On the Misuse of Christian Tradition: A Response

sola_scriptura_forumsThe proper relationship between the authority of Christian Scripture and authority of Christian Tradition avails itself to no easy answers. From a historical viewpoint, much of the early development of both remains hotly debated. From a theological perspective, centuries (and sometimes millennia) old debates continue to shape thinking and lead toward answers long before any explicit consideration of this relationship comes into focus.

Yet there seem to be boundaries—a “highway of orthodoxy” if you will—which suggest (or perhaps demand?) a certain perspective on the Christian understanding of the interplay between Scripture and Tradition, a stance which holds a) Scripture as inspired and authoritative (overly precise definitions aside); b) Tradition as important for properly interpreting Scripture (or, if you prefer more Protestant phrasings, “interpreting within the community” or even “Scripture interpreting Scripture”); and c) both Scripture and Tradition as necessarily in conversation with one another (i.e., neither allowed to dominate the other). Continue reading

Book Review: The Gospel of the Lord (Bird)

The Gospel of the Lord, BirdGospel Studies exists as a relatively neglected filed which has long taken a back seat to the study of the Historical Jesus or perspectives on Paul. Yet—argues Michael F. Bird—this realm of study stands ripe with opportunities for research and theological growth. To begin addressing the historical problem of how the life and teachings of Jesus became the four-fold gospel accounts of the New Testament, Bird offers The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014. 394 pp). Driven by four guiding questions—Why pass on Jesus stories? How was the Jesus tradition transmitted? What is the gospel and what are the sources behind the gospels? Why four gospels and why the four gospels that we have?—this historical, literary, and theological study provides offers readers rich perspective into some of the most pressing questions of this important area of Early Christian Studies. Continue reading

ECA: Shepherd of Hermas

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

Shepherd of HermasEven after nearly 2000 years, the Shepherd of Hermas remains an intriguing set of apocalyptic writings from the early Church. The central concern of Hermas revolves around post-baptismal sin: What can Christians do if they have fallen into sin after their baptism? In answering this question, Hermas writes down five visions, twelve commandments, and ten parables, many of which he recounts in terms of divine visions and conversations with an angelic figure called the Shepherd (hence the title of the book). The Shepherd remains the longest extant text of early Christianity, much longer than a number of New Testament books, and was included in many early canonical lists and codices, including Codex Sinaiticus and some contemporaries of Eusebius and Athanasius. Ultimately, the Shepherd was rejected as canonical, due at least in part to its not being written by an apostle (as argued in the Muratorian Canon). Hermas may have been the brother of Pius, Bishop of Rome from around 140 to 154, and Origen argues that he was the Hermas mentioned in Romans 16.14. Additionally, Hermas mentions someone named Clement in V8.2, which may be a reference to Clement of Rome. Most scholars agree that the Shepherd was likely written between 110-140 CE, perhaps over a period of time. Such as early date fits the writings widespread use in both East and West, as well as the claims to usefulness by the Church Fathers despite its ultimate non-canonical status. Continue reading

Early Christian Authority: Series

papyrusChristians have long been called “People of the Book” and placed a great deal of importance upon the Bible. No matter the denomination, the Bible holds a place of reverence and authority (though, of course, the emphasis and interpretation vary). For some of us, how and why the Bible came to hold this place of importance as “scripture” and “authority” for followers of Christ remains a topic worthy of holding our attention. Questions abound: Who wrote the books of the Bible? How were they collected? How are they interpreted? How should they be interpreted? How did the writings of the Bible become considered authoritative? What does it mean if something is scriptural? How was the Bible transmitted? How do we translate the Bible? How do we know that we have the right books in the Bible? Is the Bible trustworthy? What is the relationship of the Bible to other institutions and authorities? And so on. Continue reading

Five Things Everyone Should Know About the New Testament Canon

Bible Formation WordcloudMost Christians, and I would dare say most Americans, know some basic things about the Christian New Testament. But many people don’t know (or don’t want to know) how the New Testament came into being. Some people seem to think that Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation fell from the sky in a nicely leather bound English translation (whichever your church happens to use, of course). Hopefully, most of you know that wasn’t quite how it happened.

So how did the New Testament canon form?

Before digging into five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon, we need to clarify what the New Testament canon is. The word canon itself comes from the Greek kanonikos, the basic meaning of which is “of one rule.” So a canon is something that other things are ruled by, the standard if you will. Within the field of Early Christianity, however, there are two more nuanced meanings behind the term canon, especially as it applies to the New Testament. In the first sense, a canon can mean  a “list of authoritative books.” In this context, the canon of the NT is a list of books that should be considered authoritative for Christians. In the second sense, however, canon refers to an “authoritative list of books.” In this context, a list is authoritative and “closed”– only the books on this list are considered authoritative. Much of the history of scholarship concerning the development of the NT canon has actually revolved around misunderstanding this two definitions of the term canon. For the sake of clarity, I use the term “closed canon” when discussing an “authoritative list of books” (even though in the strictest terms, the NT canon may not even be entirely “closed” for Christians today– but that will have to be a different post).

Now that we’ve covered some important terminology, let’s talk about the five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon.

1. New Testament Writings Are the Earliest Specifically Christian Writings

The earliest Christians often had at their disposal the writings of Judaism (now contained in the Christian Old Testament). But the earliest specifically Christian writings (that is, those that were written by followers of Jesus) are the writings now contained in the New Testament. Even though we don’t know the specific dates that these writings were composed, scholars generally agree on a range of possible times that they were written. These dates are based on a number of factors, internal and external to the writings themselves. For example, based on Acts 1.1-2, we know that the Gospel According to Luke was written before the books of Acts. Similarly, some scholars have argued that because there is no mention of Paul’s death in Acts, it was written before the Apostle’s death (I hasten to note that this perspective is not universally held). Thus, we have a range of possible dates for the writing of Acts. We should note that there is a minor caveat to the fact that the New Testament Writings are the earliest specifically Christian writings, insofar as they are the earliest writings that we have access to. There are early Christian writings that we know were written but are lost to us. For example, there is good reason to suspect that the Apostle Paul actually wrote four letters to the Church at Corinth, including I Corinthians and II Corinthians, which was actually likely the third letter. As a final (potential) caveat, it’s worth knowing that some scholars date the writing of certain New Testament books (such as the Apocalypse of John or II Peter) into the second century. By no means do all scholars do this, and there is reasonable evidence that supports the writing of all the books in the New Testament by the end of the first century. Continue reading