Doctrine of Revelation (part 8)

February 13, 2010     Time: 00:32:43


(c) Canonicity (1) Definition (2) Old Testament (3) New Testament.

We’ve been talking about biblical inerrancy, and last time I gave a defense of biblical inerrancy based on the following argument: Whatever God teaches is true; Historical, prophetical, and other evidences show that Jesus is God; Therefore, whatever Jesus teaches is true. And then the second part of the argument begins with that conclusion: Whatever Jesus teaches is true; Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inerrant and authoritative Word of God; Therefore the Scriptures are the inerrant and authoritative Word of God. Then I gave some suggestions on what our approaches to biblical difficulties ought to be.


[Q&A: just a question about the archaeologist and author John McRay’s name]

Question: Can you clarify the difference between infallibility and inerrancy?

Answer: In the Chicago Statement, they differentiate between these two, although they say they are always united. They say infallibility has the sense of being trustworthy. The promises of Scripture can be relied on. So if we say that somebody is infallible, we mean they always come through; they always deliver. Inerrancy has to do with the fact that whatever it affirms is true. You might say that those are the same thing: if somebody always speaks the truth, then he is trustworthy! But the idea of being trustworthy would be more of a performance kind of an action – you can rely on it – whereas inerrancy is simply being true rather than false. For example, a telephone book, you could say, is inerrant if it has every number correct. I suppose you can say it is infallible in the sense that you can trust it to reach your party when you dial a number from the book. That would be the subtle nuance.

Where this becomes more significant is among certain evangelicals such as Fuller Theological Seminary, which abandoned in its statement of faith a commitment to inerrancy and instead used infallibility. What their position is is that Scripture may, indeed, have factual errors in it, but it is trustworthy in the areas of theology or faith and morals. What it teaches about religion and ethics is inerrant and is true and reliable; but these folks will be quite happy to say that there are, say, historical or scientific mistakes in the Bible. That represents a nuance that strong inerrantists would be critical of and would regard as backing away from a full-blooded commitment to biblical inerrancy.

Question: Does anyone add to the discussion that this is only true when interpreted with the aid of the Holy Spirit?

Answer: I don’t think that that plays such an important role here because inerrantists would say that the text has objective meaning in and of itself. Certainly we can rely upon the Holy Spirit to illumine the text and help us grasp it, but it is not as though there is some kind of a deficit in the text itself, whereby it isn’t true in and of itself unless it is somehow interpreted according to the Holy Spirit. This is a real objective understanding of truth and reliability.1

Followup: I was thinking along the lines of how people have personal interpretations and a whole group can have their interpretations.

Answer: I would see that as something quite different from inspiration. We haven’t talked about the idea of illumination, where you are reading a passage and you understand the meaning of the passage – not as though through the Holy Spirit you are given a different understanding or meaning of the passage – rather the Holy Spirit applies it to your heart and illumines it in a certain way so that reading this passage, say, about how God loves a cheerful giver, the Holy Spirit convicts you that you need to be less stingy and less materialistic and give to the Lord’s work or something of that sort. It doesn’t change the meaning of the passage, but it applies it in a personal way to yourself. That is certainly important.

Question: The Fuller Statement denying inerrancy and going with infallibility of the Bible, how do they pick and choose which to believe, which to toss out? That is a slippery slope.

Answer: This is a very sound critique, and this is the critique that inerrantists will launch. Especially because inerrantists will say that the Christian religion is bound up with events in history. We don’t just believe in a mythology, like say, Krishna. We don’t believe in just an ethical code, as in Confucianism. We believe that God has acted in history, and so the historicity of the Gospels would be vital to our faith. Paul says that if Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain. So inerrantists would criticize this Fuller Statement on that ground. In terms of the slippery slope, that has already begun to happen at Fuller. A number of years ago, one of their faculty members named Paul King Jewett wrote a book in which he said that Paul’s teaching on women is patriarchal. He resisted the attempt of Christian feminists to try to reinterpret Paul to make it acceptable to contemporary feminism. He said, no, Paul is patriarchal, and Paul teaches the submission of wives to their husbands, that women should not be elders of the church, and women should not be teachers of men. Paul’s teaching is patriarchal, and so, Jewett concludes, Paul was in error. The seminary, in reviewing the Jewett case, decided that his position was not compatible with the seminary’s commitment to biblical infallibility because he was speaking about an area of faith and morals, not history or science, in saying Paul erred. The seminary decided that he was in conflict with their statement of faith, but, in light of Professor Jewett’s long and faithful service to the seminary, he could continue to teach and stay on the faculty. It is exactly there that you begin to see the kind of rot that leads these schools, in another generation or two, to go liberal. You are raising a very good point, and for that reason we ought to err (if I may use that word!) on the side of caution. We should have a strong doctrine of biblical inerrancy unless and until it has been demonstrated that that is untenable, which we would then need to retract. But it seems to me that we want to start with a firm commitment.

Question: As a clarification, when the question comes up from a skeptic or unbeliever, “Why should I trust these series of books as more than just ancient literature?,” you go to Christ first?

Answer: I do not discuss this with an unbeliever. I don’t think we need to convince the unbeliever that the Bible is anything more than an antique piece of ancient literature that is historically reliable and which tells us about this person Jesus of Nazareth, who made these radical claims, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. “Now what are you going to do with him?” And then once they say, “Well, I guess he was who he claimed to be, I guess I’m going to own him as my Lord,” now you say, “Well, you know, he taught certain things about the Hebrew Bible and its authority over your life, and now you need to submit to his teaching.” Then you would appeal to, as you say, Christ to lead him into a correct doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy. But until he is ready to make that step, I think it is pointless to talk about biblical inerrancy with an unbeliever. What that would allow the unbeliever to do is to remain an unbeliever on the basis of things like the number of horses in Solomon’s stables or the size of the Molten Sea in front of the temple in the book of Chronicles or something like that. That is crazy! You don’t want to make the unbeliever have to jump through the hoop of biblical inerrancy in order to be a Christian or to think that if there is one of these little errors in the Bible that, therefore, there is no good reason to believe in Christ.2

Question: Somebody asked about inerrancy, and your answer was that we can know truth without an inerrant Bible. That should be obviously plain, but if you can be more specific – were you just talking about historical or scientific truth, or were you talking about revealed truth?

Answer: Let’s recall that back in the beginning that I did differentiate two senses of “reveal.” In one sense, if we speak of the Scripture as God’s revelation, there are a lot of things in Scripture that would be considered revealed but that can be known just through historical study, like the existence of Jesus or that Tiberius was Caesar at that time. These are things that are taught in the Bible but are accessible historically to anybody. In the narrow sense of “reveal,” – which may be what you are thinking of – in the sense in which Thomas Aquinas distinguished between truths of reason and truths of faith – he said you can know the truths of faith only through a sort of divine revelation, that these would be hidden otherwise. We wouldn’t know that God is a Trinity apart from divine revelation, for example. I think that is correct, by and large. We can give some plausible arguments for the Trinity, as did Thomas Aquinas. But we couldn’t prove that these things are true. I am happy to say there are certain things we would not know about God apart from divine revelation. But what I was saying is, I don’t think you need to have divine revelation in order to know that Jesus of Nazareth existed, made these radical claims, proclaimed the advent of the Kingdom of God, performed miracles, and rose from the dead. I think those things are historically demonstrable apart from biblical inerrancy.

Followup: Since inspiration precedes canonicity, how do you know which authors are inspired?

Answer: That is a difficult question and a good segue into the next section!

Special Revelation – Scripture - Canonicity

If inspiration is true, then there is automatically a line drawn in the sand between those books that are divinely inspired by God and those that are not. There are inspired books, and there are books that are not inspired. So the doctrine of inspiration implies an authoritative body of writings with precise literary limits to it. There is a body of writings that are inspired, and this is called the “canon of Scripture.”3


“Canon” is a word meaning rule or standard. When we talk about canonicity, we are talking about those books, those literary limits, of inspired writings to which we give allegiance. This is a question of the canon of Scripture – which books ought to be in the Bible.

Old Testament

With respect to the Old Testament, Jesus and the apostles accepted the Jewish canon that existed at that time. The Hebrew Bible that was used by Jesus and the apostles is the same Bible that Protestants call the Old Testament today. So Jesus and the apostles used the same Jewish canon of books that Protestants recognize today. The twenty-four books of what is called the Masoretic Text, which is the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, is recognized by rabbinical Judaism as the canon of the Hebrew Bible. This is the same Bible that was used by Jesus.

There is a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint that was used in Egypt by Hellenized Jews, that is to say, Jews who were Greek-speaking. This is usually abbreviated by the Roman numeral LXX, which is the number 70. In this Greek version of the Old Testament, there are a number of books that are included that are accepted as part of the Old Testament canon by Roman Catholic and also by Greek Orthodox confessions. These are called the “apocryphal books” or the “deuterocanonical books.” These should be clearly differentiated from the New Testament apocryphal books, which we will discuss later, but suffice it to say no Christian denomination recognizes these New Testament apocryphal Gospels as canonical. But these Old Testament apocryphal books are recognized as canonical by Roman Catholic and other Orthodox churches. These include things like Tobit, Judith, certain additions to the book of Esther, certain additions to the book of Daniel, the Wisdom of Solomon, and 1st and 2nd Maccabees, among others. Those are found in the Roman Catholic Old Testament. The Greek Orthodox also accept things like Psalm 151 and others. Those would be part of the canon for the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The earliest list we have in church history of a list of canonical books of the Old Testament comes from Melito of Sardis in about A.D. 170. He lists all of the Old Testament books that are recognized by Jews and Protestants except Esther. He does include the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the so-called apocryphal books. That is the earliest list we have among church fathers for the Old Testament.

New Testament

When it comes to the New Testament, if you read the sub-apostolic fathers, that is, those church fathers that wrote immediately after the apostles, we find them distinguishing very clearly between their own writings and those of the apostles as found in the Bible. They did not regard their own work as inspired, but they did treat the works that we find in the New Testament today as authoritative. For example, Ignatius, a very early church father, spoke of a collection that he called “the Gospels and the apostles.” This would probably be what we would today call the Gospels and the epistles – that is, the four Gospels plus the letters.

From the very beginning, the four Gospels and the book of Acts were never doubted by anyone. It wasn’t that the church decreed the authority of these books; rather these books imposed themselves upon the early church.4 It was never doubted that these were the correct record of the life of Jesus and the early church.

In fact, even those that doubted some of the books that are included in the canon today always accepted the four Gospels, the book of Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 John, and 1 Peter. These books were accepted even by those who doubted some of the books in the canon. In the east – that is to say, in the eastern end of the empire, the Greek-speaking part – there were doubts expressed about the book of Revelation, John’s Apocalypse. In the west, some church fathers expressed doubts about the book of Hebrews.

In A.D. 175 we have our earliest list of New Testament books in the canon from the so-called “Muratorian Fragment.” Muratori was an Italian scholar who discovered this fragment in the 18th century, and so this is sometimes called the Muratorian Canon. It includes the four Gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, Jude, and two letters of John, but it doesn’t mention Hebrews, 1 and 2 Peter, or James. Interestingly enough, the Muratorian Canon does accept the Wisdom of Solomon. It also accepts the Apocalypse of John, that is, the Book of Revelation, and it accepts the Apocalypse of Peter, which is not in the New Testament. This Apocalypse of Peter is not the same document as a later Gnostic document that goes by a similar name; this is something different, and the Muratorian Canon includes it. In the year A.D. 200 Caius provides a similar list of accepted books. He lists the same twenty-one books that are found in the Muratorian Canon, so this seems to show that there is a pretty firm conviction in the church about these books by that time.

I think you can see from the lists that I provided that the issue of canonicity was never about the question, “Are there other things outside the Bible that really ought to be in it?” Rather the doubts were, “Are there things that are presently in it that should have been left out?” There were some doubts about Hebrews and Revelation, and so forth. If anything, we have too many books in the canon, not too few! You don’t need to worry that there may have been something inspired by God that somehow got left out. Nobody was worried about that. The only concern would have been: Did something get in that wasn’t inspired by God?

By the year A.D. 340 Eusebius gives the modern list of New Testament books that is accepted today by all Christian denominations.

The question now arises that the previous questioner raised. How do you decide what is in the canon and what isn’t in the canon? The way Protestants answer this question is typically by saying that the canonical books have to come out of the apostolic circle.5 Either they are written by an apostle or they are written by those who were associates of the apostles. For example, Luke wasn’t an apostle, but as an author of a Gospel and an associate of the apostles, he comes out of the apostolic circle. Having an origin in the apostolic circle would be a necessary condition. Also, consistency with the other books that are recognized as canonical is required. And then, frankly, we trust in the Holy Spirit to guide the church in recognizing those books of Scripture in which we hear the Word of God to us. This criterion is more subjective, but it is saying that it is through the works of the New Testament that have been assembled that we sense God is speaking to us, and therefore believe that these are the limits of the canon.

One might also add that Jesus promised his disciples that he would, through the Holy Spirit, bring to their remembrance everything that he had spoken to them and taught them. We see also in Peter’s correspondence that he refers to the letters of Paul as Scripture – he says the unlearned and ignorant twist these as they do “the other Scriptures.” So already by the time that the epistles of Peter were written, the letters of Paul were being regarded as Scripture.

So I don’t think that we should think of the canon as something that is decided upon by the church, that it is in virtue of the church, which says that these books are canonical. I think it is rather the opposite – these books imposed themselves on the church. The church recognized them as being authoritative and therefore part of the canon. In any case, there was no question that the apocryphal Gospels and other forgeries that were written later should ever have been in the canon. The popularizers like Dan Brown and his DaVinci Code, who present the church as some kind of conspiratorial alliance to destroy these other Gospels, is a total fabrication. Right from the very earliest time, the four Gospels and Acts imposed themselves as the authoritative record of the life of Jesus, and everybody recognized that these later documents were forgeries and spurious. The only question was about certain books, in regard to which there were some doubts about whether they should be in the canon.6


Question: Maybe I am naive, but I believe there was somebody named Napoleon, but I never checked it or researched it. I just assumed that the people who said there was such a person told the truth, and there was such a person. I believe the Bible is the Word of God because I believe it. I believe that if God wanted these books to be his Word to us that he could have done that.

Answer: In one sense I agree with you. I think God, who inspired the Scripture, also led his church to recognize those writings that are his Word to us, and that they did so. We can trust the Holy Spirit to lead the body of Christ to recognize them in that way.

Question: The early church fathers accepted the book of Enoch, but in A.D. 90 the Sanhedrin at that time got together and condemned all Christian writings, and they condemned the book of Enoch because Christians accepted it. Then at the Council of Nicea, the books that were not in the Hebrew Canon (those rejected by the Sanhedrin) were accepted.

Answer: I don’t buy that. The canon that Protestants accept today for the Old Testament isn’t just the rabbinical canon that you speak of. It was the Hebrew Bible used by Jesus, and it didn’t have the book of Enoch in it. Even though the book of Jude quotes from that, it doesn’t mean that that book is canonical. It wasn’t part of the Hebrew Bible that Jesus and the apostles used. It later wasn’t recognized by the rabbis as canonical, and it wasn’t recognized by the church as canonical either. It is not included in any of these old lists that I know of, certainly not in the earliest ones. I think you are favorable toward Enoch because it is quoted in Jude, but then that raises this whole question of “just because something is quoted does that mean it is canonical?”7


1 4:46

2 10:40

3 14:55

4 20:52

5 25:04

6 28:01

7 Total Running Time: 32:42