Lecture 16: The Divine Qualities of the Canon
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: The Divine Qualities of the Canon
I. What is a ‘defeater’?
In the first part of the book, I argued for what I call an epistemic model of knowing, like God has given us a structure by which we can rightly know what books are from him. And before that model, there were the attributes of canonicity. You can know that a book is from God because it has divine qualities with apostolic origins and co-operate reception. But a model like that only works short of a defeater. Yes, you can have a model that give you reasons for knowing, but after a defeater comes along and shoots down your model negatively. So a defeater is something or someone that undermines your confidence in knowing something. You can have good grounds in thinking that you know something, but then a defeater comes along and says actually no. One example I give in the book is when Joe wakes up in the morning and sees that his alarm clock says 9:00 am and then reaches the conclusion that he is late for work. Joe is justified in that conclusion, but then his wife comes in and tells him that his son was playing with his clock last night and may have changed the time. Now he’s got a defeater to his justified belief. There was nothing wrong with his belief in being late for work. So, one of the things I do in the book, I say that our model works short of defeaters. Are there defeaters that can undermine our model? I walk through those one at a time in the book. The first has to do with divine quality. So we argue that the Bible contains divine quality and what I argue is, we have to explain what those divine qualities are and ask if there is anything that can defeat them. I mentioned three different divine qualities in the book: beauty in Excellency, power, and efficacy of these books and then unity and harmony.
I want to focus on unity and harmony as I believe that is the one that most people resonate with. One of the divine qualities that mark out books as canonical is the remarkable theological unity and harmony they have, not only with one another but with prior revelation. So, why do we think these New Testament books are from God; one point is the amazing unity and harmony with prior revelation that complete the biblical story. But also when you look at them, we can compare them with one another. They are unified, they agree and there is consistency among them. It is the kind of consistency that you can’t imagine that could be humanly constructed as the books were written over different periods of time and by different authors. All this is suggestive of divine qualities; this is a God book as you would reach your conclusion on. This is the Christian argument, that this unity and harmony points us back to the fact that these books belong in the canon. But once you say that, there comes along the defeater who basically questions what you say. They say, ‘you claim these books have unity and harmony, but they are a theological mess.’ And the defeater continues on, when you look at the New Testament, there are different theological camps present. They disagree with each other theologically. The main scholar that suggested this was a person by the name of F.C. Bower who said when you look in the New Testament you can’t see theological harmony but only diversity. In fact, everybody disagrees with everybody; Paul says one thing and James says another thing. Jesus says one thing and then Paul says something else. There are contradictions and differences; theological unity isn’t there. So this has been suggested as a defeater to the canonical model. How can we as evangelicals claim there is harmony in these twenty-seven books when Bower says there is no harmony at all? There is only a theological mess.
In my book I debunk that; I offer what is called a defeater, defeater. This defeat for Bower is multidimensional and I will not go into it fully here. But his arguments have been roundly critiqued. His arguments consist of different theological camps that run into a number of problems. For one, further studies show that Paul and James aren’t opposed to each other. Actually, they are fairly harmonious. They stand, in a sense, back to back arguing against different errors. And time to time, again, the supposed theological disparity have been shown and proved to be harmonious. So Bower has been refuted in that way. But I push back against Bower in another way; why do we expect the non-believer to be able to assess theological harmony in the first place? This goes back to our earlier point; when you read the New Testament books, you need spiritual eyes to be able to understand what they are saying and see what they mean. For someone who doesn’t even affirm the divine origins of the these books, who doesn’t have the Holy Spirit, simply goes against what we know from 1st Corinthians 2 which says that the natural man has not received the things of the Spirit. Put differently, when we have critics that claim not to see harmony in the New Testament, that shouldn’t bother us to the degree that it normally does.
II. The Unity in the Overall Structure of the Old and New Testaments
There are different ways to look at the harmony of the New Testament books; one is the way that they relate to each other, but another way is how the New Testament Books complete the Old Testament. In comparing the New Testament to the Old Testament, you realize that the New Testament is actually finishing a story that was left unfinished in the old and completion is a natural conclusion. And so, when you look at it as a complete unit, you see that the New Testament is finishing up the Old Testament and structurally creating a complete unit. That can be ascertained a lot of different ways. Certainly, you can see that unity in terms of the story, itself. The Old Testament has a story that doesn’t have an end and the New Testament brings a proper end to it. You can see the unity in this way. But there are other ways to see the unity, the overall structure of both testaments make sense; Genesis starts with creation and Revelation ends with a New Creation. You have Genesis starting with a seven day week and then in Revelation you have the number 7 used over and over again. You look at the overall canonical structure of the Old and The New Testament; the Old Testament has a three-fold structure with the New Testament having a four-fold structure which is a totality of seven which is symbolic of completeness. There is observation after observation that begins to back each other up. So do I believe that human beings randomly connected these books together and have that sort of unified structure? Is that possible? One would have to say that there is more than a random human construct. There is a divine harmony amongst these books that point back to God.
III. The Holy Spirit and the Scope of the Beauty and Unity of the Bible
If the unbeliever comes along and says, look, I don’t understand; you Christians say that there is beauty and Excellency in these books, but I don’t see it. Once again, we must ask whether or not they have eyes to see this. What I am always amazed at, when you tell a non-Christian that the Bible has certain qualities and the non-Christian doesn’t see those qualities; they immediately assume that the problem is the Bible and not them. This is an interesting observation. No one ever pauses to think that something could be wrong with their sense of perception. They immediately assume that their sense of perception works perfectly fine, the problem is the Bible. But I would challenge this; we don’t do this in other areas of life. If you were listening to the radio and all of a sudden it stops playing, you would probably assume that there is some wrong with your radio. You don’t assume that there is something wrong with the signal at the radio station. You don’t conclude that, oh, my receiver is working just find, something must be wrong with the signal because everything is find on my end. No, you rightly assume that maybe my receiver is broken. And I would push back against the non-Christian at that point and say, when you say you don’t see these divine qualities, why do you assume the problem is that they are not there? Maybe the problem is with your ability to apprehend them.