|What follows is a transcript of an exchange between myself and an experienced Catholic apologist, whom I will call Matthew. Having engaged Matthew on a Catholic board a number of times, I was familiar with his tactics and abilities. These experiences colored some of my responses.
The Challenge: I know this has been asked in other forums, but I think it is always interesting to get answers to this question from "bible-only Christians." It's not like there were only 27 books ever produced, and so it would have been obvious to everyone which should make up the canon of the NT. Nor can we say with certainty who the authors of many of the NT books are.
The Response: You are so right. Seems like every time a new Catholic "apologist" pops up, they lay this zinger on us. I have responded to this question at least forty-eight million, eight hundred seventy-three thousand, six hundred and thirty-seven times.
The long answer is that the good old boys who came up with the Canon of Scripture did it in just the same way that those Catholic fellows at Trent did. To get the Old Testament, they just waited until no one was looking and swiped the crib sheet used by Israel. After all, the Jews received their copies of the Scriptures by special couriers wearing the uniform of Prophets-R-Us. Each of these special couriers had to pass a very stringent performance check. They made a short-term and a long-term prophecy. If things turned out as the short-term prophecy had predicted, the guy got a gold star and was certified to deliver messages from the top echelons and his long-term prophecies were declared to be God-given. On the other hand, if the short-term prophecy didn't work out, the guy was labeled a fake and might be stoned to death. Talk about a tough entrance exam! Anyway, over the course of 1600 years from the time that the first Jewish prophet, a guy called Moshe, until the birth of Messiach sealed the Old Testament canon once and for all -- about 1600 years -- Jewish rabbis, scholars, priests and whatever applied a number of other tests to detemine canonicity. But you already knew that, didn't you?
The New Testament canon was identified in essentially the same way as the Hebrew peoples had identified the canonical books that came to be known as the Old Testament. This process involved the inerplay of a variety of theological and historical factors. The principle factor was the impact of Christ Himself and His message, combined with the Christian conviction that in Him as the Lord, God Almighty had spoken His final and authoritative word in history.
At first, as every RCC apologist must have said or written ten thousand times, the Gospel message was transmitted orally, by apostolic witness -- which morphed into apostolic tradition.(Betcha you loved reading that.) Over a few decades, the Apostles or those close to them, began to commit the Good News to authoritative writings. These first writings were intended to provide pastoral guidance to the fledgling local churches and likely were never considered by those who set pen to paper to one day become part of a future canon. Then, of course, there was the prophetic book of Revelation, which has yet to be fulfilled.
As the second century dawned, the new church was using the oral traditions and the Gospels side by side, with oral tradition often being the preferred source of doctrine. After the last of the Apostles died, oral tradition became less reliable as men "discovered" heretofore unseen messages hidden in the teachings or "refined" them. By the time of Justin Martyr (around A.D. 150), the church had begun to rely more on the Gospels, though many important figures continued to give preference to the oral tradition. In Apology I.67.3-4 Justin Martyr wrote that the "memoirs of the Apostles (the Gospels) not only were being read but also being commented on in public worship, which set them on the same level as the books of the Old Testament. It seems very likely that by Justin Martyr's time, Paul's writings and the Gospels had been gathered into collections. Soon, people claiming to have received new revelations started popping up around every corner. The time had come to identify the canonical books once and for all. Origen and Eusebius pushed hard for the identification and demarcation of the canon to put an end to the continual outpouring of "new revelation."
Athanasius, in his 39th Paschal Letter (A.D. 367) set down what he considered the the New Testament canon. This canon included all the 27 books of the New Testament as we know it today, but included some apocryphal stuff that neither Catholics nor non-Catholics accept today. Numerous gatherings of religious folks sifted through the books and writings in circulation and, over time, identified the books of the Canon of Scripture. As is well-known, the councils of the Catholic Church and those of the non-Catholic Christian churches do not agree on the canonicity of the writings known as the Apocrypha.
What were the criteria used to judge canonicity? There were but few. apostolicity (read reliability), the rule of faith and the consensus of the churches.
Please do not jump up and smirkingly say, "Aha! You admit that the Catholic Church gave you your Bible." I admit no such thing. As I have written elsewhere, there really was not a truly functioning Roman Catholic Church until the middle of the fourth century and even then it's bishop had no real primacy for another hundred years or so after that. The early Church Fathers were not Roman Catholics -- they were Christians, plain and simple. In any case, all any of the churchmen did, Catholic or otherwise, was to acknowledge the intrinsic power and authority of the canonical writings that God had given mankind.
That was the long answer. this is the short answer:
"We used a Ouija board."
Matthew: Then there is the question of the Letter to the Laodiceans, written by Paul. If it was sacred scripture, how did it come to be lost?
Ron: Beats me. Paul surely wrote a lot of letters during his years as evangelist, preacher, teacher and counselor. Apparently, only some of them were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and are preserved in the Canon. The fate of the others is buried in time.
Matthew: And if Christianity is a religion "of a book" only, then what of the first centuries when there was no agreed canon, when some books were accepted which were later excluded, and some books initially excluded which later came to be admitted as inspired? It seems like a rather messy situation if the rule of faith is scripture alone. Was God not so concerned for Christians of the first 300 years (the age of the greatest persecution) that He didn't define the Bible clearly in the first few decades after Christ's resurrection?
Ron: Matthew, did you REALLY read my response to your question? I addressed the use of oral tradition in my reply. I urge you to go back and read it again. BTW, Christianity is not a "religion of a book," but a God-given gift of faith.
As to when God "defined" the Bible -- He did not "define" it. He GAVE it, those men who set God's revelation to paper (a generic reference here) were writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
I do not see that God had to validate the canon at all. He wrote it, as it were. It was men who had to figure out which were the inspired books. God knew all the time. The Canon of God-inspired Scripture was never in question.
Matthew: Your explanation was going so well until the end. So there was no functioning Catholic Church for the first four hundred years? How do you reach this conclusion? I grant that there was no curia in Rome and a Vatican diplomatic corps, but I find in the earliest writings a way of living the faith very similar to how Catholics and Orthodox live it today.
I see bishops, presbyters, deacons; sacramental theology; scripture and tradition; a Church which called synods and enacted ecclesiastical legislation; a community which referred to itself as "Catholic" from at least the beginning of the second century.
But none of that was really my point in asking the question. I can accept that it was the Holy Spirit which (sic) formed the NT through the bishops of the Christian Church. What I don't understand is why the guidance of the Holy Spirit is limited to the formation of the canon, and not extended to the bishops when teaching dogmatically. If Paul says we are to obey those in authority (Hebrews 13), and we see a structure in the early Church which tied orthodoxy to the succession of bishops/presbyters, I wonder why it cannot be conceded that the Holy Spirit could in fact guide the Christian Church in the way proposed by Catholics and Orthodox.
I can understand why some western Christians have a problem with Catholic Christianity, but why is Orthodoxy also ruled out as a possibility? Did the Church fall into error everywhere? Do you feel comfortable with that idea? If the Church everywhere embraced numerous heresies, did this jeopardize the salvation of millions of people over centuries, until the reformation came along and sorted things out?
Ron: I agree that the writers of the scriptures which were gathered into the collection now known as the New Testament labored under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. On this, we stand on common ground.
You wrote: "What I don't understand is why the guidance of the Holy Spirit is limited to the formation of the canon, and not extended to the bishops when teaching dogmatically."
The mature and reasoned manner in which you post this implied question concerns me. Having a thoughtful and meticulous antagonist in the opposing trenches is cause for any apologist to be wary, I should think. This whole post testifies that you did not simply dash off a few words to either start a fight or discount the arguments of your opposition. It also seems clear that you are not entirely innocent of the contents of the Bible. In his dealings with you, any non-Catholic apologist must be on his toes. I do not know that I am up to the task.
Matthew, I do not deal in knee-jerk response nor canned rebuttals. I do not often appeal to absolutes, unless in reference to God and His ways. which have been made known to us. I do not believe the Holy Spirit is limited by anything or anyone other than the Father, and in that I confess to imperfect knowledge.
Given the foregoing, I believe that there is no reason to believe that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is denied to ALL bishops – assuming here you are referring to bishops of the Catholic Church. As I have declared innumerable times, I am quite convinced that within the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church are to be found true believers, men and women who are truly born again, saved by God's grace through His gift of saving faith. I see no reason why some of those might not at one time or another been men who wore the bishop's miter. This certainly seems to have been the case with many of the early Fathers.
It bears mentioning here that professing but unsaved “Christians” are not exclusive to the membership rolls of the RCC. One would have to have been raised in a vacuum not to be aware of the bad fruit of public religious figures who have shouted their “Christianity” from the rooftops. No one is saved simply because he claims to be. No church affiliation, no sacrament, no compilation of good or charitable works can bring about salvation. It is God Who chooses who is to be saved and it is God Who provides the certain means of that Salvation. I recognize we likely will disagree in this matter. I invite you only to think on my words; to research what your catechism has to say concerning soteriology. Then, I implore you to see what the Scriptures say.
Matthew: If Paul says we are to obey those in authority (Hebrews 13), and we see a structure in the early Church which tied orthodoxy to the succession of bishops/presbyters, I wonder why it cannot be conceded that the Holy Spirit could in fact guide the Christian Church in the way proposed by Catholics and Orthodox.
Ron: For the benefit of those who do not have a Bible near to hand, I quote the passage to which Matthew refers:
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews here is referring to the pastors and elders of the church, who teach, preach or apply Scripture. These men serve the church on behalf of Christ and one day will be called to give an accounting of their faithfulness. It bears noting that these may either secular or spiritual rulers. God can ordain and use even those who do not acknowledge Him. The church is responsible to help its leaders to do their work with satisfaction and delight.
Such a structure as you describe indeed did exist within the primitive church, though it did not always function as apparently intended. I do concede the possibility that the Holy Spirit could in fact guide the Christian Church in the way proposed by Catholics and Orthodox. Again, the only limitation that I can think of is the will of the Father, and of that I am not 100% certain. However, I do not believe that He has, and this is at the root of those things which separate us. I do not propose to explore that avenue at this time.
Matthew: I can understand why some western Christians have a problem with Catholic Christianity, but why is Orthodoxy also ruled out as a Christian church?
Ron: Speaking only for myself, I believe that the Orthodox Church holds to many of the same Semi-Pelagian doctrines that create division between the Catholic and non-Catholic churches. I see no need to delve too deeply into the distinctives of the Orthodox Church. Suffice it cite just one specific example of a foundational doctrine that divides the Orthodox Church from the true Church. It is the doctrine of baptismal regeneration; that as a consequence of ritual baptism, one's sins are forgiven and he is regenerated – reborn as a Christian. As I imagine you already know, I am convinced that salvation is not the result of an act of will, but is the unmerited gift of God to those whom He has elected to eternal life.
I found these words at the home site of the Orthodox Church in America:
Matthew: Did the Church fall into error everywhere?
Ron: I do not believe that the True Church ever went astray. On the other hand, I do believe that the manmade religions that engulfed the True Church all have gone astray. I believe that all these churches or denominations have added to, subtracted from, or in some other way corrupted the pure teaching of Christ and the Apostles as recorded in Scriptures, though not all to the same degree.
Am I now going to proclaim some elitist fantasy of doctrinal purity? Of course not. I make no claims to perfect knowledge nor to perfect understanding of the will of God. I just do the best I can to conform my life to the teachings of Scripture, trusting in the Holy Spirit to illuminate my understanding. Are there NO truly Christian churches or assemblies out there? I dunno. I have not visited every church or so-called Christian gathering. When I am able to assemble with others in public worship, I prefer a Bible-believing church where the doctrines of the Bible are taught and preached, not the denominational doctrines of some manmade religion. If I am in Mexico, I gather with other believers in an Evangelical Free Church. Is the undefiled Word of God proclaimed in churches of this type? I doubt it, but when I get home and compare the services with the Scriptures I usually find few areas of conflict.
Matthew: If the Church everywhere embraced numerous heresies, did this jeopardize the salvation of millions of people over centuries, until the reformation came along and sorted things out?
Ron: I do not believe that it did, Matthew. That's what makes all the horrors visited by adherents of one religious system upon devotees of another over the centuries so terribly tragic. It is made even more tragic when one considers that both Catholicism and the “protestant” religions that grew out of the Reformation, both teach that God, in eternity past, had already identified His elect. You can get an idea of this in the Catholic Catechism, in paragraphs such as 1344 and 1994. One of my Catholic dictionaries defines the elect as:
That is pretty close to the “Protestant” understanding, though I do not believe most such communions that accept this tenet of Calvinist theology would admit to the (a) or (b) distinction. So how does God “elect” those who are to spend eternity with Him, in the Beatific Vision?
If it is true that God determined long ago who would spend eternity with Him, and I believe that it is, then all the bloodshed, the forced conversions, the pogroms targeted at those considered to be heretics or pagans were without real spiritual purpose. Those whom God had chosen to be saved were saved, no act of man could change that.
Speaking only for myself, I do not charge the Roman Catholic Church with having been the cause of anyone's “loss” of salvation. I also do not believe that the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for the addition of a single soul to the true Church. These same things are true of the non-Catholic church.
When a church or religious system proclaims a false gospel, I do not doubt that many will be deceived and buy into its promises. Some of these might even be numbered with the Elect of God. Somehow, some way, God will see to it that all of the elect receive and respond to the Good News. Even when the true Gospel message is proclaimed, many who respond positively to it will not see God in His Glory.
When a church or religious system fails to preach the true Gospel it fails in its service to God, but I believe, God will see to it that His elect are not lost.
I do hope that I have been able to provide at least a small bit of useful information.
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