by Jonathan Morrow
Were the books of the New Testament selected by Emperor Constantine for social and political reasons in the 4th century (cf. the claims of Dan Brown via The Da Vinci Code) or were the books included in the New Testament Canon because they fit with the authoritative teaching that can be traced back to Jesus himself? Was this simply a power play? Another example of history being written by the winners?
I think the best way to come at this is by asking which of these documents tells us the truth about ‘the faith’ that was preached and received in the earliest communities of Christ-followers (cf. Jude 3). This is a theological question—what did the earliest eyewitnesses of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth believe and preach from the very beginning?
New Testament scholar Darrell Bock points to three kinds of texts contained in the New Testament writings that show us what the earliest Christians believed (and helpfully provides 3′s).
Schooling—We find doctrinal summaries Christians would memorize and read alongside Old Testament texts (i.e., the Hebrew Scriptures) when they would gather together for worship in house churches (e.g., Rom. 1:2-4; 1 Cor. 8:6; 15:1-5).
Singing—they would sing their theology in hymns and show their devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g., Col. 1:15-20 & Phil. 2:5-11).
Sacraments—Baptisms and the Lord’s Supper were practiced on a regular basis and pictured (imaged or symbolized) for the believing community the basic elements of the salvation story as core theology (e.g., Matt. 28:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; Eph. 4:4-6).
These creeds, hymns, and practices predated the writing of the New Testament documents (remember that this was an oral culture and many people could not read). Think of these as “oral texts” the earliest Christian community read and practiced before there was a completed Bible. These foundational beliefs are sometimes called the “Rule of Faith.”
With that in mind, how were the books chosen? There were three criteria used to decide which books were received as authoritative—as canon…
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