Saturday, June 27, 2015
The New Testament canon
I think it is axiomatic that Christians accept the Bible as the word of God. If you don't accept the Bible as the word of God but still claim to be a Christian, you are some sort of hyphenated Christian. I would call Episcopalians and Anglicans generally, post-Christians. Their adoration of homosexuals flies in the face of explicit Bible teachings in both the Old and New Testaments so they clearly do not accept the Bible as the word of God.
But what is meant by "word of God"? Did God use the Bible writers as some sort of stenographers -- dictating precisely every word they wrote? People who believe that are said to be "verbal inspiration" believers. The verbal inspiration doctrine has great difficulties, however. Take the account of what happened at Christ's tomb when his followers found his body no longer there. The four gospels give rather different accounts of what happened.
In Matthew 28 for instance, we read that when the two Marys approached the tomb, a glorious angel came down and rolled away the stone.
In Mark 16 however we find that the stone had already been rolled away before they got there. So they went into the tomb and met a young man sitting in it who told them Christ was risen.
And in Luke 24 we find that the women went into the tomb and were puzzled to find it empty. But then two men in shining garments suddenly appeared beside them. And it was only after they had bowed to the men did the men tell them that Christ is risen.
And John 20 is different again. This time it was just Mary Magdalene who came to the tomb and found it empty. This time nobody appeared to her so she ran away to tell some of the disciples. So the disciples came to the tomb and examined its contents. Then the disciples just went home. But Mary stayed on. And then two angels in white appeared and told her that Christ was risen
So we have four different accounts. Was there one angel or two, for instance? The accounts are not necessarily wrong. They are about as consistent as what you get in court when different eye-witnesses to a crime are being examined. So is God as scatterbrained as four human witnesses? Surely not. If he had dictated every word he would just have given the actual events, not what looks like a set of wobbly recollections.
So few Christians now believe in verbal inspiration. They believe that the Bible writers wrote their own thoughts in their own way but God was behind those thoughts, gently guiding them in the right direction.
But then another problem arises. How do we know who had God behind their thoughts? There were many documents around in the early days which contained accounts of Christ's history and teachings. Why did they all not make it into the New Testament?
The Roman Catholic church has an answer to that. They say that the church made the pick. They say that the church knew which document was divine and knocked back the others: It was the church that assembled the NT.
That is not much of an answer however. For a start, the church at that time was almost entirely located in the Greek-speaking cities of the Eastern Mediterranean lands. Rome was a distant offshoot. So the discussion about which documents were divine occurred in the Greek churches, not in Rome. And the Greek Orthodox church does to this day with some justice regard itself as the lineal descendant of the original Christian church and say that authority about the canon belongs to them
Even if we accept the Roman claim, however, it just pushes the question back one step. How did the church know which books were divine? The only reasonable answer to that is that God influenced the minds of the men of the church to make the right decisions.
But if God was working through the minds of men, why did it have to be just one group of men? Surely it could have been men anywhere in the Christian world and not merely a few big shots in Rome! So, broadly, the answer to the question of what formed the canon is a simple one from a Christian viewpoint: If God inspired the writing of the various books, he could surely also see to it that the right ones were selected as holy!
So how do I think the books of the Bible were chosen? I do actually lean to an explanation that would fit in with God's guidance. The history of the matter is that there was a considerable debate in the early days about which books were new revelation -- and various collections were made which embodied particular people's view of what was divine. But after a while a consensus did emerge. And it was an inclusive consensus: Enough books were included to keep most people happy.
So was God behind that consensus? Since I am an atheist I think not but a Christian could reasonably think so. What I think happened is that those books which made most sense and sounded good at the time gradually, amid debate, came to be generally accepted as holy.
With his background in Greek learning, Paul was quite a good theologian, he wrote very energetically, wrote very extensively and he explicitly claimed divine guidance -- so it would appear that the whole available corpus of his writing was included.
And in the nature of these things, a tradition developed which saw that early consensus as authoritative.