Do not Add to His Words: The Liberal Response

28 March 2015

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.


Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)

I am not at all suggesting we include books like the Book of Enoch in our Bibles. But there are those who would. Many liberals have responded to some of the things I have mentioned by reopening the canon. They have treated materials such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Infancy Narratives of Christ as genuine material upon which to reshape the Christian faith. Adolf Harnack (1851–1930), the sharpest German theologian of his time, took great pleasure in honing an unrivalled expertise on the early Church to question, not only the canon, but every tenet of traditional Christianity. Others today are calling for a broadening of the canon to include non-Christian works.

Liberals insist, rightfully so, that the Apostles never left behind a list of books; it took doctrinal controversies to settle the issue. According to liberals, the early Church, corrupted by patriarchy, hierarchy, and other man-made traditions, persecuted Marcion, Gnostics, and others, and developed their own biased canon. The present New Testament canon was finally drawn up in the fourth century after the Church had been corrupted by Catholic dogma.

Because they believe the Church erred, Liberals feel justified in taking a second look at the canon and sculpting it in their own image. They argue that the canon is just one more false tradition the early Church embraced.

Beyond Josh McDowell

Evangelicals market many apologetic books to justify our faith in the canon, adducing facts, figures, and names. But behind all the scramble to be more logical and fact-based than non-Christians, we miss out on the real reason why we believe the Bible. But we rarely have ears to hear.

We believe the New Testament has twenty-seven inspired books because it is the tradition that we have been given. That which we have received we have retained, and we believe the Spirit has worked through it. What more justification is needed? What else is there?

To trust and to obey the canon without waiting for all the “facts” to come in is healthy and normal. It is a faithful dependence upon God, who has preserved the Faith for us through our spiritual fathers and mothers for the last 6000 years. God, in his inexpressible love for mankind, has established a Church into and through which he speaks Scripture as a touchstone of the Faith. The canon is justified not through external proofs but through the internal witness of the Trinity leading the Church through history. The Bible is an inseparable part of something bigger, something that guided Abraham through the wilderness, even when he had no book. That something is the unbroken Tradition of the Apostles, a Tradition protected by the Church.

The Church is both guard and guarantor of the Scriptures. If the Church of the second, third, and fourth centuries was corrupted, then so was the canon, for they collected and retained books on the basis of the faith they had. Canon and Church are inseparable. If we cannot trust the Church, then we cannot trust the Bible, which was written, delivered, and preserved by the Church.

Reference to the Church and Tradition and its self-authenticating importance is the more honest way to justify the authority of the Bible. However many of us simply will not come to this admission. We give several reasons why the canon cannot depend upon the authority of the Church or Tradition.