The Books the Church Suppressed: Fiction and Truth in The Da Vinci Code. By Dr. Michael Green. Oxford, UK and Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books, 2005; 192 pages.
No doubt we’ve all seen the film version of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and (hopefully) most Christians have familiarized themselves with the novel itself. Whether either of these is true or not, we have all, knowingly or unknowingly, encountered some form of the claims contained therein. Dr. Michael Green, prolific writer and currently Canon Missioner of Holy Trinity Church (Raleigh, NC), has ably and accessibly responded to these claims.
In the first of fourteen chapters, Green identifies the novel’s main assumptions against Christianity (e.g., that Jesus was not considered divine until 325 AD, when the Council of Nicaea —by vote—pronounced him so). Such views, springing largely from Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Thomas, clearly contradict the testimony of the four NT Gospels. So, “Why our four Gospels and no others” (p. 17)? Chapter two is concerned with explaining where the idea of a canon of sacred books came from. As Dr. Green observes, it is “important to understand… that nobody decided, ‘Let’s have a new list of authoritative books.’” After establishing that the Jews regarded the OT as an inspired, authoritative canon long before Jesus’ day, Green describes the principle by which additional texts came to be accepted: Jesus’ followers were convinced of his deity (p. 22f).
The third chapter is a brief analysis of the reliability of the NT texts, focusing especially on the Gospels. Their genre, authorship, dates, testimony, and manuscript data are considered.
Chapters four through seven return to the formation of the NT canon. Green first tackles Jesus’ authoritative view of the OT (p. 41f), and then examines the authority (Hebrew shaliach) and subsequent impact of the Apostles. Chapter five discusses the collection and recognition of specific NT manuscripts. Green demonstrates his thorough familiarity with the history of various fixed collections of texts, and argues that “by and large the NT canon was recognised early in the second century…” Chapter six begins by noting two key tendencies of 2nd century churchmen: A function of inclusion in the canon, and a function of exclusion (p. 71f). Remember, the official list is largely established, but “the edges of the collection are somewhat blurred.” Green traces the gradual recognition by the early church of the 27 books comprising the NT from among the surplus of Gnostic and other books. Chapter seven identifies the main principles used to determine a book’s acceptance (or rejection) into the canon: apostolicity, orthodoxy, and catholicity. Perhaps the most important point thus far is that no individual or council announced the canon, it was, rather, recognized.
Switching gears slightly, Green moves in chapter eight to examine the Gnostics. “[They] appeared as a movement within broadly Christian parameters, and [were] a perversion of the Christian faith in the direction of speculative theology. It is really weird stuff” (p. 93). After providing several samples of Gnostic writing, Green summarizes the Gnostic’s beliefs, which segues right to chapter nine. The Nag Hammadi library (the discovery story of which opens the chapter) contains many non-canonical books, the most controversial being the infamous Gospel of Thomas. Green astutely evaluates this and several other Gnostic texts, all of which deny an orthodox Christology. As Green observes, these texts have influenced more than mere novelists; they have affected contemporary scholarship as well (p. 117f).
Chapter ten is a more in depth examination of Gnosticism. While laying out their beliefs, Green carefully explains the apostolic response to Gnosticism. Obviously, the movement was not stamped out (it surrounds us today). The sub-apostolic response is reviewed, and the chapter ends with a helpful breakdown of precisely “what’s wrong with Gnosticism” (p. 136). Chapter eleven is incidental to the book; it offers a brief survey of various other books rejected by the Church. The twelfth chapter is entitled, “Why does all this matter?” In response, Green identifies four reasons: for integrity, for society, for the church, and for the individual. In the course of elaborating on each of these, Green perceptively addresses many related attacks on orthodoxy (e.g., claims by Elaine Pagels, Karen King, the Jesus Seminar, et. al.). Included as well is a helpful chart laying modern Gnosticism alongside orthodox Christianity. There can be no doubt that these matter a great deal.
In chapter thirteen Green takes on the “sacred feminine” motif of The Da Vinci Code (and its various manifestations in contemporary thought). The final chapter is a terrific recap of an insightful and widely accessible work. The sort of worldview that Brown (and so many others) embraces has been exposed for what it is: empty, and based on errors.
Following the final chapter is a useful glossary and a short bibliography, for those interested in further study.