XFiles: the Uninspired Canon

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)

We are deep in Apologeticsland, where strange creatures skitter through the dense underbrush and where normal rules of logic no longer apply…

Isaiah 61 predicts that Messiah will perform healing miracles and preach “good news….to release the oppressed” by the “Spirit of the Lord.” In other words the Messiah will do exactly what Jesus did—provide new revelation and back it up with miracles. Of course, since the Messiah is to provide new revelation, someone has to write it down. That’s why Jesus promised his apostles that the Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all of  his words and guide them into “all truth” (John 14:26, 16:13).

Because everybody knows “to preach the good news to the poor” and “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor” (as Isaiah originally said) is exactly the same thing as commissioning a bunch of other people to write a new collection of documents which must thereafter be accepted as official canon and used as the ultimate authority over everyone else’s life. Right?

Geisler and Turek are wrestling with a bit of a problem here, which is why their logic seems a bit contorted. Being Protestants, their theological understanding is rooted in the assumption that all revelation must be written. Can you imagine if Jesus came and preached to mortal man, and never wrote any of his preachings down? Well, ok, that’s true: he didn’t. But somebody has to. I mean, obviously. Right?

It’s “obvious” to Geisler and Turek because they’re Protestants, and one of the foundational “solas” of Protestantism is sola Scriptura. You can’t have a faith that’s based solely on written revelation unless the revelations are all written down. So “obviously” when Isaiah said “The spirit of the Lord has sent me to preach the good news,” Geisler and Turek have no choice but to assume Isaiah is predicting that someone must be writing it all down.

Nor is this just an incidental case of Bible scholars reading their own assumptions into a text. It’s the core of their whole argument for a New Testament canon.

The problem here is that even though Protestantism falls apart without a solid, official NT canon, neither Jesus nor any of his apostles ever gave us one. Nobody in the first century ever wrote down the table of contents page for the New Testament, because in New Testament times, there was no revelation of what the canon was.

That’s such an obvious flaw that G&T deal with it up front, before even looking at the traditional Christian arguments for the NT canon.

First, we need to clear up a common misunderstanding about what we call “the canon.” It is this: It’s wrong to say that “the church” or the early church fathers determined what would be in the New Testament. They didn’t determine what would be in the New Testament—they discovered what God intended to be in the New Testament.

This is a line of argument that will smell familiar to anyone who has ever had to muck out a barn full of well-fed male bovines. Jesus did not tell us which books belong in the NT. The apostles did not tell us which books belong in the NT. There is no inspired authority even in their own religion that they can appeal to as verification for the claim that the canon contains the complete, correct, and exclusive list of inspired books. So Geisler and Turek want us to just take their word for it that God did all the canonizing, and that the uninspired and fallible bishops merely “discovered” the canon after God was finished.

In other words, Geisler and Turek are dealing with a significant gap in their evidence by simply assuming that God somehow makes the gap irrelevant. This type of cavalier approach to the facts is what believers mean by the term “world view.” When reality doesn’t line up with your expectations, you just shrug and proceed as though it did. (But remember, they don’t have enough FAITH to be ATHEISTS!)

From here, G&T proceed to list the historical evidence supporting the supposed authenticity of the books currently in the NT canon. I’m not going to be too critical of this approach, since it’s not unreasonable: it’s very likely that the apostles did write a few documents in their time (especially an educated and itinerant apostle like Paul), and it’s very likely that the early church leaders did indeed have a pretty good idea whether or not those documents were authentic. So I don’t have any good reason to doubt that, say, Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was really written by Paul.

What I will point out is the interesting implications of the fact that the canon of the New Testament is an issue in the first place. Though Geisler and Turek make light of the problems, we can see that they’re working very hard to establish some kind of post hoc authority for the New Testament, to the point that they have to bend their own Scriptures in order to achieve the desired results.

For example, let’s look at some of their attempts to build a solid case for New Testament authority.

In other words, the only books that should be part of the New Testament are those that God has inspired. Since Jesus said that his apostles would produce those books, our only questions are historical: 1) Who were the apostles? and 2) What did they write?

Notice, the argument here is that New Testament books must be written by the apostles. That is, Geisler and Turek tell us that “Jesus said his apostles would produce those books.” But did he? They’re basing this claim on the verse that says that Jesus told his disciples that the Spirit of truth “will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” Not one word about writing any books, let alone collecting books into an official New Testament canon.

Geisler and Turek made a similar argument at the beginning of the section on “Discovering the Canon.” After writing the paragraph at the top of this post, they say:

What does all this mean for the New Testament? It means that, according to Jesus, the only books that should be in the New Testament are those that are authored and/or confirmed by his apostles.

Again, they take a verse that says Isaiah claimed to have been anointed to preach good news to the poor, and say, “This means that Jesus told us the New Testament should contain only those books that were written or confirmed by apostles.” The text they cite as the basis for their claim has almost nothing at all to do with the claim they’re making. What’s more, after straining the text past the breaking point to “prove” that the texts must be written by apostles, they can’t help but go even further in order to allow certain non-apostolic texts to be included also.

Understandable enough, I suppose. Here they are, trying to come up with a post hoc justification for the books they’ve received as Scripture, and the closest they can come to a passage that even remotely resembles the point they want to make is a passage about the disciples having an inspired memory aid, which they magically transform (via the Protestant “world view”) into a stipulation that all books must be written by apostles. Not all NT books were written by apostles, however, so who cares what the first argument was. “Written or confirmed by apostles” seems to be sufficiently broad to cover the books we want to justify, so we’re going to run with that.

Believe it or not, it gets better. How do we know that the apostles “confirmed” the other books, like Luke and Acts? Well, um, because we suppose that the apostles must have known about these other books. Surely they would have objected if they had not wanted them to be written. Right?

There are many ways, I suppose, that you can prove the non-existence of the Christian God, but surely one of the most incontrovertible disproofs is the fact that Geisler and Turek can call their book I Don’t Have Enough FAITH… without their keyboards bursting into spontaneous combustion before they can even send it to their editor.

The reason they have to make such huge leaps of—well, “logic” seems a bit incongruous here, let’s just say “such huge leaps”—is because believers in the New Testament times had no intention or even concept of adding a New Testament to their Bible. Why should they? They had the apostles, who were living, breathing authorities, filled with the Holy Spirit, inspired, infallible, and so on. Jesus himself had promised that the Kingdom would come during their lifetime.

And they believed it. Paul, for instance, automatically included himself in the list of people who would still be alive at the Second Coming, in I Thess. 4. Granted, at a certain point it became clear that he was going to be martyred, there’s still no sign he expected his death to be a lengthy absence. Only John, last of the apostles, writing near the end of his life, seems to have realized that Jesus might not be coming back as soon as they had originally hoped.

Meanwhile, for the bulk of the New Testament period, believers had a real, live authority that was better than some historic, fixed, and ambiguous list of books written (or confirmed by) apostles. If you’ve got enough living apostolic authority to last until the end of the world, why would you need to worry about defining what it would take for a book to replace the apostles?

That’s why Geisler and Turek are having to stretch things way past any reasonable proportion in order to obtain a pseudo-justification for a supposedly “inspired” NT canon that was supposedly “discovered” by fallible and uninspired bishops in the third and fourth centuries. Jesus missed his cue. He wasn’t supposed to be gone long enough for us to develop a need for some book to replace the apostles. They thought he was coming back. No, they knew he was coming back. Soon. Within a generation at most.

And they were wrong.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 1 Comment »

One Response to “XFiles: the Uninspired Canon”

  1. Jer Says:

    Jeez how can you read that without your brains leaking out your ears?

    As a former Catholic I gotta say – I get a big kick out of the whole idea of “sola scriptura”. I mean, yeah, for years I believed in “apostolic authority” so it’s not like Catholics have room to talk, but still. The idea that somehow a book can have “divine authority” has always struck me as a bit idolatrous (and in retrospect, the idea that a collection of men could claim divine authority by virtue of inheritance should have struck me as presumptuous – we all have our blinders I suppose). And that was before I started reading about how the canon was formed in the first place.