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.