>The past three or four weeks in the Poiema ACG have been dedicated to discussion on the canonization process. It’s been incredibly challenging. I like certainty and neat, tidy doctrines. Thinking about the canon defies attempts for certainty (at least based on any proofs) and tidiness.
When you look at the criteria for canonicity (NT), you’ll see what I’m talking about. First, there is the criterion of apostolicity. If a Gospel or Epistle was from an apostle, it would be included in the canon. But that’s not neat either, even when we widen the it to the ‘circle of apostles’ and thus include Mark (as an associate of Peter) and Luke (as an associate of Paul). Still, what about Hebrews? It was included based on an assume Pauline authorship that is unlikely. Even Origen in the 3rd century believed it was not Pauline (“who wrote the epistle, in truth God knows”). Yet, it was still deemed canonical. Moreover, what about the Letter to the Laodicea that Paul says he wrote? We don’t have it in our canon (we don’t have it at all – it’s gone). Why? Was it not inspired? What about the likely third letter to Corinth (1.5 Corinthians)? My point is that apostolicity doesn’t completely answer the question why certain books and not others are in the canon.
The criterion of antiquity really collapses into that of apostolicity. A third criterion, public use in the church, likewise fails to answer all questions. Other letters, like the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, etc. were widely used in churches, and regarded by some early church fathers as canonical.
Consequently, many/most Reformed theologians assert that none of the criteria can be seen as absolute proofs of a the canonicity of a biblical book. Herman Ridderbos writes, “No matter how strong the evidence for apostolicity may be in many instances and no matter how forceful the arguments in favor of the apostolicity of certain other writings may be, historical judgments cannot be the final and sole ground for the church’s accepting the New Testament as canonical. To accept the New Testament on that grounds would mean that the church would ultimately be basing its faith on the results of historical investigation.”
Ridderbos emphasizes the inability of establishing the canon by means of ‘proofs’ or ‘criteria’. Gaffin emphasizes the inappropriateness of striving to do so. He argues that attempts to establish the validity of the canon by means of criteria elevates an authority, namely fallible human reasoning and historical research, over the canon. Rather, he suggests, we should see the canon as self-attesting, self-validating. He contends, “That which belongs to the New Testament is canonical, canonical is that which belongs to New Testament.” If we want to look beyond the canon to something outside the canon to validate it, we can only look to what the canon points to, namely God. “God,” in Gaffin’s words, “is canon.” The question then becomes, “how does God assert himself as canon?”
Here, I think John Frame’s approach is helpful. To summarize, it is clear from Scripture that God wanted the Old Covenant attested to in writing, so he told Moses to write it down and put it in the ark for safekeeping. Additional elements of this covenant were also committed to writing. Based on this, we should conclude that God also wanted the New Covenant in Christ attested to in writing. Moreover, we shouldn’t doubt that God was successful in delivering such attestation to the covenant to his people (the church).
So how does this confidence in the canon square with my assertion (following R.C. Sproul who follows his mentor John Gerstner who summarizes the Reformers) that the Bible is “a fallible collection of infallible books”? (Please note: saying the Bible is a fallible collection doesn’t mean it’s an errant collection. Fallible means it’s possibly in error, errant means it is in error. For reasons explained below, I believe the canon is fallible, but don’t believe that it’s errant). That has been a tension I’ve felt intensely for the first time these past two weeks (don’t know how it escaped me before). A friend asked last week how we can assert that a book of the bible is inerrant when were not certain it should be in the canon to begin with (paraphrase)?
The Roman Catholic path out of this quandary is to assert an infallible canon based on a belief in the church’s infallible authority. The Reformers, recognizing how many times the church has erred and contradicted itself (even officially, not to mention unofficially) rejected the idea of an infallible church. This is what led them, recognizing the churches role in recognizing the canon, to reject the idea of an the Bible as an infallible collection of infallible books. Here again, we should be clear on what we are saying. God infallibly communicated his word. No questions here. The question is, did the church correctly recognize God’s word. The difference is in the existence of the thing (canon) vs. recognition of the thing – the giving of it and the receiving of it.
I was asked on Sunday why I don’t just adopt the Roman Catholic position on this and accept the infallibility of the canon. My answer is in two parts. First, I don’t see historically that the church is infallible (and I don’t see how to assert the infallibility of the church in the canonization process and limit it to that exercise of authority). Second, it doesn’t help me escape from fallibility entirely anyway. Let me illustrate that:
- Protestant view: fallible church’s belief in infallible Scripture.
- The Roman Catholic view seems to be more secure: infallible church’s belief in infallible Scripture.
- But in reality, the Roman Catholic view still amounts to: fallible individuals belief in an infallible church’s belief in Scripture.
In other words, fallible human judgment comes into question inevitably at some point. It is possible for all of us to be wrong, and that is inescapable. It is, therefore, an epistemological problem.
Why then such confidence in Scripture and the canon? Well, just to believe it’s possible something is in error isn’t the same as saying it’s likely or probable that it’s in error. Without asserting a infallible church, I’m stuck with a fallible collection of infallible books. However, I believe the process of canonization, a fallible process, has been vindicated through the centuries (not at all comfortable with this ‘evidential approach’, but I’m mustering all the arguments). There are no strong contenders for canonization, nor have serious challenges to books (i.e. James, 2 Peter, etc.) been successful. While it’s possible the church erred in recognizing the canon, I don’t believe it did. I believe we have God’s Word as he intended us to have it.
In the end, I believe it does become a matter of faith. Robert Reymond writes, “…the Christian must accept by faith that the church, under the providential guidance of God’s Spirit, got the number and the ‘list’ right since God did not provide the church with a specific list of New Testament books. All that we know for certain about the history of the first four centuries of the church would suggest the God’s Spirit providentially led His church – imperceptively yet inexorably – when it asked its questions, whatever they were, to adopt the twenty-seven documents that the Godhead had determined would serve as the foundation of the church’s doctrinal teaching and thus bear infallible witness throughout the Christian era to the great objective central events of redemptive history, and that this ‘apostolic tradition’ authenticated and established itself over time in the mind of the church as just this infallible foundation and witness.”
In all reality, I think the net effect is a confidence in the Bible that is nearly the same as saying the Bible is an infallible collection of infallible books; however, the means of arriving at that point is different. This approach roots our confidence not in an infallible church, but in a sovereign God who providential oversees history. I’ll follow Gaffin in his conclusion: when asked, ‘Why these 27’ – the only real answer is because these 27 books are what God has chosen to preserve for us, and he has not told us why.
Here’s a few of the books I mentioned:
– Robert Reymond,A New Systematic Theology Of The Christian Faith 2nd Edition
– R.C. Sproul, Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine
– John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God
– Also, just out (I have a copied orderd) is C.E. Hill, Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy
I just read this on a blog I frequent and thought it was useful:
“[Some argue] that there can be no church authority without without church infallibility. Rome agrees with this fully. But against Rome, classic Protestants have a higher view of authority [of the church] than the Roman Catholics do. Suppose a woman embraces her duty to be respectful and submissive to her husband. But suppose further that in order to make this painful duty a little easier, she adopted the view that her husband could never make a mistake when requiring her to submit. This ‘implicit faith’ might seem to some to be a high view of authority, but a higher view would be shown by a woman who graciously submitted herself to her husband, knowing him to be mistaken” (“Sola Scriptura, Creeds, and Ecclesiastical Authority” in When Shall These Things Be? pp. 279-280).