Here is Part 25 of my series on the canon of Scripture. Please start with Part One!
Our Protestant hero is investigating what the Christians of the first and second centuries believed about the canon. So far he has learned that the Christians of the first two centuries accepted the deuterocanonical books as Scripture, but were unclear as to which books made up the New Testament.
The late Rev. Dr. Herman Ridderbos, quoted below, was a Dutch Reformed scholar and professor at the
Theological University of the Reformed Churches in Kampen (the Netherlands). He was a very influential Protestant New Testament theologian.
It’s now the middle of the night, but you feel that you have been making so much progress in your quest for the canon of the early Christians that you refuse to stop until you’re done. You have discovered that the very first Christians were out there spreading the Gospel and making converts for 10 years before the first book of the New Testament was ever penned! These earliest believers “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42), meaning their oral teaching. The apostles continued their preaching and teaching for over 40 years before all the books that we accept as Scripture were written! (Obviously, Jesus did not impress the importance of writing Holy Scripture or collecting together an official canon of books upon his apostles – kind of odd when you consider that the Reformation insists that our beliefs rest upon “Scripture alone!” It almost sounds like the first Christians were oblivious to that fact….) During that period of time those Christians relied on the Greek translation of the Old Testament which included, according to your Bible dictionaries, the books of I and 2 Maccabees, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, Tobit and Judith, and the additions to Daniel and to Esther, along with the books Protestants recognize as canonical – those books were their Bible. In fact, even after the final books of the New Testament were written, and the last surviving apostle went to be with the Lord, Christians seem to have been somewhat unconcerned with definitively deciding which New Testament books were Scripture and which weren’t. They apparently, from what you are reading about the early church, felt that their church leaders were capable of accurately passing on the Gospel preached by the apostles, and seem to have depended on those leaders rather than on the ‘books of the New Testament.’ Kind of strange if they were “Bible-alone” Christians….
Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Ridderbos had a great deal to say about this in his Authority of the New Testament Scriptures:
The Apostles did not begin by writing. Apostolic preaching was in the first place oral. And when the Apostles began to write they themselves placed the written word on the same level with the spoken word. Paul, for example, wrote, ‘stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle’ (I Thess. 2:15).
The apostles therefore are not simply witnesses or preachers in the general ecclesiastical sense of the word. Their word is the revealed word, the word of revelation. It is the witness to Christ, given once and for all time, the witness to which the church and the world is bound, and by which it will also be judged…. the preaching of redemption, as apostolic preaching…is also the very foundation of the church to which the latter knew itself to be bound from the very beginning. This is the most holy faith on which the church has to build (see Jude 20 and compare verse 17). This is what has been given through the apostles, the depositum custodi (I Tim. 6:20, II Tim. 1:14; 2:2) that the church has to keep above all things.
The ‘depositum custodi’ – the ‘good deposit’ of 2 Timothy 1:14! Was that the guiding principle of the first Christians? Dr. Ridderbos stresses the importance of this ‘tradition’ in the life of the early church:
The tradition of which the New Testament speaks… is none other than the authoritative proclamation, entrusted to the apostles, as the witnesses of Christ and as the foundation of his church. It is none other than a precious pledge that they must transmit in exact accordance with their commission (I Tim. 6:20). Therefore, this tradition is repeatedly called the doctrine to which one ought to subject himself in obedience (Rom. 6:17), or it is used as a synonym for such doctrine (Gal. 1:12; Phil. 4:9; Col. 2:6-7, II Thess. 2:15) and it is equated with the apostolic gospel (I Cor. 15:1) that one must not receive as the word of man, but must receive as it really is, as the Word of God (I Thess. 2:13).
So, this “most holy faith on which the church has to build’ was the ‘good deposit,’ the ‘tradition’ handed down by the apostles “that the church has to keep above all things.” And that ‘tradition’ was passed down orally, as well as in writing in the New Testament Scriptures!
Well, that would explain why the apostles didn’t leave behind a list of authorized books, and why there appears to have been no rush at all to determine definitively what was in the canon and what wasn’t. After all, those early church leaders were men who had been ordained by the apostles – your King James Bible states, at the end of the books of I Timothy and Titus, that Timothy was “ordained the first bishop of the church of the Ephesians,” and Titus was “ordained the first bishop of the church of the Cretans.” The first Christians apparently had great faith that the apostles had successfully passed on what they had learned from the Lord. You look up verses like the ones that Ridderbos cites:
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23)
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3)
“So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15)
“I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11:2).
Paul sounds almost as if he knows how critical it will be for the churches to cling to “the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.” In the absence of a leather-bound New Testament, those churches were going to have to survive for quite some time to come on the faithfulness of their leadership to the teachings of the apostles!
Paul counsels the men who were charged with leading the churches to faithfully teach what they had learned from him, and to make use of the authority passed down by the apostles from God through the laying on of hands:
“You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1)
“Encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15)
“…command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer” (I Tim 1:3)
“What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you, guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.” (2 Tim 1:13-14)
“…and the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.” (2 Tim 2:2)
“I give you this charge: Preach the Word…correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction” (2 Tim 4:2).
One promise given by Paul really catches your eye – it seems to be the key to the whole ‘what did they do without a definite canon of Scripture for so many years???’ dilemma:
“Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
The ‘depositum custodi’ – the good deposit….
Paul certainly seems to be assuring Timothy, whom he ordained to lead the church at Ephesus, that God the Holy Spirit would supernaturally aid him in guarding the “good deposit,” that is, the things that Paul had faithfully passed on to him. Timothy was then to repeat this process – he was to keep Paul’s teaching as the pattern, and entrust that teaching “to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others.”
So to the early Christians it wasn’t really of the utmost importance whether it had definitively been decided if the epistle of James was Holy Scripture or not. The important thing was that they knew how to “stand firm,” to “maintain the traditions” and cling to “the good deposit” – and they apparently measured everything according to that deposit. Just as the “Didascalia Apostolorum” warned, “You are not to attend to the names of the apostles, but to the nature of the things and their settled opinions.” To rephrase that – even if something has an apostle’s name on it, do the contents of the writings line up with the ‘good deposit’? And that makes sense – if the ‘good deposit’ isn’t oral, if it’s only contained in the inspired books of Scripture, then how can the canon be discerned?? If the ‘good deposit’ is oral as well as written, then it can be relied upon when you finally decide that the boundaries of the canon have to be established!
If something did not jibe with the ‘good deposit’ handed down from the apostles to their disciples like Timothy and Titus, and then handed down from church leader to church leader – then it was rejected as false! If someone developed their own theology, apart from a dependence on the ‘good deposit’ and apart from the leaders guarding this ‘good deposit’, and then sorted through all the available books to form a canon – as Marcion did – they were doomed to failure! Their canon was just the product of their own personal opinion!
The first Christians may not have had a settled canon of Holy Scripture, but they converted the known world by devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles – and so did the generations that came after them! They relied on their leadership, and on the teaching handed down to them in the ‘good deposit!’
Maybe you’re onto something!
On the memorial of St. John of God
Deo omnis gloria!