This week we’ll be finishing up a series on the biblical canon, a topic that has been a source of discussion, debate, and controversy since the beginning of Christianity. We’ve covered the doctrine of divine inspiration and standards for recognizing canon, as well as apocryphal literature. To conclude, RTB editor Maureen Moser and I will tackle some challenges skeptics pose to the canon and how the relationship between Scripture and church tradition can help defend Christianity from these challenges.
Some of the most sensational challenges to biblical canon have come from Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code books and movies. These stories posit that the church (specifically the Catholics) decided the canon Christians have today. How would you respond to that?
Of course, Christianity gets attacked from the outside. The DaVinci Code, with the controversy surrounding that book and movie and their sequels, contends that the Catholic Church operated in a bad way, manipulating the canon and holding back certain books. A lot of people see the history of Christianity as just a power struggle. It just happens that the Catholics won the political war and the Gnostics lost it. So we get “these books” because the Catholics won, instead of “those books” because the Gnostics lost. This is similar to the perspective Hermann Göring espoused at the Nuremburg Trials, saying that the Allies were judging the Nazis only because they’d won the war, not because they were right.
I think the reality is that the Scriptures do go back to the apostles and prophets. Historic Christianity is rooted deeply in the apostolic issue.
What other challenges does the biblical canon face from skeptics today?
When you decide to include certain books in the canon, you want to know who wrote them. But, while Paul had a habit of signing his letters, other New Testament authors did not. Originally, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were anonymous; there were no names attached to them. Some skeptics make a big deal out of this. They say, “You mean you are trusting this testimony and you don’t even know who wrote it?”
This is where church tradition becomes important. Many of the early church fathers, such as Papias and Irenaeus, confirmed the gospel authorship. The church was never in doubt.
It sounds like there was an oral history passed down along with the books.
Yes, exactly. Church tradition or history can help a great deal in defending the positions we take.
The three branches of Christendom each view the relationship between Scripture and tradition differently. The Catholic Church places tradition above Scripture because, ultimately, it is the pope and the magisterium that have to interpret the Bible. Protestants reverse it, while the Orthodox put them side by side.
I’m a Protestant, so I believe in sola Scriptura (Latin: “Scripture alone”). This means that Scripture is the supreme authority; it’s the final court of appeals, to put it in American terms. However, I would caution my fellow Protestants who say, “I just go by Scripture. I don’t need any church tradition. I don’t need any church fathers.”
You don’t want to dismiss church tradition when you do apologetics. When the skeptics come along and they want to challenge our interpretation of historic Christianity, including the biblical canon, church tradition and history are essential to defending our positions. For example, I would say that Augustine is as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics. He’s a central figure; he is the last of the fathers; he’s by far the most sophisticated; he’s the one who brings the strongest defense of Christianity. He’s the one who says that salvation is by grace, not by works.
It seems Christian apologetics would be even more robust if we include both Scripture and church history. After all, the church fathers lived much closer to the apostolic era than we do.
Yes, Polycarp knew John personally. There are connections from John to Polycarp to Irenaeus and so on down the line as important traditions (such as our understanding of gospel authorship) are passed along. When the Bart Erhmans come along and say the four gospels have no names attached to them, that’s only true if we don’t listen to Papias and Irenaeus. The church fathers were there to guard and guide the recognition of inspired Scripture.
So, even though Protestants say Scripture is the supreme authority, we’ll be in a bad position if we disrespect how church history has unfolded. Perhaps our Catholic and Orthodox friends give the church too much credit, but Protestants need to avoid giving too little credit.
Any concluding thoughts to wrap up our discussion of biblical canon?
I think many people have questions about the Bible. Where’d we get this book? Who says that the books in there are superior to those that were left out? On whose authority did this all come about? Where do we find the authority of the Holy Spirit?
The advantage of the Catholic position is in the assertion that we can’t interpret the Bible just any old way. They insist on the necessity of teaching authority and tradition. I think that’s a strength. Still, I think the strength of the Protestant position is Jesus. The best evidence that Scripture trumps all other authority is that when Jesus appealed to the final standard, He always quoted Scripture.
So, Protestants would say if you want to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, you go to Scripture. Catholics would absolutely agree that Scripture contains the voice of the Spirit, but to understand it you need the teaching authority of the church. In the end, however, no believer would say either Scripture or tradition is unimportant. All of it is important.
Resource: For more on the history and importance of Scripture, see my book A World of Difference.