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Faith Focus: Asking Questions of the Biblical Canon

I grew up in an evangelical church in which I learned to trust the Bible completely. When in that same church I learned that the Bible is actually a library of books written over the course of a thousand years or so, I began to wonder why some books, and not others, were chosen to be included in the collection. In my mind, inclusion in that library gave a text the status of an unquestionable authority, which made this question immensely important for me. I remember thinking to myself, “If people chose some books over others, they’d better have had good reasons for doing so.” And I needed to know what those reasons were.

In search of those reasons I started studying church history. I learned that the very first Christians were in an odd place when it came to their religious texts. They had their scriptures – what we would call the Old Testament – on top of which they had the teachings of Christ. But Christ had never written those teachings down, so the church had to find a way to preserve them. For a while they did so through an oral tradition, passing on stories and lessons by word of mouth, but eventually they decided they needed a written tradition because it would be less subject to change. So they had to ask: What should be included in the written tradition? To preserve Christ’s teachings as accurately as possible, they developed criteria for deciding which texts would preserve them best.

There are different ways of organizing these, but a common formulation is apostolicity, antiquity, and orthodoxy. Of these, apostolicity was the most important; in fact, the other two could be considered restatements of what apostolicity entails. In this context it means something like “taken from the words or teachings of an apostle”; as biblical scholar F.F. Bruce puts it, “Those whose apostleship was recognized by fellow-Christians were acknowledged to be Christ’s agents, speaking by his authority.” Therefore the texts that were recognized as such could be considered trustworthy sources of Christ’s teachings, and were included in the written tradition. This tradition later became the New Testament.

This made me wonder what made a book apostolic. The most obvious example I found was apostolic authorship, but I learned that apostolicity could extend beyond that. Just as the apostolic writings were trustworthy because they were believed to convey the teachings of Christ, so could other writings be trustworthy if they conveyed the teachings of an apostle. Thus, for example, the gospel of Mark could be apostolic; although Mark was not an apostle, he was believed to have worked under the apostle Peter.

Reflecting on this, I thought, “If books were selected to be included in the New Testament primarily because they were apostolic, then that means the New Testament’s source of authority was the authority of the apostles.” And this left me asking, “If this is true, shouldn’t all apostolic teachings be just as authoritative as the New Testament?”. I felt logically obligated to answer “yes,” which made my next question, “Is there anything outside the biblical canon that could count as apostolic?”.

I’m still not sure about that one. What of the oral tradition of Jesus’ teachings, not written down but passed on from the apostles to their successors and so on? What of the works of the Apostolic Fathers, the influential group of early Christians taught by apostolic tradition and believed to have had personal contact with the apostles? What of the first-century liturgies in which the apostles participated? What of the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds? Are these “apostolic”? If so, then shouldn’t we treat these the same way we treat the New Testament, as an ultimate authority?

I ask the reader for her thoughts.

Sources: F.F. Bruce, “The Canon of Scripture”; J. Chapman, “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Ellen Flesseman-Van Leer, “Prinzipien der Sammlung und Ausscheidung bei der Bildung des Kanons”; R.M. Grant, “The New Testament Canon”; Bruce Metzger, “The Canon of the New Testament”

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