by Rev. Eric Elnes, Ph.D.
When I was in grade school in the Pacific Northwest, my father and I joined a local rock hounding club who were visiting an abandoned gold mine high in the Cascade mountains. When we arrived, the entrance to the mine was blocked, so I started picking around in piles of quartz gravel outside the mine. Much to my delight, I found a piece of quartz the size of my fist with a big chunk of gold sticking out. “This is my lucky day!” I exclaimed as I proudly presented my prize to the tour leader. He took one look at it, chuckled, and said, “Sorry son. What you have there is iron pyrite. Fool’s Gold!” I didn’t need to ask where that latter name came from.
Hunting for truth is a bit like gold-hunting. What looks brilliant and valuable is not always what it appears. Only, truth can’t be objectively verified like gold can. There is no ultimate source of authority by which truth claims may be tested. Of course, many Christians claim to have found such a Source. It’s not gold-colored, but black-and-white. They find it in the Bible, which they claim is God’s literal, inerrant Word. But is the Bible really meant to function this way? Was it designed to be an answer-machine, where we can insert a question and it delivers God’s Word in black-and-white? Since we’re five weeks into a series on listening for God’s voice, it makes sense to pause and ask in what way scripture helps us hear God’s Word.
Many Christians find it surprising, but there was no such thing as a New Testament for a full three centuries after Jesus’ death. One wonders how they ever managed to hear God’s Word if it wasn’t written down for them – or how they ever won an argument if they couldn’t state that “The Bible clearly says -”
What we know as the Christian Bible is really the result of a two-century-long response to a crisis that started in the mid-second century. That crisis was provoked by a wealthy ship owner named Marcion, the son of a prominent bishop. Marcion was concerned that there was far too much diversity within Christianity and no basis for deciding between what might figuratively be called “gold” and “fool’s gold.” He felt the problem was created, or at least sustained, by the number of contradictory and just plain foolish texts influencing the faithful.
To be sure, Marcion had a point. Within the two centuries following Jesus’ death, Christians had produced quite a large body of literature, including collections of sayings and miraculous acts attributed to Jesus as well as accounts of his birth and childhood. There were also stories concerning acts of the apostles, and sermons, and speeches of prominent Christian leaders. Some of these stories and teachings were quite bizarre or nonsensical.
For instance, there was the Gospel of Peter, whose author claims to be Peter but scholars generally agree was written about a hundred years after Peter would have lived (mid-second century). In this gospel, the Cross of Christ is said to have floated out of his tomb and spoken to people. Another gospel, known as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, probably from the same era, depicts Jesus as a precocious child who breathes life into clay birds, whose curses strike bullies dead, and blinds their parents.
Marcion proposed to create a unified canon (or “normative body of work”) which would separate the ‘real gold’ from the ‘fool’s gold.’ The problem was that Marcion himself had some pretty strange and foolish ideas. For instance, he considered the entire body of what we call the Old Testament to be worthy of the trash bin. He considered the God of the Hebrews primitive and evil, having nothing to do with the God of Jesus. The only writings he listed in his canon were the Gospel of Luke and ten letters attributed to Paul. Even these were carefully edited by Marcion to remove any positive references to Jews or to the God of the Jews.
Happily, the Christian community was generally horrified by Marcion’s proposal. But his proposal did get them thinking. Shouldn’t there be something people could turn to, to explore and develop their faith? Shouldn’t there be some basis for authority, if for no other reason than to prevent proposals like Marcion’s from defining Christianity?
Over the course of the next two hundred years, many writings were proposed and debated. Amazingly, within just two or three decades after Marcion proposed his single gospel and letters of Paul, 20 of the New Testament’s 27 books were identified that found such wide-spread agreement that the list would only ever be augmented, never altered. These were the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts, thirteen letters attributed to Paul, 1 John, and 1 Peter.
How were these books selected? The great church historian, Eusebius, tells us how he came up with his list in 325 C.E. – and his criteria stand for that of many. Eusebius asked three questions of many texts under consideration. To paraphrase, he asked:
(1) Has the writing been recognized as helpful by earlier generations of Church leaders? (Criterion: Historical Consensus)
(2) Was the book written early in the Christian era, either by someone who knew Jesus or who would have known someone who did? (Criterion: Historical Proximity to Jesus)
(3) Is the content consistent with what is generally established to be Christian theology and doctrine? (Criterion: Theological Continuity)
This list is surprising, not for what it mentions but for what it does not. Nowhere does Eusebius mention divine inspiration as a factor. Nowhere does he ask, “Does this writing function as the Word of God?” As one New Testament scholar has noted (Roy Hoover), “The reason, apparently, is that since all Christians were filled with the Spirit, a claim of inspiration would not have been useful as a way of distinguishing canonical from extracanonical Christian writings.”
Curiously, the one writing in the entire bible that claims to be directly inspired by God is the one that was so controversial it almost didn’t make it into the canon: the book of Revelation.
In the eyes of the ancient Christians, divine inspiration may be reflected in scripture, but it cannot be found there. It’s not written on a page but in your heart. A writing may point you in the direction of where to find God, but it is no substitute for direct encounter.
To the ancients, books of scripture are like ore-bearing rocks that have been separated out from the fool’s gold and deemed to contain a highest percentage of real gold. However, the scriptures are the ore-bearing rock, not the pure ore itself. If you want to extract the gold, you have to apply heat to the rock. The early Christians would have called that heat “prayer” or “meditation.” God’s word comes to us not when we pull it out of scripture, but when we allow scripture to set us in relationship with God. Literally, the purpose of scripture is to help us pray better.