Errant Notions Part Two: Misfiring the Biblical Canon

The second in a series of posts examining common arguments and assumptions about the doctrine called “biblical inerrancy,” the claim that the entire Bible is without error in all that it affirms.

Some Christians assume that canonization was an indication and perhaps even a function of the Bible’s inerrancy. We are so far removed from the world and church which produced our canon, we presume a great deal about what it even means to have a canon. We might easily imagine that the texts of the Bible had been subjected to some kind of lab test for infallibility and stamped either “BIBLE” or “HERESY” by church technicians. In reality, canonization is not about the inerrancy or divinity of the texts, but about ownership and authority. A canon is a “standard” or a “measure,” and the biblical canon is the standard by which certain texts are designated as belonging to the church. These are our texts, and not some others. But the journey to a Christian canon was far more fluid, subjective, and “open source” than we might imagine.

Canon Criteria

Christian communities in the second century CE were geographically scattered and had no mass market publishing or real-time correspondence between them. Each community had their own apostolic leaders, their own storytellers, their own scribes and, eventually, their own texts. These included gospels, letters, creeds, hymns, histories, legends, and apocalypses. No two communities had the same collection, and each considered its own library to be authoritative and sacred. These contained the books we know and cherish as “the Bible,” some that we study as “apocrypha,” and many that are now lost to history.

Later in the second century, as the church grew in numbers and began to organize itself as a governed network of communities, and as a stream of “orthodox” Christian doctrine emerged, canonization became a necessary project. The process of forging the canon involved debates and decision making by prominent presbyters, who developed a set of criteria for determining which books might make the grade. These included:

  • Which texts were the most widely read and copied?
  • Which texts were older?
  • Which texts were most likely to be authentic works of apostles or companions of apostles?
  • Which texts best conformed to the emerging orthodoxy?
  • Which texts were least likely to be used to proliferate heresies?

There is nothing scandalous or unexpected about these guidelines if you are familiar with the early history of the church. For the purpose of our discussion, however, we note that each rule represents a subjective criteria based on the judgment of a human thinker which implicitly acknowledges the subjective human origins of all the texts in question. Even as the goal of the process was to identify trustworthy and authoritative documents, the only means of selection was for human beings to employ collaborative personal discernment. These decisions were made by people, concerning books written by people.

The Long, Rough Road to a Canon

The process of canonization, as subjective as it was, was also drawn out and often contentious. It took two more centuries for the canon-as-we-know-it to solidify, and debates continue to this day. (I gave a quick overview of the history of the canon in this podcast.) On the one hand, the orthodox canon was never very different from the collection of 27 books we read today. At the same time, small variations and ongoing disagreements indicate that a very different form of Christianity might have taken shape if not for the tenacity of some opinionated church fathers. Here are some eye-opening facts:

  • The first known Christian canon was actually developed in 140 CE by a man later branded a heretic. Marcion of Sinope assembled his own (butchered) collection of texts which conformed to his very eccentric docetic views. Some scholars speculate that this was the impetus for the creation of an official orthodox canon.
  • Early versions of an orthodox canon from the second century contain books like the Letter of Barnabas and the Apocalypse of Peter. The former is a virulently anti-Jewish screed and the latter features a grotesque vision of the torments of hell that goes far beyond anything in our Bible in detail and cruelty.
  • In the 16th century Martin Luther expressed a desire to remove four books he found either offensive (Hebrews and Revelation) or inadequate (James and Jude). Ultimately he decided to respect the historical canon, but Lutheran Bibles still group these books together at the back.
  • The Letter to the Hebrews was canonized because it was believed to be another epistle of Paul, and Revelation was accepted as a work of John the son of Zebedee (the “Beloved Disciple”). Scholarly consensus now considers both attributions to be mistaken, and some in the church have called for those books to be removed. Technically, the church has the authority to alter the canon at any time, but it is highly unlikely that this will ever happen.
  • Uncanonized books were not burned or repudiated, they were simply not transmitted as part of the canon proper and so most disappeared with time. Many remained beloved by their communities of origin and some have been preserved as apocrypha or deuterocanon.

Reliable and Material, But Not Inerrant

The effort to produce an orthodox canon of Christian texts was a monumental undertaking drawing on the full resources of the early church, and we are its beneficiaries. However, we cannot delude ourselves that decisions made by fallible humans in centuries long past relieve us of our obligation to engage the texts of the canon today with diligence and humility. The canon is a gift from our forerunners, a robust and living witness to Christian origins. These books did not fall from the sky (unless dropped from a lofty window).

Nothing in the history of the canon suggests that Christians should not trust the decisions of the church fathers and receive the books of the Bible as authentic and reliable witnesses to the earliest traditions of the church. At the same time, the clearly subjective and contentious nature of the process means that canonization cannot possibly speak to the Bible’s inerrancy. The canon does not represent divinely assured infallibility, but the result of human collaboration to reach a consensus decision. This is a story about a community forging its own identity. That they did so with God’s blessing and under the guidance of His spirit is a matter of belief, hope, and trust.