Canon, Scripture, and Assumption

The issue of canon is one of those questions that determine the rest of theology.  This is especially true to the evangelicals who hold strongly to inerrancy.  If Scripture (particularly written Scripture) is your ultimate starting point, it better have a very strong foundation.

The issue of the canon can make or break one’s faith.  When I was a freshman in college the liberals under whom I studied kept pointing out there was no such thing as a fully intact canon.  In fact, the Church didn’t have (or didn’t know) of most of Scripture for the first few centuries.  If Scripture is argued to be fully determinative for the church on how it worships and believes, and such a Scripture was simply not there, this is a major problem!

This is not a major problem for those ecclesial traditions that rely on Tradition as a mode of receiving and passing down the faith.  They argue that Tradition and the leadership of bishops who physically succeed the apostles safeguards the deposit of faith.

Intellectually, I am with the latter (Tradition) on this point.  To be fair, though, one must read the best Reformed and Evangelicals on the canon in order to make a fair decision.  I’ve given away most of my library but I’ve kept the best books, I think:  Calvin, Grudem, Berkhof, and Muller.

Calvin:  As is often the case, Calvin doesn’t actually *argue* his position.  He ridicules his opponents and repeats his assertions (he is notoriously inadequate on Christology on this point).

Muller:  Muller places discussion of the canon within its medieval scholastic context (II: 30).  He notes (quite rightly, I think) that medieval discussions of the canon were fluid and probably unnecessary.  He does quote Hugh of St Victor who seemed to say that the Apocrypha is not Scripture.   My thoughts:  he is right on the fluidity of the canon in the Church’s belief.  If you have the gospels, the holy mysteries, and the apostolic deposit (not that Muller is arguing these specific points), a fully intact canon is irrelevant.  In some ways, while I accept the Apocrypha, I agree with Hugh.   There are levels within Scripture.  The Gospel of John is more important than Tobit.

Unfortunately, my discussion of Muller will be way too inadequate for now.  I realize Muller says much more on the Reformed understanding of Canon and I would like to give more weight to his arguments in the future.  (Muller gives more discussion on II:  355-370).

Grudem:  Grudem is probably the most important representative.  He doesn’t weigh the reader down with extraneous details (unlike Berkhof, whose work reads like a foreign language dictionary and will be covered in a later post).  Grudem’s arguments are typically pointed and the reader, even when disagreeing, knows precisely what Grudem is and isn’t arguing.  And unlike most theologians, Grudem can actually write well.

My criticisms of Grudem are along these lines:

  • He assumes whenever the Bible mentions “writing” (or any of its verbal and noun forms), it necessarily means it as an authoritative and codified list that is normative for the community.  But as anyone who has read the Old Testament knows, there are numerous writings in the Old Testament (and also in Jude) that are not canonical and no one (Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) argues them to be so.  Grudem actually references these writings, but it’s not clear what he is trying to prove.
  • Apropos above, Grudem is committing the “word = concept” fallacy.  When he reads of lists in the Bible, Jewish literature, and in the early Christian church, he thinks they are to be understood in the way “canon” is understood today.  But as Lee McDonald makes clear in his magnificent work on the canon, this is simply not the case.  The early church (at least until St Irenaeus) saw the canon as a story.  St Clement’s community in Egypt saw it as a codified direction for life.  In any case, it wasn’t  a list of Scriptures that are binding.
  • Grudem’s third difficulty is assuming a uniform and early Hebrew canon.  To be fair to all sides, this really is tricky.  If I’m wrong on this point, little in my argument is changed.  On the other hand, Grudem bases much of his position on clinching this argument.  I’m not going to rebut Grudem on this point right now.  It is a long and complicated issue that probably needs a separate post.  Two initial difficulties which Grudem does not address in his text.   Jesus and his apostles used the Septuagint, not the MT.  True, they probably did not think of the list of Septuagintal books as a strict canon (I’m trying to be consistent with my earlier points), but in all likelihood many of the apocryphal works were there and Jesus et al didn’t seem to bothered by them (indeed, one can even maintain that Jesus drew upon apocryphal traditions–…”Berechiah to Zechariah”).  Grudem does not use this line of reasoning for obvious reasons: he would have to admit the apocrypha into the canon.

    Grudem also quotes the Talmud (or parts of it) for rejecting the apocrypha.  Unlike Grudem, who is trying to be a good Christian, the Talmud is very consistent in its reasons for rejecting the apocrypha.  The Talmud says that books like Wisdom “defile the hands” (largely because of the heavy Messianic overtones in the LXX.  It also says the same things about many of the prophets).  Secondly, if one is appealing to the Talmud against early Christian witness, one is in a very precarious situation.  The Talmud also makes scathing sexual references to Christ, Mary, and even condemns to hell many Jewish prophets who criticized Israel.  True, Grudem didn’t have that in mind, but perhaps he needs to understand why the Talmud rejects these books.  The Talmud rejects the Apocrypha for the same reason it rejects Christ:  it points away from ethnic Israel as the focal point of salvation.

There are several issues that still need to be addressed:

  1. The nature of the early formation of the Old Testament Hebrew canon.
  2. Muller and Berkhof on the formation of the canon.
  3. Jesus’s possible use of the apocryphal tradition.