Grasping the Nature of Canon Formation within the Holy Tradition

Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary (perhaps the leading dispensational seminary in the world), wrote a thoughtful blog posting: “The Problem with Protestant Ecclesiology.”

He starts off by unabashedly proclaiming his Protestant convictions. Then, amazingly, he points out what he sees as Protestantism’s weakness, its ecclesiology.

Prof. Wallace notes that: 1) there is a lack of consistency in Protestant worship services; 2) many Protestant congregations are ill prepared to deal with a pastor who forsakes the historic Christian faith; 3) recent scholarship is drawing attention to the fact that canonicity – which books belong to the Bible – cannot be understood apart from the authority of the church. Orthodox Christians have made similar criticisms, but these are stunning admissions and observations coming from within the Protestant camp.  Protestants, whether of dispensationalist, fundamentalist, or more mainstream persuasion, should give attention to what Prof. Wallace has to say.

He closes with the suggestion that Protestants be open to learning from the more ancient branches of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.  He also recommends that Protestants listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through the early church fathers and embrace the ancient historic forms of worship.

This blog posting has three parts: 1) my personal reactions to Prof. Wallace’s posting; 2) a discussion of the evidence that point to the role of the traditioning process in canon formation; 3) a discussion of an Orthodox approach to canon formation.

1. My Reactions

As I read through Prof. Wallace’s blog posting I had a sense of déjà vu. It reminded me of the time I had graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with an M.A. in Church History and was committed to helping to bring the United Church of Christ back to its biblical roots. Yet unbeknownst to me at the time were the tiny cracks in my Protestant theology that would in time become major fissures that would result in a theological crisis. The concerns voiced by Prof. Wallace are quite similar that I and others were asking when we embarked on our journey to Orthodoxy. I was just a seminary graduate then, here we have similar critical questions being voiced by a seminary professor at a major Protestant seminary!

My studies in church history made me keenly aware of Protestantism’s theological anarchy.  My involvement in the evangelical renewal movement put me squarely in the middle of the Cold War hostilities between Evangelicals and Liberals who belonged to the same denomination.  Prof. Wallace recounted the struggle of one Protestant congregation with an apostate pastor; I had to struggle with the question of a denomination that had gone apostate.  Could I as an Evangelical belong to a denomination with historic roots in Puritan New England and yet had many pastors and theologians who had become de facto Arians?

As I wrestled with the doctrinal controversies of modern Protestantism I was at the same time haunted by voices from the early church.  It took the form of quotes from two church fathers.  Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century church father, wrote:

Having received this preaching and this faith, as I have said, the Church, although scattered in the whole world, carefully preserves it, as if living in one house.  She believes these things [everywhere] alike, as if she had but one heart and one soul, and preaches them harmoniously, teaches them, and hands them down, as if she had but one mouth.

This quote by Irenaeus described the organic connection between church unity and doctrinal orthodoxy in the early church.  What I longed for was not an impossible ideal but had existed in fact in the early church.  It caused me wonder: How did Protestant Christianity get into such a mess and how could we recover the church unity and orthodoxy of the early Church?

The other quote came from Augustine of Hippo, the towering giant of Western theology.  He is reputed to have said:

If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.

This quote by Augustine shone a spotlight on the egocentric core of the Protestant approach to doing theology.  I realized that my evangelical theology was at its core my personal interpretation of the Bible and my church identity the result of which denomination I chose to affiliate with.

Even the Reformed tradition with confessional statements like the Westminster Confession suffered from this egocentric flaw.  There were not one but a variety of confessions one could choose from.  Moreover, the authority of these confessions was contingent and provisional at best.  These confessions had no authority in themselves but were dependent on their faithfully reflecting Scripture.  Absent from the Reformed creeds were any claim to a universal binding authority on all Christians.  Among Presbyterians the conservatives view the confessions as prescriptive and binding while the liberals understand them to be historic witnesses and no longer binding.  I had no objective guarantee that this was the true Christian faith.  As a Protestant I had no external authority like the Church to fall back on.

As Prof. Wallace suggested, I started listening to what the Holy Spirit had to say through the early church fathers and the ancient liturgies.  This led me to follow in the paths of the Mercersburg theologians, John Nevins and Philip Schaff, who advocated a catholic and Reformed Christianity.  This took me to the Seven Ecumenical Councils that claimed to make decisions binding on all Christians.  But the weakness of Mercersburg theology was that the early church fathers for the most part were books on my bookshelf and most people in my former home church couldn’t care less about patristics and ancient liturgies.  Ultimately I found myself caught between a Protestantism that suffered from extensive historical amnesia and the Orthodox Church which claimed to have unbroken historic continuity going back to the original Apostles.

2. The Importance of the Traditioning Process to Canon Formation

The unexpected surprise in Prof. Wallace’s blog posting was his discussion of what Eusebius of Caesarea, the fourth century church historian, had to say about the formation of the biblical canon.  Unlike today’s bibles that have neatly printed table of contents in the front, the early church had no clear cut listing.  Even by the fourth century there were still some debate as to what books belonged to the canon, that is, were divinely inspired and authoritative Scripture.  So Eusebius needed to distinguish between homolegoumena (that which everyone agreed was Scripture), antilegomena (that which was in question or disputed), apocrypha (that which was rejected by many but accepted by some), and pseudepigrapha (that which was rejected by all) (Church History 3.3.6).  Prof. Wallace paraphrasing David Dungan observes:

What is significant is that for the ancient church, canonicity was intrinsically linked to ecclesiology.  It was the bishops rather than the congregations that gave their opinion of a book’s credentials.  Not just any bishops, but bishops of the major sees of the ancient church.

This observation points to a tension embedded in the Protestant view of Scripture; despite Protestantism’s assigning supreme authority to Scripture, Scripture itself is unavoidably a product of the Church.  It did not come into existence independently of the Church.  Moreover, the early bishops played a key role in determining which books would comprise Scripture.  One cannot understand the formation of the biblical canon without taking into account the early bishops.  To ignore the bishops is to create an artificial mental construct that has no historical basis.

For modern Christians, Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox, to grasp the nature of canon formation they must beware of inadvertently imposing their modern assumptions on the early church.  They should research the early church and try to imagine themselves in the early church service when there were no electric guitars, PowerPoint overheads, worship bulletins, or leather bound gold leaf Bibles.  Early Christians did not have personal Bibles. Scripture in the early church consisted of a limited number of copied scrolls or codices in the safekeeping of one of the clergy.  This was especially critical in times of persecution.  Back then Christians would painstakingly copy by hand whatever Scripture they could borrow from another church.  There were no denominational publishing houses back then!  Early Christians experienced the Bible in the context of the Sunday worship.  A reader would stand in the front of the assembly and read out loud the Scripture.  The bishop was responsible for deciding what would be read in the Sunday Liturgy.  This meant that he needed to identify spurious books be excluded from the Sunday worship.

What is fascinating about Book 3 of Eusebius’ Church History is his juxtaposing of accounts of canon formation with accounts of apostolic succession.  Church History 3.4 describes the immediate successors to the Apostles: Timothy was bishop of Ephesus and Titus of Crete.  Linus who was mentioned in II Timothy was Peter’s successor to the episcopacy in Rome.  We learn that the third bishop of Rome was Clement.  Church History 3.22 describes Ignatius as the second bishop of Antioch.  Thus, Eusebius provides a valuable external witness to some of the early post-apostolic writings.

In Church History 3.9-10 Eusebius draws on Josephus for a description of the Old Testament canon.  In Church History 3.25 Eusebius describes the undisputed and disputed books of the New Testament writings.

What is striking about Eusebius’ discussion of the biblical canon are his references to the traditioning process.  In Church History 3.26.6 Eusebius wrote:

But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers…. (Emphasis added)

In Church History 6.12, Eusebius quotes from a letter by Serapion, bishop of Antioch, concerning a question about a so-called Gospel of Peter.  Serapion wrote:

For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.  (Emphasis added)

Bishop Serapion’s principal criterion for determining canonicity was apostolic tradition.  The way the early Christians approached canonicity is at variance with the more recent discussion about canon formation which asume a tension between the authority of the writings and the authority of the church.  The issue of Scripture versus the Church was not a concern of the early Christians.  Instead they were more concerned about the traditioning process: Could a bishopric, a liturgical practice, or an alleged apostolic writing be shown to have apostolic origins?

Many Protestants and Evangelicals admire Athanasius the Great for his staunch defense of Christ’s divinity.  But many are not aware of his role as a bishop in the early church.  Athanasius’ Letter 39 which provides one of the earliest listing of canonical books also affirmed the traditioning process as critical to canon formation.  He wrote:

Forasmuch as some have taken in hand, to reduce into order for themselves the books termed apocryphal, and to mix them up with the divinely inspired Scriptures, concerning which we have been fully persuaded, as they who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, delivered to the fathers; it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine…. (Emphasis added)

Letter 39 was not an ordinary correspondence.  It was the custom for the Patriarch of Alexandria to send a letter to the churches in the diocese every Easter.  In other words this was an authoritative letter by the bishop to all those under his care.  There was a practical aspect to the letter.  Apparently there was some confusion as to which books ought to be read out loud in the Sunday Liturgy.  As bishop Athanasius sought to bring order and regularity to the congregations under his care.  What is striking here is that Athanasius did not invoke the institutional power of the church but rather he referenced the traditioning process that he was part of.  As a bishop of the early church he was obligated to safeguard the sacred deposit of Faith which included the writings of the Apostles.

Eusebius and Athanasius were bishops who lived in the fourth century.  When we look for earlier evidence we find similar evidence in the second century church father, Irenaeus of Lyons. In his defense of the four Gospels, Irenaeus made reference to the traditioning process.  He wrote:

For if what they [the heretics] had published is the Gospel of truth, and yet is totally unlike those which have been handed down to us from the apostles, any who please may learn, as is shown from the Scriptures themselves, that that which has been handed down from the apostles can no longer be reckoned the Gospel of truth.  (Against the Heretics 3.11.9, p. 429; Emphasis added)

Going back even earlier to the New Testament period we find evidence of the traditioning process.  The Apostle Paul exhorted the Christians in Thessalonica to hold fast to both the oral and written traditions (II Thessalonians 2:15).

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (NKJV; emphasis added)

What is striking in this verse is Paul’s use of the word “whether.”  This means that oral tradition is just as authoritative as written tradition.  We also find Paul exhorting Timothy to pass on the deposit of faith to other faithful men when ordaining the future generation of clergy (II Timothy 2:2).

And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (NKJV)

The word “commit” used by Paul is similar to: “delivered,” “pass on,” and “hand down” terms used by the church fathers; they are all refer to the traditioning process.

When we consider that I and II Thessalonians were among Paul’s earliest letters and that the two letters to Timothy were written just before his death we find that the traditioning process was an integral to the Apostle Paul’s ministry. So I was shocked when I read Eusebius’ Church History and discovered that II Timothy 2:2 did not disappear into the foggy mists of church history but continued like a strong iron chain in the form detailed listings of bishops.  Eusebius’ Church History gives us long detailed lists of bishops tracing their lineage back to the Apostles!  Thus, the traditioning of Scripture was a widely known practice endorsed by both Scripture and the early church fathers. (See my article on Sola Scriptura and the Biblical Basis for the Tradition.) 

3. An Orthodox Approach to Canon Formation

The significance of the patristic and biblical witness to the importance of traditioning process to canon formation is that they alter the framework of debate.  The tension between an authoritative Scripture and an authoritative Church is no longer an issue.  This is because both have a common source, the Apostles who were commissioned by Christ via the Great Commission.

The dichotomy underlying the canon formation debate – an authoritative listing versus a listing of authoritative books — becomes suspect.  This tension apparently stem from the Protestant versus Catholic controversy of the 1500s.  Defining the canon as an authoritative listing of books supports the Roman Catholic view that Scripture is authoritative because it has the backing of the Church.  Defining the canon as a listing of authoritative books reflects the Protestant view that Scripture’s authority is independent of the church.

The Orthodox approach is to understand the biblical canon as an authoritative listing of authoritative books.  The apostolic writings were authoritative because they were written by the apostles and the bishops were authoritative because they were the apostles’ successors and the guardian of Scripture.  For Orthodoxy, Scripture and Church cannot be separated because they comprise one organic whole.

This makes for some troubling practical consequences for Protestants. Scripture can no longer be viewed as existing independently of the Church.  The Bible is the property of the Church, much like the bags of money stored in Brinks armored trucks.  The money does not belong to the guards, but are nonetheless the guards’ responsibility.  Similarly, Scripture is the word of God left in the care of the bishops.

The significance of the traditioning process is that it assumes that one belongs to a historic chain that goes back to the Apostles.  With the advent of the printing press many Protestants have come to view the Bible as their personal property but such an understanding is a radical departure from historic Christianity which understood Scripture to be the sacred deposit entrusted to the Church.  Where an Orthodox Christian is part of a historic chain of tradition that goes back to the original Apostles a Protestant Christian is not.  They believe in a Bible that stands independently of the church.  Professor Wallace rightly noted that the divorcing of Scripture from church has resulted in Protestantism’s weak ecclesiology.  One can even question whether all the disparities in doctrine, worship, and church governance render “Protestant ecclesiology” an oxymoron – a self-contradictory statement.

There are problems with the Protestant approach to the biblical canon as just a list.  How should a Protestant respond to Martin Luther wanting to exclude the book of James from the New Testament or Thomas Jefferson excising passages from the Bible based upon his well informed judgment?  And how should a Protestant respond to a “prophet” like Joseph Smith who wants expand the canonical collection?  Or a university scholar who discovered a “lost gospel”?  Without being able to appeal to an authoritative listing, a Protestant will be forced to fall back on reason, scholarship, or inner conscience.  But would one have confidence in a round table of scholars like the Jesus Seminar voting by means of colored slips?  An Orthodox Christian can simply reply that to tamper with the biblical canon is to break with the historic Christian faith that goes back to the Apostles.  This is because the Church as the recipient and guardian of Scripture has the authority to draw up an authoritative listing of biblical books.

The Jurassic Park Experience

Professor Daniel Wallace is perceptive when he recognizes that Protestantism’s ecclesiology is its weakness.  This leaves him yearning for a church unified in worship and doctrine but he dismisses that as just a dream.  My response is that the true church is not wishful thinking but a living reality.  Professor Wallace wrote positively about his visits to the Orthodox Church.  He may not know it but every time he visits an Orthodox Liturgy he is seeing a living walking dinosaur straight from the ancient church.  The Orthodox Church today is the same church as the church described by Irenaeus of Lyons.  This is because it has not suffered a break in the traditioning process like Protestantism.  Orthodoxy’s strong ecclesiology has enabled it to maintain unity in worship and doctrinal orthodoxy for the past two millennia.

Source: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/holy-traditions-importance-to-canon-formation/



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