Lecture 12: What are the current challenges to canonicity?
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
I. What are the Greatest Challenges of the Church with the Issue of Canonicity?
I think every Christian is curious about the canonicity of the Bible; they recognize that the Bible is a distinctive kind of book being made up of a number of smaller books from many different authors. So I think that people recognize that this is one book with God as the open author but the smaller books raise questions about whether they are the correct books or note. So, I think there is an intuitive question that people have from the outset just by observing the uniqueness of the Bible. And then when you have that starting point with most believers who are already wondering about question, then there are these external factors that exacerbate it and make it worse, not to mention the factors that sort of feed the obsession of the Canon in our culture today.
One factor I think today is the discovery of the new apocryphal materials that we didn’t know about. The early 20th century, of course with the Nag Hammadi discovery and we see particularly the explosion of apocryphal literature on the New Testament side. Obviously, things like the Gospel of Thomas with the writings of the Gospels and other writings that we have come to know raise again questions about whether we have the right books. So, what about these books, people wonder? The continual discussion of lost Gospels and lost versions of Christianity, I think exacerbate the question. A second reason people continue to be interested in the question of Canon in our culture today is a renewed interest in a scholar by the name of Walter Bauer who wrote a book in 1934 called, ‘Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity.’ That book argues that early Christianity was widely diverse, there were different factions fighting for what was the true version of Christianity. Each different group claimed to be the original Christianity and the true Christianity. And all of those different factions had their own books. Bauer argues in his writing that the books you have are the books of the theological winners, they were no more special than any other books. If another group had won or the Gnostics had won, you would have been reading the Gospel of Philip or something else, which would not have been the same collection of books. Bauer’s thesis has been rejuvenated by the works of Bart Ehrman and others who wanted to tout his work afresh which raises canonical questions yet again. In the third area, I think the renewing interest in the canon has to do with the question of the authorship of the books of the New Testament. Were they really written by the people that have been assigned to them? Did Paul really write all these letters? Were their forgeries within those letters? Were these works pseudonymous? Scholars are always nipping away at that theme suggesting that the authors of the books are not who we think they are. And this raises more questions about the canon because if such and such didn’t write 2nd Peter then it raises the question of whether 2nd Peter should be in the New Testament. Those kinds of points are working together to make the canon an issue that we need to be addressing as evangelical Christians.
II. What has been the impact of Dan Brown and his view of the Council of Nicea portrayed in, ‘the Davinci Code?’
Well, ever since Dan Brown’s book on the Davinci Code came out, questions on the canon are being talked about even more. With the Davinci Code, you have a popular fiction book making claims that the canon was chosen at the Council of Nicaea or at some other council with someone voting on these books with Constantine using it as political pressure to keep certain books in and certain books out of the New Testament. People love these types of things; people love conspiracy theories and love the idea that things were done in a secret way and only now we know the truth, that sort of thing. The unfortunate reality is, it doesn’t really go along with what we know about the historical evidence at all. Although it is a sort of repeated troupe from Dan Brown and others saying that the Council of Nicaea was the place that the Canon was chosen, but there no real historical evidence that this is the case at all. In fact, there is no real evidence that the New Testament Canon was discussed at all at the Council of Nicaea. Nicaea was really designed to deal with how to articulate the divinity of Jesus in his relationship with the Father and not with the canon. So it is a wonderful way to come up with a conspiracy theory where Constantine fixed these books, but when you look at the historical facts, Nicaea is not really a factor in determining which books got into the New Testament.
III. How do you use the terms like exclusive, functional and ontological?’
Whenever you talk to someone on the issue of canon, one of the things that quickly become evident is that there is a fairly wide-spread disagreement about what the word canon means. Or when you use the word for canon, what concept are you referring to? This particularly becomes an issue in terms of the canon’s date. So when someone says that you can date the canon to such and such a date, we have to know what you are looking for that count as canon. You either have it or don’t have it, so in my book what I’ve done, I have tried to sift through that complexity by offerings three definitions of canon. One is called the exclusive definition and this is popular in modern scholarship today and it does has a level legitimacy to it. And what they argue is that you don’t really have a canon until you have a fix final closed list of books to which nothing can be added or taken away. Until you get to that point in time, you can’t say that you have a canon. You can have Scripture, a loose collection of authoritative writings. On that definition, you really would not have had a canon until the 4th century. I argue for what is called the functional definition, a second definition. This isn’t unique to me; other scholars have suggested this. Bar Child is a good example of who argued that we don’t have to wait until we have a fix final closed list in order to have a canon. You have a canon when books are functioning like Scripture. In other words, if you have authoritative books that are functioning like Scriptural books in the life of Christians and they are using them like Scriptural books, you functionally have a canon. The boundary may not be solidified, fair enough. There may be some fuzziness on the edge, but you still have a canon.
And then, I have actually suggested a third definition; what I call the ontological definition. The first two definitions are okay as far as they go, but they don’t acknowledge that there is something about these books that are true of them regardless of whether any group ever received them. In other words, we won’t argue that canonicity is an attribute of books that are distinctive from it reception. Otherwise, it comes dangerously close to suggesting that reception makes the book canonical. You wouldn’t want to go down that path. We would want to suggest that books are canonical when they are recognized as such. But when they are recognized as such, there has to be something about the books themselves that make them canonical. Therefore, I argue for what is called an ontological definition. The idea that the books that are canon are the books that God gave his church to guide them as authoritative Scripture and when you ask it that way, you are almost looking at canon through the lens of the way God would see it. If you look at it that way, you really had a canon in the 1st century. God gave these books to the church in the 1st century and we could say that we had a canon then. Those three definitions are all valid in their own way and I think they all balance each other out.
IV. What is the difference between a Book Becoming Canonical and Being Recognized as Canonical?
This is a categorical mistake that is critical to get. When people talk about the canon and its date and so forth, there is a sense that books were written for one purpose but then later the church sort of hijacked these books and used them for another purpose and they made them canon. They infused authority into them or they declared them to be something that they were otherwise not. I find that highly problematic, theologically and historically. We want to be very careful with that because if we say that the church makes a book canonical or the books become canonical by virtue of a declaration of the church. That comes very close to suggesting that the real authority is not in the books at all, but really in the church or in the declaration or the activity that received them. And so, I make a point in the book to make it clear that there is something inherent about these books that are true regardless of whether anyone recognizes them and therefore what you have in canon is not so much creating something that is not there or making something. It is rather recognizing something that is already true. That is historically the protestant perception of the canon. The term recognized is the word often used, we recognize what is true rather than make something true.
V. How do you Know Something in terms of Epistemology, Theology of the Canon and Materialism?
One of the things that I really wanted to answer in my book, of which I felt that many books on the canon didn’t deal with, was the issue of epistemology. This is answering the question of how you know. Most books up to this point, is what I would call data books. They tell you the historical data about when a book was received or what a church father thought about a book and those are all important things to know. But the books that I’ve read were never dealing with the question of what grounds does a Christian have for thinking that he could know this. What is the mechanism by which a Christian could know which books are from God and which books aren’t? One of the things I think you need to have if you are going to answer that question is what I call theology of the canon. In other words, did God give a mechanism by which a Christian or the church generally could know which books are from God? Is there some structure by which knowledge is acquired in this way? And I argue that God has given a mechanism, a means by which you can recognize and know which books are from him. But as soon as you say that though, you realize you can’t have an answer to that question without using the very authority that you are trying to prove. This gets into the inevitable circularity of the enterprise; that everybody who tries to prove an ultimate authority will eventually have to use that ultimate authority and the method in which they prove it, otherwise it ceases to be ultimate. So, a large part of this deal with the way we philosophically think about how we acquire knowledge and making sure we are not naïve about the way we argue for canon. And that was an important aspect of what I was trying to accomplish.
VI. The Goal is Not to Prove Something to the Skeptic
What if I want to prove the reliability of my sense of perception? That is, when I see something, I am seeing it accurately. My senses are accurately represented. How would I show such a thing? I couldn’t actually show such a thing unless I use my sense of perception and therefore demonstrate my reliability of that sense. So if someone wanted to test their eyesight, they could lay out a chart on the wall and mark off ten feet, but I am presuming that my eyes are working correctly in order to set up the test in the first place. We could have someone else set it up but then the same applies for that person and so I am back to where I was. So, when it comes to ultimately authority, our means of knowing anything ultimately can’t be demonstrated without actually using them. There is nothing philosophically problematical about that. It is inevitability when dealing with ultimate authority. So my ultimately goal is not to prove this. People in dealing with issues like Biblical authority and in this case the particular issue of whether we have the right books or not, there is an inherent desire among evangelicals to demonstrate and prove that the canon is correct; that we have the right books. I didn’t intend to do that from the beginning. I really doubt that is something that could be done for the skeptic anyway. What I mean by that, it is not that I doubt that there are reasons to believe that the canon is right. I think there are tremendous good reasons to believe that. But the idea that I can prove this to the skeptic without dealing with worldly issues, I think is naïve. I am dealing with a different question. I am not asking the question of how to prove the truth of the canon; I am asking the question, do we have grounds for thinking that we can know which books are in the canon? So the issue that I wanted to deal with in the book was not so much of demonstrating the truth of canon, but asking whether we can account for our belief that it is canon. In other words, to put it a different way, I ask the question, are Christians just blindly leaping in the dark when we say these twenty-seven books are the correct ones. It is just a hope; is it a guess? Is it like, well…. we hope we are right. Is there any way that we could know that? That question is rarely asked and what I wanted to deal with is that I think God has given us a structure for how we can know that. If so, then Christians can account for their knowledge of canon. Even the skeptic disagrees with us, what I have tried to show here is a separate question. Even if the skeptic says that he doesn’t believe that those are the right books, at least we can make an argument in that Christianity has a basis for making the claim in the first place. And that is a very good place to start.