What is Christian Literacy?

refers to the ability to use a language - to know what words means, to be able to use grammar, sentence structure, to be able to converse in that language is to be literate.

Religious literacy
means having the ability to understand and speak about our faith intelligently. It’s the ability to communicate the basic tenets of our religion.

I'm very grateful to B.U. Professor Stephen Prothero for his excellent book, "Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know and Doesn't." This book, along with my desire to teach the faith, served as the inspiration for this effort.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Canon Controversy

We love controversy. Controversy tantalizes, engages and sells. It’s no different with a subject so potentially dry as the Canon of the Bible. Dan Brown based a large part of his mega-selling novel The Da Vinci Code on a supposed controversy with the church politics that he claims surrounded the process of selecting the books that made it into the New Testament. While Brown’s book had an air of intellectualism and scholarship, it was actually quite uninformed at best, and deceptive at worst. I’ll just take it for what it is, a work of fiction.

The word “canon” originally meant “measuring rule,” hence the meaning, “standard.” It refers to the officially recognized books of the Old and New Testament, the books received as divinely inspired and therefore authoritative for faith and life.

A Second Century Canon

While it’s true that the final list of the canonized books of the New Testament occurred in the 4th Century, it’s also true that the earliest Christian writers recognized the authority of all the 27 eventually canonized books. One important document is the Muratorian Canon of the 2nd Century, perhaps as early as 120 o 130 AD. It contains 22 of the eventual 27 New Testament books. Certain books like Hebrews and Revelation were debated for some time. (If you’ve read Revelation, you understand why!)

Further Evidence of Early Recognition
I wrote in an earlier entry about the fragment of John’s Gospel (see “Apologetics”) found in Egypt that dates to 125 AD. This finding (for one of the Gospels to have made it all the way to Egypt) tells us that John’s Gospel was considered authentic and authoritative very early in the life of the church. Further evidence is found in I Timothy 5:18, where the Apostle Paul (who died in 66-67 AD) quotes Matthew’s Gospel and calls it “scripture.” Again, this is very early evidence of another Gospel being deemed authoritative within the First Century itself! Another striking verse is 2 Peter 3:15-16, where Peter refers to Paul’s letters and calls them “scripture.” So, it was very early in the history of the church that Christians recognized authoritative, reliable and inspired scripture.

What about other “Gospels”?
You’ve probably heard of the Gnostic Gospels. We know from the writing of the early “Church Fathers” the names of some 40 different “gospels.” About a dozen of these have survived (Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth and Content, p. 100). Folks like Dan Brown love to suggest that these books were left out of the New Testament for fear of their content and as a power play within the early church. The Gnostic “Gospels” and others were excluded for several reasons, according to the foremost New Testament scholar of our time, Princeton Seminary Professor Dr. Bruce Metzger (next time you open an NRSV Bible take note at who wrote the introduction. If you’re writing the introduction to the Bible, you’re having a good career). Metzger states that the earliest Christians utilized the Gospels that had some connection to one of the apostles as well as the books that were widely accepted throughout Christendom at the time. The Gnostics Gospels were not widely known, read or accepted within the early church. They date from the 2nd to 4th Centuries, thus written long after the authoritative Gospels. They also present a very different “gospel,” where salvation is based on some “secret knowledge,” instead of salvation through faith in Christ as the New Testament contends. As Metzer says, “no one excluded them from the Bible; they excluded themselves” (p. 101).

Question: Does trustworthiness in the canon of the Bible really matter?

Here’s a thought: The foundations of our faith were not based on church politics but rather on reliable accounts of Jesus’ teachings and other books and letters deemed authoritative and inspired by the earliest Christians.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for those who wrote and preserved our scriptures, which reveal to us so beautifully your ways and your love. Amen.

Extra Credit:

What do the Catholics have more books in their Bible?

Here’s the short answer: Protestants utilize the canonized books from the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church accepts the canonized books from the Latin Vulgate version of the Old Testament. This version contained 15 more books, known as the Apocrypha, written in the 3rd - 1st centuries, BC. These books were never canonized by the Jews.

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