This blog continues the series dealing with the Bible and scriptural issues. It began with the 1st blog: Reading the Bible Means Opening a Treasury. The immediately preceding blog is Scriptures and Tradition.
The Scriptures clearly belong to the life of the people of God. In the case of Christianity, this means the Scriptures emerged within a pre-existing community. Certainly scriptures existed before there was a Christianity – the Torah of the Jews which were the basis of the Old Testament of the Christians. However, the Church as the community of disciples existed before there was a New Testament. It was the spread of Christianity and the existence of new Christian communities that created the need for written, particularly Christian scriptures. It was this same community of believers spread throughout the Roman Empire and even beyond it, which circulated these writings and eventually gave recognition to which writings were considered authentic for all Christians to read, study, interpret, proclaim and live by.
“The story of the formation of what is known as the New Testament ‘canon’ is a story of the demand for authority. The Christian Church set out with a preposterously unlikely tale: that a person who had recently been executed by the Romans at the instigation of the Jewish religious authorities had been restored to life and was the very corner-stone of the entire building called ‘Israel’. Where was their evidence for this, and what was their authority? Probably the most immediately cogent evidence was the very existence of this group of ‘Nazerenes’… the Twelve evidently constituted the earliest Christian ‘canon’ or measuring-rod — the standard by which the authenticity of the Church’s message was to be gauged, for the duration of their lifetime.” (CFD Moule, THE BIRTH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p 178-179)
Indeed the original ‘canon’ which determined the authenticity and authority of what was taught in the name of Christ was the Apostles. They in turn bestowed the same authority to the bishops whom they appointed in every local community.
“The determination of a canon was, at least initially, not about separating inspired books from non-inspired books, but a matter of determining which books were reliable witnesses to the ancient faith. What distinguishes the canon from other works, in other words, is not inspiration, but the Church’s Spirit-assisted judgment regarding the reliable testimony of these works. As Robert Gnuse put it: ‘The ancient church did not bestow authority on the various works incorporated into the canon, it merely recognized the authority which already lay therein.’ … ‘Thus, in forming the canon, the church acknowledged and established the Bible as the measure or standard of inspiration in the church, not as the totality of it. What concurs with canon is of like inspiration; what does not is not of God.’” (Richard Gaillardetz, BY WHAT AUTHORITY?, p 35)
“If we ask what criteria the Church consciously applied to test the authenticity of its writings, we shall find that they are criteria dictated by controversy with heretics or disbelievers. The most obvious is ‘apostolicity’. If not actually written by one of the Twelve, a Gospel…must at least have some kind of apostolic imprimatur: it must be shown to come from some close associate of an apostle and, if possible, with the apostle’s express commission. Consequently, it must necessarily belong to an early period, and would be expected…to show signs of at least derivation from the primitive Aramaic-speaking Church. A corollary of this…was that no genuinely apostolic Gospel could contain an interpretation of the incarnation contrary to that orthodoxy… by the time the last of the Twelve had died, there was a sufficiently powerful uniformity, so far as the basic convictions of the Church’s leaders go, running through the Christian centers all over the empire, to detect and extrude ‘heresy’—that is, any opinion incompatible with the apostolic witness.” (CFD Moule, THE BIRTH OF THE NEW TESTAMENT, p 189)
Those first Christians who committed the Christian message and proclamation to writing, were actively engaged in forming the Church. They were not consciously formulating the Scriptures for the Church. That would be the work of those who received the writings and had to determine their authenticity and their authority before proclaiming them publicly and distributing them to other communities to read. The Christian authors of what would become the New Testament had the task of teaching believers how to be disciples of Christ, and of defending their flocks from false teachings which were always also trying to work their way into the Christian communities.
“Neither the apostles nor the evangelists ever decided at one or another time to ‘sit down and write a Bible,’ nor did any one of them claim that he had been given a special ‘call’ or ‘commission’ to take up pen and write some ‘holy scripture.’ Indeed, the apostles and evangelists were never in any great hurry to write anything. When they did write, it was primarily in the form of letters addressed to specific problems or questions which had arisen. In other words, they did not write for the purpose of establishing a ‘Bible,’ but rather to preserve the unity of the faith in sound doctrine and defending the unity and uniqueness of the Holy Church.” (Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, FREEDOM TO BELIEVE, p 63)
The writing of the Scriptures, and then the closing of the canon, was done precisely to maintain the purity and authenticity of the Christian message. As Christianity was gaining more and varied members, there was a constant (and quite natural) temptation to re-interpret Christ and the Gospel in new and varied ways. The Apostles and the leadership they appointed to succeed them, took seriously establising accepted norms and boundaries for the Christian message. [For example in Acts 15, the Apostolic Council decides it is not necessary to become a Jew in order to be a Christian. The Apostles decide that the consequence of the Resurrection proving Jesus is the Messiah is that the keeping of Torah is not mandatory any longer for the people of God.]
Next: Interpreting Scriptures