When I first started coming to church, my Sunday school teacher had me read the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) to get a basic understanding of Christianity’s roots. I thought Genesis was cool. But after reading the next four books, I began to wonder if my teacher wasn’t testing me to see if I was serious about believing in Jesus. I hope I passed.
Coming to college opened my eyes about a lot of things in life, especially the Bible. It was during Dr. Daniel Falk’s ‘Intro to the Bible” class (which covered the entire Bible) when I first learned that there were many other books that didn’t make it into the Bible. Texts like the Gospel of Thomas, Shepherd of Hermas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, and so on. And then there is the Apocrypha – or Deutero-Canonical – which is a collection of seven other texts that most Catholic Bibles include. Little did I know while sitting in Falk’s class that I had been thrust into an ancient discussion about the Biblical canon.
“Canon” derives from a Greek word meaning “ruler” or “measuring rod.” These were apparently used to draw straight lines and measure distances (like a … ruler). How the term is used in modern times is in reference to an accepted collection of Scriptures. “We must not underestimate the importance of this [issue],” Wayne Grudem says in his Systematic Theology. “The words of Scripture are the words by which we nourish our spiritual lives,” (pg. 54). It seems quite important to have the right kinds of books, then, doesn’t it?
But why are there different canons?
If Catholic Bibles have 73 books and Protestant Bibles have 66, then who’s not getting spiritually nourished? If, as Grudem says, “The canon of the Scripture is the list of all the books that belong in the Bible,” then how can there be two separate canons? As it turns out, however, there are at least ten different canons within Christianity today. If Grudem’s definition is true, then, as Ricky Ricardo might say, someone’s “got some splainin’ to do.”
Or perhaps Grudem’s definition isn’t right? Perhaps defining what “belongs” in the Bible is relative to each church’s beliefs? Given the history behind the canonization process, it seems clear that even when canons were agreed upon, not everyone agreed. Then along came John Calvin who clarified that it was the “inward illumination of the Holy Spirit” that revealed the 66 as canonical (article IV). By this logic, though, practically anyone could come up with any sort of canon they wish. After all, when Paul encourages Timothy to study the Scriptures, he describes them as “useful” or “profitable”; not “mandatory,” (2 Timothy 3:16).
What I’m really addressing when I research the canon of the Bible isn’t necessarily a discussion about various books (although I hope to do exactly this); I’m addressing a way of thinking about the Bible. What does the Bible mean to the modern-day, postmodern Christian? Is it a “good guide book” that isn’t meant to be taken very seriously or is it the very word of God – as though He wrote it with His own hand?
How one views the Bible as a whole determines how serious the issue of canonicity is. If the current 66 books are the only divinely inspired words of God, then all the other texts that could have been included (but were rejected) are clearly not the inspired words of God. But what does that say for the Christian traditions with different canons? Are they any less Christian than we are because of their apparently-flawed canons? Or are we any less Christian than they?
I don’t know if it’s important to hammer out the “right” books for the Bible and declare them as the standard for all of Christendom. But I think God finds it very important that we engage him with our minds. Ironically enough, Calvin is an example for what we ought to be doing; studying Scripture for ourselves. He maintained that the Spirit illuminated the 66 for him, but does that mean it will be the same for you and me?
As with many of my posts, this series aims to stir our thoughts a little. I want to hear why you think I’m wrong or which areas you think I’m not quite right in. I want to stretch my mind to know my Lord while flexing my muscle of faith. I want to challenge my own previous ways of thinking or be challenged by your new ways of thinking. I believe God intended us to wrestle with the tough questions; not run away from them.
This whole process of asking the uncomfortable questions isn’t putting God to the test; it’s putting ourselves to the test. It’s examining just how strong our faith in Him really is (or isn’t). If we choose not to question doctrine because it might shatter our faith in Him, then it’s probable that our faith isn’t very strong to begin with. Or maybe it is, but not in God.
Canonicity is important, but only if we know exactly why. This, of course, we have to seek out for ourselves. After all, Scripture says “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). It doesn’t say, “Hide behind man-made doctrines and take your pastor’s word for it.”
Looking forward to see what you have to say.