Foundational Nature and Origin of the New Testament

posted by Clark Bates 
October 28, 2016 
 
          In a recent sermon at North Point Community Church, pastor Andy Stanley made this statement: 
 
“Those of you growing up in the church were likely taught that ‘Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’  This is where our trouble began. . . because the implication is that the Bible is the reason we believe.” 
 
He goes on to say in the same sermon, 
 
“The Bible is not the foundation of the Christian faith.” 
 
Now I recognize that there are many who are familiar with this sermon and pastor Stanley’s work, and that you may even agree with his message, and I’m not here to pick a fight with pastor Stanley.  In fairness, his message was trying to explain that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Christian faith, as is stated by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:13-16: 
 
“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.  And if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”[1] 
 
          This is an admirable endeavor, and I believe that pastor Stanley believes in the inerrancy of Scripture right along with other evangelicals, but what troubles me and those in the field of biblical apologetics, is the manner in which he approaches it.  You see, there’s a danger in saying that the Bible is not foundational to the Christian faith, because it implies that one doesn’t need the Bible.  This is to say nothing of the fact that any and all information we have regarding the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what Stanley proclaims is the foundation of the Christian faith, is found IN THE BIBLE! 
 
          During His ministry, Jesus uttered the phrase, “have you not read” 7 times as recorded in the gospels and the phrase, “it is written” another 32 times.  After Him, the apostles use the same phrase 42 times, and in every instance they are referring to the Scriptures that were known to the people at that time.  This of course was what we would call the Old Testament.[2]  Part of Pastor Stanley’s conclusion to his sermon is that the apostles and the early Christians believed in Jesus before the Bible told them so, and this is meant to prove his final point, that it is the resurrection event and not the Bible in which Christians should trust, however the reason for the belief of the first century church is biblical context within which the resurrection event occurred. 
 
          Now again, I agree with the statement that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation of the Christian faith, for without it no one could be saved.  However, what gets confused in this assertion is the existence and purpose of the Bible in relation to that event.  The resurrection of Christ did not occur in a vacuum.  Everything that Jesus did and everything the apostles preached regarding Him was foreshadowed in the Scriptures.  This is why Jesus could say of His crucifixion, “For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ ” (Matt. 26:31).[3]  So when Pastor Stanley says things like, “Christianity made its greatest strides during the 282 years before the Bible even existed.” a question is created.  Well, first I suppose the question would be what happened to the other 42 books of the Bible, since last I checked the Canon of Scripture was 66 books long not just the 27 books of the New Testament, but the other question would be, what does it mean to say “before the Bible existed” and how did we get the Bible as we know it today?  Pastor Stanley seems to have a misunderstanding on this point, and it is this topic that I’ll endeavor to clarify here. 
 
How Did We Get the Bible as We Know It Today? 
 
      In 2003 author Dan Brown wrote a Bestselling novel titled The DaVinci Code.  This was later converted into a feature film in 2006 starring Tom Hanks.  The crux of Brown’s plot featured the commonly repeated belief that the divinity of Jesus was determined by a vote at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD, at which point Constantine ordered all Christian books affirming Christ’s humanity to be destroyed.  A tangential result of this action was the official creation what modern Christians call the New Testament.[4] 
 
      Suffice it to say, this is an abject lie.  How can this be known?  To begin with, the Christian church had no central leadership for the first 400 years of its existence, therefore a conspiracy of the size alleged in Brown’s fiction would be impossible to achieve.  Secondly, biblical manuscripts exist from before the time of Nicaea that testify to the divinity of Christ; but beyond that we have extant records of what occurred at the Council.[5]  The church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea records the events, as does the bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and the resulting 20 canons, or rules, that were promulgated after are a matter of record.  At no point were the books of the New Testament addressed at the council of Nicaea.  This ever-important council was convened primarily to deal with the heresy of Arianism which I have discussed here.  In fact, it can be stated that at no time in church history did any council determine the canon of Scripture.  
 
θεὸπνευστος (Theonustos) 
 
      It might seem to be a bold statement to suggest that no ecumenical church council ever made a determination regarding the canon of Scripture (especially if your first thoughts were of Laodicea, Hippo or Carthage), but allow me to expand my point.  In 2 Timothy 3:16 it states that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.”  The Greek word translated in the ESV as “breathed out by God” is θεοπνευστος (theonustos).  This word is essential to understanding the first century church’s, and those that followed, concept of Scripture.  At its core, the question of the canon of Scripture is theological.  Any proper discussion on how the Bible came to be, must begin there.  
 
      Let me illustrate my point.  I haven’t written a book yet, but let’s say that I had.  Not only that, let’s say that I have written five books.  The moment I wrote that first book, the Canon of Clark, or of my writings, began.  Let’s say that someone was to log on to Amazon and find these books that I had written.  Did that person create the canon of my writings by finding them?  No, of course not.  They only discovered the books.  In the same way, from the moment God inspired Moses, or the author of Job, or the apostles to put ink to papyrus, the Canon of Scripture existed, it was never subject to the determinations of men.  The church has never determined the Canon, it has only discovered it 
 
What do we mean by the “Canon” of Scripture? 
 
      The word “canon” comes from the Greek κανων (kanon) which means “rule” or, more specifically, “measuring stick”.  Its current usage is indicative of the books of the New Testament that are considered authoritative.  So when we say the “Canon of Scripture” we mean those books which God breathed or inspired to be written.  Oftentimes when presentations are made regarding how the books of the New Testament were selected, a list of criteria is proffered: 
 
  1. Were the books written by an apostle? 
 
  2. Were they recognized by the church? 
 
  3. Were they considered authoritative? 
 
I confess that even I have used a list like this during presentations on Scripture.  Looking back on the books we have, this kind of a criterion can be applied to them, but it is merely a retrospective acknowledgment of what commonalities exist among the texts that separate them from alternative pseudo-Christian literature of the era.  And again, lists such as these can give the false impression that somehow the church decided the content of the Bible, when in fact it is the presence of inspiration that has decided that. 
 
     It can be said that a formal listing of New Testament books did not exist in the earliest centuries of the church, however, contra Andy Stanley, there were books cataloged as the inspired works of God much earlier than 282 years after Christ’s death.  While he doesn’t say it outright, Pastor Stanley is probably referring to the early church father Athanasius’ 39th festal letter, in 367, in which he writes in opposition to heretics that, 
 
       “Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.”[6] 
 
However, more than a century earlier, in 250 AD, the church father Origen wrote this, 
 
      “But when our Lord Jesus Christ comes, whose arrival that prior son of Nun designated, he sends priests, his apostles, bearing trumpets hammered thin, the magnificent and heavenly instruction of proclamation.  Matthew first sounded the priestly trumpet in his Gospel; Mark also; Luke and John each played their own priestly trumpets.  Even Peter cries out with trumpets in two of his epistles; also James and Jude.  In addition, John also sounds the trumpet through his epistles [and Revelation], and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles.  And now that last one comes, the one who said, ‘I think God displays us apostles last,’ (Paul) and in fourteen of his epistles. . . he casts down the walls of Jericho.”[7] 
 
Origen wrote this in his commentary on the book of Joshua using his typical, allegorical flare, and while there is much that can be disputed regarding his interpretive methods, within his writing on the book of Joshua he produced what could be argued as the earliest recorded list of the New Testament.[8]  
 
      By this time there were other texts circulating, mostly Gnostic texts, but none are included in this commentary.  Were there as much a dispute regarding the nature of what books qualified as canonical in the early church as some would have us believe, certainly there would be evidence of this in alternate, contemporaneous canons.  What’s more, while a formal list was not produced in the first 200 years of the church, the church fathers that followed after the apostles, and those that followed them, wrote so prolifically that it is possible to trace their references to Scripture back to each of the 27 canonical New Testament books, and no others.  Were they aware of other texts?  Absolutely!  But they did not speak of those texts as authoritative in the way they did the Canon. 
 
Conclusion 
 
          What does all of this tell us?  It tells us that regardless of the need to reach the modern age “nones” who have left the Christian faith by changing verbiage from “the Bible” to “the historical documents” it is historically and theologically fallacious to assert that the Bible is not the foundation of the Christian faith.  It is equally fallacious to assert that the early church grew exponentially before the existence of the Bible.  It cannot even be stated accurately that the church grew at a time without the New Testament Canon.  As well-meaning as pastors like Andy Stanley may be with their sincere desire to reach the unchurched, it should not be done in a manner that de-legitimizes the texts upon which the faith itself stands. 
 
          The Christian men and women of the first three centuries of the church risked their lives to hand copy biblical manuscripts.  The need to spread the text of Scripture to the known world was so great that all else paled in comparison.  The thousands of New Testament manuscripts still in existence today testify to the fact that the Bible was most definitely foundational to the Christian faith. 
 
 
 
                             The church has never determined the Canon, it has only discovered it 
 
 
 
 
 
 
[1]   All Scripture references come from the ESV translation of the New Testament 
 
[2]  With the exception of some later epistles, there are allusions to some gospels and early letters of Paul. 
 
[3]  A reference to the writings of Zechariah 13:7. 
 
[4] Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code, (Dc Books, 2006), 233. 
 
[5] Most notably is MS P72 a fragment containing 2 Peter 1:1 in which Christ is referred to as Savior and God.  This MS is dated between 175-200 AD, making it no less than 125 years prior to the Council of Nicaea. 
 
[6] Athanasius, 39th Festal Letter: Of the Particular Books and Their Number, Which Were Accepted by the Church, Section IV and V. 
 
[7] Origen, Homiliae on Josuam 7.1. 
 
[8] This is not a position held universally within scholarship but it has been recently addressed by Michael Kruger here: http://michaeljkruger.com/what-is-the-earliest-complete-list-of-the-canon-of-the-new-testament/ . 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *