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The Canon of Biblical Writings
For centuries now Christians have claimed to possess the special revelation of an omnipotent, loving Deity who is sovereign over all of His creation. This special revelation is in written form and is what has come to be known as The Bible which consists of two books. The first book is the Hebrew Scriptures, written by prophets in a time that was before Christ, and the second book is the New Testament, which was written by Apostles and disciples of the risen Lord after His ascension. It is well documented that Christians in the context of the early first century were used to viewing a set of writings as being not only authoritative, but divinely inspired. The fact that there were certain books out in the public that were written by followers of Jesus and recognized as being just as authoritative as the Hebrew Scriptures was never under debate. The disagreement between some groups of Christians and Gnostics centered on which exact group of books were divinely inspired and which were not. The debate also took place over the way we can know for sure what God would have us include in a book of divinely inspired writings. This ultimately led to the formation of the Biblical canon in the next centuries. Some may ask, ?Isn?t Jesus really the only thing that we can and should call God?s Word?? and ?Isn?t the Bible just a man made collection of writings all centered on the same thing, Jesus Christ?? This paper summarizes some of the evidences for the Old and New Testament canon?s accuracy in choosing God breathed, authoritative writings and then reflects on the wide ranging
implications of the process.
In regards to evidence for the divine authority of the Old Testament, Jesus? words, parables, and actions in the New Testament force one to the conclusion that He viewed the Hebrew Scriptures as being ?of God.? He quotes or alludes to over one hundred and fifty Old Testament passages in the Synoptic Gospels alone. According to another count, Jesus and the New Testament authors quote various parts of the Old Testament Scriptures over two hundred and ninety five times, while never quoting an apocryphal or outside source one time. These quotations of Old Testament sources imply their belief in the divine inspiration of the Hebrew Scriptures. Many times Jesus would precede a statement with the phrase ?So it is written,? or ?Scripture says.? The authority of the Hebrew Scriptures was not ever called into question by Christ or His early followers, it was the belief in the normative status of the law, pertaining to all people for righteousness before God, that was not adhered to. That Jesus held to the Hebrew Scriptures as being authoritative is obvious. What is not obvious is exactly what collection of Hebrew writings was viewed as inspired by God in Jesus? day.
Was Jesus? ?Old Testament? different from the one we have in our possession in the twentieth century? Justin Martyr, Origen, Melito of Sardis, Athenasius, Tertullian, Jerome, and Augustine all had different views on what documents were truly inspired by God and should be included in the canonization process, but they still agreed on the most important books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Much of the debate focuses on the books of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. Joseph Bonsirven presents a different view in his book Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Jesus Christ, ?As to the canon of Hebrew Scripture, it was firmly fixed by the time of Christ and included all the books of the Hebrew Bible. Although apocryphal books were read and used for edification, they were not considered a part of the collection of books written by prophets and thus of special divine authority.? In the end, there is reason to believe that the church came to recognize the ?right? books.
Still, little is known about how and when the Old Testament canon was precisely formed. Did the people of Israel ever canonize their own writings or did the early Church of the first century have to canonize a set of writings for them? It is certain that this formation of Scriptures had already taken place. Jesus and New Testament authors refer to Scripture everywhere. That makes it quite obvious that a canonized set of Hebrew Scriptures existed during the time of Jesus in the first century. In The Canon of the Old Testament, H. E. Ryle popularized a hypothetical but plausible view that the formation of the Old Testament canon took shape in three distinct stages, one for every section of Hebrew Scripture. The Law was first canonized early in the period after the return from the Babylonian exile. Then the Prophets were canonized late in the third century. After these two canons of Scripture were closed, all the other recognized Scriptures had to form a third and distinct division of Hebrew Scriptures. The writings were then formed and remained open until they were closed at Jamnia.
The earliest Christian evidence that we have from the early Church is decidedly against the apocryphal writings and for what is contained in the Old Testament that we now possess today. There are four main reasons why the apocrypha was not eventually included in the canon according to Wayne Grudem in his book Systematic Theology. Grudem says, ?(1) they don?t claim for themselves the same kind of authority as the Old Testament writings; (2) they were not regarded as God?s words by the Jewish people from whom they originated; (3) they were not considered to be Scripture by Jesus or the New Testament authors; and (4) they contain teachings
inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.? Grudem ends by assuring Christians not to be worried that anything needed has been left out or that anything that is not God?s words
has been included in the Old Testament.
It was recognized by the early Christians that God had previously revealed his Word to the people of Israel through the prophets, and they had reason to believe that God would do the very same thing for them through the Holy Spirit in the era after Christ’s ascension. It should come as no surprise then that a whole host of writings being held by the early Church as being inspired by God appeared on the scene in the next decades. The recognition of specific writings as being divinely inspired Scripture to be included in the canon of the New Testament came almost immediately in the first century. In the first half of the second century, the four Gospels and Paul?s writings were already deemed worthy of canonical status by the church. The canonization of the rest of the books we have now come to know as the New Testament took place over the first few centuries of the early Church through a gradual process. The first account we have of the collection that is now included in the New Testament canon is in a letter written about forty years after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
The criteria and the formation of the New Testament was different from that of the Old Testament. Each collection of writings came to be recognized as divinely inspired over a large period of time. Although there was not a specific council that declared the New Testament as authoritative, there are many pieces of evidence for the New Testament to suggest that it is the word of God. The specific criteria that was used in determining the exact collection of the New Testament included the issues of apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, inspiration, and church usage to decide canonical
The criteria of apostolicity, G. W. H. Lampe explains in a carefully written essay that ?the church?s most readily available weapon against the Gnostic Christians and the other ?heretics? was it?s apostolicity, which was guaranteed by historical succession and preserved in oral and written traditions.? It has also been argued that the ?intrinsic apostolic authority? of the the writings that would later form the canon ?forced themselves upon the church? because Christ speaks through them. Jesus? own words, in John?s Gospel, validated the belief held by His followers that Scripture was divinely inspired by God. In the passage of John 16:12-15, Jesus tells His Apostles that, ?I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own, he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said that the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.? This verse alludes to a coming time when Christ will send his Holy Spirit to reveal all truth to the Apostles. The apostles were closer to Jesus than anyone so historically, they would have known more about His life, teachings, and ministry. These things put the Apostle?s writings automatically above all other writings as being inspired by God.
The second criteria for canonicity is orthodoxy which means ?straight thinking.?
The truth or ?canon of faith? in New Testament literature is what many claim to be the unifying and distinguishing elements. This was one of the issues that was harder to figure out among the early church. Upon examination of the New Testament text, it becomes apparent that there is not one unified view of theology present throughout the entire Bible. Lee McDonald says in his book, titled The Formation of the Biblical
Canon, that ?the very presence of creedal formulations after the formation of a Christian biblical canon has manifestly demonstrated that ?orthodoxy? itself was based upon a ?canon within the canon.? ? This ?canon within the canon? kept the scriptures orthodox in the sense that the all focus on the same thing, Jesus Christ.
The third factor in developing a specific text of scripture was that of antiquity. Antiquity seems to have been an important criterion for canonicity for some of the churches along with apostolicity and a ?rule of faith.? But the question may be asked, ?Why were the Didache, 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, and the Epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp excluded from the canon when books like 2 Peter, probably the Pastorals, and possibly other literature was written after these deuterocanonical writings?? Helmut Koester claims that many of the wrings not included in the canon of the New Testament such as the Unknown Gospel, Dialogue of the Savior, the Apocryphin of John, and the Gospel of Peter were, in fact, used as sources for some of the canonical Gospels. Antiquity should by no means be the sole determiner in deciding the books of divine inspiration, but a book needs to be written during antiquity to be considered a reliable document for inclusion in the canon.
The next issue that was examined in a prospective document to be included in the Biblical canon was that of divine inspiration. According to Lee M. McDonald, ?All of the ancient church fathers believed their canon of scriptures was inspired. But inspiration in the NT writings was not generally the basis for commending those works to the people.? One of the exceptions to this rule is the Apocalyptic book of Revelation that was most likely written by John, the apostle closest to Jesus. Revelation?s claims of prophetic inspiration for itself are what immediately insured its authenticity. There are numerous other examples of documents claiming inspiration for themselves but
this did not assure their inclusion in the canon of the Bible. This only goes to show that
inspiration in and of itself was not a criterion in which a book would be given automatic status as Scripture. The canon of faith (consistency of the teachings about the message of Jesus Christ) seemed to be more of a factor for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament.
The last of the five criteria is early church usage. A specific book use among the early church is most likely what ultimately led to its inclusion or omission from the New Testament canon. This does not account for the inclusion of certain books in the New Testament canon (Philemon, 2 Peter, Jude, 2 and 3 John, and possibly others) and the omission of others ( 1 Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and possibly Barnabas). According to Lee M. McDonald, ?Usage is probably the primary key to understanding the preservation and canonization of the books that make up our current New Testament.? If a document was not relevant or useful, or if it did not meet the growing needs of the early church for worship and instructional purposes, it probably did not have a chance of being included in the New Testament canon.
The issues of apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, inspiration, and church usage are the five main points discussed for the inclusion of a text in the New Testament canon. There are still some questions that remain today about the Biblical canon?s recognition of some documents as divinely authoritative. Despite this, we have reason to believe that all that is included in our New Testament is ?God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting,and training in righteousness? (2 Timothy 3:16).
Suggested Topic From Reading
Upon completion of the outside reading I have done of the subject of the formation of the canon of inspired Biblical writings, I have summarized more in depth on the formation of the New Testament canon as opposed to the Old Testament. The reason that I focused on the canonization of the New Testament is because it is the primary source that we have containing the words, actions, and life of Jesus Christ. The purpose of the Hebrew Scriptures is to make God known to man, and its theme points to a coming Messiah. That is the Old Testament?s main job, to point to one who would come and deliver the nation of Israel from their oppressors and from bondage to sin. The New Testament contains the Good News of Jesus Christ who was the one sent by God to be the ultimate liberator of the human soul. This Gospel is at the heart of God?s plan for humanity?s salvation and at the heart of God. Early Christians regarded Hebrew Scriptures to be just as authoritative as the New Testament but viewed the law as being fulfilled in Jesus so it was no longer necessary for righteousness. Besides, the law could never produce the complete righteousness in a person needed for the complete acceptance before a holy God. All this places the message contained in the New Testament above all other messages through out the history of man. The instrument which God chose to carry out His great plan of salvation is seen throughout all the New Testament. That instrument which God uses to reconcile humanities lost relationship with Him is through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. For all of these reasons I focused more specifically on the formation of the New Testament canon.
The one thing that I have reflected upon and has impacted me most through this
Witucke, study of the Old and New Testament canon is the importance of faith in an individual?s life. Through the Protestant Reformation came the widespread rediscovery of the true meaning of the Gospel. Salvation was not something that needed to be earned or attained through good works but through faith in the redemptive work of the true Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Faith is of supreme importance to the authors of the Bible and especially to Paul, the New Testament?s main contributor. Paul stresses the fact that salvation is a gift, freely given by God to an individual person by ?grace through faith.? Jesus even stresses the profound importance of faith when He said, ?Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.? (John 20:29) Righteousness before God has always came through faith whether you are dealing with the Old or New Testament. It is important that one never loses sight of their faith and that faith?s importance for redemptive work through Jesus Christ.
There are many pieces of evidence that point to the divine inspiration of the modern day Bible. There are a few things that have strengthened my faith in the whole process of the canonization of both Testaments. One thing regarding the Old Testament regards the apocrypha and the reasons that it was never included in the Old Testament canon. It is easy to worry that they overlooked some of the documents that were actually God inspired but Wayne Grudem provides convincing arguments to point to the accuracy of the O.T. canon. I have also read numerous extra canonical documents and have wondered if any of these documents were mistakenly passed over in the selection process. The five main criteria for inclusion in the New Testament canon (apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, inspiration, and usage) appeased these doubts.
There is such a thing as a ?rational faith? that has well supported evidence to
demonstrate its claims but a Christian needs to know his/her limitations. Many Christians often fall into the trap of trying to prove their faith is genuine to any skeptics or cynics that cross their path. This is not to say that a Christian should not defend his faith because that would not be Biblical. I am not implying that we should hold all religions as equally valid or place our faith in irrational philosophies because none of them can be proven to be absolutely true. The fact is, God will never be able to be inserted into an equation to prove His existence and absolute truth. The Bible will never be able to be put into a beaker and tested so that any individual will be able to see for himself that all that Christians claim to believe is in fact one hundred percent proven fact. There are certain things in life that require faith such as belief in the Bible as divine revelation and faith in God itself. If our faith could be proven then what room would we be leaving for the faith needed for salvation that Jesus talked about. I am glad to have had a chance to rediscover the importance of my faith through this reading assignment.
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