Tag Archives: New Testament

How important was the closing of the NT canon to the early church?


St Athanasius at Clarence Gate

St Athanasius at Clarence Gate (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

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.”[1]”

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.


[1] Evans, G.R., Faith in the Medieval World. 49.

 

What does Wall Street have to do with the Gospel? An Acton University reflection on economics in the New Testament


Cover of "Rediscovering the Natural Law i...

Cover via Amazon

Greetings from Acton University 2011. The Acton Institute is an ecumenical think-tank dedicated to the study of free-market economics informed by religious faith and moral absolutes. This is my second summer attending their “Acton University” seminars in Grand Rapids, MI.

One of my favorite presenters last year was Dr. Stephen Grabill, director of programs and research scholar in theology at the Acton Institute. A careful scholar with a Reformed background and a unique knowledge of both economics and theology, Grabill edited the NIV Stewardship Study Bible (2009) and authored Rediscovering the Natural Law in Reformed Theological Ethics and edited the Sourcebook of Late Scholastic Monetary Theory. Here are my notes on his excellent, if basic, presentation on the social and economic context of the New Testament:

Tertullian famously asked “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Meaning, what does the thought world of the Greek philosophers have to do with the Gospel? Why should Christians bother with the culture of the empire when they should be living according to their Scriptures?

We could ask: What does Wall Street have to do with Jerusalem; or economic practice with the seemingly unrelated world of the New Testament? Continue reading

Debunking the Protestant “T” word part II: How to spot a heresy


Statue de Constantin Ier, Musée du Capitole, Rome

Constantine, looking imperial

This article is continued from “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word: An edifying tale, part I” and continues in “Debunking the Protestant ‘T’ word part III: What was the beef at Nicea?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. When the debate about Jesus’ divinity first hit the streets of Alexandria, the Emperor Constantine saw the handwriting on the wall (perhaps literally, if he came across some of that theological graffiti!). He said to himself, “This empire isn’t going to fall apart on my watch!” And so he called together a giant council of the church at his summer palace in Nicea (Nicea is now a town called Iznik, in Turkey—and sadly for us historians, there’s nothing left of that palace). Constantine was doing, on a larger scale, what the church had always done in its first three hundred years when a crucial matter like this came up. He called on the bishops—that is, the teaching pastors of key churches—to come together.

The point was not to have these top pastors get all creative and brilliant and make up some new doctrine that everyone would have to follow from then on. No, since the beginning, the bishops in the church had had only one main function, and everyone understood it. The job of each bishop—and especially of all the bishops together—was simple: they were expected to faithfully pass on the teachings of the Apostles. Continue reading

Evangelicals and psychiatric services


The following is part of a talk I was invited to give to a group of psychiatric residents (doctors-in-training) here in the Twin Cities a few years ago. The talk was on “the evangelical tradition,” and was intended to give these medical practitioners a sense of the beliefs of evangelicals, possible impediments to serving this constituency, and ideas of how to serve them better.

I have already posted other portions of this talk here under the titles “Basic, basic Christianity” and “Evangelicalism–a basic summary,” part I, part II, and part III. What follows is the final portion of the talk, which outlines issues that may face a professional providing evangelicals with psychiatric services, and ideas on how to serve (some) evangelicals better:

Now I’d like to turn the corner and address more directly some of the challenges that may come up in serving evangelical Christians from within the field of mental health care.

The insights that follow mostly come from my Bethel colleague Steven J. Sandage, Associate Professor of Marriage and Family Studies, Bethel St. Paul. Steve has served as clinician, psychologist, and chaplain in a variety of settings (community mental health, correctional, university) and currently engages in part-time clinical practice. He taught at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Medical College of Virginia as an adjunct faculty prior to coming to Bethel.

As Steve has related it to me, some evangelicals have a tendency to over-spiritualize—they frame problems as spiritual, not being able to think in an integrative way about the interactions of their minds, emotions, spirits, and the material world. They may refuse medication, for example, because they think this would show a lack of faith in spiritual truth or spiritual reality. Continue reading

Basic, basic Christianity–from a talk to a group of medical residents


The following is a capsule summary of Christianity from a talk I was invited to give to a group of psychiatric residents (doctors-in-training) here in the Twin Cities a few years ago.

The talk was on “the evangelical tradition,” and was intended to give these medical practitioners a sense of the beliefs of evangelicals, possible impediments to serving this constituency, and ideas of how to serve them better.These medical residents came from all kinds of religious backgrounds and several ethnic backgrounds and countries-of-origin. So I couldn’t assume they had any knowledge of the basics of Christianity.

I’ll post at least one more bit of this talk soon (see “Evangelicalism–a basic summary,” part I, part II, and part III, and “Evangelicals and psychiatric services“), but here’s the “Christianity-in-a-nutshell” intro, which came first in the talk, before any details about evangelicalism itself. I’m curious: What do you think? What did I miss? What did I get wrong? What would you have said differently?

[CLIP]

First, the basics. What is the Christian faith that these evangelicals profess?

Christianity is rooted in Judaism, which teaches that the human race was created by a personal God. The Hebrew Scriptures, also accepted by Christians as authoritative, teach that from the beginning, despite the love of this God for humanity, humans have failed to return this love, preferring instead to “do their own thing.” This is symbolized in Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, by two stories. Continue reading

I’m dreaming of a Victorian Christmas


OK, it’s December 4 and I can’t resist the urge any more. Time for a Christmas post!

I’m Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas
An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us.
Chris Armstrong

A particular Christmas, or to be more exact, two Christmases, entered the modern imagination in 1868 through a much-beloved storybook, coloring our vision of Christmas ever since.

The first of these Christmases takes place under the shadow of war—the Civil War. A few days before the holiday, the four young daughters of an absent army chaplain mope together in the home that now seems so empty. They ruefully consider their holiday prospects: their “straightened circumstances” have reduced the customary Christmas bounty to a mere dollar apiece, doled out by their mother. Continue reading