The Biblical Canon, Church Tradition, and Messianics


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?

[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.

2 Responses to “The Biblical Canon, Church Tradition, and Messianics”

  1. 1 Bart De Wilde November 16, 2015 at 10:50 am

    I am tended to define the word ‘Scripture’ as Yeshua and the Apostolic Writers would have defined it : Scripture is what Tanach is. How should we regard the Apostolic Writings then (As they did not exist at the time of Yeshua): I should say they are to be considered as halacha. I think church history could confirm this position insofar we accept Hashem is a guardian to His Word. The tradition of Tanach always has been guarded very meticulously. Church history shows the many difficulties in finding the oritinal writings of the ‘New Testament’ as ‘christian’ copiists were not so meticulous and even brought edited forms of original texts in order to defend their own theological views versus otherminded groups. Saying Apostolic Writings are halachic gives us a certain freedom to confront them with the Tanach as the authority of Tanach is greater, and at least submit them to Tanach in order to find a fiable meaning. This is the least we can do, I think. Meanwhile we have to remain open for scientific research and possible new discoveries in this field.

    • 2 Messianic613 November 17, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      It is clear that Yeshua and the Apostles used the word ‘Scripture’ to designate the Tanach. But it is also clear that the earthly life of our Lord was only the first part of his ministry and the divine revelations connected to it. After his resurrection and ascension these revelations continued through the work of the Holy Spirit of which the Apostles were the main instruments. These later revelations were not only given orally and through the practical guidance of the Spirit. They were also given scripturally, as can be seen in some parts of the Apostolic Writings. The Book of the Apocalypse, for instance, explicitly claims to be “the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah which G’d gave unto him” (Apoc. 1:1) and thus claims to be a divinely inspired text. And the Apostle Paul claimed to be backed by divine revelation in at least some of his teachings: “[…] how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery […]” (Eph. 3:3). The Second Epistle of Peter even declares Paul’s epistles to be part of the Holy Scriptures (in II Peter 3:15-16).

      In my opinion it is not necessary to deny divine inspiration to the Apostolic Writings in order to give a certain primacy to the Tanach. For in the Tanach we have a hierarchical order and ranking between Scriptures which are equal in dignity qua being all inspired by G’d. The Prophets and the Writings are not less inspired than the Torah. All are part of Sacred Scripure that cannot be broken. Yet there is a hierarchical order in them because the Prophets and the Writings presuppose the Torah and have to be explained in a way that doesn’t conflict with the Torah. This hierarchical ranking also applies to the Apostolic Writings and I agree with you that we have to interpret them in a way that is in harmony with the earlier revelations in the Torah and the entire Tanach.

      Since the Apostolic Writings often explicitly refer to the Scriptures, or use such typical rabbinic expressions as “the Scripture says”, “that the Scripture should be fulfilled”, &c, one may be tempted to consider these as indications that their authors did not regard their own work to belong to this same category. For it seems problematic that such an expression is used in a divinely inspired work. In the Tanach such expressions are unknown.

      My own hypothetical take on this is that the Apostolic Writings only became necessary, as a new corpus of Scripture, after the National Kingdom Offer had failed and Israel was not prepared to accept its Messiah. This catastrophic event, that the National Kingdom Offer — which was opened by the ministry of John the Baptist — had to be closed by Paul at the end of the Acts of the Apostles because it was rejected, caused the salvation of G’d (i.e. Yeshua) to be formally sent (‘apostled’ is the term used here) to the Gentiles in Acts 28:28.

      The immediate effect of this ‘transfer’ of Messiah to the Gentiles was the cessation of the powerful and miraculous manifestations of the Holy Spirit leading up to the Kingdom Age. In the later Prison Epistles of Paul we no longer see these manifestations.

      For the long intermediate time-frame which was now opened, it became necessary to codify and canonize the teachings of and concerning Messiah. And they were codified in Greek because the mission to national Israel — not to be confused with the mission to individual Jews — had temporarily ceased. These writings were primarily addressed to the Gentiles.

      So if Israel had accepted Yeshua as Messiah during his earthly ministry or during the time period covered by the Acts, the Apostolic Writings would perhaps not have acquired explicit canonical status and collected in one book (the NT), because the Kingdom would have arrived within a generation and mankind would have received the necessary authoritative and infallible teachings directly from the Kingdom missionaries, as commanded in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20).

      I’m somewhat puzzled by your classification of the Apostolic Scriptures as ‘halacha’, because these Scriptures don’t show the characteristics of the genre of halachic literature. Perhaps you mean to say that they are in the genre of authoritive commentary on the Tanach. I can agree with this up to a point, but I have to add that I view this commentary as divinely inspired and thus as being itself part of Holy Scripture.

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