Posts Tagged With: formation of the canon

The Discovery and Preservation of the Canon Part II

Last week, we discussed how one of the criteria for discovering the canon was use by the early church. Did the early church read and use the letter? If those who were eye witnesses and had personal relationships with Jesus reread these letters, that is significant.

While early Christians may have been content to keep much of their doctrine undefined, heresy required that both doctrine and the canon become more developed. Marcion (144 C.E.) is credited more than any other for pressuring the Church to formalize its canon. While this was not his intention, by creating his own   (heretical) canon consisting of ¾ of Luke, and edited versions of Galatians, Corinthians, Romans, Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon, he forced the Church to respond. The Edict of Diocletian in 303 C.E. declared the destruction of the sacred books of Christianity and declared penalties for owning them.[1] This put further pressure on the Church to define what those books were so that people were not risking death for a book that was merely devotional.

The Church Fathers (bishops) as well as laity (Tertullian, Muratorian Fragment, Justin Martyr, Scillitan martyrs) made lists of recognized books. We have their lists. These lists show what the whole Church and not just the person accepted these books.  This is derived from the fact that they are passing down tradition and not coming up with their own innovations.[1]

Although the churches were dispersed across the Roman Empire, they agreed easily and universally on twenty of the twenty-seven New Testament books.[2] We begin to see their thought processes and what was important to them in identifying the canon.   They appear to have asked five questions when debating the canonicity of books.   1) Was the book written by an apostle or a close companion of an apostle?[3] (Did it have apostolic authority?) 2) Was it authentic? Is there evidence showing that the person it is attributed to actually wrote it? Was it true? Origin rejected the book the Preaching of Peter because it was not written by Peter. The Apocrypha was rejected by Church Fathers because of their historical inaccuracies and moral incongruities. In short, they were not true as Scripture must be. 3) Did it follow the rule of faith? Did it agree with already recognized Scripture? 4) Was it dynamic? Heretical and non-canonical literature was rejected because it did not have the power to transform lives. Finally, was it received, collected, read and used by the people of God?[4]

In the Eastern Roman Empire, Clement of Alexandria quotes all the New Testament books as authoritative except Philemon, James, 2 Peter, and 2nd and 3rd John.[5] We do not know why he did not quote these. It may be simply because they are short and he had no reason to quote them.   Origin (185-250 C.E.) was the first to use the name “New Testament.” He recognized the Gospels and the works of the Apostles as divine Scripture.[7] He did not recognize James or Jude, but he did accept the Shepherd of Hermas.

In the Western Roman Empire, Tertullian (195 C.E.) cites every current New Testament book except 2 Peter, James, and 2nd and 3rd John. Esebius’ list shows that 22 New Testament books were universally accepted. Five books were “disputed but familiar to the people of the Church.”  Revelations was rejected with the phrase, “if it seems proper,” following it.  Athanasius of Alexandria (367 C.E.) mad e list that includes all the current books of the New Testament.[12] The Councils at Hippo (393 C.E.) and Carthage (397 C.E.) confirmed this list.[13] Clearly they were confirming an already established list rather than establishing it for the first time. In sum, the accretion of the books forming the canon occurred through a slow deliberate and spiritually grounded process. It was not an arbitrary or dictatorial process, but rather a reflection of the identity of the Church in Christ.

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Audiobook Nook

The New Year is here! Why not start it right by learning the Names of God? Author Chris Adkins explores the many ways by which God identifies Himself through the Old and New Testaments in the Names of God. Over 50 copies of the audio book have already been purchased through Audible.com and you can even obtain this audio book (slightly over five hours in length) entirely for free with a new membership to Audible.

Are you a “radical Christian”? No? Thank goodness! Who even knows what that phrase even means anymore? The way that it is bandied about by amateur theologians, Christ followers rejecting the institutional church, and anyone else who’d like to toss their hat in to sound like they are “radical” or “sold out” for Jesus (there’s another loaded term) is simply out-of-control. The phrase has lost all meaning except that some Christian author will come along to try to sound more “radical” than the last person who used the term in his book on discipleship. Years ago, Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship and Christians have been trying to figure out ever since if he got it right. One thing is indisputable. Regardless of how he interpreted the Sermon on the Mount, Bonhoeffer lived out his faith in obedience to King Jesus. Our audio book entitled Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Inspirational Life Story (Peace Activist, Preacher, and WWII War Hero) is available on Audible and, while it does not cover the disputes over Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of discipleship, it does cover some important basics of his life- and faith-journey. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. was a committed Christian, whether or not he was “radical” by some people’s standards. Leaving compromise behind, he knew that cooperation with Nazis and their “state-approved” churches was not even an option.

Public school education has a long tradition in America. But is its very existence now in question? Some are speculating that now that Trump has become president, all hope is lost for the public funding given to the public school system. The short ebook (soon to be audio book), Public School Debate, takes a look at one blogger’s dire warning about the future of American public school funding.

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The Discovery and Preservation of the Biblical Canon Part I

When discussing how the Biblical canon was formed, it is important to define what a canon is. A canon is a collection of the most important and foundational truths of a particular belief system. This can be in oral or written form. For example, the British Constitution is not in written form. It consists of customs, traditions, principles and some written laws of differing dates. Though it is not written, it is real and firmly established. This unwritten Constitution is the foundation of the British system of law as well as an important influence upon our American system of law.

So what is in a canon? The American “canon” would contain the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and letters by the Founding Fathers.[3] These documents represent what America stands for and who we are. These documents were produced by authoritative eyewitnesses and participants in the founding of our country and yet reflect the whole country. In the same way, the biblical canon is the authoritative collection of the biblical texts that serve as a foundation of Christianity.  Christianity is built on the canon.

The idea of canon was not new to the Early Church. They had grown up using the Hebrew canon of Old Testament Scripture. According to F.F. Bruce, the Old Testament canon was settled before 70 C.E.[1] The Council of Jamnia, informal discussions/debates that took place after the Fall of Jerusalem among the rabbis, firmly acknowledges the Old Testament canon.[2] The Hebrew canon had three basic divisions: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.  Jesus’ words in Luke 11:51, 24:44, and John 10:31-36 serve as evidence that these three divisions were well established and had long been considered Holy Scripture. It is also important to note that Jesus refers to the Old Testament as Scripture (John 10:35).

It would be a mistake to speak of the formation of the New Testament canon as if it is something that human beings decided. Wilber Dayton says it this way, “The New Testament is an authoritative offer of salvation.” It was revealed by God through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus appointed his apostles as witnesses on which to found the Church. The canon then was already established by the work of Christ. The question is not how the Church discovered or confirmed the Canon, but how the Canon, established by Christ, survived through the history of the Church.

The Early Church recited and sang Scripture in their participatory meetings (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16, I Corinthians 14:26).  Justin Martyr gives a similar account of Christian worship. He describes reading “from the memoirs of the apostles.”[9] We know that Paul instructs the churches to read his letters aloud and share them with their sister churches. The Apostle John expected Revelation to be read in the churches as well. From 50 through 70 C.E., the Apostolic Fathers quoted the four gospels, Acts, all of Paul’s letters, Hebrews, I John and Revelation.[10] So we see the Canon unfold through the practice and use of Christians including laity.

[1] James Patrick Holding, “The Formation of the New Testament Canon,” in Trusting the New Testament (xulonpress.com, 2009), 249-263.

[2] “What is the Difference Between Written and Unwritten Constitution?” Preserve Articles (2012). Accessed   September 13, 2015 at preservearticles.com.

[3] Holding, pg. 251.

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Audiobook Nook

The New Year is here! Why not start it right by learning the Names of God? Author Chris Adkins explores the many ways by which God identifies Himself through the Old and New Testaments in the Names of God. Over 50 copies of the audio book have already been purchased through Audible.com and you can even obtain this audio book (slightly over five hours in length) entirely for free with a new membership to Audible.

“Counting the cost” is a key element in determining whether people have fully recognized the responsibilities that attend a particular verbal commitment that they have made. Why would someone shy away from commitment unless they know what they are getting themselves into? While it is true that discipleship entails “counting the cost,” it is also very true that followers of Christ often do not understand the full implications of that pursuit and that passion until their spiritual journey is well underway. One committed follower of Christ who wrote about this journey is the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He did not compromise, even though he was given many “escape hatches” whereby he could have avoided persecution for his Christian faith and commitment to follow Christ unswervingly.

Following the dictates of your conscience and your faith may land you in trouble with the “powers-that-be” as Reverend Bern points out in his book on Occupying America. He reminds those who would separate faith and politics that they are, in fact, interrelated.

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