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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


10. The Canon from Above and Below

Eventually some of the books in Eusebius’ middle list settled out into the list of acknowledged books, and the others did not. But the “settling” of the canon has done away with none of this history. The New Testament still consists of the Gospels, Acts, and the Letters of Paul (and Hebrews), which were received as soon as they appeared, and the Book of Revelation, which was received, then questioned by some, then received (as Hebrews was, too, because of the Montanist controversy), and the smaller books, about whose history we know a good deal less, but which have spent their share of time in the fuzzy borderland of the canon.

This historical process achieved an astonishing degree of consensus about the canon, without abuse of power and without universal official decree. It looks for all the world as if the Christians were simply recognizing the books that carried the deposit of tradition from the first generation, and for the most part that was that.

This viewpoint is at odds with the one that imagines the canon was settled by a few people at the top and then accepted by the rest on their authority. Another way to say it, which we sometimes hear these days, is that the canon was decided—even invented—by a few people at the top and foisted upon the poor schmucks below. But let us stick with the more neutral way of saying it: settled at the top and accepted by the rest.

But in this history we have yet to see any such thing. It only happened for Catholics with the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and for Protestants during the Reformation. By then it was much too late to really decide anything.

But the earliest churches did not wait for that. In the earliest period the message and the teaching about Jesus Christ went out in the spoken word, and if people were disposed to receive it, they did, and if they weren’t, they didn’t. And in any case, it could be checked against the Old Testament: the Jews in the synagogue at Beroea did this and found the message sound (Acts 17:11).

Within a few years the letters of Paul appeared and began to circulate among the churches, and the Gospels appeared a little after that. These were widely received from the first, but perhaps not universally. Maybe Paul’s opponents in Galatia were not disposed to receive his Letter to the Galatians. And Paul himself worked hard in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians—successfully, it seems—to insure that he would be heard by the partisans in Corinth. But the point is that the books appeared, and as soon as they appeared, they were widely received in the churches.

Consensus on the canon was therefore reached, insofar as consensus was reached, through a historical process that was open to anyone. For as soon as a book—any book—comes into existence, it is subject not only to acceptance but also rejection. And not only rejection, for even if it is accepted, it is still subject to disputes, textual corruption, and misunderstanding. In other words, it starts having a history. This was true of the books of the Bible as it is true of any book.

Was the canon then not handed down from the top? Well yes, it was, if you go high enough. After all, people can only accept or reject. No amount of debate or meetings or consensus can supply books with something they don’t already have to start with: not only the quality of being useful, but the quality of being God-breathed.

Nor can they deprive them of that quality. The books of the canon became canon because no one could stop them. And even before anyone knew the Gospels and letters would be written, their eventual contents, in spoken form, were already being received not just as the message of the apostles but as the message of God. This is what the apostle Paul meant in what is perhaps the earliest surviving Christian document :

We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thess. 2:13)



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