Friday, April 18, 2014

Navigating the Contours of the Canon - A Basic Presuppositional Defense

This is the first of several posts on the basic history and nature of the Christian canon of Scripture. I hope to provide a better way to think about and defend what Christians call "The Old and New Testament Canon."
One writer has called the problem of the canon the Achilles' heel of Protestant Christianity.[1] The question about the canon is really a very simple one: how can we, as Christians, know that we have the right sixty-six books in our Bible? Do Christians have a rational basis for affirming the sixty-six-book canon? What justification can be offered up in support of our belief that our present Canon, what we believe are the Christian Scriptures, is accurate? Who decided which books would be in the canon and what were the criteria that went into that decision? The purpose of this brief paper is to discuss the history of the canon and to provide you with the appropriate critical-thinking tools so that you can think soundly about this enormously important subject.
Before I move too far into this discussion, a word should be said about the implications of sola scriptura as it relates to the problem of the canon. The reformers, it must be remembered, appealed to Scripture in place of the institution of the church as their sole authority. They rejected the view that authority resides in that institution apart from Scripture. Eph. 3:19-20 is clear that Scripture is the foundation of the Church, not the other way around. "Roman Catholicism argued that authority rested with Scripture, tradition, and the institutionalized church. The Reformation countered that authority resided only in Scripture. Luther’s cry, “Sola Scriptura,” meant a clear rejection of the dogma of Catholicism as empty and erroneous, including the detailed arguments of the Scholastics. For many this rejection included speculations about science. The shift from the institutional church to the Bible as the source of religious authority played a crucial role in advancing the acceptance of new scientific ideas."[2]
When we talk about the canon, we are talking about a list of documents that have been recognized as possessing full authority over the community of Christian converts. This authority is derived from the divine source of the writings themselves. The Christian community is only made up of the true disciples of Jesus Christ. There is no one in the community over whom these documents do not preside. Anyone seeking relief from the obligation to embrace, believe, and obey these documents ought to be subjected to serious correction or expurgated from the community. There should be no middle ground on this point. The surest way to destroy the unity of the Christian community is to destroy the divine documents that bind us together.
What these documents affirm, God affirms. What these documents command, God commands. What these documents teach and proclaim to be true, God teaches and proclaims to be true. The significance of understanding and knowing these documents then is enormous. The good news is that God never leaves Himself without a Witness. We offer thanks and praise to God for His grace because He has not left us to our own devices.

The word canon comes to us from the Greek work kanon. F.F. Bruce tells us "In Greek it meant a rod, especially a straight rod used as a rule; from this usage comes the other meaning which the word commonly bears in English – rule or standard."[3] The nature of the canon must shape how we define it as well as our how we understand it. History alone cannot answer the question of what the canon finally is; theology alone can do that.[4] One of the greatest mistakes made in modern conversations about the canon is that the approach is predominately rationalistic and historical. The texts of the Sacred Writings are studied in the same light as Plato and Aristotle, and other works from antiquity. It is as if the writings of the holy are as common as the writings of the profane. The perfect is paralleled with the flawed. The righteous is equated with the unrighteous. The infinite is viewed through the same lens as the finite. However, we could avoid serious error and spiritual hazard if, from the very start, we would keep in mind the nature of the writings we seek to know and understand. These are the Scriptures that cannot be broken. They are unlike any other writings ever created by anyone across the ages of human history.

[1] Michael Kruger quoting D.F. Strauss on p. 15 of his excellent book, Canon Revisited.
[2] James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 65–66.
[3] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1988), 17.
[4] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 146. 

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