How Does Your Knowledge of the Canon Measure Up?

The canon is both history and theology.


The New Testament canon of Scripture is a subject that is too little understood by believers. As a topic most often left to specialists and scholars, the Christian very frequently has an inadequate understanding of how we got our Bible. But the importance of understanding this has grown, rather than diminished, over time. That is, as scholarship has advanced through centuries it has both sharpened our knowledge, while at the same time increased opposition to the idea and content of the New Testament canon. Canon means rule, or measuring rod, and the idea of the canon of Scripture is that it is the rule against which teaching and doctrine are measured. It is the norma normans non normata, or the standard over which no standard exists, but can believers explain exactly why? As scholars such as Bart Ehrman produce books and research that putatively debunks Scripture and the canon, it is vital that Christians – all Christians, not just scholars – be able to articulate the reasons for believing the canon of Scripture is God’s record. There are a couple of points where believers often get tripped up.

“The Church gave us the Bible.”

The idea that we wouldn’t have the books of the Bible if the church didn’t give them to us appears logical at first, but when the question is more thoroughly examined, it falls apart. This is in fact reversing the order of things. God’s word produces God’s people, not the other way around. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18), and “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23). We as God’s people were created, formed as the Church, by the word of God. We do not form God’s word. The church indeed receives the word from God, but she is not the source of it. As Michael Kruger has commented, “the role of the church is like a thermometer, not a thermostat. Both instruments provide information about the temperature in the room—but one determines it and one reflects it.”[1]

Some will point to various councils that seem to ratify the canonical list of books, and say that this represents the church “giving” us the Bible. But this is to confuse reception with authority. John Barton comments, “When fourth-century Fathers and councils attempted to regulate the ‘canon’, they were doing little more than codifying what was already almost universally accepted.” [2] With this, James J. O’Donnell agrees, saying “Before translocal hierarchies of bishops and eventual popes and patriarchs ever evolved to have any doctrinal authority, Christians had come to agree, without noticing it, without debate, without anybody planning it, that scriptural texts, gathered in collections of apostolic authority, would prevail.”[3] Neither the church through some grand decision, nor through conciliar agreement gave us the Scriptures. Rather, the books of the New Testament are self-authenticating, and possess innate and inherent authority. To suggest otherwise is to confuse authority with canonicity. The church recognized these books as authoritative, and the decision to “canonize” them is but an acknowledgement of this divine and inherent authority that belongs to these books.

There were many writings extant during the apostolic era, but our 27 books have prevailed while others have not. And to refer to any such writing as apocryphal is not really correct. Apocryphal means hidden, and these books were by no means hidden or underground. They simply did not contain God’s truth and the believing community did not regard them as Scripture. There is no evidence for the idea that a bunch of bishops sat around and by a show of hands said yea or nay to including the Gospel of Thomas.  If indeed the Word of God is living and active, what God has inspired to be written is able to vindicate itself as his authoritative writing.

“There are so many manuscripts, what about the differences?”

This is perhaps more a question of textual criticism, but it is so closely allied with the questions surrounding the canon that it is important to note. Some have fancied that the plethora of manuscripts has somehow made it more difficult to determine the true words of Scripture, but quite the opposite is the case. Consider for a moment an event where there is but one witness. What that witness says must be regarded as the truth, because there is no one to contradict him. Now imagine there are two witnesses and their stories differ. This presents a problem of knowing which of the two is correct. But if we have hundreds of witnesses, and the vast majority of those witnesses agree, there is far more confidence that one has gotten the correct version of events due to the bulk of evidence from so many voices. There are approximately 5000 manuscripts containing the whole or part of the New Testament. This evidence dwarfs that of other ancient writings. For example, Metzger points out that “Among the tragedians the witness to Euripides are the most abundant: his extant works are preserved in 54 papyri and 276 parchment manuscripts, almost all of the latter dating from the Byzantine period.”[4]

The bounty of manuscripts for the New Testament allows us to have more confidence, not less, that we have the Word of God. By comparing manuscript with manuscript – engaging in textual criticism – this provides an exceedingly high degree of assurance about the accuracy of our Bible. Centuries of manuscript sleuthing has produced ever more evidence for the 27 books we know as the New Testament. Believers should have confidence that weight of evidence keeps pointing in the same direction.

Is the canon really that important?

I believe having at least a working knowledge of the New Testament canon is exceedingly important. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus based on the apostolic records left to us. We are admonished in the New Testament to desire the pure milk of the word, to show ourselves approved, rightly handling the word, and to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Without the canon of Scripture, none of these are possible. To have an understanding of how those books came to be, why we believe that we indeed have the right books – the books God wants us to have – these are not ancillary concerns. Further, as opposition to biblical faith increases, believers need to have confidence in God’s book,  and to be able to explain why we hold to the canon we have. The canon is not the same as inspiration, but it is an allied doctrine. In short, Christians believe that the God who was able to raise Jesus from the dead was also perfectly capable of getting it right at the printer.

For those wanting to delve more into the topic, the following are some recommendations for further reading:


[1] Michael J. Kruger (2012-04-05). Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Kindle Locations 2772-2773). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p.15

[3] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York, Harper Collins,2005), p. 277.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2nd ed. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 34.

We’re Still Treating Worship War Casualties

It’s the music that carries the text, CCM or otherwise.

A recent post on a Christianity Today blog caught my eye because of the topic of music in the Church. This is a well-worn subject, and I can’t say everything I want to here, because it’s too broad (and I’m writing something more extensive), but I’m glad the topic hasn’t simply been dismissed with a hand-wave, as if to say “We’re done with that!” Christians need to keep talking about it. If in the evangelical world we haven’t quite reached resolution, we have in many quarters at least reached a truce, but it has come at a cost. By this I mean many churches have a traditional service and a contemporary service. This is another way of saying we have effected an amicable church split, or perhaps friendly separation may be the better term. Those who feel strongly about one style over the other will always attend that service, and so there are functionally two congregations meeting in the same building, one after the other. This has facilitated peace, but not necessarily unity.

Karl Vaters, the post’s author, makes some good points, and I’m sure that he would agree there is much more to say than his brief article allowed. He begins with the question of whether churches are targeting unbelievers with contemporary music, as a hook to get them into the church. He answers in the negative, and gives some reasons why his church uses the music it does. Some of these are absolutely valid reasons, and as he says, “Every old song used to be a new song.” That is certainly true, and in the Western church, even those who advocate for “traditional” music are using a fairly narrow definition of that. They mean the quasi-popular music that dates back about 200 years or so, running through the mid 20th century. But the history of the church is much longer than that, and tunes that were sung 1000 years ago would sound very strange to our ears today. One can make the case that this music is even more traditional than Western hymns, because it has a much older lineage, but no one sings those tunes because they are culturally foreign to us. I don’t mean the words are foreign, I mean the music itself, and that part of the question gets too little attention.

Vaters makes the point that “There is no such thing as “church music” outside of the lyrical content.” I understand what he means, but I don’t think that statement suffices for everything that’s going in with music. It’s true that one cannot say, “aha, that is a Christian f-sharp”, but it’s also true that music is not created in a vacuum. It is culturally located, and comes with connotations and associations that are sometimes so firmly entrenched that they cannot be dislodged. I am not referring to words and music together, but to the music alone. That is, the notes, rhythms, tempi, harmony, instrumentation – all of the elements that make up music.

The music alone tells a story and colors the words. It doesn’t work the other way around. I’ll give an example. Years ago there was a radio ministry called the Haven Of Rest, (now Haven Today), and the resident musicians were a male quartet. They came and did a concert at Moody Church in Chicago, which I heard over the radio. In a nod to the radio program, the quartet sang four verses of the hymn. “Haven of Rest.” The first verse was sung as one would expect – straight. The second was sung in an operatic or “classical” fashion, as they explained that Chicago was a city with a renowned symphony orchestra. The audience chuckled a bit at this. The third verse was sung in a country and western style, which the audience found quite funny. The final verse was sung in a rap style, and the audience laughter was the strongest of all. Without realizing why, the audience recognized this digression in tone of words and music with each verse. As the music (and its connotations) departed farther away from the text, the satire increased. This effect is what makes the idea of a parody in song at all possible. If the text alone dictates whether a piece of music is Christian or not, then there would be nothing humorous at all in this. I could cite other examples too, (Oliver Sachs Musicophilia is filled with several) and the whole idea of a film soundtrack is based on the idea of music influencing us in ways we may not even realize.

Local churches should at least ask these questions about associations with their music. Traditional or contemporary, it all carries a message apart from the text. People can overcome certain associations, and learn to enjoy and be moved by music that was previously uncomfortable for them, but it may be a formidable effort. Quite often, it’s a youngest common denominator that determines our music, (how many worship leaders are over 40 I wonder?), but the biblical model is that age brings wisdom. Churches that are mono-generational are impoverished. Whether they know it or not, younger Christians desperately need older believers among them. It’s a shame if musical choices prevent that. Am I saying that the older Christians must dictate the type of music in a local church? Not at all, but there is a real need for education, to talk about what happens in music, that is, within us as people. It’s insufficient to take a text, pair it with music we like and say we know have “Christian music.” Does the tune, support or undermine the message of the text? What about the rhythm, meter, and instrumentation? All of these subtly add or subtract from what the text is conveying. Vaters notes, “New Songs give voice to how people express worship today.”
They do indeed, but music – all music – doesn’t simply express, it impresses. It influences us and shapes us, and being aware of that effect is not always appreciated by many who plan worship.

Evangelical Heterodoxy

The term “Evangelical” no longer has meaning

A recent study by Lifeway and Ligonier points out once again that the term “Evangelical” means next to nothing these days. The doctrinal survey points out that those who self-identify as evangelicals are all over the theological map in terms of their beliefs. If there is an overarching theme it is that American evangelicals are products of their time, and are far too influenced by the surrounding culture. They are being transformed alright, but not toward a more biblically-shaped mind. It should surprise no one that Americans in general hold heterodox views, and the study data must be read carefully to distinguish when the respondents are Americans in general, or whether the answers reflect only evangelicals.

“Two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Twenty-four percent disagree. Twelve percent are not sure.” The exclusivity of salvation through Jesus is very clear in the NT. “No man comes to the father except through me”, Jesus told his disciples. That cannot be squared with “God accepts the worship of all religions” when no other religion defines Jesus as God incarnate. Among evangelicals, those who agree with this statement drops to 46%, but that is still a shocking number. Nearly half of evangelicals apparently believe that all faiths are more or less equal in God’s sight.

Not surprisingly, the majority of Americans are not clear on one of the most fundamental aspects of the gospel: You cannot earn salvation. “Three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say people must contribute their own effort for personal salvation. Half of Americans (52 percent) say good deeds help them earn a spot in heaven.” That drops to 36% agreement among evangelicals, but again, a startling number of believers are confused on a most basic aspect of salvation.

It should be noted that were the survey to segment other groups aside from evangelicals, I don’t doubt that the results would be similar. That is, if Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc. were categorized, the results would not be any different. (See Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenalization of American Christianity for such evidence.) In other words, this problem is not unique to evangelicals, but indeed it should be the case that evangelicals are the outliers due to their orthodoxy, not their heterodoxy.

The solution to this is not a new one: Faithful exposition of the Bible. No amount of catechesis that is divorced from the biblical record can do this. The creeds are not living and active, able to divide between soul and spirit. Only the Word of God is able to do that. American evangelicals need to recover a regard for the Bible once again, not as supreme authority, but as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, as sole authority.

The Scriptures Are Disappearing

Influence on public life aside, Christians need more of the Bible.

Kenneth A. Briggs is a longtime journalist covering religion who is out with a new book, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America. The theme is the vanishing of the centrality of the Bible in American life, and more importantly, in the church. This is but a further step of decline in what the Barna Group wrote about in its 2010 survey, citing six megathemes of the church’s direction. Number one on that list, “The church is becoming less theologically literate.” Theological literacy begins with the Bible, and Mr. Briggs work serves to highlight the sad and startling fact that among professing Christians, the Scriptures are simply not read very much.

Evangelicals should pay heed to what Briggs notes when asked about places he expected to find the Bible, but didn’t. “In the mega-type churches – the churches that were really heavily loaded with the visual and the audio and the rest of the electronic stuff, the music – I was really stunned by what I saw as that alternative version of Christianity being delivered through those means.”

Christians cannot grow spiritually beyond their knowledge of Scripture. We may have relational ministry, we may have worship teams, we may have what some view as crass “theotainment”, but if we do not have a deep and growing relationship with reading the Bible, we will not have conformity to Christ. No amount of community can make up for our lack of attention to the written word of God. Our pedigree means nothing. It doesn’t matter who started your church,  or what association or coalition we are part of. If a personal engagement with an open Bible is not part of our faith, we will be spiritually anemic. My sense is that Briggs’ book is part investigative reporting, part lament. He is saddened, as all christians should be, by the erosion of the Bible in not only our public discourse, but in our churches. Take, and read.

Both conservative and liberal Catholics agree – Pope Francis is changing church teaching

Is the pope playing a theological shell game?

Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation, is a document that offers pastoral guidance for Roman Catholic clergy toward the reintegration of Catholics into congregational and sacramental life. Specifically, those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or who are in other situations referred to as “Irregular unions.”  Damon Linker refers to Francis as a ‘stealth reformer’, and charts the path of how he is undoing previous doctrinal positions ever so quietly. A stealth reformer such as Francis, “keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.”

Linker has no doubt about Francis’ methods, nor his goal. He means to change doctrine by turning a blind eye to enforcement, and to leaving it to the discretion of parish priests as to whether it is acceptable to admit people to the sacraments. The pope is, in a way, covering his ears and shouting “la! la! la!” He doesn’t want to know or hear about what goes on at individual parishes. Linker expresses consternation with conservative Catholics who are upset by the apostolic exhortation, referring to their “retrograde intransigence.” Where he once espoused the conservative position, Linker seems ready to be done with a Church that refuses any dialogue on issues. Francis has broken this mold, and is a man very different from his two predecessors.

While Linker finds this encouraging and refreshing, others such as Michael Brendan Dougherty, find it a betrayal of the ancient faith. Dougherty agrees with Linker in this: Pope Francis is changing doctrine, if only by obfuscation and evasion. For those who believe this is an impossibility (“As the church teaches and has always taught”), what Francis propagates in the apostolic exhortation is, according to Dougherty, cowardice, confusion, and recklessness. Conservatives recalling the halcyon days of John Paul II and Benedict, doubtless find the current papacy hard to stomach. Convert Luma Simms is also one who all but declares Francis is peddling bad doctrine. She, too, accuses the pontiff of obfuscation, waffling, and of casting believers back on individual, private judgement. Those who insist that the church never changes its doctrinal positions are faced with difficult choices.  One matter on which conservative and liberal Roman Catholics are agreed, even as they quibble about method: the pope is changing the teaching of the Church. 

The Case for Domestic Pacifism

Is our hope in superior fire power?

The Washington Post re-ran a piece by John Piper, titled Should Christians Arm Themselves? that presents a counterargument to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent comments that Liberty University students should carry guns. Falwell’s comments came in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, attributed to Islamic terrorism. Piper’s argument is that it is not consistent with the teaching of the New Testament that Christians face inevitable persecution with armed resistance. His position is a careful presentation of the biblical evidence to the contrary. He makes several points that are unassailable. A brief excerpt provides a mildly sardonic example of where Falwell’s logic would lead:

I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with concealed weapons will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s in our pocket.

Piper goes on as well to ask the question where all discussions of christian pacifism lead:

A natural instinct is to boil the issue down to the question, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?”

He provides a 7 point answer to this question, and is forthright enough to say, I do not know what I would do before this situation presents itself with all its innumerable variations of factors. And I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me. 

Piper’s logic and reasoning hews very closely to a book I read several years ago, Choosing Against War: A Christian View, by John D. Roth. Roth is a professor at Goshen College in Indiana.  Goshen is a Mennonite school, and Roth presents a position consistent with historical anabaptism. Roth, too, said he didn’t know what he would do at the moment in a hypothetical situation of his wife or family being threatened. Roth is a thoroughgoing pacifist, and would thus refuse all military service. I don’t get the impression from Piper’s article that he holds to that view. And this is why I use the term “domestic pacifism.” If we exclude service in the military, and limit armed resistance to ordinary citizens carrying guns, then I think the Christian case against Falwell’s stance and for domestic pacifism is air-tight.

For a Christian, the worst that can happen is not death, but rather entering into a Christless eternity. If I have the power to take the life of another, and to send them to such an end, do I want to exercise that power? Can I assert with confidence that God would want me to take the life of another in this way? Though I didn’t always hold this view, I have to come to see that domestic pacifism is the most faithful to the New Testament, and in my view, the one most consistent with Christian witness.

In Defense of Ross Douthat

The “laity” are not welcome in doctrinal discussions.

Perhaps I should refer to this less as a defense, and more an identification of an irony. New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat has come under fire from an unlikely source – fellow Roman Catholics. But these are Catholic academics and theologians who essentially feel that due to his status as an uncredentialed layman, he is unqualified to comment on theology and doctrine as he has done many times in his columns.  Douthat is among those I write about in my book Evangelicals Adrift, and is a prime example of a convert to Catholicism who upholds his expatriate faith with a zeal that the native-born, as it were, do not.

Before converting to Catholicism, Douthat was part of pentecostalism (my memory is Assemblies of God, but I cannot find the reference, but it is not so important). No doubt he there became accustomed to reading his Bible for himself, thinking about doctrine, and within pentecostalism, so sharp a division between clergy and laity did not exist, to the extent it does in Catholicism. To suggest, as these theologians do, that Douthat is not qualified to write on matters of theology or doctrine is simply ridiculous.

Douthat is well-educated and literate, he is a critical thinker, and therefore he has pretty much all the equipment he needs to weigh the evidence for or against various doctrinal positions within his Church. He can read the source material for these discussions just as anyone else can. The suggestion that determining these things should be left to the “professionals”, should be insulting to any and every member of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, part of the reason for the current troubles of the church is due to this professionalizing of what belongs to everyone.

I by no means think that if the Catholic Church adopted a flatter structure, this would solve their problems. Their doctrinal issues run far deeper than a democratization of the church hierarchy can solve. But within the confines of the structure he is working with, Douthat is doing what one would think Catholic academia would want. As a layman, he is taking profound interest in what the Church teaches, and where it is going.  The pope himself said as much in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world.” Ironically, Douthat is doing what the pope he often opposes is suggesting, and it is this very thing, which these theologians say is not in Douthat’s purview, that the pope they defend is encouraging.

The Irrelevance of Relevance

Relevance may be just another word for compromise.

A recent piece by Allen Guelzo titled The Illusion of Respectability calls attention to the uneasy relationship that christian academics have with higher education. Guelzo is specifically addressing those who choose a career in academia and who will be faced with what he calls the “lust for respectability.”  Is there discrimination against christians in higher ed? Most certainly. That fact will lead many to compromise and Guelzo’s plea is to recognize anew their calling as stewards, as servants, as those who need to embrace their standing as pilgrims. If academic ostracism is the result so be it. I don’t at all disagree with this, and indeed, even those whose careers are not in academia can find application here.

What I found most interesting about Guelzo’s piece is where he quotes Roger Olson, as to what he has seen change about evangelical christianity during his lifetime. “Evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward. … All that has gone away. The vast majority of evangelicals, in my experience, know very little about the Bible and never memorize any portion of it. Evangelical sermons are as likely to quote Dr. Seuss as Paul the Apostle.”

This indictment used to be particularly appropriate for youth ministry, where the overriding emphasis was on relevance. But it is doubtless true for all of the church now, and where the lust for respectability that Guelzo laments is, it seems, causing christians to ask not, “is it true?”, but rather, “does it work?” We want outcomes, results.  In Jeremiah 25, the prophet tells the people, “For twenty-three years, from the thirteenth year of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, to this day, the word of the LORD has come to me, and I have spoken persistently to you, but you have not listened.” In other words, Jeremiah got no results, it didn’t work. He had nothing to show as far as impacting the culture. But the message was true, and this was the gauge by which he was measured. This is the essence of what both Guelzo and Olson call believers back to. It begins and ends with scripture, with making it our study, our focus, and our guide. Apart from a deep knowledge of the Bible and the Savior, relevance is quite frankly, irrelevant.

Is the Pope Catholic?

Previous generations might not have thought that the current pontiff is.

I remember this rejoinder from childhood as a sarcastic retort when you asked a question that had an obvious answer, but it’s been interesting to see how various constituents from within the Roman Catholic Church are asking the question not in jest, but in earnest.  Francis has certainly struck a different course and tone from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, (aka “God’s Rotweiler” for his ferocity in holding the line on conservative dogma).  Conservatives have not been happy with moves such as making annulments easier – a move the guardian termed a “stunning departure” from his predecessors, to his olive branches to those outside the church. These have led to lots of storm and stress within the church. Liberal catholics tend to be encouraged by him, but conservatives are chagrined.

It has always been the case that factions exist within the Catholic Church, but for the long pontificate of John Paul II and the shorter one of Benedict, the liberals were on the outside looking in. Now, it’s the conservatives who have been set back on their heels by Francis. Michael Brendan Dougherty asks with true sincerity whether the Pope is leading the Church into apostasy. Whether open schism erupts is still a question, but one wonders, how much dissent can there be before it’s just called for what it is? The answer, then, to the question of whether the Pope is Catholic all depends on which side of the aisle you’re on.