“A. C. Sundberg’s popular definition of the canon is described as a list that is final, fixed, and closed. Possibly this works well as an end result, but does it fail to take into consideration that the Church functioned fully for a time with only the Old Testament accompanied by circulating gospel accounts and a batch of letters, whatever they may have consisted of (paraphrased)?”
What I ask here is did the Church in, say the second century, have a final, fixed, and closed list? The answer will of course depend on who determined which books legitimately belong in the Bible.
It may be helpful here to span a brief overview of how the Word came to be as it lends credence to the suggestion of a higher involvement than the mere choosings of men.
The Bible we hold today was written by at least 40 different authors over the course of 1400 to 1600 years. During its formation, contributors came in the likes of those from nearly every walk of life. Its books were written by kings and princes, prophets, farmers, fishermen, shepherds, soldiers, historians, scholars, professionals, and common laborers. It is written in a multitude of different genres and in at least three different languages.
Yet, when compiled, it becomes one book with one story. It brings all glory to a Holy God as He reveals Himself through His Son to redeem a lost and fallen world.
Peter explains the only means by which men could do this with his words, “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).”
This series isn’t meant to question these facts and realities, but to grasp how then it was determined which books and letters made the cut. From this point, I will not focus much on the Old Testament, as its establishment is hardly questioned from Jewish origination and was already intact by the birth of the church. These articles are primarily concerned with the New Testament as it exists today.
Bear with me… a brief few more words.
By the middle of the second century, we have record of Justin Martyr teaching from the “memoirs of the apostles.” From during this same time frame, the Muratorian Fragment (discovered by L.A. Muratori in the 18th century; a seventh century fragment determined to be a translation from Greek originally from 170) gives us somewhat of a list that may have been available to the church. I say ‘somewhat’ because part of the list is torn away and missing. What is given is a mention of the third Gospel, insinuating Luke, and therefore most likely Matthew and Mark as first and second. Also on the list are the Gospel of John, Acts, 13 letters by Paul, Jude, 2 letters by John, and Revelation. The list excludes Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, and 3 John (actually there is some question as to whether it is 2nd or 3rd John).
I share these points from the second century because as is well known, the fourth and sixteenth centuries are defining points in history for the Bible as we know it today.
Sundberg’s criteria holds weight in light of the divine intention for the church to receive only intended documentation (believers have available what God has given; no more, no less). But the process wasn’t instantaneous. To take a step even farther back, there had to be a time before Paul wrote to the churches when believers worked solely with the Old Testament and oral teaching.
The question then surfaces, how was it finally determined from the mass of letters and writings circulating, which ones were inspired Scripture? What role did the Christian community play in the selection process? If there was a human process, is it possible that erroneous works made their way into the Bible? Could some inspired writings be left out? Until next time…
- Who Loaded My Canon? (mtsweat.com)