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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Southern Baptist Professor tells how the books of the New Testament were chosen.

Protestants are an interesting bunch. On one hand, they radically distrust Church history, on the other hand they rush to appeal to Church history when it suits their needs. This is especially true for Baptists, who stand alone against 99% of all Christians (Lutheranism, Calvinism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Catholicism) on the issue of infant Baptism, which means history is an extremely unreliable guide in the Baptist mind. Confirming this, Baptist John Piper wrote an astonishing article last year on how Christians today are on a more sure foundation doctrinally because we have the complete Bible, where as the early Christians did not. Just a few days ago, a Baptist professor named Timothy Jones wrote an article explaining how the New Testament canon was formed. Unlike Piper, who wasn't opposing any errors in general, Jones has to defend the NT canon against an apostate (and now anti-Christian) apologist, Bart Ehrman. The sole defense Jones has to appeal to is, ironically, the testimony of the Early Church Fathers - which, in turn, refutes the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.

This is where the crux of the inconsistency is found: if the Church Fathers are genuine Christians, then they're more or less trustworthy for helping us know important Christian teachings like the canon. But why stop at just the canon? What about other doctrines, like infant baptism? It's totally inconsistent to say the Church Fathers are trustworthy on X but not trustworthy on Y. This is especially piercing when doctrines like infant baptism are understood to be extremely heterodox and damning errors.

Let's see what Jones has to say:
Suppose that you became a Christian in the second century A.D. You've heard the story of a divine being who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Through baptism, you've openly identified yourself with His followers. Now, you want to learn more about this deity. Yet you quickly realize that some people who call themselves "Christians" understand Jesus very differently from the Christians in your congregation. In fact, one nearby group that claims the name "Christian" also says that Jesus wasn't actually a human being -- he was a spirit that only seemed human!

How would you decide who was right?

As a 21st century Christian, the most reasonable reply seems to be, "Read your New Testament!" The problem is, most Christians in the second century couldn't read. Even if you were one of the privileged few who possessed the capacity to read and write, you wouldn't personally own a Bible. Your only "Bible" would have been found in an armarion -- a specially constructed cabinet with niched shelves for scrolls and codices -- that stayed in the house where your congregation most often gathered. The armarion would likely have sheltered a copy of the Greek Old Testament and perhaps a couple dozen other sacred scrolls or codices.

But it's possible that not all of these texts would have been identical to the 27 books that you find in New Testaments today.
To be sure, the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Paul's letters, and probably John's first letter would have had a place in the armarion. But the cabinet could lack a few writings that your New Testament includes -- the letter to the Hebrews and maybe Peter's second epistle, for example, or a couple of John's letters. A quirky allegory entitled The Shepherd might have made an appearance in your armarion. You might even find a letter or two from a Roman pastor named Clement.

Do you sense the dilemma that faced first- and second-century Christians? How did they maintain a clear and consistent faith in the shadow of so many competing claims? And who decided on the texts that we call the New Testament today?
The example is so real and yet so very problematic for Protestants! How do these early Christians know what to do? They're not guaranteed to have a complete New Testament, so where do they turn?
The question isn't whether God had any part in choosing the books; the question is, "By what human means did these texts come to be viewed as authoritative?"

Conspiracy theorists and skeptical scholars claim that no definite set of texts existed until the fourth or fifth centuries A.D. Agnostic professor Bart Ehrman claims...
Notice the context here. Since Jones is opposing Ehrman, he's allowed to appeal to the Early Church Fathers, but if a Catholic tries this line of argumentation, then it's invalid. This isn't the time to go over what Ehrman says, what's being examined is Jones' own logic.
The primary standard for deciding which books were authoritative emerged long before the fourth century -- and this standard was not the word of a powerful bishop. Hints of this standard can, in fact, be found in first-century Christian writings.

Long before Athanasius was even born, testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord was uniquely authoritative among early Christians. ... After the apostles' deaths, Christians continued to value the testimony of eyewitnesses and their associates. In the first decade of the second century, Papias of Hierapolis put it this way...

About the same time, a church leader named Polycarp cited the words of the Apostle Paul as "Scripture."
This "standard" is so foreign to the Protestant mind that I'm somewhat amazed Jones can say this with a straight face. If Christians then had to trust Papias and Polycarp and others, then why do folks like Professor Jones and Piper hold their testimony at arms length (e.g. Polycarp not only quotes Tobit as Scripture, he quotes the verse that says "alms deliver from death," which is abominable to the Protestant mind).
A generation later, when someone in the Roman church wondered which Christian writings should be considered authoritative, this emphasis on the eyewitnesses persisted. After listing the books that he viewed as authoritative, here's what one Christian leader wrote regarding a popular book known as The Shepherd that was circulating in the churches:

"Hermas composed The Shepherd quite recently -- in our times, in the city of Rome, while his brother Pius the overseer served as overseer of the city of Rome. So, while it should indeed be read, it cannot be read publicly for the people of the church -- it is counted neither among the prophets (for their number has been completed) nor among the apostles (for it is after their time)."

Notice carefully this second-century writer's reasons for not allowing The Shepherd of Hermas to serve as an authoritative text in the churches...
Yes, notice what Jones rightly points out, but also notice some inconvenient details this Christian witness also says: there was a head bishop of Rome, St Pius I (140-155AD)!
Later church leaders such as Tertullian of Carthage and Serapion of Antioch echoed these sorts of standards... Again, Christians rooted their standard for determining which writings were authoritative in the testimony of eyewitnesses.
Aside from the fact Fathers like Tertullian taught very unProtestant doctrines, it's amazing how Jones can say with such calmness how the canon came about in a very anti-Sola-Scriptura manner.
So, from the first century onward, Christians viewed testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of Jesus as uniquely authoritative. The logic of this standard was simple: The people most likely to know the truth about Jesus were either eyewitnesses who had encountered Jesus personally or close associates of these witnesses. So, although Christians wrangled for some time about the authority of certain writings, it was something far greater than political machinations that drove these decisions. Their goal was to determine which books could be clearly connected to eyewitnesses of Jesus. 
Where does Sola Scriptura stand a chance with this kind of logic? It's comments like these, coming from orthodox Protestant professors, that cause Protestants to head towards Rome.

7 comments:

Vocab Malone said...

I am a Protestant and I don't distrust church history - I just distrust Rome's spin on it.

Nick said...

Hi Vocab,

In which of the comments I made was "Rome's spin" an issue?

Vocab Malone said...

RCC folks try to make the Fathers like modern RCCs instead of just letting them be as they were. That would be one example.

Nick said...

But in which quote specifically was "Rome's Spin" taking what was otherwise perfectly acceptable into something unacceptable. For example, since when do Protestants use the Church Fathers as the "primary standard for deciding which books were authoritative"? Calvin and others have explicitly rejected this methodology.

Also, I don't buy the claim the ECFs were neither Protestant nor Catholic; that's like saying Jesus and the Apostles were neither Protestant nor Catholic.

Anonymous said...

Nick: This is where the crux of the inconsistency is found: if the Church Fathers are genuine Christians, then they're more or less trustworthy for helping us know important Christian teachings like the canon. But why stop at just the canon? What about other doctrines, like infant baptism?

Comment: First of all, the issue is not about whether the "Church Fathers" are genuine Christians. The issue is knowledge of the canon. The appeal to history is a very sound methodology to have a sufficient knowledge on the canon. This methodology is used by Luther. Calvin, certainly did not reject the importance of history for inquirer to have knowledge on the canon. This is because history contains witnesses to the canon. Our knowledge of the canon may be derived from hostile witnesses (e.g. Marcion) and friendly witnesses. This can be observed through the data of history.

Second, the epistomological method for asking, "What is the scope of the canon?" versus "Is the infant baptism apostolic?". is very different. The former is asking the standard upon which doctrines are normed. The latter assumes the existence of the standard. Thus, it is not inconsistency to employ the witness of, say Tertullian, regarding the extent of the canon and reject his montanist stand at the same time.

The reasons why infant baptism is rejected are (not exhaustive): 1) The NT offers no positive evidence for infant baptism. 2) the Didache (c. 60-30 earliest post NT document discussing baptism) gives a glimpse on how baptism is administered. In this account, baptism is given to those who understand that they should fast in one or two days. The requirements in this document typically precludes infants.

Nick: Since Jones is opposing Ehrman, he's allowed to appeal to the Early Church Fathers, but if a Catholic tries this line of argumentation, then it's invalid.

Resposnse: I don't think the appealing to the Fathers is an invalid argument. I have not seen any informed protestant advancing this logic. Could you point me to one?

Nick: This "standard" is so foreign to the Protestant mind that I'm somewhat amazed Jones can say this with a straight face. If Christians then had to trust Papias and Polycarp and others, then why do folks like Professor Jones and Piper hold their testimony at arms length (e.g. Polycarp not only quotes Tobit as Scripture, he quotes the verse that says "alms deliver from death," which is abominable to the Protestant mind).

Response: The strength of the evidence should be assessed. Are historical figures a witness to the canon? Yes. Actually I am a bit amazed that you are amazed on what Jones is saying regarding the historical data as witness to the canon. Polycarp quoted Tobit 4:10 but is this witness overwhelming enough to accept Tobit as part of the canon? Looking at the historical data, this is not as obvious as any historians would testify.

Nick: Aside from the fact Fathers like Tertullian taught very unProtestant doctrines, it's amazing how Jones can say with such calmness how the canon came about in a very anti-Sola-Scriptura manner.

Response: Tertulian taught very uncatholic doctrines as well. It should be pointed out that any informed protestant would recognize that Jones article is not in any way violating sola scriptura. :) If so, can you tell me how his article is anti sola scriptura?

Nick: Where does Sola Scriptura stand a chance with this kind of logic? It's comments like these, coming from orthodox Protestant professors, that cause Protestants to head towards Rome.

Response: I am not so impressed by protestant professors heading towards Rome as I am not so impressed by many RC scholars abandoning major roman catholic tenets in various universities. I would like to submit that your understanding of Sola Scriptura is faulty.

Regards,
Joey

Banshee said...

I have a friend who's from an academic from a small Christian church that theoretically models the early Christians, and who's a big fan of ancient Rome. She gets around this problem by only reading novels and watching movies, never reading the actual Fathers.

It's logical, but it's also disappointing.

Jae said...

@Vocab said, "RCC folks try to make the Fathers like modern RCCs instead of just letting them be as they were. That would be one example".

RCC is NOT trying to make the Fathers look like modern RCC, let them speak and you judge yourself:

St. Ignatius of Antioch's Letter to the Smyrnaeans, dated to around (circa AD 110):

"Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."


Augustine (circa 350 AD)

"I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."
(Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, 5)

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons (circa 115.A.D.)

"...by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known CHURCH FOUNDED AND ORGANIZE AT ROME by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that EVERY CHURCH SHOULD AGREE WITH THIS CHURCH, ON ACCOUNT OF ITS PREEMINENT AUTHORITY ".