This is a profile of three Christians and their views about who decided what should be the Bible. These profiles are based on my own observations about people, though they are not designed to mimic any particular persons. And I didn’t design this post to be exhaustive, but to be useful. That is to say that there may well be other views than what I have listed here, but these are certainly sufficient to get you thinking about what people think, and why they might think it. As you’ll see, I have much more to say about the second Christian than about the first or third.
The First Christian
The first Christian I have in mind will claim that man has chosen what to include in the Bible and what to exclude from it. And in support of this claim, he will point out that the churches do not all agree as to what should be in the collection. He may even point out that of two churches using the the exact same Bible, the one will will practically ignore certain books in it that the other will use extensively. He’ll also point out the obvious: that nowhere in the Bible does it say what all is supposed to be in the Bible.
The Second Christian
Meanwhile, the second Christian claims that that God himself chose what is in the Bible, and that he and his camp use the God-approved collection (and maybe even the God-approved translation of it!) And he and his friends will circle their wagons over the issue, counting those who do not agree as sinners in rebellion to God’s will. And he will shun the documents that are not in their accepted collection, whether he takes the more benign position that since his Bible has “everything we need for life and godliness”, those excluded books are simply not necessary to read, or the severe claim that those books are the work of Satan himself, and that one dare not read them under threat of eternal damnation.
And in this way, he will either discount or condemn extrabiblical books, many of which he has not even read—just as he will approve of, or even laud some of the Bible books that he routinely ignores. It is for him a predetermined conclusion. It is a grand and fundamental assumption. A choice. An attitude. Yes, it’s arbitrary, but he cannot admit to such. He cannot show you a “thus saith the Lord” about it, so for his authority, he must appeal either to tradition, or to the notion that God himself, working through the Holy Spirit, has covertly convicted “the church” as to which Bible collection is the proper one. (And by “the church”, he means his own, of course, and not the others who use a different Bible.)
And when confronted with the different opinions of other churches, what choice does he have but to chalk them up to sin and error?—whether he’s the sort to soft-pedal that charge, or to pound away at them with harsh condemnation? If he admits that there might be some value in even one of these other books, then the arbitrariness of his own assumptions will be exposed, and he’ll be flushed out of his haven. So he doesn’t really want to talk about this, other than to draw the line at what is and isn’t “The Bible”, and to hope that you’ll be easily convinced.
He doesn’t do very well at explaining his position, and he may well learn that the more severe the tone he takes with all this, the more likely it is to shut down debate from outsiders—or even from those in his own camp who should find themselves willing to examine the matter to some extent. It’s more a matter of convention—of a social compact to which his camp agrees—than it is a matter of following some explicit directive from God, but the camp has built its identity to some extent on this conviction, and would rather not talk about the arbitrariness of it. Further, there’s the problem of this being a pretty good example of “rules made by humans“, so examining it too much is likely to reveal this fact. Like so many other bad principles, then, “It makes sense—if you don’t think about it.”
The Third Christian
The third Christian is ambivalent about all this, and would be fine if the topic never came up again. He’s not at church for the Bible, anyway, but for social purposes. He’s the sort who is very likely not to have read this far without considerable discomfort in paying attention to the topic for this long.
Both the second and third Christians in this article are showing typical signs of being typical “cognitive misers”. That is, people who don’t want to expend the energy required to think through things any more than they have to. But here’s the thing: pretty much any collection of documents that has the word “Bible” on its cover is going to have at least 700,000 words in it, and that’s a lot to consider. And this may well have something to do with why so many Christians don’t read everything that’s in their own church-approved Bibles.
Meanwhile, the first Christian has laid out more on the table of consideration, and this could open the door to examining not only the few extra books that might be found in Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bibles, but potentially a few hundred other documents, such as might be referred to as belonging to one or more of classified by some in some of the following categories:
- Pseudepigraphical books
- Second Temple Period books
- The Adamic literature
- Early Church writings / “Early Church Fathers”
You’ll find a few hundred such documents, readable online for free, at EarlyJewishWritings.com and EarlyChristianWritings.com. I keep a digital library of several hundred of these writings on my computer, so that I can search them by use of a free and powerful search program called Agent Ransack. Any time I’m considering some Bible passage, I’m likely to look up various words and phrases in it in this wider library, to see what else might have been written about these things.
This has opened up quite a lot more for me that any church I’ve ever gone to would be comfortable considering. It’s quite a different cognitive life than before, and as a result, my views have broadened on many typical Christian topics. My considerations of doctrinal matters now have such a wider scope than they did when I was like the second Christian in this article. But you may be interested to know that my view of Christian morality has remained strong, and is in fact, getting stronger through the years. I am increasingly concerned with the question, “What kind of people are we?”. And further, I see more and more that what kind of people we are has a big influence on how we interpret (and teach and practice) the Bible.
I see that the most authentic people may show some promise as Christian teachers and leaders, but never seem to advance into positions of prominence in camps like the second Christian belongs to. Meanwhile, they’ll tend to avoid camps like the ones to which the third Christian would be drawn, since they claim to be about God, but are really about socializing.
And interestingly, the most authentic people will have a hard time finding a camp that’s made up of people like the first Christian above. For whatever reason(s), it’s very rare to find a camp that’s deeply interested in studying the larger body of literature and in avoiding rules taught by mere humans. (In fact, it’s hard to find any church that routinely studies the whole of the 66-book Bible!) And the more of those works you study (whether in “The Bible” collection, or outside of it), the quicker you are to spot the arbitrariness that seems to plague the camps, as well as that particular factious spirit that seems to thrive in circling the wagons around rules taught by mere humans.
For the record, I have not got all this figured out. Nor have I ruled in every extrabiblical document that others have ruled out. Some of it, I’m adamant, is twisted work, designed to mislead people. And all of it, as with the books in the Bile collections, is subject to the quality of the translation.
This all means than those investigating such things find themselves in a veritable sea of information that they could neither account for nor grasp fully, even in two lifetimes of dedicated study—which is also true of those who will only consider the Bible-66 collection. This is not the preferred life of people who need to have everything wrapped up in neat little packages, and who can’t stand to leave lots of tabs open in their mental browsers.
And this is why, to me, it’s all the more obvious that the most important matter is what kind of people we are?, rather than what official doctrines have we derived from the texts?. If you find that idea troubling, just imagine a person who is:
- lacking in self control
- a non-sober estimate of himself
- loving to lord it over others
- unsubmissive to God
Is that really the sort of person you think is most likely to interpret the Bible well? Of course not! It’s quite obvious that what kind of people we are has a huge influence on the quality of our Bible work. Yet this fact so rarely is mentioned in the churches. And consequently, they keep putting out their various teachings (and rules), disagreeing with one another, and not checking even their own math often enough.
I could go on and on with the things I have learned were wrong with me in my previous “Second Christian” life, but I’ll sum it up by saying that I simply wasn’t doing a very good job of obeying the first and greatest commandment:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’Mark 12:30. NIV