Author Craig Branch –
Historical Attacks On the Canon
There are two primary aspects of apologetics often referred to as negative and positive apologetics. The latter has to do with presenting positive arguments for the Christian faith. Conversely, negative apologetics has to do with answering objections brought against the Christian faith. In this issue of Areopagus Journal, we will be addressing the issue of the biblical canon. The knowledge gained from this issue will be valuable for both positive and negative apologetics.
What do we mean by the canonicity of Scripture? The term “canon” originally meant “reed,” but later came to be understood as a measuring rod or a standard or norm. Applied to the Christian faith, the term “canon” relates to the collection of books known as the Bible and which serves as the doctrinal standard for Christian faith and practice. The authenticity of this collection is closely related to the question of the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Bible, topics covered in earlier issues of the journal.1
Some of the most common questions people have about the authority of Scripture are related to the issue of canonicity. Why are there 66 books in the Bible? Who says the 39 books of the Old Testament are the right ones and on what basis were they declared to be Scripture? And what about the New Testament? Who says the 27 books we have today are the only ones acceptable, and on what basis, and when did they finalize that list? And what about the Apocrypha, those “extra” books contained in the Roman Catholic Bible? Should the Gospel of Thomas be treated as an authentic record of Jesus sayings as the Jesus Seminar claims?
In addition to being a foundational part of why we believe what we believe, the answers to these questions have significant importance today because of the growing number of attacks by skeptics and heretics on the authenticity and exclusive claims of Christianity. In what follows, I will briefly survey some of these attacks on the biblical canon.
Historical Attacks on the Canon
Challenges to the biblical canon began early with the rise of cults and other world religions. Some of the earliest manifestations of such attacks were the pseudonymous books by Gnostic writers in the late first and second centuries who claimed apostolic authorship but taught Gnostic (“new age”) concepts.
Another key example is Islam which added the Koran to the “canon” and perverted the true teachings of God. A more modern example, similar to Islam, would be the Mormon Church which teaches continued revelation in the Book of Mormon, adding that many plain and precious parts of the Bible are missing today.2 In other words, they claim that there are p art s not included in the traditional Christian canon, the canon was not closed, and additional books can be added as Scripture (e.g. the four standard works of the Mormon church).
Contemporary Attacks on the Canon
Most contemporary attacks on the canonicity of the 66 books of the Bible find their inspiration in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries which led to the rise of higher biblical criticism and liberal theology. This school of thought views the Bible as a mere human product that reflects man’s fallible attempt to explain the mysteries of the universe and existence. They likewise view the formation of the canon as a purely human process motivated by theological and (perhaps) political concerns.
Many of the liberal theologians’ books have remained in the rarified air of seminaries and academic societies. They still affect the laity, though, because of the teaching and preaching of liberal pastors in many mainline denominations. Some examples of their writings related to canonicity are The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew and Lost Scriptures by Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Gospels , the writings of Harvard feminist (and biblical scholar) Karen King, as well as Rudolph Bultmann, Paul Tillich and others.
The public sees a constant stream of indoctrinating feature stories in popular news magazines like Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. For example, in one article we find, “centuries of scholarship have turned up little convincing evidence that His [Jesus’] closest disciples did much writing either. Who, then, wrote the 27 books that make up the traditional New Testament Canon? Could these books have been written by contemporaries of Jesus? Are they close to the original form? Or were they revised by early church leaders to reflect the changing views of who Jesus was, to address the problems of a growing church, or even advance political agendas?” The article goes on to amplify the recurring view of liberal biblical “scholars”: “[O]ther scholars have concluded that the Bible is the product of a purely human endeavor, that the identity of the authors is forever lost and that their work has been largely obliterated by centuries of translation and editing.”3
Another feature story in Time Magazine highlights the popular works of the Jesus Seminar.4 The Jesus Seminar is comprised of 50-74 liberal scholars who have concluded that only a very small percentage of the gospels teachings about Jesus are authentic while giving great weight and credibility to the so-called Gospel of Thomas.
The Time article also highlights Pagels’ The Gnostic Gospel, as well as Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism by Bishop John Shelby Spong, and Dan Brown’s best seller, The Da Vinci Code (soon to be released as a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks). The latter is a piece of propaganda against the authority of the New Testament. Its deceptive impact will be even stronger when the movie is released in 2006. The novel (claimed as historically-based fiction) accuses a secret, controversial Roman Catholic society (Opus Dei) of concealing a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene “by suppressing early alternative Scriptures.”
Defending the Canon
In this issue of Areopagus Journal, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III, professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, addresses the skeptical claims of these liberal scholars and the propaganda of The Da Vinci Code. In his article, “Why the ‘Lost’ Gospels Lost Out,” he responds to the claims of Pagel, King, Ehrman, and Dan Brown by demonstrating how they engage in revisionist history. He effectively debunks their theory that later church leaders invented Christianity by selecting and discarding the various books circulating in the churches according to their own ideology.
Paul Wegner, Old Testament professor at Phoenix Seminary, contributes an article detailing the evidence for the authenticity of the 39 books of the Old Testament (OT) titled “The Canon of Scripture in Jesus Day.” He begins with the direct authentication of Jesus to the contents of the Jewish OT canon, then shows how both Jewish authorities and the earliest Church fathers affirmed the existing OT.
It is also helpful to note that the New Testament writers, those Jews who followed and were taught by Jesus, acknowledged the authority of the OT canon. Paul, referring to the existing canon, wrote, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The New Testament writers quoted authoritatively from every book of the 39 books of the OT with the exception of Esther and Song of Solomon, while citing no apocryphal work.
Also, another key factor in determining the canonicity of a book has to do with whether or not the book itself claims or assumes divine authority or inspiration. Accordingly, we find the phrase “Thus saith the Lord,” more than 2,000 times in the OT books. In addition, we find expressions such as “Then the Lord [YHWH] put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord [YHWH] said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth’” (Jer. 1:9).
What about the New Testament (NT)? How do we know that its 27 books are the correct ones? Though the earliest Christians were not concerned with canonicity per se, they readily accepted the OT Scriptures sufficiently ratified by Jewish tradition, Jesus, and the apostles. And they accepted the teachings of Jesus and His appointed apostles whether received orally or by letter (1 Thes. 2:13; 4:1-2; 2 Thes. 2:15).
Moreover, we see the beginnings of canon criteria being given by Jesus, Paul and Peter. Jesus warned of the coming of false prophets and false Christs (Matt. 7:15; 24:23-26). Paul and Peter also warn about false Jesuses, false gospels, false apostles, and false teachers (2 Cor . 11:3-4, 12-15; Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Tim. 4:3-4; 1 Tim. 6:3; 4:1-3; 2 Peter 2:1-3; Jude 3-4). Finally, John also warned that the brethren are to “test the spirits” because of “many false prophets” going out into the world. Some rudimentary doctrinal criteria are introduced as well by which to test false prophets (Gal. 1:6-9; 1John 4:1-3). In addition, Paul, anticipating or aware of spurious counterfeit letters, sets forth a criterion of true apostolic origin as a mark of divine authority (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thes. 3:17; Philemon 19).
Terry Wilder, NT professor at Midwestern Baptist Seminary presents an article, “New Testament Canonicity.” Wilder describes the rise of heresies which necessitated the establishment of internal and external criteria for formulating the NT canon. He begins with the crucial foundation that Jesus himself divinely appointed and ordained His disciples and apostles to teach His messages (Matt. 28:18-20a), and instructed them that “The word that you hear is not mine but the Father s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, who the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:24b-26; see also John 15:26-27; 16:12-15). He points out as well that the apostles recognized their own writings to be inspired (2 Peter recognized their own writings to be inspired (2 Peter 21).
Wilder goes on to present the criteria Christians used in their prayerful deliberations over the canon during the early church councils. It is important to understand that the church councils that convened were not deciding in some arbitrary manner which books were in and which were out. They were seeking to affirm what the church had previously and always recognized as Scripture.
The last article in this issue is “How Do We Know They Got it right? The Epistemology of the Canon” by two ARC staffers, Vic Minish and Steve Cowan. In this article, they make a philosophical and theological case for trusting the deliberations of the early church councils that finalized the canonization process. As he does now, God placed within the early church gifted men who had the knowledge and expertise to examine the books that circulated within the church and apply objective criteria to recognize those that God had inspired. Most importantly, we can be confident that God providentially superintended the historical process to preserve his holy Word.
God has always worked in history to protect and preserve the Scriptures. We see this even in the Bible itself. Jeremiah the prophet was told by God to dictate “all the words that I have spoken to you” to his scribe who wrote them on a scroll (36:1-2, 4). King Jehoiakim angrily responded to the reading of Gods Word by burning the scroll. But God hid Jeremiah and the scribe for protection and gave Jeremiah “all the former words that were on the first scroll” to be recorded again (36:27-32). God preserved his word then and God preserved his word in the early church. The 66 books of the Bible are truly the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God – from God to us.
Craig Branch is the Director of the Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Alabama
For further reading:
1 See Areopagus Journal 2:1 (January, 2002) and 3:3 (May-June, 2003) for articles relevant to defending the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
2 Nephi 13:26-28(Book of Mormon); and Doctrines of Salvation Vol. 3, pp. 190-191.
3 U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 10, 1990): 61-62.
4 Time (December 22, 2003): 57.