Yesterday I wrote a post briefly discussing my problem with how some people present Sola Scriptura (which is essentially Solo Scriptura). To summarize, I am not sure how some restorationist types (e.g. some “emerging” church groups; some forms of Pentecostalism, especially the Oneness sect) act as if anything post-the-death-of-the-apostles is suspect at best, corrupted at worse, yet have no qualms with the canon. Wouldn’t it follow that if we cannot trust the church of the second through fourth centuries in their doctrinal decisions the formation of the canon would be one of those things?
In other words, I am interested in hearing how the uber-skeptical of the early church’s evolution justify accepting the canon. For those who think that a Jewish faith was corrupted once it became “paganized” in the Greco-Roman world, why do you accept the canon? For those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity or the Christological interpretations of the early church, why do you agree with their selection of books?
(For those that do not think that the canon is authoritative this is a whole different discussion. You are at least consistent in my mind.)
I agree that a lot of Christian groups which identify themselves as part of a “latter rain” movement are skeptical of the way doctrine developed in those 400 or so years after Christ’s ascension. But I believe Jesus’ words when He said that the gates of hell would never prevail against His church! In fact, in studying church history from that era, I continually see the hand of God at work. There has always been a true church versus a harlot church, and genuine revelation versus adopting pagan practices. Like when Constantine called all these councils to establish what correct doctrine was, did he do it without God allowing it and ordaining him to do it? I don’t think so. I believe God raised Him up to the occasion, like He did Luther and Calvin and all those other men who throughout history have been instrumental in the formulation of a lot of Christian doctrine.
So although I don’t accept the Trinity (because it hasn’t been revealed to me), I accept the canon simply because I believe God has always been in control. When it comes to books in the Apocrypha, I just find that there’s no additional doctrine which is missing from Scripture when these books are omitted. Maybe evidence for existing doctrines could be gathered from them, and other books which weren’t canonized, I don’t know, but the canon we have as it is misses/loses nothing without them.
And now the big question, if all these events and people in history were under God’s control, how come they each came to different conclusions? Well, I’ve heard one teaching where the serpent attacking the woman described in Revelation 12 was interpreted to be the devil’s attempts to distort and hide true doctrine by literally flooding the church (the woman) with false doctrines in an attempt to “sweep her away” or, destroy her if you will. So no doubt false doctrines have come because of the attempts of the enemy to destroy the church, but all with God’s permission because God made a way.
Which is why I love the way that story in Revelation 12 tells us that the earth opened it’s mouth, swallowing up the river that serpent pours from its mouth. To me, this is a promise, that every false doctrine will never stand and prevail in the church; God made a way! Even though that story ends with the serpent waging war against the woman’s offspring, it’s river has been swallowed up! This is why I think the doctrines of for example the Mormon sect or the Jehovah’s witnesses have failed to find a place in modern Christianity. Also, a lot of teachings from the past are today called out as heresy and I believe this is a direct result of God providing for the demise of false doctrine. Despite the differences between Christian groups of this era, I still believe what remained and stands as Christianity today is best described as “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”
The “latter rain” movements are interesting to me. It is one thing to Reform but a whole different thing to think that Christianity was corrupted for two thousand years and suddenly a small sect “got it”. What is worse is that in my experience around Oneness Pentecostals who “got it” the exegesis of Scripture and hermeneutics in general are often terrible. It seems odd to me that one little group who reads the Bible like a collection of proof text “got it” while everyone else was blinded. This is a form of Calvinism that would have made Calvin cringe!
If you believe God is in control of the shaping of the canon why not in the language that the whole church uses in regards to the Trinity. The Trinity is as much an ecumenical thing (if not more so) than the canon! I contend that to reject the theological and Christological consensus of the early church while accepting her canon is inconsistent at best.
As regards the serpent in Revelation I doubt “false doctrine” is in view. The serpent is obviously a “super-Satan” figure. It is Eden x’s infinity. The woman is maybe Mary, maybe the church. There is a lot of debate there. All that being said, in the context of Revelation we seem to have an evil governing power attacking the church. It was likely shaped by Rome. I doubt we have false doctrine in view here.
Although not a regular reader of your blog, I do check it out once and a while. Historically, the idea that the church became Trinitarian in the 4th century is ludicrous. The church from the apostolic period onward always believed in the Trinity, even though there was not a clear understanding of how God could be three and one and one in three. The definition of the doctrine during the early centuries up to Nicea and Constantonople was an unpacking of the implications of the church pre-existing trinitarinan understanding.
It was in fact the identity of the man Jesus of Nazareth as God yet separate from God that was the impetus for trinitarian understanding which was finally resulted in the Nicene explanation using the term “homoousios.”
The early church recognized several key spiritual realities were that were part of, or implications of the apostolic message were fatally compromised if in fact God was not Trinity. Among these:
God could not be eternally love: The NT proclaims that “God is Love,” love requires and object. He would be the eternally lonely God who created because he was lonely. This implies he created out of a need in himself that only the creation of other sentient beings could fill.
God was ultimately unknowable: if Father, Son and Spirit are mere masks which the one God assumes we have no view into the character of God as he is in himself and hence no assurance that He is as He appears.
Salvation as understood by the early church was compromised–the early church understood salvation as participation in the very life of God–this in fact comes explicitly from the Gospel of John in particular, although it is also seen in other NT authors as well. If (as the Arians contended) that the pre-incarnate Christ was in fact a created being who created everything else, he could not bring us into true union with God. The most he could become is an example to follow. This destroys the concept of redemption.
What is significant that while there was, especially in Western/Latin Christianity an absorption of neo-Platonic presuppositions, the Nicene Fathers explicit rejected this syncretism and held firmly to the Hebraic conceptions, and from this understanding composed the Nicene Creed–the only universal creed that has been historically accepted by the whole church.
See Richard Backham, God Crucified, & Thomas Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith, as well as his The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons.
BTW: Donald Bloesch uses the term Nuda Scriptura instead of Solo Scriptura 🙂
Thank you for coming by to comment. You are more than welcome to participate anytime. I highly respect your views.
I agree that the doctrine of the Trinity is the unfolding of description of God that goes all the way back to the apostles. I left a group (Oneness Pentecostals) several years ago that challenged this. They thought the early church had been corrupted but they show themselves to be inconsistent in so many way, especially in accepting a canon that formed during the same time as the language of the Trinity. This seems so odd to me.
I’m all for “letting the Bible interpret the Bible,” which is the only reason why I’m uncomfortable with phrases (misnomers?) like “God the Son.” I just stick to language which I can find in the Bible as it is, like “I and my Father are one,” and “Jesus is Lord,” as opposed to “Jesus is the Father.” You pointing out that the Bible was formed at the same time as some of the terminology I reject isn’t convincing to me. It’s like equating reading a book to reading a book report about that book.
My point; the book itself and how people report about it are two very different things. I can affirm the authority of the former since it’s going to one day be used to judge me, without accepting the conclusions of the latter. So I’ll read the book, read the reports, but still value the book itself above them all.
It seems as if you are accepting the Catholic claim that they formed the canon. Most Protestants would reject that claim. No church body created the canon per se. The canon was recognized by the saints and church leaders for what it was. It was gradually discovered in its entirety, not determined.
Did it take time to build a consensus throughout Christendom for all 27 books? Yes, it did (and some never came to agree) because it took time for all of Christendom to even become aware of the existence of some books. But each book was recognized as authoritative from the earliest of times (which is why they were preserved and copied) by some group of Christians within Christendom.
There were some parts of the church that disputed certain books, but only because they were not certain of their authorship. Why? Because those books had not circulated widely from their original destinations. If you were in their shoes, I’m sure you would be suspect too. Imagine that you were living in AD 150 and you come across an epistle that purports to be from John that you’ve never read before. Wouldn’t you be suspect? Sure, but the church to whom the letter was written would not be, because they’ve had it in their possession for years and know from whom it was received.
The point is that canonization really didn’t take place in the 2nd through 5th centuries. All the books were canonized by at least one group of Christians very early on. It simply took a few hundred years for all of Christendom to become aware of these books, and confirm their apostolicity. As Michael Kruger argues, the notion of canon would have been an early one. The early church, being Jewish, understood that covenants were written. If they were part of a new covenant, they would have been expecting to receive a canon of writings that defined that covenant. The concept of covenant is first-century. Indeed, according to Peter, Paul’s writings were already being viewed as Scripture. And if Paul is quoting from Luke’s gospel, then Paul considered the Gospel of Luke Scripture as well. Canonization did not result from tradition or authority, but from an expectation of a written covenant on par with the old covenant, from a recognition that the authors of the documents were authoritative, and from a subjective recognition of the divine character of the writings.
So that’s why we who are skeptical of the doctrinal developments of the post-apostolic age can accept the canon — because we understand that those generations of Christians simply recognized the canon for what it is, just like we do today. They did not create it.
Jason: I can see where it would seem like I am leaning toward the Catholic rather than Protestant view. I will clarify in a blog post soon, but let me say now that I am suggesting a middle position. Catholicism seems to lean toward the church selecting the canon. Protestants use language referring to discovering the canon. I am not comfortable with either. Instead, I suggest we see the canon as being chosen (yes) but by the leading of the Holy Spirit. This has aspects of both while avoiding the down fall of both.
In other words, to say it was “discovered” is to act like it had been there all along. While I agree that much of it had been there, and that in various areas of Christendom each book had its authority, we are speaking of an ecumenical matter. What makes the canon the canon is not that certain books had authority in certain places because there are some books that would qualify for that definition that did not make the canon. Rather, the canon is the canon because it is the canon of the entire orthodox, catholic church.
So in general I understand what you are trying to say but I think it oversimplifies history. It isn’t as clean as your comment would make it seem. Sure, Paul is accepted most everywhere as are the four gospels. But books like 2 Peter, Jude, James, and Revelation had a very hard time getting in across the board while the Shepherd of Hermes, for example, enjoyed wide spread favor but didn’t make the cut. So acceptance prior to canonization is helpful for determining what the orthodox believed but I am not so sure we can talk about it like you are wanting to do so here as if it was really all set to go but needed a bit of polishing.
One final statement: I think where you go in the last paragraph is exactly what we Trinitarians are saying about the doctrines that became accepted by the whole church. There is just as much going for the doctrine of the Trinity and the Christological affirmations as there is the canon. I believe that when Christ said that he would send the Spirit to lead and guide the church into all truth this happened. Contrary to the OP revision of church history everything (accept the canon) post-101 CE was not a failure. God has always kept his church.
Wildflower: That is fine, and I am sure that as you continue to read the book, you will see that those who came before us did a fine job of interpreting it where it mattered and that God has preserved his church through the ages.
Brian: I don’t think what you described is really a middle position. In discussing the sacraments of the Church he Catechism says:
“As she has done for the canon of Sacred Scripture and for the doctrine of the faith, the Church, by the power of the Spirit who guides her “into all truth,” has gradually recognized this treasure received from Christ and, as the faithful steward of God’s mysteries, has determined its “dispensation.” Thus the Church has discerned over the centuries that among liturgical celebrations there are seven that are, in the strict sense of the term, sacraments instituted by the Lord.” (par. 1117)
The section on Sacred Scripture (pars. 101-141) also refers to the Church discerning the canon by way of “apostolic Tradition,” a tradition they firmly believe is guided by the Spirit.
I’d also point out that this isn’t very different from what Jason describes. Note the language “gradual recognition.”
Well, that being said, maybe I do think the Catholic language makes more sense of it. What I am trying to avoid is this idea that the canon was formed “because we said so”. It may be a misrepresentation of the Catholic position but many Protestants act as if the Catholic church claims to have decided what books belong because “it is the way it is”. In other words, maybe there would have been a book that didn’t belong but it is too late now because it was determined that is does.
This may be Protestant reading back into the early centuries the methodology of the Council of Trent that does seem to have countered the Protestant Reformation by saying, “Oh yeah, well we expanded the canon, and these books defend our views, and now you are in the wrong.”
So you think the RC canon is an expansion and that the deutero-canonical books should not be in the canon, though they were in the Septuagint?
It seems to me that the expansion of the canon is suspect for three reasons:m (1) much, much later than the formation of the rest of the canon; (2) obviously chosen in reaction to the Reformers; (3) not an ecumenical decision.
But weren’t the ‘deutero-canonical’ books in the Septuagint, which would have been the major text for the first apostles and the NT writers?
That is a good question. I have not taken the time to examine that. I am not sure if there was one clear cut LXX canon at their time. As far as I have heard the Hebrew canon we have seems to match what was accepted then but maybe the LXX differs?
I agree with you that the goal of canon formation is ecumenical agreement, that it took time for that agreement to be reached, and that is was not always a tidy process. My point is two-fold:
1. There was no ecumenical church council that decided the canon. Individual Christians, and individual Christian leaders determined the canon, and they eventually ended up with the same books because they shared the same basic criterion for determining canonicity
2. God determines the canon in virtue of His inspiration of some writings and not others. Humans simply discover it. The idea of canon would have been an early one, and the authority of each and every canonical book would have been recognized by at least one group of Christians from the very beginning (the original recipients of the writing).
It simply took time for the church as a whole to become aware of all the canonical books because it took time for them to be copied and circulated (it’s not as if there was ever a time when the book of II Peter, for example, was not accepted as authoritative by any Christians, but then due to ecclesiastical fiat it became canonical). And that’ s why some were disputed, because the Christians who were not the original recipients were not sure of their origin/authorship, and thus not sure of their authority and place in the canon. Once they came to agree on those matters, however, they agreed to those books’ place in the canon.
As for leading into all truth, in context, I don’t think Jesus was making a general statement applicable throughout history, but a specific promise to His apostles. But I would agree with you that there have been positive doctrinal developments post AD 100.
I don’t have any trouble with what you said here. And though I agree that Jesus words were to his immediate disciples I do not doubt that the author of the Fourth Gospel was saying something about Pneumatology that he felt was applicable to his readers.
You wrote, “It may be a misrepresentation of the Catholic position but many Protestants act as if the Catholic church claims to have decided what books belong because ‘it is the way it is’. In other words, maybe there would have been a book that didn’t belong but it is too late now because it was determined that is does.” Some Catholics do argue as if the Church did decide the canon. They did at Trent, but that was more of an affirmation than a decision (and the NT canon had been in place for a millennium by that time). Other Catholics recognize that the early development of the canon was a gradual process, but they act as though it was the ecclesiastical leaders who provided the canon for us. I would argue that while ecclesiastical leaders were definitely involved in the development of the canon, so were the lay people. It’s not as though the church leaders were giving new books to their saints to read that the saints did not already believe were inspired. If anything, the church leadership was simply putting their stamp of approval on the books that their saints had long accepted as being canonical.
Brian: All Trent did was declare would-be deniers of the Church’s canon anathema. Their point was that these were the Church’s books and when guys like Luther come along and want to cut them out and stick them between the testaments in an appendix that they’ve denied the Church’s faith and tradition. So yeah, it was reactionary, but there wouldn’t have been anything to react to unless the Reformation challenged something that had already been set in place.
The LXX definitely differs, but, the question we have to ask is which was the Church’s canon? It was the LXX. The Hebrew canon which Protestants accept is missing a few books that the Church for centuries before the Reformation accepted as Scripture. I, for one, have no problem accepting all of the anagignoskomena (to take the Greek term) as Scripture, but just like the saints of yesteryear, I recognize that some have priority over others. This is inherent in the very terms protocanon and deuterocanon.
We don’t know what the LXX canon was, if there even was one. We don’t have any proof that those books were in there because people thought they were canonical. Indeed, I think we have proof that they were in there because people found them edifying, as many church fathers testified to. We tend to think that because they were bound up together with the canonical books, that they were recognized as being canonical by the users. I don’t think that’s the case at all. They were just collections of books the churches used. I would argue that’s why we find different books in different codices: people found different books edifying.
Some people in the early church accepted the deuterocanonical books as Scripture, but not all. Indeed, it seems that the later church came to make the mistake I spoke of above: assuming that the presence of the deuterocanonical books in the LXX beside books they knew to be canonical, meant the deuterocanonical books were canonical. But for many, the recognition that those books were not included in the Hebrew canon was enough for them to reject the status of those books.
Augustine thought the Apocrypha was inspired, while Jerome did not (as reflected in his commentary in the Vulgate). From the 5th century on there was no universal agreement on the status of the Apocrypha, but the majority of church leaders/scholars followed Jerome rather than Augustine in thinking it was useful for Christians but not part of the canon. The most authoritative Catholic commentary, The Glossa Ordinaria, rejected their canonicity. This was the standard Biblical commentary used by the Catholic Church for centuries. Even Luther’s Catholic nemesis, Cardinal Cajetan, said the Apocrypha was not inspired in a set of commentaries he wrote for Pope Clement VII (1532). This was just 17 years before Trent declared them to be canonical!
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