Recently member’s of the Mormon faith came to my door, encouraging me to read from the book of Mormon. I explained that I was a Christian and believed God’s complete word was recorded in the Bible. They argued that the BoM was “another testament of Jesus Christ” and that I should give it a try. They gave me their testimony, that they felt the truth of this book “in their gut” and explained that the God would reveal the truth of it to me as well through a “burning in the bosom” if I would but give it a try. Do we propagate our Bible in the same way? Do we believe it is true because of a feeling of indigestion?
One of the great challenges believers face is the accusation that our faith rests on a circular argument. Christians often say: “I believe it because the Bible said it.” While I hope that you do believe what is in the Bible, why should you? This is what logicians call a circular argument. How do you know if it is true? This is an apologetical and practical challenge. Do we have the right books included in the bible? What about the Gospel of Thomas, or a good worship song written today? Do you ever doubt whether you have the truth in the Bible? Mormons believe what is in the Book of Mormon, and Muslims the Koran. Why should we believe the Christian bible and not these other holy books? The Bible claims to be God’s word… but how do we know this to be either true or false?
As I have read deeply in the resources available to us in the earliest Christian documents we have, known as the church fathers (link), I have found a very helpful and insightful perspective. When pressed by those who tried to question the canon (the defined limits) of the New Testament, they did not answer: “I believe it, because the Bible says it.” Instead they argued that their faith rested in Jesus alone. But they do so by appealing to what they called the rule of faith.
Think about it. There is really no question that Jesus was a historical figure (link). Those who knew him personally (the apostles) went all over the ancient world proclaiming “the good news” about him (1 Corinthians 15:1, 11). They did not passed on “cleverly devised myths when” they made known “the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but testified, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). The eyewitnesses challenged people to check their facts, “I am speaking true and rational words” Paul argued, “none of these things has… been done in a corner” (Acts 26:26-27). Hundreds and hundreds of people have seen each of the things the apostles claim to have seen, and they argue: “most… are still alive” (1 Corinthians 15:6). There was compelling evidence behind the assertions of the Apostles. There was historic fact. There was the testimony of thousands. And “so [they] preached and so [many] believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11).
It is important to recognize that this preaching was “according to the Scriptures” of the established Jewish Canon (1 Corinthians 15:3,4). Paul put it this way: “this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets” (Acts 24:14). Peter claimed that having known Christ and heard a voice from heaven declaring his identity and purpose “we have something more sure, the prophetic word” (2 Peter 1:19), and this Scripture confirms their testimony as it was written “by the Spirit of the Christ” to whom they were testifying (1 Peter 1:10-12).
How did the apostles come to see this? Well, it is important to realize that they learned their method of interpreting and preaching the Old Testament directly from Jesus, as exemplified by the accounts Luke records of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and again in the upper room, where Jesus “interpreted to them in all the Scripture… from Moses and all the prophets” (Luke 24:27) and then “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (27:45). Jesus sent these men out “to be [his] witnesses” (Acts 1:8). It was this Old Testament based proclamation of the eyewitness of Jesus, which formed “the apostle’s teaching.”
Those who believed the message of these eyewitnesses “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching” (Acts 2:42). That is, they contemplated, discussed and followed “the standard of teaching to which [they] were committed” (Romans 6:17). The apostles delivered to early believers this ‘standard of teaching’ or “body of doctrine” as a comprehensive oral education for exercising “faith in our lord Jesus,” as they were “proclaiming the kingdom” and “the whole counsel of God” (cf Acts 20:18-32). To this standard, or rule (from the latin regula), the early believers where entrusted and by this message they were to be built up (Acts 20:32). Later they were reminded of these teachings in follow up letters, usually sent to answer questions of controversy, or application with regard to the apostles’ teaching. Paul concludes his long letter to the Romans: “I have been bold enough to write about some of these points, knowing that all you need is this reminder” (Romans 15:15). Peter wrote: “i intend to remind you of these… though you know them and are established in the truth that you have” (2 Peter 1:12). Those so established and reminded were urged to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, whether by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Throughout the New testament we see this body of doctrine referred to as a “trust” (Titus 1:9), or a “deposit” (2 Timothy 1:14), or even a “tradition” (2 Timothy 2:15). Early church leaders were appointed on the bases of their knowledge of, and ability to teach it and to refute points in contradiction to this deposit (Titus 1:9). They were urged to “guard the deposit entrusted to” them rigorously (1 Timothy 6:20). In defending orthodoxy, the church fathers faithfully called upon this tradition and called this deposit of apostolic doctrine, the regula fidei, or rule of faith.
Why didn’t the church father’s just say, “The Bible says it and I believe it, and that settles it for me”? Well, the plain and simple fact is that the Bible did not exist (at least as we know it). There was of course the Hebrew scriptures, usually possessed in the Greek translation known as the Septuagint (LXX), and there were letters and treatises coming in from the Apostles, such as the Gospels and the Letters. But false letters were also coming to the churches claiming to be from apostles, and prophets (see 2 Thessalonians 2:2). What were these churches to do?
In Paris one can find the official measure of standard meter, located at 36 rue de Vaugirard across the street from the Senat and the Musée Luxembourg in the 6th. There were once a dozen of these placed strategically around the city, because for the average person, there was no accurate way to make a measurement at home. But with this amazing standard, you could go out to the closest official block and take your measurement.
The Christian canon was measured in just such a way. The word “canon” comes from the Greek “κανών”, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick.” The Rule of faith or ὀ κανών τῆς πίστεος, was the apostolic doctrine. The “canon of Scripture” was essentially a process. D.H. Williams writes:
Cononicity was, from the beginning, a theological principle inherant to the church’s Tradition; the “canon” (ie., rule) of the church’s faith was not a set of authoritative texts, but an authoritative teaching. Those texts which mirrored the canon (rule) of faith, and had been received within orthodox churches, were regarded as cononical (Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism [link]), 45.
And so, we have a canon, which is rooted in the teaching of Jesus, and is the written accounts of the eyewitness of the life and teaching of Jesus, vetted by the thousands of eyewitnesses of Jesus and particularly by the people commissioned by the Apostles themselves to “guard the deposit.” As time sorted this collection, it became universally acknowledged, and as threats arose the church countered those threats, by appealing to the Rule of Faith.
Our trust in the Scriptures, therefore, rests not on a circular argument, but on the testimony and teaching of Jesus himself, and the eyewitness accounts, unchallengeable in their day, of Jesus closest companions. It is rooted, in other words in the certitude of the facts of history, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, …Then he appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all… he appeared also to me… whether then it was I or they, so we peach and so you believe” (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).