Ask Andrew 4 (2021): Modern Approaches to Scripture: Re-considering the Books of the Bible

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Ask Andrew 4: Modern Approaches to Scripture:

Re-considering the Books of the Bible

Scriptures: 2 Timothy 3:14-17, John 1:1-5

Today I will address two questions about our approach to scripture in light of modern scholarly understanding:

First: A question asks about updating the books of the New Testament. It says that councils of the church ratified the current canon 1700 years ago and says that we might make very different choices today in light of conclusions scholars have reached about who actually wrote which books and which ones were excluded as “heretical”, when some formerly heretical teachings are quite popular now.

I recommend having a look at the Wikipedia page about the development of the New Testament Canon. It gives a good short overview of a very slow and complicated process.

Writers of the New Testament didn’t think they were writing scripture. Our lesson from 2 Timothy contains a reference to scripture which most likely meant the Hebrew Scriptures, or more accurately the Septuagint version which was a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures plus a number of books where the original Hebrew versions had long been lost.

Modern scholars question whether 2 Timothy was written by Paul. Some early church authorities asked the same question. Some excluded both Timothy letters and Titus from the New Testament.

Modern scholars suggest that these “Pastoral Epistles” may contain original material from Paul but also a lot of stuff someone else added later.

Actually the official New Testament canon wasn’t fully agreed across the church until less than 500 years ago. When it comes to the Jewish writings, there are still different Bibles. Anyone with a Jerusalem Bible should have noticed that.

Books of the Septuagint with no Hebrew originals were rejected by Jewish Masorete scholars. The Christian church kept using many of them but there are still differences today between specific churches. Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox disagree about some Septuagint books and all disagreed with the Catholic church about Revelations until a few centuries ago.

Protestant reformers decided to trust the Jewish understanding and threw out the same books Judaism threw out. This didn’t change the New Testament canon but it did change the canon of the bible overall.

Actually, Martin Luther did change the New Testament canon. He wanted to remove the letter of James as heretical but contented himself with making it the last book of the Bible in his German translation.

You can see, this is not a static process. Calling a new Church Council is nearly impossible; the Roman Catholic church calls them every few decades but only for Catholic bishops to participate. The Orthodox branch of the church does the same kind of thing less frequently. Again, it does not include the Western church and neither group invites any Protestant churches to participate.

The closest we get to such a forum is the World Council of Churches. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches won’t join as full members; they wish to remain as observers and will not be committed to any decisions made by the whole body.

Some churches have tried to expand the canon with new books. The Latter Day Saints church is the most famous with their Book of Mormon.

Lori tells me that at one point people were trying to get the writings of Martin Luther King Jr. Canonized and although that hasn’t worked so far, he is on the road to becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic church, and is already recognized as such in an Orthodox sect. Quite ironic for a Baptist pastor!

Modern scholars, like the Jesus Seminar, have gathered and voted on which words and actions of Jesus they consider authentic and if we were to limit the gospels to the parts they can agree are original, we would have a lot less to read.

There’s just too much disagreement; too many opinions.

Even if we called a council of protestant churches right now, a huge percentage would reject all that modern scholarship out of hand! Then we’d have a centuries-long fight about what to add because each group would have its favourites, which is exactly why it took centuries to settle the first canon. Human nature doesn’t change.

Reformation scholars had some questions too but they took a particular perspective on how to relate to these ancient writings which have challenges but have been useful to the church for a long, long time.

This brings us to the second question:

When you read the scripture lesson you always say; “Hear the Word of God.”  And yet current interpretation tells us that it isn’t actually the ‘Word’ of God but what was written by a plethora of mostly male scribes from since Before Common Era.  What is the underlying meaning and importance of ‘The Word’ for us today?

The original Reformed theologians really loved rationality. They wanted logical lines of thought to define our faith and identify its foundations, but they recognized that they couldn’t just cook that up out of their own minds. The authority for our faith had to come from beyond mere human thought.

They knew that there were challenges with scripture but they also believed that God had worked through these scriptures over and over down through the centuries. They also believed that scripture provided the most reliable connection to the ministry of Jesus we could find.

So, they developed a theology that was a bit mystical: they based it on our John reading in which the “Word of God” becomes flesh in Jesus.

The idea is that when I invite you to hear the Word of God, I am asking you to hear Jesus’ message for you. The Bible is called the Word of God because it testifies to Jesus and the work of God leading up to Jesus’ life. But that’s not what you’re being called to hear: it is the message of God as embodied in Jesus and as recorded in scripture.

In that same theology the sermon is also a form of the Word of God:

it is the Word of God proclaimed.

Obviously people like John Calvin didn’t think that preachers would never make mistakes, but he did demand that we apply our best understanding to interpreting the scriptures for the church constantly;

to give our most honest and insightful perspective on what the writings said and what Jesus would want for today.

It is, frankly, intimidating and any preacher who doesn’t approach this with respect and a sense that they are not just writing their own opinion isn’t doing a good job. We are called to do our best to convey the Word of God.

And the mystical part of this is that in the context of worship, in the prayers, the singing, the reading, the sermon and the sacraments, the people of the church are called to encounter God. Since we Reformation types are so rationally based, we call ourselves to encounter God through the Word.

My job is NOT to “Speak the Word of God so that no one can gainsay it!”. The role of the minister is to create a fertile ground where God’s Spirit can speak to our hearts and minds and inspire us to love, to justice, to wisdom, to grace, to all the things that we believe are gifts of God.

The books we call the Bible will not all be used with equal authority but then, they never have been. But they do have a long history of helping and inspiring God’s people, of connecting us with God.

And if we do add to them, then we would be wise to choose writings that have proven their ability to move beyond a simple fad or temporary enthusiasm into writings that have meaning for many ages and many people.

Adopting new scriptures could, indeed, be done but if we do it, we need to proceed with respect, with wisdom, and the patience to remember that for a 2000 year old church a couple of centuries isn’t that long to work on something this important.

It’s how long we took last time.


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