Review: Who Chose the Books of the New Testament?

D.A. Carson - Questions For Restless Minds

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Overview

Synopsis A reformed professor grapples with Atheist and Catholic challenges to a Reformed understanding of the canon of scripture.

Author Professor Charles E. Hill
Publisher Lexham Press

Length 104 Pages

Release Date February 2, 2022

I don’t usually review tracts, but it says something that this particular one caught my attention enough that it was worth giving a short shoutout.

The Evangelical, Reformed, and Catholic worlds have no shortage of handout literature. Every church and parish in the U.S. seems to have a table covered in short pamphlets in the hope somebody walking into a church off the street might read a copy of Dark Dungeons and find God on the spot — something I’m convinced has never happened. Although, I still occasionally consult my Pocket Guide to UFOs and ETs that I bought at the Creation Museum — mostly because it is ironically amusing.

The one I am discussing today — Who Chose the Books of the New Testament? — is a cut above the rest, mostly because it is doing something more intellectually rigorous than the average Chick Tract. It is a 60-page essay that outlines the basic Christian philosophy behind the efficacy of scripture — addressing both Atheist and Catholic challenges to the validity of scripture on its own terms from a Reformed perspective.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: Throughout – it’s an entire essay that looks at the basic Christian philosophy behind the efficacy of scripture
Violence: None
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: None
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: A short theology text that offers brief and accessible explorations of complex topics

An open page of a copy of the New Testament
An open page of a copy of the New Testament

Review

The tract I am reviewing today is part of the D.A. Carson: Questions for Restless Minds series produced by Lexham Press, and is one of the more recent of 17 different books addressing cultural or theological issues in the modern world, including How Do We Know God Exists?, Are All Religions True?, and How Should Christians Talk About Sex? As the editor writes, “Brief pamphlets with predictable answers couched in safe slogans will prove to be neither attractive nor convincing. So we have adopted a middle course. We have written short books pitched at undergraduates who want arguments that are accessible and stimulating.”

Who Chose the Books of the New Testament? is useful precisely because it is addressing several of the leading contemporary claims facing Protestant Christianity head-on — that the Bible is just a work of Roman propaganda and that outside of Catholic authority, it is garbled confusing nonsense — and it does so swiftly and intelligently.

As Orlando Reformed Theological Seminary Professor Charles E. Hill notes, Christianity has been overtaken by a series of pernicious myths about its foundational beliefs and origins that have permeated the academy and culture. It is taken on faith by secular academics that the Bible was assembled merely as an act of brute force, designed by politicians in the Roman Empire as a tool, and that it cannot be taken seriously as a meaningful document describing the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his apostles.

This argument does not take the reality of scripture seriously. Between 33 A.D. and the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., the scripture had already formed around the general consensus of the church fathers handing down a small catalog of documents over generations. The only other evidence of rival documents comes from the Gnostic Gospels and a handful of other apocryphal writings the church fathers themselves found wanting. All rival documents appear well after the first century and contain clear heresies and evidence of forgery.

When it comes to authenticity and authority, the traditional understanding of scripture, as laid out by scholar Lee McDonald, says scripture is formed by “apostolicity, orthodoxy, antiquity, and use” — meaning there is clear evidence the apostles handed these writings to the church fathers, who handed them to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and preserved them to modernity.

This still leaves a philosophical objection from Catholicism, as Protestants cannot readily default to the authority of the established universal church as a defense when it openly argues the church is questionable in other areas — particularly on questions like the metaphysics of the Eucharist, the Marian dogmas, the veneration of the Saints, justification, etc. The Catholic Church has long argued the canon and authenticity of scripture are only assured in the confidence of their church’s ultimate authority.

Professor Hill disagrees, deferring back to the church fathers themselves for their wisdom and logic surrounding the efficacy of scripture. He argues the canonicity of scripture is less of a problem in the early church because the church fathers knew which documents had been handed directly to them by their forbearers. When Gnostic heretics began circulating supposedly lost documents, they only needed to source their libraries to realize these new books were unlikely to be authentic — something the heretical contents of the Gospel of Judas makes self-evident.

The church fathers didn’t entirely agree on canonicity — St. Ireneus erroneously quotes the Shepard of Hermas as scripture, while St. Clement cites the Apocalypse of Peter and the Epistle of Barnabas — and several books were highly scrutinized in the early centuries as potentially noncanonical — Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation — but the current canon survived robust scrutiny and criticism, through a proper understanding of continuity and theological consistency.

“The handling of the authoritative books involved chains of human relationships in the churches. Generations of Christians passed down the holy hooks, not unlike the way heirlooms might be passed down in a family. Irenaeus claims that the chain goes all the way back to the apostles,” says Professor Hill.

The process of canonization is messy, and it’s clear the general consensus has shifted over time, with reformers like Martin Luther heavily scrutinizing the canon of scripture and declaring seven Old Testament books as non-canonical and questioning four of the Epistles. But as Professor Hill shows, the modern Christian can reasonably trust God has placed in his Bible the books that are necessary for salvation and a right understanding of the Word of God.

Positives

+ Well-sourced and laid-out discussions on the canonicity of scripture
+ Sources draw from the Church Fathers and contemporary academia
+ Brisky and easy to understand

Negatives

- The book primarily speaks to a Reformed perspective and may be disagreeable to Catholics or Skeptics

The Bottom Line

Professor Charles E. Hill offers a brisk but useful tract for young Evangelicals and Calvinists to grapple with serious challenges to the authority of scripture.

 

Writing 9

Editing 8

8.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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