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Canon & Church

Handout #11     11/23/14

I. Introduction
A. What is Canon? It is the list of books which belong in the Bible.
B. There are two primary disagreements between RC/EO and Protestants which relate to Canon.
1. OT canon: The most familiar disagreement is over the question of the Apocrypha, additional books (and pieces of books) that the RC/EO consider part of the Bible but which are rejected by Protestants and Jews.
2. NT canon: The RC/EO argue that a church council determined the NT canon which means that the church has primacy over the Bible. Protestants claim that the church did not determine the canon but rather recognized the canon, just like in the OT.
II. OT canon: the Apocrypha
A. The Apocrypha is a collection of ancient Jewish writings written in the 2 ½ centuries before Christ. (Though there is substantial overlap, the RC and the EO do not agree on exactly which books and pieces of books should be included and which ones shouldn’t.)
B. In order to understand the argument over the Apocrypha, we need to know about the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the OT Hebrew Bible, translated by Hellenistic Jews around 200BC.
1. When we say we believe the Bible is inerrant and infallible, we’re referring to the original documents (called the original autographs) of the Bible, not the copies or the translations of those documents.
2. Now the Septuagint was the main version of the Bible cited when the authors of the NT quote Scripture.
3. For this reason, the EO believe that this Greek translation of the Hebrew OT is Spirit-inspired. And since the LXX contains the Apocrypha, they believe that those books belong in the Bible.
C. Here is the Protestant response to this argument:
1. First of all, we don’t actually know if the Apocryphal books were in the original LXX. The earliest copies that contain them are 4th century AD, more than five centuries after the translation was made.
2. There is no reason to think that God ever inspired a translation.
3. The reason the NT writers quoted from the Septuagint is not because it was inspired and infallible but because it was the common version of the Bible in their day. The NT was written in Greek and it makes sense that they would get their OT quotes from the Greek version of the OT. How does the fact that it was quoted in the NT prove that the LXX was inspired or infallible?
D. RC included the Apocrypha in their canon at the Council of Trent in 1546, in response to the Protestant Reformers.
1. They also argued from the LXX, and from the example of the EO church.
2. And from some of the church fathers, including Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexander, and Augustine.
E. Why were the books rejected by the Reformers?
1. The first reason is that the Jews never accepted the Apocrypha as part of their Bible. How could it be part of the OT if the Jews never recognized it as such? They were the people of God at the time.
a. Josephus was a great first century Jewish historian. His careful historical records have been monumental in the history of our understanding of Jewish history and the first century. He was firmly convinced that the books of the Apocrypha did not belong in the Bible.
2. Then there’s the testimony of Jesus about the OT. He treated the OT as if it was complete, as if it was settled, as if it was the word of God. He also made it clear that what He said was just as inspired, just as authoritative as the OT (e.g. Luke 24:27, 44)
a. And though He never gave a list of the books in the OT canon, He did quote the OT many, many times. In fact, Jesus and His apostles quoted from or cited every book of the OT, almost 4000 times.
3. Though there may be NT allusions to the Apocrypha, there are no clear NT quotations of it, and it’s never cited as authoritative, never with the kind of language often used when the OT is being quoted, like “It is written” or “It says” or simply the Greek word HOTI, which is often used to introduce a quote from Scripture.
4. Down through church history there has been a long and continuous line of great Bible scholars who rejected the Apocrypha, including Origin, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Jerome (the greatest ancient Bible scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate), and even some Roman Catholic scholars at the time of the Reformation.
5. Finally, the Reformers rejected the Apocrypha because it fails the test of propheticity (originating from or having the endorsement of a prophet). And there are many reasons for this conclusion:
a. None of the writings in the Apocrypha claim to be prophetical, or divinely-inspired. One even insists it is not prophetical (1Macc.9:27).
b. There is no new messianic truth in it.
c. The Jewish teachers believed and taught that prophecy had ceased in Israel after Malachi.
III. NT canon: primacy of the Church
A. The RC/EO argue that a church council determined the NT canon which means that the church has primacy over the Bible.
1. For Reformation Christians, the Bible is the big thing. For RC/EO, the Church is the big thing.
2. The NT canon we accept today was adopted by a church council late in the 4th century AD.
B. But there are many reasons why this argument is false.
C. First of all, the church did not come up with the idea of a canon or a Bible. It was inherited from the Jews in general and by Jesus in particular (Christ & the Bible by John Wenham).
1. The fact is, the OT canon increased gradually, accepted on the basis of prophetic authorship or endorsement. In 200BC, in the book of The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, most of the OT books are listed as scriptural.
D. The inspiration of the NT epistles was clear right from the very beginning.
1. 2Thessalonians 2:15 “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”
2. 2Thessalonians 3:14 “If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.”
3. 1Corinthians 14:37 “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.”
E. These letters were received by the church and placed alongside the OT as being the word of God.
1. 2Peter 3:15-16 “Count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
2. Paul’s letters were considered part of the canon of Scripture even during His own lifetime.
3. (The NT epistles were also read in the churches as the word of God, after the pattern of OT readings in the synagogues – 1Thes.5:27, Col.4:16, Rev.1:3).
F. The gospels were also written and recognized as Scripture and included alongside the OT:
1. 1Timothy 5:18 “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’ ” — quoting Deut.25:4 and then Luke 10:7 side by side as Scripture.
2. So, the canon already existed during the age of the apostles, and was growing, just as it had in the OT.
3. The earliest church fathers, like Polycarp, Ignatius and Clement, also recognized these writings as Scripture in the late 1st century or early 2nd century (see The Works of BB Warfield, Vol.1: Revelation and Inspiration, p.452).
a. E.g. Clement of Rome, in his epistle to the Corinthians {around 95AD} quotes from or refers to Matthew, Luke, Romans, Corinthians, Hebrews, 1Timothy, and 1Peter.
b. E.g. Ignatius in 115AD argued with the Judaizers over the acceptance of early NT books: “When I heard some saying, ‘Unless I find it in the Old [Books] I will not believe the Gospel (referring to the early NT books)’ on my saying, ‘It is written,’ they answered, ‘That is the question.’ To me, however, Jesus Christ is the Old [Books]; his cross and death and resurrection, and the faith which is by him, the undefiled Old [Books] — by which I wish, by your prayers, to be justified. The (OT) priests indeed are good, but the High Priest (Jesus) better.”
c. So we see that for Ignatius, the NT was not a different book from the OT, but part of the one body of Scripture with it. (BB Warfield)
G. The NT gospels and epistles were not received as nice writings for a while and eventually recognized as Scripture, but were recognized as Scripture from the get-go.
H. These books began to be copied as one collection at least by the end of the first century, though we cannot be certain of what books were included because we only have fragments of those collections.
1. But the evidence suggests it contained all four gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul, Peter, James and John with the possible exceptions of Philemon and 2&3John, though there was some variation according to locality (BB Warfield).
2. “By AD 170 (at the latest) not only was the concept of NT Scripture firmly established, but the main contents of the new Canon were undisputed: four gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1Peter, 1John.” (John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, p.122)
I. It is not as though the church didn’t have a NT until the Third Council of Carthage. There were some questions over the exact boundaries of the Canon, but there was definitely a concept of a NT with mostly agreed-upon books which were used and relied on and thought of as Scripture, without a church council having made an official decision on the canon.
J. There were a few uncertainties.
1. We must remember that the first century world was very different from ours.
a. Regionalism was much more prominent on account of transportation and communication issues.
b. The original copies of the books were scattered throughout the Roman Empire: Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, Rome.
c. So there were regional collections of books which varied slightly in their contents. One region didn’t yet have this book, another was missing these three, and so forth.
2. There were many other “Christian” books being circulated as well. Many of them were clearly heretical or fraudulent. But some were so good, so valuable, so helpful that some wondered if they might not be divinely-inspired.
3. “Only three of the excluded documents were given serious consideration for inclusion in the NT: the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the First Letter of Clement of Rome.”
a. (These excluded documents were considered important and useful for the church throughout church history.)
4. “Most of the controversy over the canon in the earlier centuries concerned not what was excluded but what was actually included, debate went on for some time about whether to include Hebrews, 2Peter, 2&3John, Jude and Revelation.” (RC Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, p.36)
K. The RC/EO claim that the church made the NT at the Third Council of Carthage. They claim that “the Church finally got around to collecting and recognizing the official Canon of the NT.” (Father Patrick) And they claim that the fact the Church did it shows that the Church has primacy over the Scripture.
1. They think “the formation of the Canon rests on the authority of the church, whereas in the Protestant understanding, it rests on the providence of God.” (RC Sproul)
L. Think again about Jesus. It’s not that Jesus established the OT canon. He didn’t announce that the following books were officially a part of the canon. But His teaching made it clear that there was an accepted set of books which the Jews considered to be Scripture. And there had not been any official council decision or such. This proves that a church council is not even needed in order to have a canon of Scripture.
1. The church does not determine canonicity; it does not make something canonical. Rather, it recognizes canonicity; it discovers canonicity.
2. Imagine being outside at night with a group of friends looking at the starry sky. Most of the lights in the sky are clearly stars (or planets or galaxies). Some are obviously planes flying by. But then one person points to a rather bright light on the horizon: “Look, there’s a very bright star!” But another person says, “I think that’s a plane.” So, you poll the group. Does the group’s vote make it a star or a plane? Of course not. But all you have to do is wait awhile and it becomes obvious whether it’s a star or a plane. So it is that it took some time to figure out if a few of the books were Scripture or not.
3. The church does not decide the Bible; it discerns the Bible. So, the church is not over the Bible, but sits under it and listens to its authoritative message.