Note: for the full series, see here.
When it comes to basic facts that all Christians should know about the canon, it is important that we recognize that the development of the canon was not always neat and tidy. It was not a pristine, problem-free process where everyone agreed on everything right from the outset.
On the contrary, the history of the canon is, at points, quite tumultuous. Some Christians received books that were later rejected and regarded as apocryphal (this was discussed in an earlier post). More than this, there was disagreement at times even over some canonical books.
For instance, Origen mentions that books like 2 Peter, 2-3 John, and James were doubted and disputed by some in his own day. Also, Dionysius of Alexandria tells us that some thought that Revelation was not written by the apostle John and should therefore be rejected.
It is important that we be reminded of such disputes and debates lest we conceive of the history of the canon in an overly-sanitized fashion. The canon was not given to us on golden tablets by an angel from heaven (as claimed for the Book of Mormon). God, for his own providential reasons, chose to deliver the canon through normal historical circumstances. And historical circumstances are not always smooth.
What is unfortunate, however, is that these disagreements amongst Christians are sometimes used as an argument against the validity of the 27-book canon we know today. Critics claim that such disagreements call into question the entire canonical enterprise. Why should we trust the outcome, it is argued, if some Christians disagreed?
Several factors should be considered in response. First, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that these disputes only affected a handful of books. Critics often present the history of the canon as if every book were equally in dispute. That is simply not the case. As we saw in a prior post, the vast majority of these books were in place by the end of the second century.
Second, we should not overestimate the extent of these disputes. Origen, for example, simply tells us that these books were disputed by some. But, in the case of 2 Peter, Origen is quite clear that he himself accepts it. Thus, there are no reasons to think that most Christians during this time period rejected these books. On the contrary, it seems that church fathers like Origen were simply acknowledging the minority report.
Third, we should also remember that the church eventually reached a broad, deep, and long-lasting consensus over these books that some disputed. After the dust had settled on all these canonical discussions, the church was quite unified regarding these writings. Of course, critics will suggest this is an irrelevant fact and should be given no weight. For them, the decisive issue is that Christians disagreed. But, why should we think that disagreements amongst Christians are significant, while unity amongst Christians is insignificant? The latter should be given the same consideration as the former.
But, even after offering these three responses, we should recognize that there is still a deeper issue in play for those who think disagreements amongst Christians invalidate the truth of the canon. Beneath this objection is a key (and unspoken) assumption, namely that if God were to give his church a canon he would not have done it this way.
Put differently, there is an assumption that we can only believe that we have the writings God intended if there are very few (if any) dissenters and if there is virtually immediate and universal agreement on all 27 books. But, where does this assumption come from? And why should we think it is true?
Indeed, there are many reasons to think it is false. For one, how does the critic know how God would give canonical books? This is a theological claim about how God works and what he would do (or wouldn’t do). But, how does the critic know what God would or wouldn’t do? To what source is he appealing? Surely, not the New Testament for that is the very source being criticized!
But, even more than this, we have good reasons to think that some dispute amongst Christians would be inevitable. Just the practical reality of giving books in real time and space, in real historical circumstances, spread out over different authors, on different continents, and at different times, would naturally create dispute in some places.
Whenever someone shows angst over these early canonical disagreements, I often ask a simple question: “What did you expect the process would be like?” It is at this point, that people often realize they have an overly-pristine expectation about how God would deliver his books—an expectation that is entirely their own and not derived from Scripture or from history.
All of this reminds us that God sometimes uses normal historical processes to accomplish his ends. And those historical processes are not always neat and tidy. But, this should not detract from the reality that the ends are still God’s.