How did the Scriptures become the Scriptures? In particular, how did early Christians decide which books would be included in the Scriptures and which books would not – for there were far more writings of the time that were set aside than those that were accepted as being Scripture?
Interestingly, the process did not happen right away. The writings that are today described as being the New Testament were largely or completely finished by the end of the first century – that is – within the lifetime of the longest surviving disciple (St. John). Yet, the Church did not declare what writings were to be considered Scripture for more than a century after that. Why did the so-called “New Testament Church” wait for over a century to declare what would be the New Testament?
There are a number of modern Christians who speak of the New Testament as though it were the definitive achievement of the early Church. For them, only those things that can be “proven” by reference to the New Testament are considered authoritative or true. It is that same method that they use to justify their own beliefs and practices. But, we will note, they have established a requirement that not even the early Church observed.
There is, first, the problem of circular logic. How can you establish the authority of the New Testament before the New Testament is complete? With advocates of a “New Testament Church,” this problem is usually obviated by reference to the Apostles. While the Apostles were alive, they reason, they functioned as a sort of living New Testament. The Scriptures were not utterly necessary until they died. However, once they died, the Scriptures become the sole authority (Sola Scriptura). Of course, unlike the American Constitution, the New Testament did not include a method of “ratification.” By the time of the last Apostle, there were already documents claiming to be “Apostolic” or the “Secret teachings of Jesus” in circulation. How was the early Church able to decide what was authentic and what was false? The modern NT scholar, Bart Ehrman, has created a small cottage industry by playing off this problem.
Those who struggle to anchor the Christian faith in a first-century Scripture, fail to notice what the Apostles actually did complete by the end of the first century. The Scriptures that today comprise the New Testament were completed by the end of that century, but they had not yet become the Scriptures that they would be. What the Apostles completed in their lifetime (and even before its end) was the founding of the Church. It is this labor that occupied all of their time and their attention. The Apostle Paul’s ministry stretched over 35 years (more or less). In that time he wrote 14 letters (at most). Those writings are relatively short. What else did he do for 35 years? He established communities of Christians all across the Mediterranean; he taught; he communicated the Tradition; He trained and ordained leaders; He revisited communities; He trained a team to assist him. His life was the Church. Everything he wrote, he wrote as an extension of his work in and for the Church.
It was this beloved Church that he called, “the Body of Christ.” It was this beloved Church that he called, “The Pillar and Ground of Truth.” It was her inner life, described as “traditions,” taught “by word or our epistle,” that he instructed his fellow workmen to “hold fast” (2 Thess. 2:15).
This last instruction points to the reality of the Church’s life. The gospels (all four) which we now have, show clear evidence of having first been known and taught orally. They were not entirely the compositions of four different men (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). They clearly have much material in common (sometimes word for word). St. Paul and his fledgling communities were not strangers to this oral tradition. In 1 Corinthians 11, St. Paul reminds the Christians in Corinth of the oral tradition of the Eucharist. He specifically says that he traditioned (ὃ καὶ παρέδωκα ὑμῖν) to them what he himself had received by tradition (παρέλαβον ἀπὸ τοῦ Κυρίου), that “In the night in which He was betrayed, He took bread…” He then relates, pretty much word-for-word, the account of the institution of the Eucharist as it is given in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This is more than a decade or two before those gospels are held to have been written. The oral tradition of the gospels (doubtless that tradition contained most of what forms the gospels that we have today) predates the written gospels by decades. The best NT scholars today suggest that the tradition Paul cites in such a fixed form goes back to around 35 AD (2 years after the resurrection).
The Church of the first century, founded and nurtured tirelessly by the Apostles, was grounded in this oral tradition. It included stories of the gospels, early hymns (such as Philippians 2:5-11), creedal material (1 Corinthians 15:1-5), and such things. Most especially, its inner life and character as the worshipping community of Jesus were formed in a manner that consistently reflected the gospel itself. The incarnate God, crucified in weakness, dead, descended into Hades, raised from the dead in power, triumphant over death and hell, exalted to the right hand of the Father, coming again to bring the fullness of His Kingdom, formed the shape of the early Christian life. Salvation was through union with Christ. That union was initiated in Baptism and sealed by the gift of the Spirit. It was nourished in the Eucharist of His Body and Blood. It was reaffirmed by a life marked by humility, hospitality, care for the poor, and obedience to the way of the Cross (even obedience unto death). It was guided by that inner life, expressed in the teachings of the Apostles, maintained by the Bishops whom they appointed within the Church. The sheep knew the voice of their Shepherd.
It was the recognition of that voice that ultimately affirmed the Scriptures that we now describe as the New Testament. The “canon” of the New Testament (those books the Church accepted as authoritative) was based on what was actually used in the Churches over the first few centuries. The discussions within the Church in affirming a canon were comparisons from place to place as to what books were read within the worship life of the Church. The lists varied. But several things are of note:
1. The lists did not include books that deviated in any way from the normative account of the Apostolic faith. There was no acceptance of gospels that ignored the centrality of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. There were no books whose descriptions of the Christian way of life deviated from the example of Christ and the Apostles.
2. Some books were not universally accepted, but had enough acceptance to be considered canonical (Revelation is an example – it is still not read in the Eastern Orthodox Church, though it is considered canonical).
3. Some books that were generally believed to be Apostolic in origin did not have enough acceptance to be included among the canonical works. Thus the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, though generally accepted as Apostolic, lacked sufficient universality).
It is important to consider the fact that there were no books within the lists that were outside the mainstream of the received Orthodox Tradition. How was that? There was no centralized, controlling bureaucracy, no mass communication. There was, instead, a common mind (as St. Paul enjoined his Churches, cf. 1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Cor. 13:11; Phil. 1:27; Phil. 2:2; Phil 3:16; Phil. 4:2, etc.). That common mind is, in fact, what Orthodox mean by Tradition. St. Paul does not enjoin the Churches, “Read the same New Testament.” He says, “Be of one mind.” The Church is of one mind, because it is the one Church in the one Lord, in the one Spirit, in the one Apostolic Tradition. That one mind spoke and established the canon of the New Testament. Many today read the same book, but because they are not of the same mind, fail to understand it.
The Scripture is not prior to the Church, but of the Church. It is a manifestation of the Church’s divine life. It speaks with the voice of Christ, the same voice that speaks throughout the life of the Church. In recognizing the voice of its shepherd, the Church declared some books to be authoritative, that is, consistent with the voice of Christ they already knew. As St. John says to the Church:
These things I have written to you concerning those who try to deceive you. But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him (1 Jn. 2:26-27).
Interestingly, in this very passage, John acknowledges his role in writing, but also acknowledges that the Church already has something that teaches and guards from falsehood – the anointing – the Holy Spirit. He is not describing “two poles,” or “two sources,” or “two authorities.” His writing and the anointing have one and the same action. John writes and the anointing abides, and both preserve the Church. The Church knows its shepherd and His voice (and even St. John’s writing) because the anointing abides within it. St. John does not suggest that his writing can now substitute for the anointing.
And so the Church establishes what is now called the canon of Scripture. Those books that are consistent with the witness of the anointing in the Church and have been recognized as such over time by the Church, are declared to be authoritative. But the anointing does not cease, for it is the very constitution of the Church. The Church which is the Body of Christ is made so by the one Spirit it has received and continues to receive and in which it abides.
Schemes of interpretation and ecclesiology rooted in sola scriptura ultimately divorce the Scriptures from the Church and the Church from the anointing. The result is the present sad state of denominational Christianity.