upon our lives that we expect. Paul warned of the potential danger of our friends in 1 Corinthians 15:33 when he said, “Be not deceived: Evil companionships corrupt good morals” (ASV). Arnold didn”t choose his companions wisely and in the end, it cost him dearly.

Arnold”s actions are historically notorious but there were reasons why he came to the point he did. We need to make sure that we don”t have such “reasons” in our lives that will betray our Lord and prevent us from entering heaven. Perhaps the greatest lesson from Arnold is that it doesn’t matter how big of a hero you are, you can still fall (1 Corinthians 10:12)!

Fellowship . . . What does it really mean?

When we talk about the idea of biblical fellowship, we enter into a discussion with fuzzy lines. They’re not necessarily fuzzy or gray because it’s so difficult to understand the concepts, but because it’s such an ambiguous concept. That is to say, we don’t always know which fellowship we’re talking about.

When most English bibles use the word fellowship they are translating the Greek word koinonia. Here are the definitions of the word from one of the most common Greek dictionaries:

  1. fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse
  2. the share which one has in anything, participation
  3. intercourse, fellowship, intimacy
  4. the right hand as a sign and pledge of fellowship (in fulfilling the apostolic office)
  5. a gift jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution, as exhibiting an embodiment and proof of fellowship

Just from looking at the different definitions of the word, it easy to understand why it would be difficult to consistently define when it comes to the way the biblical writers used the word (and the way we use it today). Because there are so many different meanings, it stands to reason that there would be many different English words that are used to translate koinonia. Here’s a few examples from the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17 – Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 

Paul is arguing here that Christian’s take the Lord’s Supper because they are a community but that they are a community because of the fellowship in the body and blood of Christ. We experience fellowship with each other when we take the Lord’s Supper together. This might be  the most missed applications of fellowship among the Churches of Christ. Think about the way you’re congregation does the Communion together. Physically we’re usually in our pews that are lined up to face forward. We take the bread with our heads bowed and pass the plate on to the next person with hardly no contact or interaction – no fellowship. We really only have one example of a church in the New Testament participating (fellowshipping) in the Communion that we can draw from. There’s no reason to think that every church did it the same way. But no church that I ever seen come close to sharing/participating/fellowshipping in the Lord’s Supper in the nearly the same way as the Corinthians.

2 Corinthians 8:3-4 – For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation (koinonia) in the support of the saints

2 Corinthians 9:13 –  Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution (koinonia) to them and to all, while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you.

Romans 12:10-13 – Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing (koinonia) to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

Romans 15:25-27 – But now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution (koinonia) for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. 

Paul uses the word koinonia to describe what takes place when we share the burden of caring for other people’s physical needs and contribute our material possessions. We create and participate in true fellowship and community. We should all remember this the next time the collection plate is passed.

1 Corinthians 9:23 – I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker (koinonia) of it.

 2 Corinthians 8:23 – As for Titus, he is my partner (koinonia) and fellow worker among you; as for our brethren, they are messengers of the churches, a glory to Christ. 

Philippians 1:3-7 – I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers (koinonia) of grace with me.

There is a sense in which our labors for the gospel creates a special fellowship among us. There is no earthly endeavor more important that a group of people could join together on.

Acts 2:42-44 – They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common (koinonia).

Fellowship includes sharing life together. This goes beyond simply sharing a meal or having commonality. Their regular “life” activities took on a spiritual significance. When they came together in the name of the Lord – when they came together as Christians. Do you feel connected in this same way to the family that you worship with? If not, why not? Is that someone else’s responsibility to put you into fellowship and community or do you own that for yourself?

1 John 1:3 – What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

This is the example of fellowship that we usually refer to, at least in the case when we’re talking about who’s in and who’s out. When God first created the world and placed man in it, the scriptures seem to indicate that he maintained a close personal relationship with mankind that was physical, spiritual and emotional. We ruined that relationship with our sin. We destroyed our community, our fellowship with God. This was not acceptable to God. So he provided a way to re-establish community and fellowship with his creation — he became a human and the once and for all sacrifice. Now we are able to have fellowship with him again. And one day we will experience the full fellowship once and for all.

This is also where and how our community with each other is created and maintained. Quite simply, we meet at the foot of the cross.

This definitely isn’t an exhaustive list. But perhaps this will help us to be more consistent and clear with how we use the word fellowship.

Sometimes God Doesn’t

One of the most difficult realities of being a Christian is that sometimes God doesn’t answer prayers. Even though we do our best to convince ourselves that he always answers, “just sometimes in silence,” I just don’t think it’s true. I guess we could debate this and have a “one-handed clap” or “tree falling in the woods” kind of discussion – but sometimes silence is just . . . silence. It doesn’t mean that he’s not there. It doesn’t mean that he stopped caring or that he gave up on you. It just means sometimes he doesn’t answer.

Sometimes I get upset about this. Sometimes I even get mad. Part of my problem is that I try to write God’s job description for him. I know it’s silly. I know it doesn’t make sense. But sometimes the silence is so scary, and even painful, that I can’t help but try to fill it with noise. Any noise will do, even if it really hurts my ears. I just don’t want to hear the silence anymore. Even as I sit here typing, I am waiting for God to answer.

I’ll never stop waiting. It’s in my nature. I’ll ask, and then I’ll wait. But I’ve learned through many tears to sit still while I wait . . . to sit still and listen. Because sometimes, if I am quiet and still long enough, though I still may not see an answer, I just might be able to hear His whisper as it cuts through my pain and soothes my heart, “I Will Always Love You.”


Here’s the result of some recent research on Irenaeus and his views of the authority and canonicity of the Gospels.


The closure of the Gospel canon is of great interest to many and has enjoyed no small amount of attention. Irenaeus is of particular interest when treating this subject. He writes in Adv. Haer. 3.11.8: “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are, since there are four directions of the world in which we are, and four principal winds. . . . The four living creatures [of Rev 4:9] symbolize the four Gospels. . . . and there were four principal covenants made with humanity, through Noah, Abraham, Moses and Christ.”

These comments, authored in approximately 180 AD, are the first extant defense for the authority of the four canonical gospels; and although there are differences in terms of its significance, most scholars tend to agree the with T. C. Skeat when he says that “every study of the Canon of the Four Gospels begins, and rightly begins, with the famous passage in which Irenaeus, writing about the year 185, seeks to defend the Canon by finding a mystical significance in the number four.”[1] On the significance of Irenaeus, Von Campenhausen asserts that the “transition from the earlier period of belief in tradition to the new age of deliberate canonical standardization—a transition in the direction of later orthodoxy in which the Canon of the Old and New Testament was firmly laid down.”[2]

This having been said, it is clear that Irenaeus’ pen left a definitive impact on the canon of the both the Gospels and the entire New Testament. However, what is less certain is the manner of the impact. In other words, what did Irenaeus’ comments mean at that time? Were his words a true indicator of formed and closed Gospel canon? Or did it mean something else? Metzger answers this confidently in his Canon of the New Testament. He states that [by the time of Irenaeus] the “fixing of the number and selection (of the Gospels) is final . . . for Irenaeus the Gospel canon is closed and its text is holy.”[3] He may well be correct. However, in arriving at this conclusion he makes assumptions that leave room for doubt, or at least raise some additional questions. Specifically, in light of the totality of evidence, this manner of a declarative statement seems difficult to wholly support. As he cites no specific evidence, Metzger appears to simply trust or assume that Irenaeus has in mind kanwn as a specific and authoritative collection of books. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is to respond to Metzger’s conclusion by reviewing three pieces of evidence that testify to the fact that Irenaeus did not view the Gospel canon as closed.

Terms and Definitions

Of the challenges surrounding this subject, the inconsistent understanding and application of the term kanwn might just be foremost. This difficulty arises from the fact that there are variable definitions and understandings for the word. For example, if an author were to make a comment contending that a particular Christian document (such as one of the Gospels) was determined to be canonical later than Paul’s undisputed letters, that person would not be making a clear statement because there was not a specific qualification of the term canonical. Did the author mean that Paul’s letters were recognized to be authoritative and normative for the growing Christian communities (before the Gospels)? If this is the case, most people would likely agree with the statement.[4] However, if the author meant that the process of canonization of Paul’s undisputed letters was closed and they had been formally recognized and no others would be recognized as authoritative (prior to the canonization of the Gospels) then there would likely be some dispute; hence, the difficulty with the definitions.

This having been said, Bauer’s seminal lexicon lists three helpful explanations. First, it states that kanwn is a “means to determine the quality of something.” An appropriate translation in this instance would be ‘rule’ or ‘standard’. This is derived from the original meaning of the word—‘a straight rod,’ which would have been used to “keep things straight, or as a test of straightness.”[5] Thus, the word evolved into the meaning provided by Bauer. The second definition is a “set of directions or formulation for an activity, (translated as assignment or formulation). For the third translation, Bauer notes that “in the second century in the Christian church kanwn came to stand for revealed truth.”[6] In other words, when one referred to the canon, he was simply referring to the Bible.

After reviewing several theological dictionaries Ulrich comes to a conclusion that mirrors Bauer’s. He contends that the term denotes two principle meanings. First, “the canon of scripture, i.e., the canon which scripture constitutes, the rule of faith articulated by the scriptures, the rule that determines faith, the authoritative principles and guiding spirit which govern belief and practice.” In other words, Ulrich describes canon not as a tangible concept, such as a list or physical collection of books, but rather as an abstract reference to the set of scriptures that creates and provides authority for faith and the practice of faith. The second definition is “the canon of scripture, i.e., the canon which constitutes scripture, the list of books accepted as inspired scripture, the list that has been determined, the authoritative list of books which have been accepted as scripture.”[7] The key word here is ‘list.’ It presumes that the list is definitive and closed, with nothing to be removed and nothing to be added. Given the totality of the evidence, it seems that the most common definitions (at least for the purposes of this paper) are the two specific definitions listed by Ulrich. Specifically, these two definitions play an instrumental role in this discussion: when Irenaeus used the term kanwn, which was he referring to?

Similarly, a proper understanding of the term euaggealion is helpful in this discussion. Bauer lists three definitions. The first is “God’s good news to humans.” Accordingly, this is translated (in terms of a proclamation) simply as ‘good news.’ Second, he states that it recounts “details relating to the life and ministry of Jesus;” in other words, the good news which is the story of Jesus’ life. Thirdly, it is a “book dealing with the life and teaching of Jesus, a gospel account.”[8] It is worth noting that only one of the three involves in a written source or document.

With regard to the use of the term in the second century, the current research points to the conclusion that the term euaggealion was most often used in terms of an oral tradition (or one of the first two definitions provided by Bauer). For example, in the First Epistle of Clement there is no indication that the author used or knew of a written gospel. 1 Clem. 13.2; 46.8 and 47.2 each refer to or are drawn from the oral tradition.[9] Likewise, the Epistle of Barnabas (Barn. 5.9) and the Second Epistle of Clement (2 Clem. 4.5; 9.11) both consistently use the term to denote an oral proclamation.[10]

This having been said, there does appear to be a possible exception or caveat to this conclusion when it comes to the Didache. There is evidence within the document that lead to both conclusions. For example, Did. 8.2 instructs the audience to pray “as the Lord has commanded in his gospel.” Koester implies that the form of the text is so similar with Matt. 6:7-15 that the writer is likely aware with Matthew’s gospel.[11] However, the dating of this redacted portion of the document creates further uncertainty.[12] In other words, Creed is asserting that this portion of the Didache (which contains the contradicting evidence) may in fact be from a later redaction by a subsequent author; but because dating the redaction is difficult there is little certainty to be gained in terms of this specific evidence.

Before proceeding further, it is worthwhile to point out a common error with regards to Irenaeus’ comments. Skeat contends that Irenaeus was relying on the fact that there are four principal winds, quarters of the earth, etc. as proof that there must be four Gospels and only four Gospels.[13] Both Ferguson and Stanton disagree with Skeat and agree that Irenaeus is not making a proactive argument for a fourfold Gospel because there are four winds, four-faced cherubim, four living creatures, four directions of the earth, etc.[14] Instead, as Ferguson specifically points out, he was using these as examples symbolically because he already had the four gospels. “If he had three, five or some other number he would have found an appropriately fitting analogy.”[15]

The Evidence

The first piece of evidence is that the dichotomy between scripture and tradition is problematic in light of the importance of tradition within Irenaeus’ own thinking, as well as his many comments defending the authenticity of the oral traditions that unify the universal Church (e.g. 1.10.2; 3.4.1-2; 5.20.1-2).[16] It is especially interesting to note Irenaeus’ own use of the term kanwn. If this term had taken on the definition or understanding of a list of authoritative texts, Irenaeus did not affirmatively recognize it as such. In fact, there is no evidence that Irenaeus never used the term to refer to written works.[17] Instead, when referring to authoritative teachings, Irenaeus prefers the phrase kanwn thV aleqheiaV or the “rule of truth” (e.g. 1.9.4; 1.22.1; 2.25.2; 2.27.1; 2.28.1; 2.28.3; 3.15.1; 4.35.4).

With his use of kanwn in this manner, Irenaeus seems to be consistent with the contemporary Greco-Roman use. Metzger supports this assertion when he writes that “a kanwn provides one with a criterion or standard (Latin norma) by reference to which the rectitude of opinions or actions may be determined.”[18] Though it may be obvious (and anachronistic) that Paul would not have thought of kanwn as a list, it is interesting to notice that he was familiar with the term in the same sense as Irenaeus and Metzger have pointed out. In Gal 6:16 Paul writes, καὶ ὅσοι τῷ κανόνι τούτῳ στοιχήσουσιν, εἰρήνη ἐπ’ αὐτοὺς καὶ ἔλεος, καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰσραὴλ τοῦ θεοῦ.[19] Within the same previous context, Metzger stated (when referring to kanwn as an authoritative list) that the use of the term in this manner was “late in developing; so far as we have evidence, it was not until the second half of the fourth century that kanwn and its derivatives . . . were applied to the Scriptures.”[20] In fact, Athanasius was the first to use the word to refer to a set of books as being “kanonizomena.”[21] This having been said, it seems certain that when Irenaeus insisted that the Gospels could be ‘no more than four’ he was not implying that they existed in a canonized state. Oddly, Metzgers’ own comments affirm this reality.

The second piece of evidence concerns Irenaeus’ use of the gospel texts. While there are certainly examples of Irenaeus citing correctly from the individual gospels, there are a number of examples where he is either careless with his citation or simply uses the introductory formula of ‘the Lord said,’ ‘the Lord declared,’ or ‘the Lord said in the Gospel.’[22] For example, in the preface of Book III, an incomplete form of Luke 10:18 is introduced as ‘the Lord declared.’ Elsewhere in 4.6.1, 6.3 and 6.7 he cites Matt 11:27.[23] However, it appears that he has done so flippantly or carelessly, as the verse is recorded differently in all three citations. In fairness to Irenaeus, the question must be asked: are these examples truly the result of a careless or dismissive attitude toward text that Metzger says he viewed as ‘holy’? Or is there perhaps another explanation?

There is every indication that Irenaeus maintained the upmost respect for the gospels. In fact, that appears to be the very motivation for his writing this document. As Stanton points out, the Gospel was not simply a collection of documents. Instead, it was the words and message of Jesus that had been brought together through both oral tradition and various textual traditions; and for Irenaeus these traditions which represented the very words of Christ were substantially more authoritative than any individual writings produced by the evangelists.[24] Koester adds to the discussion when he indicates that during this time period “gospel writings were variously known and used. But they did not have the authority of holy scripture, nor was their dignity enhanced by the title euaggelion.”[25] Simply put, the manner in which Irenaeus referenced or cited the gospels was not as a result of a lack of respect. Instead, it seems to be in keeping with how these oral traditions might have normally been cited.

Third, the contemporary reader must distinguish between Irenaeus’ perception and understanding of kanwn. That having been said, there is also a risk of retroactively “reading his defense of tetramorfon to euaggelion in Adv. haer 3.8.11 through our knowledge of subsequent developments, misinterpreting its original purpose within Irenaeus’ own work.”[26] In other words, before the modern reader can accurately determine the significance and meaning of the passage, it (euaggelion) must first be read within the total context of Adversus haereses. The context reveals that Irenaeus was not referring to a closed collection of four texts.

Irenaeus’ pattern of usage of euaggelion reflects that his primary aim was not to establish (or even to remind the reader of) a canonicity of the four gospels. Again, there is no evidence to suggest that Irenaeus was aware of such a concept, much less desiring to promote it. Instead, the context reveals that his purpose was to defend the singular Gospel message against heretical teaching, particularly Gnosticism.[27] To that end, Barr’s comments are a helpful reminder. “The fact that a writer or theologian concerned himself with questions of the canon does not necessarily mean that they were very important to his basic thinking.”[28] In fact, according to Koester said that “the evidence from all extant sources . . . reveals that euaggelion is always and everywhere understood as the proclamation of the saving message about Christ or the coming of the kingdom.”[29] Ultimately, Irenaeus was concerned with protecting the Church by showing them that the four distinctive gospel documents, that they were evidently familiar with, had the authority to and purpose of revealing and pointing to one singular ‘truth,’ because they were “held together by one Spirit.”[30]


Prior to concluding this essay, it is necessary to point out that there are worthwhile opponents of these views (not the least of which is Metzger). Additionally, Ferguson[31] agrees with Metzger’s interpretation of Irenaeus’ writings. Their reputations as outstanding scholars notwithstanding, it seem possible that their understanding of Irenaeus’ comments indicating a closed canon might have been premature. The testimony of Irenaeus’ comprehension of kanwn, the manner in which he used and cited Gospel texts and the wider purpose of the entire document tip the scales in favor of the fact that he was simply referring to a single Gospel truth that which was manifested in four specific documents; and that while he did have a notion of these four documents holding authority for the Christian community (and against those who would attack the community), he did not recognize these four as a closed and authoritative collection.[32]

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Is the Canon of the Bible Open?

This was an essay test question I recently received. Many books have been written in order to answer this question. This little essay is my feeble attempt to answer it within 1.5 hours.

In order to effectively answer this question, the factors that led up to the creation of the set of scriptures that we currently possess must first be reviewed. In other words, we must take, for example, one of Paul’s letters or one of the gospels and determine what “made” it canonical. How was it determined that these documents were to be accepted and added to the list of documents that came to comprise the Bible? With this information in hand, we can then work backwards and apply that criteria to a document, such as the Gospel of Thomas.

First of all, let’s set the ground work for the discussion by defining the term canon. Ulrich points out in Canon Debate that there are essentially two working definitions: (1) it is the rule of faith that determines that serves as the authority on matters of faith and doctrine. (2) it is a list of books that have been accepted as inspired scripture.

When the early Church fathers discussed the books that were authoritative they did not refer to them in terms of having been chosen. Instead, they were clearly seen as being received (through tradition) from earlier Christians—namely the Apostles. Simply put, they weren’t determined but were accepted. The Church Fathers (2nd century and after) were clearly focused on the Rule of Faith or Apostolic tradition. Clement of Alexandria accepted the Gospels for this reason. Similarly, Bishop Serapion of Antioch rejected the Gospel of Peter as a pseudepigraphic document which was not accepted as being among the apostolic tradition. This was still how Athanasius thought nearly two centuries later. This makes it clear that the canon (or the individual books) were not determined by a meeting or any specific event or decision. It was instead simply understood and was passed on from the previous generation.

Part of this process was the transition from the oral tradition to written documents. The oral tradition remained preferable for quite some time. In fact, Papias (120-140) was quoted by Eusebius as preferring the oral tradition to the writings. However, the transition was eventually completed. There were three prominent contributing factors. First was the death of the Apostles. As that era began to close there was a natural desire to preserve in written from those traditions about Jesus and life as a Christians that they had passed on. This seems at first curious as people in this area were quite comfortable operating within an oral concept. There were in fact two specific triggers that helped to speed up this process.

First, there were apologetic concerns – in other words, heretical movements were becoming prominent and the traditions in written form would prove beneficial in combating these. The most notable of these were the work of Marcion, the Gnostics and Montanists. For example, in the case of Marcion, he created a great deal of controversy with the formation of his own personal canon. Because he was theologically opposed to the Old Testament he sought to exclude all scriptures that were seen as promoting, acknowledging and/or utilizing the Old Testament scriptures. As a result, he declared that Paul was the only faithful apostle and Luke was the only worthy Gospel. This obviously was in direct opposition to the normative orthodoxy of the time. Therefore, written records were emphasized in order to combat the heretical teaching. Second, the community grew rapidly at first. Then, in the early 4th century when Constantine came to power as the Emperor, membership simply exploded. This explosion created a need for definition and clarity when it came to worship practices and matters of doctrine. This void was aptly filled by written scriptures.

As Hahneman notes, the 4th century gave rise to the Christian catalogues of scripture (i.e. list). By the end of the fifth century there were no less than fifteen confirmed catalogues. While the factors previously listed promoted the written and authoritative understanding of scriptures, they were not enough to spurn the creation of lists. It is unclear as to the reason for the development of these lists. However, based on the timing it may have had something to do with the Diocletian persecutions which forced Christians to turn over their copies of scripture. It seems that there may have been a determined effort to decide which books were canonical (so as not to give those over and to decide which scriptures were worth dying for).  A second social factor was Constantine’s involvement and push for unity within the growing Christian community. In AD 351 he commissioned Eusebius to produce fifty copies of the Christian scriptures for use in the churches in Constantinople. It is unclear if there was at this time a definitive list that Eusebius was aware of, or if this was the beginning of such a list.

However, modern scholars do have enough testimony to determine the criteria that was used to determine the contents of the 4th and 5th century lists: orthodoxy, apostolicity and universality. Orthodoxy was a measurement of a document against the “rule of faith.” For a document to meet this criterion it had to promote truth, as truth had been defined by the churches. For example, as previously noted, Serapion rejected the Gospel of Peter because it did not meet this criterion. The decision wasn’t based on authorship. It simply didn’t meet the rule of faith. This issue increased in importance as time passed. Galatians 1:8-9 was often used as proof of the rule of faith.

The idea of Apostolic authority was mentioned in the previous comments on the scriptures being passed down. The apostles were appointed by Jesus to carry out his teaching and did so by the aid of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Based off of this impetus, for a document to be considered canonical it had to be derived from this “family tree.” In other words, the authorship became an issue. It must be written by an apostle or by someone who was intimately familiar with an apostle’s teachings (i.e. Mark—Peter and Luke—Paul). This criterion was likely a response to the pseudepigraphal books. For example, Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 3.25.6) said that “in order that we might know them and the writings which are put forward by heretics under the name of the apostles containing gospels such as those of Peter, and Thomas, and Matthias, and some others besides, or Acts such as those of Andrew and John and the other apostles.” McDonald points out that the Church’s best defense against Gnostics and other heretical teachings was its claim to apostolicity. This was seen as a guarantee to be according to the rule of faith.

Finally, universality is the idea that there must be a consistency of the books used by the Churches for worship and doctrine. Documents that did not make it into the canon, based on this criteria, were the ones that were determined to be too limited in their scope for the “universal” Church. They might have been documents written to cover a specific issue for a particular Church; and because of the nature of the specificity it was determined to have not been useful or any other Churches. Considering the questions of authenticity for the book, it seems clear that this criterion is what “pushed” Hebrews into the canon. There is an interesting caveat to this criterion: there are books which were exceptionally useful that did not make it into the canon (even more useful than some that did). For example, Philemon, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 and 3 John were not cited or used nearly as often as 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermes or Didache.

In conclusion, while it would certainly be of great interest, it seems clear that should an autograph (i.e. original copy) of a document like the Gospel of Thomas be found, it would have to be rejected from the canon because it lacked apostolic tradition. That being said, many modern evangelicals respond to the totality of the evidence for the development of the canon with a lack of clarity and confidence. Because there is no early seminal event declaring the contents of the Bible many simply choose to ascribe both the process and contents to a divine and revelatory intervention by God. As such the natural response is that “God did not determine for any other books to be included which is why we don’t have copies.” This response may very well prove to be accurate. This type of a response would also force them to decline another book that might be found, like a copy of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It would seem that a letter like this would certainly meet the criteria. The question must then be determined, do we follow the criteria set down by the evidence or do we follow the more abstract determination of divine intervention. That is a difficult determination that I continue to wrestle with. My evangelical upbringing tells me it could not be used as a canonical document and added to the Bible. But all the evidence suggests that it would meet the criteria that his other letters met when they were included in the original 15 lists.

It is curious as to why such known documents (like Paul’s 1st Corinthian letter and the letter to the Laodicians) were not added to any of these lists. Were they consumed in the persecution? Were they not deemed worthy (because of their church-specific content) to be copied and shared? These questions remain unanswered.

God Colored Glasses

I often wonder if other people go through the same things I go through. My first reaction is of course not. No one could possibly struggle with what I struggle with. I’m a horrible time manager, I get frustrated with my kids too quickly, I’m not thoughtful enough with my wife, I worry every day over the magnitude of my job as a minister, I don’t pray nearly enough or have enough devotional time with my family, my faith often grows shallow, I could go on. I’m mean, who could possibly struggle with all these things (except me)? Everyone around me seems to have it together so much better than I do. I think that’s Satan working on me. Well, actually, I’m convinced those thoughts are Satan working on me. And because I’m convinced of that, I feel compelled to share some of these thoughts.

I’m not the only one who thinks there’s no one else as bad as me. I think everyone else sometimes thinks there’s no one else like me. Isn’t that Satan’s trick though? What could isolate me faster from God than thinking He couldn’t possibly want me? I mean, I know I couldn’t be any further away from being worthy of His love. But that doesn’t hurt me. Understanding that fact is a good thing. I hurt myself when I start thinking that God must be completely fed up with my act and want nothing to do with me anymore because I am can’t get it together.

But that’s the whole point! No one’s got it together. On our own, we’re all so far removed from God’s glory. We’re in that boat together. Perhaps the most wonderful realization that I have ever come to is that God doesn’t see me the way I see myself. I often think about the love I have for my children. Each one of them is perfect to me, absolutely perfect. Now I know that they are far from perfect. But when I see them as their Daddy, I don’t see their mistakes or their flaws. I see their purity, I see their beauty, I see all their potential just waiting to be realized, I see a perfect little gift that God gave Molly and I and I can’t help but love them.

That’s what God sees when He looks at me and you. In His eyes we’re perfect and pure and beautiful with all the potential in the world to do great things for Him, simply and only because he sees us through glasses that Jesus made for Him.

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God Unites where we have Divided

The past few years have been quite a spiritual journey. I have been deeply questioning and challenging almost every assumption or truth that I held on to. I’ve really been trying to come to a deeper and more accurate understanding of God’s Word and desire for my life. It’s been a road full of pot-holes and detours. But, now that I’ve begun the journey, I know it will last the rest of my life. My only regret is that I waited so long to start it. Instead of pursuing God’s Truth I had spent so many years content to know man’s truth.

There have been many eye-opening moments. Many moments when I realized that my Truth needed realigning – almost like the wheels on my truck. And there has been a lot of times where I found that what I held to be true did match up with God’s Word. The more I come out on the other side, the more I realize how much better off and tremendously blessed I am with a deeper understanding of God and His revelation.

The two most significant areas of personal growth have come for me in my understanding of biblical doctrine and grace. During my formative years, man’s doctrine was strongly emphasized while the concept and idea of grace was being ignored. I should clarify, when I say “man’s doctrine” I really mean unscriptural teaching that man has adopted either from ignorance or choice and that has metastasized over time. Here’s an example (of the doctrine part) that I was just thinking about. For most of the few occasions that I recall holy spirit being taught there was always a fear to accept the truth of God’s Word. Because of this, the Holy Spirit was often presented as working only though the Bible. Well, that’s just not what the Bible teaches. (How could all those Christians receive the HS on the day of Pentecost if it would have done nothing for them until the Bible was created?)It’s probably not a coincidence that many of the folks I know who believe this way really don’t have an understanding of grace either.

Well, what’s been neat for me to discover is that God’s grace really does cover that misunderstanding of the work of the Holy Spirit (along with all of our other misunderstandings). I know that Jesus’ blood is plenty thick enough to handle all the messes that I create. On the other side, so to speak, let’s say that God is totally and completely opposed to His people using instruments in worship. Does this mean that everyone who uses instruments is going to hell? I’m really asking. Is musical instruments a salvation issue? Many people believe that it is. Well, if it is, then misunderstanding (and teaching that misunderstanding) the work of the Holy Spirit is to. All sins are equal in God’s sight and a sinful worship practice is just as sinful as teaching false doctrine.

So where does it stop? When we all end up in hell? Because with this kind of reasoning we are completely invalidating the death of Christ and the only result is hell for everyone; because everyone is misunderstanding something. We can’t get it all right all of the time. Having said that, something has gone wrong when I have to come to a perfect understanding and practice of everything “religious” in my life. Isn’t that what Grace is for, to cover my mistakes?

This is what’s so awesome to me! God’s got a plan to take care of all of us sinful, mistake and misunderstanding prone Christ-followers. We all fit under the same umbrella – even the people who try to kick others out from under the umbrella. That what’s so neat. The people who mistakenly (i.e. sinfully) try to deny others the grace of God are covered by that very Grace. There’s room under that umbrella for all of us! We’re all stuck under there together, we may as well get along. 🙂

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