Today’s question comes from Stevie. She writes: “I’ve been reading about the gnostic gospels. It has me wondering. Who decided what gospels were included when the Bible was written?”
It has taken me a while to get to Stevie’s question because I spent some time seeking a relatively unbiased, accessible resource that could provide some of the technical information that the question requires. The difficulty was finding something that fit the bill. Lots of resources out there were steeped in a particular theological assumption that made their representation of the formation of the biblical canon biased.
Here’s the link to Wikipedia’s response: biblical cannon.
Let me say just a few words about the matter of theological bias that I referred to earlier that can help you better understand different approaches to Stevie’s question.
When I was in seminary, a teacher’s assistant gave me a wonderful model that helped explain two different approaches toward understanding how one sees the Bible. “One group of folks see the Bible as a BOOK; another group sees it as a LIBRARY.”
What did the teacher’s assistant mean by that?
There are some folks out there who believe that the Bible is a single book produced by God. As such, they believe that all the material is directly linked to one another. Just as a single author would write a novel – and directly control all the twists and turns – so too does the Bible represent such a continuous stream of thought.
There are others out there who believe that each of the books contained in the Bible is itself a contained work: written by an individual or community – through whom God was present – in a particular time and place. Since most of the books generally typically stands on its own, this would explain where there are some significant theological differences between some of the books of the Bible. This is why, for instance, the book of James boldly declares that “faith without works is dead” while the book of Ephesians says “for by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves…”. There are many, many other examples of differences in theological perspective between books in the Bible, but that one example gives you an idea of what I mean.
Of course, there are a lot of important differences that grow out of folks in each camp. I’ve found that the vast majority of people who see the Bible as one book are not aware of the historical process that led to the formation of the cannon (as detailed in the link I included). They believe that God simply “delivered” a finished product in the form they know today.
Those in the second camp – who view the Bible as a library – generally tend to be more aware of the historical process that led to the formation of the biblical cannon. These folks also tend to be aware that there is different content (or in some cases, a different order) of some books in the Bible. Those Christian communities who use the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical works, for instance, are aware that there are two versions of the book of Esther.
These issues are why I get so frustrated when I hear some say, “God wrote it. I believe it. That settles it.” Such statements overlook the wonderful and rich complexity involved in the sacred writings we know today as “The Bible”.
The other thing that saddens me in these conversations is when I encounter what some have called bibliolatry. Bibliolatry is when an individual elevates Scripture to such an extent that the Bible itself becomes the individual’s God. Folks who do this treat the Bible as the sole source of authority, and sometimes talk in ways that suggest the presence and work of God is contained solely on the printed page of the Bible.
As a HUGE fan of the Holy Spirit – and as someone who belongs to a Christian tradition that proclaims a God who is STILL speaking – I believe that while Scripture are AN important source whereby we can get to know God, there are other sources that help us know God as well. The Catholic and Anglican traditions, for example, suggest reason and tradition are other sources that can help us know God while Methodists add personal experience as yet another source.
My goal as a pastor is to provide information that helps individuals discover the rich complexity of the Bible – so they can spend the rest of their lives digging into Scripture and discovering powerful truths that still speak to us across the millennia.
So how about you. What do you think?