(This is based on John Gerstner’s Primer on Biblical Inerrancy from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.)
The Establishment of the BibleStarting from this point we take as given what we all previously acknowledged: the scripture is the infallible, inerrant, inspired word of God.
Later in this course we will take up a study of Roman Catholicism. At that point we will see that perhaps the biggest and most important distinction between Reformation Protestantism and Catholicism is this:
Protestantism: Scripture alone is authoritative in its teaching. Other teaching may be valuable and correct, but it does not bind our conscience. Tradition cannot be taken as infallible or inerrant.
Catholicism: Scripture and sacred tradition are authoritative and binding. Extra-biblical church teachings, obtained from an oral tradition traceable to the apostles and Jesus, is as authoritative as scripture.
Virtually all Protestant/Catholic disputes are rooted in this incredibly different starting point. Protestants, while not denying that tradition is important, nevertheless deny that one’s salvation depends on accepting teachings that are not found in scripture.
There is a reason I get ahead of myself and bring this up now. Bear with me.
The canon of scriptureAs already stated, from now on we agree that scripture is the infallible, inerrant, inspired word of God. Rome agrees with this lofty view of scripture as well. We have moved beyond the question of whether scripture is inspired and ask a more practical question: What is scripture? That is, what is the canon, where we use canon to mean the collection of books that comprise the bible. The importance and non-triviality of this question is evident by the fact that while Protestants and Catholics agree that scripture is inspired, they disagree on what is scripture. In addition to the sixty-six books of the Protestant bible, a Catholic bible has additional books, called the Apocrypha. These books date from the period between the Old and New Testaments. Rome views the Apocrypha as infallible, inerrant and inspired. Protestants do not.
Further evidence includes the well known fact that Luther referred despairingly to the book of James an “epistle of straw.” Luther was not questioning the authority of scripture. Indeed, he spoke often of inerrancy and inspiration of scripture. What Luther questioned was whether or not the book of James is scripture. Luther did not question the infallibility of the bible; he questioned the infallibility of the church.
As Gerstner points out, Luther represented perfectly the difference in views between Protestants and Catholics, but he did so in a way that makes most Protestants uncomfortable:
Catholic View: The Bible is an infallible collection of infallible books
Protestant View: The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books
If you are protesting this viewpoint, then, in light of the Protestant belief than the only infallible authority on earth is sacred scripture and there is no such thing as infallible sacred tradition, you must ask yourself how would you answer Luther’s dismissal of the Book of James? If you proclaim the certainty that James’s epistle belongs in the bible, on what basis do you make this claim without resorting to tradition? And it has to be tradition, for nowhere in the bible does it tell you that the book of James belongs in the bible.
Most of us, in trying to answer Luther’s criticism of James, will begin sounding like Catholics. Once that door is open, we have to ask why not the Apocrypha?
Having said all that, I will tell you that we can be confident about our canon. But we have to keep in mind that we have no written apostolic basis for the bible’s table of contents.
It is clear then that a shared lofty view of scripture does not imply agreement as to what qualifies as scripture. In short, we are faced with these serious questions about the canon:
- How was the canon established?
- By whose authority?
- Is it closed to further additions?
The process of the formation of the canonThe protestant view, starkly expressed as “The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books” (attributed to John Gerstner) is nothing more than an acknowledgement that the sixty-six books were arrived at by a historic process which we will discuss. As a historic process we allow for the possibility that the men involved, though all of good faith, erred on some their selections. And if they erred, then they most likely erred over some of the books which they debated—including Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation (they made it in) as well as 1 Clement, The Shepard of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache (they didn’t make it).
The Didache is a fascinating and valuable writing, from no later than AD 120, and tells us a great deal about early church practices such as baptism:
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: After reviewing all of this teaching, baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in living (running) water. But if running water is not available, then baptize into other water; and cold is preferred, but if not available in warm. But if neither is available, pour water three times upon the head in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But before the baptism, let the overseer fast, and also the one being baptized, and all others who are able; Be sure to instruct the one being baptized to fast one or two days before. (Didache 7)Alternatively, you can assume that the Holy Spirit intervened in the selection process ensuring that the correct selection was made. However, in doing so you are extending the very definition of Protestantism to encompass at least one sacred Roman Catholic tradition: the accuracy of the bible’s table of contents.
The process used by the church is summarized by three requirements imposed on a book before it was accepted as canonical:
- It must have apostolic authorship or endorsement.
- It must have been received as authoritative by the early church.
- It must be in harmony with books about which there is no doubt (the gospels, the Book of Acts, and the Pauline letters.)
Also on the basis of the first point the books 1 Clement, The Shepard of Hermas, The Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache were rejected as sub-canonical. It should be noted that these books are not considered worthless. On the contrary, the early church countenanced their use for purposes of private edification.
Other books—false gospels—many related to the Gnostic heresy, received no serious consideration. They were easily dismissed by point 2 and/or point 3. The early church father Origen wrote:
The church receives only four gospels; heretics have many, such as the gospel of the Egyptians and the gospel of Thomas, etc.These false gospels include fanciful stories; the Gospel of Thomas contains an account of the child Jesus fashioning birds from clay—after which the birds came to life and flew away.
While the church went through its process, it is important to make a distinction: the church did not invent the canon, it received it. The Church did not establish the canon, the canon establishes the church. And before the formal process (which was spurred, interestingly enough, by the heretic Marcion, as we shall see) there already was a canon. B. B. Warfield writes:
The church did not grow up by natural law: it was founded. And the authoritative teachers sent forth by Christ to found His church, carried with them, as their most precious possession, a body of divine Scriptures, which they imposed on the church that they founded as its code of law. No reader of the New Testament can need proof of this; on every page of that book is spread the evidence that from the very beginning the Old Testament was as cordially recognized as law by the Christian as by the Jew. The Christian church thus was never without a "Bible" or a "canon."Warfield is pointing out that the New Testament church had both a founder (Christ) and a canon—the Old Testament and the writings of the apostles.
(To be continued…)