Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Scripturalism and the formation of the Canon of Scripture

There have been many attacks on the authority of Scripture in order to undermine its authority. Neo-Orthodoxy utilize Kantian metaphysics to render the words of Scripture mere forms which are not the real Word of God (Rather, they contain the Word of God). Liberals since the birth of German Higher Criticism have been engaging in "creative" deconstruction of the biblical text, a methodology probably epitomized best in the so-called scholarship of the "Jesus Seminar" — where a bunch of "old white liberals" come together to vote on how "authentic" they think the passages in the Gospel accounts are based upon ridiculous self-serving naturalistic criteria.

One particular area of attack which the Liberals and the Roman Catholics capitalize on is to focus on the formation of the Canon of Scripture, though for different reasons. Liberals focus on the events in order to "demonstrate" how the Bible is not really of God, but rather a compilation of certain "Jesus tradition" texts, out of the many others present like the Gnostic "gospels". This was done by the group (the ancient Catholic Church) which defeated other rival "Christian sects" and thus impose their Canon on others. The Roman Catholics on the other hand focus on the formation of the Canon in order to bring in their view of Sola Ecclesiae — that nobody can know the real Canon of Scripture apart from embracing the Church which form that Canon, which is of course assumed to be the Roman Catholic Church.

For those of us who embrace Scripturalism, that the axiom of thought is that the Bible alone is the Word of God., the formation of the Canon of Scripture presents its own set of questions. One question is how can we take Scripture to be the Word of God if, as it seems, the formation of the Canon of Scripture is a historical process undertaken by humans and thus we cannot be sure of the contents of Scripture? Of course, we Christians believe that God has indeed preserved His Word such that the entire process of canonization is kept free of error by the supervision and inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf 2 Peter 1:19-21), therefore we know that the Canon of Scripture is indeed what God has made it out to be.

Such of course would be met with a charge of circular reasoning of assuming Scripture to prove Scripture (assuming that they have no problem with the exegesis of the verse). While I will not focus too much on epistemology in this post, suffice it is to say that epistemological issues ultimately are circular in reasoning, as both foundationalism and coherentism admits. (Non-foundationalism is just irrational!). We can point to the excellent resources produced by empirical research to validate Scripture, but due to my denial of the validity of empiricism by itself to discover truth or even possible truth, such research would be of secondary importance.

So let us go back to the issue under consideration. Let us grant the validity of the Canon and the entire process due to the work of the Holy Spirit in history. This gives rise however to the second question: Does this not by itself militate against the Scripturalist position that the axiom of thought is that the Bible alone is the Word of God? Since the Bible is itself a product of the Spirit working in time through people, isn't this "axiom" materially and formally dependent on the Holy Spirit, being also time-bound? Such an "axiom" therefore cannot function as the basis for all thought.

In his book Scripture Alone (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2004), Dr. James R. White addresses the issue of the Canon of Scripture in the context of Roman Catholic apologetics. While primarily concerned to defend the sufficiency of Scripture against the charge of Roman Catholic apologists, Dr. White mentioned a concept which is indeed helpful for us in understanding the formation of the Canon with regards to the issue of Scripturalism — that of the Canon as an artefact of revelation, not an object of revelation. As White wrote:

The term canon originally referred to a stick by which a measurement was made. By extension it came to mean a rule or standard, and finally it was applied to an authoritative list of something, such as all the books written by a certain author or, in this case, the books of Scripture. However, if we think the biblical canon is nothing more than a fancy way of referring to the table of contents, we have missed the heart of the issue and will never arrive at a satisfactory answer to our questions.

...

We need to start off by realizing we are talking about the canon of Scripture. As we have already seen, Scripture is theopneustos, God-breathed; to say we are talking about something unique is to master the art of understatement. Scripture does not simply drop down out of heaven like rain to be gathered up and organized by man. The nature of Scripture determines the canon of Scripture; that is the canon must be defined in light of what Scripture is. If Scripture is (1) God-breathed and (2) given fr the purposes revealed within its own revelation, then vitally important conclusions must be drawn from these two truths, conclusions that deeply impact our understanding of the canon and its implications.

The reason I raise these issues is simple: I believe we must determine the divine view and purpose of the canon before we can have any basis upon which to discuss the human side of recognizing and understanding the canon. This may seems like a simplistic thought, but it seems often to have been left out in consideration of the subject: Without the act of inspiration (revelation), there would be no canon. ... the fact that we dealing with a book God intends to exist in a particular form for a particular purpose cannot be ignored.

The thesis I will seek to establish is this: The canon is an artefact of revelation, not an object of revelation itself. It is known infallibly to God by necessity and to man with a certainty directly related to God's purpose in giving the Word to the church. The canon exists because God has inspired some writings, not all writings. It is known to man in fulfilment of God's purpose in engaging in the actions of inspiration so as to give His people a lamp for their feet and a light for their path. The canon, then, has two aspects as we consider it in light of its relationship to God's overall purpose in giving the Scriptures. The first aspect, to which I will refer as canon1, is the divine knowledge and understanding of the canon. The second aspect, which I will identify as canon2, is the human knowledge and understanding of the canon (which has been the primary focus of debate down through the centuries). ...

...

When an author writes a book, a "canon" of his or her writings is automatically created as a result of the simple consideration that he or she has written at least one book, but has not written all books that have ever been written. Hence, a canon of a single book comes into existence at the completion of that first work. If the author continues writing, the canon changes with the completion of each project. It should be noted that even if the author does not write down a listing or his or her works, a canon exists nonetheless, which he or she knows infallibly. No one else can infallibly know this canon outside of the author's effort to communicate it to others, for only the author knows what he or she has truly written. Even those closest to the author may not know with utter certainty whether the author has used anyone else in the writing process or whether he or she has borrowed from someone else. Therefore, the originator of a book (or books) has an infallible knowledge of the canon of these works, while anyone else has a mediated knowledge, dependent upon both the honesty and integrity of the author and the author's desire to make that canon known to others.

When we apply these considerations to Scripture, we are able to see that canon1 is the necessary result of God's freely chosen act of inspiration. Once God's Spirit moved upon the very first author of Scripture, canon1 came into existence. Before anyone else could possibly know what God had done (canon2), God infallibly knew the current state and content of canon1. With each passing phase of His unfolding revelation in Scripture, canon1 remained current and infallible, fully reflective (by necessity) of the ongoing work of enscripturation. This is why we should call the canon an artefact of revelation. It is not itself an object of revelation, but comes into existence as a by-product of the action itself. God inspires, and the canon expresses the limitation of that action.

In other words, the Canon of Scripture is determined by the extent of Scripture, which is determined by God. God's knowledge of His Word is archetypal, while our knowledge is ectypal, being mediated by God to us. The Canon is known to us because God has revealed to us the extent of His special revelation, and the Canon is merely the boundary lines marking out what God has revealed to us as His Word for us.

Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens (Ps. 119:89)

So how does this concept aids us in our understanding of the canonization of Scripture with respects to Scripturalism? God being immutable, unchanging and omniscient knows the content of His Word for us (canon1) from eternity past to eternity future. Canon1 is then actualized before God in time as the Holy Spirit breathes out His Word through the human writers. Canon2 is then known to us as God reveals to us through our reasoning it out through examination of the texts to see if they conform to the nature of Scripture. The contours of the Canon therefore are as immutable as God, and exist in the mind of God in eternity past. As Ps. 119:89 tells us, God's Word is fixed forever, as it were "in the heavens".

Since that is so, there is no problem with the Scripturalist position. Although the Canon was worked out in time (canon2), yet the knowledge of canon1 is always evident to God from eternity. Therefore, the canonization process does not undercut the Scripturalist position at all.

Scripture as God-breathed therefore is in fact authoritative over all of life. When viewed in its own merits, Scripture can account for its own canonization without the need to invoke other sources of authority besides the God who breathes it out. Those who attempt to deconstruct the Canon therefore have no basis besides that of unbelief to do so, since faith accepts the God which is revealed in Scripture who is sovereign over history.

12 comments:

Joel Tay said...

good post

PuritanReformed said...

@Joel:

thanks.

Nick said...

This really doesn't answer the question, not in any meaningful way. The average Christian is not told how he knows X is Scripture. Worse yet, since the Bible doesn't list the canon (which would be essential info if the Apostles wanted to convey SS), SS in a bind.

Canon1 is undisputed, it's Canon2 where the issue is. The only "option" I can foresee is that "true Christians" are given an divinely infused knowledge to "just know" the Canon2...but that runs into its own serious problems (e.g. gnosticism, "Christian" Fathers who don't hold the 'true canon', etc).

PuritanReformed said...

@Nick:

What's wrong with letting the Scriptures themselves define the nature (not extent) of what Scriptue is, and then evaluating all claims to be Scripture according to such a criteria?

Also, since as Dr. White and I have mentioned, the Canon is an artefact of revelation, not an object of revelation, isn't your objection that "the Bible doesn't list the canon" moot?

Nick said...

Scriptures do define the nature of what Scripture is - "God Breathed" - Inspired.

That's insufficient criteria for Christians to know book-X is inspired and thus a book of the Bible. If all we know is "Scripture is inspired," that doesn't tell us much about any given writing we might be considering. Worse yet, many of the books of Scripture don't claim inspiration.

Even assuming a text like 2 Timothy is inspired is not straightforward, for the Epistle was a private correspondence between an apostle and a bishop.

It's a serious oversimplification to start off with the 66 book Bible without considering how these specific 66 came to be selected.

PuritanReformed said...

@Nick:

>Scriptures do define the nature of what Scripture is - "God Breathed" - Inspired

Is that all? The nature of Scripture can only be known to be "Inspired"?


>It's a serious oversimplification to start off with the 66 book Bible without considering how these specific 66 came to be selected

On the contrary, if we start with Scripture as the axiom, then the issue of how these specific 66 came to be recognized (not selected) is an easier thing to be understood, as I have proven in my post.

PuritanReformed said...

@Nick:

With regards to the nature of Scripture, doesn't Ps. 119 also exist besides 2 Tim. 3:16-17 for example?

Nick said...

The nature of Scripture is first and foremost 'inspired', that is the indispensable requirement. From there the other components can be relate to salvation in terms of history, doctrine, encouragement, but non-inspired texts can do this as well.

I'm not sure how you can start with the 66 books as an axiom, that's jumping to conclusions. Anyone could state any number of books as "axiomatic". When you've not shown what criteria a Christian is to use to know whether a book is inspired (especially if it doesn't directly state inspiration), one is stuck.

Ps 119 can apply to Scripture, but nothing in it suggest it's exclusively in reference to Scripture.

A good test case is the Epistles of 2nd and 3rd John and Jude. How does a Christian know these are Scripture and not just friendly writings?

PuritanReformed said...

@Nick:

>The nature of Scripture is first and foremost 'inspired', that is the indispensable requirement

That is not the only chractersitic of Scripture. As mentioned, you are ignoring Ps. 119.


>I'm not sure how you can start with the 66 books as an axiom, that's jumping to conclusions &c

Why not? I'm sure you heard of presuppositionalism? Dawkins choose empiricism/ logical positivism as his starting point, you choose Rome as your starting point, so why can't I choose the Scriptures as my starting point?

>Anyone could state any number of books as "axiomatic".

Of course they can. The problem is: Can they do so consistently?

>When you've not shown what criteria a Christian is to use to know whether a book is inspired (especially if it doesn't directly state inspiration), one is stuck

Again, you confuse the issues. I start with Scripture, and then use the nature of Scripture to determine which books are Scripture. The criteria that I have stated is the nature of Scripture, which is not just "inspiration".

Axioms by definition are not provable. You can only test if they are consistent with themselves. That is the most fundmantal truth in epistemology.


>Ps 119 can apply to Scripture, but nothing in it suggest it's exclusively in reference to Scripture

Are you serious?


>A good test case is the Epistles of 2nd and 3rd John and Jude. How does a Christian know these are Scripture and not just friendly writings?

We know because these books match the characteristics of Scripture, having its nature. The Church finally sees and recognizes these characteristics, and tell us what is already true.

Nick said...

P: That is not the only chractersitic of Scripture. As mentioned, you are ignoring Ps. 119.

N: What am I ignoring about Ps 119? The Psalm is praising how instructive and important God's commands are. I don't see where this adds something new to the argument.

P: Why not?

N: Because it's presupposing essential information, and a presupposition isn't proof. I could claim a 73 book Bible on the same grounds and you'd have no way of refuting it.

P: I'm sure you heard of presuppositionalism? Dawkins choose empiricism/ logical positivism as his starting point, you choose Rome as your starting point, so why can't I choose the Scriptures as my starting point?

N: I've heard a little bit about presuppositionalism. I don't choose Rome from any sort of presupposition or axiom, at least not in any simplistic sense of presupposing at 66book bible.

I don't presuppose Jesus existed, I have faith, sacred writings, history, etc, to testify to that fact. I don't presuppose Jesus and His Apostles taught about the One True Church for the same reasons. Coming to believe the Catholic Church is that same One True Church is not a blind or presupposed choice: I take multiple factors into account.

>Anyone could state any number of books as "axiomatic".
P:Of course they can. The problem is: Can they do so consistently?

N: Yes: For example, one could toss 2,3 John and the overall teaching of Scripture wouldn't be affected. There would be no way of detecting this omission.
That said, it is also possible for people to add/remove books in an inconsistent manner.
I could take the Catholic 73 book bible as axiom and you'd have no way of proving your 66 book bible as superior.

P: Again, you confuse the issues. I start with Scripture, and then use the nature of Scripture to determine which books are Scripture. The criteria that I have stated is the nature of Scripture, which is not just "inspiration".

N: What is this criteria specifically? I don't see such instructions even in the presupposed 66 books. And please demonstrate this evaluation process using 3rd John as a test case.

P: Axioms by definition are not provable. You can only test if they are consistent with themselves. That is the most fundmantal truth in epistemology.

N: Remove 3rd John from Scripture and add Baruch to your canon. Still 66 books...but how do you detect the impostor? Something about Baruch has to be inconsistent, while something about 3rd John has to be consistent.

P: Are you serious?

N: Yes. The Jews were open to obeying the commands of God in whatever form they came. God spoke to them directly, by the Torah, Levitically by Urim, living Prophets, etc.

>A good test case is the Epistles of 2nd and 3rd John and Jude. How does a Christian know these are Scripture and not just friendly writings?
P: We know because these books match the characteristics of Scripture, having its nature. The Church finally sees and recognizes these characteristics, and tell us what is already true.

N: Please be more specific. What specifically about those books demonstrates to you they are Scripture?

PuritanReformed said...

@Nick:

>N: What am I ignoring about Ps 119? The Psalm is praising how instructive and important God's commands are. I don't see where this adds something new to the argument

The Law is sometimes used as an abbreviation of the entire OT (cf Mt. 5:18). Thus, the phrase "the Law" in Ps. 119 has twin meanings throughout. Therefore, as an example of what I mean, Ps. 119:7 says that God's Word /the Law is righteous. Therefore, one aspect of the nature of Scripture is that it is righteous.

>N: Because it's presupposing essential information, and a presupposition isn't proof

As stated, the nature of axioms is that it can't be proved; it can only be falsified.

>I could claim a 73 book Bible on the same grounds and you'd have no way of refuting it.

There is a way - it is called falsification, not proof.


>I don't choose Rome from any sort of presupposition or axiom ... Coming to believe the Catholic Church is that same One True Church is not a blind or presupposed choice: I take multiple factors into account.

OK, let's play epistemology. Why did you choose Rome?


>N: Yes: For example, one could toss 2,3 John and the overall teaching of Scripture wouldn't be affected.

Firstly, I wouldn't be too sure if I were you. Please who me where in Scripture is any identical teaching as 2 Jn. 9-11 taught with just as much clarity. Also, 3 Jn. 9-10 is the only place in the Bible where we can see how John, the supposed apostle of love, treats schismatics in the church.

Secondly, you miss the point. If indeed 2 and 3 John possess the nature of Scripture (which I am sure they do), then to throw them out as being not Scripture is to say that additional criteria is needed for a book to be considered Scripture. Therefore, having the nature of Scripture would be insufficient for addition to the Canon.

>I could take the Catholic 73 book bible as axiom and you'd have no way of proving your 66 book bible as superior.

It is possible via falsification. For example, 2 Macc 15:38 states thus:

And if I have done well, and as is fitting the story, it is that which I desired: but if slenderly and meanly, it is that which I could attain unto.

Hardly the words of inspired Scripture to say that the narration is what the best the auhor could give, and ask for understanding if it is "slenderly and meanly".

PuritanReformed said...

>N: What is this criteria specifically?

Specifically, the aspects of the nature of Scripture. For example, as I have shown you, Scripture is righteous, therefore anything which teaches evil cannot be Scripture.


>N: Remove 3rd John from Scripture and add Baruch to your canon. Still 66 books...but how do you detect the impostor?

It will take some effort to look at Baruch itself, which I am not free to do so now. But the same method applies.


>P: Are you serious?
N: Yes. The Jews were open to obeying the commands of God in whatever form they came. God spoke to them directly, by the Torah, Levitically by Urim, living Prophets, etc.


That's not the point. What does "the Law" refer to? Can it refer to the Urim?


>>A good test case is the Epistles of 2nd and 3rd John and Jude. How does a Christian know these are Scripture and not just friendly writings?
P: We know because these books match the characteristics of Scripture, having its nature. The Church finally sees and recognizes these characteristics, and tell us what is already true.
N: Please be more specific. What specifically about those books demonstrates to you they are Scripture?

Hasn't that entire discussion been hashed out already in the early centuries of the Church? Why did the Church decide to accept these books?