Sunday School with J. I. Packer, Part 6
The Centrality of Christ in the Bible As Evidence for the Canon
Next up in this third lesson is Packer's discussion of the canon question. You know, "How can we be sure we have the right books in our Bibles?" Packer does not use an argument from history for his answer, but rather, after a brief aside pointing out various small disputes over the canon in history, he appeals to the unity of scripture in it's Christ-centered coherance as the strongest evidence that our canon is right.
The disputes over the canon mentioned include the Protestant/Roman Catholic disagreement over the 12 books of the apocrypha, various groups who want to drop or downplay the Old Testament, and people who think various gnostic gospels, like the gospel of Judas, are legitimate Christian scripture. Packer calls this last sort of people "wild men", and dismisses these sorts of discussions as "People . . . inventing some goofy thing to get excited about."
Why can he believe so strongly that the canon we have is right? Because, he says, if you read the sixty-six books of our Bible together,
you will see that what they are both doing is pointing to the same relationship of faith, repentance, worship and so forth, in and through Christ, which I’ve been trying to talk about so far.Packer gives many examples of the writers of the New Testament explaining that what they are proclaiming is simply
the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and promises, and it’s all on the. . . Old Testament trajectory. It’s leading people into the fulness of faith and the life of faith and discipleship which the Old Testament, already, was seeking to lead people into.
Scriptural Examples of the Unity of Scripture in It's Christ-Centeredness
Here is a list of the New Testament scriptures that point to this Christ-centered coherence of the Bible.
- Romans 1:1
Paul, a Servant of Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scripture, concerning his Son.
- Romans 16: 25-27
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God. . . .
- Romans 15:4
. . . whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
- 1 Corinthians 10:11
Now, these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.
- 2 Timothy 3:15-17
. . . from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.(This text is, in the original context, written about the Old Testament, and it's to focus on what it says about the Old Testament that Packer uses it, in order to show that the Old Testament was able to make Timothy wise for salvaton through faith in Christ and equip him to be a "man of God.")
- Luke 24:25-27, 32, 44-47
And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. . . . They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
For every Christian and for the whole Christian church, the Bible exhibits a Christ-centered coherence, and those who taste and see find it, and, indeed, are not able to doubt or deny it or miss it. And the Christ-centered coherence of the Bible [is] the result of the ministry of the Holy Spirit inspiring the words and now illuminating God’s people so that they understand it.And the corollary of that thought, as it would speak to extrabiblical books is:
. . . books that are not numbered among the sixty-six don’t have this same effect, meshing in with all the books in the way that books numbered among the sixty-six actually do.
Built-in Claims to This Affirmation of the Christ-Centered Coherence of the Bible
Packer now speaks of two specific claims that are built into the affirmation of the Christ-centered coherance of the Bible.
- Jesus Christ is central in world history.
What the New Testament tells us is that the Lord Jesus Christ, none other, is the incarnate person through whom everything came to be. . . The Son of God is the co-creator with the Father. Remember the prologue to John’s gospel? “Everything was made by him. Apart from him, nothing that was made came into being." Paul hammers away at that in Colossians chapter 1:
By him all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is [that is, he exists] before all things, and in him, all things hold together.Got it? It’s a breathtaking thing for Paul to say, almost in a throwaway line, but he means what he says. If it wasn’t for the constant upholding ministry of the sovereign God, you and I, and this room in which I am talking; and the world around us; St. John’s Shaughnessy, everything and everybody; simply wouldn’t exist anymore. All things hold together in Christ. Without that upholding action, there wouldn’t be anything, so we wouldn’t be here. It’s a breathtaking thought, but that’s what Paul is expressing when he says, “In him, all things hold together.” So he is, in very truth, the cosmic Christ, as well as being, within that frame, the incarnate Saviour who died for our sins, and now is risen to bring to us the reality of pardon and life from God.
. . . As I’ve already pointed out, in the very last book of the New Testament, well, we are reminded how things are right now. Christ is on the throne and there’s spiritual warfare going on, and the cosmos is increasingly in convulsion as a result. That’s certainly what the visionary chapters of Revelation are telling us. There’s no expectation that that state of affairs will change prior to the Lord’s own triumphant return. Whatever arguments we may have about the details of the meaning of those visionary chapters, there can surely be no doubt that that’s the overall perspective that they’re presenting. Then within that and against that background, the Lord of the church watches over the church, as I said earlier, for admonition; encouragement; correction; promise; and, in the broadest sense, ministry. We serve him, and he, in ministry, serves us. Those who overcome, do so in his strength. Well, that’s Jesus Christ: central in world history.
- Jesus Christ is the center of salvation.
Jesus Christ is the mediatorial Messiah. Messiah means that he is the one whom God has anointed to be king. Mediatorial is the word that means that it’s through the Lord Jesus that all the blessings of life and salvation are given. He is the mediatorial Messiah.
There is one particular book of the New Testament which highlights this at great length, in great detail, and in great (Really, with overwhelming!) majesty and power, and that is the letter to the Hebrews. First of all, the Son of God is introduced as the divine person that he is; that’s chapter 1. Then the fulness of his humanity, his sharing in flesh and blood, is celebrated in chapter 2. Then there are words of application in the next two chapters. Then you get to chapter 5, where the thread of the person and place of Jesus Christ is picked up again, and the writer says, “Now he is our great high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. What does that mean? Well, you have to move into chapter 7 before you realize that chapter 7 celebrates the fact that in Christ we have a better priest than the Old Testament order of things knew. In chapter 8, we have a better covenant, through the ministry of this priest, than the Old Testament believers knew. In chapter 9, we have a better worship place--a better tabernacle--for approaching God than ever the Old Testament believers knew; and in chapter 10, we have a better sacrifice to rely on for our access to God: one sacrifice for sins forever. That’s spelled out with tremendous emphasis and vividness. It’s a wonderful letter.
The point here is that the Old Testament order of things all pointed to Christ, and Old Testament saints were saved through the Christ who had not yet come, just as those of us who come after Christ are saved through the Christ who has already come.
So let me come back again to the big thing that I’ve been trying to illustrate; namely, that a Christ-centered concentration is what you have in all the teaching of the Bible, and that the way to enter into this [is], quite simply, to taste. Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit, and soak yourself in scripture, and you will see that it is so. The effect of it, the fruit of it, should be (and by God’s grace will be) that Jesus Christ our Lord, in all his glory, all his graciousness, will fill our horizons also, and we shall see ourselves as his disciples, first and foremost. That will be the deepest element and the identity which we recognize ourselves as having. So we shall become, in the true sense, biblical believers, whose lives show forth God’s praise, and who rejoice in the unique life-giving relationship that the gospel--which is the heart of the Bible, which is the pointer to the Christ of the Bible--takes us into. I don’t know how I can make it more simple, straightforward, and pointed than that.And that's it for the formal part of the lesson.
Significance of Church Councils in the Formation of the Canon.
In the dialogue time after the formal part of the lesson, a student asked about the significance of church councils in the development of the canon. Packer answered that question this way:
What you have in the decisions of councils is a recognition of what is the case, an expression of corporate certainty that the people in the council shared. The councils don’t legislate; but they testify. What they are testifying to is a consensus that the Holy Spirit gives.Want pdf files of the transcipts of these lessons for personal use? Just ask and I'll email them to you.
All the councils took place because there were disputes that had to be resolved. The precise contents of the New Testament canon are not expressed by any council that claims to be a general council until you get to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent. But they are expressed in . . . a letter from Athanasius, who is a big bishop; . . . a letter from Augustine; and there is a decision from a North African council in 397 [This would be Carthage]. But the point is, that the consensus was established and these people are now testifying to it. . . . They are recording that this is, as a matter of fact, the list of books that Christian believers add to the Old Testament canon that was fixed in Christ’s day and had been fixed for generations.
In the second century, there were a lot of very tense discussions because there were heretical gospels and epistles and acts being fed into the church by people called gnostics. I’m not going to go into the essence of gnosticism; I'll simply say that it’s a label for a kind of heresy that was very prevalent in those days, and so the church had to do a lot of homework in discussing which books should be received as the authentic New Testament. . . . [N]early all the important books in the New Testament canon were verified at that time.
How did they do it? Well, they said:
- Is it certain that the books were written by apostles, if you do a historical inquiry?
- Do the books contain doctrine that fits in with the teaching of the undoubted books (and that was, for practical purposes, the letters of Paul and the four gospels)? If the books in question don’t teach in line with them, then they’re out.
If all those three tests came out on the same side, the churches agreed that this book, that book, is most certainly part of the God-given canon of scripture. This is still a matter of dispute among the scholars, and still a matter of dispute on a popular level. (People love to generate scandals of one sort or another. So that’s Davinci and that’s Judas!)
- Have the books been used in the church for public reading and instruction, and have they proved their usefulness in what I’ve been speaking of as means of grace to people, whereby they taste and see the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ? Have the books established themselves in the church as being useful in that way?