The Canon and the Crowbar

First, let me remind any who read this and don’t know that I also have a web site at http://www.oldoldstory.org. Rose Creek Village’s home page is http://www.rosecreekvillage.com. We are having a “writers guild” meeting on Oct. 14, and we will be working to make updates to the RCV web site more common. Hopefully, you’ll be seeing weekly updates there by mid-November.

The Canon and the Crowbar was the working title of a book I wrote back in 1991. Scroll Publishing was going to publish it in 1992, but I had a falling out with them in the summer of that year. The falling out was mainly because the president of Scroll Publishing was going to join one of the Catholic churches, and I wasn’t willing to join with him. I never shopped that book around to other publishers because not long after that I decided that the book’s approach to reviving an honest and committed Christianity was the wrong approach.

However, the title applies well to this post. I am reading A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert. I’m in the chapter about the Bible and the church. It’s chapter three, but I’m not reading the book in order, so I may have read more than three chapters. I’ve just been skipping around in the book; it’s been more fun that way.

The author doesn’t do a great job of starting out the chapter. I don’t blame him; I blame the editors. He appears on the first three pages to be arguing that the Pre-Nicene church (before Nicea in AD 325) didn’t believe in verbal inspiration. I couldn’t understand how he could argue this; they clearly did believe in verbal inspiration. By the fourth page, though, it becomes clear that what he’s really arguing is that the “Bible” of the early church was larger than ours. He writes, “In reality, using the fathers’ reference to Scripture . . . forces us to adopt a wider canon than Protestants currently hold.”

Keep in mind this is a Protestant author. The book is part of a series of resources for Evangelicals put out by Baker Academic. It’s very well done. The author know what he’s talking about, even if the introduction to chapter three is somewhat–well, a lot–unclear.

In order to make his point (which is extremely easy to make if one has actually read the early church writers) he mentions things like Polycarp (d. A.D. 155) quoting 1 Clement 5:4–well, rats; I just looked that up; that’s a really poor example. No one would agree that Polycarp’s quoting Clement there. Good grief. Well, now you know why you should always check your sources.

Let me give you a better example. It is clear in the writings of the early churchthat they read 1 Enoch. In fact, we don’t have to go to the 2nd century. We can go right to the Bible. There Jude, of course, quotes 1 Enoch directly (1:9 or 2:1, depending on which version you reference).  You probably already know he quotes the person Enoch there, but you may not have known that he’s quoting word for word from a book that’s still available. He is, and all of the early church writers were at least familiar with it (in my opinion).

One of the most unusual places I found a reference to Enoch is in Justin’s writings (c. AD 150).  He writes:

 But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices . . . (2 Apology 5)

Here he tells us that the demons are the children of the angels that transgressed, the “giants” or “nephilim” mentioned in Genesis 6:4. In another place, he speaks of those “who are seized and cast about by the spirits of the dead,” and he refers to these as “demoniacs” (1 Apology 18). This teaching is from the book of Enoch. In 1 Enoch the children of angels and the women they married were giants. The giants were judged by God, and their spirits were condemned to wander the earth till the judgment. This would explain their desire to possess people’s bodies, and it also might explain “Legion’s” request to Jesus not be sent out of the local area (Mk 5:10).

Whether you agree with Justin that demons are the spirits of dead men or not, there is no doubt that he was familiar with and believed 1 Enoch. There is no doubt that the letter of Jude, which is in the Bible, quotes 1 Enoch directly. Even to this day, the Ethiopian Orthodox church has 1 Enoch in their Bible.

There’s much more, of course. There are numerous citations from the Roman Catholic Apocrypha in the early fathers, and there’s other citations–given as Scripture–that we have no idea where they came from. 2 Timothy 3:8 references Jannes and Jambres, from the no longer extant book called, not surprisingly, Jannes and Jambres. Hebrews 11 references Isaiah being sawn in two, which Evangelicals know as “tradition.” However, that tradition didn’t come from nowhere. It came from the book The Martyrdom of Isaiah.

The fact is, everyone knows the Pre-Nicene church didn’t have a close canon. There was debate about James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. The Assyrian Orthodox church ends their NT at 1 John to this day. 1 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, and the Letter of Barnabas were all referred to as Scripture by at least one early Christian writer.

I remember having a discussion with my 1st year Greek teacher (the only year of Greek I took) about 1 Enoch. His logic was dizzying. Basically, he said that since the Bible quotes 1 Enoch 1:9, that one verse is inspired. The rest isn’t, however, and, worse, he said 1 Enoch wasn’t written by Enoch. When I asked him why Jude said the quote is from Enoch, he said, again, that only 1:9 was spoken by Enoch. The rest isn’t from Enoch and isn’t inspired. Simply amazing.

So why does any of this matter? Well, for one, because it’s fascinating. Admit it, if you are a Christian, and you love the Scriptures, don’t you want to know these things? The only reason you wouldn’t want to know it is because you’re scared it will overthrow some belief you have about the Bible. If you’re not scared, however, and if you love the Scriptures, you have got to take delight in knowing how our current Bible came to be formed.

Secondly, this information matters because Christianity in the 21st century is an awful mess. Division and worldliness are rampant. Christians only deny this when they feel attacked. When they don’t feel attacked, however–like when they’re talking to each other–they admit it readily. Chuck Colson, in his book The Body, tells us a story–which he says is true–about a fistfight between the pastor and deacons of a church in Massachussets. He’s citing it as an example of the problems rampant in modern Christianity. One paper we received, writting against us but to friends by a pastor in Florida about 10 years ago, comments about the backbiting that is “common” in evangelical churches (and comments that love and care for one another is what his friends found with us at RCV; nonetheless, he didn’t like some doctrinal things, so he called us wolves).

So Christians know there is a problem–a big problem–in Protestant churches. Problems are solved by changing things; by doing things differently. Take the same actions, you will get the same results. Plenty of evangelical churches have tried “trying harder,” and overall it has not worked. Something has to change.

This little page is not written to say what needs to change; however, if you want to change, you have to accurately assess your current situation so that you know what needs to change. When a company has a financial problem, they don’t shoot in the dark. They audit their current situation; they find where the problems lie; then they make changes that fix the problems. Making random changes in hope that one of them will be successful is not a good way to go forward.

So Evangelicals need information. We (even with all my complaints about evangelicalism, I feel that we align most closely with them) need to make changes, and we need to know where to make those changes so they will be effective. The very best way to do that is to mimic those who are successful.

The 2nd century church was successful. When persecution came, they stood. When people spoke evil of them, they were able to boast that Christians live righteous lives and even submit to and support the Roman government that persecuted them. They succeeded in many areas where we wish we could succeed. It’s worth asking why.

And if it’s worth asking why, it’s worth knowing that the 2nd century church did not have a closed canon. Craig Allert says that evangelical writers “assume that the overriding concern of the church was to form a written collection . . . so that it might have a solid rule by which to govern its faith and life.” Evangelicals assume this about the primitive church because it is true about us. Evangelicals refer to the Bible as “the rule for faith and practice.” The early church had a “rule,” too, but it wasn’t the Bible. They called it “the rule of faith,” and it was a statement of basic beliefs. In the 2nd century, it was very short, but as heresies developed it grew a bit. Eventually, in the 4th century the “rule of faith” of the church in Caesarea was expanded by a couple words and became “The Apostles Creed,” which is repeated weekly in many churches to this day.

Think about the benefit of this. In the 2nd century church, that basic creed was the only required belief. In other areas, Christians were free to explore, learn, and argue. Such a policy would stop the Baptists and Pentecostals from dividing over spiritual gifts, the Church of Christ from dividing within itself over whether its Scriptural to have a church-run orphanage, and even the Methodists and Presbyterians from dividing over predestination and free will.

Of course, we all know that just adopting the Apostles Creed as the rule of faith for all churches would not cure the divisions of Evangelical Christianity. A lot more would need to be done. However, it is important to know that the holy, united, and powerful 2nd century church had as one of its traits that it’s “rule of faith” was short, and they did not split over interpretations of the whole Bible. In fact, they didn’t even agree on what the whole Bible was, because it was not collected into one book yet. There were a number of Scriptural books that were believed by the early church to be inspired. It would not hurt us a bit to learn from some of the ones they used, such as 1 Clement and The Epistle of Barnabas. The tract, “The Way of Light and Darkness,” is an excellent discussion of the Christian life that all of us could learn from, and it’s found in both The Epistle of Barnabas and The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles).

2 Timothy says that all Scripture is inspired by God. We all know that, but it would do us good to note what it says Scripture is for. It is to make us “wise for salvation,” and it is to equip us for every good work. Too often, we have used it to give reasons that we don’t have to do good works, and too often we have used it to equip us for some very bad works, such as dividing from one another, an offense that “the Bible” says will keep you out of the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:19-21).

We Evangelicals are believers in salvation by grace. Let it be known that grace is that influence from God that breaks sin’s power over us and teaches us to be “zealous for good works” (Rom. 6:14; Tit. 2:11-14). When our focus is on walking in grace in this way, the love that is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (upon those who obey him [Heb. 5:9]) will keep us from dividing over whether our hands are raised in the air in a Sunday morning church service. In fact, that love might very well prove to those who doubt that Jesus is really the Son of God (Jn. 17:20-23).

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3 Responses to The Canon and the Crowbar

  1. jim says:

    I've often wondered, because of the writing style and the use of the hortatory subjunctive, if Clement was actually the author of the book of Hebrews

    • shammahbn says:

      That's interesting. I guess I'll go look up "hortatory" subjunctive. I know what subjunctive is, but the only place I've ever heard "hortatory" is in the title of Justin's Hortatory Address to the Greeks. So many people have speculated on the author of Hebrews, but then there are those–not many, I admit–who are not convinced Clement wrote 1 Clement, either. His name's not on it.

  2. Frank Lee says:

    Writers guild huh? You probably would not consider me to be a part of that, but if by some small chance you would, I would love to help out.

Comments are closed.