Lecture 18: Corporate Reception

Course: Why We Trust Our Bible

Lecture: Corporate Reception


I. What is the Canonical Core and Corporate Reception?

By way of review, there are three attributes of canonicity: divine qualities, marks that are from God and they are from apostles and thirdly, they are received by the church in what I call cooperate reception. What I argue for in the last few chapters of my book is actually that reception by the church happened a lot sooner and was more widespread than typical critics of the New Testament will allow for. One of the ways that I make that case, I argue to what I call a core New Testament. So when people ask, was there a canon or wasn’t there in the early church? Well, what do they mean? Was every single dispute resolved in the early stages of the church? No. But what I do argue for, there was a core canon in place almost as early as we can see. What I mean by core, there were the twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament that seemed to be firmly in place by the middle of the second century. From that time, looking back, things get really fuzzy in terms of historical sources. There were the apostolic fathers who only refer to some canonical books. So to have that core by the middle of the 2nd century and it was remarkable to have that much unanimity around that many books. And there are a lot of sources that we can appeal to that tell us that there was this core. One of those is the earliest list, the Muratorium list, which is also known as the moratorium canon, a list of the twenty-two books aforementioned. These include the letters of Paul, the thirteen epistles of Paul, Acts, the four Gospels and most likely 1st Peter, 1st John, Revelation; something along those lines is what we mean by the core. The remaining books or what you might call the disputed books were the smaller books: 2nd Peter, 2nd & 3rd John, Jude and James. These are the books that we are typically talking about, books that had a little bit more of a struggle in the canon. Now, once you realize that there was a core from the very start; this is a very important piece of the puzzle. This tells you that there was widespread unanimity from a very early time about that core. There wasn’t a lot of debate or question about this in the canon; much of it was settled. The other thing that it tells us is that the theological trajectory of Christianity was established at a very early point. Just think about it, if you have thirteen letters from Paul and four Gospels, the doctrine was fairly set regardless of what one might decide about 2nd Peter, regardless of 2nd and 3rd John; this wouldn’t change things much. So the content of the core canon is really important.

II. Why does the Muratorium canon list include, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon as canonical books?

There are lots of things interesting about the Muratorium fragment. The list does mention additional two books: the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. People have speculated on what that means and why. This tells us again that the edges were fuzzy; that yes, you have a core but there were some ongoing disputes about a few books. The Apocalypse of Peter was popular in many circles and apparently there were some that thought it should have been in the canon. It was accessible to some but not all. The Wisdom of Solomon was more of an intertestamental book. Some scholars point out the fact that those two books are mentioned at the end of the list, which in itself is suggestive that they are in the disputed category. It listed all the agreed on books first and then listed two that are questionable. I think this is the case with these two books. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging this but the core was still there.

III. The Presence of Heresy Questions Whether There was a Core Canon

What scholars do with this third attribute of canonicity, the fact that the church reached a consensus on these books doesn’t mean anything because they were always fighting about stuff in the early centuries. Okay, fine, the church finally settled on these twenty-seven books, but evangelicals overlook the wide-spread disagreement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries where people were even using some apocryphal books and there wasn’t a lot of agreement on anything. It wasn’t actually as diverse as people say. Another point, the mere use of apocryphal literature by the early church isn’t evidence that there wasn’t a canon. There is almost an assumption in modern scholarship that if any early church father used an apocryphal book, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a canon. You can believe in a core canon and still find apocryphal literature beneficial and useful, but they are not Scripture. The key example of this was Clement of Alexander. A late 2nd-century church father was very clear when it came to which books that was in the canon. He was clear that there were only the four Gospels but yet he would also cite apocryphal gospels from time to time. He never cited them in Scripture but he would cite them as useful and beneficial and even helpful sometimes. What we would say is that activity does not mean that there wasn’t a canon.

IV. What about a book being Orthodox, but not being Canonical?

People don’t realize that the early church found many books useful and many orthodox books that were beyond the books they found to be in the canon. Another way to say this, all canonical books are orthodox but not all orthodox books are canonical. In early Christian reading practices for beneficial
orthodox but not canonical books. A good example of this is the Shepherd of Hermas. This was a very popular book in the 2nd century and was widely spread and copied. Most Christians with a few minor exceptions did not regard it as Scripture but yet it was deemed to be orthodox and helpful. That category is there and so you can be orthodox without being canonical. The same thing is true in our libraries, we have a lot of books that we read and even cite from a lot of books that are fully orthodox but aren’t Scripture. We find them to be helpful and useful and beneficial, but no one would think that we consider them part of our Bible and that is an important distinction for us to understand also.

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