Archive for November, 2015

The Biblical Canon, Church Tradition, and Messianics

by Geert ter Horst

new-testament-orientationA basic problem in the domain of biblical studies is the question of (how to establish) the Canon of Scripture. This problem is particularly important for Messianics when it comes to the Canon of the Apostolic Writings (commonly, but erroneously, called the New Testament). This importance is related to the fact that Messianics reject many of the traditional teachings of the Christian Church and yet accept the Canon of the New Testament as it is recognized by the tradition of this Church.

From the assumption that the Messianic theological position as to the remaining relevance of the Torah is correct it necessarily follows that the Church already began to deviate from the teachings of our Lord and the Apostles during the second century, and thus at a time when the formal recognition of the New Testament was still in its initial stages. For it is in the second century that we see the emergence of Replacement Theology, together with the development of christological doctrines that finally would lead to the dogmas of the Deity of Yeshua and the Trinity. [1]

The historical time-frame of the recognition of the New Testament Canon roughly coincides with the historical time-frame of the development of Replacement Theology and the great christological conflicts. However, there is evidence for the proposition that the history of the formation of the Canon is more complicated than often admitted, and that it extended to the times of the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent. One of the factors that led to its ultimate fixation were Luther’s and Erasmus’ reopening of the debate. This evoked a Catholic reaction at the Council of Trent. The position of this Council seems to have been helpful in ending the debate, even among the followers of the Reformers.

Regardless the exact reconstruction of this history, it is problematic to simply accept the NT Canon without granting any authority to the tradition of the Church, since it is clearly impossible for anyone of us today to determine which collection of books or letters of the times of the Apostles we should recognize as being part of Holy Scripture — had this collection not been handed down to us through the generations by the authority, the constant teaching, and the liturgical tradition of the Church.

This problem can be stated as follows: If the position of the Church on the relevance of the Torah and the nature of G’d led the believers completely astray by the developments that culminated in the doctrines of the Deity of Yeshua and the Trinity, how can we be sure that the Church did not lead us astray by adopting and using in her liturgy the collection of Scriptures that we call the New Testament?

From the Catholic point of view it is considered a basic theological error to isolate the genesis and reception of the NT Canon from the developing early Christian tradition. According to this viewpoint it is a fundamental metho-dological problem of all non-Catholic NT studies that they first isolate the NT from its functional context in Christian tradition and the living community of the Church, and subsequently find things in it which conflict with this tradition and the authority of the Church.

The Catholic response to these findings is to ascribe these conflicts with Church teaching to this initial error of isolating the Scriptures from the tradition and authority of the Church. If divine revelation is only partly contained in Scripture and if Scripture is an organic part of the developing Jewish nation and the later Christian Church, how can one separate Scripture from the tradition and teaching of the Church and subject the Holy Books to the insights of individual scholars, while ignoring the primal fact that these scholars themselves have received the Scriptures from the Church? Defenders of Catholicism always stress that the sola Scriptura teaching of the Protestant Reformers is not found in the Bible itself.

The Messianic position seems even more difficult to defend than the position of the Reformers. For the Reformers accepted the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils until about the fifth century, when the question of the Canon of the NT was practically settled or at least no longer debated. The Messianic position, however, is that the Church during the first centuries of her existence got throughly corrupted in such basic teachings as the nature of G’d and the relevance of the Torah, while at the same time developing a correct intuition in solving the problem of the NT Canon.

The question is thus: How it can be made reasonably credible that the Church stumbled into error after error in her teachings about the ontological status of Yeshua, the nature of G’d, and the normative status of the Torah, and yet preserved a right intuition on the issue which books of the Apostolic times should be recognized as inspired and canonical in addition to the Hebrew Bible?
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[1] Regrettably, many Messianics accept the Church doctrines of the Deity of Yeshua and the Trinity. But the basic problem pointed out here remains the same for them, since they don’t accept Replacement Theology.