Fact, Fiction, and Faith
part 2

Check out Chris' DaVinci Code blog.

No, I haven’t misspelled “cannon.” Cannon’s are of course the armament of choice on a pirate ship. Canon is another word entirely. “Canon” is a Greek loan word meaning list. For our discussion today, canon is the list books that make of the Bible. Keep in mind that our Bible is a book of books – but which books? That’s the question that the canon answers. The Bible as it is known today - The Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament – these are the canonical (or by the list) books for Christians – and even for non-Christians, so that when anyone today refers to the Bible they understand which books are included in “the Bible.”

But where did this canonical list come from? In particular where did the New Testament collection of books derive? Did they have the New Testament in the first century? Did they have it in the second? Who put it together? Is there good reason for these 27 books? Could there ever be a 28th or 29th or more?

There are some who seriously question both the formation and the content of the New Testament canon. The DaVinci Code runs with the idea and uses it to form an important piece of the conspiracy that forms the novel. I want to consider two statements made by one the characters on page 231 ...

1) “The Bible did not fall magically from the clouds.”
2) “History has never had a definitive version of the book.”

Statement 1 is true. But that doesn’t mean the Bible is only a product of man, and not of God - as though God had nothing at all to do with it.

Statement 2 is false. History does have a definitive version and it is what we now have. There is a process that leads to the formation of the New Testament and although the New Testament may not have been defined in the first century and even into the second century (definitively) that is only because it is under development. But this developmental process does not justify The DaVinci Code character Teabing’s statement ...

“Who chose which gospels to include?” Sophie asked.
“Aha!” Teabing burst in with enthusiasm ... “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”

This revelation leads to the novel’s contention that there has been a great cover-up -- “The Con of Man.” And the modern church supports this cover-up and the Bible is the tool of this conspiracy. This is among one of the most laughable contentions in the entire book. If the character that stated this were being depicted a conspiracy nut with a foil hat I could have suspended disbelief long enough to get on with the story. But this character is supposed to be an enlightened and respected scholar who knows the truth! This claim is utterly ludicrous – even if one rejects the authority of the Bible, a good understanding of history would not accept this interpretation of the historical development of the canon. But I must remind myself that The DaVinci Code is just a work of fiction, yes?

Well, yes and no. Remember that Dan Brown has brought together elements of many debates and smaller contentions to build his novel. Even though most would not advance the idea that the Bible as we know it is a Constantinian Con-Job, there is indeed serious scholarship that vigorously questions the canonical books – they want to “fire the canon!” (Get it, double wordplay!) For example, Dr. Elaine Pagels, a professor at Princeton University and an in-demand speaker on the subject of Gnostic Gospels, contends that the Bible as we know it is the result of the increasing institutionalism of the church. The Gnostic texts and other Christian texts were suppressed after the institutionalism of the church in the fourth century. She comments on The DaVinci Code: “What I find interesting about Dan Brown’s book is that it raises a very important question: If they – meaning the leaders of the church – suppressed so much of early Christian history, what else don’t we know about? What else is there to be known? And as a historian, I think it’s a really important question because the answer means a great deal.” (from U.S. News and World Report Special Edition, "Secrets of the DaVinci Code," p. 30)

So, How Did We Get the Bible? If the Bible didn’t fall out of heaven with a tag stating “Thou Shalt Copy” then how did we come by it? Is it a conspiracy? Has it been edited to the extent that we should call it an unreliable forgery? How did we get the Bible? The answer may surprise you – only because the answer is so simple that it makes good sense. The Bible as we know it is the end of a lengthy process of development that takes place in five overlapping stages. (The following is based on Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, Fortress Press, pp. 530 - 548.)

  1. COMPOSITION: The Old Testament is the Scripture of the earliest Christians. In the worship and preaching of the apostles, they use the Old Testament. When Paul says that all Scripture is inspired he means the Old Testament. The New Testament books are in the process of being written. They cannot be written before the events they reference. Along with the New Testament writings, there are other documents written toward the end of the first century (and these are not Gnostic gospels). They include the Didache, a manual of church discipline, and 1 Clement (AD 95), a letter from a well-respected church leader. Some writings and letters exist as parts of other New Testament books. For example, the letter from the apostles in Jerusalem in Acts 15.

  2. USAGE: The texts of the New Testament are not written for private devotion. They were used publicly and read in worship. Paul’s letters are meant to be read in churches (and note that he wrote more than what we have – there are other letters to the church in Corinth and a letter to the Laodecians that he mentions in Colossians 4:16 - After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.). The documents, like Paul’s letters, are circulated through multiple congregations. The epistles to the Romans, Galatians, and even Corinthians are regional in nature. So are Ephesians and 1 Peter. They are addressed to “churches.”

  3. COLLECTION: Certain writings are copied and collected among the congregations. Writings intended for a particular group are recognized as having general benefit. Paul’s letters are mentioned in 2 Peter 3:15-16 in a way that suggests that they are commonly known. In the year 95, the letter from Clement (1 Clement) mentions a collection of Paul’s letters [47:2-4].

  4. SELECTION: With so many writings in the Christian movement, there is a need to select which writings may be used alongside the Old Testament as part of worship and church formation. The question is not whether certain documents deserve to be written and/or read. It is a process of sifting out which documents are best and on the same par as Scripture. The process is not dominated by an official counsel. It is a dynamic debate and there large agreement on the part of many. Of course there are some who go too far. Marcion decides to throw out the entire Old Testament and some of the Gospels. His scheme is rejected. A fellow named Tatian (AD 170) decided to synthesize the four gospels into one and it is called the Diatesseron. But his idea though popular in Syria, is rejected just about everywhere else. Other books like the Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas are considered good for believers to read, but shouldn’t be read in worship. And some Gospels, like the Gospel of Judas, are just out and out rejected – not by an official decree, but through the usage of churches – churches that are persecuted and do not wield kingdom-like authority. In fact, the persecution is one reason for the selection or ranking process. When the persecutors are confiscating collections of Scripture, the churches need to know which books should be saved and which can be handed over.

  5. RATIFICATION: This, says Johnson, is the final stage. The only one we can see for ourselves and the least important of them all. The writings that have gained acceptance in churches worldwide are officially acknowledged on more than one occasion. And it is really not that difficult of a vote. They simply made official what the church had known and practiced for a few centuries.

Who chose which gospels (books) to include? 1) So in some sense, the texts chose themselves because they cried out for inclusion in the definitive canon. 2) God’s people/the church. The church recognized which New Testament writings were inspired and on par with Scripture and which were not. The church is formed by the gospel and the church recognizes the Gospel in the texts that make up the New Testament. It is not just that the Holy Spirit worked in the writers of these texts for inspiration, but the same Holy Spirit worked (and still works) within the church to recognize the word of God.
I don’t think a truly lost book of the Bible will ever be found, but if it is the people of God will know that is Gospel – not because it will change anything, but because it will affirm the story of Jesus Christ.

What Is The Purpose of the Canon?

  • Spiritual Formation (Hebrews 4:12)
  • Rule of Faith (2 Timothy 3:16)
  • Equipping for good works (2 Timothy 3:16)

    Chris Benjamin

    West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
    Morning Sermon, 14 May 2006

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