Or, Canonicity: How did we get the NT? Can we trust our New Testament? How many books, who approved of them, and how?
These are questions that can bring angst to the Christian who has only ever thought of the Bible as being inspired, but never wondered about the history of it all. Today we will not be defining inspiration, but rather looking at how the church recognized which books were actually inspired.
Why is this apologetic topic pertinent for this generation? It is important for every generation, if we are to be true to the God who reveals, who speaks. It is important for all Christians to understand that the Bible is not merely man’s word, though men wrote the words. There are people in every generation who bring up doubts and questions.
It is by Scripture alone that the Spirit works in our hearts; which is why a study on this is helpful–critics, or rather ignorant unbelievers bring up the notion that an old document from that long ago cannot be trusted, and surely believers have changed it to fit their own needs. Not only that, but perhaps (so they suggest) every time something was copied, they copied incorrectly, so perhaps now our Bibles are full of errors. Because, humans were incapable of doing good work that many years ago?
How do you reason with this–how do you train your children to recognize others’ chronological snobbery (Thank you C.S. Lewis, for this lovely term) for what it is, and remember that the Scriptures are not only inspired way back then–but also trustworthy today?
Studying such topics is sure to strengthen your faith, it is part of growing in knowledge and being able to answer for the hope that is in you. And if you have children at home–discussing this while they are young will help them as they face these questions later in life (like in middle school, that was when I first faced ridicule for my faith) without fear.
Many of the current heresies floating around in the U.S. relate in some fashion to questioning whether the New Testament is really Scripture, and whether what we have is really authoritative for our faith and life. I offer you below a few thoughts gathered from a world renowned apologist, Gary Habermas; a former Anglican Bishop of North Sydney Australia, professor, historian, and author Paul Barnett; and another apologist and professor, Norman Geisler, cowritten by William Nix (see references at the end of this post).
We turn now to the process of canonicity, and the question of whether our copy of the New Testament is reliable. Next week we will look at how historians “do” ancient history.
The New Testament Canon, according to Geisler, was recognized by certain qualities. Discussed at length in his book, here I present the main ideas found in chapter 6. I cannot recommend this book enough (see bibliographical information below), it is very accessible, each chapter flows nicely into the next, giving a very understandable big picture. This book is written for all audiences, not merely those who have been to seminary or graduate school.
Canon refers to the writings inspired by God, used as a rule of faith and life, from the Greek and Hebrew words that mean “measuring rod.” The Canon contains only those books that have “earmarks of divine authority.” (67) The book either claims to be (Thus says the LORD…), and was written by a man with the prophetic gift or function (68). The book had to be free from factual and doctrinal errors (the reason for disregarding the Apocrypha, which Geisler and Barnett both cover at length in their respective books).
One other test for canonicity was the “dynamic nature of the book.” Was it recognizably changing the lives of hearers? (Spend some time writing out and pondering: Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:23 & 2:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:13-14. These are worthy of memorization even!) Geisler then discusses this more in depth for two more chapters. None of the big apologetic questions concerning the trustworthiness of Scripture can be answered with a one-liner; nor even this 1,400 word blog post. I hope I am whetting your appetite to read the two books mentioned!
In discussing how the New Testament Canon came to be, Geisler includes information about the early church that is necessary to understanding this process. “Just over a generation following the end of the apostolic age, every book of the New Testament had been cited as authoritative by some church Father. In fact, within about two hundred years after the first century, nearly every verse of the New Testament was cited in one or more of the over thirty-six thousand citations by the Fathers.” 108
Geisler then charts all the early church Fathers, all the books of the New Testament, and shows who quoted which as canonical. Within the first hundred years after the resurrection, III John is the only book not quoted from by early church Fathers; which epistle was first accepted as canonical around 170A.D.
How confident can we be that what we read today is a good translation of what was originally written?
Paul Barnett’s book, Is the New Testament Reliable, answers this question from many angles. His chapter “Is the Transmission Trustworthy?” is very compelling. I quote a portion here.
“Through the labours of textual critics who have collected and compared the manuscripts over the past two centuries, it can be stated that the major questions about the text have been resolved. For example, Mark 16:9-20 and John 8:1-11 are now believed not to have belonged to the original text of those gospels. Apart from those two longer passages, what remain are numerous variant readings of individual words or short phrases… It is safe to say that the substantial matters of Christian history or doctrine are not affected by whatever uncertainties remain.” page 47
Barnett discusses the habit of early Christians to gather and read aloud from the Old and New Testament Scriptures, then referred to as “the memoirs of the apostles, the writings of the prophets” and they listened “for as long as time permits.” (Unlike today, where after 20 minutes most listeners have tuned out their pastor.) Barnett also discusses the habit of many to copy the gospels, the letters, etc. He also carefully lists out which early historians mention or quote from the New Testament writings.
Gary Habermas discusses this in depth as well, noting that we have more than 5,200 Greek copies of the New Testament manuscript. These copies can be dated from 50 years to 700 years. As far as ancient history goes, no other book is as well attested, or well preserved. (More on that next week when we discuss how to do history).
The last few chapters of Geisler’s book discuss the process of studying the texts, the fragments, and deciding which translation to follow. Ultimately, Christians can read these two books (Geisler’s and Barnett’s) and walk away with a fresh appreciation for how the Holy Spirit has been at work through the Word from the time of writing, through the times of copying and passing along copies, reading copies, translating, etc.
Many will raise empty philosophical arguments filled with logical fallacies making Christians doubt whether your English copy of the Scriptures can be trusted; studying this topic can help dispel those doubts. Though it is only the Holy Spirit at work in believers that gives us understanding, and the illumination to know the Word. It is the Spirit who uses the Sword to pierce our inner man (see especially 2 Corinthians 4).
Hebrews 4:12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Ephesians 6:13ff Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.
For some of Habermas’ recent articles relevant to this topic:
Books to consider:
Paul Barnett. Is the New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Illinois; 1986).
Norman Geisler & William E. Nix. From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible, (Moody Press: Chicago; 1974).