In a previous post, “Why Scripture Alone Didn’t Work” I wrote the following:
"The Bible didn’t fall out of heaven ready to go. Someone had to gather and authenticate which books would be in the Bible. How could Scripture Alone be the final judge of teachers and doctrines in the early Church if there wasn’t consensus on what books can be trusted? Who decides which books are trustworthy to be read in worship and which aren’t?"
I’m working on my next post, as promised, related to my experience of Orthodox unity in worship. However, I recently read a great post over at The Whole Counsel blog by Father Stephen De Young called “Who Decided Which Books Would Be in the New Testament?” and it ties in quite well with my first post.
You can read the full post here if you want all the details.
The whole post is good and helpful, but I really liked the following points that describe how we got the New Testament. Fr Stephen’s description of how the early church worked is rather helpful. He describes how bishops had authority in their cities, but there was no central authority governing the worldwide Church.
He also discusses how the word “canon” developed. A canonical book is one that exercises authority in a given community. 19 of the 27 New Testament books were agreed upon Scripture by the entirety of the Christian communities in the earliest period for which we have evidence. Some churches had more canonical books depending on what they had received and knew to be trustworthy, apostolic letters.
He laid out how local churches evaluated each other and the books those communities had access to:
"Individual churches then had additional books which exercised authority in their communities. As Christian communities encountered and came into contact with each other, they evaluated each other as to whether they recognized this other community as a Christian community like their own, or whether this community was, in fact, something ‘other’."
He talked about how St. Irenaeus, encountering the Gnostic communities, recognized that they were something else, despite their claims. They used a different set of texts and held a different faith. He adds:
"On the other hand, when a community that had only known one Epistle of St. John encountered one which knew three, despite this difference, they recognized that community as another Christian community like their own."
It was the Holy Spirit working in the life of the Church that chose the canon. The Orthodox Church calls that shared life of Christians “Holy Tradition” and the texts of the Bible are a fruit of that blessed reality, as we read in Fr Stephen’s conclusion:
"The eventual 27 book canon list that developed over time was therefore descriptive, not prescriptive. It listed the books which held authority in the churches that were recognized as Christian. It was not until the latter half of the sixth century that the Eastern churches broadly accepted the book of Revelation, and in the vast majority of them it is still not read liturgically, but those churches acknowledged the shared faith of other Christian churches which did so use the text of Revelation.
We can therefore see that the only person who chose the books which would be in our New Testament is the Holy Spirit. The New Testament canon can be seen to have developed in the life of the Holy Spirit in the church, the shared life of the Christian people, which the Orthodox Church calls Holy Tradition. It was neither the decision of certain authoritative men, nor the recognition, based on a series of criteria, of a group of learned men. The Fathers treated as authoritative those texts which they had received as authoritative, just as we do today." [Emphasis Mine]
The problem in the Lutheranism I knew, and indeed with most of Protestantism, is not so much with the Bible, but with “Scripture Alone”, the principle that turned the Bible into something it had never been before in the history of the Church.
The relationship between the Bible and the Church changed at the Reformation, but it wasn’t a return to what was known by Christ and the Apostles and the early Church. It was not a return to what we had received, but rather something new. Scripture itself urges us to be of “one mind and one judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). When the Corinthians began segregating themselves into groups, Paul admonished them and urged them not to quarrel.
What we have today is the acceptance a multiplicity of denominations, segregated groups that are quarreling and not of one mind with each other. This acceptance of schism would not be possible, as far as I can tell, without Scripture Alone divorcing Christians from the Holy Tradition that produced the Scriptures and informed them in its use. The only way we can return to the Biblical standard that has been set for us, is to return to the authority of the Church rather than continuing to rely on our own authority, our own interpretation of the Bible and our own worship preferences.