Robert Johnson has written an article concerning the origins of the New Testament Bible. He claims that the Bible was voted to be the "Word of God" by a group of men during the 4' century, thereby undermining its right to be called the "Word of God" In this paper I shall argue that Johnson's thesis is misguided and that he fails to substantiate any of his claims; also I'll try to clarify some issues by fleshing out what Christians mean by the term the "Word of God" and other allied concepts. First, let's look at a key argument in Johnson's paper. In the second paragraph he seems to reason as follows:
(1) If "the Bible was not handed to mankind by God nor dictated to human stenographers by God, then it cannot have anything to do with God."'
(2) The Bible was not handed to mankind by God nor dictated to human stenographers by God.
(3) Therefore, the Bible cannot have anything to do with God.
(1.) This is a deductive argument and the logic is valid, however, the key question is whether the premises are true. Certainly, most knowledgeable Christians would agree with (2). No one thinks the Bible fell from the sky as many Muslims seem to claim of the Koran and most don't hold to a divine dictation model of revelation in which God dictated word for word the contents of the Bible to some terrified scribe. So what about premise (1) It seems to be an example of the informal fallacy, false dichotomy.' There are many other options available to the Christian at this point in order to account for the Bible being labeled as the "Word of God." A common position assumes that Scripture constitutes the very words of God-the ipsissima verba Dei. An example comes from the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. It reads, "Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches . We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared."'
So then, this divine-inspiration perspective allows that the human writers of Scripture expressed themselves in the full integrity of their humanity, without the slightest diminution of their wills or intellects, but that God, in tandem with their wills and intellects, moved in and through the human writers to express precisely what God intended. My point in citing this example is not to endorse this particular model of divine inspiration but just to provide a possible account, thereby demonstrating that premise (1) is fallacious because it excludes too much, and consequently the argument is unsound. It seems already that there is some misunderstanding as regards the concept the "Word of God", but more on this later. For now let's press on and see if Johnson makes his other points. The next extravagant claim comes at the end of the second paragraph:
(4) "The Bible was voted to be the word of God by a group of men during the 4th century. "
What evidence does Johnson marshal for (4). Obviously, this is not a self-evident claim and therefore it needs some sort of historical testimony. Amazingly, Johnson provides no historical testimony at all but merely restates this claim later on in his paper when he says, "The church leaders gathered together at the council of Nicaea and voted the 'word of God' into existence."5 Now, let me just say that this is false for the Council of Nicaea didn't involve disputes about the canon; it involved mainly a dispute about the theology of Arius, which raised in acute form the question of the real meaning and significance of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the canon as we know it today wasn't even complete when the Council of Nicaea took place in 325. In order to demonstrate this I'll need to provide a brief sketch of the actual development of the new testament (NT hereafter). This will also help put our study in perspective by providing a sort of framework for analyzing some key items. I'll be following the schematic outline from the article titled "canon" taken from the Oxford Companion to the Bible.'
The first phase takes place in the latter part of the first century. It involves the gospel message and its subsequent oral transmission to various areas. In this period the church was guided by apostolic witness, which developed into the apostolic tradition, and second by early Christian prophecy (i.e, the book of Revelation). As scholar Andrie Du Toit points out, "The authors of the early Christian documents did not visualize their writings as part of a future canon. Rather they intended to give pastoral guidance to young churches."8 However, these foundation documents did possess the inherent quality of later becoming part of a normative collection.
The second phase (the close of the first century to the middle of the second) involved the growing recognition of the normative character and collection into groups of a basic number of writings. This period finds oral tradition increasingly replaced by the written Gospels. At this stage we also find the collecting of early Christian writings around two foci, the Pauline correspondence and the Gospels.
The third phase (midsecond century to 190ce) is when the NT canon becomes a reality. According to Bruce Metzger, professor emeritus at Princeton Seminary: "By the close of the second century we can see an outline of what may be described as the nucleus of the NT. Although the fringes of the emerging canon remained unsettled for generations, a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the NT was attained among the very diverse and scattered congregations of believers."9
The final stage (ca. 190-400 ce) pertains, of course, to the closing of the canon. According to Du Toit "It was particularly the claims to having received new revelations made by the gnostics and the Montanists, members of an apocalyptic prophetic movement, that stressed the need for a clear demarcation of the canon."'
So when did the canon of the new testament finally take the form that we have today?
Well, in the east, the year 367 marks the first time that the scope of the NT is declared to be exactly the twenty-seven books accepted today as canonical in the thirtyninth festal epistle of Bishop Athanasius." In the Western church the complete canon was approved by councils in Hippo (393) and Carthage (397).'2 With this in mind we see that the canonical development is a very complex process. While the core of the NT was established very early, the entire scope was not agreed upon until the late fourth century; even then it was not formally recognized and Christians have continued to disagree about the fringes of the canon until today.
What was the criteria for choosing certain books rather than others? It seems that to be accepted into the canon the books had to possess apostolicity, that is, be written by an apostle or a close associate of one. Another basic prerequisite for canonicity was conformity to what was called the 'rule of faith', or in other words, the congruity of a given document with the basic Christian tradition recognized as normative by the Church.
The other obvious test was its continuous acceptance and usage by the Church at large. Of course, there were other factors involved and much more would need to be said in order to do full justice to the issue of canonical criteria. `3
So what have we learned from our historical outline? First, Johnson's understanding of the development of the NT is naive and misinformed. There wasn't one council in which the church leaders recognized the Bible as the "Word of God" and it certainly didn't happen at the Council of Nicaea as Johnson claims. Secondly, it's appropriate at this point to bring out another error in Johnson's paper. He claims that Constantine used money to persuade the church leaders to agree upon a single canon. Now this is partly true. New Testament Professor Bruce Metzger says the following: "In about the year 332 the Emperor Constantine, wishing to promote and organize Christian worship in the growing number of churches in his capital city, directed Eusebius to have fifty copies of the sacred Scriptures made by practised scribes and written legibly on prepared parchment."'4
Now, obviously fifty magnificent copies could not but exercise a great influence on future copies, and subsequently help forward the process at arriving on an agreed canon. But the problem with Johnson's argument is that he tries to link this event with the Council of Nicaea which occurred some seven years prior to it in 325. Furthermore, the Constantine order didn't involve a church council at all and moreover it doesn't seem to weigh very heavily in development of the canon. So it seems that Johnson has written a piece of historical fiction, I'm afraid.
Now, while Johnson's criticisms have been wide off the mark, our discussion up to this point has surfaced some important questions? First, what is the significance of a transition from mainly normative apostolic teaching to the adoption of a normative canon? In my opinion the move is significant because it allows subsequent generations to have a faithful representation of the apostolic teachings; teachings which might not have been as accessible or pure given the nature of oral tradition. The situation here is not that a canon of normative books displaces normative tradition; for the normative tradition itself included books claiming that very status. Perhaps sometimes the move of a religious community from a normative tradition to a textual canon is a very large move, but in our case, for the reasons cited, it seems to be the natural one. Secondly, in light of all that we know about the development of the canon, in what sense might the Bible (or NT canon) be said to be the "Word of God" or communication from God. I like what Nicholas Wolterstorff has to say on the topic:
"Suppose the apostles were commissioned by God through Jesus Christ to be witnesses and representatives (deputies) of Jesus. Suppose that what emerged from their carrying out this commission was a body of apostolic teaching which incorporated what Jesus taught them and what they remembered of the goings-on surrounding Jesus, shaped under the guidance of the Spirit. And suppose that the NT books are all either apostolic writings, or formulations of apostolic teaching composed by close associates of one or another apostle. Then it would be correct to construe each book as a medium of divine discourse. And an eminently plausible construal of the process whereby these books found their way into a single canonical text, would be that by way of that process of canonization, God was authorizing these books as together constituting a single volume of divine discourse."
This account doesn't rely on the untenable divine dictation and "Bible from the sky" views which Johnson tried to force upon us; and it seems like a defensible position to me, although, much more argumentation and evidence would need to be presented in order to persuade an unbeliever. Let me just note though that I don't think the status of canonicity is an objectively demonstrable claim, but rather a statement of Christian belief. And if one were to argue for the authority of the Bible or for a criterion of the canon, I don't think it can be done apart from a host of other Christian items such as Divine Providence, the doctrine of revelation, the Resurrection, the apostolic witness, religious experience, and so on. Thus, I'd say that Christianity is cumulative in its apologetic nature and if one is going to argue for a particular doctrine it's best to consider that doctrine in light of what is known about the other main elements of the Christian worldview. However, it is simply beyond my ambition and skill to tackle these issues here, and I would much rather refer readers to more competent writers. 16
In bringing our discussion to a close, if I were to try to locate the doctrine of Scripture within the total structure of Christian belief, I would want to make the following point. As important and integral one's belief about the Bible is, that belief itself is not an essential element of Christian belief. Let me explain. Strictly speaking, the essential elements of Christianity have been the great things of the gospel (i.e, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and rose again, etc.). Since belief about the Bible isn't one of the great things of the gospel nor was it accepted by the earliest Christians (Obviously, because there were Christians before these books were written, and, barring divine revelation to them that the books were indeed soon to be written and would be authoritative, they wouldn't have known about them) it is not itself an essential element of Christian belief. Don't misunderstand, I realize that ultimately the Bible must reliably convey the great things of the gospel in order for us to come to know them. My only point is that it may very well be the case that achieving warrant for the proposition that the gospel is true is easier than achieving warrant for the proposition that the Bible is the Word of God."
In conclusion, Johnson's whole paper relies on (1) an understanding of Scripture that most Christians don't accept, (2) a decision at Nicaea that never happened, and (3) an act on behalf of Constantine and church leaders that had nothing to do with Nicaea. (4) Furthermore, I tried to show that nothing in his paper provided evidence for 1- 3; so even if they were true we would have no reason to believe them. Lastly, I tried to develop some plausible models in order to show that no defeaters had been provided against the Christian doctrines in question. Now, none of what I said has proved that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, or communication from God, or anything like that. What I have tried to demonstrate is that Johnson's article has not provided any sound criticism of the Christian's conception of the Bible or any related topics; hence, one is perfectly justified in holding to their experience of God and to the historic positions of the Church. Whether or not I have succeeded at this endeavor is for someone else to decide.
For an in-depth and well documented counter-rebuttal to this rebuttal click here.
1 See Johnson, "The Bible's Unholy Origins"
2 The false dichotomy (also called "either-or fallacy") is committed when an argument presents two alternatives with respect to an issue when in fact there are other options, and rejects one of the alternatives and concludes that you must accept the other. See Patrick Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic (Belmont: Wadswroth Thomas Learning, 2000), p. 161.
3 "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy", in Inerrancy, ed. Norman Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 494-495.
4 See Johnson, "The Bible's Unholy Origins"
6 See John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982.)
7 See "Canon" in the Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Metzger, Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)
8 Ibid., p. 102.
9 Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 75.
10 "Canon" in the Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Meztger, Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 103
11 Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p. 212.
12 See Donal Bloesch, Holy Scripture (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1994), 149.
13 For literature bearing on the criteria of the canon see Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament; Hans von Campenhausen, The Formation of the Christian Bible (Philadelpia: Fortress Press, 1973)., William Abriaham, Canon and Criterion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
14 Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p. 206.
I S Nicholas Wolterstorff, Divine Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 295.
16 For a general works on apologetics see William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994); J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987). For works on the topic of Revelation see Richard Swinburne, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Colin Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation (Edinburough: T & T Clark, 1995); George Mavrodes, Revelation and Religious Belief (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991); Avery Dulles, Models ofRevelation, 2"d ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992). For a treatment on the epistemological justification of the Resurrection see Stephen T. Davis, Rise Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993). For a treatment of the epistemology of religious experience see William Alston, Perceiving God (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).
17 For more on the topic of warrant and religious epistemology see Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff (eds.), Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1983). Also, Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).