Catholic writer/blogger Mark Shea today delivered up this Chestertonian gem, in response to a question about the Dan Brown-ish sort of “lost gospels” nonsense, and how Evangelicals who get a lot of book larnin’ are apt to throw over the Bible, as has pop scholar Bart Ehrsman:
Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church’s bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed “Psalms” or “Gospels”; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures? Yet it was long before it even occurred to those who brandished this one piece of Church furniture to break up all the other Church furniture that anybody could be so profane as to examine this one fragment of furniture itself. People were quite surprised, and in some parts of the world are still surprised, that anybody should dare to do so.
This is one of many issues on which Catholic and Orthodox traditions (which were unified for the first millennium) are in substantial agreement. We would differ in emphasis if not in substance from Shea’s oversimplified version how the canon of Scripture came to be the canon (from which Protestant Bibles omit a number of books, by the way), but we agree on this:
- The early Church had no canon other that the Old Testament, with lots of evidence that the Septuagint was favored.
- The early Church had a vital Christianity before the first book of the New Testament had been written.
- Gnosticism beset the Church early on, and many gnostic pseudo-Christian documents were written.
- The Church rejected those writings in practice and eventually in precept.
I’m not foolish enough to try to top Chesterton’s colorful fable of how today’s “conservative Evangelicals” treat the Church which gave them the Bible they misuse to abuse the Church.
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