The Canon of the New Testament

I am a natural born skeptic.  When they say I should drink two glasses of water before breakfast, I wonder who they are.  When they say I should change my oil every 3000 miles, I wonder if they are engine experts or shills for the oil companies.  When they say I need eight hours of sleep a night, I wonder how they know that about me specifically.  I subscribe to the theory that my body will wake up when it has had enough sleep.  Is that too simple-minded?  Maybe I should ask they.

So what happens to my skepticism when they tell me that the 27 books of the Bible that make up my New Testament are God-inspired?  In short, it disappears.

And my skepticism disappears for two reasons.  First, the manuscript evidence supporting the authenticity of the New Testament is outstanding.  No, we don’t have the actual originals penned by the apostles.  But we do have documents from so close to the time of the originals, that to a trained archeologist, the gap is basically zero.

I like to think of it this way.  As a geophysicist, I make predictions about the subsurface of the earth from measurements taken at the earth’s surface.  And there is always a varying uncertainty as to what I am “seeing”.  (In fact, a large part of my job is quantifying that uncertainty.)  Sometimes the “picture” is fuzzy and the uncertainty is high and my interpretation is nothing more than an educated guess.  Other times, the “picture” is quite clear and the certainty is high and I have a 90% confidence in my prediction.  And 90% is close enough to 100% to move any project forward.

We can’t say with a 100% certainty that the manuscripts we have are authentic.  But we are so close that, in my mind, the leap of faith is not very large to get there.  But we all vary in our natural skepticism, so let me encourage you that whether you think the leap of faith to get there is large or small, it is your faith that will take you the rest of the way.  And given the manuscript evidence at hand, it is a reasonable faith.

Now the second reason my skepticism disappears is because there is no they in the Canon of the New Testament.  No church council said, “OK, here is a list of 50 books, let’s pick 27 and get this finished.”  While two church councils – in 393 and 397 A.D. – did indeed confirm the canon of the New Testament, the key word is “confirm” not decide.  The councils codified something that already existed; the books of the New Testament.

For over two and a half centuries, prior to the councils, the developing church had adopted the 27 books of the New Testament.  The early church, in its teaching and practice, had come to accept the Fourfold gospel, the letters of Paul, the book of Acts as the connection between them, and the letters of the other apostles as the authentic Canon of the New Testament.  So if there is a they, it is the church at large, listening to the voice of God over a large geographic area and over a long time.  (For a longer explanation see F. F. Bruce The Canon of Scripture in book form or 4 page pdf summary)

So now we can proceed with confidence that we are indeed exploring the God-inspired text as we return to two of the New Testament’s over-arching messages:  Jesus is the only way to heaven and a sinful lifestyle is not compatible with being a believer.  We will take up the first point next time.

The Thrill of Discovery – Epilogue

As a follow up to Josh and William’s comments on our last post, let me add this:  When I was in early elementary school, I dreamed of growing up to become an explorer like Christopher Columbus.  By about the fifth grade, I learned that the whole world had already been “discovered” so I changed my “what do you want to be when you grow up” to professional baseball player.  (That dream died as well when I didn’t go out for the high school team.)

The irony in my path to a career is that, in time, I did become exactly what my first dreams desired; an intrepid explorer.  My interest in geology and geophysics was never in identifying rocks and minerals or unraveling the geologic history of the earth or deriving partial differential equations.  My interest was always in the search for buried treasure.  And my working years have been spent in the hunt for underground deposits of oil and natural gas; literally buried treasure.

My exploration bent has colored my spiritual journey as well.  I have characterized my spiritual journey as “The Thrill of Discovery.”  And I am always interested in how people discover Jesus.  This is why I subscribe to the “all of the above” approach to evangelism.

We are told today to forgo western style rational arguments for Christianity because our society lacks a basic belief in absolute truth to use as a starting point.  Yet many nonbelievers are coming to faith hearing an apologist answer what turns out to be their last objection to Christianity.  We are told that randomly distributing Bibles and tracts is too old school.  Yet Gideons International and the Bible League are flooded with testimonies of seekers coming to Christ through the reading of a provided Bible.  We are told to abandon preaching because young people no longer want to be “talked at”.  Yet the “preaching of the cross is the power of God to those who are being saved.”

What I am getting at is this.  Let’s not limit the means for getting the gospel message out.  Let’s not limit the giftedness of our fellow believers to spread the Word.  Let’s allow the church universal to use an “all of the above” approach and celebrate together, just as the angels in heaven do, every life that discovers Jesus.

The Thrill of Discovery

(11 of 11 in a series)

Hanging on my office wall is an advertisement torn from a geophysical magazine several years ago.  The page size print shows a little girl at the beach holding tightly to her brother’s foot as he digs deep in the sand looking for buried treasure.  The picture of determination on the little girl’s face is priceless.  The caption reads, “If it’s there, we’ll find it.”

The reason this photo has followed me from office to office, job to job is because it captures, in visual form, the essence of the job of a geophysicist.  We use our training, skills, and keen eye for observation to look for buried treasure.  The “buried treasure” that geophysicists seek can take many forms:  oil, natural gas, water, minerals, fault lines in the earth and much more.  The thrill of discovery when our efforts find success is a powerful motivator for the working geophysicist.

A similar thrill of discovery is available to us in the spiritual world as well.  It is a discovery that has been made all over the world, throughout all cultures, by people of every race, for almost 2000 years.  Even by Mrs. Burgess.

When my wife, Rhonda, was a child, Mrs. Burgess was her next door neighbor.  Their two houses shared a driveway that forked and went to their respective homes.  Mrs. Burgess was always complaining about cars in the driveway and various assorted neighborhood challenges.  In short, Mrs. Burgess was a grump.

During her college years, Rhonda went to visit Mrs. Burgess at her retirement home in Northern Indiana.  When Mrs. Burgess recognized her guest she spoke warmly of Rhonda’s family being her neighbor and thanked Rhonda for her kindness as a child.  Rhonda had to double check the nameplate as this was not the Mrs. Burgess she had grown up with.  To paraphrase her elderly friend, Mrs. Burgess told Rhonda that she had become a believer in Jesus Christ.  She had accepted his offer of forgiveness and had a completely new outlook on life.  She now lived for others.  Her life had been transformed.  She had experienced the truth that sets us free.

In our era of celebrity, we get caught up in the comings and goings, thoughts and opinions of the rich and famous.  It drives our news and social media.  Mrs. Burgess’ story reminds us that in the quiet background, far from the media frontlines, thousands of people every day are experiencing the power of a changed life; experiencing the truth that sets us free.  This freedom, this transformation, this new life in Christ is available to all people, in all places, and for all time.  And most of all, it is being offered to you right now.  Won’t you join us?

True Freedom

(10 of 11 in a series)

When we hear the word freedom, we often think in terms of politics.  As part of a democracy, we are a free people.  Or we equate freedom with a suspension of the rules.  Teenagers are keen on gaining their freedom by having the house rules lifted as they get older.  Or we think in terms of morality, wishing we could act any way we please free from the ethics of our society, or religion, or peers.  Can this be true freedom?

The Bible teaches that true freedom does not equal autonomy.  Complete freedom in terms of total autonomy from any master, motivation, or influence is not an option for us in the human race as much as we like to think it is.  We are all servants of something or someone.  As Bob Dylan sang, “You can serve the devil or you can serve the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

In our natural state, we are servants of our sin nature.  Just as cows eat grass because it is part of their nature, we commit acts of selfishness and harm because it is part of our sin nature.  No one had to teach us how to lie to smooth out a problem and stay out of trouble.  It is part of our nature.  No one has to teach a child to jump into the pool just after being told it is time to get out for adult swim.  It is in our nature.

That all changes, however, when we embrace the Christian message and become followers of Jesus Christ.  We are no longer servants of our sin nature but take on a new nature and a new master, Jesus Christ.  Let’s face it.  Our own selfish nature is our worst enemy.  And true freedom, the freedom offered by Jesus Christ when we embrace His message, is the power to live above our old nature.  We have literally been set free from ourselves.  True freedom is the power to love, to cherish, to protect, and to live in ways that are altruistic and morally beautiful.

The Lost Son and the Lovesick Father

(9 of 11 in a series)

Jesus told a parable – a story that illustrates a spiritual truth – about a lost son.  As the story goes, a wealthy landowner had two sons.  The younger son requested his share of the inheritance from his father so he could set out on his own.  The father agreed and the younger son took the money and headed off to a far away country.  After squandering his inheritance on loose living, the son ended up working on a hog farm in a time of famine and was in the process of starving to death.  When the son came to his senses, he said, “My father’s servants are treated so much better than this.  I will go to my father.  I will throw myself on his mercy.  I will offer to become a servant and work off the money I wasted.”  So the son returned home.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Jesus paints a picture of a lovesick father waiting and yearning for his lost son to come home.  When the son returns, the father sees him from afar, is overwhelmed with compassion, runs to embrace him, kisses him, and announces a feast in his honor.  He will have nothing to do with his son’s plan to pay off the debt, but instead proclaims to all who will hear, “Rejoice with me.  My son who was as good as dead has come back to life.  My son who was lost has been found.”

Let’s stop the tape right here and say, “Wait just a minute.”  Are we to believe that after squandering his father’s money and inflicting the emotional pain of leaving without a trace, that all is forgiven?  What about working off the debt?  What about some probationary period to make sure the son’s change of heart is genuine?  And is Jesus’ parable really suggesting that this “unfairness of grace” is a picture of how God, the Father, accepts us?

That, my friends, is the absolute unadulterated beauty of the Christian message!  When we change our minds about Jesus Christ and embrace His message, all is forgiven.  There is no probationary period.  There is no “good works” requirement of being better than my neighbor, giving money to a church, or performing any acts of penance.  To our calculating and cynical minds this is too good to be true.  That is the uniqueness of the Christian message.  And this grace is being offered to you right now.

When you strip away the media caricature of Christianity, when you strip away the uninformed biases we have heard all of our lives about Christianity, at the heart of the Christian message is the story of a lovesick Father rejoicing in and accepting without reservation the person who embraces His message of good news.  And the good news is this:  Jesus Christ died for your sin problem and offers to set you free from its power.