The Bible and the Church

Well, I’m still reading A High View of Scripture? by Craig Allert, and I’m still it in random order.I’m in the middle of the third chapter, but I’ve read the end and beginning of it already. He brings up a very interesting point I’d like for any of you who might happen to read this to consider.

Quoting a writer named Frederick Norris, he says, “Does it make sense to say that the fourth-century church was making very good decisions about the Bible but mostly poor ones about everything else?”

The point he is making is that it is the 4th century church that established the canon. With the exception of the Muratorian Fragment, which the author points out is disputed (as to date), all the lists of books of the Bible are fourth century and later. If it is the fourth century church, the author argues, that chose the books of the Bible that we agree with, how can we think that the 4th century church was corrupt? They were corrupt, but they chose good and inspired books of the Bible, anyway?

I felt compelled to answer his question because I believe the 4th century church was very corrupt. I’ve written often on the difference between Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, which covers the period from the birth of Christ to A.D. 323, and Socrates Scholasticus’ Ecclesiastical History, which covers the period from A.D. 323-75. The latter is full of violence, political intrigue, and corruption. So how could a corrupt church pick the right books for the Bible?

The fourth century church didn’t pick the books of the Bible. They did make the determination that they needed to make an exhaustive and exclusive list of which books belong in the Bible–well, not in the Bible, per se. They’d never heard of the Bible. They were simply making a list of the books which could be read as authoritative in the church, and they based their list on the determinations of their more holy predecessors of the Pre-Nicene era. Thus it was not the corrupt 4th century church that chose the books of the Bible; instead, they chose to actually make a list of the books of the Bible and attempt to exactly define the canon, an attempt that I definitely do not think was good.

They didn’t succeed. Even in the fourth century, those canons varied slightly. To this day, the Roman Catholic (RCC) and Orthodox churches that recognize the fourth century councils as authoritative disagree on the books that belong in the Bible. The RCC has 7 books in its Old Testament that the Protestants don’t have. The Orthodox churches have even more. It’s hard to get an Orthodox Christian to tell you what books belong in his Bible, but it often includes 3 and 4 Maccabees and 2 Esdras, neither of which are in the RCC Bible (there’s a list at http://orthodoxstudybible.com/uploads/BibleBooksChart.pdf). On top of this the Assyrian Orthodox Church, which is basically the “Catholic” church of Iran and has three English speaking congregations in the United States, has a Bible that ends at 1 John. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes 1 Enoch (a book which is quoted in the book of Jude in our New Testament).

The writer of A High View of Scripture points out that the word canon, which means the authoritative list of books that are Scripture to us, meant something different to the early church. A canon is a measure or rule. To the early church, the canon was not the list of books of Scripture, but the “Rule of Faith.” The Rule of Faith was a short creed that each church had, which was memorized at baptism and required for each Christian to believe. Tertullian points out that Matthew 28:19 is such a baptismal creed (De Corona 3), requiring faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The creed of Tertullian’s day (c. A.D. 200) had become somewhat longer. By the early 4th century, the Rule of Faith of the church of Caesarea, with slight (but historically significant) adjustments, would become the creed of the Council of Nicea, which by our time is known as the Apostles’ Creed.

It is this basic set of beliefs, plus a strict desire for a holy life, that kept the early church on track. We Protestants are really no different, though we fool ourselves into thinking we are. We have a basic set of beliefs, a statement of faith, barely longer than the Rule of Faith of the churches of the Nicene area. The Bible sure isn’t going to move us from those beliefs. The very center of the faith for most Protestant denominations is “salvation by faith alone,” yet the only occurrence of the words “faith alone” in the Bible is in James 2:24, where we are told that justification is not by faith alone. It is a good thing that Protestants weren’t allowed to set the canon themselves, because Martin Luther, the most well-known of the Reformers, would not have included James for that very reason. Since he could not exclude James, he limited himself to introducing it in his translation of the New Testament as an epistle of straw with nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it. Clearly, Martin Luther’s canon, his rule of faith, was not the 27 books of the Protestant New Testament.

Unfortunately, the Protestant rule of faith differs from the early church’s in one very important area. The early church was very careful to base their rule on traditions they had received from the apostles. Protestants are forced to hope that their tradition is correctly interpreted from 2000-year-old writings, translated from another language, based in another culture, and mostly short letters addressing problems. We can’t agree on how to interpret those writings, not in almost any area. Salvation, eternal security, baptism, the gifts of the Spirit, the baptism of the Spirit, the return of Christ, the literalness of Scripture; pick any area, and you will find Protestant churches which disagree with each other over it.

So, my answer to the question of why I would trust the decisions of a corrupt 4th century church is that I wouldn’t. I don’t think the canon should have been closed. The 4th century church chose the books it did because of what was accepted by the earlier churches. As a result the choices they made were pretty good ones. There was no way, of course, to know for certain what to do with books like Hebrews, Jude, 1 Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas, because there was no consistent pattern in the 2nd and 3rd century churches for these books. So they guessed. No problem, though, because we’re not really Bible believers, anyway. We, like the early churches, have a statement of faith that we believe instead. So if our denomination holds to eternal security, then we simply ignore or explain away Scriptures like Hebrews 6:2-6. If our denomination believes you can lose your salvation, then we read Hebrews 6:2-6 at face value. In like fashion, how we interpret “that which is perfect” in 1 Corinthians 13 will have nothing to do with how we read that verse, but only with what our denomination teaches us to believe.

Sounds like a mess, doesn’t it? I know I’m taking a really hard shot at the Protestant motto of “No creed but the Bible.” I’m arguing that not only is this not true, but it shouldn’t be. Craig Allert’s book takes an even stronger shot at it because he’s got more space than me. But what are we to do? The early church had tradition handed down by the apostles in the recent past. Their leaders were given the specific task of preserving that tradition, and they carefully chose godly replacements with the same commitment to preserving that tradition. They didn’t pay their elders, but supported them in the same manner as the widows and orphans. They chose those elders from the midst of the congregation based on their holy and committed lives. They had other apostolic churches to consult and compare with. Thus, they had good reason to believe that the Rule of Faith to which they held was apostolic, inspired, and reliable.

But what about us? Our statements of faith are disagreed upon from church to church. Some of our most basic tenets were inherited from a man who said that it was impossible to reconcile Paul and James. Two of the three major Reformers (Luther and Zwingli) refused to unite, and two major and separate movements were formed from the very beginning (Reformed/Calvinist and Lutheran). If it is not the Bible that will support our statements of faith, what will?

God knew that Christians, being human, would never be able to agree on interpretations of spiritual writings. Religious people, from the time of Israel until now, have never agreed on those things. The world, the Scriptures say, will never know God through wisdom (1 Cor. 1:19-21). The early church left room for this, picking issues of holiness, commitment to God, and a few basic doctrines as the places to draw lines. What will we do?

There’s a rather amazing promise made in 1 John 2:27. It says that we don’t need anyone to teach us, but that the “anointing” will lead us into all things, and it will be true and not a lie. That’s an amazing promise, but we miss something as English speakers. The “you” in 1 Jn. 2:27 is plural. We don’t notice because there is no difference between a plural and singular you in English. In most other languages, including the Greek that John wrote in, there is a difference, and John used the plural you.

Jesus promised to be with his disciples, wherever two or three are gathered in his name. Thus, what we have today is what mankind has always had. We have God. Our only hope is God. Our hope, as I hope you can see above, is not in a book God wrote; it is in God himself. If we will deny that tendency of our flesh towards “schisms, divisions, and factions” (Gal. 5:19-21), and join together in abandon to God–because you can’t be his disciples unless you deny yourself and lose your life–we have hope. We have promises that he will be with us and that his anointing will lead us into what is true and not a lie. The church, the Scriptures say, is the pillar and support of the truth. We have tried to make the Scriptures the pillar and support of the truth, but it will not work. It says the church fills that role. The church the Scriptures know of is not the Baptists, Assemblies of God, or the Roman Catholics or Orthodox. It’s those two or three disciples gathered in his name, where Jesus is. They will find themselves, in their utter submission to God, not only standing on, but being, the pillar and support of the truth.

I’m always writing blogs that are too long, but I have to add one last point. God is never going to guide you into a systematic theology. Even the expanded Rule of Faith that the early church had was short. It’s a paragraph, not a book. Our experience at Rose Creek Village is that God regularly guides us into what we ought to do, not into a good rule or belief that we can rely on the next time we need to know what to do. No, we need the guidance of God every time. God’s not near as interested in knowledge as we are. He wants us to constantly depend on him, and we can.

This is not to say that the Scriptures are not to be relied upon to learn from. They are able to make you wise for salvation, says Paul, and so I have been trying to use them in this last section to show you how to be saved from today’s bizarre system of Christianity and return to what the apostles founded. The Scriptures, however, according to the Scriptures, are for “rebuke, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16,17). Do you notice any consistency in the things mentioned in those verses? Rebuke–reproof–correction–instruction in righteousness–equipped for every good work; not one of these things has the least bit to do with systematic theology. Everything has to do with righteousness and good works. The Scriptures are supposed to be used to rebuke, reprove, and correct us and help us correct each other. They are supposed to instruct us in righteousness, and equip us so that we can actually do righteousness rather than just know what it is. We are missing the boat when we use it to teach doctrines in seminaries and Bible schools.

Oh, this was originally about the canon and the 4th century, wasn’t it? That being the case, I should add this. You really ought to read some of those books that didn’t make it in, but almost did. You ought to read 1 Clement, the Didache, and the Letter of Barnabas. You definitely ought to be familiar with 1 Enoch, which is quoted in Jude. Things like the Wisdom of Solomon and other books of the Catholic Apocrypha should be read, too. And you’re simply missing great stories if you haven’t read the Roman Catholic’s chapters 13 and 14 of Daniel, called Susanna and Bel and the Dragon. They are all available free online. Forget about those people who told you we ought to wrap up all those letters and books into a bound edition called the Bible and who left out books that were precious to your holy, united, and powerful predecessors of the 1st and 2nd century.

I want to talk a bit more about Craig Allert’s question that I started with, but from a different tack. I’ll do that in the next post.

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