I once told people: “I believe in God therefore our experience is not the way to do theology of the Bible.”
However, that is too simplistic. First we are all reading the Bible subjectively, so need help from others who are also influenced by their experience.
How early Christians decided which books to include in the New Testament is insightful when we think about theology by experience. Our theology comes from those very books.
How did it occur?
Two required points were weighed:
- Is book from an Apostle?
- Is book widely used in the churches?
In the first requirement they had a clear exception in Luke, (the only Greek writer in the Bible) as said Luke knew Paul. So the Apostle thing was a little flexible. Barnabas knew all the Apostles, and his epistle was left out. Hebrews is included though they did not know who wrote it at all. No consensus exists on the author of Hebrews even now. The writer also said he learned the Gospel from others meaning the letter to the Hebrews was written by an unknown non apostle. That is a mighty big nod to some kind of pragmatism.
In the second requirement, what letters were the churches using? I say they would use books they experienced to be valuable, like Hebrews. Many would use books that made them feel good. Others would have books that made them feel the book is true. Some may not be accepted as seem too different.
This is conjecture, but imagine the discussion that would go on in your church if you were deciding which books to allow in the church and to put in the Bible? People might say, “That book has often moved me.” or “That book does not move me at all.”
They chose books that decide our theology how? These Christians started the process between 100 and 300 years after the letters were written by mostly apostles. Normal Christians all over the Roman empire were deciding which books to read and not read in their church and that decided which books are in my Bible!
So Who Started Doing Theology by Experience?
Well, if God was against experience in theology, why did he have people all over the empire deciding what was in the Bible like this? They definitely used experience in choosing those 27 books. I think we could find the OT books had some similar path to get chosen. We imagine OT decision making would also use fulfilled prophecies as a criteria. God did not drop books down from heaven in a binder. You may also want to read, Faith Without Religion, Who Started That?
In using their experience, the people also likely did not say, “Hey, this letter shows we can drink alcohol, so lets add it.” However, some risk they would say: “Let’s add 2 Peter as it says Paul’s letter are scripture.” These were real people with all the failings we have. They rempered experience with knowledge of 39 books of the Old Testament and their sense of God. It is glorious by the way that Rome was multi-ethnic. I am sure that helped get more books in and more out according to a broader cultural backdrop which God wanted for the world.
How Can We Follw God Well?
I am not at all saying we need to seek as much space from Gods weighty commands as possible. What I am see is that each culture and era needs to find God according to their experience with Him in a dynamic world. Faith has always been that way, but as Christians we can get too stuck in one frame. Then, we are not able to see what new thing God can do in this present dynamic.
The Muratorian Canon from 200 AD is missing Hebrews, James and 1&2 Peter. That was a very early effort to say which books were in or out. Each church used a slightly different selection. How did they see its authority? It also has an apocolypse of Peter. So Canon mostly solid early but steady by 4th century. The well known Bishop Of Alexandria, Athanasias, wrote an Easter letter in 367AD that first listed the 27 books we have now. The Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus were finished before this letter and have the 27 books. Most nodded in agreement as time had sorted things out. The Council of Carthage in 393AD confirmed this list of 27 among all the Bishops present.