Sunday, April 20, 2014
Navigating The Contours of The Canon - A Basic Presuppositional Defense (Pt. 3)
New Testament Canon
The question of the New Testament canon is no less significant than that of the Old Testament. The most important concept of this discussion is framing it in a way that is consistent with the Christian doctrine of Scripture so that our view is a true reflection of the teachings of Scripture. The protestant-reformed view of Scripture demands that the Scripture itself inform our view of the canon.
As I stated above, the canon and the Scripture are one and the same. The Church, as of late has suffered from several deficient models of the canon. Michael Kruger writes, "What is needed, then, is a canonical model that does not ground the New Testament canon in an external authority, but seeks to ground the canon in the only place it could be grounded, its own authority." In his mastery work on the Institutes, Francis Turretin quotes Cardinal Bellarmine, "Nothing is better known, nothing more certain than the sacred Scriptures contained in the writings of the prophets and apostles, so that he must be in the highest degree foolish who refuses to believe in them."
The evidence strongly suggests that the NT canon began to form almost immediately. 1 Tim. 5:18 reads, For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages." In this instance, Paul is referring to Deut. 25:4 and to Luke 10:7. In other words, Paul has deliberately, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit placed Luke on the same level with the Jewish Torah. Paul's identification of Luke as Scripture points toward his recognition of that gospel as such and indicates canonical recognition at a very early stage in the Church.
Peter is another apostle that places NT writings on par with Scripture and indicates that a collection of Paul's letters had already taken place as early as his second epistle in 2 Peter 3:16. He uses the phrase pasais tais epistolais or "all the letters." This suggests a collection of Paul's letters since they were all originally sent directly to churches all over the region. This also suggests that copies of Paul's letters were produced either at the very start or very close to the start of his ministry among the churches.
In the second century we see four significant pieces of evidence that demonstrate the NT canon was formed much earlier than the fourth century, even though this view is commonly held by those who either have not studied the subject well enough or perhaps fail to comprehend from the start the nature of the Scriptures. The first piece of evidence is from a man named Marcion. Marcion lived sometime during the late first into the second century. His theology drove his view of Scripture. Of course, this is the case with each one of us. Because Marcion held to heretical views of God, he excluded the OT from his canon and in the NT only permitted the letters of Paul and the gospel of Luke. He denied that Christ came in the flesh and believed that the God of the OT was inferior to the Father of Jesus. The significance of Marcion is that he created a list of books that he regarded as Scripture. It contained a healthy portion of our current canon, but his heresy led him to cut out much of it. The point is that as early as Marcion we have evidence of a canon. Moreover, it is unlikely that Marcion created the first list. What is more likely is that he took an existing list and cut out what he did not like. We should not be surprised. Men are still excising those pieces of Scripture they despise to this very day.
Valentinus lived in Rome between 135-160. He is thought to have written the Gospel of Truth, which alludes to most of our current NT and refers to these writings in terms which presuppose that they are authoritative. Hence, Valentinus, also a first-century gnostic heretic, provides our second witness to the NT Canon from the second century. The fragment mentioned above alludes to Matthew, Luke, the gospel and first letter of John, Paul's letters excluding the Pastorals, Hebrews and Revelation.
The Anti-Marcionite Prologues
As one might expect, the Church responded to the heresy of Marcion and heretics like Valentinus. This response came in the form of certain prologues attached to some of the NT gospels. These prologues are dated to the late second and early third century. They address some of the heresies associate with Marcion's theology.
The Muratorian Fragment
The Muratorian Fragment is a Latin list of NT books dated to somewhere around the end of the second century. According to F.F. Bruce, The document is best regarded as a list of New Testament books recognized as authoritative in the Roman Church at the time. This list contains 21 books from our current canon.
It is important that one remember the purpose of referring to this evidence. The historical evidence is not intended to prove that the canon was the canon. It is not used to show how the Church determined or decided upon the canon. It is merely a witness to the fact that the idea of canon and Scripture are bound up together from the very beginning of the gospel. This evidence has produced too many errors when it is combined with deficient reasoning inconsistent with the Christian doctrine of Scripture. There is much more than could be said by way of these brief accounts, but I think this is sufficient to the purpose.
One of the most important figures from all of Church history is the former bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. Athanasius was not only a great champion of Christian orthodoxy during the Arian controversy at the council of Nicea. He is also a very important witness to the history of the NT Canon. In his thirty-ninth festal letter in the year 367, Athanasius lists out our present NT Canon. The question this brings to bear is how long had this list been in place. Indeed, this is a very important witness to the historical development of the NT Canon.
The first synod in the Church to officially recognize and speak about the canon was the Synod of Hippo 393. We only know this because of the reference made to this council at the Synod of Carthage in 397.