Tuesday, 30 September 2008

The Canon of Scripture (3) - The New Testament Canon

One major argument against Christianity is, as I have mentioned before, the idea that the Christian faith as we know it today was the result of Constantine acceding to power in the Roman Empire and changing Christianity to suit his own political agenda.

Central to this charge is the accusation that Constantine in cahoots with controlling church leaders effectively invented the New Testament by imposing on the church a canon of books that suited their own ends.

If for no other reason, therefore, we should be clear as to what is in the New Testament canon, why it is there and how the canon came about.

The Writings of the Apostles

The New Testament scriptures are a collection of the writings of the apostles. Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews and Jude, were not written by apostles but by those asscoiated with them and endorsed by them. See Grudem for further comment in these writings.

They record the words and deeds of Jesus and interpret their meaning. Jesus indicates in John 14.26 and John 16.13-14 that the Holy Spirit will give the disciples the ability to remember what Jesus had taught them and will lead them into truth that at that time they had not discovered.

The high level of authority that the apostles held can be seen in scriptures such as 2 Peter 3.2, Acts 5.2-4, 1 Corinthians 14.37, 2 Corinthians 13.3, Galatians 1.8-9.

Apostolic authorship or endorsement meant that a particular writing was accepted as being God's very word.

New Testament writings on a par with the OldTestament scriptures

Peter recognises the writing s of Paul as scripture (2 Peter 3.15-16) and Paul recognises Luke's gospel as scripture (1 Timothy 5.17-18). Here Paul quotes Luke 10.7. The term scripture is a technical term used to refer to God's words, and therefore the Old Testament as we have it today. It is evident then that at a very early stage in the history of the church, the books of the New Testament were considered part of the canon of scripture.

Athanasius' List

The first exact list that we have of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as we have them today is found in the Thirty-Ninth paschal Letter of Athanasius dated 367 A.D.. This list represented the books accepted as scripture in the Eastern church. In 397 A.D. the Council of Carthage produced a list of the same books which were in use in the Western Church.

How did the canon come about?

It wasn't the case that the church imposed the canon on the church, rather the church gradually recognised the writings that were in use in Christian communities all over the Roman empire.

A formally drawn up canon came about mainly as a result of heretical teaching. Calims made for gnostic works to be recognised as divinely authoritative had to be tested and measures against the original writings of the apostles.

What we might call the formal canon, therefore developed over almost four centuries as a response to religious developments that affected and even threatened the church and her teaching. However, it could be said that an informal canon functioned within the churches from the earlist days of the faith.

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