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I ask this question as a follow-up to For Christians who are skeptical of the writings of the Apostolic & Ante-Nicene Fathers, what is their epistemological basis for trusting a canon?. I highly recommend checking out that question first.


One answer said:

Having said that, if one reads many of these early writers pretty much any contemporary Christian will find much to disagree with. I think a better question would be: who isn't skeptical of various theories and beliefs amongst those early writers? To take one of your examples, 'the deity of Christ', this just seems wrong. The picture of early writers (2nd and 3rd centuries) seems much more complex, where almost all of them would be tossed out of contemporary Trinitarian congregations for one heresy or another related to their theologies or Christologies!

However, you can push on authorship. If you don't trust the early writers, how do you know the Apostles and close associates wrote the Gospels? Isn't that based on testimony of the early writers?

First, the early writers very well may be wrong on all sorts of things, including history. (I'm looking at you, Eusebius!) There are 3 important points here, and I'll illustrate the points with a more contemporary example below.

  1. Accepting the canon doesn't require depending on specific early writers. It depends on tradition in a broader sense.

  2. Accepting specific traditional claims about, say, authorship doesn't mean you accept all the theology or Christology of those writers. Nor does it mean those authors support all of or even the bulk of the evidential basis for that belief.

  3. I would want to hear a good reason for questioning the traditions of attributing authorship - they could be wrong but I haven't heard particularly compelling reasons yet. These are not abstruse theologies that are seemingly being innovated by particular writers, but central, basic traditions.

Later, about a Lord of the Rings analogy:

It would be questionable to think the reason their tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien being the author has been received as it is, is because of SRI's ancient writing. Rather, SRI's writing is symptomatic of the cause, which is a common belief held by many in ancient society, and which was passed through the generations down to our future Lotrs.

In the comments I enquired:

Rather, SRI's writing is symptomatic of the cause, which is a common belief held by many in ancient society, and which was passed through the generations down to our future Lotrs. - can't this argument also be used to argue for the widespread belief in the deity of Christ or the widespread belief in post-mortal consciousness, of which the writings of the early Church Fathers are simply symptomatic?

To which I received the following reply:

The devil's in the details, so to speak. What do you mean by 'deity of Christ'? Did Pope Clement hold to that? Better yet, did Matthew? Luke? Mark? James? It seems reasonable to hold a) no, they didn't, and b) views about the deity of Christ evolved over time. What you can't do is say "Lookie here, Iggy of Antioch said 'our god'" and then impose contemporary Trinitarian interpretations on that text. It's more difficult than authorship attribution, IMO


Summary

To the best of my understanding, the main contentions put forward by the referenced answer are:

  • Contention 1: There is compelling traditional evidence for the authorship attribution of (most of) the books that make up our modern Biblical canon, and in this regard the writings of the Apostolic & Ante-Nicene Fathers on specific books are simply symptomatic (a sample) of this broader traditional evidence. Thus, we have compelling historical evidence to believe that the books that we consider to be inspired were either written by or considered to be inspired by Jesus, the Apostles or their immediate associates (i.e. we can trace back the primary sources with high confidence).

  • Contention 2: We can't do the same with the belief in the deity of Christ. The historical evidence is not as compelling. We are not able to trace the belief in the deity of Christ back to the primary sources (Jesus & the Apostles) with the same level confidence as we do with claims of authorship attribution about the canon. The evidence from tradition is not as strong, and the writings of the Apostolic & Ante-Nicene Fathers are not conclusive, as many of their theological ideas would be regarded as heretical by contemporary Trinitarian congregations, and views about the deity of Christ seemed to have developed over time.


Question

Do believers in the deity of Christ agree or disagree with the above two contentions?

Is the historical evidence for the deity of Christ as compelling as the historical evidence for the authorship attribution of the Biblical canon?

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  • The evidence for the Deity of Christ is what God has revealed of His own Son. For example, the words uttered at the baptism of Jesus Christ. Evidence is that which can be known whereby truth is known. Quantifying the strength of evidence will be a matter of opinion. How 'strong' is this piece of evidence ? How 'strong' is the other ? What units of measurement will you use to quantify 'strength' ? ?
    – Nigel J
    Feb 15 at 22:36
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    You have fallen into a serious fallacy. Acceptance of the biblical canon does not require that we accept the traditional authorship of those books. You are conflating the two. Feb 15 at 22:41
  • @DJClayworth - on what basis do you accept the books that are part of the canon (which canon) and reject other books that didn't make it into said canon? Feb 16 at 4:12
  • No, I was talking about the authorship of the Gospels, not all books in the Bible. Feb 16 at 5:34
  • @OneGodtheFather - Oh, right, but if that's the case, on what basis would you ground your belief in the inspiration of any book other than the 4 gospels? Or do you adhere to some sort of C.S. Lewis type of mere Christianity where you basically trust the words of Jesus in the gospels and that's it? Feb 16 at 5:40

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Disclaimer: my area of academic study is the Synoptic Problem, and I am in the midst of producing a video series arguing in favor of traditional authorship of the Gospels--I engage with many of the critics of Matthean authorship here


I do not fully agree with either Contention 1 or Contention 2, in part because the Bible is made up of 66/73/74+ books, and the evidence for authorship/canonical acceptance is not evenly distributed.

Matthew vs. 2 Peter

Matthew

Every single early source who writes about the origin of the Gospel of Matthew attributes the text to Matthew, the tax-collector turned apostle. Every single early manuscript where the super/subscript survives attributes the text to Matthew. There are 0 exceptions. Centuries of Patristic & manuscript testimony spanning every corner of the Mediterranean are in 100% agreement. Edouard Massaux has shown that the Gospel of Matthew was the most influential and the most extensively used by the early church of all the New Testament texts (source).

The hostile testimony is helpful as well--there are exactly 0 examples of early critics of Christianity disputing Matthean authorship of Matthew (they disagreed plenty over what to make of the doctrine in it, but not over who wrote it). This is particularly helpful given the penchant of writers like Irenaeus & Origen for carefully describing their opponents' views (accurately!) before tearing them to shreds (no joke, read Against Heresies by Irenaeus, he's brutal).

For a logically valid, deductive argument showing that attribution of Matthew to Matthew can be traced back to people who personally knew the apostles, see the link in the header of this post.

The case for Matthew is extensive; the trouble is, we don't have this level of documentation for any Old Testament document, or for any other New Testament document besides some of the letters of Paul.

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2 Peter

Some have said there may be allusions to 2 Peter in 1 Clement; aside from that I find no Patristic usage of this epistle in the first few generations. It shows up in Codex Sinaiticus & in the Easter letter of Athanasius (both 4th century), but it appeared to be on rather shaky ground prior to that time.

Eusebius included 2 Peter in his list of disputed books (see here); Origen was uncertain about its authorship as well (see here). The earliest list of canonical Christian documents, the Muratorian Canon, does not include 2 Peter (see here).

You might say that 2 Peter is the book that almost didn't make it into the Bible.

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If unanimity or near-unanimity among the Ante-Nicene fathers is symptomatic of incontrovertible historical facts, the case for Matthew's inclusion in the canon is rock solid. For 2 Peter, not so much.

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Hebrews

We don't know who wrote Hebrews. The Patristics debate the topic extensively. Perhaps Origen of Alexandria said it best:

But who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows (see HE 6.25.14)

Because Hebrews was extensively quoted by early Christian authors (esp. 1 Clement), it was accepted as apostolic/authoritative despite uncertainty on the identity of the author.

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Does it matter who wrote them?

Historian's standpoint - yes, it matters a great deal to know who authored a text and when, in order to adjudicate the reliability of the text. Secular historians frequently try to discredit the New Testament and our knowledge of the teachings of Jesus by making arguments that up to 20 of the New Testament documents are forgeries/pseudepigrapha. It is not at all uncommon for Seminaries (let alone secular universities) to teach that we don't know who wrote more than 50 of the Biblical books. Biblical apologists have published extensive rebuttals to many of these claims.

Theologian's standpoint - if we have reason to believe in the authority of the text on other grounds, it may not matter.

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Deity

On a % basis, there is greater Patristic agreement regarding authorship of Matthew than there is regarding the nature of Christ. However, a lot more authors wrote about the latter--strictly counting the number of sources, the Deity of Christ is better attested than the authorship of Matthew. It is better attested than the authorship of 2 Peter on either metric.

Most (but I know not all) Christians hold that the Gospel of John unambiguously affirms the Deity of Christ (e.g. John 1:1, 8:58, 10:29, 20:28). If that is true (I believe it is), then the Deity of Christ is far better attested than any canonical dispute. The New Testament itself teaches the Deity of Christ; the New Testament never defines nor delimits a canon.

If Matthew 1:23 affirms the Deity of Christ (I believe it does), then the Gospel of Matthew itself says more about the Deity of Christ than about its own authorship.

As such, I come to the opposite conclusion from that stated in the OP's linked answer: I believe the Deity of Christ is better attested than the contents of the Biblical canon.

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Why we cannot ignore the Ante-Nicene Fathers

As SpiritRealmInvestigator noted here:

In the context of related debates such as … [a variety of theological topics listed]...I think it would be quite helpful to know the views held by the Apostolic Fathers, as they had the unique privilege of receiving direct or almost direct teaching from the Apostles themselves.

That at least some Biblical teachings can lead to more than one well-argued interpretation is demonstrated immeasurably well by this site. I agree that there is value in understanding what early Christian leaders understood–especially considering that it is on their authority that the New Testament was compiled & delimited.

This is not to argue for Patristic inerrancy–they in fact disagreed with each other all the time–but to highlight how singularly significant it is when a supermajority of Ante-Nicene fathers agree on something! Their trust in and usage of the 27 books of the New Testament we have today is the reason these books–and only these books–were repeatedly ratified in the 4th century and later (e.g. Athanasius, Synod of Hippo, etc).

To accept their authority (when nearly unanimous) regarding the contents of the New Testament but to reject their authority (when nearly unanimous) regarding theology is contradictory. There are 2 approaches that permit logical consistency:

  • Reject both the New Testament and the early Patristic statements on theology
  • Accept both the New Testament and the aforementioned early Patristic statements as well-attested and more likely than not to be accurate

Note that I’m only making this argument on matters where there is broad agreement among the Ante-Nicene fathers–there are many topics where they obviously did not see eye to eye and this argument would not apply.

Even the original apostles did not always agree with each other (see Galatians 2), but where they unambiguously hold a consistent position (such as the reality of Jesus’ resurrection), there’s little ground to stand on to try to disagree with them. If Peter & Paul agree on something, that’s pretty solid ground. What about their disciples?

Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria were contemporaries, living on opposite corners of the Mediterranean in the late 2nd century. Irenaeus was from a region where Christianity was planted by Paul (and doubtless influenced by John); Clement was from a region where Christianity was planted by a disciple of Peter (see here). Irenaeus & Clement represent very different strands of Christian thought and their theologies don’t always align (Clement in particular is interesting for his willingness to talk about things Irenaeus doesn’t dare touch).

A useful rule of thumb: when Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria agree on something, we have particularly solid attestation.

If broad agreement among the Ante-Nicene Fathers is symptomatic of historical knowledge that was incontrovertible at the time, it makes an excellent case for trusting the early Patristics when they are nearly unanimous.

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Conclusion

I believe that the evidence for the Deity of Christ is stronger than the evidence for a 66/73/74+ book canon.

I can argue for the Deity of Christ from both the New Testament & the Patristics.

As something of a hopeless nerd for New Testament history (some of my work here, for reference), I claim the following with respect to the New Testament:

  • The evidence for authorship of New Testament texts comes principally from 2 sources: 1) Patristic authors & 2) Manuscripts...which were copied by Patristic writers
  • I can make a robust historical case for the authenticity of 26 of the 27 books of the NT
  • I can make an exceptionally solid historical case for the authenticity of 9 of the 27 books
  • I can't do any of that without the early Patristic writers

Whether on their own knowledge, under the inspiration of God, or (more likely) some of both, the early Christian Fathers managed the process by which a subset of early texts survived and came to be recognized as authoritative. It is disingenuous to simultaneously put confidence in a canon and put no confidence in those who built it. Whether implicitly or explicitly, Christians put enormous confidence in the belief that the apostles taught their disciples well.

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