A Canonical Counterblast

By Gordon Feil

Many people, having been hurt in the WCG culture, throw the Bible out with the Plain Truth and that is an over-reaction. Perhaps the same mental habits that got them into the first trouble get them into the second.

In the past couple of months Ambassador Watch has posted items challenging the New Testament canon. This concerns me because these remarks may be unduly weighted by readers who are not grounded in apologetics and who may thus conclude that something has been offered which discredits the Bible.  I particularly want to address the sophomoric notion that the composition of the New Testament being ruled upon by some council undermines the authority of the scriptures.  Then, I want to comment on the Pastoral Epistles.

With respect to the NT canon, first, I point out that the evidence is solidly that 20 of the 27 NT books were accepted as Scripture by the church at a very early stage.  For example, the non-canonical epistle of I Clement, from maybe as late as the last decade of the first century AD, appears to draw upon 3 of the 4 gospels, 7 of the epistles and Acts.  By the early second century we have, in the writings of the early church fathers, references to all current NT books (including Revelation) except II Corinthians, Titus, Philemon, II Peter, II John, III John and Jude.    Keeping in mind that (a) II Corinthians appears to be a compilation of Pauline letters, (b) the other 6 omitted books are so short that they likely didn’t contain material the writers felt they needed to use, and (c) the volume of these early church fathers’ writings is so small that it is somewhat remarkable that we even have as much reference to the NT as we do, the absence of reference to the missing 7 books is no evidence for their non-canonicity.   Furthermore, please note the complete lack of quotations in these same writings (of the early church fathers) from any of the non-canonical works about which some wonder as to why they have been excluded from the canon.  This is generally because these non-canon works were not even written by the time the early church fathers wrote.   One of the criteria used by the early church to determine canonicity was whether the author was an apostle or someone who kept substantial and direct society with an apostle.

The 4 gospels themselves early comprised a mini-canon of gospel accounts that was deemed closed.  (We even see Luke defined as Scripture in I Timothy 5:18.) This is why when Tatian developed his Diatessaron, a harmony of the gospels, he only harmonized the 4.  Justin Martyr (2nd century) cites the 4 gospels as scripture.  So does Irenaeus, himself a student of John’s disciple, Polycarp.  The notion that the church had no knowledge of what its scriptures were until a late council decision is absurd.  People don’t bother dying for scriptures about whose authority they are uncertain. 

Second, I call attention to the fact that even if there is uncertainty about the canon, it doesn’t solve the problem of the empty tomb.  The gospel accounts have been thoroughly tested and found true by minds sharper than yours or mine. 

Sir Edward Clarke, a British High Court judge who conducted a thorough legal analysis of the resurrection stated “To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.  As a lawyer, I accept the gospel evidence unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts that they were able to substantiate.”

Sir Lionel Luckhoo, with an astounding 245 consecutive murder acquittals, and whom Guiness Book of Records listed as the world’s most successful lawyer; was knighted twice by Queen Elizabeth.  This former justice and diplomat subjected the facts of the resurrection to his own painstaking examination for several years before declaring “I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”

As British theologian Michael Green said “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity….There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was he.”

The gospel accounts have been subjected to internal and external literary tests to determine their historicity, but the detail is probably best left for another essay.  The point is that we are all still confronted with a living Lord regardless as to what we argue about the NT canon. 

On the other topic, if the Pastoral Epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus) were written by Paul, then they must predate his death.  They were all accepted as Pauline by Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, the Muratorian Canon, Origen, Irenaeus, not to mention the host of notables from after 200 AD. Further, very early persons such as Polycarp and Clement of Rome (who penned in the first century) wrote as though they accepted the authenticity of the Timothy letters, (but do not indicate for or against Titus).

Even 1900 and some years later we can detect a number of traits in these letters which lead us to conclude that Paul wrote them. First, the level of church organization is substantially different than existed in the years just after 100 AD where some wish to date them.  For example, a bishop appears to be synonymous with an elder.

Further, scholars have noted the similarity between the style found in II Timothy and that of Romans 12 and Colossians 3 and 4.  Only 20 of the 306 words used in the Pastorals are not found in other pre-90 AD literature, and the absence of the 20 can be explained by the scarcity of literature from that period.

In addition, we might note the abundance of personal details included in these writings.  A forger would be expected to take refuge in vagueness, or at least to use only particulars known to be correct (such as they could have read about in Acts). 

If these works were forged they would have been done so by someone who regarded Paul as an authority (each of these letters claim to have been written by him) and they would not try to undermine his authority and therefore their own work by calling him the “chief of sinners”.

Objections to Pauline authorship have been raised on a variety of grounds, some of which are vagaries, but some of which need to be and can be answered.  The popular one is the differences in language versus that used in the epistles to the churches.  The most reasonable explanation is that, in writing to an educated individual instead of a congregation, Paul was able to write in the High Greek he was trained in.  Today a well educated newspaper journalist could be expected to write his mass consumption articles in a different level of the language compared to what he would use in writing to another educated person.

The most obvious difficulty with Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles and the only one worthy of addressing, in my opinion, is that it is difficult to fit the activities mentioned in them into his life as depicted in Acts.  This is resolved if we accept that he was released from the imprisonment wherewith Acts ends.  Philippians 2:24 shows that Paul expected to be released.  He even asked Philemon to get a room ready for him.  It is reasonable to conclude that he was released from prison and was able to do what the Pastorals require.  Clement wrote about 96 AD that Paul preached the gospel “in the West” which accords with Paul’s own stated plan of going to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28).  Critics say that the West Clement refers to is Rome, which suggestion is only a little short of hilarious considering Clement was living in Rome when he wrote it.

We would do well to “prove all things” rather than disprove all things.  The Bible stands firm. It is the book that introduces us to ideals far above what a human could conceive; it is the book that has transformed lives like no other; it has integrity of composition (for example, Luke 3:1-2 contains 15 details to authenticate it: the Bible is not afraid of detail); it is the book composed by 40 people from 7 countries over 1600 years and yet maintaining internal consistency; it is the book no regime has been able to destroy despite great effort to do so; and it is the book in which the future is revealed by him who is already there waiting for us.  It is unique. You feel hard-done by the Armstrongs?  That’s not the fault of the Bible.  Don’t abandon this pearl.