Monthly Archives: February 2019

Is Jesus God? A Historical Evaluation Concerning the Deity of Christ

February 2019 Credo 

Jesus of Nazareth is one of the most significant and controversial figures of human civilization, and billions of people throughout history have regarded him as divine. But where did this astonishing idea come from? How did a human Jewish preacher come to be regarded as God?

Option #1: Jesus was divinized during the time of Constantine in the fourth century; the New Testament we read today—which claims that Jesus was divine (e.g. John 20:28-29)—have been significantly changed from the originals in the first century.

This view, popularized in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, has long been debunked by scholars. As historian Michael Licona observes, ‘The manuscript support for our present critical Greek text of the New Testament is superior to what we have for any of the ancient literature,’ and that ‘the wealth of manuscripts for the New Testament literature leaves us very few places where uncertainty remains pertaining to the earliest reading or at least the meaning behind it.’ Because of the abundant manuscript evidence, historians are able to ascertain that the New Testament passages which claim that Jesus was divine are essentially the same as those written in the first century.

Option #2: “Divine Christology” began towards the end of the first century, around the time when the Gospel of John was written.

This view is contradicted by the evidences found in the letters by Apostle Paul, which were written in the middle of the first century, and which reflected the beliefs of Christians which were already well-established even earlier. For example, concerning 1 Corinthians 8:6, New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham (1998) observes the Jewish conception that YHWH accomplished creation alone (Isaiah 44:24), and while Romans 11:36 refers to God as the Creator of all things, in 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul divides it between God and Christ. These observations imply that Paul affirms the doctrine that Christ was ‘truly divine’, i.e. Christ and the Father are both within the being of YHWH. This conclusion is reinforced by a careful study of Philippians 2:6-11, and by evidences of devotional practices and expressions of spiritual desire for Christ found elsewhere in Paul’s epistles.

Option #3: it was Apostle Paul who introduced the idea that Jesus was divine, and thus distorted the real Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was divinized as a result of Greek or Roman polytheistic influences.

These views have been widely rejected by historians. Based on historical evidences of the time, the devout Jews during the Roman-era were very strict in their religious belief about reserving worship only for one God the Creator. Hence, it is unlikely that those devout Jews, such as the earliest Christian leaders including Paul who condemned idolatry (see Romans 1:18-25) and who were willing to sacrifice everything for their belief in God, would be opened to Greek or Roman polytheistic influences to distort their religion.

Even if some of these Jewish Christians did accommodate under polytheistic influences, there would have been strong objections from the more conservative Jewish Christians who would have considered the worship of Christ as blasphemy. Instead they were in widespread agreement concerning the status of Christ. This can be inferred from the fact that Paul’s writings (e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, 15:3, 11; Galatians 1:23, 2:7-9) indicate that the gospel of ‘first importance’ concerning Jesus Christ was the common message, belief and identity marker of the earliest Christians, and that Paul acknowledged that he received the gospel from earlier Christians. Moreover, Paul acknowledged the authority of the Jerusalem apostles to validate—or even to invalidate—the gospel he preached (Galatians 2:2). Richard Bauckham summarizes the case against the view that Paul divinized Jesus:

‘Paul did not have sufficient power and influence to invent Christianity. After coming to believe in Jesus the Messiah, Paul was a major Christian missionary, who did much to spread the Christian Gospel, especially among non-Jews, in the areas of modern Turkey and Greece. But there was already a large Christian community in Rome long before Paul visited the capital. Christianity must soon have spread to Egypt and to Mesopotamia, developments with which Paul had no involvement… The centre from which the early Christian movement developed and spread throughout the ancient world was not Paul, but the Jerusalem church, led initially by the twelve apostles and subsequently by James the brother of Jesus. What was common to the whole Christian movement derived from Jerusalem, not from Paul, and Paul himself derived the central message he preached from the Jerusalem apostles.’

The historical evidences therefore indicate that Jesus was already regarded as truly divine by the earliest Christian church in Jerusalem led by the twelve apostles, and this happened because they perceived that Jesus claimed and showed himself to be truly divine (e.g. Matthew 28:19; Mark 14:60-64; Luke 24:50-52; John 20:28-29). Against this view, sceptics have claimed that the Four Gospels in the Bible are unreliable historical sources on Jesus. Many scholars have replied that this claim is based on widespread misconceptions ( http://ehrmanproject.com/ ). In any case, regardless of whether the Four Gospels are reliable, we still need to explain how the earliest Christians came to regard Jesus as truly divine. If Jesus did not claim and show himself to be truly divine by rising from the dead, this would not have happened; the earliest Christian leaders who were devout ancient monotheistic Jews would have regarded Jesus as merely a teacher or a prophet; they would not have come to the widespread agreement that he truly divine. Which they did.

The Jesus of history claimed to be truly divine. He died on the Cross for our sins, and overcame death to show that he is truly divine. He is the only one who can give us eternal and abundant life. As the Scripture says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). Jesus says ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.’ (John 10: 10).


Note: The contents of this article is mainly taken from Andrew Loke, The Origins of Divine Christology (Cambridge University Press, 2017). For detailed replies to sceptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman, please refer to that book.



Dr. Andrew Loke
 (PhD, Kings College) is Research Assistant Professor at The University of Hong Kong. A former medical doctor, he is has authored numerous books, including ETHOS Institute Engagement Series booklet, ‘Science and the Christian Faith‘.

Descent into Barbarity

February 2019 Pulse

Last month, Democrats in New York passed a bill that allowed women to abort their infant for any reason and at any point of pregnancy up to the moment of birth.

‘A standing ovation for abortion?’, writes Ashely McGuire in USA Today. ‘That’s what New York’s Reproductive Health Act got in the Senate chamber when it passed last week. Lawmakers and bystanders stood and applauded a law that legalized abortion all the way up until birth, for any reason.’

This lunacy has spread to the state of Virginia where Democrats there tried to emulate their counterparts in New York by issuing a bill to revise existing abortion laws. On The WTPO’s Ask The Governor, Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Governor, in support of the bill, openly made this shocking comment:

So in this particular example, if the mother is in labour, I can tell you exactly what would happen, the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.

Commenting on the governor’s remarks on the proposed legislation, Ben Shapiro writes in The Daily Wire: ‘This is pure infanticide … This is a statement that a fully-formed infant, born alive, ought to be murdered if the mother says the infant ought to be murdered.’

The Daily Wire reported that the governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, a Democrat and nominal Catholic, also advocated for the new legislation following her gubernatorial counterpart in New York. In addition, this new legislation also seeks to repeal current laws against the gruesome practice of partial abortion. As Steve McCann explains, this means that the law would now allow ‘delivering a healthy baby alive then killing it by crushing its skull and suctioning out the brain as it emerges from the womb.’

Alluding to the Wade decision of 1973, Governor Ralph Northam said in a press conference (to applause from the audience) that this new legislation will protect the full autonomy of women. Since Roe v Wade, states across America have been exploring how permissive they can be with their abortion laws.

This new abortion law signals western liberal society’s further descent into barbarity. It exemplifies what Pope John Paul II provocatively described more than twenty years ago as the ‘culture of death’ in his encyclical letter The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). This is a culture that inflicts unconscionable violence on human life and conspires against the weak, the sick and the vulnerable, often in the name of personal autonomy and liberty.

The devaluation of human life has long been given voice by scholars like Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In his controversial book entitled Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1994), Singer repudiates the view that human life is sacred and that all human lives have equal claims to preservation. His staunch advocacy for the legalization of abortion, infanticide and euthanasia is evident in many of his writings.

Challenging the precepts of traditional morality, Singer replaces them with the ‘new commandments’ that stem from the preference utilitarianism he espouses and promotes. For example, the ‘old commandment’ which says that we must treat all human life as of equal worth is replaced by the new, which insists that the worth of human life varies considerably.

The old precept ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is replaced by Singer’s new dogma that we should bring children into the world only if they are wanted. Note the passive voice in the statement (‘if they are wanted’) that engenders ambiguity: wanted by whom? The mother? The parents? The state?

Christians must roundly and resolutely condemn any legislation that allows an innocent child (whether unborn or born) to be killed ‘for any reason’ and in the name of personal autonomy.

The human being is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and endowed with inviolable dignity and worth. Scripture categorically prohibits homicide (Exodus 20:13) because human life is sacred. As Pope John Paul II has rightly pointed out, ‘Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual.’

The Church has throughout her history consistently, unequivocally and unreservedly opposed and condemned abortion and infanticide. For example, in the second century document called The Didache, we find this injunction: ‘Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn child.’ Echoing this clear instruction, the great theologian of Latin Christianity, Tertullian, writes:

For us [Christians], murder is once and for all forbidden; so even the child in the womb, while yet the Mother’s blood is still being drawn on to form the human being, it is not lawful for us to destroy. To forbid birth is only quicker murder.

 In similar vein, the sixteenth century reformer, John Calvin, condemns abortion in the strongest possible terms when he writes: ‘The foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.’

In our time, theologians like Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have likewise condemned the killing of innocent children by abortion. ‘Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb,’ writes Bonhoeffer in Ethics, ‘is a violation of the right to life which God has bestowed on this nascent life … And is nothing but murder.’

Edward Scharfenberger, the Catholic bishop of Albany, has written to the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, to express his deep concern about the new law:

Although in your recent State of the State address you [Gov. Cuomo] cited your Catholic faith and said we should ‘stand with Pope Francis,’ your advocacy of extreme abortion legislation is completely contrary to the teachings of our pope and our Church. Once truth is separated from fiction and people come to realise the impact of the bill, they will be shocked to the core. By that time, however, it may be too late to save the countless lives that will be lost or spare countless women lifelong regret.

Christians must join their voices to this venerable chorus to oppose such legislations. They must see abortion and infanticide for what they truly are, namely, the wanton murder of innocent children. Together with Vatical II they must see abortion and infanticide as nothing less than an ‘unspeakable crime.’

The Church can never be passive or silent in the face of such an atrocity. She must protest against and oppose the culture of death, for as Pope John Paul II has again put it so eloquently and powerfully: ‘Every threat to human dignity and life must necessarily be felt in the Church’s very heart.’



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Embryo Editing

February 2019 Pulse

On 25 November 2018, the MIT Technology Review reported that a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, claimed to have created the first CRISPR-edited babies. In the first of five YouTube videos posted on the same day, He announced that ‘Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago’.

This landmark case has profound ramifications for the ongoing debate among scientists, ethicists and theologians surrounding the ethics of human gene editing.

He and his team worked with couples where the fathers are HIV-positive. Employing a relatively new technology called CRISPR/Cas 9 they deactivated a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos created through in-vitro fertilisation and then implanted them in the mothers. CCR5 is the protein that the HIV viruses use to gain entry into human cells. Its deactivation would therefore theoretically prevent or reduce the risk of infection.

He and his team were not the first scientists to use CRISPR on human embryos. In 2015, Chinese scientists Canquan Zhou and Junjiu Huang used CRISPR to remove the gene that causes the blood disorder known as β-thalassema when it is mutated. And in 2017, Shoukhrat Mitalipov and his team at the Oregon Health and Science University used the same technology to successfully extract a genetic variant from embryos that causes a deadly heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The difference between the earlier studies and the one conducted by He and his team is that the latter has disabled a normal gene to reduce the risk of a child from getting an infection – they did not remove a defective gene that predisposes an individual to a particular disease. In addition, the infection in question can be prevented by other means, such as safe sex-education or the use of anti-viral drugs.

Scientists have found He’s editing to be incomplete because some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 while others do not. They have also pointed out that CCR5 is not the only protein that transports HIV and that some strains of the virus can enter the cell through another protein called CXCR4. Deactivating CCR5 therefore does not guarantee immunity.

He’s work has resulted in a furore in the scientific community. Ethicists and biomedical watchdogs have condemned the work as ‘monstrous’, ‘unconscionable’ and ‘a grave abuse of human rights’. The Southern University of Science and Technology, where He and his team worked, claimed that it was unaware of the project and immediately launched an investigation. Its preliminary statement described the work as a ‘serious violation of academic ethics and standards’.

This case has once again brought to the surface the serious ethical questions related to genetic research in general and genetic engineering (in this case, gene editing) in particular. It is impossible to address all these issues in the brief compass of this article. I can only provide here a very brief sketch of the moral and ethical issues related to gene editing in a human embryo.

Moral Status of the Embryo

First and foremost, we must clarify the moral status of the human embryo. According to the Christian faith, the human being is a creature made in the image and likeness of his Creator (Genesis 1:26-28) and therefore possesses inviolable dignity and value from its conception. This means that the human embryo must be regarded as a person worthy of our respect and protection. The human embryo therefore must never be treated merely as human tissue that is created in the laboratory, experimented upon and then discarded.

To cause the death of a human embryo in the name of science is to violate the Nuremberg Code (1948), which states that ‘No experiment should be conducted, where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur’. Those who are of the view that gene editing does not violate human dignity fail to take into consideration the fact that in perfecting the technology and technique, thousands of human embryos are routinely subjected to research and subsequently destroyed in laboratories across the world.

Off-Target Results

Gene editing, whether conducted in an adult subject or an embryo, is often accompanied by significant risks, some of which scientists are unable to fully anticipate at this point. For example, there is always the potential of error in editing the gene of an early embryo, which some scientists have described as off-target genetic effects.

As the term suggests, off-target genetic mutations occur when the technology employed hits a DNA sequence that is not its intended target. Because of the nature of gene editing, even minor off-target hits may have major consequences. This is especially the case when the subject is a developing embryo. Such mistakes could result in genetic abnormalities or the onset of disease in the foetus as it develops or during adulthood.

Another possible risk of gene editing in embryos is mosaicism. As a result of the intervention, the embryo may come to possess two different populations of cells (a mosaic of edited and unedited genes) with two distinct genotypes.

Several studies have shown that mosaicism is especially common when the CRISPR/Cas 9 system is used on embryos. Studies have also indicated that mosaicism can result in major phenotypic changes that can adversely affect the health of the child. Some known genetic disorders that are directly attributed to mosaicism include: Down syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome and Turner syndrome.

Epigenetics

Scientists and ethicists are also concerned about the way in which gene editing in embryos may affect the epigenetic code that controls the thousands of genes within each cell and determines whether they are switched on or off. They believe that editing the gene of an early embryo could result in changes in the epigenetic information that may have adverse consequences on the health and wellbeing of the offspring.

While we have certainly made great strides in bio-medicine and technology, the fact remains that we are only beginning to understand the genetic factors that regulate embryological and foetal development. That is why leading biologists like Jennifer A. Doudna of the University of California and David Baltimore, the former president of the California Institute of Technology, are calling for a worldwide moratorium on human genome editing.

Future Generations

Besides inflicting possible harms to the embryo, scientists are also concerned that genome editing in embryos could have adverse consequences for future generations that are difficult to predict at this point in time. This is because the genetic modifications made to a developing embryo can potentially be irreversibly transmitted down the line.

Scientists working on the human genome must take seriously their responsibility for future generations. Mark Frankel and Audrey Chapman have rightly cautioned the scientific community, which often displays ‘too great a readiness to attempt to control the genetic inheritance of our offspring’, to carefully consider the consequences that their work might have on their children’s children.

The theologian Donald Mac-Kay has argued that Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbour (Luke 10) extends even to future generations. And in the context of the present discussion, that love is expressed in the careful evaluation of how our current scientific interventions might benefit or harm our children.

In its instruction on bioethical issues, Dignitatis Personae, the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church provides some clear perspectives on the issues we are considering. Dignitatis Personae is clearly in favour of certain forms of gene therapy. For example, it explicitly states that ‘Procedures used in somatic cells for strictly therapeutic purposes are in principle morally licit’.

But a bright line is drawn when it comes to genetic modifications on the germline or the early embryo that may have unpredictable consequences for the future generation.

The moral evaluation of germ line cell therapy is different. Whatever genetic modifications are effected on the germ cells of a person will be transmitted to any personal offspring. Because the risks connected to any genetic manipulation are considerable and yet not fully controllable, in the present state of research, it is not morally permissible to act in a way that may cause possible harm to the resulting progeny (emphasis on original).

Much more can be said about this important and complex issue. But I hope that this brief discussion has sufficiently shown that there are profound theological and moral reasons why gene editing in human embryos should not be permitted.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.

Inter-Religious Dialogue: Compromise of Faith or Expression of Conviction?

February 2019 Feature

In recent years, I have had the opportunity to engage in several inter-faith activities, often as a representative of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS). A few well-meaning Christians have privately expressed to me the discomfort they feel: Was I compromising my Christian faith by participating in these activities? This concern stems from a particular perception of inter-religious dialogue, one based on a model promoted, perhaps most prominently, by the philosopher of religion John Hick. Hick teaches that the major world religions all point to the same reality, which the various religions have described using different terms (e.g. “God”, “heaven”, “nirvana”). In the end, “all roads lead to Rome”, and we end up at the same destination, whichever religious path we follow.

Inter-religious dialogue, for Hick, is therefore an exercise which seeks to uncover common features in our various faith traditions, which will help us see more clearly that we are ultimately on the same journey. It is also needful, during such dialogue, to downplay the distinctive teachings of each religion, as these tend to drive a wedge between the various faiths and blind us to the fact that, at the core, we are all identical.

Space does not allow us to engage in a comprehensive critique of Hick’s position. But one thing we can say is that it demonstrates very clearly the arrogance of the modern age. What Hick is effectively telling the followers of the major world religions (many of whom have studied and practised their faith the whole of their lives) is that he understands their faith better than they do. Religious practitioners are severely limited by their religious blinkers, but Hick (the modern philosopher) is somehow able to rise above all of them and see things from a truly transcendent perspective. He is therefore able to reveal the true nature of their religion to them. Hick’s approach exemplifies the myth of modernity: That we can arrive at an absolute and objective truth by utilising supposedly neutral means like human reason or experience.

In many parts of the world, the modern age has given way to the postmodern. While postmodernity has its harmful excesses, it has helpfully exposed the myth of modernity by showing that all human beings (even the modern philosopher) have our own blinkers. The supposedly neutral status of human reason and experience has been undermined, as we realise that we reason and interpret our experiences in ways significantly influenced by our particular cultural presuppositions.

These developments have major implications on how we view inter-religious dialogue. When followers of different religions speak to one another, there is, in a postmodern environment, no longer the pressure to discover that, at the root, we all believe in the same reality. Instead, postmodernity gives space for each religion to assert its uniqueness. We acknowledge that we hold views which cannot, at the end of the day, be reconciled with those of the other faiths.

But this frank acknowledgement of our differences does not spell the end of dialogue. On the contrary, it sets the stage for genuine dialogue to take place. As theologian William Placher observes (in Unapologetic Theology, p. 146): “Once we recognise that we are not all trying to say the same thing, then we can recognise that some of the things that other people are saying seem to be genuine insights which we can appropriate for ourselves…”

Being set free from the strictures of modernity also allows inter-religious dialogue to take on a more pragmatic tenor. We talk to one another to see if there are areas of overlapping concern where we can work together. This kind of cooperation can take place on the level of individual issues, without being encumbered by unrealistic attempts to achieve uniformity in the way we perceive and respond to everything.

In my limited involvement in inter-faith activities here in Singapore, I find this second view of inter-religious dialogue to be the one undergirding our activities. I take as an example the series of “Building Bridges” seminars held in the years 2012-2013, which focussed on the topic of “Religious Tradition and Authority in a Post-modern World”. Representatives from the NCCS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) took turns to share perspectives from their own faith on the topic.

There was no attempt by either side to water-down our beliefs or downplay the significant differences which exist between both faiths. We shared how things appear to us as Christians or Muslims, listened respectfully to the perspectives offered by the other side, and gained valuable insights which helped illumine our own situations. We also identified common areas of concern, like the difficulty faced by both faith traditions in combating the pervasive notion of individualism and the consequent disregard of religious authority.

More than that, these seminars represent a precious opportunity for followers of different religions to meet face to face. Through the process, unhelpful stereotypes were dispelled, trust was built up and friendships were formed. As religious tension and conflict fester in our increasingly polarised world, these achievements should not be underrated.



Dr Leow Theng Huat is a lecturer of theology at Trinity Theological College. He is a member and local preacher of Wesley Methodist Church.

How Did the Church Get Its Bible?

February 2019 Credo

Reader’s Question: How was the canon of Scripture determined and finalised by the Church?

The word ‘canon’ can be traced to the Greek word kanonas, which could mean ‘measuring-rod’, ‘standard’, ‘list’ or ‘index’. The third century theologian, Origen, used ‘canon’ with reference to the Bible’s role as the ‘standard’ or ‘rule of faith’ on the basis of which the Church must assess religious doctrines and practices. It was Athanasius (AD 296-373) who used ‘canon’ to refer to the list of books in the Bible that the Church regarded as God’s revelation and therefore as authoritative.

How the Church arrived at this list and the criteria that guided her in the entire process is an important story that many Christians are unfamiliar with. However, it is also a long and convoluted story that this short article is unable to tell in detail. What is attempted here is only a very brief sketch of this fascinating history.

The Church has, from its inception, accepted the entire canon of the Hebrew Bible comprising thirty-nine books. These books were generally divided into three sections or divisions: the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

The Law comprises the five books of Moses, and the Prophets included the books of the ‘Former Prophets’ (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings), the ‘Major Prophets’ (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), as well as the ‘Latter Prophets’ (or the ‘Minor’ Prophets). Under the Writings we find the Wisdom Literature (Psalms, Proverbs and Job), the Megillot or the ‘five scrolls’ (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentation, Ecclesiastes, Esther) and Histories (Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles).

Although there is insufficient evidence to be entirely certain, most scholars are of the view that the order of the books that appear in the Hebrew Bible is the same order which Jesus and his contemporaries were acquainted with. It is also the order that is found in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was completed in the 3rd century BC that Jesus and Paul used.

Thus, the early Church regarded the Hebrew Bible as its authoritative Scripture. But gradually, this body of literature was supplemented by other writings, and, at around the dawn of the second century AD, the terms ‘Old Testament’ (Greek: palaia diatheke) and ‘New Testament’ (Greek: kaine diatheke) were used sporadically to distinguish the two corpuses.

In roughly the same period (i.e., the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd), two collections of Christian writings became evident in the liturgies of the early church and in the writings of her theologians and ministers: the Fourfold Gospels and the Pauline epistles.

By the fourth century, the great historian of the early Church, Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-340), was able to provide a comprehensive list of the books used by the Church, which he divided into ‘recognised books’ (Greek: homologoumena) and ‘disputed books’ (Greek: antilegomena).

Among the recognised books are the Gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul (including Hebrews), 1 Peter, and 1 John. The jury was still out with regard to James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Revelation.

But by the time Athanasius (ca. 296-373) became Patriarch of Alexandria, there’s evidence that the Church recognised the entire list of the books in the New Testament that we have them today as authoritative and canonical. In his famous 39th Festal Letter (AD 367), Athanasius provides the following list:

Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one: of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.

Describing them as ‘canonical writings’, Athanasius maintains that ‘[t]hese are fountains of salvation, that they who thirst may be satisfied with the living words they contain, In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these’.

The canonisation process was somewhat complexified by the presence of other texts that jostled to be included. Among them were Gnostic Gospels like the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Truth. In addition, the heretic Marcion rejected the canonical status of the Old Testament, and pontificated that only the Gospel of Luke and the epistles of Paul must be regarded as authoritative because they were unblemished by the corruptions of the Judaizers.

The Fathers of the Church categorically rejected the Gnostic Gospels as authoritative, and unapologetically condemned Marcion as a heretic, despite his many followers and formidable influence.

Discussion on the formation of the canon of Scripture will not be complete without addressing – even if very briefly – the canonical status of the Apocrypha (1 & 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, Rest of Esther, Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch and the Epistle of ‘Jeremy’ [Jeremiah]). These books are not found in the Hebrew Bible, and the leaders of official Judaism do not regard them as canonical.

But the early Church’s attitude and reception of these books was at best mixed. The early Greek Fathers of the Church did not recognise these books as canonical but found them beneficial for the edification of the Christian community. With the exception of Jerome, the Latin Fathers generally regarded them as if they were canonical.

In the 16th century, the Council of Trent convened by the Roman Catholic Church officially affirmed the full canonical status of the books of the Apocrypha. The Reformers did not regard them as canonical, but, like the early Greek Fathers, allowed them to be read in Church only ‘for example of life and instruction of manners’.

If we read the long and tedious process of the formation of the canon of Scripture only through the lens of history, we might be led to conclude that the canon is a purely human construction, that it was the Church that made the canon. But it would be a mistake to read this story in this reductive manner.

The story must also be read theologically. So read, the story of the canonisation of Scripture is the story of the work of the same Spirit by whose inspiration and superintendence brought into being this collection of texts that reveal God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Article 5 of the Belgic Confession summarises well the nature of Scripture, and its relationship to the Holy Spirit and the Church:

We receive all these books and these only as holy and canonical, for the regulating, founding, and establishing of our faith. And we believe without doubt all things contained in them – not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and because they prove themselves to be from God.



Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.