This week, 1,647 years ago, St. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria at the time, wrote a document that helped clarify which books should and shouldn’t be included in the canon of the New Testament. As Christianity.com explains, within 130 years or so after Christ's death and resurrection, bishops started listing the writings that they considered “scripture”. Unfortunately, the lists didn’t always agree.
1. Athanasius and the canon
In his “festal” letter, written to his congregation on January 7, 367, Athanasius said, "Inasmuch as some have taken in hand to draw up for themselves an arrangement of the so-called apocryphal books and to intersperse them with the divinely inspired scripture...it has seemed good to me...to set forth in order the books which are included in the canon and have been delivered to us with accreditation that they are divine."
When the Christian church took formation in the first century, the Christian community accepted as a matter of course the Hebrew Bible (what Christians today call the “Old Testament”). As time passed, the church began to agree that the writings of Christ’s original apostles, as well as certain other writings that had the apostles’ stamp of approval, should also be regarded as Scripture. These writings became what Christians call the “New Testament”.
2. Background info on St. Athanasius
As Christianity.com points out, what makes Athanasius unique is that he “was the first man to compile a list of New Testament books as we know them”.
In addition to his work in helping the church come to an agreement of which books to regard as authoritative, Athanasius is also famous today for his defense of Orthodoxy in the face of Arianism. Arius, a 4th century bishop who denied the Deity of Jesus Christ, became so influential that a worldwide council, the Nicene Council, was held to address his controversial teachings. Athanasius’ writing and preaching helped strengthen the church’s conviction that, according to the Bible, Jesus is “begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father, God from God, Light from Light”.
Christianity.com, in recapping Athanasius’ influence, closed with a helpful reminder:
“The books of the Bible are not God's word because Athanasius said so; they are in the Bible because almost everyone in the church recognized them as coming from God. Athanasius was only expressing the conviction and practice of most Christians across the Roman Empire.”
3. Clarifying some misconceptions
Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics have historically disagreed about the relationship between the Church and the Bible. The controversy could be likened to the age old debate—which came first, the chicken or the egg? In theological terms, the dispute has often been about whether or not the Bible produced the Church or the Church produced the Bible? Consequently, which is more authoritative?
Clearly, there was a human element in choosing the canon. As Catholic writers sometimes point out, the Bible, as God originally gave it, didn’t come with a Table of Contents page. The Church had to discern which books were legitimate and which ones weren’t. In that sense, the Christian community, the church, “produced” the Bible. At the same time, the preaching and writing of the apostles is what gave birth to the earliest Christian communities. In that sense, the apostolic and prophetic writings, the Bible, “produced” the Christian church. Rather than overly focusing on which produced which, we should remember that God produced both. God brought the Christian church into being, founding it upon his Son Jesus Christ, and upon the apostles and prophets. Through human authors, God breathed into existence the sacred writings that have governed, and continue to govern, the Body of Christ today.
Because the canon wasn’t completely agreed upon until the 4th century, some have argued that this undercuts our assurance that the canon, as we have it today, is reliable. If the books were inspired by God, why did it take four centuries to agree on that? It is a formidable argument. At the same time, though, the fact that it took so long can serve to give us even greater assurance. The church didn’t hastily agree on which books were authoritative. They pondered it and pondered it and pondered it, giving us assurance that the decision finally made was one very well thought out.
The canon taking shape in the fourth century doesn’t mean that the church was in a muddle of confusion for the first 300 years. As was explained earlier, Athanasius’ list consisted of books that, from earliest times, had been used and held in high regard by Christians in all times and places. That was one of the litmus tests for canonicity—had the book been used by Christians since the church’s earliest days? Books that weren’t connected to the apostles and books that had only a local impact were dismissed. Athanasius listed what books should make up the New Testament, but these were books that, by and large, the church had already been using since the beginning. It was the universal consent of the entire Body of Christ that, practically speaking, illuminated which books had in fact come from God. Athanasius, more than anything else, formalized the list. As C.S. Lewis said, “The basis of our Faith is not the Bible taken by itself but the agreed affirmation of all Christendom to which we owe the Bible itself.”
Orthodox Christians frequently point out that, since the canon wasn’t agreed upon until the 4th century, there is a sense in which Christian custom and church tradition pre-dates the Bible itself. This, they argue, is a serious blow to the Protestant notion of “sola Scriptura”. The earliest Christians couldn’t have had a “Bible alone” view, divorced from church tradition, because the Bible itself was still being compiled. C.S. Lewis, the great quote-smith that he was, perhaps better than any other writer, helps clear up the confusion:
“Beware of the argument, ‘The Church gave the Bible (and therefore the Bible can never give us grounds for criticizing the Church).’ It is perfectly possible to accept B on the authority of A and yet regard B as a higher authority than A. It happens when I recommend a book to a pupil. I first sent him to the book, but having gone to it, he knows (for I’ve told him) that the author knows more about the subject than I.”
Thank God for both the church and the Bible. Thank God for Athanasius' work in helping put the Bible in the hands of his fellow Christians in the 21st century.