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the Dida-what?

I frequently reference the works of various authors in my sermons. I especially love reading early church fathers who wrote sermons and commentaries on the Scriptures. I recently quoted from the first-century work called “The Didache”, specifically citing the passage “Didache 11:3–6”. In early April I cited the letter to the Corinthians from Clement of Rome: “1 Clement 46:5–8”. One of our members astutely noticed the references appear like biblical references. My sermon on Sunday is on “Ephesians 4:15–16”.

The reason for this is quite simple: when referencing a lengthy source, it is helpful to pinpoint the exact location. When citing a book today, we would include the author, the title, the publisher, the year published, and the page number. Because there are so many versions of ancient documents, citing a page number doesn’t work. Instead these works are divided up into books, chapters, and sections (much like verses).

I have a copy of a book of Josephus’ writings. He was a first-century Jewish historian. The translator, William Whiston, helpfully added paragraph numbers to make it easier to cite a specific passage. My edition of this book includes a second numbering system, the Loeb Numbering System. The Loeb Classical Library is a collection of ancient Greek and Latin texts. These works utilize a more precise reference system, numbering sentences rather than paragraphs. For example, in Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” Chapter 9 Paragraph 1, Josephus mentions James, “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ”. That paragraph is half a page long; far easier to say “Antiquities section 200”, which will give you the exact line. The point is the reference system is simply a reference system, just as the Scriptures have a reference system.

This same member then asked about which books are included in holy Scripture. That is a much bigger question. How did the church decide which books to include in the Bible and which books to exclude. The question needs to be reframed a bit, for the 27 books of the New Testament were received as holy Scripture. In other words, the original recipients did not determine if they were inspired Scripture; they received them as inspired Scripture. The process of “deciding” which books to include was really the process of discovering which books were originally received as Scripture.

Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, written in the first century (Clement knew both Peter and Paul!), was never regarded as Scripture, though many found it helpful and useful. I find it helpful and useful, for it provides insight into church governance as understood by someone taught directly by two apostles. It was never Scripture, however. Just as I might cite a commentary today, the early church often cited works outside of Scripture if they provided helpful clarification or understanding.

When the early church was sifting through various writings, they were trying to discover which had been received as authentic Scripture. Such writings had to be apostolic, whether written by an apostle or someone directly linked to an apostle. The Gospel of Mark was not written by an apostle but Mark was a close associate of Peter. Writings also had to have, of course, orthodox doctrine. If a work taught against the faith once delivered by the apostles, it could not be inspired Scripture. This include works that claimed to be from an author but were written by another. This was a common practice in the first century and was widely accepted. Such works were immediately recognized to not be Scripture, however. Clement’s letter to the Corinthians certainly meets these two requirements, so why was it not included in the New Testament? Many Christians found it useful and encouraged others to read it and gain understanding from it. The truth is it was never received as holy Scripture so, while it was useful, it never carried the weight of God’s inspired Word.

In the fourth and fifth centuries there were church councils that debated the issue of the Canon—the list of books received and recognized as inspired Scripture. There are minor variations between them but two types of books emerged. There was the Canon, what we know of as the Old and New Testaments, and there was the “second canon”, the deuterocanonical books. These were books that were helpful and profitable to be read, but were not the same as the Canon of Scripture. We know these works as the Apocrypha. These are mostly Jewish writings written post-exile.

During the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, largely in response to the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic church canonized the Apocrypha, elevating these works to the level of Scripture. Prior to this council, many Roman theologians denied the Apocryphal writings were Scripture. Cardinal Cajetan, the man who opposed Martin Luther at Augsburg, wrote a book called “A Commentary on all the Authentic Historical Books of the Old Testament” and did not include the Apocrypha.

This leads us to the primary question I was asked by the person I mentioned earlier. (Yes, all this was preparatory to his actual question.) How can a follower of Jesus who lacks formal education in such things filter out questionable doctrine, particularly from commentaries or other books about Scripture? Books are being published every day. How can a single person sift through it all to discover what is not only good and useful, but what is true?

The answer is simple: you can’t. I can’t, either. A formal seminary education, provided it is a good education, equips a student to ask better questions. By expanding one’s knowledge and understanding, a student of Scripture is better able to ask questions of the text, bringing in that expanded knowledge of history and theology and the science of Hermeneutics, which is the methodology of interpreting a text. Better questions lead to better answers. A seminary education isn’t available to most Christians, however, so what are the folk in the pew supposed to do?

There are two things that stand in tension and answer this question. First, God has given gifted teachers to his church. The gift of teaching comes with the inherent requirement for study. As we’ve seen, not all have been gifted to the same degree and so not all have the same level of necessary devotion to study and learn. Even more, the elders of a church are tasked with overseeing a church’s teaching. After instructing Titus to appoint elders in the various churches in Crete, Paul adds this qualification:

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Titus 1:9 ESV

Even among the elders, however, there are varying degrees of responsibility in this regard. Paul wrote a similar instruction to Timothy about elders in the church.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

1 Timothy 5:17 ESV

A church’s elders carry equal authority and responsibility in the local church. Here Paul indicates some are set apart in a distinct way, but that distinction is not found in greater authority but in vocation: some are set apart in order to labor in preaching and teaching. This is why New City employs me. My fellow elders have the same responsibilities I have; the difference is I labor at this full time.

That’s the first thing. Nowhere does Paul say a church’s doctrine is determined by one man. Nowhere does Scripture indicate authority to determine what is true is invested in a single person. Nowhere. This is the error of the Roman bishop. God has given gifted teachers to his church and he has given overseers to his church, men who are responsible for ensuring the church’s doctrine is true. The first answer to the question of what the folk in the pew are to do, given they most likely will not receive a seminary education, is this: receive the gift of God given through gifted teachers.

The second part is the folk in the pew must also put their minds to study. I don’t mean the same rigorous study of one who is set apart for preaching and teaching, but you can read the Scriptures. You can read other good writings about the Scriptures. You can study and strive to learn. You must recognize, however, that this is a marathon, not a sprint. You and I both will spend the rest of our lives learning and growing in understanding and you and I both have the same Spirit.

This is where the tension is. God has given gifted teachers to his church and he has given elders who are responsible for doctrine to the church. God has also given each and every one of us the ability to think and reason and learn and study and grow in knowledge. The tension comes from our culture of individualism. We’ve been taught that we are responsible only for ourselves and so we must, on our own, study and reason and think and even know. This is not what we’ve been seeing in Ephesians!

Remember the question: how is the person sitting in the pew supposed to discern truth from falsehood? How can an individual with no formal seminary education filter through all the stuff being taught and written and preached? No individual is supposed to. The church is supposed to do this, and God gives gifted leaders to his church to equip the church for the work of ministry. Some have an official role; the elders maintain oversight of the church’s teaching. Some are not in offices, but are nevertheless gifted and given to the church to equip the church.

There will be some for whom this answer isn’t fully satisfying. Some are still going to desire more knowledge and more understanding. They will want the tools necessary to contribute to the church. This is likely an indication one has the gift of teaching. This particular gift most often comes with a desire to learn and study and gain knowledge, inasmuch as it is the desire to pass on knowledge.

This is an area for growth for our church. We need to be better at teaching and helping one another understand truth. I would love to be able to say you could just go to a “Christian” bookstore and buy a book and read it, but the truth is that is dangerous, for there are many books that are in error. The question really is this: how can we better teach and equip our people, particularly those who are gifted teachers? This is a significant reason for these articles; they enable me to operate in my teaching role a bit more effectively. I am better able to respond to specific questions. This is why we’re working through the book “RetroChristianity” each month. This is why several from our church have gone through a class in partnership with the Jerusalem Project at Calvary Church. This is why we’re trying to figure out what comes next. (The elders are open to suggestions!)

Whether it is growth in maturity or growth in knowledge (which is part of maturation!), following the Lord Jesus is a team sport. The person in the pew isn’t supposed to figure out how to understand truth on his or her own, any more than an elder or deacon or gifted individual given to the church is supposed to do it alone. It is the church, not the individual, that is a “pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). We are in this together; we need to figure out how to be in it together better.