The Canon of Scripture
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me. “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you." John 14:23-26
A Life Lesson
In college I thought it would be interesting to take a class on Religion. Since I grew up in the church I thought that I might do well in this class because of my previous knowledge. This class covered the Abrahamic religions of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into though. This class wasn’t directly edifying to my faith but I can now look back on it and say that it was perhaps one of the greatest classes I could have taken to shake me from a slumber of apathy toward church doctrine.
Around the same time I was in college, the Davinci Code book by Dan Brown was released, followed a few years later by the movie. The basic plot of this movie is that the early church fathers forbade a certain gospel of Mary Magdalene from becoming part of Holy Scripture. This was an attempt to suppress the truth about who Jesus was for political purposes. It is extrapolated from the gospel of Mary (a non-canonical work) that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child together and that child had descendants who are still around to this day. I read the book and later watched the movie. I wanted to get a perspective from secular culture what exactly they were questioning about the church.
I clearly remember being in a lab for this class and having a vague discussion about the Council of Nicea and that the gospels that were included in the canon were only decided by a close vote. There were also implications that Constantine, who was Emperor at the time, used his power to sway some of the results. These “facts” shocked a lot of the students. I remember one girl in the class saying that she grew up in the Catholic Church and was never told any of these things. So, the feelings of being lied to by her church were sowed into her mind. I also had never considered these things and was never taught any of these doctrines so I didn’t know how to respond, but I was highly skeptical. I credit my skepticism to the Holy Spirit’s ministry of discernment in my life. Though I did not know how to respond, I knew that there was a deeper motivation for trying to undermine the scriptures. I was certain that there was a proper explanation from the church’s perspective. But I do have to say that I was disappointed that these doctrines were not discussed at a younger age so that I could be thoroughly equipped for a situation like this.
What Really Happened
Over the past two millennia there has been various times where the books that were included in scripture were questioned. Even today we see additional Apocryphal books of the Catholic Bible. The Eastern Orthodox Bible also varies a bit from the Protestant Bible that I personally use (as do millions of other Christians).
The Old Testament Canon was put together in the form of the Septuagint a few hundred years before Christ was born. In the Old Testament Canon there was widespread agreement on what books would be included in scripture. We see a clear transition from the closing words of Malachi that a messenger and then the Messiah were soon to come. The New Testament Gospel seamlessly picks up where Malachi left off by identifying John the Baptist as this Messenger that prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.
Early in the church it was clear that the ones closest to Jesus were the ones whose writings were found to be trustworthy and worth reading. Many of these letters and documents were distributed to the various churches and later copied. The early church, like today’s world had various sects that called themselves Christians but their beliefs varied greatly from teaching of Jesus and the apostles. These sects were called the Gnostics, and the Apostles refer to these false teachings that were already pervading the church even in the first century.
So, when we see some of the Gnostic gospels come forth, they were not regarded by the mainstream church as being in line with the teaching of the Old Testament, Jesus, or the Apostles. In fact, many of these Gnostic gospels were written in the 2nd century long after the Apostles had died. Even the core church fathers such as Clement and Irenaeus who were close to the original Apostles had writings that they themselves did not feel should be included in the canon of scripture.
In 170, The Muratorian Fragment was written which gives a list of the books that the core church believed was worthy of reading and regarded as sacred scripture. This fragment is astonishingly similar to what we have today in scripture. Gospels of Mary, Thomas, Judas, etc were not on that list.
In 202, Irenaues wrote his book “Against Heresies” where he spoke against the heretical Gnostics who preached destructive doctrines that were contradictive to scripture. In this book Irenaeus gives a list of the books that he believed worthy of reading. The 27 book canon of the New Testament we have today is very similar to his list. The discrepancies are that he excluded Philemon, 2 Peter, 3 John, and Jude. Also, he included 1 Clement and the Shepherd of Hermas. This is quite remarkable that at such an early date there was very little discrepancy with what we have today. It could be argued that the books he excluded were unknown of at the time. It is not too difficult to see why Irenaueus would include 1 Clement as a canonical gospel because of Clement’s close relationship with the Apostles.
Notice that this is still about 150 years before Constantine would summon the bishops to the Council of Nicea. So to think, as my lab graduate assistant implied, that Constantine greatly influenced what was included in the canon we have today is dishonest and ignorant of historical facts. The canon was already mostly determined before the council even met. There was no close vote to determine which books should be included in the canon. In fact, it is remarkable to see that in 367, once Athanasius made a list of the books that we have today, there is very little chatter among the bishops of the church that a mistake had been made. Any chatter that was present was almost completely in regard to perhaps some of the books in our canon should not being included. There was little to no talk about the canon missing anything like many seem to think today. In other words, the issues that arose were in regard to exclusion, not inclusion.
When I look back at the experiences I, or others in church history have had, that some might fear would destroy the Christian faith, I see God’s providence in the situation to refine His church by fire so that they grow in the truth. A modern theologian helped me grow in my understanding of how our Bible came to be. The heretic Arius was the means God used for Athanasius to grow in his understanding of the Trinity and share those doctrines with the church, which has now benefited from them for almost 1700 years. In the High Priestly prayer of John 17, Jesus prays to the father that we the church would not be taken out of the world, but that we would be sanctified in the truth. As Christians we become uncomfortable when someone questions our beliefs but what others mean for evil, God means it for good because we grow in our understanding of His word and church doctrine. We should welcome these challenges as a means to grow in our faith.
The Canon of Scripture By F.F. Bruce
History of the Christian Church, Vol 1 by Philip Schaff
Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem