Lecture 15: Canonical Model: Self-Authenticating
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Canonical Model: Self-Authenticating
I. The Self-Authenticating Model
After the weaknesses of the community and historical model, I advocate a third model, the self-authenticating model. In essence, within this model I tried to address the fundamental problem in my book that the other models suffered from. What I argued was that the other models suffered from the problem of trying to ground the authority of the canon and something inside that canon. That raises an obvious problem, if the canon is only authoritative because it meets some other external standard, then that other external standard now is standing in authority over the canon. This is a problem. So, how do we authenticate the canon in such a way that we don’t undermine its authority? So, what I argue in this model is that you have to authenticate the canon by using the canon. In other words, the canon itself has God’s word within these twenty-seven books which has to actually guide its own authentication. Now, I know that our modern minds are so used to a sort of imperialistic world view so this idea might sound odd to us. We think it is really circular reasoning; you can’t do that, you say. But I pointed out in the book and said it even earlier in the discussion, that when it comes to establishing ultimate authority, a degree of epistemic circularity is inevitable. What I mean by this is that if in fact something is an open authority, you can’t demonstrate it without using it; otherwise, it wouldn’t be open. If I say that I only believe something because it relies on some other standard, then I have to ask, why do I believe that other standard? Because of some other standard, I then have an endless regress of standards. I have to have some stopping point that is ultimate, having its own authenticating authority. This is a very biblically driven rational because God is his own ultimate authority. When God swears, he swears by himself. When we go into the Scripture, we see that God provides in his Word a guide in authenticating his word. In other words, does God ever tell us anything about anything that we should expect? And that is where I developed the self-authenticating model.
II. The Relationship between the Self-authenticating Model and Sola Scriptura
What I think is proper about the self-authenticating model, it allows Scripture to authenticate itself, and it allows Scripture to have the highest authority. That is the essence of what the reformers meant by Sola Scriptura. There is no ultimately authority beyond Scripture. There is nothing that we can appeal to that supersedes Scripture in terms of authority. So, what I really argue from the book is that if Protestants want to remain faithful to Sola Scriptura, you really can’t do that without a model that is ultimately self-authenticating; otherwise you could end up actually putting other authorities over the Bible. Theoretically, this is what the Roman Catholics have done; they have put the church over the Bible. They have put historical evidence over the Bible. And there could be other things; the point is, once you do that, you are challenging the foundations of Sola Scriptura. In summary, a robust acknowledgment to Sola Scriptura leads a person to the self-authenticating model of canon.
III. A Proper Epistemic Environment
God has provided a means by which Christians can know which books belong to him. Is there a means that God has given that allows the church to identify the right book? I answer that in the affirmative. What I said is that God has provided what you might call an appropriate epistemic environment. What does that mean? There is a situation that Christians find themselves by which they can know. And there are three aspects of this, namely: providential exposure, the attributes of canonicity, and operations of the Holy Spirit. The first one is providential exposure; if God is going to allow his church to recognize his books, then his church must have and process his books. In other words, my very first point in the model is God intends his church to have books as canon; he is going to historical preserve those so the church can actually process them and have them. Now this may seem such an obvious point. We know that there were authoritative books in Christianity that we don’t process. We know that Paul wrote another letter to the Corinthian church that we don’t have. Presumably, it would have had the same apostolic authority. We don’t have that letter and because we don’t have it, it is not really relevant for this discussion. We are only dealing with books that the church has or processes. So the first point is an obvious one, providential exposure. If God wants his church to have books, he will preserve them for the church. That is a sort of debt clearing point.
And then we get to the main issues in the self-authenticating model; God has provided what I call attributes of canonicity. To put it a different way, when we look in the Scriptures, I think there are things that we can discover there about the attributes that these books process. I am referring to things in the New Testament. The Old Testament involves a different discussion. So, what are these attributes of canonicity? One is that each of the books that God has given us, have divine qualities about them. In other words marks of divinity. They have characteristics showing that they are from God. In other words, they have internal marks to show that they have a divine origin. Secondly, it argues that all New Testament books have an apostolic origin, not just divine quality but they have an apostolic content. They are either written by apostles or we have good reason to think they contain authoritative apostolic teachings.
The third attribute of canonicity is what I call cooperate reception. Any book that is given by God would be expected to be received by the church. We would expect that a canonical book is a received book because it has those marks that the church can see. Those are the attributes of canonicity. The third part of the model I think is very important and often overlooked in the study of canon and that is the operation of the Holy Spirit. We would argue the reason why you can rightly recognize books because God has provided his Holy Spirit precisely for that end. Of course, the Holy Spirit does many other things, but one of the things we argue for is that the Holy Spirit functions as a testimonial; what we call the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps us to see what is true of these books so that we might affirm them as from God. Now, when you take this collective package which includes providential exposure, the three attributes of canonicity and the operations of the Holy Spirit with the argument that we have an epistemic environment that gives us reasonable confidence, then we can identify books that are from him.
IV. Can Sin Affect Our Ability To See These Divine Qualities
As soon as you say that canonical books have divine qualities in them and that there are indicators. This is what the reformers called indico, indicators of divinity. As soon as you say this, the skeptics will object. The skeptic will say, ‘I look at the Bible and I don’t see anything special about it.’ I don’t see these so-called attributes or these divine marks. In fact, when I see the Bible, I think it is silly and doesn’t make any sense. Yeah, you say these things are there, but if they are really there, why wouldn’t more people see them? This is a valid question but the response is, well, if these are divine qualities, if they are God-like qualities, if they are spiritual qualities, then you have to have eyes to see these spiritual qualities. To put it a different way, if we are talking about identifying a living book, a person has to be living in order to identify it. You have to have the Spirit of God to help you see. I wrote in the book that the Bible argues that the natural man doesn’t receive the things of God. The non-believer without the Spirit of God and with a heart corrupted by sin which affects his abilities, he will find the Bible to be silly and ridiculous and foolish. But this has no bearing on whether the Bible is actually the Word of God. We have to make sure that we understand that the Spirit has to be there to overcome a person’s blindness as to what is there. This is an important point to understand, the activity of the Spirit of God is not the grounds for our belief in Scripture. It is the means by which we apprehend the attributes or the qualities that are actually there. And so I want to be very clear that the divine qualities are objective and are really there, but you must have the Spirit of God to see them.
V. Is it possible to use this argument to support the Book of Mormon?
I was giving a lecture on the self-authenticating nature of the canon years ago at my denomination’s gathering with a number of fellow pastors. After I had made an argument about the divine qualities of Scripture and how the Spirit helps us to see them, I had someone to raise their hand and say that this sounds like the Mormon argument. The Mormon says the same thing. I realize that on a surface level and at a glance, it can sound very similar to the Mormon argument. But actually there is a very fundamental profound difference between the Mormon argument and the Christian argument. This has to do with the way the Holy Spirit functions. The Mormon argument is that the spirit and your experience with the spirit is actually the ground for your belief that these books are indeed scripture. So it is these experiences with the spirit that says these books are scripture for the Mormon. But this is not the argument I am making here about the self-authenticating canon. What we are arguing for, the Spirit is not the grounds for our belief but merely the means by which you apprehend the grounds, namely the objectives qualities in these books themselves. The Mormons don’t say that the Spirit helps you see, but it is the existential experience with the spirit that is the grounds. This is not the Protestant argument. It sounds like a minor swipe theological nuance but it is an enormous difference. What we are arguing, these books are qualitatively distinct. There is something really different about these books. You have to have the Spirit of God to see those things. They are really there and that is the key difference between us and Mormonism.
VI. What is the Date of the Canon with the Self-authenticating Model?
I argue that this model can support any of the three definitions that I brought up earlier in regards to the dating of the New Testament books. It would certainly support the ontological definition. If these books are given by God in the 1st century, then arguably you could say that we had a canon in the 1st century. So in this sense, we had the canon the moment that God gave us the books. But the self-authenticating model naturally relate to the second definition of canon, the functional definition as these books have the divine qualities of God in them. Christians began to recognize them as being very early from God and they thus the books began to function as Scripture very early. Even by the early 2nd century, I would argue that they were functioning as Scripture in the life of the church and therefore recognized as such by the church. And so, you could say that you had a canon in the 2nd century. And even with the self-authenticating model, we would acknowledge that the edges were fuzzy until about the 4th century. It was only until the 4th century that everything had settled on some of the peripheral smaller books. Therefore, we can argue that we had a definition of canon in the 4th century. So the self-authenticating model actually accommodates all three definitions. And I think they collectively show you the big picture of canon. What I argue in my book, when you think about the date of the canon, you shouldn’t think of it as a dot but instead as a line. The canon is a dynamic progress of God unfolding his revelation to his church. So it isn’t a simple thing to recognize the canon as being established at a particular date as such but instead it is a line.
VII. The Models for Canonicity Reinforce and Support each Other.
What I love about the attributes of canonicity is if you doubt one, you have the other two. For example, let’s imagine you look at a book like 2nd Peter and you wonder about the apostolic authorship of it. So you doubt that attribute that is its apostolic origins. But you actually have two other attributes to tell you that this book is from God, namely the divine qualities and the churches full affirmation of the book. They did finally accept it into the canon. Those two things can help balance out the thing you doubt. So when I say that the three attributes of canonicity is mutually reinforcing, what I mean is if one exist then all of them exist. If you can find one, then all three implicitly are there. And so it really does provide a multidimensional look into the canon. You can look at the canon through the qualities of the book, through reception of the book and through the origins of the book. All three have to be in play to have a balance to be canon.