I’ll never forget the time I was having a friendly discussion with a Romanist at my workplace and I quoted a scripture from the gospel of Matthew to support my argument. My debate partner, side-stepping my argument returned “Well how do you know Matthew should be in the New Testament canon?” Huh? What? I was somewhat taken off guard by this abrupt change of topic. I later came to understand that this is a sort of last resort for Roman Catholics debating those pesky ‘Bible Christians’. What he was aiming to do, as it turns out, was turn the discussion away from “What the Bible says” to who decides what writings belong to the Bible.
The assumption that Roman Catholics make is that there was no consensus amongst Christians on which writings comprised the Bible until the church universal (in their mind this is the same as the Roman Church) decided which to include. Since my local church didn’t exist in 325 AD, I couldn’t use them in debate. Therefore, if the Romanists only determine what is and what is not Scripture, then the Romanists only have the authority to determine how to interpret it. The problem with this, of course, is that the ‘official’ Romanist canon was decided at the council of Trent (1563) – well after the ‘Protestant Canon’ was well established.
The issue of canon is not just used as a clever ‘catholic’ theological dodge, but it is used by athiests and heretics to posit alternative christianities of their own imagination and invention. In recent times, popular athiest writers like Bart Ehrman have written books which have given strength to the popular myth that the Christian canon was undecided until the council of Nicea (325 AD). In their view, the early church was in total chaos. There were dozens of competing alternative christian religions fighting for power and acceptance. Where is the evidence of such a view? Well, there is scant evidence to support their cause because (in their view) the Nicean council chose winners/losers and stamped out the others. Convenient answer.
So is it true? Was the early church in a state of chaos, not knowing which writing were inspired and which apocryphal?
Dr. Michael Kruger, Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, has studied this issue extensively and written a few helpful books debunking these popular myths and has summarized his work from time to time on his blog: Canon Fodder. Below are links to his top ten posts:
10 Basic Facts About the NT Canon that Every Christian Should Memorize
- “The New Testament Books are the Earliest Christian Writings We Possess”
- “Apocryphal Writings Are All Written in the Second Century or Later”
- “The New Testament Books Are Unique Because They Are Apostolic Books”
- “Some NT Writers Quote Other NT Writers as Scripture”
- “The Four Gospels are Well Established by the End of the Second Century”
- “At the End of the Second Century, the Muratorian Fragment lists 22 of Our 27 NT Books”
- “Early Christians Often Used Non-Canonical Writings”
- “The NT Canon Was Not Decided at Nicea—Nor Any Other Church Council”
- “Christians Did Disagree about the Canonicity of Some NT Books”
- “Early Christians Believed that Canonical Books Were Self-Authenticating”
The Canon of Scripture
Another resource I’ve just been made aware of from the The Confessing Baptist blog is a new book by Sam Waldron, academic dean at MCTS. The book is entitled “The Canon of Scripture” and is available for free download at the following link: The Canon of Scripture.
See also, A review of Disputations on Holy Scripture, by William Whitaker.