How to Approach Difficult Bible Passages

As a teacher, I am regularly asked about Bible passages and the theology they convey. Sometimes the questions are straightforward; other times, not so much. Some time back, for example, as I was innocently trying to lead our community group through Romans 8:18-30, I was asked how to interpret verses 29-30 in light of that not-at-all-discussed-among-Christians topic of Predestination and Freewill. It happens.

The vast majority of the time, I am more than happy to dig into a text and explain what I think and why. Having been privileged to study under some brilliant Biblical scholars (and having read many more), I am all too eager to hold forth on the Scriptures, and I genuinely hope that my discussion helps those listening. However, in the past several years I have discovered a more fruitful approach to addressing these questions: walking through Bible passages with people and training them how to read and interpret wisely. Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Canon Refinement (Part IV)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.
Marcion of Sinope

Marcion of Sinope

Having examined the particular perspectives of the Canon Refinement School, we now turn to several concerns stemming from these works. First, we must consider the arguments of this school of thought concerning the impact of Marcion’s views on the formation of Christian views on scripture, canon, and authority. Taking into account the evidence espoused by the textual critics, it seems that this view on Marcion makes the best overall sense of his impact on Christian views of scripture, canon, and authority. Marcion’s canon, while being the first closed canon composed of specifically Christian literature, by-and-large followed the general second century pattern among Christians of scriptural collection. Marcion’s canon was unique in that he rejected the Jewish scriptures and placed a great deal of emphasis on the writings of the Apostle Paul. These emphases forced the Great Church to overtly consider the wider implications of new scriptures and their authority in relation to the older writings, eventually leading to the formal canonization of the Christian New Testament. Thus Marcion’s impact on the development of Christian scriptures, canon, and authority may be best described as canon refinement. Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Canon Refinement (Part III)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.
Lee M. McDonald

Lee M. McDonald

We now turn to two of the most prominent modern perspectives for the Canon Refinement School, those of Lee Martin McDonald and John Barton. In The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, McDonald writes that during the second century prior to Marcion, “the words gospel-apostle (sometimes Lord-apostle), representing the words of Jesus and letters of the apostles, began to be placed alongside the Prophets as authorities in the early church.”[119] McDonald argues that from the wider selection of Christian writings available to him, Marcion chose portions of both Gospel (Luke) and Apostle (some letters of Paul) that reflected his understanding of the distinctiveness between Christianity and Judaism.[120] For McDonald, Marcion believed that the love of the Christian gospel was incompatible with the legalistic and oppressive legal codes found in Jewish scripture, this being the type of teaching handed down by Peter and James.[121] Marcion rejected such perspectives, as well as those early Christians who interpreted the Jewish scriptures allegorically, instead emphasizing a simple and literal reading of the text, thereby stripping the church of her first scriptures and connections to antiquity.[122] McDonald concludes that while Marcion set forth a Christian canon, it remains too much to say that he created the idea of Christian scripture.[123] However, while Marcion did not delineate the need for a Christian canon, he did cause the church to consider carefully the scope of its authoritative literature.[124] Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Canon Refinement (Part II)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.

jesus_catacombRobert Smith Wilson also conceived of Marcion’s impact on the formation of a Christian canon as refining but not formative. Central to Wilson’s understanding of Marcion was his desire to understand fundamental questions about the character of God in relation to the world and his high Christology.[113] Wilson argues that the central place of Jewish scriptures in Christian circles, as well as Paul’s concerns with the law in Romans, likely formed the basis for Marcion’s early thinking about the connection between Judaism and Christianity, especially in relation to written authorities.[114] Continue reading

The Marcion Problem: Canon Refinement (Part I)

This post is part of an ongoing series examining Marcion of Sinope and his influence of the formation of the New Testament canon.

NT CanonWe now turn to the third perspective on Marcion’s relationship with the notion of a specifically Christian canon, namely that while Marcion likely refined the idea and parameters of canon, he was basically following the example of previous collections of Christian writings. This I term the “Canon Refinement School” of thought. As this position best fits the evidence from textual criticism (as I argued for in last week’s post), this school of thought has become increasingly popular in recent decades. Continue reading

Five Things Everyone Should Know About the Bible

0abfb-bible_kjv_80123523_stdThe Christian Bible remains the most influential written work of Western Civilization, influencing language, government, economics, social groups, institutions, and culture. While many people own a Bible and some even read it on occasion, there are some things that you should know about the Bible that you might not have heard before.

(1) The writings of Christian Bible were originally composed in at least two different languages: Hebrew and Greek. Most of the books of the Jewish scripture making up the Christian Old Testament were composed in Hebrew, although some of the later writings (Daniel and Ezra, for example) may have been composed in Aramaic (a sort of “modernized” form of ancient Hebrew). The writings of the New Testament were originally written in Koine Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire during the time of Christ (also noteworthy are the claims of some scholars who argue that the Gospel According to Matthew was originally composed in Aramaic). Continue reading

ECA: Lee McDonald on Early Christian Scripture

This post is part of our ongoing series examining Early Christian Authority.
Lee McDonald

Lee M. McDonald

Over at Bible Odyssey, Lee Martin McDonald has offered a brief response to a question about when the writings of the New Testament became scripture:

The New Testament (NT) writings were read in churches early on (Col 4:16), but were not generally called “scripture” until the end of the second century C.E., despite being used that way earlier. Ancient texts always functioned as scripture before they were called scripture. Only one New Testament author makes the claim that what he wrote was equivalent to sacred scripture (Rev 22:18-19; compare with Deut 4:2).

By the middle of the second century C.E., Justin Martyr (1 Apology 64-67) noted that the Gospels were read alongside of and occasionally instead of the “prophets” (Old Testament books). When New Testament writings were read in church worship, or served as an authority in matters of faith and conduct this was a first step in acknowledging the sacredness of the NT writings. The first writings acknowledged as scripture included the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John and some Pauline letters. Not all New Testament writings were called scripture at the same time or place. Irenaeus of Lyon was among the first to make explicit statements about the scriptural status of the canonical Gospels; however several others took much longer to be recognized, notably Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Initially, early Christians also appear to have accepted other Christian writings as scripture. Some of the most popular Christian writings not included in the canon include Shepherd of Hermas, Epistle of Barnabas, Didache, and others that were read in churches well into the fourth and fifth centuries and in some cases even later.

Finally, decisions made about the sacredness of the church’s scriptures did not take place universally at the same time or location. One church father’s decision does not mean that all church leaders came to the same conclusions at the same time. By the fourth century C.E., most Christians had accepted most of the NT writings, but canon lists varied well into the eighth or ninth centuries.

Continue reading

Maurice Wiles and the Definition of Theology

OxfordThere are many questions in life with the potential for multidisciplinary and eternal significance. Among these are such questions as “Is there a god?”, “Do right and wrong exist?”, and “What happens when we die?” [1] Theologian Maurice Wiles adds to this list yet another question in his book titled What is Theology? To begin this work, Reverend Wiles defines theology as “reasoned discourse about God.”[2] If the term theology is broken down into its semantic parts, “theos” means “God” and “logos” means “word” or “reason.”[3] Therefore the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is fitting: “the study and nature of God; religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed.” Continue reading

NT Canon: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series outlining the formation of the New Testament canon.

BibleHere at the end of our two week examination of New Testament canon formation, what can we conclude? Remembering the distinction between a “formal canon” (an authoritative list of books) and a “practical canon” (a list of authoritative books), we note several important conclusions. First, very early on (if not immediately) the words of Jesus were viewed by his followers as authoritative and equal, if not greater, in status to the Jewish scriptures. This should not be entirely surprising, of course, given the fact that scholars sometimes seem to forget, namely that followers of Jesus followed Jesus. Second, the use of the New Testament writings began very early in the history of Christianity in writings of the Apostolic Fathers. The earliest non-canonical writings of the Christian faith demonstrate reliance upon those writings now included in the New Testament canon. Third, there was a progression of the status of the writings now in the New Testament from the time of Apostolic Fathers to the third century, demonstrating the continuity and development of a “New Testament” tradition among followers of Jesus Christ across the Roman Empire. Continue reading

NT Canon: Canonical Lists

This post is part of an ongoing series outlining the formation of the New Testament canon.
Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius of Alexandria

We now turn to an examination of canonical lists, an important step on the road to formal canonization. The importance of the core scriptures increased throughout the second and third centuries and were in due course joined in prestige and use by the rest of the books of the New Testament by the third century.[1] Outside of these works were the “fringe” writings, including those of the Apostolic Fathers. Around this time the process of formal canonization began with the creation of lists of books that were permissible for Christians to use.[2] The exact timing of formal canonization varies amongst scholar[3]; Barton and others postulate that a ‘Pauline canon’ was likely in circulation among churches by the end of the first century.[4] Our earliest lists of canonical books that are clearly datable are from Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History (ca. 303-325 CE), which includes the threefold division of canonical, non-canonical, and fringe books; Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechetical Lectures (ca. 350); and Athanasius in his Festal Letter Thirty-Nine (ca. 367), which also includes the threefold division of books and includes in the canonical division the New Testament books exactly as we have them today.[5]Towards the middle to end of the fourth century numerous canonical lists began appearing within the Church, placing an increased importance on earlier lists such as those mentioned above. Continue reading