J.I. Packer once described Christianity as a “revealed religion.” (Knowing God) Despite the fact that the Greek word kanōn wasn’t used in a Christian sense until Athanasius in the fourth century, the concept of divine revelation is as old as Christianity itself. According to the early Christian apologists, it was even older. And this is precisely why the early second century is unlike any epoch in salvation history. Revelation and Bible, though synonyms for the modern believer, were not concomitant during the first half of the second century. Prior to 180CE, the church had not identified every “canonical” New Testament book. Therefore early Christians were without a Bible per se, however they were not without divine revelation.
Bruce Metzger elucidates this idiosyncrasy by pointing to the concept of authority: The holy “Scriptures” of the church are a collection of authoritative writings while the biblical “Canon” is an authoritative collection of writings. (The Canon of the New Testament) Thus the process of canonization was the church’s gradual recognition of the inherent authority in the Scriptures, not an act by the church of bestowing authority. The difference is important not only for Catholic-Protestant debates today but for historical method itself. How are we to view the pre-Muratorian age of New Testament Scripture? Are scholars like Bart Ehrman justified in locating a kind of “proto-orthodoxy”? (Lost Christianities) Such a distinction between “Scripture” and “Canon” has led orthodox scholars like Alister McGrath to admit that “Christian orthodoxy” as a second century category is difficult to define. (Heresy)
However, by the same token, a healthy commitment to the inherent authority of Scripture can aid us historiographically as we examine how the New Testament canon as we know it was constituted. As McGrath asserts, heresy was not juxtaposed with early orthodoxy in a dualistic war of religions. Instead they struggled internally inside the same church with a common understanding of Scriptural authority: “the common pattern is the development, within the churches, of movements that were later regarded as heretical but that were considered by their originators as authentic forms of Christianity, superior to their alternatives.” The question was therefore not one of canonical authority itself, but in fact which books were canonical.
Today as we celebrate Reformation Day, we do more than remember Martin Luther and his 95 theses nailed to the Castle Church at Wittenberg 499 years ago. Today we recognize that there would have been no church at all were it not for Scripture itself. Holy Scripture birthed the church. Not the other way around. God decided to speak. And because our God is not silent, neither are His children. The church itself has never and will never have the authority to designate God’s Word. Only God Himself can do that. And thank God He has. Definitively. With the principle of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone in Latin), today we can celebrate God’s merciful revelation to sinful humanity and the endeavors of a man who refused to subordinate God’s Word to God’s church.
As the second century testifies to the modern church, there wasn’t always a canon. But that doesn’t mean the church was without divine revelation. God never needed a church in order to speak to His people. Scriptural authority is divine authority. That’s important to remember in today’s church climate. It reminds us as members of Christ’s church never to step beyond the bounds of Scripture itself. And on Reformation Day we stand with Luther against those who honor man’s authority above the risen Lord’s. Today we don’t just celebrate the 95 theses. Today we stand with Luther at the Imperial Diet at Worms and cry:
“I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” -Martin Luther(1521)
HAPPY REFORMATION DAY!