Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The New Testament Canon

[The following blogpost was originally published on 11/7/05, soon before The Da Vinci Code film was released.]

How did the New Testament itself as a collection of writings come into being? Who collected the writings, and on what principles? What circumstances led to the fixing of a list, or canon, of authoritative books ? (from "The Canon of the New Testament" in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F. F. Bruce)

It is especially important that followers of Jesus Christ be able to answer the questions posed above at this time, as the upcoming Da Vinci Code movie will soon come to theatres across the land. The Da Vinci Code movie is based on the novel of the same name by Dan Brown. Dan Brown has repeatedly and publicly stated that this novel is based upon what he considers to be historical facts. This novel contains quotes such as the following:

"The Bible is a product of man, my dear. Not of God. The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds. Man created it as a historical record of tumultuous times, and it has evolved through countless translations, additions, and revisions. History has never had a definitive version of the book. (231)

Understandably, His life was recorded by thousands of followers across the land… More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.
“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked.
“Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm. “The fundamental irony of Christianity! The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” (231)

[The above quotes from The Da Vinci Code are provided by Alpha and Omega Ministries.]

In response to these claims made by The Da Vinci Code and to questions that many have concerning the New Testament Canon, I would like to make the following assertions:

1. The Bible is a "product" of God, not man.
This is clear (most importantly) from Jesus' teaching on Scripture and also from the recorded teaching of all the prophets and apostles. Now, some may object, "The teaching of Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets mentioned above all refer to the Old Testament, not the New Testament."
But as B.B. Warfield has noted:

The Old Testament books were not the only ones which the apostles (by Christ's own appointment the authoritative founders of the church) imposed upon the infant churches, as their authoritative rule of faith and practice. No more authority dwelt in the prophets of the old covenant than in themselves, the apostles, who had been "made sufficient as ministers of a new covenant"; for (as one of themselves argued) "if that which passeth away was with glory, much more that which remaineth is in glory." Accordingly not only was the gospel they delivered, in their own estimation, itself a divine revelation, but it was also preached "in the Holy Ghost" (I Pet. i. 12); not merely the matter of it, but the very words in which it was clothed were "of the Holy Spirit" (I Cor. ii. 13). Their own commands were, therefore, of divine authority (I Thess. iv. 2), and their writings were the depository of these commands (II Thess. ii. 15). "If any man obeyeth not our word by this epistle," says Paul to one church (II Thess. iii. 14), "note that man, that ye have no company with him." To another he makes it the test of a Spirit-led man to recognize that what he was writing to them was "the commandments of the Lord" (I Cor. xiv. 37). Inevitably, such writings, making so awful a claim on their acceptance, were received by the infant churches as of a quality equal to that of the old "Bible"; placed alongside of its older books as an additional part of the one law of God; and read as such in their meetings for worship -- a practice which moreover was required by the apostles (I Thess. v. 27; Col. iv. 16; Rev. i. 3). In the apprehension, therefore, of the earliest churches, the "Scriptures" were not a closed but an increasing "canon." Such they had been from the beginning, as they gradually grew in number from Moses to Malachi; and such they were to continue as long as there should remain among the churches "men of God who spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."

2. The Bible, indeed, did NOT "fall magically from the clouds."
Brown provides a gross caricature of the actual Christian position concerning the inspiration of the Bible. As noted above, the Christian faith concerning the authorship of the Bible is that "men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke [and, subsequently, wrote] from God." (II Peter 2:21).

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.
We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind. (Article VII)

We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities. (Article VIII)

We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.
We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God's Word. (Article IX)

4. The Bible that we have possess IS the definitive version of the book.
It is indeed true that there was a time when the Church struggled to comprehend exactly which books were to be accepted as Scripture. But with God's help, this situation was far from insurmountable. As Warfield again has explained:

The Bible was circulated only in handcopies, slowly and painfully made; and an incomplete copy, obtained say at Ephesus in A.D. 68, would be likely to remain for many years the Bible of the church to which it was conveyed; and might indeed become the parent of other copies, incomplete like itself, and thus the means of providing a whole district with incomplete Bibles. Thus, when we inquire after the history of the New Testament Canon we need to distinguish such questions as these: (1) When was the New Testament Canon completed? (2) When did any one church acquire a completed canon? (3) When did the completed canon -- the complete Bible -- obtain universal circulation and acceptance? (4) On what ground and evidence did the churches with incomplete Bibles accept the remaining books when they were made known to them?

The Canon of the New Testament was completed when the last authoritative book was given to any church by the apostles, and that was when John wrote the Apocalypse [that is, Revelation], about A.D. 98 [some argue for an earlier date for the writing of Revelation]. Whether the church of Ephesus, however, had a completed Canon when it received the Apocalypse, or not, would depend on whether there was any epistle, say that of Jude, which had not yet reached it with authenticating proof of its apostolicity. There is room for historical investigation here. Certainly the whole Canon was not universally received by the churches till somewhat later. The Latin church of the second and third centuries did not quite know what to do with the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Syrian churches for some centuries may have lacked the lesser of the Catholic Epistles and Revelation. But from the time of Ireanaeus down, the church at large had the whole Canon as we now possess it. And though a section of the church may not yet have been satisfied of the apostolicity of a certain book or of certain books; and though afterwards doubts may have arisen in sections of the church as to the apostolicity of certain books (as e.g. of Revelation): yet in no case was it more than a respectable minority of the church which was slow in receiving, or which came afterward to doubt, the credentials of any of the books that then as now constituted the Canon of the New Testament accepted by the church at large. [emphasis added]

5. The four gospel accounts have been accepted since the time of the apostles.
Brown's assertion that "[Jesus'] life was recorded by thousands of followers across the land" is simply ridiculous, as James White of Alpha and Omega ministry explains:

We need to realize how utterly outside the realm of any kind of published scholarship this perspective is. Thousands of literate, writing followers of Christ recording His ministry? Where is the historical evidence for this? There is none, of course.

Likewise, there is absolutely no historical evidence for the claim that "more than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament." In fact, the historian W.H.C. Frend has found that the collection of the four gospel accounts and the Apostle Paul's epistles were commonly used in Church worship- being understood to have divine authority- by about A.D. 80. The dozens of gospel accounts to which Brown refers are obviously the Gnostic "gospels," which written in the second century A.D., and were rejected by the Church as a whole as being false.

6. The Bible as we know it today was not "collated" by Constantine at the Council of Nicea [as Brown asserts].
In fact, as James White points out in his article "What Really Happened at Nicea", "The Council of Nicea did not take up the canon of Scripture" this is simply a historical fact. The Council of Nicea was called to defend the biblical understanding of the divinity of Christ against the Arian heresy.
To quote White again, "The New Testament canon developed in the consciousness of the church over time"- as explained by the writings of Warfield, quoted above.

It is crucial that followers of Jesus Christ know how to answer attacks that skeptics make against the New Testament canon, for it is in these writings that we have the only sure knowledge of Jesus, the Lord of all creation and our only Savior from God's wrath against sin:

I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, (II Corinthians 15:3-4 HCSB)

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