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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