Bart Ehrman began as an evangelical, but after years of studying the New Testament documents, he now is a self-described agnostic. He began, as most of us do, believing that there was a continuous line of doctrine and belief in the Christian church. But after studying the history of the earliest church, from the death of Christ until the fourth century, he came to quite a different conclusion.
He now no longer accepts there was this straight line of belief, but rather, that this is a myth concocted by what is now known as the Catholic Church. In the first centuries after Christ, there were competing ideas about what Christianity was, he tells us, and the Catholic Church emerged victorious. Because, as the proverb says, “history is written by the victors,” the Catholic Church wrote the history and claimed that they were the only true church all along.
Because of this, he no longer believes in Christianity. He claims that certain doctrines we believe go all the way back, such as the divinity of Jesus, never occurred in the literature sooner than 200 years after Jesus death. Before that, he claims, people simply believed that Jesus was a notable teacher.
I offer the previous not as a comprehensive explanation of Ehrman’s beliefs and teachings, but simply to outline one of the problems as he sees it. If there were competing ideas, and the only validity for our common belief is that what we now know as the Catholic Church won the conflict, then those beliefs have no validity at all.
Increasing numbers of people share his view. For those who are interested, J. Warner Wallace, a formally atheist homicide detective, comes to the opposite view. For those who would like to see a short article contrasting Ehrman’s and Wallace’s views, you can read this in the January issue of Signs of the Times. But I will not go into that here. Instead, I want to take a look at Ehrman’s facts and ask a different question.
The facts are that there were many competing ideas about Christianity in the first centuries. That should not surprise us. The resurrection of Jesus, followed by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, would be bound to cause a stir of gigantic proportions, whether they were true or not. Whatever happened, it spawned a powerful force, and inevitably people and institutions would struggle to cope with, and some would attempt to harness and use, such power.
Indeed, if you simply accept the New Testament as it is, we see there a struggle within the book of Acts as to what exactly it meant to become a Christian. The epistles illustrate the difficulties those who had known Christ encountered when trying to communicate their understanding of what they had experienced to the churches.
The struggle to understand and communicate the gospel by those who believed it inevitably went on for some time. Heresies began to arise immediately, some of these we see addressed in the epistles. So Ehrman is indisputably correct, one might say necessarily correct about the struggle.
Perhaps, as a self-described evangelical in the beginning, Ehrman felt particularly uncomfortable that it was the Catholic Church that emerged victorious. Certainly my fellow Adventists can understand that. And, as one who describes himself as having believed in inerrancy, when that belief became untenable, perhaps it took with it his confidence in anything that Scripture had to say. That has been my experience. I have seen many who, having believed in verbal inspiration, discovered the flaws in that doctrine and become bitterly disillusioned — rejecting everything.*
But for many reasons, including both internal evidence and external evidence, I am convinced that the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity, for instance, was believed and proclaimed by the disciples from the beginning. I believe God is in charge of history, and that he has guided the church. And if that is true, and it is also true that what we now know as the Catholic Church emerged victorious from the struggle to define early Christianity, then I am forced to conclude that it was God’s will that they prevail. You read that right. I’ll say it again. Because I believe in God, and that he has his hand over his church, I believe that what we now know as the Catholic Church prevailed in the struggle to define Christianity because it was God’s will that it would prevail.
So the next question is, “Why?” Why did God want the Catholic church to prevail in the fourth century? In many ways, the fourth century is not a happy time for the church. The fourth century A.D. is when Constantine co-opted church power to augment the position of the Roman Empire. Many of the choices made by the numerous church councils in the fourth century are choices that virtually every non-Catholic would reject. So, again, why?
Looking back, I see two important points established by the church in the fourth century. The first is one we unthinkingly take for granted: the Canon of Scripture.
Precisely which books should be included in what we now call the Bible had been a subject of debate for some time. There are competing theories about precisely how the canon was formed, the one we know for certain: the Bible as we know it was affirmed by the Catholic Church in the fourth century.**
The other important point is that the church affirmed the divinity of Christ. But, as we shall see, even that is — strange as it is to say it — secondary to the affirmation of the canon.
Why is the composition of the canon, especially the New Testament canon, so crucial? Compared to the many errors that were affirmed by the church in the fourth century, errors that led to generations of darkness and false doctrine, the canon, something we take for granted, seems almost trivial.
But how is it that Luther and the other reformers were able first to discover and next to correct many of these errors? By consulting the very Bible the Roman Catholic Church had affirmed. If you get the canon right, it contains within it the potential to correct all the other errors.
I believe that’s why God wanted the Catholic Church to prevail in those early struggles. Yes, there were many errors. But by affirming the canon the church preserved the one thing by which those errors could be corrected.
This insight, if correct, has tremendous implications for the rest of the history of Christendom, including our unique place in that history.
*The bitterest critics of Ellen White, it appears to me, or those who at first believed she was verbally inspired. Upon finding that she quoted others, attributed or not, they were so disillusioned that they rejected everything she said.
**The Roman Canon did include the Apocrypha, but those were Old Testament books, and they differed from the Jewish canon. Both of those points made them less crucial then getting the New Testament correct, for those of the books which described and defined the nature and mission of Christ, and through which the Old Testament books were interpreted.
As for the Apocrypha themselves, the statement in the book of Maccabees, for example, that there was no prophet in Israel, as well as other factors, made their elimination self-evident to the reformers. They simply removed the Apocrypha so that the Old Testament in the Christian Bible matched the Jewish canon.