Defending the Bible – part 2

This is the final post of this trilogy on formulating a bible for liberal post-modernists, and showing why it’s a faulty idea.  Yesterday I posted the defense of the Old Testament canon, and now I’m addressing the New Testament.

the Gospel of John

There have been times when even conservative Christians have held this book under some suspicion.  The facts that it gives a different date for the crucifixion of Christ than the other three books (the beginning versus the end of Passover week) and places the cleansing of the Temple at the start of Jesus’ ministry instead of the end, to name just two, has made for some uncomfortable questions regarding John’s senility when he sat down to write this book.  Of course, many people just find clever ways to reconcile them (such as the idea that the cleansing of the Temple happened twice), but often times the result has been a simple “it’s not historical but theological” judgment over John’s book.  And because some of the “facts” don’t line up with the other books, I proposed that a liberal post-modern ‘christian’ simply throw out the whole book.  Besides, it has most of Jesus’ most radical sayings like “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” which doesn’t jive so well with the inclusivist agenda of our day.

But in actuality, the slightly conflicting perspectives of all four gospels are precisely why they were all preserved as Scripture by the Early Church.  One of the main tactics of early heretical sects was to claim that they had secret knowledge from one of the Apostles that was hidden from the rest of the Church.  In response, the Church affirmed multiple gospel accounts to show that they were not based on any singular cultic following, but upon the whole gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed to all his Apostles, and as taught openly to all their successors.  The fact that the gospel books contained some conflicting minutiae illustrated the honesty with which the Gospel has been received in the Church – different people notice and remember different things, and no one person has the final say.

Incidentally, modern scholarship seeking for a document from which Matthew, Mark, and Luke are all based (called the Q document), is something of a return to those heretics’ impulse to claim authoritative secret knowledge from a ‘one true source.’  We just have to trust that the word of God is authoritatively and perfectly transmitted through the apparently-faulty means of the word of man.  This is possible for us who believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, but for those who don’t believe God is that real and powerful, they’ve got no basis for such a belief in the scriptures.

the author of Hebrews

For much of Church history, the general assumption was that Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews.  I don’t know much about this discussion, only that a few names have been put forth both in ancient and modern times as possible authors, such as Clement of Rome.  (I’m reading through 1 Clement right now, and the style is actually fairly similar, so I can see how it’s a legitimate possibility!)  But at the end of the day, we don’t know who wrote it, and we likely never will this side of the Parousia.

This may be enough reason to toss it out if you’re not a Christian according to the historic true faith, but for those of us who do believe, it’s not that much of an issue.  Sure, if we knew who the author was then we’d probably have a richer appreciation for the letter (or sermon – it’s actually more of a sermon than a letter).  But its canonicity doesn’t rely upon our knowledge of its Apostolic authorship.  Its canonicity relies upon the Early Church’s consensus on its Apostolic authority.  Like it or not, we aren’t the judges of canonicity.  We never can be, and we never will be.  That decision has been made for us by the collective work of the Early Church in the first 300 years, and given the official stamp of approval by the Church’s leadership at the 1st Ecumenical Council, in Nicea in the year 325.  We simply don’t have access to everyone’s thought processes, analysis, information, and insight, and thus have to receive the Scriptural canon from the Early Church as part of the “deposit of faith” without question.  The moment we think we can re-do their crucial work is the moment we create a new Church separated from the Church which is the Body of Christ.  They knew that Hebrews was a reliable books, and we just have to receive that in faith.

James, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John, Jude

These epistles were exceedingly slow to reach full recognition in the Church as canonical scripture.  There’s a handy table online showing various early writings and authors that reference or list New Testament writings, giving us a glimpse of the development of the canon: http://www.ntcanon.org/table.shtml

But as I just said with the letter to the Hebrews, we’ve got to accept that the Church knew what she was doing back then, and that with these letters it took a little longer for everyone to agree on their status as the authoritative word of God.  In some cases, you can’t blame them – James is remarkably different from Paul’s letters; 2 Peter looks kind of like a rewrite of Jude; John’s 2nd and 3rd letters are so short they’re almost not worth mentioning.  But by the Council of Nicea, they were all accepted.  Why?  Again, we don’t know the arguments they went through.  And the moment we try to usurp the Church’s unanimous decision and make new decisions of our own, we cease to be part of their Church, and create our own.

the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John

Much of the initial reception of this book was favorable – it was an encouragement to the Christians undergoing government-endorsed persecution that it would all be over soon and Jesus would win the day.  But when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration in Milan in the year 313 (or so), the game radically changed.  Persecution was no longer the order of the day.  The focus of the Revelation and its negative expectations for the future suddenly seemed out of place – there was hope for a future of peace where the Church could grow and flourish without the government hounding her at every turn.  She could come out from the desert after all!  Eusebius, in his writings, indicated that there were mixed feelings about the validity of the book at this time.

But once again, several years later (in 325) at Nicea, the Revelation was reaffirmed as canonical.  It was no longer as relevant to the cultural situation as it previously was, but it still bore the weight of God’s word to mankind.  I’m not certain, but perhaps that’s when the futurist interpretations of Revelation started to flourish?  Whateverso, the Church has undergone periods of persecution in many times and places since the 4th century, so the valuable role of Revelation has never gotten old after all.

on “perspectives”

One final note.  The way I laid out the bible for a liberal post-modernist was around the concept of perspectives – John had one, Paul had one, Peter had one, and so on.  This is true, each author has his own personality, focus, context, and concerns.  The temptation in post-modernism is to leave it at that and simply say “there they are… now what’s my perspective?”  But this is, of course, an untenable approach for one who seeks the truth of God.  There is only one correct perspective: God’s!  Through the Bible we can see how various people explained the Gospel, and rather than take them all separately as individualistic realities, the reader of Scripture must seek to discern how they inform one another to reveal God’s perspective – God’s truth.

Where the critical non-christian reader takes command of the message of the Bible, the Christian must be commanded by the message of the Bible.  Where the critical non-christian reader controls the text, the Christian must be controlled by the text.  Where the non-christian ignores the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting the Bible, the Christian must be filled with the Holy Spirit in order to interpret the Bible.

And that Holy Spirit is the same divine person who has been working in the Church since the beginning – since the Reformation, since the Great Schism, since the Council of Nicea, since the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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