Lecture 13: Canonical Model: Community
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Canonical Model: Community
I. Historical – Critical Model
Canonical models make up a core part of my book with it asking the question, how we know, or is there a mechanism for knowing which books are in the Canon. There are different ways of thinking about canon to answer that question. So, I define a canonical model like a canonical world view; it tells you about what a person thinks the canon is; it tells you how they know a canonical book when they see one. It is a developed system by which someone says that is canon and here is how we know when we see it; here is how we authenticate it. Everybody has got some way of doing that. So I divided the book into three main canonical models; three main ways that people think they can determine what books are canonical. And the first of those are what I called the community model of canon, which is probably the most common. The community determines the model of canon knowing which books are canonical because of the communities’ affirmation of that book. To put it another way, in a more craft form, a book in one sense becomes canonical upon reception. So the activity of the community to some extent constitutes a book as canon or even to some extent makes the book canon. So, the community becomes a definitive factor in a community determined model. And of course, there are numerous examples of this. There are many different versions of the community model which sound very different from one another at first glance, but when you look at the base-line way which is by virtue of the communities’ decoration about a book.
The example of this would be the historical-critical model which is almost an anti-model. It’s representative of modern critical scholars view of canon; this is someone with no faith commitment, no theological belief in the inspiration of Scripture. When they look at the question of why one book is canonical and another book isn’t, their answer is that the church chose some books and not others. In other words, the historical-critical model says that books are canonical by virtue of human decisions alone. It was a human group of men in a church that decided that we like this book and not that book and that is all there is to it. It is what you might call a naturalizing the canon. It stripes away any supernatural element and just says that the canon is determined by human decisions alone. It is what books that people happen to prefer at the time and therefore, this particular collection of books has no more meaning than any other book. It is simply books that people collected and affirmed at a point in time. So most-higher critical scholars, therefore, when they look at the canon, it is just a historical event. It is simply something that happened when humans make decisions with no meaning to it. There is no distinctive identity in these books. There is no quality to the books that make them any different than any other books.
This is built largely on the Bauer hypothesis with this idea that the books in our Canon happen to be the books of the theological winners. This is because some group became the dominant group of Christianity. Therefore, that dominate version of Christianity got to pick the books they wanted, but just like Bauer always used to ask, so why should we think these books are better than any other books? If a different group had won, you would have had a different Canon today. So, with this whole approach, what you realize with this historical-critical model, the Canon is just sort of an accident in history, it is just what ended up happening, you don’t put any meaning into it. It doesn’t mean anything, it just so happened that one group won and they picked the books they wanted. That doesn’t mean that they are any better than any other books. So there is this naturalized version of the way canon works for most historical-critical scholars. This group has largely followed the definition of canon laid out by Albert Sunburn which is what I called earlier, the exclusive definition. Higher critical scholars that think the Canon is just a product of the church usually date the Canon to around the 4th century. So they typically have a fairly late date for the Canon.
II. The Roman Catholic Model
This is the second example of a community determined model. People are often surprised that I put it alongside the historical-critical model being under the same umbrella. On a surface level, Roman Catholic and sort of higher critical scholars are very different groups. And so how could they have the same model of canon. Ironically they do, they both basically conclude that the church chose these books and the books we have are canonical because the church chose them. It is just that the higher critical group thinks that it doesn’t mean anything but the Roman Catholic group has the view that the magisterium had the Spirit of God behind them and therefore they think it means more. This proves to them that these books are canonical. But both groups still have the same basic underlining premise, all canonical books are books chosen by some community of human beings. The Roman Catholic model are positive and they end up with the same twenty-seven books that we would affirm as inspired, so in one sense, we are on the same team. But the method by which the Roman Catholic get there raises a number of theological concerns. These are long-standing concerns that go all the way back to the reformation and even before that. If in fact, these books are canonical by virtue of the churches’ activities, this raises the question as to whether the church is at a higher level than the books themselves. In other words, how do you have a view where the books are the highest authority but yet the church is exhibiting an even higher authority? So what you end up in the Roman Catholic view seems more along the lines of not Scripture alone, but instead church alone as the definitive factor for the Canon.
III. Self-Authenticating Authority
One of the things that they as Roman Catholics object to in regards to the protestant view or at the protestant view that I abdicate in my book, they think that Protestants have self-authenticating authority. How can the Bible be self-authenticating? Some external authority outside the Bible must tell you that this is the Bible and so this is the core Roman Catholic argument. And Protestants stumble over this. Perhaps we need some external authority outside the Bible to know that it is authoritative. This is all good and well as an argument, but what if you turn the question back to the Roman Catholic asking why we should believe that Rome is the authority. Now there is a bit of a conundrum there; why should I accept the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? If they want to go to some outside authority other than the Roman Catholic Church, then what would it be? It can’t be Scripture because that is the very thing they say you need the church to know. That can’t be an answer. In the end, I argue that the church ends up being the Roman Catholic system of self-authenticating. In other words, according to the Roman Catholics, we should believe the authority of the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. So they end of as being in the same circular problem they claim that the Protestants are suffering from. So, this is an important aspect. And so what I argue in the book is that every open authority is self-authenticating. So is your authority going to rest in the church or will it rest in Scripture and that being self-authenticating? Something has to be self-authenticating. Protestants have chosen Scripture as the appropriate place for that authority.
IV. What was the Role of the Council of Trent and the Closing of the Canon?
Roman Catholic says that you can’t have a Canon without the church's declaration. That is their argument, but that didn’t formally happen until the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The Council of Trent was a post-reformation council designed to push back against the Reformation by affirming certain books as canonical, particular those books of the Old Testament Apocrypha which is a different discussion from what we are on today. But the principle there is that a church council declared books as authoritative. The Protestant response to that was to ask what was happening in the first fifteen hundred years before this council made their declaration? How did the church know what books to read before this? They might respond: well, there were regional councils here and there but there were no ecumenical why spread ruling before Trent that would have told people what to read. The Protestants typically point that out by saying there was a way to know which books to read without a formal declaration. The community asked how can we have an authoritative Bible if, in fact, it requires a community outside the Bible that ends up being more authoritative than the Bible. This is a problem for any view of canon that places the authority outside the canon. I argue that the only place that you can go to authenticate the Bible is the Bible, itself. I know for some people this sounds oddly circular but really that is the essence of what you have to do with ultimate authority.