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Is a Late Canon Bad News for Bible-Believers?

Canon comes from a Greek word meaning “rule” or “standard.” Christians use the word canon to describe the authoritative books which make up our Bible. These books are our rule and standard.

To review from the previous article, we don’t find all 27 books being labeled by the church as the definitive New Testament until the Councils of Carthage (AD 397 and 419). The first occurrence we see of all 27 books being listed together as Scripture was in a letter by church theologian Athaniasius in AD 367.

Skeptics readily point out these facts. However, taken in isolation, pointing to these late dates can be misleading and require background explanation.

It’s not just skeptics who stress these late dates. It might surprise some to learn that the Roman Catholic Church joins novelist Dan Brown and Muslim apologists in emphasizing these late dates—albeit for different reasons: the Roman Catholic Church due to its concept of ecclesiastical authority (i.e., to argue that it was the Roman Church that gave us our Scriptures); Dan Brown, in order to create conspiracy theories for popular novels; and Muslim apologists, in order to reconcile their prophet-only version of Jesus of Islam with the Qur’an’s apparent affirmation of Bible.

Think about it: we’ve moved from the 1st century with most Christians not owning their own Bible to the 7th century with Muhammad referring to Christians and Jews as “the people of the book.” Much had changed in six centuries.

Why Recognize a Book as Scripture?

In order to affirm a book as part of Scripture, there were criteria the book needed to meet. Was the document apostolic, or from a close associate of an apostle? Was it used in churches for orthodox teaching? Was it internally authoritative? Some writings were early and orthodox but not apostolic—for example, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, Clement of Rome (possibly referred to in Philippians 4:3).

We also know which New Testament documents the early church Fathers cited as authoritative. Canonical Scripture was viewed as common ground for Nicaean debates (i.e., more or less a debate of Christological interpretation). And although some were not in agreement regarding every detail of the canon until the 4th century, it does not follow that the NT documents enjoyed no consensus on their authority beforehand.

Many church leaders came together at these councils, representing churches from a variety of regions, languages, cultures and textual families. After Constantine, persecution had subsided, providing more freedom for church leaders to convene.

In fact, it was heresy which forced the Early Fathers to clearly indicate which texts and teachings were and were not authoritative. For example, the heretic Marcion affirmed only a list of Paul’s letters and part of Luke’s Gospel as Scripture. Despite Marcion’s great wealth, the church at Rome rejected his teachings, prioritizing truth over money and her Old Testament heritage of monotheism over polytheism. Apparently both Tertullian and Polycarp denounced Marcion, signifying his rejection in both the West and the East. This decision by the church underscores an established authority of the four Gospels by mid-2nd century.

Hesitancy to recognize the authority of every NT book need not be understood negatively, as these guys wanted to get this right.

What Does a Late Canon Actually Show?

In reality, late canonization of the NT can actually prove advantageous for Christian apologetics. Roman Catholics mostly agree regarding canon, mainly disagreeing regarding how much authority the NT has. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci’s Code and our Muslim apologist friends need to present the later church councils as guilty of forcing their views in order to weaken the veracity of the gospel.

However, the Councils at Carthage undermine such conspiracy theories, highlighting the fact that the originals and their copies never existed in one place at one time to be corrupted and redistributed to feature a divine Jesus rather than a prophet-only Jesus.

Norman Geisler wrote,

“Since Christianity was an international religion from the beginning, there was no tightly knit prophetic community which received all inspired books and collected them in one place. Local and somewhat complete collections were made from the very beginning, but there is no evidence of a central and official clearinghouse for inspired writings. . . . Within about two hundred years after the first century, nearly every verse of the New Testament was cited in one or more of the over thirty-six thousand citations by the Fathers.”[1]

According to a general outline of the New Testament story, the Church grew exponentially after Jesus’ Resurrection. Believers began spreading the news everywhere. Disciples were made and local churches formed prior to receiving letters from Paul, Peter, etc. For example, the church existed in Rome before Paul ever wrote Romans.

Apostolic teaching already existed in these churches. The gospel of Jesus and the teachings of the early church were never just privately held but rather publicly proclaimed. The gradual formation of the NT accurately reflects the historical reality and rapid expansion of the early church. The authority of the apostles and their associates serves as the best explanation as to why heretical groups (e.g., Gnostics) later produced pseudepigraphic writings, attempting to attach their false teachings to prominent 1st-century names.

Skeptics bear the burden of demonstrating that the ancient church was in significant disagreement regarding Jesus’s identity, actions, and teachings, and that the church over the following 3 centuries erroneously identified the 27-canonical books as apostolic, authoritative, orthodox, and inspired.

[1] Norman Geisler and William Nix, From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible, revised and expanded (Chicago: Moody, 2012), 131, 137-138.

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