Friday, August 12, 2005

The Church Did Not Create the Scriptures

No matter how many times this big lie is repeated it is not true. Catholics like this "clueless Christian" (her name, not mine, I couldn’t make this up if I tried) may write without blushing "For the Councils of the Church wrote and compiled Holy Scripture, and cannot be considered less authoritative than what they wrote." They may buttress these big whoppers with little ones, such as that "various synods of Rome, Hippo and Carthage that ‘put the Bible together’ between 382 and 419." They may be praised by people like the Pontificator. But it remains a big lie nonetheless.

[UPDATE: OK, after reconsidering, I think the "big lie" (shades of Nazism, etc.) language was over the top and uncalled for. But I still think that what Shari deSilva wrote is common, wrong, and worthy of refuting.]

Of course in a sense it's true. If we define the church as including Christ and the apostles, then, sure, the church created the Scriptures. But that's not the issue, is it? The issue is whether the church after the apostles, being built on the foundation of the apostles, created, compiled, or wrote the New Testament.

Let’s look first at how the first two books of the New Testament came to be authoritative. In 1 Thessalonians 5:28, written c. AD 51, Paul writes "I charge you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers." By having his letter read in church, Paul is making it equal to the Old Testament the only Scripture then in existence. Whose authority does he ask? The church? What could that possibly mean? The congregation through its appointed bishop? Paul is simply ordering them to read it, as an apostle with full authority over them. Peter in Antioch? The apostolic synod in Jerusalem headed by James? They didn’t even know the letter existed. Paul’s authority is simply - - to use a phrase that drives foundationalists nuts - - self-validating. He is sent by God: if you believe him you are saved, if not you aren’t, and no complaint that you didn’t have an known authority vouching for his words will save you from God’s wrath when you ignore his word.

Next take the other contender for the first part of the New Testament: Galatians. Read Galatians 1-2, and what strikes you again is Paul’s absolute refusal to concede an inch to any foundationalist’s demand for an answer to the question "says who? who says your right?" Paul was sent by God to preach Christ, and even if the whole world denies his message, then the whole world is wrong and he is right, because he speaks God’s word. And if the Galatians don’t just accept that on faith Paul’s authority as apostle - - not that of the church in Jerusalem, not Peter, not anyone or anything - - then they will die in their sins without appeal.

Those familiar with 1 and 2 Corinthians will recognize Paul’s similar claim to self-authenticating authority in those books as well.

Paul’s letter to Colossians is likewise ordered to be read in church with no reference to any other authority (4:16).

Now lets take the last book written. In Revelation 22:18, John on Patmos, last of the apostles writes: "I warn everyone who hears the words of this prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to them the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book." Once again, John concedes not an inch to any "says who?" As apostle his authority is absolute, because the risen Christ ordered him to speak this.

Now think, what authority could councils in AD 382 or AD 419 add to the authority of 1 Thessalonians? Or to that of Galatians, or 1 Corinthians, or Revelation? Their authority is already total and self-authenticating. Yet since all the New Testament books have equal authority and since the authority of some is clearly total and self-authenticating, then it follows that . . . (you can fill this in). The books of the New Testament were thus given by the apostles on their own authority, not as a college, but individually, with no outside attestation. The Scripture is build on the foundation of the apostles, just as the post-apostolic church was likewise built on their foundation. It is a beautiful illustration of this that while 1 Timothy speaks of the church as the "pillar and ground of the truth," St. Irenaeus applies that very phrase to the Scriptures (III.1.1)

Once the apostles died, however, the problem remained of determining which books really were by those whom they said they were written. You can find a good description of the process here. Let’s be clear what this problem is and is not. It is not evaluating the Scriptures to see if what they write is true or not, in whole or in part. Still less is it "writing and compiling" the Scriptures. Rather it is authenticating an already existing written testament, a task which does NOT give the authenticator any right to interpret the content of the document. Just as a court authenticates a will, but then once authenticated cannot use the fact that they authenticated it to forbid reexamination of what the will actually says, so too human authority might examine these sources to authenticate them, but once an affirmative decision is reached, these same authorities could not use the fact that they examined it to assert some sort of prevailing right or authority over the texts. Or to use a different metaphor, if someone claims a vacant throne as the lost son of the former king, he will be examined to determine if his claim is true. Once determined to be the king, however, he is no less king, and his authority is not legitimately subject to his examiners.

In fact, there was relatively little dispute about the canon. Catholic apologists like to write as if, "Christians had the Old Testament Septuagint, and literally hundreds of other books from which to choose. The Catholic Church realized early on that she had to decide which of these books were inspired and which ones weren't. The debates raged between theologians, Bishops, and Church Fathers, for several centuries as to which books were inspired and which ones weren’t."
But this is not the case.

Four sources in the early church--the Muratorian canon (a text found around AD 170), Irenaeus, the first systematic theologian of the Christian church, writing around AD 190), Origen (died AD 254) and Eusebius’s "History of the Church" (last edition 324/5)--list the books of the New Testament. All agree on the following books being truly written by whom they say they were written, and hence to be read in the churches as authoritative: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, 1 Peter, and 1 John. These books together contain over 85% of the current New Testament, including all of the most theologically significant parts. About the authenticity of these books no ancient Christian ever expressed any doubt whatsoever. And hence no ancient Christian ever needed a church council to establish their authority.

The remainder, the books in the current New Testament about which these writers expressed uncertainty, were Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and Jude, and Revelation. Hebrews, 2 John, Jude, and Revelation were already known in the second century but denied by some, while James, 2 Peter, and 3 John are first mentioned by Origen. But all agree, if they were truly written by whom they said they were, then they would be authoritative. No one dared to utter the idea that the church having created the Scriptures therefore acquired some controlling right of interpretation over that text.

No, that was left for Catholic apologists today.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

Labels: ,