Were the scriptures really handed to humanity by God on a silver platter as a divine book to help us get our theology straight? Considering the way most christians describe bibles as the “word of God,” infallible, inspired, authoritative, etc., as well as the way they spend enormous amounts of time meticulously studying them, you might have been led to think so, although that may have only been so on a subconscious level.
Yet history seems to tell us otherwise.
In this post I explore the origin and canonization of the scriptures and what they can tell us about what the scriptures are (especially what they are not) for us today.
Let me state at the outset some things I am not saying.
Throw away your bibles.
Don’t read the scriptures.
The scriptures have nothing to teach us.
God doesn’t care about the scriptures.
The scriptures are no different than any other book.
With that said, I may be questioning some commonly-held beliefs about the scriptures. So get ready to be challenged, and perhaps surprised, by the information I present and its implications.
Belief in any doctrine related to sacred texts is not included in any of the earliest creeds
The creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, were summaries of the most fundamental beliefs of the early church. In essence, they communicated what the believers of that time considered to be essential. They included beliefs about the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, their natures and relationships with each other, the life, death, resurrection, descent, and ascension of Jesus, the Church, eternal life, etc.
Interestingly, however, not a single one of the early creeds (or if I am simply unaware of some, certainly not the major creeds) contain any reference to sacred writings, let alone to the collection of writings that are now referred to as the scriptures. What this tells us is that, regardless of whatever significance they may have attached to the scriptures, the early church did not consider a certain view of the scriptures to be indispensable.
Some might say that this is irrelevant because the New Testament canon had not yet been formed. That no mention of sacred writings is made in the early creeds is true, however, of creeds written after the canonization of the scriptures at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) as well (for example, the Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) and the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.)). Further, the early church did have the Old Testament. If it was as important as it is made out to be today (the so-called “word of God”), why didn’t the early church at least include a statement of the importance of the Old Testament in the creeds? Probably because it really wasn’t that important, at least in the way people nowadays often consider it to be important.
Thus, beliefs about sacred writings, such as inspiration, infallibility, or authority (if they even existed at all) were not essential to the early church.
That the canonization of the scriptures was a God-inspired event has to be assumed
Neither God nor the scriptures ever claimed that the Council of Nicaea would be THE council to decide the authoritative writings. Thus it is not necessarily true that God superintend the council or its decisions.
If you would like to assume that God did indeed superintend the councils and its decisions, that’s fine. But recognize that it is also fine to reject such an assumption. Indeed, everyone chooses which councils and which decisions of which councils to accept as authoritative for themselves, and, concerning this topic, there is great variety among believers. I have written about this in detail here.
Some might object that the matters concerning the scriptures were a collective decision, not the opinions of individuals. But since when has majority vote been a reliable guide for the church? Never, really. There are plenty of points in history where the majority of believers believed doctrines that are now commonly considered to be heretical.
Some might also appeal to the biblical canon being a long-held tradition. But acceptance by many over a long period of time doesn’t validate anything; there are plenty of mistaken doctrines and beliefs that were and still are like that. It’s merely an appeal to the majority opinion and the duration of that opinion across history. If people had always faithfully adhered to such ways of thinking, slavery would still be a worldwide reality.
The canonization of the scriptures is a tradition of man, and to take it to be anything more than that is a personal choice. If you believe God intended the councils, their decisions, and the whole event of canonization to take place, that’s fine. But please be intellectually honest enough to say that that is an assumption that you hold to, and it makes sense and is okay for other people to not hold that same assumption.
There have always been different groups of believers with different canons
At the most basic level, there is variation as to which books are considered to be a part of the biblical canon. You can check out a number of different canons among different christian traditions here and here.
Yet that is not all.
It is also uncertain whether certain parts of books should be included. For example, Mark 16:9-20 is believed by some to be a later addition to the original gospel written by Mark and thus believe it should be excluded from the canon, while others believe it was part of the original and should thus be included.
There is also the question of which manuscripts should be translated. For example, the Eastern church (the Greek and Russian Orthodox) believes that the Septuagint is the inspired version of the Old Testament, unlike Protestants who consider the Hebrew version to be inspired.
There has always been diversity, even in Judaism before and during Jesus’ time on earth, as to how the scriptures were inspired, what constituted the canon, what was considered authoritative, and methods of interpretation. Should we really think that it should be any different now?
The canon was created not to determine what writings people should exegete truth from but to combat heresy
Contrary to what is commonly stated in ignorance, the Council of Nicaea did not focus on the New Testament canon.
Creating a canon was the idea of the heretic Marcion. He was the first christian in recorded history to propose and delineate a uniquely christian canon (c. 140 A.D.). Other christians created different canons to combat heresies that Marcion was promoting. But the battle against Marcionism within christianity ended long ago. This calls into question the necessity and purposefulness of the current biblical canon.
The purpose demonstrated by the early church for canonization was to choose writings that promoted what they considered to be good theology and, in addition, to counter what they considered to be heresy. Yet the canon is nowadays used in the opposite way; instead of deriving a canon from good theology, theology is derived from a canon.
This is a chicken and egg problem – which comes first, a canon or theology? I won’t attempt to answer this question here.
I will mention, however, that theology has undergone significant developments since the times of the early church. Is it too much of stretch, then, to suggest that we, following in their footsteps, can choose a canon that suits our own theological paradigms?
The people who chose what writings would be canonized did not necessarily choose them with the intention of giving them the status that is nowadays commonly attributed to the scriptures
The early church fathers did choose and accept books, but as what? As writings that are infallible, inspired, and authoritative? Hardly.
As was mentioned in the previous section, the purpose of selecting certain writings was first and foremost to promote good doctrine and combat heresy. This can be done without ascribing lofty characteristics such as infallibility, inspiration, and authority to them.
Further, there’s a difference between “authoritatively truthful” and “not heretical.” Was the canonization a divinization of a few writings for all subsequent times, or a rejection of the others that were promoting heresy at that particular time in history? Perhaps it was neither. It could have only meant, “these are the books we will use for public reading in our gatherings.” It could have only meant, “these are the books that are not blatantly heretical.”
It certainly wasn’t, however, to choose writings from which everybody from that point on would look to to exegete truth and figure out what to believe.
I don’t know enough to say be able to confidently say exactly what the early church fathers were declaring in choosing the texts that they did, but it does seem clear what they were not claiming, which, ironically, is what indeed is claimed in our time.
The canon of scripture was never universally set in stone
I have commonly heard an argument in favor of the canonization of the scriptures that goes something like the following:
“The church councils did not choose a canon. Church leaders simply acknowledged what the church had already come to accept.”
In that case, if the general church populace ever comes to think differently, leaders should acknowledge that. In other words, the canonization status of scriptures is not, and indeed never is, set in stone.
The canon of scripture was decided by majority vote, a method which has historically been demonstrated to be unreliable
The majority vote of the early church councils acts as christianity’s “democratic pope.”
But the opinion of the majority is not and never has been a reliable guide to truth. Jesus and the early christians held minority opinions during their times, and there are plenty of examples throughout history in which the “majority of the church” believed heretical doctrines.
Some will be quick to say that what was expressed was not the majority opinion but a consensus. I debunk this idea here.
Even if it was consensus, the consensus of the church is always changing. Thus, we could have a different consensus than what they had back in the day. Why should we think that their consensus is more reliable?
Full dogmatic articulations of the canons of christian traditions were not made until the 1500s or later
It was not always believed that defining a canon was necessary. Some early church fathers were practically unconcerned about canonicity and made use of open canons. The eastern churches in particular generally had weaker feelings compared to those in the west about the necessity of making sharp delineations regarding a canon.
This is even more significant than that different believers had and still have different canons, as mentioned above, because it calls into question whether the idea of even creating a canon is necessary or even something God wills.
Until the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had never officially drawn the boundaries of the biblical canon. Doing so had not been considered necessary because the authority of the scriptures was not considered to be much higher than that of tradition, papal bulls, and ecumenical councils.
It was not until the Protestant Reformers began to insist upon the supreme authority of scripture alone (the doctrine of sola scriptura) that it became necessary to establish a definitive canon. So was the establishment of such a definitive canon really necessary? Only if one holds to the doctrine of sola scriptura, a man-made doctrine of the 16th century.
There are books included in the biblical canon that, based on modern scholarship and information that the early church did not possess, would not be included in the canon of scripture according to the criteria set forth by the early church fathers. On the other hand, there exist writings that, although are not included in the biblical canon, would be included according to the criteria
Many point to the following four “criteria for canonicity” to justify the selection of the books that have been included in the New Testament.
- Apostolic origin – attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
- Universal acceptance – acknowledged by all major christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
- Liturgical use – read publicly when early christian communities gathered for their weekly worship services.
- Consistent message – contains a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted christian writings.
Yet it is sometimes difficult to apply these criteria to all of the books in the accepted canon, and one can point to writings that are outside current canons that would fulfill these requirements.
For example, Hebrews was only accepted after Paul was adopted as the author (in order to fulfill the criteria for “apostolic origin”). Modern scholarship, however, largely agrees that Paul is not the author of Hebrews. Thus, its apostolic origin is put into question and thus does not necessarily fulfill the criteria for canonicity. Should we therefore remove Hebrews from the canon?
On the other hand, if we found another authentic letter written by Paul, could we in our right minds exclude it from the canon? It cannot pass all the tests of canonicity (because it would have had to be known by the early church fathers to fulfill the criteria for “universal acceptance” and “liturgical use”), but that is only because it wasn’t known about when the canon was formed. Is the ignorance of the early church really a good enough reason to reject such a letter?
In fact, such a letter (although there is disagreement as to its authenticity) actually exists: the epistle to the Laodiceans. It bears striking similarities to the epistle to the Philippians, and it is mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). You can read it here. (There may be other writings we have now that are of apostolic origin that I am not aware of.)
Putting the issue of fulfilling these criteria aside, how do we even know that these are the “right” criteria? They are, after all, criteria chosen by human beings, not divinely pointed out by God.
Further, how do we know that these criteria weren’t chosen after the books were chosen? Through such a scheme, people could effectively choose which books they wanted to stay in, and make enough criteria to keep any other book out. This would have probably seemed like an acceptable thing to do to the early church fathers since their motivation for canonization was the promotion of what they considered to be good doctrine anyways.
Most people who support the legitimate canonicity of the scriptures have never even read any apocryphal books – they simply believe what they do because that’s what they’ve always been told. If you are one of those people, I would encourage you to expand your reading horizon.
Specifying a canon places an artificial limit on what (we believe) God can and will do
Declaring a canon is basically saying, “God no longer divinely inspires christian writers” (it at least puts a limit on the degree to which God can inspire people). God never said that, not even in the scriptures. Saying that the “canon is closed” is primarily not a claim about sacred writings but a claim about God himself – what he can and can’t do. It is putting him in a box that says “he can’t give authoritative revelation to anyone anymore like he used to.”
It also places a limit on church authority. If another council of church leaders was formed from all around the world and chose a different canon, why shouldn’t that become authoritative? Why is it assumed that the older and the closer to the time of Christ (for writings as well as people), the better? The 12 apostles didn’t have great theology as we know of at least one case where Paul had to correct them on a basic yet significant issue (the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation), and Paul got his revelation directly from Jesus. Are we “less led” by Holy Spirit than the people back then? I don’t think so. They did not have anything that we do not, and our relationship with God is in no way inferior.
Objection: You just need to have more faith in the workings of God in bringing about the scriptures in history
I bring up this objection because someone actually said it to me.
It’s not that I don’t have faith that God could do that; it’s just that I don’t have any compelling reason to believe that he indeed did. On the contrary, I have reasons to believe that the bible isn’t God-ordained. For example, it and its interpretations are the greatest source of division in the body of Christ today and throughout history.
Here’s another one I hear a lot.
But the Bible is the book that has had the hugest impact on the world throughout history.
That’s like saying, “I drove this car and it went 100km/hr; therefore it must be the fastest car on the planet!” This is silly because every car in the world needs to be tested before anyone can make that kind of claim.
Sure, perhaps the scriptures have had the greatest impact out of all known books. But that doesn’t prove that it is God-ordained. What about a canon that includes all the books of the Bible minus the book of Hebrews plus the letter to the Laodiceans? What if that canon has a greater impact? Well, we don’t know, and we can’t know. We would have to test that out over 1000+ years.
In fact, the argument is circular. If the largest religious group at some point in history claims that a certain book is divinely chosen and perpetuates that idea as correct doctrine (which is exactly what happened), of course that book is going to have the greatest impact! But the argument was that because the scriptures had a great impact, surely they must be divinely chosen (while the truth is that the church chose them).
I hope to have made it clear that the canonicity of the scriptures is not a simple matter that is easily settled by merely referencing the Council of Nicaea, as is commonly done today.
I encourage you to think about these things, talk about it with Jesus, and decide for yourself what you believe.