Third of three essays
Preface | I: Second Thoughts: Pilgrimage 1993-95 | II: All Scripture Is Inspired by God: Thoughts on the Old Testament Canon | III: Do not Add to His Words: Thoughts on the New Testament Canon
Copyright 1996, 2003 Joel Kalvesmaki
Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you. (Gospel of Thomas 5)
There are people today who would claim this to be an authentic saying of Jesus Christ and that the book it comes from, the Gospel of Thomas, should be included in the Bible. As Christians, how do we know that Thomas and other gospels are not proper parts of the canon? How do we know that the 27 books we read are genuine, reliable, and really should be the only ones included? Is our canon missing books?
Again, these are questions many of us who are committed Evangelicals fear to ask, and when we search out the subject we often stay as close as possible to our favorite Bible teachers. There are, however, some hard truths about the canon of the New Testament and the authority of the Scriptures, truths we rarely face. And this reticence prevents us from being completely faithful to the Bible and Christ.
In the previous article we examined the Old Testament in light of the Apocrypha and Septuagint. In this essay we will examine the character of the canon of the New Testament and the authority of Scripture.
When we are asked to explain or defend our canon of Scripture sometimes these verses come out in the discussion:
Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar. (Pr 30:5,6)
I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev 22:18,19)
This type of argument convinces very few skeptics. "This book" in Revelation refers to the whole Canon? Why not for Proverbs, then? Have we sinned by adding books beyond Solomon's writings? How about earlier than this? Have we sinned in adding books to the canon after the closing of the Law? After all, there is the stern warning in Deuteronomy:
You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you. (Deut 4:2)
If we apply the same reasoning, then both Christians and Jews are sinning! Using our own logic, the canon of Scripture should only have five books in it. On this basis, the Samaritans, a small community that lives in modern Israel, are the only faithful ones, since they only hold to the first five books of the Bible as canonical.
These passages, which warn against the changing the word of God, really give no clue as to which books should be accepted as inspired.
Josh McDowell, in the opening chapter of Evidence that Demands a Verdict, begins by declaring the Bible to be completely unlike anything else written in human history. The reason why? Continuity, circulation, translation, survival, teachings, and influence. All of these factors, as implied by the title of McDowell's book, are the self-evident justification for Scripture. Anyone who simply looks at the facts objectively must concur.
McDowell takes the same approach to the canon, presenting it as being objectively testable. While confessing ignorance to what the criteria of the early Church was, he proceeds to establish a list of what most Evangelicals think the Fathers used to decide on the canon. "Is it authoritative....prophetic....authentic....dynamic? Was it received, collected, read and used...?" (McDowell, 29)
This is very much in harmony with what I was always taught about the Bible. First, there is an internal harmony running through its pages, uniting it from first to last. Nothing could compare with this collection of the writings. Men from various cultures, occupations, and eras, all led by the Spirit, wrote whatever the Holy Spirit inspired within them. Second, implied by our attitude, the canon we held was the same one treasured by the Church immediately following the Apostles.
Knowing this gave me great confidence in facing an antagonistic, skeptical world. The Bible is the Word of God. It is the universal authority for all humanity, its message extending across space and time. It is self-sufficient, an absolute standard, with the power to speak into the human condition to call all mankind to repentance. Dr. Young, Professor of Westminster Theological Seminary expresses this sentiment well:
The Bible is truly the Word of God. He is the final and the ultimate Author; the Bible comes from God. Without Him there could have been no Bible. Without men, however, there could have been a Bible. God could have given us His Word in some other manner than that which He actually did choose....While the human authors were true authors, nevertheless they were not the originators of the words and the thoughts that are found in the Bible. (Bright, 189)
Authoritative. Prophetic. Authentic. Dynamic. If a book didn't have all four of these it wouldn't be part of the Bible. Everything outside of holy Scripture lacks at least one of these essentials. Let's look a bit closer at McDowell's tests.
1. Is it authoritative? Did it come from the hand of God? (Does this book come with a divine "thus saith the Lord"?)
This test implies that the Church recognized as authoritative any book that was self-evidently so. Those Evangelicals unaware of Church history might possibly imagine some long-forgotten council that studied all the different books that had been nominated for canonicity and looked for the imprimatur of a declaration of God.
If so, what happened with Philemon or Song of Songs, both of which have no "thus saith the Lord?" And how did such a test weed out books that might have been included in the New Testament such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Revelation of Paul, both of which purport to have come from God?
2. Prophetic? was it written by a man of God?
Again, who has the competence to declare what is prophetic? How do we know that an ancient document, claiming to be a prophecy, was written by a true prophet? How do we know it wasn't a forgery? How can it be demonstrated? Must we present a chain of eyewitnesses testifying that, indeed, it was written by a man of God? We have many documents dating from the Old Testament period claiming to have been written by men of God. Are the Testament of Abraham or the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, therefore, options for us to consider in our canon? After all, both of these texts seem to have been written by prophets.
Who decides what the criteria are for a man of God? How do we judge whether anonymous works such as the four gospels or Hebrews were written by men of God and not deceivers? What about a writing such as Ecclesiastes, which was possibly written in the unrepentant despair of Solomon's sin, when he wasn't quite particularly a "man of God?" By McDowell's lights, it seems we should exclude it from the canon.
3. Is it authentic? (The fathers had the policy of "if in doubt, throw it out." This enhanced the "validity of their discernment of canonical books.")
Who decides what is authentic? What kind of proof has to be given for authenticity? The Gnostics of the second century saw authenticity in the Gospel of Thomas and other writings. We see no authenticity in them. It is true that the Fathers rejected the Gospel of Thomas, but how do we know that they were not misled? If they had bad theology, then possibly they chose the wrong books. We shall look at this, as well as whether the Fathers really threw out the doubtful books later.
4. Is it dynamic?did it come with the life-transforming power of God?
As with all of them, this test is circular. We define "dynamic" before we ever search for it. "Dynamic" is what we have been taught by our Christian leaders. Many non-Christians do not find the Scriptures to be either authentic or dynamic or pregnant with the power of God. As Christians we do. But if we see this as an applicable test for canonicity, then must we look for a unique dynamism latent in every book in Scripture before we let it into our canon? What if we see this same dynamism in an extra-canonical book? What if that same book meets our other three criteria McDowell has suggested? Should we change the canon?
This is not at all to question the truth of the Bible. I believe the divine Scriptures are authoritative for every believer in Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that all four qualities McDowell mentions uniquely resides in every book of the Bible. But are his tests truly the reasons why have 27 books in the New Testament? Or are they a posteriori observations of what we have already received as God-inspired Tradition from our parents, our churches and contemporary Christian leaders?
Every book that discusses the canon must inadvertently address the witness of the early Church Fathers. The Bible did not drop out of thin air and if the channels that gave us the Scriptures were unreliable then who can say our Faith is firm? Ironically, we rarely if ever give the early Church any authority, except in the question of the canon. What we usually hear is that the early Church had roughly the same canon we did. Some Evangelical apologists such as Geisler and Nix list the 27 books of the New Testament and mention all the early Fathers who quoted from them as Scripture. This presentation of the witness of the early Church leaves the reader with the impression that the canon was unambiguous from the death of the Apostles.
Hence, McDowell's fifth test:
5. Was it received, collected, read and used? was it accepted by the people of God?
As we have seen in the previous essay, the Body of Christ, the Church, received the Septuagint, which included the Apocrypha, as Scripture. Protestants, aside from Anglicans and Lutherans, have not observed that the people of God?the early Church?collected, read, and used the Apocryphal books. What good is this last test of McDowell's, if we Evangelicals aren't willing to follow it to its natural conclusion?
Let us use McDowell's tests on three non-canonical books often cited by the early Fathers as Scripture.
The Epistle of Barnabas, a treatise against a Jewish interpretation of the Law, holds a position of great veneration in the writings of the early Church. Said to have been written by the companion of Paul, the letter dates from the late first or early second century.
It is included in the New Testament canon of the fourth century manuscript Codex Sinaiticus (4th c.) and is quoted by both Clement of Alexandria (150–215), Stromata 5.8; and Origen (185–254), First Principles 3:2:4, Against Celsus 1.63, Commentary on Romans 1.24, as Scripture. Tertullian (160–225) treated the letter as having truly come from the pen of St. Paul's companion (On Modesty 20). The epistle resonates in thought with the Didache, a catechism highly regarded by the Church of the first century (Loeb, v.1, 306-7,337-9).
The Shepherd of Hermas, written in the early second century, is a series of apocalyptic visions meant to convey Christian teaching through parable. Like Barnabas, it was widely venerated in the early Church.
Clement of Alexandria quotes it as Scripture (Stromata 2.9), as do St. Irenaeus (130–200), Against Heresies 4.34.2, and Origen, First Principles 2.1.5, 4.1.11. Tertullian, however, called it the "shepherd of adulterers," not because it was spurious, but because it taught that adultery could be forgiven (On Idolatry 4.15). The Shepherd, like Barnabas, is a part of the canon of the Codex Sinaiticus (Loeb, v.2, 2-5). Even in the late fourth century it was used to prepare new converts for baptism (Athanasius, Festal Letter, 367).
This book was written and compiled over the first few centuries before the birth of Christ. It is a series of books dealing with the beginning of human history and the nature of time, demons, and angels.
The Book of Enoch and its exegesis of Genesis permeates early Christian thought. It is quoted as Scripture by the Epistle of Barnabas (4.3;16.5), Origen (First Principles 4.1.35), and Tertullian (On Idolatry 4,15). Commodian (3d c) draws from it (Comm 3). St. Irenaeus includes much of its interpretation of the Deluge in his Proof of the Apostolic Preaching (also Against Heresies 4:16:2). Justin Martyr (100–65) makes the same use of Enoch in his apology (II Apol 5) and Clement of Alexandria in his Stromata (5.1). Tertullian comments that the Book of Enoch was written by Enoch and entrusted to Noah. Tertuallian regarded it as Scripture, reliably protected by the power of the Spirit (Apparel of Women 3). Aramaic manuscripts of Enoch have also been found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the book seems to have been treasured by the Essene community (Allegro, 128–29, 134).
This high regard of the early Christians for the Book of Enoch should be no surprise to us since part of it is already in the Bible! One of Enoch's prophecies is quoted word for word in the New Testament:
And about these also Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, saying, "Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him." (St. Jude 14,15)
It doesn't matter so much that St. Jude says or does not say that the book is inspired. As we saw in the last essay, no individual book is called "inspired" in the New Testament. Rather, St. Jude incorporates Enoch's prophetic utterance as an crux of his argument. He assumes that Enoch has authority for himself, and for the community to which he writes. The passage suggests that Jude and his congregation preserved and revered the work. If this were not the case, St. Jude's argument would have been irrelevant to its readers.
Enoch's imagery is also woven into Revelation's apocalyptic imagery and the Gospels' use of the term "Son of Man." Although Enoch fell into disfavor in the fourth century, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church retains it in their canon. (See Barr, 41-50, on the implications of St. Jude's use of Enoch and the New Testament use of the pseudepigrapha.)
These are three of the many books the early Christian Church read, used, and circulated. According to McDowell's tests, they should be part of our New Testament. The argument for the canonicity of these three books, based upon an empirical reading of the New Testament and the earliest Fathers, is actually stronger than some books in our present canon.
For instance, although 2 Peter seems to have been cited by the Shepherd of Hermas (Sim 8.11.1), it is not quoted again until Origen, in the early third century. In the early Church 2 Peter, as well as St. Jude, Revelation, and 2 & 3 John, were often in dispute, and regarded in the same fuzzy area as other books, such as Barnabas and the Shepherd. If the early Church was in doubt about these books, then didn't they follow McDowell's advice and "throw them out?"
Not only did they have other books, but in the earliest centuries many parts of the Christian Church flourished without the New Testament at all! This does not lessen the importance of Scripture. It simply acknowledges that the early Christians, while guarding with their lives what Scriptures they had, lived a faith taught to them personally by the Apostles. They held fast to their teaching, some of which was preserved in their writings, but was mainly learned and taught orally and liturgically, passed down from generation to generation.
As late as A.D. 180, parts of the Church, particularly in the eastern regions, did not have large portions of the New Testament. But they practiced and held the same faith as the Greek speaking churches in the Mediterranean. St. Irenaeus, a bishop of France and the spiritual grandson of the Holy Apostle John, gives us an account of this in a treatise of his against the false teaching of Gnostic teachers of his day.
For how stands the case? Suppose there arise a dispute relative to some important question among us, should we not have recourse to the most ancient Churches with which the apostles held constant intercourse, and learn from them what is certain and clear in regard to the present question? For how should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary, [in that case,] to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those to whom they did commit the Churches?
To which course many nations of those barbarians who believe in Christ do assent, having salvation written in their hearts by the Spirit, without paper or ink, and, carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God. Those who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith, are barbarians, so far as regards our language; but as regards doctrine, manner, and tenor of life, they are, because of faith, very wise indeed; and they do please God, ordering their conversation in all righteousness, chastity, and wisdom. If any one were to preach to these men the inventions of the heretics, speaking to them in their own language, they would at once stop their ears, and flee as far off as possible, not enduring even to listen to the blasphemous address. Thus, by means of that ancient tradition of the apostles, they do not suffer their mind to conceive anything of the [doctrines suggested by the] portentous language of these teachers, among whom neither Church nor doctrine has ever been established. ( Against Heresies 3.4.1–2)
Is it all that unusual to learn of orthodox churches that did not have the canon? After all, the New Testament was written only by about eight people. Half of it was written by companions, Ss. Paul & Luke. Over the course of the first century the bulk of the New Testament would have remained in the churches where Ss. Paul and Luke ministered.
Acts focuses on the spread of Christianity into Palestine, Asia Minor, and Greece. For some reason Luke did not chronicle the deeds of St. Thomas, St. Bartholemew, or the other Apostles. He did not write about the spread of the Gospel to Syria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Carthage, Britain, and India. These places, all of which received the Gospel in the first century, did not have the complete writings of the Apostles until the second century and the earliest, some of them not until the fourth or fifth century!
The Apostles more busy living and teaching the Gospel than writing about it. St. James left us one letter. Was this the sum of his work? No, his mission was not a literary one. He and the rest of the Apostles were primarily concerned with establishing a living Church confirmed in the power of the Holy Spirit?
Even within the Greek speaking churches, as late as the early fourth century, the New Testament canon had not been finalized. The ecclesiastical historian Eusebius (260–340) writes:
It will be well, at this point, to classify the New Testament writings already referred to. We must, of course, put first the holy quartet of the gospels, followed by the Acts of the Apostles. The next place in the list goes to Paul's epistles, and after them we must recognize the epistle called 1 John; likewise 1 Peter. To these may be added, if it is thought proper, the Revelation of John, the arguments about which I shall set out when the time comes. These are classed as Recognized Books. Those that are disputed, yet familiar to most, include the epistles known as James, Jude, and 2 Peter, and those called 2 and 3 John, the work either of the evangelist or of someone else with the same name.
Among Spurious Books must be place the 'Acts' of Paul, the 'Shepherd', and the 'Revelation of Peter'; also the alleged 'Epistle of Barnabas', and the 'Teachings of the Apostles', together with the Revelation of St. John, if this seems the right place for it: as I said before, some reject it, others include it among the Recognized Books. Moreover, some have found a place in the list for the 'Gospel of Hebrews,' a book which has a special appeal for those Hebrews who have accepted Christ. These would all be classed with the Disputed Books, but I have been obliged to list the latter separately, distinguishing those writings which according to the tradition of the Church are true, genuine, and recognized, from those in a different category, not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen; for we must not confuse these with the writings published by heretics under the name of the apostles, as containing either Gospels of Sts. Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and several others besides these, or Acts of Sts. Andrew, John, and other apostles. To none of these has any churchman of any generation ever seen fit to refer in his writings. Again, nothing could be farther from apostolic usage than the type of phraseology employed, while the ideas and implications of their contents are so irreconcilable with true orthodoxy that they stand revealed as the forgeries of heretics. It follows that so far from being classed even among Spurious Books, they must be thrown out as impious and beyond the pale. ( Ecc Hist 3:25)
After Eusebius, Canon 60 of the Synod of Laodicea (343) lists 26 books of the New Testament, omitting the Book of Revelation. St. Athanasius (296–373), in his Paschal letter of 367, writes the first list we have exactly matching the 27 books in our modern New Testament canon. This is subsequently confirmed in later writers such as Rufinus (345–410) and the African Code (419). Even then, all these late examples were not votes on what should be in the canon, but were witnesses to the slow development of the canon within the Church.
Each portion of Scripture had a specific origin in time at the hand of a particular person. Before its authorship the book did not exist. Only gradually, through the development of the Tradition, did Scripture take its rightful place of authority amongst the people of God. Sometimes centuries elapsed before this happened.
This appeal to Tradition may offend some of us who have been taught that Tradition equals error. But consider the history of Israel. Before Moses lived, was there no Word of God? Before Genesis was penned, upon what did the people of God rely for counsel and wisdom in a world of false religion? Did Abraham's tribe have Scriptures of their own? If so, would these writings be considered part of the canon if recovered today? Such a speculative question is, of course, outside what we know from Scripture. But we have to account for the fidelity of the people of God before Moses. How did they know what was true and what was false? I would suggest that the children of Abraham were faithful to the Tradition (with or without a text, it doesn't matter) taught by Jehovah, and this fidelity guarded them from error.
As we have looked at the writings of the Fathers, we have seen that an objective study of patristics does not make the canon "obvious." It is also impossible, through an internal textual study, to determine what should or should not be included within the New Testament. If we ask Scripture to tell us what should be included in the canon we find ourselves in difficulty. After all, the Apostles freely drew from pseudo-canonical writings we do not accept or read. We have already looked at St. Jude's use of the Book of Enoch. There are other examples.
It is true that the Apostles do not declare these works to be inspired. But before we brush these three citations away as unimportant exceptions, we should consider how this relates to our attitude of the canon being self-evident. If we are going to practice the faith of the Apostles then shouldn't we, at the very least, circulate and read the writings the Apostles quote? Ss. Paul and Jude seem to have been comfortable with them. Why aren't we?
I am not at all suggesting we include books like the Book of Enoch in our Bibles. But there are those who would. Many liberals have responded to some of the things I have mentioned by reopening the canon. They have treated materials such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Narratives of Christ as genuine material upon which to reshape the Christian faith. Adolf Harnack (1851–1930), the sharpest German theologian of his time, took great pleasure in honing an unrivalled expertise on the early Church to question, not only the canon, but every tenet of traditional Christianity. Others today are calling for a broadening of the canon to include non-Christian works.
Liberals insist, rightfully so, that the Apostles never left behind a list of books; it took doctrinal controversies to settle the issue. According to liberals, the early Church, corrupted by patriarchy, hierarchy, and other man-made traditions, persecuted Marcion, Gnostics, and others, and developed their own biased canon. The present New Testament canon was finally drawn up in the fourth century after the Church had been corrupted by Catholic dogma.
Because they believe the Church erred, Liberals feel justified in taking a second look at the canon and sculpting it in their own image. They argue that the canon is just one more false tradition the early Church embraced.
Evangelicals market many apologetic books to justify our faith in the canon, adducing facts, figures, and names. But behind all the scramble to be more logical and fact-based than non-Christians, we miss out on the real reason why we believe the Bible. But we rarely have ears to hear.
We believe the New Testament has twenty-seven inspired books because it is the tradition that we have been given. That which we have received we have retained, and we believe the Spirit has worked through it. What more justification is needed? What else is there?
To trust and to obey the canon without waiting for all the "facts" to come in is healthy and normal. It is a faithful dependence upon God, who has preserved the Faith for us through our spiritual fathers and mothers for the last 6000 years. God, in his inexpressible love for mankind, has established a Church into and through which he speaks Scripture as a touchstone of the Faith. The canon is justified not through external proofs but through the internal witness of the Trinity leading the Church through history. The Bible is an inseparable part of something bigger, something that guided Abraham through the wilderness, even when he had no book. That something is the unbroken Tradition of the Apostles, a Tradition protected by the Church.
The Church is both guard and guarantor of the Scriptures. If the Church of the second, third, and fourth centuries was corrupted, then so was the canon, for they collected and retained books on the basis of the faith they had. Canon and Church are inseparable. If we cannot trust the Church, then we cannot trust the Bible, which was written, delivered, and preserved by the Church.
Reference to the Church and Tradition and its self-authenticating importance is the more honest way to justify the authority of the Bible. However many of us simply will not come to this admission. We give several reasons why the canon cannot depend upon the authority of the Church or Tradition.
Actually, it does!
But in case I am delayed, I write so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. I Tim 3:15
Could anything be more forthright than this? The Church supports the Truth. If the pillar falls, then so does the whole edifice, Scriptures and all!
The earliest Church believed and acted under the assumption that they had the authority to decide matters of faith, doctrine, and practice. This is why the Apostles felt they had the right to cast lots for Judas' successor (Ac 1), introduce the diaconate (Ac 6), and allow Gentiles to come into the Church without circumcision (Ac 15). Under this same paradigm and sense of authority, the Church of the fourth and fifth century clarified what books were to be read in Church, and affirmed the Trinity to be dogma.
We could never have even begun to argue from Scripture had not the Church given it to us. If we had been given a different canon or a tampered translation we wouldn't know the difference. We would argue from that which we were given.
Many of us are told that after Constantine's rise to power, the Catholic Church was started and pagan doctrines crept into the Church. At that point, true Christianity was supressed.
Without going into a long discourse on Church history, this is a complete myth. It is the same argument used by Muslims, Mormons, and Jehovah's Witnesses to support their own case. All these groups, like ourselves, believe there were true Christians that taught their beliefs in the second century. Eventually, somewhere in the fourth century, corruption set in and the true Muslims, Mormons, or Jehovah's Witnesses (or "Evangelicals"!) were persecuted and driven underground.
But Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Evangelicals can scarcely offer a single name as an example of someone who taught their beliefs in the second or third century. Who were these true believers? What were their names? Why don't we publish and circulate their writings today? After all, there are a lot of Christian writings from this period. It shouldn't be too hard to trace who corrupted what, when, and how.
Aside from this, if the Church was corrupted then we would have to admit that Jesus was wrong. Hear him now:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. Mt 16:18
I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come. Jn 16:12,13
...lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Mt. 28:20
If we believe the Church fell away then we are confessing that Hades triumphed over the Church. The Spirit of God failed to lead the Church into all truth. Jesus was with the Church only until they lapsed into Catholic heresy, then was with no one until over a thousand years later, when pure Christianity was restarted in the Reformation.
It is true that certain verses we know well condemn the traditions of men. But we generally ignore the other Bible verses on this subject.
Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. Now I praise you because you remember me in everything, and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. I Co 11:1-2
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. I Th 2:15
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep aloof from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. I Th 3:6
Rather than condemning tradition, the Bible compels us to hold fast to it! This sentiment is expressed throughout Scripture, including the Old Testament.
Do not move the ancient boundary which your fathers have set. Pr 22:28
Thus do I send my teachings forth shining like the dawn, to become known afar off. Thus do I pour out instruction like prophecy and bestow it on generations to come. Sirach 24:30-31
The whole of Scripture is laced with commendation for people faithfully transmitting Wisdom from father to son, from Adam down to our time, both by word and by writing.
We ourselves, regardless of our church affiliation, practice traditions. These traditions include church government, administration of the sacraments, when and how we worship, to name but a few. These practices and beliefs have been handed to us by our "fathers" in the faith and they received it, in turn, from others. Even our preferred translation of the Bible is determined by tradition. Some of us accept only the King James Version, others the New American Bible, or the New International Version, or other Protestant versions. Even the chapter and verse numbering, as well as the naming of the books, is dependent upon tradition.
Tradition is inescapable regardless of who you are or what you believe. The question is...are you practicing the Tradition of the Apostles or the traditions of men? Most of our Evangelical traditions and doctrines only date back one or two centuries. What about reading the early Church writings to try to learn traditions that are nearly 2000 years old?
This is often used by a minority both to justify radical contemporary movements within Evangelicalism and to disregard history as relevant to our faith. For these people, appeals to the Bible as history or to the need to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (St. Jude 3) often carry little weight.
If we need to focus on the present and be freed from the chains of the past, then why not redesign the canon or rewrite Scripture? In fact, why stop there? Why not include elements of Buddhism or Zoroastrianism in our faith? Why not experiment with drugs in worship? After all, God is doing a new thing.
Each generation of avante garde Evangelicals push this principle to new limits, shocking many. And it should! The very historicity of our Faith necessitates that the new things we enter into be completely faithful to that which is ancient.
Actually, not really. At least not the way we have been taught to understand infallibility. Generally, especially when discussing Catholicism, we understand ecclesiastical infallibility to mean that the Church can do whatever it wants and get away with it.
Rather we should understand infallibility to mean that the Church is trustworthy. Although apostasies occur, the Church prevails and hands down the truth. All we need do is find this Church, unbroken since the time of Christ, and sojourn with them.
This call to trust the historical Church may not appeal to some of us who have been raised to be skeptical of men or organizations, but it is something that is a central part of all of us, and it leads many of us to say...
No, it is not likely that you will hear about either the Apocrypha or the authority of the Church from many of your favorite Bible teachers or apologists. Those who did would probably lose their jobs very quickly!
But if, in dealing with these difficult issues, you have sought help from a commentary or professor you trust for an explanation to keep your theological world together, then this should be enough to demonstrate what I am saying. We already trust men in the form of churches, denominations, seminaries, and publishing houses. We have heroes and saints of the past and present we look to as examples. None of us regard them as inerrant, but still we trust their judgment and see them as models of faithfulness. We run to them when we have problems and are confused!
Again, it is the Eastern Orthodox Church that best reconciles the authority of the Scriptures, the Church, and the Tradition. Because they have never pretended to justify their canon on the basis of self-evident facts or an empirical archaeology of ancient Christian history, the Orthodox have generally not felt threatened by the intellectual jihad of liberalism. The Orthodox are the Church the Apostles built, and they have held fast to their teaching for the last 2000 years. They believe the Holy Spirit has led the Church into all truth, the canon being a part of this truth. To challenge and reopen the canon at this late date is to tell God and nineteen centuries of Christians that they got it all wrong.
We should be grateful to the Orthodox for their faithfulness! Without realizing it, we already depend upon the Orthodox for much of our own tradition. Consider:
These aspects of our faith, borrowed from the Orthodox, only make sense within the context of the Tradition. This Tradition has given us the Scriptures. But unless we ourselves are within the Church that has both retained that ancient Tradition and given us the canon we shall be at odds to understand what the Scripture teaches.
The Nicene Creed should be the core of the faith of every Trinitarian Christian. This is the overarching message of the Bible, and it places the authority of God, the Scripture, the Tradition and the Church in perfect harmony.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
One December night, early in my study of the Fathers, I found myself fuming over the complexity of Christian history. What I believed did not fit with the evidence before me. I turned on the computer and began to play a Tetris-style game. My world did not make sense. All the idiosyncrasies of Scripture and its history did not fit the nicely packaged, glossy Evangelical package I knew. I was tormented.
Liberalism seemed to be a cop out, assuming a Christian guise while denying every aspect of the Faith. I would do better as a secular humanist, abandoning any pretense to be Christian. But the prospects of going through liberalism into atheism seemed to be an abysmal end, not only to what faith I had, but to the humanity I treasured. Life lived for its own ends? Hardly. I should die first.
"Is Christianity true? Where is the proof?" I genuinely felt betrayed and wounded, yet was willing to trust and try to be faithful to Christ in the midst of intellectual agony. I desperately wanted to be a Christian, whatever that meant. I still knew of no one who could compare with Jesus. His brilliance had only grown with my studies.
The night wore on and I found myself sucked through the colors of the screen into the same glassy world, electron-charged, nonsensical, broken down into the machinery of life. Was I weary or listless or simply not caring, I don't know. Here I was, in a community that cast the ancient Faith as if Fad. The rapid fire of my fingers numbed into automaton in the rapid drop of pieces in time marked by timelessness, marked by the loss of any sense of what I was meant to be doing or who I was or what the world meant or how foolish I had been to think that I had the world figured in the palm of my mind now supinely turning to slush as the swish of the bricks falling at the fingers flying rapid fire fell.
Sometime the next morning I coldly shut off the machine and went to bed, not even caring if I believed any more or not. I didn't care.
In this depression I encountered the Orthodox synthesis of Scripture and the Tradition. I was deeply skeptical. But in the doubt, as I listened to the Orthodox message, I saw the possibility of new, unexplored vistas that resonated with the heart I had when I made a decision to follow Christ. Here was the chance not only to preserve the Christianity I had, but to restore it to its original state and allow it to blossom. I saw within the Faith of the Orthodox a way of looking not only at the Bible but at the world and creation, a perspective that promised new depths of reality in my relationship with Christ.
I continued to read the Fathers of the Church and the initial thrill I had began to bear fruit. Entering their deeply spiritual scope, I found new ways of looking at the Scripture I would have never considered before. I felt I was becoming a Christian all over again.
But what about...? A host of Bible verses might come to mind to serve as proof against Orthodoxy. All these verses have very satisfying answers that cannot be explained in these essays.
More important than hiding behind objections is committing ourselves to become like Christ. It is easy to point out the faults of other people or churches in order to justify our own refusal to change. That is not Christianity. That is the faith of the stubborn, proud, and arrogant. That is the faith of Hell, for it judges and accuses by a rule we ourselves will not accept.
If our commitment to Christ is the most important part of our lives, then might it not be time to pray and ask how we can change to be a blessing instead of a curse? Rather than pointing at the problems of others, who may be more aware of their faults than we realize, how about volunteering to give up our own theological arrogance?
This is a starting point. But some of us will need to go even deeper, begin to read the Fathers, and pursue faithfulness to the historical Christian faith. It may lead us to learn from Christians we might have disregarded. It may lead us to conversion.
Be warned. The decision to become a pilgrim is a dangerous one. It could cost you your reputation, ministry, and vision. Consider carefully before you choose to journey toward Orthodoxy. It is a path most difficult.
Yet most evangelical.
May 1996, rev. 2003
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