catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 7 :: 2006.04.07 — 2006.04.21


The 67th book

Members of the ancient church debated among themselves for a couple of hundred years before a consensus was reached around 300 AD about the canon of the New Testament. Certain books were recognized to have a certain divine feel to them, not to mention that they had been written by apostles and prophets, and were accepted by the original recipients as divinely inspired. It would not have taken as long as it did except that the authorship of Hebrews was uncertain and the fantastic, dream-like predictions of Revelation seemed unclear in light of the overall New Testament message.

Some books were rejected because they were not consistent with established historical facts, or because of doctrinal inconsistencies. One must have a bit of faith in God?s providence?that God saw to it that the result was just as He wanted it. Each of the 66 books were found to be in harmony with each of the other books.

Once the 66 books of the Old and New Testament were canonized by the Church, the issue was settled?or was it? Over time, the Roman Catholic Church took a more authoritative position in the lives of believers. The pope and the Church proclaimed itself to be the voice of God. Eventually the words of Scripture were construed to fit more with the political ideology of Rome. A ritualistic legalism developed that only vaguely resembled the ancient church. Not all changes were bad. Beautiful houses of worship were constructed. Magnificent pieces of art were produced to the glory of God. Yet the established church had departed from the historical teachings of the early church. Few Christians could distinguish between the teachings of the Bible and the teachings of Rome. Most citizens were illiterate or ignorant of the historical teachings of the church. The Church interpreted the sacred writings for the people. In essence, the Church became the 67th book of the Bible and the only book many of the multitudes ever read for themselves.1

The Protestant Reformation brought new understanding to multitudes as the Bible began to be produced in the languages of the common people. Many of the reformers were burned at the stake for heresy. Out of the Reformation grew several of the major denominations in existence today. These sects agreed on the orthodox teachings of the Bible; they distinguished themselves on non-essential doctrines such as baptism and church polity. Within each tradition, members developed new dogma by which to measure their own spiritual progress and maturity.

A more contemporary example is the fundamentalist movement that grew in the early twentieth century as a response to theological liberalism. Its leaders are separatists on a number of levels, some of whom go far beyond any biblical idea of separation. They are to be commended for their respect for the Bible as reflected in their doctrinal statements and as thundered from their pulpits. However, all too often, their claim to be Bible believers and to live only by the Bible is an illusion. I do not merely give lip service because most of them really do believe that they are truly biblical, yet they have gone beyond Scripture with their own version of the 67th book.

The fundamentalist version is even more pliable than its Roman Catholic counterpart. For instance, one small town may have three of these congregations. One of these is likely a split off one of the other two. Reasons for such splits are manifold, yet the ?philosophical? reason is usually the same?the older church was getting too liberal. ?Liberal? here usually has nothing to do with historic theological liberalism. It is more akin to something about the music or the method of determining who will be on the next deacon board.

Each of these three churches in town will agree on all the orthodox doctrines of Christianity, but fiercely disagree about women wearing pants or whether God actually ordained a Sunday night service. The Sunday night people will say that those who attend church every time there is a service are the ones who really love Jesus. The more ?liberal? fundamentalist church will attempt to have small group meetings in someone?s home. The more conservative fundamentalist church criticizes them based on the verse that says not to forsake the assembling of believers together. They apparently know the mind of the writer of Hebrews better than the writer knew his own mind for they go beyond this statement to outline exactly when and how often believers should meet together. They also criticize the ?liberal? church for meeting in homes rather than the church building (despite the fact that the ancient church only met in homes).

Each of these churches has developed an unpublished 67th book. This book does not have a name. People do not acknowledge its presence, yet its reality overshadows almost everything that goes on within the church. It is often preached from more on Sundays than the other 66 books. Usually the preacher will read a passage from one of the first 66 books and then transition to the unwritten 67th book without the people even realizing what has happened. He may be a screaming southern style preacher or a more sophisticated seminary graduate. He?ll criticize the other preachers for not preaching from the Bible. He?ll call them weak and liberal. He?ll question their salvation. He?ll accuse them of heresy. What he really means is that they are not getting their application from the same version of the 67th book that he is preaching from. The congregation chose their preacher based on the fact that in his interviews and resume, he appears to have the same version of the 67th book that they have in their church. Sometimes a church will get the wrong man. They?ll find that his 67th is somewhat corrupted. They either pressure him to change or leave. Sometimes they fire him without warning (the modern equivalent to burning at the stake).

Much, if not most, of the separation that occurs in many churches is based on a version of the 67th book. Strangely, the people of the congregation have never heard of this book. A more startling oddity is that the preachers are not aware of its existence. They learned of its contents just as unwittingly as their own audiences are learning it each week in church. Many of them picked up bits and pieces from other preachers or Bible college professors. It is difficult to locate the origins of these traditions. Some were overreactions to sinful aspects of culture. Others were standards motivated by fear of change.

There was something similar to this in existence in the days of Jesus. Apparently the 613 laws of the Old Testament were not sufficient for the people of Jesus? day, so the religious leaders developed a complex oral tradition known as the Talmud. The Pharisaical system became a means to measure one? spiritual maturity. The Pharisees even attempted to accuse Jesus of sin because He had not kept all of their rules. The most blistering lecture of Jesus was recorded in Matthew 23 when he vehemently condemned this sort of heresy?the one of creating legalistic, heretical standards by which to judge other humans. Jesus was a heretic to the Pharisees. The Pharisees were heretics according to Jesus.

A heretic is not always in the minority; the heretic is one who is departing from a traditionally held doctrine, or is adding a new doctrine to an accepted system. When an item from the 67th book becomes the distinguishing line between orthodoxy and heresy we all become candidates for heresy, depending on who is giving the label. To sixteenth century Catholics, the reformers were heretics. To the early believers, the first popes were heretics. To some evangelicals, I think Jesus would be considered a heretic if He came back under an alias.

The label of heretic no longer scares me, as it once did. The term ?heretic? has lost much of its firepower, unless of course, it is coming from the mouth of God. There will always be heretics as long as there are dogmas and beliefs. The heretic of one generation may be a hero to the next. Having the mind and attitude of Christ will keep us from being heretics to the One who matters most, though it may not keep us from getting burned at the stake.

[i]The Apocryphal writings were used by the Church from the time of Jerome, but were not canonized by the Catholic Church until around AD 1500.

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