Thursday, October 6, 2022

The Doctrine of Scripture Series: The Old Testament Canon - How Did God’s People Recognize The Old Testament Canon?


    In our last post we start to look at the Old Testament canon, which readers may review here

    In the last post we explored what we meant by "canon", how it came to be arranged, the authority of the canon, and a final section that traced the historical development of it. In today's post, we want to continue on with our survey by assessing how exactly God's people knew which books were inspired.

Illustrating canonicity and the recognition of which books were inspired by God.

    We must realize that it was the inspired books as God’s canon that formed God’s people, rather than God’s people formulating the canon. As each Old Testament book was composed, its recognition as inspired (and thus canonical) was immediate or nearly immediate. Just as Isaac Newton came to recognize the law of gravity already present in creation, God’s people would recognize certain books already revealed by their Creator. Just as Johannes Kepler, that great 16th century astronomer, discerned and calculated out his famous three laws of planetary motion that describe the movement of the planets around our sun, so did God's people discern the right books about which orbits the foundations of faith.

Dispelling some myths about canonization. 

    Several years ago a popular book called "The Davinci Code" spun a fictional tale with a fictional account of how the Canon came to be. In the preface of that book, Dan Brown took the premises of his fictional story to be actual history, which made the book a matter of controversy in Biblical scholarship. As Dan Brown and other skeptics would have us to believe, there were literally hundreds of books written and known of by the Jews and Christians. Per Brown's tale, when it came time to choose which books were their authoritative literature, the church chose the ones that best fit their orthodox agenda, and kicked out the remainder. As the story then goes, church councils, like Nicaea in 325 A.D, convened to officially decide "which books were in and which books were out". It is always important to ask this question of any claim, "Is that true?"

    Contrary to skeptics and authors like Dan Brown, the process of canonicity was not picking and choosing from hundreds of candidates to befit a certain theological agenda. Instead, the history of the Old Testament Canon and New Testament canon involved recognizing those books that bore the marks of Divine revelation for use in teaching, preaching, and the spiritual formation of the church. Canonization was not about "choosing which books were in  or out" but rather "which books were already in because they were inspired". Other books, such as the Apocrypha and especially the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha were never seriously considered. They simply never made it into consideration for the canon because they were not inspired.

    To illustrate the point I just made, I can recall the day one of my children were born. My father-in-law was with me when we walked up to look at all the babies in the maternity ward of the hospital. Now he had not yet seen my newborn son. When he walked up there with me, he did not say to himself "lets pick a baby, out of all these other babies, and call him 'my grandson'". Rather, as soon as we walked up to the maternity ward and saw all of those babies in their cribs, my father-in-law picked out my son immediately. The other babies never made it into his consideration, since they did not bear the marks of recognition like my son. My father-in-law could see that the little boy had his mother's eyes and facial features common to their side of the family. So it was with the selection of the books of the Canon - Old or New Testament. Divinely inspired books have certain "family resemblances" in the realm of Divinely inspired literature. The people of God could recognize which books were inspired by certain features they possessed (which I'll get into in a little bit).   

    A quick reading on the history of the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. reveals it dealt with matters of Christology (the doctrine of the Christ), and in particular the Arian controversy (Arius denied the true deity of Christ, and Athanasius led and influence the condemnation of Arianism as a heresy). In my readings on the proceedings of the Nicaean Council (one can read in detail about the council in the Church History of Phillip Schaff), I never witnessed mention of the issue of canonization. At least for the Old Testament, the canon was well established. Certainly by the mid to late second century A.D (50-75 years after the death of the Apostle John), church fathers such as Melito of Sardis (roughly 170 A.D) were recorded as having listed the books of the Old Testament which are contained in our Protestant Bibles (compare Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, Book 4, Chater 26, Section 13). 

    Then of course we have the famous "Muritorian Canon Fragment", dated to 170 A.D., which lists nearly all of our New Testament books (some we do not have in that list because of its fragmentary nature). Quotations from early Christian documents such as 1 Clement (90 A.D. and contemporary with the Apostle John) and the letters of Papias (110 A.D. and disciple of the Apostle John) quote all of our Old Testament books and many of the New Testament books as inspired Scripture. The books of the canon were certainly in use, treated as Scripture. The canon itself was already in circulation among the churches, with such lists as Melito's and the Muritorian fragment all but confirming what had become a long standing practice. To realize how careful and quickly the process of canonization occured shatters the myths spun by skeptics.

How did God’s people recognize the Old Testament canon?

    Whenever one reads resources like the ones I mentioned above, historical can draw inferences from such writings to arrive at how the early church came to identify the books of the canon. I glean five principles for how God’s people recognized the inspired books of the Old Testament Canon from insights gained from such scholars Normal Geisler’s “A General Introduction to the Bible” and Gleason Archer’s “A Survey of the Old Testament”. I have also included below certain Biblical texts which testify to instances where the books of the canon were instantly recognized an received. 

*Prophetic Test. Was the book written by a prophet or Apostle of God, or an associate? See Exodus 24:4; Luke 1:1-4.

*Miraculous Test. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? See Exod. 4:1-9; Num. 16-17;
  1 Kings 18; Mark 2; Acts 2:22; Heb. 2:4.

*Truth Test. Did the message tell the truth about God? See Deut. 13:1-3; 18:21-22.

*Salvation Test. Can the book bring someone to saving faith? See Is. 55:11; 2 Tim.
  3:15-17; Hebrews 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23

*Recognition Test. Was it recognized by the people of God? The Old Testament’s books
recognition is demonstrated by how quickly they went into use after their writing. See
Joshua 24:26.

    The Canon’s use would be used of God to call the people of God back to Himself. We read the following in 2 Kings 22:9-11

“Shaphan the scribe came to the king and brought back word to the king and said, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the Lord.” 10 Moreover, Shaphan the scribe told the king saying, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it in the presence of the king. 11 When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes.“

    This particular Biblical citation recorded events in the mid-seventh century b.c. Contrary to higher critical theories, which suggest that the books of the canon were being edited and re-edited to fit the agenda and reforms of the King of Jerusalem in that time (King Josiah), the text plainly tells us that "the book" found was already completed. We see no evidence of "redaction" or editing being done. Space does not permit me to go into the details of how we can know from archaeology and the study of the Hebrew text that Moses truly wrote the Pentateuch (Genesis - Deuteronomy) in the 15th century b.c. What we do know is this, that history tells us that we can rest assured that the books we have in our Old Testament are the right books, because they bore the marks of Divine inspiration. 
Closing thoughts for today.

    So, we’ve looked at how we got our Old Testaments by noting the process of canonization that stemmed from the Divine marks of authority in each of these books. But what overall message to they present? Why does it matter? That will be the focus of our next post.