Pretend that technology is frozen in approximately the same place it was in the early 1980s. Video Cassette Recorders are just making their way into people’s houses. DVDs are unheard-of. There is no such thing as the internet. There are really no such thing as video stores, either. About the only way to watch a pre-recorded movie on your brand-new VCR is to buy one of the few movies released on video (for a small fortune) or to watch a movie that had been recorded from TV onto a blank video tape (hopefully by someone who paused out the commercials).
Further pretend that, back in this dark age of home entertainment technology, someone asks you a question: How many Kevin Bacon movies are there?
How would you answer that question? For the sake of this analogy, pretend like there are no books or magazines that list every movie Kevin Bacon ever starred in. There’s nothing like the IMDb. The only resource you have is your VCR and your collection of video tapes, and every video tape you can beg, borrow, or steal from someone else. How do you answer that question?
It seems to me like the best way to answer that question is to get together all the Kevin Bacon fans that you can, and have them bring their video collections. When you do, you’ll probably find that there are four different kinds of Kevin Bacon movies that come up.
The first kind of Kevin Bacon movies would be the obvious ones. These are the movies that everyone remembers, that people can quote from, that immediately come to mind when you say “Kevin Bacon.” Even people who haven’t seen them for themselves know that these are Kevin Bacon movies. These movies are easy to count.
The second kind of Kevin Bacon movie that might come up (remember, this is an analogy) are the obviously forged Kevin Bacon movies. Maybe someone with crude video-editing machinery has spliced together scenes from a Kevin Bacon movie together with another film to try to make it look like Kevin Bacon, instead of Jimmy Stewart, was the hero of that movie you see every Christmas. These movies are easy to count, too - you just throw them out.
The other kind of Kevin Bacon movie is a little tougher. Remember, in the early 80s, most people’s movie collection was made up of copies of copies of copies of someone else’s copy. Picture and sound quality weren’t the best. So there might be some grainy images, some stretched tapes, maybe even some that are incomplete or half taped-over with someone’s sister’s ballet recital. Is that the Kevin Bacon, or just some guy who looks like him? You bring your grainy, incomplete copy to the movie convention and see what the other fans have to say. Maybe others have clearer copies of the same movie, and you can tell it really is Kevin Bacon. Maybe someone has a tape of a Late Show interview where Kevin Bacon talks about that movie, thus proving your guess. Maybe, in spite of a similar hairstyle, you determine it’s not really Kevin Bacon at all. Maybe no one else has that movie, but a couple of people have heard that the guy looks a little bit like Kevin Bacon. Either way, other people will help you make that call.
The fourth kind of movie would be the most exciting of all. Imagine the excitement at a Kevin Bacon fan club meeting if someone brought in a good, clean copy of a rare early Kevin Bacon film that was never released in theaters. It wouldn’t matter that no one had ever seen it before - Kevin Bacon is unmistakable! After they watched it, and thanked the person who had brought it, what would everyone else at the convention do? Copy it, and pass it on, and add it to their collections.
I hope the parallels between my analogy and the formation of the New Testament are obvious, even as I hope you will overlook the shortcomings inevitable in any analogy.
Most of the books of the New Testament, like the “famous” Kevin Bacon movies, were quickly and readily accepted as part of the canon. God’s fingerprints, as it were, were all over these books. God’s inspiration and authority, and the authority of the Apostle who wrote the book, were obvious, evident, and well-known.
Likewise, the forgeries and would-be books were quickly recognized for what they were: either outright fakes, or more usually books written by men - fine and well-intended - but lacking in apostolic authorship and divine authority.
The books about which people had questions, which some people for a time even spoke against, are like the grainy movies where the subject isn’t as clearly seen, or where the movie isn’t immediately recognizable because we aren’t familiar enough with the work. In those cases, we watch closely. We ask questions. We compare our experience to that of others until the truth finally comes out. Notice that the early Church didn’t “make” Jude a canonical book any more than a viewer can “make” a movie a Kevin Bacon movie. Either it is, or it isn’t. It’s the Church’s job to recognize God’s Word for what it is, and we give thanks that they did such a careful, diligent job.
The fourth kind of movie mirrors the experience of every Christian congregation every time they acquired a fresh copy of a letter they had never seen before. Imagine the joy at discovering there are two letters of Paul to the Corinthians, or of finally receiving a copy of John’s Gospel that you’d been hearing so much about.
It also mirrors the experience of every human being who reads God’s Word for the first time. Imagine the joy at discovering that you don’t have to atone for your own shortcomings with a complicated set of rituals, or of finally realizing that there’s a purpose to your life beyond the accumulation of stuff and fond memories.
Open your Bible, and read it. It doesn’t matter what page you turn to ― you’re reading God’s words to you. There’s absolutely no question that what you’re reading is a book of the Bible, one of God’s Holy Scriptures. His fingerprints are all over it.
All that’s left is to read it, learn it, share it, and live it.
(this rather tortured analogy was birthed from two weeks of ruminations about the assembling of the canon of Scripture, ruminations which also resulted in three slightly more coherent posts: How Do We Know the Bible is the Bible: part 1, part 2, part 3.)