1. Traditional discussions of canonical criteria focus on ecclesiastical or rabbinical criteria. The high-church argument is that we need an authoritative church to impose unity on the books of the Bible. The implication is that Scripture is, in itself, an arbitrary anthology. Deny the authority of the church, and that snaps the string holding these books together.
But that extrinsic solution reflects the self-reinforcing attitude of the high churchman. Because he automatically defaults to Mother Church to solve all questions, he never takes the time to examine the Bible from the inside out.
If we didn’t have a standard edition of the Bible, if we just had pile of books, could we arrange these books in a logical order?
2. In general, I think this is a two-step process:
i) How were books of the Bible originally received by their target audience?
ii) Our own canonical criteria should reproduce the original grounds for their reception.
3. There’s a sense in which “canonicity” is, itself, an ecclesiastical concept. So we need to define our terms. Is there an equivalent concept in Scripture?
4.One of the ecclesiastical criteria for canonicity was conformity to the rule of faith. That’s a rather “Catholic” criterion.
From a Protestant perspective, there’s a fundamental sense in which this is backwards. The Bible is the rule of faith. The Bible is the judge of tradition, not vice versa.
5.On the face of it, this procedure might seem to be circular. If we identify the Bible with the rule of faith, then how can it function as a criterion of canonicity? You would have to have a Bible for the Bible to be a canonical criterion. But, in that event, how could you use the Bible to judge which books comprise the Bible?
6. But this facile conundrum is more apparent than real.
i) For one thing, you could have a part/whole relation. We see that in Deut 13 & 18, which presents criteria for false prophecy:
a) A prophet is a false prophet if his prediction is false.
b) But even if his prediction is true, he is still a false prophet if his prophecy functions to incite rebellion against the Mosaic covenant.
So a Biblical book (or corpus) like the Pentateuch could function as a canonical criterion for other canonical “candidates.”
Therefore, it’s not the whole Bible judging the whole Bible.
ii) In addition, the question of whether the Bible has a procedure for determining its own canonicity frames the issue in a question-begging way.
For that reflects an ex post facto outlook, as if you had a two stage process:
a) First the canon of Scripture is written.
b) Then some body, after the fact, must approve the canon of Scripture.
But this is artificial. It’s true that Jews, after the completion of the OT, and Christians, after the completion of the NT, reexamined the question of whether we should exclude some books or include other books.
And there’s a sense in which a Protestant, when he considers the traditional canon, is doing the same thing.
Yet we need to distinguish between this ex post facto reflection, and the grounds on which the books of the Bible were received by the target audience.
And, as I’ve already said, our ex post facto outlook should reproduce the original grounds.
7. Meredith Kline, in The Structure of Biblical Authority, tried to break free from ex post facto criteria for the canon, and derive canonicity from the Bible itself.
I think it’s possible to build on his work. There are areas in which I think we can improve on his argument.
Kline argues that canon and covenant are correlative. God has a written contract with Israel. The covenant was the rule of faith.
8. But this brings us to another point. There was no formal process or procedure for canonizing the Pentateuch. That would be historically artificial in the highest degree. God imposes his law on Israel. He doesn’t put it up for a vote.
The reception of the Pentateuch was immediate. Moses was God’s prophet. And challenges to his authority were swiftly and sternly punished by God.
9.The correlation between canon and covenant is true as far as it goes. And it lays a firm foundation. But the thesis becomes overextended when Kline tries to apply the treaty form beyond Deuteronomy or Exod 20-22.
i) To his credit, he does a good job, up to a point, in showing how the Prophets relate to the Torah. The Prophets are prosecutors of the covenant lawsuit.
That’s true as far as it goes. But it’s reductionistic. For the prophets are prospective as well as retrospective. They don’t merely call on Israel to look back at the Exodus and the Law. They also look forward to something beyond the Mosaic status quo. To the Messianic age.
The prophets occupy a paradoxical position. On the one hand, they are outsiders in the sense that they are challenging a decadent religious and civil establishment.
On the other hand, their authority comes, in part, from the Mosaic covenant. They are pulling rank on covenant-breakers.
At the same time, their authority also derives, in part, from a special commission. God calls them. God inspires them.
So it isn’t entirely reducible to the Mosaic covenant. They have a special vocation.
ii) There is also a sense in which you could treat Genesis as an extended historical prologue. And there’s no doubt that Genesis anticipates the Mosaic Covenant.
But that’s not all it does. It also looks beyond the Mosaic covenant. There’s a Messianic motif which writers like Sailhamer and T. D. Alexander have done a good job of tracing out.
So Kline’s argument is valid to a degree, but reductionistic.
iii) Once again, there’s a sense in which the Historical Books document Israel’s compliance or noncompliance with the Mosaic covenant. That’s the raw material for the prophets to indict Israel for nonperformance.
And this is not only a useful way of relating the Historical Books to the Pentateuch, but a way of relating the Historical Books to the Prophets. So the coordination operates on more than one plane.
Yet the analysis is reductionistic. Just as the Prophets are prospective as well as retrospective, the Historical Books are prospective as well as retrospective. There’s an unfolding Messianic theme in the Historical Books as well.
Not only does this involve a linear development, but a parallel development, for several Messianic motifs come into play.
Moreover, there’s a literary device which unifies the preexilic Historical Books. The next writer in line will incorporate the ending of the previous book in the opening of his sequel. So these writers stand in conscious succession.
Furthermore, although some of these books are anonymous, there’s a generic sense in which the Historical Books are in-house literature, produced by royal scribes or royal historians. This would give them an automatic entree into the canon.
It’s also only natural that you’d have post-exilic Historical Books. From the viewpoint of the Restoration, these would reflect on God’s justice and mercy, fidelity and providence.
iv) Kline’s analysis breaks down with the Psalter. I think there’s a better way to integrate the Psalter into the OT canon:
Basically, the Psalter is a poetic version of prosaic revelation regarding history, law, and messianism. It covers the same ground as the Law, Prophets, and Historical Books, but it does so in a lyrical mode adapted to the worship of Israel.
As with the Historical Books, the Psalms are in-house literature. The founding author (David) was both a king and a prophet. Other Psalmists are official employees of the religious establishment. Instant canonicity.
v) Kline’s analysis also falls apart with the Wisdom literature. I think there’s a better way to integrate the Wisdom literature into the OT canon.
To begin with, “Wisdom Literature” is a modern scholarly classification. I don’t have a problem with that classification, but looking at these books from within, I’d distinguish Job from Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Canticles.
Bracketing Job for the moment, the Wisdom Literature is another case of in-house literature. The founding author was a king and a sage. Although Solomon isn’t technically a prophet, his inspired wisdom is the functional equivalent.
With one exception, the other contributors were also official insiders. Inspired royal scribes. Indeed, part of a dynasty.
With that royal patronage, recognition would be immediate.
I’d also add that in his attempt to assimilate the Wisdom Literature to the Mosaic covenant, I think that Kline misses their true purpose.
There’s a domesticity to the Wisdom Literature. The Pentateuch and the Historical Books tend to focus on a nomadic existence, followed by a period of conquest.
But what was life like after the dust settled? During periods of comparative calm and stability?
Of course, ancient Israel always had to fight for her existence, but the Wisdom Literature accentuates a peacetime lifestyle rather than a wartime life style. An urban lifestyle. Day to day living. What did Israelites do at home, when they weren’t on the battlefield?
So there’s a focus on social life. The bread-and-butter issues. Friends and neighbors. Marriage. Child-rearing. Domestic disputes. Aging. Coming of age. Doing business. Life at court. Government corruption. Economic disparity. Temptation and betrayal.
It’s a window into the ordinary and perennial. And I don’t see that this literature requires a special justification for its place in the Scripture of Israel.
vi) Of course, the provenance of Job is obscure. My guess is that this coincides, more or less, with Solomon’s international court. There would have been God-fearers in OT times. Courtiers, resident aliens, or trading partners who came to know the true God through their contact with the Chosen People.
An interesting case in point is Prov 31. This wasn’t written by an Israelite. But the Queen Mother of Lemeul was a God-fearer. I assume that Job represents a similar case.
Aside from the sapiential motifs, which it shares in common with Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, I think that Job has less in common with other OT books than it does with Revelation—in the NT.
Both books distinguish between heaven and earth. Both books deal with apparently inscrutable suffering of the righteous. Both books pull back the veil to show that history is controlled from the throne room of God. Even though life here-below may seem to be inexplicable in success of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous, there is an overarching purpose, which is ordinarily undetectable, and the scales of justice well be righted at the end.
vii) Kline’s thesis is even more strained when he tries to subsume the NT to the treaty form.
There is a generic sense in which the Gospels and Acts parallel OT historical narratives. The Gospels are to the Pentateuch what Acts is to Joshua.
And there are times, like 2 Corinthians, when an Apostle resumes the prosecutorial role.
In general, thought, it’s inevitable that missionaries like Paul would supervise their churches through pastoral correspondence. That doesn’t have to answer to some literary precedent in the OT. That’s a practical necessity.
The Apocalypse is too complex to shoehorn into one genre. To some extent, John is heir to Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. But with the inscriptional curse (22:19), he is also heir to Moses.
To a Jewish reader, that would be a breathtaking comparison. Indeed, a sacrilegious comparison unless the Jewish reader were a Christian.
There’s a sense in which all of the NT writings are in-house writings. The NT church was a familial, tight-knit community. There was a built-in constituency for this literature. I think each book would enjoy immediate acceptance by the immediate audience to which it was directed. Known writers writing to a known audience—even if, at this distance from the events, we can’t always reconstruct the provenance of a particular document.
This is why the history of the NT canon can be misleading. It doesn’t reflect the immediate reception of a NT book, but subsequent disputes by later readers in distant localities. Same thing with rabbinical squabbles so many centuries after the fact.