Jan/Feb Issue of Theology Matters
Click here to read the Jan/Feb issue of Theology Matters with articles examining how the canon of Scripture was formed. Why were these 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books included in the canon instead of others? These may seem like abstruse historical questions, but they are a challenge that Christians hear regularly. We in Theology Matters are committed to helping church members answer such challenges.
It's as predictable as the coming of spring; Every year in the weeks before Easter, the media will run Easter specials highlighting “scholars” who claim that Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Thomas should have been included in the canon. These scholars claim that the reason the Gnostic gospels weren’t included is that church councils determined which books to include in the canon. These councils allegedly wanted to legitimate their own power in the church and so chose only those books that supported their orthodox perspective on Jesus. They then supposedly suppressed other books that offered different perspectives.
Elaine Pagels, professor at Princeton University, is a proponent of the suppression claim. In her book The Gnostic Gospels she points to, “[t]he efforts of the majority to destroy every trace of heretical ‘blasphemy’....” as the reason the Gnostic gospels never gained prominence.
But the truth is that no council determined the canon and imposed it on the church in the manner that Pagels and other critics imagine. Rather, councils acknowledged the books already being used widely in worship. The articles in the Jan/Feb issue of Theology Matters carefully follow the history of how the canon was formed. Renowned New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce writes:
One thing must be emphatically stated. The New Testament books did not become authoritative for the Church because they were formally included in a canonical list; on the contrary, the Church included them in her canon because she already regarded them as divinely inspired, recognizing their innate worth and general apostolic authority, direct or indirect. The first ecclesiastical councils to classify the canonical books were both held in North Africa—at Hippo Regius in 393 and at Carthage in 397—but what these councils did was not to impose something new upon the Christian communities but to codify what was already the general practice of those communities.
Princeton Theological Seminary theologian Bruce Metzger writes:
When, toward the close of the fourth century, church synods and councils began to issue pronouncements concerning the New Testament canon, they were merely ratifying the judgment of individual Christians throughout the church who had come to perceive by intuitive insight the inherent worth of the several books. In the most basic sense neither individuals nor councils created the canon; instead they came to perceive and acknowledge the self-authenticating quality of these writings, which imposed themselves as canonical upon the church.
The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses this supernatural quality of Scripture that we recognize:
The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem for the Holy Scripture;... yet, nothwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.
And Scripture itself reveals to us that, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correction and training in righteousness....” (2 Tim 3:16)
These are important truths to hold close in these coming weeks as we prepare our hearts for Easter, confirming our trust in God’s written Word that tells us of his Word made flesh and all he came to do among us.
Read the Jan/Feb issue of Theology Matters on the formation of the canon of Scripture by clicking here. If you would like to receive a printed copy, or multiple copies for class study, email us here.
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