The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Which Writings to Be Read in the Churches

I want to share with you some facts about the writings which the early Christians wanted “read in the churches.” A problem arose because of the gnostic groups that were prevalent in those days. In order to spread their gnostic beliefs, they constructed false “gospels” and “epistles” purporting to have been written by disciples of Jesus or by apostles. For example, one of these supposedly describes some of Jesus’ activities when He was still a child. It reports that he formed a bird out of clay, and then turned it into a real, live bird which then flew away.

In order that the Church would not be deceived by these false, so-called apostolic writings, the leaders of the Church made a list of the writings of the genuine disciples and apostles, and proclaimed that only they could be read in the churches. They didn’t talk about these writings as being “The word of God” or that only they were “inspired.” The test was only whether they were written by the apostles or the disciples of Jesus. Thus the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the only gospels included. Though Mark and Luke were not disciples of Jesus or apostles in the strictest sense, they were fellow workers with Paul, and did apostolic work with him. So they qualified.

Acts, the early history of the Church was also accepted without dispute.

There was some heavy discussion among the early church leaders with regard to the apostolic letters (or “epistles”). Which of the letters circulated around were really composed by apostles and therefore qualified to be read in the churches? All the letters of Paul were accepted without dispute. So was 1 Peter and 1 John.

Hebrews was under dispute. Who wrote it? Its author doesn’t say. Some early churches accepted it to be read in the churches; others didn’t. Those who accepted it assigned the authorship to Paul. This is highly doubted by most Biblical scholars today.

2nd and 3rd John were disputed. The author of these books referred to himself as “the elder.” We don’t know who this elder was, but some have speculated that it was an elder named “John,” though he doesn’t give his name at all. Again those who accepted 2nd and 3rd John assigned
the authorship to the apostle John, although there is absolutely no evidence for this.

For some reason James and Jude were under dispute, although both these authors open their letters by giving their names and “James” and “Jude.”

Clement’s letter to the Corinthians was disputed. The author was Paul’s fellow worker (Philippians 4:3) and therefore did apostolic work as did Mark and Luke. Although some churches accepted it, others didn’t. Clearly it didn’t “make it” into the New Testament.

Revelation was under heavy dispute. Four times in the book, the author identifies himself as being “John.” But which John? The apostle John never calls himself “John” anywhere in his Gospel or in 1 John. So there is no reason to suppose that the apostle John was the author. Again, those who wanted it read in the churches said the author was John the apostle, and this idea has persisted to our day. Whoever the John was who wrote it, had a vision, and in most of the book, he describes what he saw in his vision. In my opinion, it is a mistake to formulate doctrine or beliefs about the future based on the vision which some unknown John saw.

Much later in A.D. 367 Athanasius formed a list which comprised what is knows as the “canon of New Testament writings”. Athanasius was the first person to form a list which is identical to that which is in the “New Testament” as we have it today. His Old Testament “canon” was the same as that which is found in the Protestant Bible except it included the book “Baruch.” This book is not found in the Protestant Bible, but it IS included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.

Excellent! I needed to know that and had never gotten around to studying it.

As a practice, do you study the disputed book in the NT with the same weight you do with the universally accepted books?

I accept the books of James and Jude as genuine, although some believed them not to be so.

2nd and 3rd John are addressed to individuals and do not contain much, if any, doctrinal matter.
I think they were written by a Godly early Christian.

I do have doubts about some of the content of Hebrews, and many doubts about the vision of a man called “John” which is recorded in Revelation.

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Consider this one for starters:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned. (Hebrews 6:4-8)

This seems to say that if a Christian ever goes astray, he will never get a second chance.

Yes, the meaning of Hebrews 6:4-8 indeed seems contrary to a central message of the Bible, that of forgiveness.

Consider Peter, who declared three times that he did not know Jesus. Does that not in some way indicate a very serious falling away? Yet, Peter is welcomed back by Jesus later.

The lost-sheep parable (Matthew 18:12-14) and the lost-coin parable (Luke 15:8-10) also seem to speak against Hebrews 6:4-8.

Finally, there is the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). He abandoned his father, who is the analogy to God in this parable. He clearly fell away. Yet, the point of the story is he does return to his father; he does repent; he is welcomed back.

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Who was the author talking to? That’s always been a sticking point in interpreting this passage. Who was it that tasted - was it manna?
Was the threat of severe correction of ECT?

I can really understand how your average non-universalist evangelical is so sceptical and disbelieving of universalism with the amount of scriptural texts that get denigrated and excised right out of the bible by Universalists… it’s quite staggering.

Your questions however Dave are on the money IMO. Appreciating the historical context helps in understanding these things. Quite simply… the answer is eschatology — get that wrong and so much else follows along that same path. The writer of Hebrews in addressing Jewish believers encourages them not to fall away to perdition, i.e., in turning back to Judaism and thus perishing under the coming wrath of Rome.

IOW… the likes of Heb 6:4-8 et al had and have NOTHING to do with such postmortem realities in terms of either ECT or Annihilationism; such things were primarily pertinent to those to whom the letter was actually written, or to whom else of that time and place grasped the truth of its message relative to the times and events they therein lived.

That makes a lot of sense.
I’m not quite certain of the AD70 tie-in, but eschatological emphasis yes!