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 true? What 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 Christadelphians–allow 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.
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).
- 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).