Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Canon :: Unlock the Bible {9}

My 8th Grade English teacher had a sign on her desk that read:

Why didn't life's problems hit me
when I was a teenager
and knew everything?

At the age of 14, the irony of this statement was entirely lost on me; however, my first Bible class as a college freshman broke open everything I thought I knew about the Bible.

What do you mean, "Literary Criticism" of the Bible? You can't critique the Word of God! Didn't God just open his mouth one day and pull out this book and hand it to Paul for distribution to the world? (I didn't really think that; truthfully I had just never thought about it at all). What I did think I knew about the Bible went something like this:
God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But how does that stand up against the storms of life? Against an enemy perpetually whispering in your ear, "Did God really say that?" Against people using isolated phrases from the Bible to buttress a viewpoint that doesn't quite sit right with you?

The next four years of my education were spent alternately tearing apart this simplistic philosophy, and rebuilding it more strongly with a greater understanding of how I could be confident that God did say it; of why I believe it; and of the reality that some things aren't as settled as one might think, which allows room for faith.

As I received my diploma and departed this learning-ground, the most important lesson I carried with me was to approach knowledge with humility. We simply don't know as much as we think we know about God.

The Canon
I promised you more solid information today on where the Bible came from. I keep dancing all around it, and the actual answer continues to elude my typing fingers. Perhaps this means it's going to be a good one.

(I also just tweeted about my cat's stinky feet. While this represents my challenge, I don't think it has any bearing on whether you are about to read a good answer).

"Canon" comes from a Greek word that sets a "rule" or "standard," and refers to the body of writings that make up the "revealed truth" found in the Bible. 

Generally speaking, the Old Testament canon was settled long before the time of Jesus. The books of the Law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) were recognized as "Scripture" even before the writing of many of the other parts of Scripture. In fact, other than Ruth, Esther, and Song of Songs, all of the Old Testament is internally attested as Scripture: the writings are referred to as Scripture, elsewhere in Scripture.

Writings that "made it" into the Canon had to pass certain tests:
  • Wide acceptance as Scripture
  • Known origin
  • Message consistent with the greater body of work

The New Testament canon became settled by AD 400. At that time the pope was simply validating a collection of writings that had been accepted as Scripture for centuries.

In the course of education, one learns that some of the books of the canon were questioned, partially because they contained no mention of God (Esther) or had no known author (Job). One also learns that other writings exist, which did not survive to be included in the canon. In fact (as this young Protestant Bible student was astonished to learn), some disagreement still exists about the actual Canon of Scripture. Bibles printed for the Catholic faith include several books called Apocrypha.

This academic information and much, much more overwhelmed me as a college freshman. Who wants to see their simplistic "God said it" theology ripped apart with questions about whether the Bible is even really the word of God? I had to stop and ask myself, "Could we have missed some important messages from God along the way?"

It may look like a wavering of faith, but I think one has to consider such a possibility before one can fully appreciate the beauty and truth of God's Word.

The Big Picture
For the most part, the hours and years of literary analysis brought me back to my starting theology, while expanding my understanding of how and why we have these particular words to study.

The story of the Bible is the story of God's redemptive work in history. From Creation and the Fall to the establishment of the Chosen People; from the failures of the Chosen to the prophecies of a Messiah, the Old Testament looks forward to God's redemption of his creation. From the time of Jesus, the New Testament shares the way of redemption and offers it to the world.

Those writings which convey this theme of redemption through history, constitute the Canon of Scripture. The extra-biblical writings which provide additional history without emphasizing the theme of redemption, were saved to be simply additional ancient texts.

My confidence comes primarily from two verses. I realize this is using the Bible to prove the truth of the Bible, but I believe these verses give us permission:

"All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." 2 Timothy 3:16 ESV
"Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished." Matthew 5:18

God spoke his words to the hearts of ordinary people, so that no one could claim their own intelligence made them wise. He supervised while they wrote his message down. Jesus fulfills those words, and will make sure that not even the dot on an i is lost until he has returned to fulfill all of it.

In the end, I conclude that God is big enough to protect his message from shortsighted humans. I choose to trust God. And I trust that the Bible contains what it needs to contain, for us to know what we are supposed to know.

I don't know as much as I used to know about the Bible, but I do believe that God said it.

Bright, John. A History of Israel, 3rd ed. Westminster: Philadelphia, 1981.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1993.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post!

    "In the end, I conclude that God is big enough to protect his message from shortsighted humans. I choose to trust God. And I trust that the Bible contains what it needs to contain, for us to know what we are supposed to know."

    Love this.


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