Friday, October 16, 2009

How Did We Get Our New Testament Canon of Scripture?

In Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, Stephen K. Ray wrote:

“Protestants must trust the declaration of the infallible Church to know which books make up their infallible New Testament. This is a great irony. It was the tradition and the authority of the Catholic Church that established their canon. However, while rejecting all the other decrees of the councils as nonauthoritative, Protestants arbitrarily accept without question the tradition establishing the canon of the New Testament.” (54-55)

Indeed, we are much indebted to the early church. It was the Apostles who authored Scripture and then died the deaths of martyrs to uphold the truth of what they had written, never once breaking rank to save their lives by denying the Gospel. Their willingness to die for what they had believed and written has profoundly authenticated their accounts. Liars and fabricators are not willing to die for their fabrications!

Likewise, we are grateful to our Lord for also using the early church to identify and preserve the various NT books. We are also grateful for the early church councils, which approved and institutionalized the selection of our 27 books that comprise the NT, along with faithfully promoting what the Bible teaches about Christ and the Trinity.

However, Ray’s statement is problematic in several ways. Although there is good reason to respect the historically authoritative role played by the councils, this authority cannot approach the authority of Scripture, as even the councils and the church Fathers themselves have admitted.

Besides, Jesus drew a sharp line between the teachings of traditions and the teachings of Scripture. He strongly criticized the Pharisees for teaching their traditions as if they were Scripture, declaring their worship to be in vain (Mat. 15:9). They could easily have retorted,

“We were the ones who identified and preserved the Hebrew Scriptures. You therefore rely upon this aspect of Jewish tradition, but then you reject the rest. That’s hypocrisy!”

Clearly, they had as little basis to make the case for an “infallible” Israel as Ray’s case for an “infallible church.” Furthermore, we find that the decisions of later councils didn’t regard the prior councils as infallible, and therefore sought to overthrow their decisions, and sometimes succeeded in this.

This observation calls into question Ray assertion of an “infallible Church.” While we can appreciate the critical role that the early church played, this appreciation doesn’t require that we consider it “infallible.” While God used fallible men to write infallible Scripture, He also used a very fallible church to identify the 27 inspired books.

In fact, it was really a no-brainer. The books that were God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) were very apparent to the early church, especially at the beginning. God made it apparent by miraculously attesting to the Apostolic authors:

“This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
(Hebrews 2:3-4)

Although we owe a great debt of gratefulness to the early church, we mustn’t minimize God’s role in this. Ultimately, the choice of our 27 books had been God’s sovereign choice. This is illustrated by the supernatural unanimity with which the thousands of churches received the NT books. For example, none of Paul’s 13 letters were ever contested by the early church. Why not? For one thing, Paul claimed that not only was he an Apostle, but he was able to prove it by performing the miraculous works of the Apostles (2 Cor. 12:12). Consequently,

“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.” (Acts 19:11-12)

In light of this, it’s no wonder that the churches had little problem accepting all of Paul’s writings as Scripture. Indeed, there is no evidence that there had been any disagreement whatsoever about accepting any of Paul’s writings—an amazing tribute to the sovereignty of God in making His will known to the various churches.

This was also true for our four NT Gospels. Agreement about their canonicity seems to have been unanimous, even though the names of the Apostolic authors never appear within their Gospels. By virtue of this profound show of unanimity, it seems fair to assume that our Lord by His Spirit had also supernaturally attested to the Gospels. In any event, it is apparent that the status of the canonical Gospels had been so unassailable that even the 2nd century heretics chose these Gospels in favor of their own Gnostic Gospels to canonize and to write commentaries on them.

Ray suggests that without the church councils, there would have been no NT canon. This just isn’t true. The canon had begun to take shape at the advent of Apostolic writing. Paul had unequivocally claimed that what he taught was the Word of God (1 Thess. 2:13). He therefore, directed his writings to be copied, read in the churches (1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:11-13) and forbade anyone to teach otherwise (1 Tim. 6:3-4).

Clearly, these letters were received as authoritative by the churches. They were so esteemed that there had to be safeguards against forgeries (2 Thess. 2:2; 3:17; 1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18). Likewise, Peter regarded his own teachings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:2) as he also did the writings of Paul (2 Peter 3:15-16). John also regarded his writing as Scripture (Rev. 22:18-19). While Jude quotes Peter (2 Peter 3:2) as Scripture, so too does Paul (1 Tim. 5:18) seem to quote Luke 10:7.

Lists of the canonical writings were beginning to appear in the 2nd century: the Muratorian Canon (170 AD) lists the entire NT with the exception of Hebrews, James and 1st and 2nd Peter; the Codex Barococcio (206 AD) omits only Revelation. However, these omissions do not mean that there wasn’t already a vast number of churches that were convinced of the canonicity of these omitted books.

The church councils -- Hippo (393), Carthage (397), Carthage II (419) -- had merely put their stamp-of-approval on what had already become canonical for the majority of churches. But hadn’t the councils finally settled the question about the contested books? Yes, but even here, we mustn’t exaggerate their role. After all, the contested books (possibly Third John excepted) were all cited or alluded to as authoritative by 2nd century church Fathers. Besides, we have no indication of any controversy regarding their acceptance until about 200 years after the Crucifixion. The fact that such a long time had transpired before questions were raised might suggest that these letters had previously found broad acceptance among the churches which had received with them.

How then do we account for the later controversy regarding their acceptance? The churches had been separated geographically, linguistically and by a multitude of persecutions. It seems likely that these factors had prevented certain segments of Christendom from receiving the disputed, canonical epistles in a timely manner, thereby prompting questions about their Apostolic origins.

Ray argues that Protestantism uses a double-standard when it relies upon church tradition to establish the canon and then rejects church tradition in other matters. However, there is nothing inconsistent about this stance. Fallible Peter wrote infallible Scripture. Likewise, the fallible Jewish nation authored and identified infallible Scripture, but proved themselves unfaithful in other matters. If God had used Israel infallibly in one regards, it doesn’t mean that Israel is infallible in all regards. This is what Ray is trying to prove regarding the Roman Catholic Church (RCC).

Even if the early church had been infallible, Ray must then make another impossible leap to prove that this church was the RCC and that the RCC is still infallible. The Orthodox church might have something to say about this.

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