In a recent short paper on the topic of Scripture and tradition, a student of mine wrote the following:
“While combating the Arian heresy, Athanasius, the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, was exiled under false pretenses. In 367, just returning from exile, he wrote perhaps the most important document to the early church, the Festal Letter. In it was a list of Christian books he said were inspired of God. Christians had long debated which books should make up the New Testament, but Athanasius’s list of 27 writings marks the first time a church leader identified the very books Christians today called the New Testament. (Stephen M. Miller, “How we got our Bible A Gallery of Mavericks and Misfits,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1994/issue43/4318.html). The books, which were declared as ‘sacred scripture,’ “were confidently believed to be inspired writings, divinely dictated word by word.””
This insistence that the Festal Letter was the most important document of its age seemed to me a typically Protestant misemphasis. Not that the books of the New Testament were unimportant. They were central to the life and thinking of the early church–indeed, in ways that we can only palely imitate. However, I wrote in the margin:
“Note that many other documents, including proto-creeds, were considered more important to the church at the time than the Festal Letter, which was something of a “blip” on the early church’s radar. Canon formation was just not a major issue for Christians of the time; they felt comfortable that the bishops, the church itself, the Holy Spirit superintending, the “rule of faith” in the proto-creeds . . . all of these would guarantee apostolic truth. It wasn’t that important to them whether this or that book was declared “canonical.” They were all edifying. They all had a certain authority. Whether some were of the highest authority or not (canonical) was a matter open to discussion, but they didn’t feel this threatened the integrity of the faith.”
I based my response to the student on understandings gained from Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams (Baylor University). I don’t think I am overstating the case: tradition, including the rule of faith and the teaching role of the bishops, was simply the primary guarantor of apostolic truth in those early years. Canon had not yet taken on that role, as it does with Protestants today.
What do you think? Did I overstate my case in the response to this student? I am not a Patristics scholar–hence my reliance on Williams (and other things I have read). I am open to correction and constructive debate on this.
 Evans, G.R., Faith in the Medieval World. 49.
- The Canonicity of the Bible (compasschurchamman.wordpress.com)
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No, I don’t think you overstated matters. There clearly was at least a basic core of a “rule of faith” in place long before certain questions about the NT canon were settled (e.g., 2 Peter, James, Revelation, Hermas). This of course raises questions for some about Sola Scriptura and other things, but I think it’s true. I’d recommend Craig Allert’s book, “A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon,” as a great starting point for those exploring this (D. H. Williams is the editor for the series in which it appears). Allert also points out the need for a more robust ecclesiology among those espousing Sola Scriptura.
I think being 1600+ years removed from that time changes a lot of things (or 1100ish for the reformers). The bishops were only a few generations removed from the source writers, so there was far less opportunity for dilution or error to enter into what they considered canonical, plus there was still a relatively smallish geography at play for the most influential people in the church. At some point it did need to be clarified in an official sense, thus Athanasius’s efforts are quite helpful – helpful more to us today than they were likely in their immediate writing. Does that mean the Holy Spirit couldn’t have superintended over the preservation of this process? No, but we see in Luther’s 95 with some clarity that some things had slowly gotten off course over time, so it is reasonable to think it might have happened elsewhere if there was no distinct guide.