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Monday, April 20, 2020

No Canon, No Creed


Christianity requires neither canon nor creed.

Do I have your attention now? If this is a topic of no interest to you, then probably not. You might as well stop reading now. For everyone else, I have some explaining to do.

First, notice that I did not say 'true Christianity,' and that's because so saying assumes that such a thing exists. I don't want to give any ground to those who make the appeal to purity, a fallacy also known as 'no true Scotsman.' Let's say a Scotsman committed a series of violent murders before being caught, and other Scots said that 'no true Scotsman' would behave that way. It's how Christians get out being associated with the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Salem witchcraft trials, support for Donald Trump, and so forth. The fact of the matter is that yes, Christians did participate in all those things.

Second, the earliest church, in the first few centuries of its existence, did not have an established canon of Scriptures. Gospels and Letters of often dubious provenance circulated among the churches, being copied out and passed along. Different sects of the faith used different books. The Marcionites, for example, only used something like 11 of the epistles attributed to Paul, maybe part of the book of Matthew or something similar, and absolutely none of the Hebrew Scriptures. It was their belief that the god of the 'old covenant' was not the same as the god of the 'new covenant.' At the other extreme were the Ebionites, who saw Jesus as thoroughly Jewish, kept most of the laws that other Jews of the day kept, and embraced the Jewish scriptures as well as perhaps some of the Gospel of Luke or something similar. In between their was great variety as various parties made claims to being the true expression of the Christian faith.

If you'd like to get an idea of the diversity and oddity of the documents used by the early church, I recommend you take a look at the Apocryphal New Testament and the Nag Hammadi scriptures, both available on Amazon.

The canon of Scripture now in use by Christians was, for the most part, established in response to this situation. While I'm willing to believe that what we now have represents what was generally accepted among the majority of Christian churches, it wasn't all there way, it wasn't without even internal dispute, and it wasn't available as a collection for a few centuries.

Third, in light of the above, consider what happened when Paul started organizing churches. He preached to them, got them up and running, and moved on. He left behind instructions on how to operate, and perhaps some of it was even written down. He sent letters to these churches, and they to him. There were almost certainly far more authentic letters than we have now, by orders of magnitude. It's also possible that some of the local churches had a copy of all or part of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it's also likely that many had only small portions of it or none at all. Christians met for worship, heard preaching, and lived out their daily lives with minimal access to the Scriptures in any form.

Fourth, it's unlikely that either Paul or the people he'd converted thought of his letters as 'scripture.' Yes I know that 2 Peter 3:15-16 suggests just such a thing.
Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
The difficulty with citing these verses as a defense of the New Testament epistles as having been intended to be scripture, at least those written authentically by Paul, is that Peter probably didn't write them. Speaking of which, consider the following chart, taken from the New World Encyclopedia entry on 'Higher Criticism':
BookAuthor according to
tradition
Author according to
scholarship
Gospel of MarkMark, follower of Peter; mid-first centuryanonymous, perhaps Mark, follower of Peter; mid- to late first century; the first written gospel
Gospel of MatthewThe Apostle MatthewAn unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late first century
Gospel of LukeLuke, companion of PaulLuke or an unknown author who borrowed from both Mark and a source called Q, late first century
Gospel of JohnApostle JohnAn unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus; John 21 finished after death of primary author by follower(s); the last written gospel
Acts of the ApostlesLuke, companion of PaulLuke or an unknown author who also wrote the Gospel of Luke
Romans1 & 2 CorinthiansGalatians, Philippians, 1 ThessaloniansEpistle to PhilemonPaul the Apostlesee Pauline epistlesPaul
EphesiansPaul the ApostlePaul or edited dictations from Paul
ColossiansPaul the ApostleDisputed; perhaps Paul coauthoring with Timothy
2 ThessaloniansPaul the Apostlepseudepigraphal, perhaps an associate or disciple after his death, representing what they believed was his message[21]
1 & 2 TimothyTitussee Pastoral epistlesPaul the Apostlepseudepigraphal, perhaps someone associated with Paul, writing at a later date
see Authorship of the Pauline epistles
Epistle to the HebrewsPaul the Apostle (disputed)An unknown author, but almost certainly not Paul[22]c 95
JamesJames the Justpseudepigraphal; a writer in the late first or early second centuries, after the death of James the Just
1 PeterApostle Peter, before 64 (Peter's martyrdom)pseudepigraphal or perhaps Silas, proficient with Greek writing, 70-90
2 PeterApostle Peter, before 64pseudepigraphal, likely not Peter[23], perhaps as late as c 150 C.E., the last-written book of the Bible
1 JohnApostle JohnAn unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus Same as Gospel of John, late first century
2 John3 JohnApostle John (sometimes disputed)An unknown author with no direct connection to the historical Jesus, final Editor of John 21, c 100-110
JudeJude the Apostle or Jude, brother of JesusA pseudonymous work written between the end of the first century and the first quarter of the second century
Book of RevelationApostle John(sometimes disputed)distinct author, perhaps John of Patmos (not the same author as the Gospel of John or 2 & 3 John)
see Authorship of the Johannine works
Fifth, while early variations of Christianity had the luxury of picking and choosing their accepted works of Scripture, when the newer writings came to be though of as such, is not similarly enjoyed by modern Christians. Any time a new sect or movement arises now, to gain any legitimacy in the sight of other believers outside their fold they have to make their case from the 27 books of the canonical New Testament. While the Ebionites got along just fine with the Hebrew Scriptures and maybe a Gospel, Yahweh's Assembly in Yahshua (based out of Rocheport, Missouri) says this on their website:
We are a body of believers who accept both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. We hold that a belief in the Savior is necessary for salvation.
That's a difficult assertion to maintain, requiring more mental gymnastics than evangelicals or, especially, mainline Protestants have to engage in when they interact with New Testament passages like this one from Galatians 3:10-14.
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.
While I'm sure that religious groups like Yahweh's Assembly in Yahshua have worked out an explanation of this passage that satisfies them, they wouldn't have to do anything of the sort if the canon hadn't been defined for about 16 centuries.

Sixth, back-to-the-Bible groups like the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement were founded on the idea that the Bible serves as a manual for Christian life, and that the New Testament lays out the blueprints for Christian churches. The Church of Christ branch of this tradition tends to be the fiercest about it, with a strong commitment to the idea that they are indeed the exact same church as the one described in the New Testament. Historically, this idea is way off. As we've seen, the church in the era they consider most important and 'pure' didn't even have a defined canon with the present 27 books. Further, many of those books are essentially forgeries, having been written in the name of someone viewed as having authority, like one of the apostles. Finally, if you compare a Church of Christ service to one held in any evangelical or even Catholic church, you'll find that the structure is broadly the same, including a 'Lord's supper' that certainly bears little resemblance to the love feasts of the early Christians.

Seventh, Christianity is at its most basic a matter of faith and of the heart. What is truly essential to it is debatable. If that's a road someone wants to go down, the best they can legitimately do is describe what is fundamental for each of the different sects, denominations, movements, and traditions of Christianity. Christianity itself seems to center around following Jesus, and the rest is propositions and speculations on how best to do that.

In close, Christianity as a faith is as variable as the people who hold to it, and to be a Christian or even a Christian church requires no canon or creed, as the earliest church had neither. In our times I see liberal Christians breathing the freest in this regard. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a product of the Stone-Campbell movement mentioned above, is one of the more noteworthy. They require only an affirmation of Jesus as Lord, and even that isn't rigidly defined. There are many conservative churches in their midst, and there are many that are quite liberal. The same could be said of the United Church of Christ, which has an affirmation of faith that is quite flexible in practice.

In my opinion — and anyone would be right to consider me biased — Unitarian Universalism is capable of the best expression of this free faith. People can hold to numerous different, non-Christian views and be UUs. There is no canon, nor a required affirmation of faith or similar creed. That means that people with an affinity for Christianity can explore what this means to them without being held to someone else's beliefs on the matter. There is even a Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship for such folks, and if a UU Christian were to change their mind about identifying with Christianity, there would be no reprisals. In fact, a UU can consider oneself only Unitarian Universalist and still hold to whatever aspects of Christianity that speak to them. It's not my path, but it is one that I respect, and that I imagine has to feel much less stifling than what has developed ever since the canon came to be.

Resources: 

New World Encyclopedia contributors, "Historical criticism," New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Higher_criticism (accessed April 19, 2020 ).

Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.