Scripture and Canon

In the post-apostolic church, the canon of scripture has become the primary mode of God’s ongoing self-revelation, and the rule by which all other claims of revelation are measured.

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In an article in the The Oxford Handbook of Early Christianity, Michael Holmes discusses “The Biblical Canon”. The link leads to a Google Books version where the article can be found on pages 406-426.

Holmes distinguishes between “scripture” (a sacred or inspired writing) and “canon”. The word canon can have two meanings: 1) rule, norm, guide or  measure; 2) list, register or catalog. The Christian canon falls within the second definition (“list”).

Is [the canon] ‘a list of authoritative books’ or ‘an authoritative list of books?’ In the former the emphasis is on the intrinsic authority of the books, whereas in the latter the focus is on the ascribed authority of the list.

The point is significant. Apart from Islam, Christianity and Judaism (and their offshoots), many religions have “scriptures” but not “canons” in the Christian sense of that word. There are various Buddhist canons of scripture, for example, and most are somewhat loosely defined. Holmes describes “canon” in the Christian sense as a “closed official list, incapable of alteration, that consciously both includes and excludes.” That is precisely what Christian canon became in the first centuries of Christianity.

That’s true, except for the fact that the Catholic and Orthodox canons include books that most Protestant canons exclude. The so-called “deuterocanonicals” are writings widely included in Greek translations of the Jewish scriptures, but not present in the canon of Hebrew scriptures that eventually came to be normative in Judaism. Protestant canons do not generally include these books, and they were not officially established as Catholic scripture until the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. (Nevertheless, the Revised Common Lectionary includes some readings from them. I was unhappily surprised to hear a reading from the Wisdom of Solomon in an liturgical service I attended recently.)  The full story of the deuterocanonicals is beyond the scope of this brief essay.

One must recognize that there was historical process at work here. Holmes’ article has a great summary of current state of our understanding about that process. It is a process, by the way, rooted in the widespread usage of these texts in the church, and not primarily in the wise or inspired decisions of individuals or church councils. Long before anyone “decided” to include the books of the Bible in the canon, Christians throughout the church were using them as scripture. Generally, there was a widely-accepted set of core texts for both the Old and New Testaments, and some ongoing disagreement about a few books around the edges of the canon.

What emerged from that historical process now functions as a rule, norm, guide or measure (definition 1 of “canon”).This is a central tenant of doctrine for most Christians. The Articles of Religion shared by Anglicans (Article VI) and Methodists (Article V), for example, identify 66 authoritative books, 39 in the Old Testament [listed by name] and 27 in the New [those ‘commonly received’]. (The Anglicans add 14 deuterocanonical books that can be read for “example of life and instruction of manners,” but not for doctrine). Interestingly, the Article says that what cannot be established by scripture cannot be required as a matter of faith; the boundaries of God’s word, however, cannot be established by scripture. In this particular instance, an extra-biblical process established the Christian doctrine of ‘the canon’. Nevertheless, as circular as it might sound to some folks, I believe that God was at work in the church’s recognition of the sacred authority of the canonical texts, and the circumscribing of the canon itself.

Here’s the bottom line for me: In the post-apostolic church, the canon of scripture has become the primary mode of God’s ongoing self-revelation, and the rule by which all other claims of revelation are measured.

My position would be that any claim of direct revelation today – unconnected to the canon of scriptures is highly suspect. It’s easy to say, “God told me” or “the spirit revealed to me,” and perhaps most of those who say such things really believe it, but don’t expect me to believe it unless you can make your argument from scriptures. And even then, I’m not likely to listen to an argument that says, “the spirit showed me what this scripture really means.” I distrust the authority of personal experience (which is highly subjective and subject to self-interest and self-delusion). I also believe that God has chosen to deal with the the post-apostolic generations in a different manner than he did with other eras of salvation history. It is hard for me to understand how any honest reading of scripture can deny that Christ, his earthly disciples and the church’s apostles acted with what they believed to be supernatural power in certain miraculous events; I have yet to meet, however, any Christian who can cause ‘supernatural’ events to occur as Jesus and his disciples could when they healed the sick on command, cast out demons, calmed storms, multiplied loaves, and so forth. Yes, I know people pray and miracles happen. It seems to me that the latter is very different than the former.

The meaning of scripture should be available to all who earnestly study it, and it involves things like knowing context, background, language, et cetera – that is, the same tools that one uses to understand any piece of literature. I think that proper interpretation of scripture is the work of the whole church, because we need each other to expand our vision and correct our misunderstandings. I believe that Holy Spirit is at work in this whole process, but that his work is hidden. I won’t attribute any more to my own contributions to the church’s understanding of scripture than to say I’ve approached the task as best I could.