“The Church no more gave us the New Testament canon than Sir Isaac Newton gave us the force of gravity. God gave us gravity, by His work of creation, and similarly He gave us the New Testament canon, by inspiring the individual books that make it up.”
J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken: Revelation and the Bible, 3rd ed.
“We should not imagine a committee of church fathers with a large pile of books and these five guiding principles before them when we speak of the process of canonization. No ecumenical committee was commissioned to canonize the Bible.”
Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, From God To Us Revised and Expanded: How We Got Our Bible
One of the great misconceptions about Christianity involves the canonization of the Bible (that is, deciding which books comprise the whole, inspired, holy Scripture). For whatever reasons, people tend to imagine some sort of ecumenical process—dragging out over several centuries—where well respected officials in the early and medieval church came together and decided which books were in and which books were out. But as we can see from the quotes above from three of the most conservative Bible scholars, church councils did not produce the Bible.
Conservative Christian scholarship disallows any notion that ecumenical councils somehow selected the Bible from a list of candidate documents. But there were ecumenical councils, lots of them, so what role did the councils play in the canonization of the Bible?
First, recognize that church councils were necessary for the governance and order of the church. The precedent was set at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, attended by the apostles themselves. There were heresies and challenges to Christian doctrine. There were matters of church discipline and orderly worship that had to be addressed. There was confusion about Gnostic teaching and guidelines for living. Later there would be questions about which books and letters belonged in the canon of Scripture—and which did not.
Shortly after the legalization and state patronage of Christianity within the Roman Empire, the church began to hold ecumenical councils. The first was called by Constantine the Great on May 20, 325 at the Royal Palace in Nicaea. The focus of the Nicene Council was the divinity of Jesus and the clarification of the Trinity. It produced the Nicene Creed, which was later amended to be close to the Apostles Creed. (Sidebar—Did Jesus descend into hell? Here’s a brief discussion about this controversy.) Contrary to modern misconceptions—perpetuated by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code—Constantine did not determine the New Testament canon and the First Council of Nicaea did not even address the topic of the canon of Scripture.
Over the following centuries, there would be many more ecumenical councils and synods, continuing through to the present day. Which meetings are recognized as ‘ecumenical‘ depends largely upon denominational perspective. 19th century church historian and theologian Philip Schaff documented the canons of Seven Ecumenical Councils between 325 and 787 CE (which he defined as “councils which have always, and still do, receive the unqualified acceptance of both East and West”):
- The First Council of Nicaea,
- The First Council of Constantinople,
- The Council of Ephesus,
- The Council of Chalcedon,
- The Second Council of Constantinople,
- The Third Council of Constantinople, and
- The Second Council of Nicaea.
However, history is replete with other councils that are not accepted as ecumenical by the Eastern and Western churches (‘Eastern’ meaning Eastern Orthodox, and ‘Western’ meaning Roman Catholic and other denominations that developed in Europe). For example, the Synod of Hippo (393 CE) and 3rd Council of Carthage (397 CE) produced authoritative lists of the sacred scriptures. Later, the Council in Trullo (also called the “Quinisext Council,” 692 CE) ratified the canons of these councils—but did not specifically state the list of books considered to be divinely inspired. So why didn’t everyone accept the canons of Hippo and Carthage as ecumenical? As you might imagine, church politics had a lot to do with it—and still does. Hippo and Carthage did not have wide representation from the church as a whole and were heavily influenced by Augustine of Hippo, as later critics would argue.
Page 885 of Schaff’s text contains the list of canonical scriptures from the Council of Carthage. This list includes the Apocrypha in the Old Testament but clearly identifies the 27 books of the New Testament. (We’ll explore the Apocrypha in a future post.)
The canons of the ecumenical councils make for dry reading in parts, not unlike reading the formal minutes from a business meeting where much discussion is reduced to a few statements. Nevertheless, check out the canons of these councils as recorded in Schaff’s monumental work. In addition to the seven ecumenical councils, he also documented the records from other councils, including Hippo, Carthage, and Trullo. Much of what these clergymen dealt with is now irrelevant. Troublesome heretics have long ago died, many of the controversial theological and doctrinal problems have faded in time, and frankly no one cares about how to handle “him who persuades a slave to leave his master under pretence of religion.” When you read the canons, it becomes clear how challenged the Christian church was over matters large and small—and how pious many of these councils must have been.
Over the centuries since the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the church found more issues to debate, and more reasons to divide. Rather than serving to unite believers, later ecumenical councils proved to be dividing mechanisms by laying out denominational distinctions.
As shown in the timeline on the right, the Christian church remained essentially united through the early councils. Then, one word (Filioque) caused the Great Schism of 1054 and the ‘orthodox’ church began splitting into more and more denominations.
So…in all the deliberations of the historic synods and councils of the early and medieval Christian church, Christians cannot find agreement on the canon of Scripture. The scholars quoted at the beginning of this post seem to be justified in the strength of their statements. Church councils did not produce or canonize the Bible.
Think about it. Is it reasonable to believe that God would inspire holy Scripture and that it would then need to be ratified by church councils before being recognized as such?
If we rule out the deliberations of church councils as the deciding authority, how then can we know what books comprise the canon of holy Scripture? We’ll take that up in our next post on this topic…
Can We Trust the New Testament Canon?
…but in the meantime, here’s a brief interview with Dr. Michael Kruger that addresses that very important question.
HT: Philip Schaff, Norman Geisler, William Nix, Michael Kruger, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)