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The Authority of the Bible

CHAPTER 3: The Formation of the Canon


We have seen from the section on the Bible and Early Christianity that the early church was left without any instructions by Christ on how to set up a church and was instructed to wait for “power from above” which came with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

To state the obvious, the early church never operated on the basis of the Bible alone. It couldn’t because the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Christ were yet to be recorded. The New Testament was not yet written. Instead the Christian message spread primarily through “word of mouth.” As a result, although the Old Testament scriptures were used and referred to, (particularly in situations involving the Jews whose scripture it was), it was a very different approach. What we find instead is that the early Christians believed both they and their converts would be led directly by the Holy Spirit. The Christadelphian belief that these references to the Holy Spirit mean the “spirit-Word” simply doesn’t align with a consideration of the limitations of adopting of a book-based approach for the early believers. It wasn’t a deep theological approach, even though in some arguments with the Jews and books written for them (such as the Book of Hebrews) we do have deeper theological considerations involved.

For this reason alone it is impossible that Christadelphians have apostolic Christianity. In fact it is doubtful anyone can, because church experience is by its nature something which grows and nowhere in the New Testament is there evidence of a perfect church. It is the lack of perfection and difficulties encountered that led to many of the letters in fact being written. This is also why with time the Christadelphians (like other churches which consider themselves restorationist) have established their own traditions too.

The apostolic method then was not therefore that of people being exhorted to find out the truth for themselves by Bible study and independence of mind as Christadelphians teach, yet seek in practice to suppress through adopting a process of conversion and the establishment of their own forms of church authority. It was instead a “taught” method, commending new believers through repentance to be led by an experiential knowledge of Christ being in them. That’s why in the New Testament we read so much about the heart, being a new creation and Christ being “IN” the believer. The Christian message had an experiential basis. It wasn’t a head religion, although it did not limit itself to experiential knowledge, which would involve an article of itself to consider. It was an embryonic state and as a result they had to wrestle with their own difficulties. The belief they were led by God never meant they were in total agreement. The leaders had disputes with other, established factions, had embryonic councils and that process continued after the last book of the Bible was written. They never had perfect knowledge or experience to write a perfect book, even though they claimed inspiration.

The historical mainstream Protestant view has therefore very often been simplistic, which unknowingly in their view of scripture Christadelphians have adopted. It is not without reason in view of the state of the Catholic church at the time of the Reformation. Some simple thought, though, shows some limitations and the undue belief all answers lie in academic Biblical understanding limits the value of other forms of learning such as from history, experience and emotion. Instead of showing early Christian believers essentially had the tenets and emphases of Christadelphians. What we find instead is a group of folk with at best very simple creeds and with a diversity that in time became creedal as it became more institutionalised and fixed. In a way that solved some difficulties, but in time led to others. It can in fact be argued that at a deep level the body of Christ is bigger than the rigid forms of humans seeking some defined ways to work together. This idea of the body of Christ being a living and breathing organism itself can be found within early Christian writing such as the New Testament.

To fully explain how the body of Christ works is not the aim of this site. It would be to suggest that I know the mind of God and that in some way I direct his body. In fact the emphasis of the early Christian writings we have is that God is in control. It is his church, it is his body, and Christ is its head. They suggest it is God who puts people in the right places, the act of remembering his death and resurrection is the table of the Lord and so forth. The denominational ideas of creeds, of established human forms of authority and so forth are simply following in the steps of the Catholic church they so often fiercely see as the “mother of harlots” with other competing churches being “its daughters” (common restorationist belief).

It is within this embryonic state that we read a verse beloved by those who emphasise plenary inspiration that “all scripture is inspired by inspiration and profitable.” If we ignore the lessons of the past and history we can repeat the same mistakes. We can’t simplify the ways by which God can teach and lead us and of course the big lesson that was emphasised by the early Christians was the limitations of the Old Covenant which was based upon the Law of Moses. The point being made was that there was a value of still reading the Old Testament “through Christ.” To be led by the Spirit followed a process designed to teach the limitations of law. Forgetting the effect of trying to earn goodwill through effort which was the basis of the law meant the value of the Spirit would be forgotten. It was not to “kill the Spirit by focusing on the letter” as they emphasised elsewhere. Trying to all become Bible students and academics can actually create itself a suppressed spirit. To believe everything can be defined and there is no limitations to words can itself be a crippling belief. The failure of creeds and the need to ever further define them in fact is the problem that those who wish to preserve historical Christadelphianism face with all the divisions it has caused. In fact what it really does (as can be seen elsewhere on this site) is to create forms of church authority and suppress fuller investigations very often.

This is why although the Christadelphians often present an altered explanation of their own origins I am heartened by it because it shows some learning is occurring. As the denomination has matured it has become evident that there were prior influences and that coming out of a void isn’t very credible. It also shows the idea that God would have no followers since an early apostasy also has some problems. As an understanding of this grows, a greater recognition that the community doesn’t have a monopoly on truth and the need to show a greater generosity of spirit should also grow. We may also have to acknowledge that other religions may also have some valid lessons we can learn from and that even the secular world may also do too. In view of Christian history we are called to have to recognise some of our failures may be down to too much faith in ourselves.

Selecting the Books of the New Testament

Historically as noted, it has been claimed by the Christadelphian founders and community that Christianity went into total apostasy in very early days. The theory is therefore that prior to a certain point the early Christians held Christadelphian positions. This is, however, not historically proven and it raises some interesting questions because of the usual belief that the main purpose for the Holy Spirit was to bring about “that which is perfect” (1 Corinthians 13v10) which they understand to mean the Bible.

It is also held that the great apostasy occurred very early on, certainly before the mainstream alignment of Christianity with the Roman Empire. Whilst mainstream Protestant groups would allow a later apostasy, by nature of Christadelphian theology and their view that salvation is through correct theology it is put at a very early date. This means it occurred prior to a consensus of what constituted scripture. The historical evidence shows in fact the formulation of the New Testament took time and the Roman Catholic Church was instrumental in that process. Although its formal recognition might not mean much, the fact that it was not a settled matter does. It became settled by mainstream Christianity through several centuries whilst being according to the historical Christadelphian view apostate. Whilst a conspiratorial view of history that differs from the orthodox is not inevitably wrong a consistent historical explanation is needed.

The historical Christadelphian view is well expressed by Robert Roberts here, although he does not consider the topic of how the canon came into existence.

What is clear is that the early Christians wrote a huge number of books and letters, far more in fact than we have in the New Testament and whilst many are still in existence (click here), far more have been lost. In addition as time went on people did feel a desire to compile an authoritative list which represented first century Christianity. Whether this was due to the Holy Spirit or some other reason is an interesting topic, but that it took time is documented. From the records of writers available different people compiled different lists of authoritative books (click here), many of the books being ones we have, others being absent from our New Testament and some lists having extra books.

It should be noted that the final selection was not picked at random, but based upon common usage, acceptance and perceived apostolic authority. However, opinion differed on which were apostolic and authoritative representations of the faith with various degrees of authority ascribed to them. A consensus of what constituted canon was not agreed until after a few centuries had passed and that would mean that if that was the purpose of the Holy Spirit God endued the apostate church with the necessary wisdom. It also means in essence they are supposed to have selected books which contradicted their positions in entirety, the true meanings of which were rediscovered by John Thomas.

The list of books considered as authoritative by a church is called a canon. The canon Christadelphians have adopted is that accepted by Protestants and which they retained from the Catholic Church. This doesn’t mean they are not inspired, but it does raise questions about the adequacy of the Bible alone and how we determine the adequacy of a canon in the light of history. It also raises questions about whether the idea of sola scriptura has ever really been adopted in isolation to authority and church systems and also whether we today still need leading into “all truth.”

Another factor we have to bear in mind is that the early gospel was in large rejected by the Jewish people and moved away largely from its initial start in Jerusalem. The people it moved to from Jerusalem in the Roman Empire were Greek-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles. That is why the original New Testament was probably in Greek (some believe parts may have been translated from Aramaic).

For Christadelphians, remember Nebuchadnezzar’s image – Babylon, Persia, Greek, Rome. A succession of empires. Under the Greek Empire huge numbers left Israel and settled elsewhere. In fact many lost their ability to speak Hebrew and spoke Greek instead and as a result they wanted a translation of the Old Testament. This was to be the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. This means when Christ was around there was actually at least two versions of the Old Testament. One was the Hebrew version, the other was the Septuagint. Many of these Greek-speakers in fact came to Jerusalem at Pentecost and were the centre of a dispute about the common sharing of goods in the early church.

It can be shown that the early Christians primarily used the Septuagint version, not the Hebrew version of the Old Testament for the simple fact that the majority of the early Christian converts were Greek speakers. That is after all why the New Testament was written in Greek. This is critical to examining the idea of each word being infallible because there are differences between the Septuagint and the Hebrew Versions of the Old Testament that sometimes alter their meaning. Instead of agreeing with Hebrew Old Testament meanings in these cases they tend instead to retain the Septuagint differences (site of

 interest here). Another point to note is that the Septuagint also had a group of books attached, which we would know as “the Apocrypha.” This is why they were historically found in every Bible prior to the twentieth century. They were used by many early Christians as well as many reformers, including many Anabaptists Christadelphians have claimed as common brethren. Their status usually not been considered scripture by those churches with Protestant origins, although they have been by many Orthodox traditions and in the Catholic Church itself made them part of its canon when they finally closed their canon at the Council of Trent in 1546.

“That which is perfect” if considered to be the completion of New Testament scripture has therefore reached different forms in different places depending on the orthodox church which had authority in that area. The Christadelphians retained their canon from the Protestant tradition which at the time of the Reformation retained theirs from the Catholic tradition. On Wikipedia there is an interesting comparison of how the final list differed in different places (click here) In fact the Old Testament canon itself was not fully clarified in the time of Christ by the Jews.

To sum up, the Bible alone is a faith position that wasn’t that of the early church and the formation of the canon of scripture we have was not a clear retention of something clearly defined but the result of a centuries long process.






Christadelphian Quotes

You lay a great stress upon facts throughout your letters, and are incessant in your demand that I should attend to them. This is good; but facts have to be rightly put together, and then you must have all the facts. I do not think you put the facts rightly together, and you leave out some, I am sure.

(Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian Pioneer, quoted

by Ruth McHaffie in Brethren Indeed)

The Spirit of liberty, based upon the law of faith, is the Spirit of Christ; and this spirit all the Sons of God are privileged to possess, and having it, to breathe. I claim the right of exercising this privilege, as well as my contemporaries; and I require of them that they should do to me as once they loudly required others to do to them…

(written by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, when he was against creeds in 

The Apostolic Advocate magazine, August 1836)

(John Thomas, from Apostacy Unveiled, p. 137,

quoted in The Christadelphian Magazine, January 1906)

Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get right at last.

(from a letter written by John Thomas in 1848, quoted by Robert Roberts, in Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)

Do what is right; be valiant for the Truth; teach it without compromise, and all lovers of the Truth will approve you. For all others you need not care a rush!

(from a letter written by John Thomas to Robert Roberts and published in The Christadelphian magazine, February 1866)