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Friday, February 28, 2014

The Canon of Holy Scripture: History, Heresy, and Hearsay Pt. 5 by Chris White

Christ the Good Shepherd Icon

Jesus Christ spoke of Himself as the good shepherd and that his true sheep hear his voice and will not follow another (Jn. 10:4).  As we have been considering the doctrine of canonicity of the scriptures, these words assume an even greater importance.  For the Scriptures do make the claim that they represent the voice of God speaking to mankind in general and his covenant people in particular.  Certainly then it would follow that this “voice” would be recognized by those for whom Christ is their shepherd.  This process of recognition by the communitas fidelum or community of the faithful is more or less the summary of how the canon came to be established: it was recognized rather than determined.  And it came to settlement not so much by decree but by popular support.

Let me break down what we can know about this historically.  First of all there are the rulings of the Councils of Laodicea (363), Hippo (393), and Carthage (399) which all produced statements about the canon of scripture.  What is important to know here is that none of these councils gathered to determine this question in particular, but in the course of their business they created their lists of Holy Scripture to clarify to the bishops and pastors of their respective regions what was the long-held belief of the Christian church on this matter.  How do these lists read? Like the table of contents in your New Testament.
Bishop Athanasius

Before and after these Councils there are also the affirmations of the canon by very important teachers in the ancient church.  Bishop Athanasius was the leader of church in Egypt and Libya and one of the leading theologians at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  One of his responsibilities as bishop was to write an annual letter to all of the pastors in his see to tell them when and how Easter was to be celebrated that year.  Included in these Festal letters (as they were known) would also be helpful advice and directions on other matters.  In the 38th Festal letter of Athanasius, he clarifies to this group what books of the Bible are to be taught as scripture.  What does Athanasius’ list look like?  Like the table of contents in your New Testament.

In 400 AD, Jerome of Bethlehem, known for his skill in the ancient Bible languages of Hebrew and Greek, is given an important commission from Pope Damasus in Rome.  Make a fresh translation of the Bible from the original languages into Latin for the use of the church in Europe.  When Jerome makes this translation (known as the Vulgate Bible) he does include the Apocrypha with the Old Testament, but the Latin New Testament contains the same books listed in the table of contents in your New Testament.

After Dr. Luke, Eusebius is the most important historian of the Christian Church.  He was a scholar, a bishop, and served as priest to the Emperor Constantine.  At the end of Constantine’s life in the 340’s, he commissioned Eusebius to have made 50 copies of all the scriptures for the Churches in Constantinople.  The copies he made were of the Old and New Testaments as we know them today.
Constantine the Great

Just an aside, there is today a popular myth that Constantine dictated and edited the canon at the council of Nicea.  This didn’t happen. In fact, the canon wasn’t even under consideration at the time.  However, Constantine did effect our New Testaments in one way---the inclusion of Revelation.  In the Western Empire, the book of Revelation was always embraced, but in the East it was disputed by many because it was so weird and different from the rest of the New Testament.  Constantine loved it and used phrases from it in his political speeches all the time.  The upshot is Eusebius wasn’t so stupid as to produce Bibles at Constantine’s expense without including Revelation.  But this inclusion paved the way for grudging acceptance in the East.  To this day the Eastern Orthodox consider Revelation canonical but do not include it in their liturgical readings.

Those are the historic stepping stones to this doctrine of canonicity but is there anything from the books themselves that might suggest some sort of criteria?  Certainly nothing was ever written down but there are several uniform characteristics shared by all the New Testament writings:
1.     Apostolicity— Jesus told his apostles they were His official and chosen
    representatives and carriers of His message.  It follows that their writings
    would have the weight of Christ’s authority.  Luke, Mark, and Hebrews
    are not written by apostles per se, but it is clear they are under apostolic

2.     Antiquity—There were books (such as Shepherd of Hermas and The Didache) which were popular and considered by some to be inspired but were excluded because it was known they were written beyond the lifespan of all the apostles.

3.     Affirmation of Christ—I Jn. 4:2-3.  The test of the incarnation (1 John 4:2-3) was extremely important.  Even though there is diversity in presentation, the Gospels and Epistles seem to speak with unity about the person and work of Jesus.

4.     Acceptance of the Faithful.  God seemed to work providentially in history that these books and not others were accepted and embraced by those indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  There is a collective “thus sayeth the Lord!” that is experienced nowhere else.

So does this mean the Canon of Scripture is fixed permanently, never to be opened again?  Technically no, but in all probability, yes.  After all, there was no official ‘fixing’ of the canon in antiquity, just a recognition that what is included seems complete and from the Lord.  But if we could look for a trend in history, there have never been any serious efforts by orthodox Christians to add or subtract from the Canon since the 4th Century.  Today, if an archaeologist were to uncover an ancient filing cabinet and found misfiled in the annual budget folder the Letter of Paul to the Laodiceans, it would certainly be read out of curiosity but probably never be included.  Not because it lacked any value, but rather the question seems to have been settled a long time ago.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Canon of Holy Scripture: History, Heresy, and Hearsay Pt. 4 by Chris White

In part four of this series on the Canon of Scripture I want to continue with the theme of precipitating factors that led to its development.  In my last installment we talked about false teachers who wanted to add to and take away from the scriptures based on their theological excesses.  Certainly another factor in this was the government persecution of the church.  Christians weren’t persecuted in every place and everywhere at once, but the first three centuries of the churches existence was marked by a series of 8 major persecutions.

One of the widest persecutions of the Church came from the rule of the Emperor Diocletian.  Christians enjoyed many years of peace under Diocletian who more or less treated “the Christian issue” with benign neglect.  But something happened along the way and in February of 303, Diocletian issued an edict that all copies of the Christian scriptures must be turned into the authorities on pain of death.  Prior to this, leaders and individual Christians had been punished for their faith, but never had their literature been confiscated.  If your life were at risk for hiding a portion of the scriptures for your church to use, wouldn’t you want certainty that it was a canonical book?

As an aside, it is illuminating that Diocletian attempted to destroy the Church by destroying its Scriptures.  It shows the power of God’s Word and the truth of the Gospel that it was considered subversive by the Roman government.  Today, reading in general is down but especially Bible reading among Christians.  I wonder if persecution were to come today whether this strategy would even be viable?

From this persecution came another problem:  what to do with the traditores or “hand-overs” of scripture?  In North Africa, those who cooperated with handing over scriptures to the government were considered apostates unworthy of communion or fellowship with the Church.  But what if all they handed over was a Christian book that was non-canonical.  Were they still outside the pale?  This persecution created an interesting situation where having a definitive statement on the canon would have been helpful.  In point of historic fact, this actual controversy led to a nearly 100 year schism in the North African church.

Beyond persecution, perpetuation of the faith was also an important factor in the development of the canon.  For many reasons, the Early Church was very aggressive in their doctrinal training of its members.  In some instances a convert could not be baptized until they had undergone three years of training.  A canon would regulate which books would be used in this period of spiritual formation.  The flip-side of this coin is Bible translation and mission work.  The sine qua non of the Christian faith has always been  missionary endeavor.  Missionary work in turn necessitated the scriptures be translated as the faith left the Greek speaking world.  With translation and copying being such a difficult and expensive proposition, a canon would clarify which books were essential.

False prophets, persecutions, and forward progress of the faith were some of the “on-the-ground” issues that necessitated a canon be clarified for the entire church.  But how did that happen?  Was there a clear, straight forward process that was applied somewhere?  The answer to that in my closing essay.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Canon of Holy Scripture: History, Heresy, and Hearsay Pt. 3 by Chris White

Orthodox Church Service

So far in this series we have been setting the stage for understanding what is called the doctrine of canonicity.  When we speak of the canon of Holy Scripture we are referencing a rule or standard that is accepted by all.  F.F. Bruce defines it as “the list of the writings acknowledged by the Church as the documents of divine revelation.” The canon is beyond merely an official list of books, it is the rule of faith for the Christian. The Christian then has a particular loyalty to a particular series of books as the exclusive source and guide of his religious life.  This transcends loyalty to any particular leader or community of faith.

Because of historic divisions within the church (first Catholic and Orthodox, then Catholic and Protestant) there are slight differences in the canon which I think are important to address at the outset.  There is a small collection of books that are supplementary to the Old Testament which are known today as the Apocrypha.  Jewish and Greek Orthodox believers have regard for the Apocrypha but consider it outside the canon and therefore not scriptural.  They regard it as edifying literature but not inspired revelation.  Roman Catholics regard the Apocrypha as canonical scripture.  This had a long tradition beforehand, but became official in the 16th century Council of Trent.  Protestants, in either protest or overreaction, have no regard for the Apocrypha as scripture or edifying reading and generally never include it even as a supplement in their Bibles.  Divisions aside, all the major branches of Christianity are in complete harmony regarding the canon of the New Testament and this has remained so all along.

In part three of this series, I want to explore some of the precipitating factors that led to the development of the New Testament canon.  Put another way, why was it necessary to recognize a Canon of Christian scripture?  One of the primary reasons for this was to rein-in on the doctrinal excesses of certain teachers.  Examples abound for this but I think two will suffice as touchstones for the rest.
Montanus: False Prophet of Phrygia

Montanus was a Christian prophet in the province of Phrygia, Asia Minor (Modern day Turkey).  He made bold prophecies that God was soon going to return to this earth and begin the Kingdom of God and when he returns, it will not be to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, but to his village in Asia Minor.  Montanus also taught that he himself was the paraclete or helper Jesus said would come and guide the church into all truth (Jn. 16).  Now if this was true, then what are we to make of the day of Pentecost?  More importantly, Jesus told his apostles to wait in Jerusalem until this “helper” arrived.  That would be quite difficult for them since Montanus lived some two hundred years later and Jerusalem had been destroyed twice during that time period!  What Montanus was claiming (along with the two divorced women who accompanied him as “prophetesses”) was that he was being given new revelations from God.  If Holy Scripture is, as I have asserted earlier, revelation in written form, then why not keep things open that additional revelations may be added?

Another example of doctrinal excess is Marcion of Sinope (also Asia Minor) who was a wealthy businessman and was raised in the church.  It was Marcion’s belief that the message of Christ was brand new and totally unrelated to the Old Testament.  In fact, he believed the God of the Old Testament was inferior to Jesus.  This might have been in part because he didn’t like the Jews which makes one wonder what race he thought Jesus originated from.  His ideas never caught on in the Church and so he broke away and started his own as so many false teachers often do (1 John 2:19).  He even released his own Bible called Gospel and the Apostle which was Luke and the Epistles of Paul because the contents were either written by or to Gentiles.  So, while Montanus would have us add more to the New Testament, Marcion would have us remove entire portions of it. 

Please don’t let me exaggerate this too much in your mind.  Most leaders in the Christian church gave no quarter to the teachings of these two men.  They were considered heretics (the Christian way of saying “the lunatic fringe element”) in their day.  However, the Church more often than not, formulated its creeds and regulations as a result of the actions of false teachers such as Montanus and Marcion.  Like Harold O.J. Brown has suggested, in the pond of heresy is often seen the reflection of what the Church truly believed.  But one of the reasons behind the canon was certainly to protect the church and its scriptures from the excesses of false teachers.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Canon of Holy Scripture: History, Heresy, and Hearsay Pt. 2 by Chris White


We are considering in this essay the question of Canonicity or, put another way, which books truly belong in the Bible and why others do not.  In part one of this series we looked at the canon of the Old Testament and found there to be an almost shocking unanimity about it.  It isn’t in human nature to not have some controversy when it comes to religion, but apparently for the descendants of Abraham, they knew when they heard the voice of God in their prophets, they recorded it in writing, and made copies of their collections for perpetuity.  When the Christian movement began, it came out of Judaism but didn’t leave behind the Law and prophets because in them was a foundational understanding which in part explains and predicts the incarnation and ministry of Jesus Christ.  Thus the canon of the Old Testament was a fait accompli inherited by the Christian Church.

The Christian scriptures, also known as the New Testament, went through their own process of recognition over several centuries which will be attended to in parts three and four of this series.  In this installment, I would like to fill in the story of the New Testament with regards to its completion, collection, and finally its connection to the Old Testament.

The actual writing of the New Testament literature happened between 45 and 85 AD.  Some date some of the Apostle John’s writings to as late as the 90’s which is certainly plausible as there is strong support for the idea that he lived into advanced age.  Given this time frame, the first thing which should strike you is that the events recorded in the Gospels had happened 17 years prior to any of them being written down.  In some regards that does seem like a long time, but on the other hand, nearly all of us have moments that are so profound, they are almost impossible to forget decades and decades later.  I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that those who were the eyewitnesses of the extraordinary life of Jesus probably remembered these things as if they happened yesterday.  But there is also another factor we must consider that is unfamiliar to us today and that is the preference for oral tradition that existed in the Eastern world where the Church began.

It could simply be that the Apostles and those who followed shared these stories day-by-day and so often that they knew them by heart.  An analysis of some of the sermons that are recorded in Acts of the Apostles, shows there was a pattern in how the gospel was preached publicly and this pattern seems to be followed in the written versions.  Part of this delay in writing could be explained by belief that Jesus’s return was imminent.  It might also have been related to simple economics.  Before the invention of the printing press, books were hand-copied and as such were quite expensive.  A book the length of Luke’s gospel would have run around $250 in today’s money.  Eventually these things were committed to writing, but when it happens it is done from a position of expediency before eyewitnesses die and in larger cities where copyists can be hired for better prices.

After the Gospels and letters of the New Testament were written, they began the process of being collected together.  This didn’t happen all at once but in segments.  One of the earliest known collections  of the Apostle Paul’s letters was in the city of Ephesus around 100 AD.  St. Luke had written the book of Acts which describes the early church era and the missionary journeys of Paul.  This is turn created an interest to read the other writings of Paul and soon the churches which had a letter from the Apostle began sharing copies with each other.  Soon Acts and the Letters of Paul are copied as a collection and owned by churches and individuals. Simultaneously is the collection of the four Gospels we know simply as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

That these writings were collected are attested by leading Christian teachers in the 2nd Century.  One such author known as Irenaeus writes a famous book around 150 AD called Against Heresies.  What is important about this book is it catalogues all errors taught by false teachers in the early church.  In this book Irenaeus directly states that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are the only authentic gospels in existence and indirectly he gives testimony to the collection of the New Testament through use of quotations from every book of the New Testament except Philemon.

Hippolytus of Rome (170 AD) gives reference to the expansion of the scriptures to include the New Testament writings by referring to them in his writings as “The Prophets, The Lord, and The Apostles.”  In this same era there was another document written we know today as the Muratorian Canon.  It lists the collected works of the New Testament almost exactly as they are found today.  So even in this early era, collections exist of these individual works and there is an official sense developing of what is and is not truly authentic scripture.
Tertullian: First to name the New Testament

This brings us to the connection of the Old Testament to the New Testament.  The earliest Christians thought of the Jewish scriptures as their own.  The naming of them as “Old” and “New” Testaments is above all a theological statement and speaks to how Christians understand them.  This is why Christians and Jews can actually share a common book as scripture and yet be in opposition regarding their conclusions.  To generalize, Judaism focuses on the laws and covenants and the centerpiece of their faith, while Christians read the Old Testament as a unfolding revelation pointing to Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39) who is the sum and substance of the true faith.  Historically speaking, it was the North African bishop Tertullian (ca. 200 AD) who first began calling the collection of Christian writings “The New Testament of Our Lord.”
To conclude, the collections of both the Old and New Testament writings are joined in the Christian mind but only with the Old serving as an extended introduction to the New.  The Old Testament does not stand by itself but rather is subsumed in the New.