Our Monday night study group has been reviewing Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. It is an easy read in which Hamilton offers accessible explanations for many of scripture’s more difficult questions. I recommend it, whether you join us on Monday evenings or not!
One of those questions has to do with the canonization process. How did the bible become the bible? Why were some books included and others excluded? When was the final collection of accepted books determined?
To answer that last question: It was at the council in Carthage, Africa, in 397 that the 27 books of our New Testament were established as canon. Throughout the previous 367 years (to the estimated date of Christ’s death) the Church was worshiping, growing, serving, and discerning matters of scriptural authority. (I think it is important to note that the Church predates the bible as we have it. Think about the implications for our understanding of the bible’s place in Christian faith!)
But, how did they finally figure out which books were in and which were out? Certainly, there were many other ancient texts that pointed to Christ and had meaning to people of faith. Many have suggested that the selection process was guided by political and religious power brokers who preserved certain scriptures for the sake of their own advantage. While politics likely played a role to some degree, Hamilton argues that there were legitimate and thoughtful criteria that needed to be met for inclusion, and the selection process was less scandalous than the cynics might suggest.
The first criterion was usefulness. “Paul’s letters were found to be helpful to the churches that read them, so much so that they were copied and shared with other congregations. Their continued usefulness and relevance in the decades following Paul’s death ultimately led to inclusion in the canon. The same was true of the four Gospels…”
The second criterion was consistency. The message of the document needed to be “consistent with the faith as it was preached in churches and as it was thought to have been established by the apostles.” For example, there were significant theological differences between our four current gospels and many of the gospels that emerged from subsequent gnostic movements of the time.
Hamilton calls the third criterion Association. An accepted book needed to be “associated with the first generation of Christian leaders.” For example, Paul’s letters were taken seriously because of the authority and prestige of their author.
The last criterion was acceptance. “Long before the church was talking about a fixed canon of scripture called the New Testament, certain books circulated broadly and found widespread acceptance. …When the vast majority of churches had accepted a book, the church as a whole eventually accepted it.”
I share all of this with you because it is interesting and may offer new information to you about the bible that we use every Sunday, but also because this canonization process offers some insight about the nature of Christian faith. Christianity and community went together from the very start. Discernment and faithfulness were practiced in the context of congregational living. When one became a Christian one became a member of a community that was willing to be shaped by the Holy Spirit, a force beyond their own making. In other words, the independent self suffered a sacrifice so that a new community-oriented self could emerge. This was true for congregational identity as well as individual identity.
There was no such thing as being a Christian on one’s own. The world has changed a bit, and today we are more likely to believe that faith is simply personal. But, the truth from the very beginning is that we need each other. It is in our shared embodiment of faith that we learn the kind of faith that gives us hope and a vital God who extends beyond the bounds of our own individual thinking. So, here’s my concluding thought: The Church’s top goal, its most important task and its most powerful mission, is simply to be the Church.