WHY WERE BOOKS CANONIZED AND OTHERS NOT?(Were All Paul’s Letters Canonized?)

QUESTION: Do we know why specific books are canonized and others are not. Besides the council of Nicaea and literary analysis. What makes it God breathed? Also, were all of Paul’s letters canonized?

DEFINING “GOD-BREATHED”

ANSWER: Thanks for the questions.  The best definition of “God Breathed” is probably from Peter commenting on the inspired writings of the Old Testament. He said:

Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.

2 Peter 1:20-21

What makes a text God-breathed was the process of the Holy Spirit “carrying the writer along”. This acknowledges that a writer is not “possessed” so that they become dictation machines for God (as in Islam or Mormonism). God moves in them by his Spirit, to write what he intends. But He uses them without dispossessing them of their will or temperament or style. We can see each inspired writing in the Bible as a fully human work, with the marks of the writer’s time and place and personality. But God moves through them in a special way so that their words become the Word of God.

Already in the early church they were recognizing this stamp of “God-breathed” on literature the apostles were producing. As Peter calls Paul’s letters, “other scripture” (2 Peter 3:16).

Now, how would we recognize such a stamp? How would we weed out uninspired texts that purport to be the Word of God?

CHURCH RULINGS

You wonder what reasons we have to consider a writing inspired or authoritative BESIDES the decision of church leaders at the council of Nicaea (325). In answer, first let me offer this correction: you are mistaken that the council of Nicaea made a ruling on the books of the Bible. Nicaea was convened mostly to deal with the Arian controversy. The earliest formal ruling the Church made on the books of the Bible was the council of Rome (380). However, even much earlier than that, Church Fathers were grappling with the question you are asking, about which books were inspired and authoritative. We have several lists from as early as 150, such as the Muratorian, Origen and Eusebius canons. Despite your factual error, I still take your question to be an important one: do we have reasons – apart from the official or unofficial rulings of the Church – to consider some writings inspired and others not? Surely no group of people years removed from the writing of the supposedly inspired words, could make those words inspired.  No council or church Father conferred “God’s Word” status on the New Testament writings. Correct.

THE CANON: AN INSPIRED LIST?

So then, if a church council doesn’t make a writing inspired, what did make a writing “canon” (literally “ruler” or “measure”)? How did a book “measure up” to the standard of “inspired”? If you look over the councils and the thinking of the early church fathers, you realize that they had no interest in writing (or doctoring, as writer Dan Brown claims) Scripture. They had an interest in determining which writings deserved to be called “Scripture” – holy writ, God’s Word. In fact, at Nicaea they were considering the nature of Jesus and the assumption was that their final decision rested on whose argument best matched Scripture. So you couldn’t have a council of Nicaea to work out the true nature of Jesus without first having some base agreement on which writings provided the reliable data from which to make your case! All of which points to the fact that long before Nicaea the Church had at least generally settled on a list of inspired books from which the Church derived all its authority and teachings.

Now, some will consider their list of books to be inspired.  This is mostly a Catholic understanding, as they believe the full apostolic authority of Peter has been conferred onto the Church and its envoys and future papal decisions.

This is a touchy area of contention where most Catholics feel Protestants cannot maintain their “sola Scriptura” stance.  The reason is that the very bible that Protestants cling to as their sole authority for life and faith was delivered to the church by the Church.  Hence, on this view, if you take the Bible as an authority there is an implicit acceptance of Catholic teaching about the equal authority of the Church – for it was the Church’s decree that gave final form to the Bible, which all Protestants accept.

CANON: A LIST OF INSPIRED BOOKS

The nuanced Protestant position acknowledges the important work of early Church Fathers and Councils in the final form our Bible takes.  However, Protestants would not consider the list of books decided on as inspired, but rather the bishops simply helped the Church establish the very criteria you are asking about. That is, “what makes a book God-breathed?”  Thus, the result was not an inspired list of books, but a list of inspired books. 

The difference is very important.

Thus, the Church did not make the Bible the Word of God, but it did give us language for how to think about what makes a work belong in the Bible.   In the same way, that same church did not make God a Trinity, but they gave us language to frame God’s tri-personal nature.  We owe them a great debt on both counts.

So, their criteria for which books should be considered as canon (IE. met the measure of “inspired”) answers your question why some books are canonized and others are not.

Their criteria in a nutshell was threefold:

  • apostolic origin
  • recognition by the churches
  • consistent content.

APOSTOLIC ORIGIN

  • First, the early church wanted to know if a writing could be traced directly back to a disciple of Jesus or a close associate of a disciple.  Many wonderful works would be written by early church fathers, but the key thing that authenticated a writing as having unique authority for the church, was it association with the Apostles.  Jesus had pre-authorized his apostles to frame the faith for the Church (John 14:25-26).  The early church was uniquely devoted to their teaching (Acts 2:42).  So, in some sense, to have touched the Apostles was the most important measure of “Inspired.”  And this one criterion is critical, for it shows that the early Church had no interest in making something new, but rather wanted to preserve something old.  They were “originalists.”  And by this one criterion they put historicity and truth above tradition. In a verbal tussle with Marcion who wanted to add late Gnostic gospels to the Bible, Tertullian would write:
  • “Now what is to settle the point for us, except it be that principle of time, which rules that the authority lies with that which shall be found to be more ancient; and assumes as an elemental truth, that corruption (of doctrine) belongs to the side which shall be convicted of comparative lateness in its origin.”

ACCEPTANCE BY THE CHURCH

  • Secondly, church Fathers wanted to know how the Church had treated and accepted the writing.  Was there broad acceptance of the work over all the main centers of Christian thinking, and over the whole span of the Church from its Founding to the present?  In some sense, this worked as a feedback loop with criterion #1.  If it was traditionally traced back to an Apostle, it gained a wide reading.  If it gained a wide reading, it was a reason to presume it was apostolic.

CONSISTENT CONTENT

  • Third, the Church wanted to know if the writing was consistent with the received tradition of the Church and deemed to be apostolic.  Many works would pop up within 150 years of Jesus which carried an apostolic name:  The Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas.  But was the content Apostolic?  Inside some texts, the content was very inconsistent with the oldest traditions.  It turns out these Gnostic works were all mid to late 2nd century forgeries.  The Church wanted to know if the purported writings were “backwards compatible.”  Did they match or contradict established Church traditions or even Old Testament ideas?  On both those counts, the Gnostic gospels were rejected.

So, their first criteria is the most important.  It was God-breathed because it carried the stamp of Jesus. And Jesus had himself breathed Spirit-authority onto his immediate disciples (John 20:22).  Books they and their associates wrote were therefore, “inspired” and did not become canon because they were recognized.  Rather, they were recognized as canon because they were inspired by God.

COULD LOST BOOKS BE INSPIRED?

Now, if the list is not inspired, but Apostolic authority is, it opens up the possibility that other books could exist that “measure up”. That is, if we could prove conclusively that they were, written by Apostles.  But at this late date, there is no way we could meet the Early Church’s 2nd criteria of “Broad Church Acceptance”.  Still, it’s an intriguing question because we are quite aware of other Apostolic writings not in the Bible.

Paul refers to two letters we don’t have and so they were never canonized:  A letter prior to 1 Corinthians (5:9), and a “sorrowful” letter prior to 2nd Corinthians (7:8). At least 4 letters seem to have been written to them (and maybe others afterwards).  What if we found Paul’s 1st letter to Corinth?  Would we insert it into the Bible? 

We would first have to establish beyond any question that Paul wrote the letter.  This would be almost impossible to do.  Especially because we can say conclusively that such a letter would have no confirming support from any other writing of antiquity.  Why not?  Because we’ve combed through so much of the material that came down to us from that age.  And every single letter of Paul’s in the Bible is referred to outside of the Bible.  A lot!  So much so that were every manuscript of Pauline letters to be lost, every letter could be reconstructed 7x over from the references to those letters in other, early writings.  If Paul had other letters which had circulated at all, there surely would have been some surviving reference to them.

PAUL’S LOST LETTERS

This means one of three things. 

  • The early church did not recognize other Pauline letters as “inspired” – they had some other subjective criterion for such a judgement.  In other words, a letter was not automatically inspired to them if it was Apostolic.  This would mean, all inspired texts were Apostolic, but not all Apostolic texts were inspired.
  • Those letters were simple lost.  It was a world before the internet, remember, and all writing materials were biodegradable.
  • As some now believe, we have all of Paul’s letters including all 4 to Corinth, but 1 Corinthians (A) and 2 Corinthians (A) are both preserved inside of 2nd Corinthians.  2 Corinthians is choppy thematically.  Chapter 6 is thematically exactly like the letter referred to 1 Cor (5:9: “not to associate with immoral people”).  Chapters 10-12 clearly sound like the strident, rebuke-filled “sorrowful letter” referred to in 7:8. And they are totally out of place with the happy tone of reconciliation of chapters 1-5 and 7-9.  It is known that Ephesus became an early place of collecting, copying and distributing Paul’s letters. It could be such a letter mashup was done there, with their reasons for such collation now lost to history.