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?
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?
COUNCIL OF NICAEA
I hear you wanting to set aside the decisions of the council of Nicaea as a good reason for a book to be considered “God Breathed.” And I think I understand you’re thinking: a group of people 300 years removed from the writing of the supposedly inspired words, cannot possibly make those words inspired. The council did not confer “God’s Word” status on the New Testament writings. You are right.
We can take this logic one step further. We can also say that their final list, what became “the Canon” (literally the “ruler” or “measure”), does not carry an “inspired” label either. That gets at your second question about possible additional texts that might meet the qualifier of “God Breathed”.
THE CANON: AN INSPIRED LIST?
But let’s back up: some take the Council’s final decision as they weeded through the books under consideration, as inspired. So, while they did not write (or doctor) inspired writings (as writer Dan Brown claims), some will consider their list to be inspired. This is mostly a Catholic understanding, as the full apostolic authority of Peter (and the others) has been conferred on the Church and its envoys and future papal decisions.
This is a touchy are of contention where most Catholics feel Protestants cannot maintain their “sola Scriptura” mantra. 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 the Council of Nicaea 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 important.
This is a long way of getting at your question: the Church (in a final way at Nicaea) did not make the Bible the Word of God, but they gave us language for how to think about what makes the Bible the Word of God. 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 could 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.
- 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 Cimportant measure of “Inspired.” And this one criterion is critical, for it shows that the Bishops at Nicaea 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.
ACCEPTANCE BY THE CHURCH
- Secondly, the Bishops 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 it’s 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.
- 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 a 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 early 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 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.
- Either 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.
- Or, those letters were simple lost. It was a world before the internet, remember, and all writing materials were biodegradable.
- Or, 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.