Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Old Testament Basis for Canonical Scripture

Many discussions of the biblical canon - that is, the list of books that compose God's written word - begin and end with the New Testament and view it from the perspective of church history. What role did the church play in the formation of the New Testament canon? Why did they recognize some books and not others? But more fundamental than the historical discussion is the theological discussion - how ought we to recognize God's word? What role ought the church to play? These are questions that only God can answer, and therefore we must seek them from Scripture itself. While this may feel circular to some, to find these answers anywhere else would be to make some other authority (e.g. the church, historical scholarship, subjective experience) the basis of our faith. If God's word, as found in His written word, is the ultimate authority for our beliefs, then we must justify our acceptance of the Bible from the Bible. The question is, is our acceptance of the 66 books of Scriptures arbitrary? Or is it an obedient acceptance determined by Scripture? Was the church at liberty to choose whatever books were best to its liking or was it bound to obediently accept the books that God sent it?

This is a big topic. We will be discussing it in my church's Sunday school class for several weeks. But the discussion begins not with the New Testament, but with the Old Testament. The New Testament church, after all, did not begin without Scripture. It began with the Old Testament which was already established.

From the beginning of human history, God has revealed Himself to humanity. He conversed with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He confronted Esau and warned Noah of the impending flood. It is unclear when God's word began to be put down in writing. The book of Genesis may have been begun by men like Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. But the clear beginning of written revelation is with Moses. 

Moses received the word of the Lord at the burning bush, in Egypt, at Mt. Sinai, and in the Tabernacle. God spoke to Moses "face to face, as a man speaks to his friend" (Ex. 33:11). And God made this very clear to all of Israel. The ten plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, God's thunderous words to all the people from Mt. Sinai, the cloud in the tabernacle, and the miraculous judgments upon those who resisted Moses' prophetic word all publicly testified that God gave His word to Moses to speak to the people (Ex. 19:9). In fact, the people asked that it be done this way after they had heard the Ten Commandments from God's own voice:
"Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.'" (Exodus 20:18–19)
But Moses did not merely speak God's words to the people. He also wrote down what God told Him and entrusted it to the Levites so that they might teach the people this word. 
"And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD...Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (Exodus 24:4, 7, see also Ex. 34:27)  
"Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the LORD, and these are their stages according to their starting places." (Numbers 33:2) 
“And when he [the king] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them..." (Deuteronomy 17:18–19) 
"Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the LORD, and to all the elders of Israel. And Moses commanded them, 'At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.'" (Deuteronomy 31:9–13, see also Deut. 31:22, 24-26) 
Therefore the people of Israel, and the Levitical priests in particular, were "entrusted with the oracles of God" (Romans 3:2). They began with the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), and they were commanded to not add to or take away from what God gave them (Deut. 4:2, 12:3). Only God had the prerogative to add further revelation, and He told them that He would. In Deuteronomy 18, God prohibited various pagan ways of fortune telling and divination and promised a continuation of prophecy among prophets like Moses whom He would raise up. He also gave Israel three tests to recognize true prophecy - it would be prophetic (Deut. 18:18), orthodox (Deut. 18:20, 13:1-5), and its predictions would come to pass (Deut. 18:21-22). As had been done by Moses, canonical prophecy would continue to be entrusted to the Levitical priests (Rom. 3:2). Even though the prophecy often critiqued the priesthood and sometimes met with resistance by the priests, in time the prophecy was divinely vindicated and obediently accepted. Only some prophecy was intended to be written down and preserved for the church, but this prophecy was in time received and recognized by the Levitical priests in Jerusalem.

Thus, by the time of Jesus, the Old Testament was a canonical collection of books recognized as God's word, a definitive copy of which was still kept in the temple. This collection was referred to either as "the Scriptures" (John 10:34-35, Luke 24:44-45), "the Law" (John 10:34-35), "the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 5:17), "Moses and the Prophets" (Luke 16:29-31), or "the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44-45). It was all considered prophetical, in continuity with God's revelation through Moses, and vindicated in its predictions. This body of Scripture was identical to the Old Testament of the early church and of Protestant Bibles today, although the books were counted differently (e.g. 1 and 2 Kings were considered one book). It was affirmed by Christ and obediently received by His followers. It was incomplete, pointing to the final revelation given by Christ and His apostles, but it was God's word, containing its own authority, imposing itself upon God's people. And along with the New Testament, it continues to call for obedient reception today.

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