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Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Addendum to 'The Canon Conundrum' by Nathan and Matthew Farrar

Editor's Note: In the previous article, Nathan and Matthew Farrar explained some of their theological reasons for leaving the Christadelphians and embracing orthodoxy under the heading 'The Canon Conundrum'. The post generated some vibrant feedback and the authors are grateful for the interaction. They have written this addendum to address some questions and criticism they received. The authors welcome brief further questions and comments on social media or this blog. However, those wishing to substantially critique the authors' work, or to meet their challenge to offer a positive case for the Christadelphian dogma of the canon, are respectfully asked to do so in the form of a full article rather than piecemeal comments on selected sentences.

ADDENDUM TO THE “CANON CONUNDRUM”

SECTION 1: THE AUTHORITY OF THE EARLY CHURCH
The Church Fathers as a Historical Authority
The Church Fathers and Vested Authority
What has all this to do with the Canon?

SECTION 2: REPLY TO SPECIFIC QUESTIONS AND OBJECTIONS
1. What do you mean by "internally consistent answers"?
2. High ranking scholars regard Philippians 2 and the Gospel of John as reflecting unitarian monotheism
3. The NAB (Catholic) translation admits in a footnote that Phil. 2:6-8 may be about Adam Christology rather than preexistence Christology
4. Don't Evangelical Protestants have the same problem as Christadelphians?
5. What about the Catholic/Orthodox canon?
6. Haven't you overlooked other objective criteria used in the discernment of the canon?
7. Wasn't the canon "sealed by Catholic Authority" 1200 years after Athanasius "came up with the NT canon"?
8. At the time this consensus [on the canon] was achieved, there was no monolithic 'church'
9. Maybe God used corrupt churches to preserve a non-corrupt canon?
10. Christadelphians have never proposed a canon of our own, because we're satisfied that our theology can be found in the current canon

OVERALL CONCLUSION
Suggested Reading


The importance of foundational beliefs

Belief structures are like pyramids: built with a strong, sturdy base that supports an ever-narrower structure as the top is approached. Very often when different Christian traditions are compared, the discussion resembles trying to dismantle the pyramid by pulling out bricks from the top. In our recent article on ‘The Canon Conundrum’, we were asking how sturdy the base of the Christadelphian ‘pyramid’ is by inquiring after the epistemological1 basis–from within the Christadelphian belief system–for their confidence that the scriptural canon is complete, lacking nothing, and adding nothing illegitimate. Christadelphian apologist Dave Burke, who commented on the article on Facebook, suggested that the issue of canon was “the weakest and most illogical reason” to reject Christadelphian theology.

However, if a belief system is unable to provide an internally cogent justification for its most foundational beliefs (i.e., the perfection and total sufficiency of Scripture), then this is one of the strongest and most logical reasons to question the belief structure. Indeed, in the Facebook comments to the blog post, the moderator Tom Farrar re-stated the question asking for any Christadelphian to articulate a
theological and historical argument demonstrating that the 66-book canon is identical with Scripture. Crucially, the argument must differ from standard Protestant treatments of the subject in that it must cohere with Christadelphian ideas about church history, e.g. both rampant, mainstream apostasy and absence of Holy Spirit guidance during the crucial formative period of the canon.
In our upbringing as Christadelphians, we do not recall such an argument having been presented, and at the time of our writing, we have not seen any such argument among the responses to our article. We invite and implore Christadelphians to take up this challenge.

In this follow-up post, we aim to achieve two ends. First, in response to a very fair request from Kristyn Griffin, we offer a fuller (though by no means comprehensive) positive case for our own position, to supplement our negative case against the Christadelphian position. Second, we will answer some of the pointed questions or remarks that were made in response to our posting.


In our article we were attempting to lead the reader to this question: what would be required to provide a justified confidence in the final definition of the canon? First, it seems to us that the organization that defined the canon (i.e. the early church) would need to possess recognizable divine authority that could make binding declarations on matters of faith when required.  As the bearer of God’s plan of salvation to the world, it would also have to be given divine protection so that when it formally defined something like the canon it did not err and thereby lead the world astray.  If it can be demonstrated that something like this existed, then you would have an epistemological basis for saying, “I know what belongs in the canon.”  Naturally, we would want to know whether this kind of church exists.

In our article, we hinted at an answer by stating that we embrace the views of the early church on canon and key doctrines of the faith as authoritative. However, we did not specify why we thought this way nor did we specify what we meant by “authoritative”.  In this addendum, we attempt to do so.


There are at least two senses of authority relevant to the discussion of the early Church and the Fathers. The first sense is an authority of privileged knowledge possessed by the Church Fathers as a result of their close proximity in time to the Apostles themselves. Thus, we consider the Church Fathers as “authoritative” in that they give reliable testimony to the historic beliefs and practices of the early post-Apostolic church. From a historical perspective, if we find widespread agreement on a particular doctrine across the large geographic area that was the Roman Empire in such a short period of time after the Apostles, it strongly argues that the doctrine in question was, in fact, part of the Apostolic preaching. Thus, on topics for which the Fathers are in consensus and claim is Christian belief, we can reasonably take their testimony to be reflective of early Christian belief; where they disagree, we can take this to be evidence of unresolved doctrines or tolerated variations. For example, since the Church Fathers are in consensus regarding the deity of Christ,2 we considered this evidence in favor of orthodox interpretations of passages such as John 1 and Philippians 2.

In response to our article, Dave Burke accused us of ‘a bold and unashamedly anachronistic attempt to claim modern orthodoxy in the Apostolic Fathers’. Rather, we stated that our study of early Church Fathers led us to embrace orthodoxy, and we described their beliefs as proto-orthodox. That is to say, we do not claim that Clement of Rome or Ignatius of Antioch, for example, were working from copies of the Chalcedonian Definition as they expressed their Christology. However, we do regard their Christology as an intermediate stage along a legitimate developmental trajectory from apostolic teaching to Chalcedonian orthodoxy.3 Hence, what was important for us is that these writers did not interpret apostolic doctrine as Christadelphians do; instead they interpreted it in ways that anticipated and progressed toward the dogmatic assertions of later orthodoxy.

In assessing Dave’s claim that contemporary scholarship has ‘repeatedly confirmed that concepts such as the deity of Christ and the Trinity emerged after the apostolic era’, one would want to make qualifications similar to those above. Scholars warn against the anachronism of reading the precise theological definitions reached by the church in the fourth and fifth centuries back into the New Testament, noting that the ontological questions being asked in the later period were not significant concerns in the first century. Hence, one can readily agree that the deity of Christ and the Trinity as philosophically precise relational models about the nature of God emerged after the apostolic era. However, there is wide scholarly agreement that key building blocks of orthodoxy were present by the end of the first century, such as incarnational Christology and two- and three-limbed confessions of one God—the core of the ‘rule of faith’ attested by later second-century writers.

It is beyond our scope here to enter into detailed exegetical debate about the correct interpretation of Phil. 2:6-11 or the Christology of John’s Gospel. These issues are peripheral to the main thesis of our original article. They were just two of several examples of NT passages cited in our thought experiment that are problematic for Christadelphians, and there are many others we could have cited. However, some further comments on Dave’s appeal to modern critical scholarship are made below.


To accept the historical authority of the Church Fathers as a witness to early church belief and practice requires no theological commitment. As purely historical testimony, the Church Fathers only give us insight into what the early church did believe, not what they ought to have believed. As such, even an atheist could affirm that the Church Fathers provide insights into the beliefs and practices of the early church.

However, the second sense of authority we wish to consider is vested authority, and assumes some prior faith commitment to Christ. Ultimately, we can have no real confidence in the early church–and thus the canon it passed on–unless we have reason to believe that the church was somehow operating within the authority of Christ Himself.  Therefore, if we had evidence that Christ had intended to invest his Church with his own authority, we would have the core, foundational principle for dealing with the canon question. 

Assuming it to be axiomatic for all concerned that Christ has authority, we maintain that (1) Christ vested His own authority in the Apostles including His assurance of doctrinal guidance; (2) that this authority was passed on to subsequent generations of church leaders; and (3) that Christ has bound himself to the Church.
  1. Christ vested His own authority in the Apostles

    • Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the Apostles into all truth (John 14:26; John 16:12-15)
    • “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16)
    • The Apostles are granted Christ’s prerogative to forgive or retain sins (John 20:21-23; Matthew 18:18)
    • Christ conferred a kingdom on his Apostles, which necessarily includes authority (Luke 22:29-30)
    • Christ promised to be with His disciples (Matt. 28:18-20; John 14:18)
    • Christ granted teaching authority, uniquely to Peter (Matt. 16:18-19; Luke 22:31-32)
    • The exercise of Apostolic authority in doctrinal matters is clearly witnessed in Pauline writings (2 Cor. 10:8,13:10; 1 Thess. 4:2) and in the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

  2. This authority was passed on to subsequent generations of church leaders

    • The vacant Apostolic ministry of Judas Iscariot was filled by Matthias (Acts 1)
    • Paul claimed to have personally imparted authority to Timothy through the laying on of his hands (2 Tim. 1:6), and instructs him to be careful in doing likewise (1 Tim. 5:22)
    • Titus is encouraged to exercise authority in his teaching (Titus 2:15)
    • The faithful are encouraged to submit to the authority of their leaders (Heb. 13:17)
    • Christ conferred a kingdom on his Apostles, which necessarily includes successors (Luke 22:29-30)
    • The promise that the gates of Hades would not prevail against the Church strongly implies the continuity of authority and guidance ‘to the end of the age’ (Matt. 16: 18-19; 28:20)

    It is also fitting at this point to quote from some of the Church Fathers4 regarding the passing on of Apostolic authority.  Consider the words of Clement of Rome, generally believed to have been written in the first century:
    Through countryside and city [the apostles] preached, and they appointed their earliest converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers…Our apostles knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the office of bishop. For this reason, therefore, having received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have already been mentioned and afterwards added the further provision that, if they should die, other approved men should succeed to their ministry (1 Clement 42.4, 44.1-2)
    Here, without diminishing the unique ministry of the Apostles as first-hand witnesses to Christ, Clement makes it clear that it was the Apostles’ intent that their authority and ministry should continue beyond their deaths. This statement is in contrast with Christadelphians who maintain that any semblance of Apostolic authority beyond the New Testament–which itself did not exist as such in the apostles’ time–was terminated by their deaths (i.e., they left no successors).

    Cyprian of Carthage later makes the same point negatively by underscoring that apart from the link of succession to the Apostles themselves, no one can rightly claim this vested authority:
    Nor can he [the heretic Novatian] be reckoned as a bishop, who, succeeding to no one, and despising the evangelical and apostolic tradition, sprang from himself. For he who has not been ordained in the Church can neither have nor hold to the Church in any way (Cyprian, Letters, c. 253 A.D.)
    Thus, the early church claimed that divine authority was present in the Church on the basis that its leaders received this authority from the Apostles who in turn received their authority from Christ Himself. Christadelphians then, denying any succession, have “sprung from themselves”.  Because of this fact, their self-understanding must able to provide internally consistent explanations for, among other things, the canon question.

  3. Christ has bound Himself to the Church
  4. Finally, this passing on of authority assumes the continual presence of Jesus in the Church. In other words, we should not imagine Christ as an absentee landlord who set the ball rolling with the Apostles and then watched passively. As Paul writes, 
    • “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23)
    • “for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” (Ephesians 5:29-30)
    Ultimately, there is only one reason we should put any faith in the church and that is because the fullness of Christ Himself is found in His mystical body, the Church. To postulate to the contrary–that the historic Church is instead a hotbed of heresy– as Christadelphians do, is to conclude that under Christ’s headship and nourishment, the church failed: the fullness of Christ was insufficient to sustain it. 

The promises Christ makes to the Apostles concerning ongoing guidance in matters of ultimate truth are precisely the kinds of promises necessary if we are to provide a basis for our confidence in the canon (and which canon for that matter). While the New Testament and the Church Fathers witness to a passing on of this Apostolic authority, Christadelphians reject this concept of ongoing, divine authority being invested in the Church. Because the promises are made to the Apostles in the pages of the Gospels, it is possible to argue that they applied only to the Apostles themselves. However, if you make this argument then you must explain why Christ would invest the Apostles with this authority at all, only to remove it entirely when the Church needed it most! Precisely the authority and guidance the Church needed to define the Old and New Testament canon was lost before the canon was fixed! On the other hand, if the authority remained, how could you logically conclude the other early Church councils lapsed into heresy? It’s a catch-22! 

If we reflect on the Church Fathers most instrumental in the formation of the canon—such as Irenaeus, the first writer to explicitly affirm four canonical Gospels, and Athanasius, the first writer to mention our exact 27-book New Testament—these are the very champions of orthodoxy! Irenaeus defended the (proto-)orthodox ‘rule of faith’ against many heresies, while Athanasius championed Trinitarian orthodoxy against the Arians. How can we celebrate their contributions to an infallible biblical canon while simultaneously dismissing them as heretics?

Here is a simpler answer: Christ established a Church that did not fall into gross apostasy, in accordance with His promise in Matthew 16.  To ensure this outcome, he invested his own authority in that Church through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as he promised in John 16.  The unity of that Church, and the consequent invested authority it possesses, has been maintained by apostolic succession, with Christ reigning as its head.  We see the beginning of passing of authority within the New Testament, and the early Church Fathers witness to it as the mark of the true Church established by Christ.  It is on this basis – vested authority obtained from Christ and protected by the ministry of Spirit – that the Church has been able to rightly delineate the boundaries of the canon, and reaffirm those boundaries in the face of challenges to it.  It is why, with Paul, we can say that the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of truth” and it is how we know what belongs in the canon.

Now, many of our Protestant friends will disagree with us about apostolic succession. Their theological explanation of the development of the canon will rely on Christ’s promise of the Holy Spirit manifested in the Church in a less tangible way. We don’t find that explanation compelling, but we do think it is more defensible than the Christadelphian view, in that it does not require us to assert that the same Church leaders who established the dogma of the canon also embossed heretical dogmas (the Trinity and Incarnation) with the status of orthodoxy.

  1. What do you mean by “internally consistent answers”?
  2. In a nutshell, we mean answers that are consistent with our other historical and theological judgments—e.g. concerning whether and when the early church apostatized, or whether and when the Holy Spirit’s guidance of the church ceased.

    We believe the internal consistency of our own position can be outlined thus: we receive the canon as authoritative because we receive the Church as authoritative. We receive the Church because we receive the successors of the Apostles as authoritative. We receive the successors of the Apostles as authoritative because we accept that they received authority from the Apostles. We accept the Apostles as authoritative because we accept that they received their authority from Christ. And the ultimate ground of this confidence is the risen Christ, the head of the Church, who reigns over the Church now and forever. Without this, it becomes difficult to articulate an epistemologically sound, historically grounded confidence in the perfection of the canon.

  3. ‘High ranking scholars’ regard Philippians 2 and the Gospel of John ‘as reflecting traditional Jewish unitarian monotheism rather than binitarian or Trinitarian Christology’

  4. One could quibble about the appropriateness of using the term ‘unitarian’ to describe traditional Jewish monotheism.5 More importantly, however, we want to make a few caveats about basing dogmatic theological judgments on the results of modern scholarship achieved using the historical-critical method of biblical exegesis. Our aim is not to disparage the historical-critical method but only to note its limitations.
    a. Critical scholarship often fails to reach a consensus, and even when it does, the consensus may be subject to change.
    Philippians 2:6-8 is a good example of a passage for which modern critical scholarship does not offer a clear consensus. The impasse extends to numerous other NT passages of Christological importance. This calls into question the reliability of historical-critical exegesis for constructing theology. The Patristic consensus—achieved much closer to the apostles’ time—seems to offer a more solid basis for dogmatic judgments about New Testament Christology than the shifting sands of modern scholarly opinion.
    b. Current scholarly opinion is by no means a boon to Christadelphian Christology.
    For every Dunn, Ehrman or McGrath who denies that incarnational or divine Christology was present in the earliest church, one can cite a Hengel, Bauckham or Hurtado who affirms it. Hence, contemporary scholarship cannot be construed as having vindicated Christadelphian Christology, unless one is very selective about which scholars’ opinions count.

    Moreover, McGrath seems to be one of very few scholars whose reading of New Testament Christology coincides almost entirely with that of Christadelphians. As for Dunn6 and Ehrman,7 they both affirm the rise of incarnational Christology within the New Testament, and Dunn describes the use of the Gospel of John in post-apostolic dogmatics as ‘quite legitimate within its own terms’.8 We therefore reiterate our question as to whether the early church would have included the Gospel of John within its canon if its theology had been proto-Christadelphian.
    c. What if we looked to modern critical scholarship to resolve the canon conundrum?
    If we are to rely on the results of modern critical scholarship to construct the dogma of Christology, consistency dictates that we also rely on the results of modern critical scholarship to construct the dogma of the canon. But what would happen if we did? Consider the following thought experiment.

    A major Christian denomination announces that it is reopening the New Testament canon for investigation in light of the results of modern critical scholarship. The denomination commissions a large team of scholars to study the issue. They are instructed not to defer to church tradition but to use the historical-critical method freely. After two years of intense research, the team returns to report their findings:
    • Some scholars propose that the very idea of a New Testament canon be abandoned, arguing that it is a post-apostolic dogma that is anachronistically read back into the texts themselves. They suggest that the church should read the ‘New Testament’ documents as they would any other ancient texts and not pretend that they have some divinely sanctioned status or authority just because of decisions made by patristic theologians.
    • Among those scholars who argue that the idea of a New Testament canon remains viable, there are differences on the methodology to be used to construct the canon. Some argue that apostolic authorship is essential. Others argue that only demonstrable companionship with the apostles or temporal proximity to the apostles is essential. Still others propose to evaluate books based on theological content. Accordingly, there is a wide range of judgments about the inclusion of individual books:
      • All of these scholars agree that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon belong in the canon, noting the clear scholarly consensus as to their early date and apostolic (Pauline) authorship
      • A few scholars challenge the inclusion of 2 Thessalonians and Colossians, citing ongoing disputes about Pauline authorship
      • A larger number of scholars challenge the inclusion of Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), noting that a clear majority of critical scholars regards these letters as pseudepigraphical, written in Paul’s name after the apostle’s death
      • Scholars who insist on apostolic authorship challenge the inclusion of Mark, Luke, Acts, Hebrews, James, and Jude
      • Some scholars who insist on apostolic authorship also challenge the inclusion of Matthew, the Gospel and Epistles of John, and Revelation, citing doubts about the traditional attribution of these books to apostolic authors
      • A significant number of scholars challenge the inclusion of Jude, citing widespread scholarly rejection of the traditional attribution of authorship to Jesus’ kinsman, as well as the letter’s problematic use of apocryphal traditions
      • Some scholars challenge the inclusion of James on a theological basis, echoing Luther’s concerns about the letter’s emphasis on works-based salvation
      • A majority of scholars challenge the inclusion of 2 Peter, noting the clear scholarly consensus that it was not written by Peter and the tendency to date the letter as late as the mid-second century. A smaller number also challenge the inclusion of 1 Peter, regarding this letter too as pseudepigrahical
      • Some scholars move for the inclusion of 1 Clement in the canon, noting that its date and apostolic credentials are at least comparable to those of books in the traditional canon, and citing its inclusion at the end of the New Testament in Codex Alexandrinus, one of the most important early New Testament manuscripts
      • Some scholars move for the inclusion of the Didache in the canon, citing its early date and its superscription claiming to transmit apostolic teaching
      • A Jewish scholar who played a consultative role on the committee proposes that the Gospel of John be excluded from the canon in the interest of improved Christian-Jewish relations due to what the Jewish community perceives as the author’s anti-Semitic attitude

    (It should be noted that while the thought experiment is hypothetical, the views above are representative of actual scholarly views.) Three major positions emerge from within the commission. At the liberal end of the spectrum are scholars who would do away with the dogma of the canon. At the conservative end are those who would maintain the traditional 27-book canon unchanged. In the middle are those who would modify the traditional canon or establish a two-tiered canon consisting of undisputed books and disputed books, proposing that the latter can be read in church but only the former can be used to construct theology.

    What is the point of this elaborate thought experiment? It is that if we turn to modern critical scholarship to resolve the issue of New Testament Christology, we ought to do the same for the issue of the New Testament canon; and to do so would be to open a Pandora’s Box. Hence, the Patristic consensus arguably provides the most reliable solution to the problem of New Testament Christology, just as it does for the problem of the New Testament canon.

  5. The New American Bible (a Catholic translation) admits in a footnote that it is possible to interpret Phil. 2:6-8 in terms of Adam Christology rather than preexistence Christology

  6. We actually think this NAB footnote reveals an important contrast between Catholic (and, more generally, orthodox) Biblical scholars and Christadelphians: the Church is willing to have these debates and even to host them,9 and to acknowledge different interpretive options and positions. Orthodoxy can allow both interpretations of Phil. 2:6-8 to co-exist amid healthy dialogue. By contrast, no Christadelphian publication has ever admitted the preexistence interpretation to be even possible, and no Christadelphian publication is ever likely to do so. The reason is that this interpretation poses an existential threat to the Christadelphian community: if it is correct, Christadelphian theology is effectively invalidated. Hence, the exegetical stakes with this passage are much higher for Christadelphians than for orthodox scholars. The pre-existence interpretation cannot even be tabled in the Christadelphian community but can only be opposed.

    Many similar cases could be cited. Here is just one more: according to the most highly regarded Greek critical text (NA28), Jude 5 says that ‘Jesus’ saved a people out of Egypt (the SBL critical text also has this reading).10 If these textual critics are correct, preexistence is implied and either Christadelphian theology is falsified or Jude must be de-canonized. If 'the Lord' is the correct reading, however, it is of no Christological consequence. So, once again, orthodox scholars can have the debate but Christadelphians can't—they must assert that the NA28 and SBL committees got it wrong.

    Hence, we think that the footnote to Phil. 2:6-8 in the New American Bible, rather than being a hostile witness in support of Christadelphian theology, points to a positive feature of orthodox biblical scholarship that is lacking in Christadelphian literature.

  7. Don’t Evangelical Protestants have the same problem as Christadelphians?

  8. This question was answered in our original post under the heading “A Problem for Protestants?” The degree to which the canon is problematic is proportional to the depth of the rupture placed between oneself and the historic church. Moreover, some Protestants maintain that the Holy Spirit guides each believer individually to recognize the canon.11 As Christadelphians maintain a total rupture with the historic church and categorically deny any possibility of guidance by the Holy Spirit, the problem is considerably more severe. 

    Note also that even if we were to concede this point, highlighting epistemological problems faced by Evangelicals concerning the canon does not constitute a solution to epistemological problems faced by Christadelphians concerning the canon!

  9. What about the Catholic/Orthodox canon?

  10. To be fully consistent, we do think our arguments point to the Catholic/Orthodox canons,12 as this was the canon for 1500 years, or the entirety of the pre-Reformation church.

  11. Haven’t you overlooked other objective criteria used in the discernment of canon?

  12. In our discussion, we noted that one of the criteria used in the selection of the canon was its accordance with orthodox Christian belief. As the question suggests, apostolicity–the authors had to be themselves Apostles or near companions13 of the Apostles–was also used in the selection of canon, and may be deemed less subjective. Could we thus construct a canon based solely on these sorts of historical criteria?

    One significant problem with this approach is that many historical criteria are validated precisely by the tradition of the early church! The reason our Gospels contain the headings “The Gospel According to… Matthew, Mark, Luke or John” is because the Church Fathers bear witness to their Apostolic authorship. However, as Christadelphians view the testimony of the Fathers as unreliable,14 they place the validity of these objective criteria on shaky ground.

    The issue of the Jewish contribution to the canon was also raised. With respect to the Old Testament, we recognize there is discussion about exactly when the Jews closed their scriptures. The fact that there is uncertainty on this point reinforces the arguments we have been making—who has the authority to define the boundaries of the Old Testament, and on what basis?  It is commonly held that the Jews closed their canon at the council of Jabneh (a.k.a. Yavneh or Jamnia). However, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church highlights:
    After the fall of Jerusalem (A.D.70), an assembly of religious teachers was established at Jabneh; this body was regarded as to some extent replacing the Sanhedrin, though it did not possess the same representative character or national authority. It appears that one of the subjects discussed among the rabbis was the status of certain biblical books (e.g. Eccles. and Song of Solomon) whose canonicity was still open to question in the 1st century A.D. The suggestion that a particular synod of Jabneh, held c. 100 A.D., finally settling the limits of the Old Testament canon, was made by H. E. Ryle; though it has had a wide currency, there is no evidence to substantiate it15
    Or more recently, 
    A central problem for the thesis that the canon of Jewish Scripture was "closed" by the rabbis meeting at Yavneh ca. 90 A.D. consists on the fact that rabbinic discussions regarding the canonical status of Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs continued for several more centuries. Scholars favoring an exclusive definition of canon have used this fact to argue that the canon was still not yet fully closed at the end of the first century. But there were even later debate involving other books, and one finally looks in vain for anything like an official closure of the biblical canon throughout the entirety of Jewish history.16
    Thus, even by the end of the first century–by which time Jews and Christians were beginning to separate into distinct religious groups–the Jewish community had not clearly settled the question of the Old Testament canon! 

  13. Wasn’t the canon "sealed by Catholic Authority" 1200 years after Athanasius "came up with the NT canon"?

  14. Two points need to be made in response here. First, Athanasius did not “come up with the NT canon”. Athanasius’ canon is simply the earliest extant list of the New Testament books that is in accord with the final canon (his Old Testament list is not identical to either the Catholic or Protestant list). Rather, canon was determined by the use of certain books in the liturgy, and ultimately canonization was important to unify the church as to which books could be used in the liturgy. Athanasius list is simply reflective of this living Tradition, and as bishop of Alexandria, is likely reflective of the books in common use within that Patriarchal jurisdiction.

    Second, the question appears to be making reference to the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. The Council of Trent affirmed the canon to contain the 27 books of the New Testament and 46 books of the Catholic Old Testament. However, it did so in response to the Reformers who were (a) disputing the canon of the New Testament and (b) had removed 7 books from the Old Testament! Thus, at Trent, the Church reaffirmed the canon that was established by the councils of Rome, Hippo and Carthage in the 4th and 5th centuries.

    To see this point more clearly, imagine if a Christadelphian brother today proposed that the Epistle of Jude be removed from the New Testament or the book of Esther from the Old Testament. In response, his ecclesia rejects the proposal and includes in the Statement of Faith that the 66-book Protestant canon in its entirety constitutes “the Scriptures”. Would we conclude on this basis that the ecclesia had no established canon until 2016, or would we conclude that the ecclesia rejected an innovation by affirming its longstanding position? The latter is what the Council of Trent did.

  15. “At the time this consensus was achieved, there was no monolithic 'church’… Whose church is represented by the era in which consensus on the NT was achieved? Catholics? Nope. Protestants? Nope. Orthodox? Nope. Pentecostals? Nope. Any church now extant today? Nope. So… what’s the issue here, exactly?”–Dave Burke

  16. Consider the words of the Church Father Irenaeus, writing in the second century:
    As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.10.2)
    Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions [of bishops] of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.2)
    Irenaeus speaks of a widespread unity in Church teaching across the known world, and ties this unity to agreement with the Church of Rome. And this pre-dates the closure of the canon by two hundred years.

    Moreover, if we look to the fourth century, ‘the era in which consensus on the NT was achieved’, there was a monolithic church that came together in two ecumenical councils (Nicea [325] and Constantinople [381]) to dogmatically define the core doctrines of the faith. By their own testimony in the Creed, they affirmed ‘one holy, catholic and apostolic Church’—very monolithic language! Their consensus on Trinitarian orthodoxy remains definitive up to the present day for Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Pentecostals—all the groups mentioned by Dave—just as their consensus on the NT canon does. Hence, the issue here is that orthodox Christians rely on the monolithic consensus of the fourth-century church for their definitions of both the NT canon and core theology. By contrast, Christadelphians consider the theological consensus of the fourth-century church to be corrupt and heretical, but still dogmatically accept their definition of the NT canon as definitive and unimpeachable. This is internally inconsistent: either God guided the fourth-century Church to make reliable dogmatic judgments (in which case both their creed and their canon are trustworthy), or He did not (in which case neither their creed nor their canon is trustworthy).

  17. Maybe God used corrupt churches to preserve a non-corrupt canon?

  18. Maybe. However, if so, what is the basis for this conclusion, other than necessity driven by pre-existing beliefs? We have no statement in Scripture asserting this to be true, and even if we did, it presupposes that we know the canon of Scripture in the first place! In short, holding out this interpretation of history as a possibility is not the same substantiating a case that this is what, in fact, happened.

    In contrast, we have laid out reasons beyond conjecture for why it is more likely that God preserved a Church that in turn preserved the canon under His guidance. 

  19. “Christadelphians have never proposed a canon of our own, because we’re satisfied that our theology can be found in the current canon.”–Dave Burke

  20. This statement appears to subordinate the canon question to the need to "find our theology", suggesting that one's theology can be known independent of the canon question. However, the canon question lies at the base of the epistemological pyramid we mentioned at the beginning. A canon is not the end result of a theological system, nor is it a working hypothesis; it is, to quote the Christadelphian Statement of Faith, 'The Foundation' of the Christadelphian belief system. Thus, even if Christadelphian theology can be found in the current canon, this is of little theological value unless the current canon is correct! Hence, this assertion still does not explain why Christadelphians dogmatically accept the current canon.

    Moreover, if the above is the reason why Christadelphians have never proposed a canon of their own, then the door is open for any Christadelphian who becomes dissatisfied ‘that our theology can be found in the current canon’ to change the canon. This is not merely hypothetical: we have recently observed a Christadelphian to openly suggest that perhaps Jude’s canonical status should be revisited in view of the writer’s ideas about fallen angels and use of apocryphal writings. On what grounds might Christadelphians resist such a suggestion, if indeed it should be resisted?

OVERALL CONCLUSION

In our first article we asked upon what basis Christadelphians could be certain that the canon they hold is inspired and fully complete; we sought a positive case for their confidence.  In the replies received, this foundational question was passed over and therefore remains an active issue. We were however asked on what basis our own confidence rests, and we have attempted to articulate our own positive case in response. That said, it should be stated that even if the reader does not accept our positive case, this does nothing to absolve him or her from the need to outline a plausible, evidence-based position of his or her own.

In this final addition to our post, we explained that a well-founded confidence in the canon is best situated within the context of a Church invested with authority and protected from error by the Holy Spirit in matters directly related to the Christian faith. This also removes the problem of having to pick and chose where God guided the Church, and where it was left to slide into apostasy. This latter problem should not be underestimated because it requires a person to have an independent, perfect source of knowledge for authentic Christian doctrine and practice, including the limits of the canon!  Without this external knowledge, how could you know whether the Church was led into truth or slid into error? You can’t; you are simply projecting your own views onto the history of Church. 

Next steps: We encourage you first and foremost to pray for guidance from God, who we say with confidence desires that all should come to a knowledge of truth, since He is Truth itself.  Second, we again encourage you to ask respected brothers and sisters within the Christadelphian community about the issues raised in these posts and blog in general.  Compare the answers–or silences– you receive with the responses on this blog and with those available from the wider Christian community.  While we encourage due diligence in exploring these matters, we also encourage you to have patience with self and others.  Our own conversions occurred over several years, not several days. We are convinced that God is honoured in the process of searching Him out, not only when arriving at particular conclusions.

Finally, we acknowledge that our treatment of this and other subjects is far from exhaustive. We have therefore included below a few books that are responsible with the Biblical and historical data while remaining accessible to lay people like ourselves. 

And may God bless you, and those you love.

Nathan and Matthew Farrar

Suggested Reading

Graham, Henry G. (1997). Where we got the Bible: Our Debt to the Catholic Church. Catholic Answers.

D'Ambrosio, Marcellino. (2014). When the Church Was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers. Servant Books.

Akin, Jimmy. (2010). The Fathers Know Best: Your Essential Guide to the Teachings of the Early Church. Catholic Answers.

Michuta, Gary G. (2015). The Case for the Deuterocanon: Evidence and Arguments. Nikaria Press.

Footnotes

  • 1 Relating to the nature of knowledge, e.g., how we know something to be true or false.
  • 2 A listing of such testimony, by a Protestant pastor, can be found here, among other places.
  • 3 One can note at this point that Dave has written material about the Christology of early Christian texts such as the Letters of Ignatius and 1 Clement that ignores scholarly exegesis of these texts and claims they are compatible with Christadelphian Christology. Tom has written a detailed refutation of Dave’s claims concerning Ignatius' Christology which led Dave to acknowledge that he needs to rewrite his essay on the subject but also to assert, ‘I don't see anything in Tom's rebuttal that warrants a formal reply.’
  • 4 See here for a more detailed list.
  • 5 ‘Unitarian’ is used primarily for a post-Reformation Christian position about the nature of God, conceived specifically in opposition to the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. By contrast, ancient Jewish monotheism did not develop in opposition to anything resembling the doctrine of the Trinity. Hence, one risks anachronism in using the term 'unitarian' to describe ancient Jewish theology, which is probably why scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity, including Dunn and McGrath, rarely use it in this way. However, we understand what Dave means.
  • 6 Concerning Johannine Christology, Dunn writes, ‘there can be no doubt that the Fourth Evangelist had a clear perception of the personal pre-existence of the Logos-Son’ which he presents ‘as a fundamental part of his message’ (Dunn, James D.G. (1980). Christology in the Making: A New Testament Inquiry Into the Origins of the Doctrine of the Incarnation. London: SCM Press, p. 249). Elsewhere, he asserts that the main contention of Johannine Christology revolves around the question of Jesus’ origin, to which the Evangelist’s answer is ‘from his Father in heaven… he has been sent from heaven and speaks of what he has seen and heard with the Father’ (Dunn, James D.G. (1983). Let John be John: A Gospel for Its Time. In Peter Stuhlmacher (Ed.), Das Evangelium und die Evangelien: Vorträge vom Tübinger Symposium 1982 (pp. 309-340). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 322). He says the distinctiveness of Johannine Christology lies in ‘the thorough--going portrayal of the Son sent from the Father, conscious of his pre-existence, the descending-ascending Son of Man, making the profoundest claims in his “I am” assertions, which both dominates John’s christology and distances it most strikingly from the Synoptic tradition’ (Let John be John, p. 317). Commenting on the inference of ‘the Jews’ that in claiming to be the Son of God, Jesus made himself ‘equal to God’ (John 5:18) and has ‘made himself God’ (John 10:33), Dunn comments that this is ‘a significance for “Son of God” which the Evangelist… wants to press home on his own account (1:1-18; 20:28)’ (Let John be John, p. 322). He locates Johannine Christology as ‘a development which was actually part of the late first century exploration of the conceptualities available and appropriate to talk of God’s revelation and salvation, and which was probably in the vanguard of that exploration. It was a developing theology which was partly reacting against other strands of that exploration and partly stimulating reaction from others (the rabbis in particular), and which was in process of formulating a distinctive Christian theology which would be increasingly unacceptable for the rest of Judaism, being perceived as a denial of the unity of God’ (Let John be John, p. 338). Read in this way, the Gospel of John can easily be seen as a major development in the history of theological reflection that was to culminate in Chalcedonian orthodoxy. It is much more difficult, even within Dunn’s reading of the New Testament, to conceive of John’s Gospel along a trajectory toward Christadelphian theology.
  • 7 Ehrman claims that ‘the early Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – in which Jesus never makes explicit divine claims about himself – portray Jesus as a human but not as God, whereas the Gospel of John – in which Jesus does make such divine claims – does indeed portray him as God’ (Ehrman, Bart D. (2014). How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. New York: HarperCollins, p. 4). Concerning Paul, he writes that ‘Paul holds to an incarnation Christology… Paul understood Christ to be an angel who became a human’ (How Jesus Became God, p. 252).
  • 8 Dunn, in keeping with his primarily historical, exegetical (as opposed to dogmatic, theological) interest, is concerned to recover the meaning of New Testament texts intended by the original authors, independent of the later role served by those texts in the development of orthodox dogma. However, this does not represent a polemic against the patristic church. For instance, in his essay Let John be John, Dunn argues against understanding ‘John’s christology too quickly as an expression of later orthodoxy’ (Let John be John, p. 317) but nonetheless describes ‘the use of the Fourth Gospel within subsequent dogmatics’ as ‘quite legitimate within its own terms’ (Let John be John, p. 312).
  • 9 Catholic Biblical Quarterly is one of the most highly regarded academic biblical studies journals!
  • 10 While it would be lexically possible to read ‘Joshua’ instead of ‘Jesus’ here, neither the OT nor Jewish tradition supports the notion that Joshua saved a people out of Egypt and afterward destroyed those who did not believe. Rather, Jude would be identifying Jesus either with the LORD or with the Angel of the LORD.
  • 11 This view is articulated by John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5).
  • 12 For the unfamiliar reader, the Catholic/Orthodox canons include 7 books of the Old Testament not in the Protestant Canon: Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees, Sirach, and Baruch. These books were/are in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament Scriptures widely used in Jesus time by Jews living outside of Palestine. There is no single official canon used by the Orthodox Church, and some regional variation exists with additional books such as 1 Esdras, 3 Maccabees and the Prayer of Manasseh apparently being treated canonically in some areas.
  • 13 For example, though Mark is not himself an Apostle, he is believed to have written the Apostle Peter’s account of Christ’s ministry that he heard recounted many times throughout their ministry together.
  • 14 Along these lines, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman does not accept the testimony of the Fathers as reliable, and thus denies that we can know who wrote any of the Gospels. In essence, Ehrman denies the very possibility of a historical criterion of apostolicity.
  • 15 F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingston (Ed.) Oxford Univ. Press, (2005). p. 861, emphasis added.
  • 16 Chapman, S.B. (2010). The Canon Debate - What it is and why it matters. J Theol Interp., 4(2), 282.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Journeys from Christadelphia to orthodoxy: Guest article by Nathan and Matthew Farrar

This guest article by Nathan and Matthew Farrar is the second in a series of articles from former Christadelphians who have embraced Christian orthodoxy. (The previous article in the series by Ruth Sutcliffe can be found here.)

The Canon Conundrum
How a table of contents made us rethink our faith

There is an easy temptation to look back on beliefs or practices that were formerly embraced, and cast them in the most negative light possible.  Nowhere is this more tempting than when explaining why one’s former beliefs were left behind or changed.  Both authors have come to embrace catholic Christianity, a significant move away from the beliefs given to us during our upbringing. We were both raised in a conservative, Unamended Christadelphian home and ecclesia in Ontario, Canada. Overall, our experiences were positive. Indeed, our family goes back at least 3 generations on both sides, and as such, it could be said that “Christadelphianism” is in our blood.  So, as we look back, we have no desire to tear down what was and is positive about Christadelphia.  But we did find ourselves unable, in good conscience, to embrace and teach portions of the statements of faith. Explaining all the details is beyond the scope of this post, but our move from being committed Christadelphians to orthodox1 Christians can really be summed up in two words: history matters. Specifically, Church history.

For both of us, the question of whether Christadelphians or orthodox Christians were correct concerning a doctrine like the divinity of Jesus could not ultimately be determined by interpreting the Bible alone. Why? Because both sides acknowledged that one should base doctrine upon the “clear teaching of Scripture” and then interpret “difficult passages” in that light.  The problem was that the “clear teaching” for one group was the “difficult passages” for the other, and vice versa!  

History provided a way to break the stalemate. It seemed reasonable to both of us to appeal to the earliest Christians in the post-Apostolic era, authors such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna and Irenaeus of Lyons. It seemed that the closer we went in time to the Apostles (Clement is thought to have possibly been their contemporary and Polycarp a direct disciple of John), the more likely we would be to converging on the teaching of the Apostles themselves. This type of consideration ultimately led us to embrace orthodox doctrines in favor of the distinctive teachings of Christadelphians.

In response to this approach, some Christadelphians have argued that the discovery of proto-orthodox Christian beliefs in the writings of the early Church Fathers2 is only evidence that apostate teaching was present earlier than we might have expected. Thus, it is argued that these writings can and should be rejected as heretical. However, there is one product of the early Church that Christadelphians universally accept, namely, the contents of the New Testament. This seems odd: why trust an apostate church to hand on a perfect and trustworthy canon?  Despite this peculiarity, Christadelphians and orthodox Christians use the same set of New Testament books.

Back to basics

One feature of Christadelphian belief that was firmly impressed upon us both was that God’s offer of salvation is revealed through Scripture alone, and that each individual has a duty to discern, through personal study of the Bible, what he or she must do and believe to be saved. The Christadelphian community can and does offer teaching and support, but ultimately the responsibility for obtaining saving truths from the Scriptures falls to the individual seeker. This way of thinking seems self-evident to many Christadelphians.  We say this not out of condescension, but because it also seemed self-evident to both of us! 

It began to become less self-evident when we learned that the authenticity of a few books in the New Testament canon –such as Hebrews and Jude– had been disputed in the early church.  Furthermore, the later subtraction, during the Reformation, of books from the Old Testament Scriptures that had been in use for the first 1500 years of the church was troubling.  Why did these observations give us pause?  Because if salvation depends on reading and responding to what is in the Bible, then there is a lot at stake in determining exactly what constitutes ‘the Bible’, i.e. which books are canonical. It is important to appreciate the difference between being able to say with certainty “here is the inspired canon, take and read” and “here is an argument for why our canon is the right one.”  In fact, a great difference exists between the two.  Why? Again, because when individual response to what is revealed in Scripture is a central pillar in the drama of salvation there cannot be any uncertainty regarding which books are actually Scripture, and which are apocryphal.  (It is bad enough to have disputes over what Scripture teaches, never mind what actually constitutes Scripture!)  As such, it only seems reasonable that a person should be able to understand the basis for his or her confidence in Scripture’s table of contents.  What we attempt to show in this brief article is that Christadelphians do not really have nor can they have a well-founded confidence that the canon on which they rely to “make persons wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15) is perfect.

Before we try to explain why we hold this view, we would like to set proper expectations for this post.  This article is not, nor is it meant to be a scholarly blog post. It also isn’t intended to trigger a protracted debate. We were asked to comment on why we ceased to be Christadelphians, and while many of the reasons have been covered on this blog, we are simply drawing attention to one critical factor that influenced us.

When the obvious becomes puzzling

One thing we both believe strongly in is being fair to those with whom we disagree.  It only seems fair then to begin by quoting from the statements of faith that explain clearly how Christadelphians understand the nature of the Scriptures:

“That the Scriptures, composing the book currently known as the Bible, are the only source now extant of knowledge concerning God and His purposes, and that they were given wholly by the unerring inspiration of God in the writers, and that such errors as have since crept in are due to transcription or translation.” 3

“That the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth, and that the same were wholly given by inspiration of God in the writers, and are consequently without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription or translation.” 4

These statements are puzzling because they presume that a source of authority existed prior to “now”, whether extant or not, that was capable of discerning the limits of the Scriptural canon.  The nature of this extra-Biblical knowledge is not specified.  That aside, if the Bible is the only source of knowledge that currently exists, then apart from simply accepting the (Protestant) canon as an act of faith, how could I really know that this collection of books is complete and perfect? Are there books that were excluded that should be included, or books included that ought to have been excluded? There seems to be no way to gauge whether one’s confidence in the canon of Scripture is well-placed or misguided. In order to explore this problem more fully, we need to examine some different possible avenues to answer this question and examine their respective implications.

The first possibility is to confirm the legitimacy of our Bible’s contents through internal tests.  For example,

Idea 1: Christ himself confirms what belongs in Scripture.
Answer: Christ does not tell us what constitutes the Scriptures.  He certainly speaks of the “law and the prophets” and the psalms but neglects to define the exact books beyond this. Furthermore, the Apostles do not tell us what constitutes the Scriptures, though they certainly acknowledge their importance and authority.

Idea 2: We can show what belongs in the canon of Scripture through the quotations the books use.  In other words, Scripture is self-contained because ‘Scripture quotes Scripture’.
Answer: This works to an extent, but is finally problematic.  Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are not quoted in the New Testament, so would they have been included in the “Scripture” that is referred to in 2 Timothy 3: 16-17?  Or, does Jude’s use of the 1 Enoch mean that this book ought to be included in the canon?5 This approach seems to be fraught with difficulties.

Idea 3: Authentic books can be identified by their attestation to the authentic beliefs of Christians.
Answer:  This is a fascinating criterion and one that we think has much to be said for it, though not as a sole criteria. However, there are issues with this approach. Certain early Christian texts such as the Didache are alleged by some Christadelphians to reflect authentic Christian beliefs. Why then is the Didache not canonical? Perhaps more seriously, certain New Testament books appear to affirm beliefs that Christadelphians reject.  Take an obvious example:  Thomas calling Jesus “God” in John 20.  Is the gospel of John – being as different as it is from the synoptic gospels – really part of Scripture?  After all, the deity of Jesus is a serious corruption of the Christian faith according to Christadelphians.  Another major problem with this approach is its circularity: we need knowledge of correct Christian beliefs to define the canon, but we need to know the canon to identify these beliefs!

So, we have a collection of books that cannot be used to internally justify their own canonicity, and according to Christadelphian Statements of Faith, there remains no external authority to confirm the canon’s limits. So not only can we not definitively confirm what belongs in Scripture, we do not appear to have any objective basis for determining whether the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or some other Bible should be embraced!

Scripture – a work of man?

The Christadelphian community has adopted the traditional Protestant canon composed of 39 Old Testament books and 27 New Testament books.  Consistent with Christadelphians’ understanding of Scripture, this set of books is understood to be the one and only source for all truth concerning doctrine and morals.  From this it is reasonably concluded that any doctrine not taught in the Bible or any claim to a definitive interpretive authority beyond the Bible itself is rejected as the “work of men”.  This formulation is interesting for two reasons:  one, since Scripture is not self-contained (i.e., you cannot determine the canon of Scripture from Scripture), and is therefore not taught in the Bible, should the canon be rejected?  If not, then Christadelphians should admit they hold core beliefs not drawn from Scripture; in fact, they accept part of Christian Tradition.  Second, since the canon underwent a period of development and refinement, ultimately being the subject of a number of early church councils (Rome (382), Hippo (393), Carthage (397, 419)), is the Bible’s table of contents a ‘work of men’?  If not, then why not?

The emphasis that Christadelphians place on the study of Scripture and its full supremacy above all other sources of knowledge about the Christian faith (e.g., Tradition) appears to be a straight-forward, coherent, and attractive picture of the nature of doctrine and salvation.  Indeed, we have heard testimony from many converts in Christadelphian ecclesias who have told us that part of what drew them in was the seriousness with which Christadelphians approached the Bible.  While we do not wish to disparage the importance of Scripture, the way in which it has been presented masks deeper questions about the origins of the canon and how Christadelphians can know that it is their particular collection of books that can make us “wise enough to have faith in Christ Jesus and be saved” (2 Tim. 3:15).

A Christadelphian New Testament?    

In this section we propose a short and simple thought experiment.  Of course, like any experiment, you will have to draw your own conclusions. Here is the question:  If the earliest church had believed as Christadelphians do–as is supposed–would they have handed down to us the same New Testament we have today? 

It seems plausible to think some of the books would have been selected.  We have never heard any Christadelphians express doubts about the legitimacy of Apostolic authorship as one of the marks of canonicity.  On this basis, we could certainly see the Pauline letters being included, for example. 

However, historically, the basis on which the books of Scripture were identified did not rest solely on Apostolic authorship but also on whether the theology bore witness to the faith of the church.  While this may initially seem exactly backwards – Scripture should be used to define the church’s belief – it is actually aligned with Paul’s own view of the church, which he identifies as the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Timothy 3:15).  Where our thought experiment gets interesting is when we ask, how would Christadelphians have applied the theology test to the New Testament books?  For example, is it conceivable that Christadelphians – who have no centralized authority – would have universally accepted the gospel of John that, at a minimum, appears to witness to the following:
  • Jesus is the Word, who is God (Jn 1:1)
  • This Word is an agent of Creation (Jn 1:2);
  • This Word is incarnated in flesh (Jn 1:14);
  • Jesus came from the Father’s side which is why he can make the Father known to us (Jn 1:18);
  • Jesus uses the divine name (Jn 8);
  • Jesus speaks of having personally come from Heaven;
  • Jesus teaches the personhood of the Holy Spirit in John 16-17; and
  • Jesus accepts Thomas directly calling him God (Jn. 20:28)
or other writings which include:
  • The song about Jesus' incarnation in Philippians 2;
  • The reference to sinful angels in chains in both the Epistle of Jude and the Second Epistle of Peter;
  • The “spirits of just men made perfect” clearly shown in Heaven (Hebrews 12);
  • The battle of Satan and the Archangel Michael in the Epistle of Jude; and
  • The depiction of the living souls of the martyrs in Revelation 6.
What is the point of this little thought experiment?  It is this: If it seems likely that an early community holding to beliefs and practices similar to the Christadelphians would not have given us the New Testament now universally affirmed, then perhaps it was a very different type of Christian community that did. 

By the book

Before summing up, we want to quickly pursue a closely related point.  Have you ever wondered why God would leave only a book for people to study, hoping that it will lead at least some to salvation?  On its face this seems unjust because individual abilities and aptitudes vary greatly.  Scripture appears to attest to this very fact:  the man Philip taught openly admitted he did not understand Isaiah and needed someone to teach him (Acts 8:31)!  Clearly Scripture alone wasn’t enough for this man.  The Christadelphian emphasis on personal Bible study and resultant culpability seems plainly at odds with Scripture’s own narrative testimony about how people come to learn the gospel.

But the matter is even more unsettling when we realize that estimates of literacy rates in the ancient world sat somewhere around 5%, with that number plummeting in the Middle Ages.  Personal copies of the Bible were not available to the general population (apart from the wealthy) prior to the invention of the printing press circa 1440.  So the whole notion that God has used the Bible alone to call and instruct people seems plausible in 2016, but much less so throughout much of Christian history.  Put more starkly, it is chilling to think that the only means of access to “knowledge concerning God and his purposes” was completely inaccessible to most people throughout history, and for that matter, many people in the developing world today. We must ask, does it really make sense to say that “God is willing that none should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9) yet makes salvation largely inaccessible because the details are locked up in a book that the seeker cannot read or afford? This may not be equivalent to giving a stone to a son who asks for bread (Matt. 7:9), but it does rather seem like putting that bread on the top shelf of the pantry! 

Canon and Church

At the end of the day, we find Christadelphians to be in an unusual position.  They accept a canon shaped by the consensus of the early church, which had lapsed into heresy by the time this consensus was achieved. Moreover, they accept a New Testament canon sealed by Catholic authority – an authority Christadelphians resolutely reject.  Meanwhile, Christadelphians accept the revised Protestant canon of the Old Testament, again handed down by a body of Christians they regard as thoroughly heretical.  The biblical canon used by Christadelphians seems to have a dubious pedigree – and yet certainty about the boundaries of the canon is at the very heart of Christadelphian belief.  It would therefore stand to reason that Christadelphians should have full assurance  that the canon they use contains all inspired books, adding no illegitimate books and lacking no authentic ones.

Perhaps God worked through a corrupt Church to preserve a non-corrupt canon.  But before you accept that idea, we encourage you to ask yourself how you know this to be trueWhat is the basis for such confidence within a context of great apostasy?  Furthermore, on what basis does one pick and choose where God guided the church and where He left the Church to apostatize? Can we reasonably affirm the lesser councils (Rome (382), Hippo (393), Carthage (397, 419)) that affirmed the canon of Scripture to be providentially-guided while denying the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381) (which dogmatically defined the doctrine of the Trinity) as the corrupted ‘works of men’?  On the other hand, if the basis is your own reason or study, why then would the canon not be an open question for each Christadelphian to settle for him or herself as a matter of preliminary concern?  Remember:  You cannot define the canon from within the canon.  Therefore, the authority for determining what books belong in the Bible is located beyond the Bible itself.  The key question then for each Christadelphian is “What is the authority I accept for setting the contents of the Bible?”

If your answer is Christian tradition, the Church or some related answer, we consider this an invitation from the Holy Spirit to you to reflect more deeply on the nature of the Church. At the end of day no person, group or church can give what it does not possess.  Christadelphian ecclesias make no claim to special authority or any discernible direct guidance from God. As such they cannot authoritatively affirm or reject the canonicity of the Scriptures to which they hold.  However, if Christ had indeed invested a church with authority–His own authority–through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and therefore could definitively and authoritatively resolve issues over which well-meaning Christians differed, wouldn’t that actually be a tremendous blessing?  Wouldn’t that actually be the very kind of thing you’d hope would be true?  And wouldn’t that go a long way towards explaining how you would know which books were indeed divinely inspired and therefore rightly belong in the canon?  We think that is worth thinking about.

So here is what we came to see:

There appears to be no compelling way to identify the canon of Scripture.  It is possible to make arguments for the inclusion of books, but not to know that the collection of books that comprise the New Testament is complete and without error.  This is because to know what books belong in both the Christian New and Old Testaments is to know something that is outside of the Scriptures themselves, and rests on an external authority.

We came to have serious doubts that if Christadelphians were placed into a historical circumstance in which they had to define the canon of Scripture (rather than inherit it) they would identify the collection of books they currently use.  Taking John as an example:  With its significant differences from the three synoptic gospels would it have been accepted?  It certainly contains passages that appear to affirm the pre-existence and deity of Christ, the personhood of the Holy Spirit, etc.  Indeed, it is said that many have been led astray by these very passages! 

You have to be able to explain why the books are binding on all Christians and who has the authority to bind the canon.  Finally, the answer to these two questions should result in a justified confidence in the perfection of the canon.

If Christadelphians have no definitive way to know what books belongs in the Scriptures, do not claim the divine authority to identify and bind the scriptural table of contents, and would in all probability not identify accepted canonical books as such (e.g., John due to chapter one’s prologue, etc.) how could the early church have looked anything like Christadelphians?  Looking from the other end of history, how could Christadelphians claim to be a restoration of the early church?

A Problem for Protestants?

Some readers may be wondering whether similar arguments could be brought to bear on any Protestant group just as easily as Christadelphians. In short, we believe that the answer to this question is “yes”. Specifically, Catholics claim that because of the deposit of faith granted to her by Christ through the Holy Spirit, the Church is protected from teaching error in matters of faith and morals, which would include the selection of canon. However, we acknowledge that the selection of canon is less problematic for some Protestants than for others.

Specifically, Protestants who consider themselves to be part of a reformationist movement do not distance themselves from the Church Fathers in the same way as those of restorationist traditions. For example, the Anglican Church accepts the first 5 ecumenical councils, and Lutherans maintain many Catholic teachings and practices. In essence, reformationists grant a limited authority to the early church, such as was necessary to provide the content of the New Testament. 6 Reformationists maintain that the Catholic Church drifted into heresy, but that this process was more gradual, and thus the break much later. Thus, the problem of canon is mitigated, though perhaps not eliminated.

By contrast, restorationism–which includes Christadelphiansallow for minimal or no historic continuity with the early church. Rather, it is maintained that the Apostles’ teaching was, at least visibly, lost very early and not re-discovered until much later. As such, no authority is granted to the early church and therefore the problem of canon remains.

Conclusion

These considerations, among others, have led the present authors to embrace as authoritative the early church in both its authority to define canon and key doctrines of the faith. This church claimed to have the authority necessary to define the boundaries of canon with confidence under the assurance of Divine guidance by the Holy Spirit. We believe this provides internally consistent answers to the types of thought experiments that we have considered in this paper. As such, we differ with Christadelphians on a number of issues.  However, were it not so, we still could not in good conscience remain Christadelphians simply because we would not be in an epistemologically sound position to identify the contents of the Bible itself.  We need to know, not simply have arguments for, what books the Bible rightly contains

Having now read this article, what is a person to do?  Unfortunately, most of the time we tend to read Facebook posts, click “Like” or offer a brief comment, and move on without much further thought. However, if nothing else, we hope that we have been able to draw attention to the importance of this topic and its need to be addressed. Here is our advice to you:  consider the possibility that the views expressed on this blog generally are correct, and that this may have implications for your life.  To be honest, we have both lost touch with friends whom we have known for years as a result of our convictions, which is unfortunate. Therefore, do not consider the views presented here lightly, and do not do so alone. Ask a brother or sister you respect about this article or another that troubles you.  Suggest that an article from this blog be the subject of Sunday school or an exhortation.  Be respectful and listen carefully to what is said, but ask yourself if the answers you receive really make sense.  And pray, asking God to show you the fullness of the Christian faith, “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt. 7:8). When the time comes, have the courage to act on your convictions. “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart” (Ps. 95:7-8).

Footnotes

  • 1 Throughout, we will use lower case ‘orthodox’ to denote the teachings of historic Christianity embraced by mainline churches and defined in the classical creeds, such as the Trinity doctrine, and upper case ‘Orthodox’ to denote the Eastern Orthodox Churches.
  • 2 'Church Fathers' is a traditional name for prominent early Christian writers
  • 3 Birmingham Unamended Statement of Faith, article 31, emphasis added.
  • 4 Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, The Foundation, emphasis added.
  • 5 In point of fact, 1 Enoch is affirmed as canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. However, this is the exception that proves the rule.
  • 6 Though it should be noted that for many of the Reformers, the rejection of Church authority did lead to a questioning of canon. Notably, Martin Luther struggled with the canonicity of James based on his sola fide doctrine of justification, referring to it as a 'straw-epistle', though in the end he did accept it as affirming the law of God. Luther moved Hebrews and James to a later position in the order of New Testament books, just before Jude and Revelation, reflecting his lower valuation of these books (as can be seen here).