Friday, April 13, 2012

Which comes first: a collection or a list?

Think of it another way: Without tradition being an authority we would not even have the Scriptures themselves, as it is only through tradition that we know what Scripture is actually Scripture. The Scriptures have no place where there is an inspired list telling us which books belong in the Scripture (we call this the “canon” of Scripture). It is through the traditions of the church that we know which books are the final authority. Therefore, tradition must be an authority to some degree.

Sounds like Michael was swayed by Francis Beckwith’s facile and fallacious objection to sola Scriptura. But there are several problems with Michael’s argument:

i) Why cast the issue in terms of authority rather than truth? An authority can be wrong. Congress has authority. Yet Congress can pass laws based on faulty assumptions. A Federal judge has authority. Yet a judicial ruling can get the facts of the case wrong. A judge can also misinterpret the law.

I find it odd that so many people automatically cast the issue of canonicity (or interpretation) in terms of authority. They apparently default to this framework because they’ve been conditioned to think that way from seeing the issue framed that way, so it doesn’t occur to them to question that framework and consider alternative ways of casting the issue.

But even if the issue comes down to tradition, or having a list, the salient question is not whether the tradition is authoritative (whatever that means), but whether it’s correct. The salient question isn’t whether the list is “authoritative, but whether it’s correct.

Some traditions are right while other traditions are wrong. That’s the relevant distinction.

Something doesn’t have to be “authoritative” to be right. Consider the debate between the blind man and the religious authorities in Jn 9. He was a nobody. He had no institutional standing. Yet he was right while they were wrong-dead wrong.

And that’s the point of the chapter. It’s an instance of Johannine irony. Those in the know didn’t know. Those who ought to know better didn’t, whereas this ignorant layman knew something they didn’t–something all-important.

ii) You can’t have a blanket appeal to tradition, for tradition isn’t monolithic. Tradition doesn’t speak with one voice. So you have to sift tradition.

You can’t begin with “authoritative” tradition, for identifying authoritative tradition would be, at best, the end-result of sifting different traditions. You must first isolate and identify which traditions are “authoritative” (whatever that means).

In this case, “tradition” is just a synonym for prima facie evidence. But that needs to be evaluated.

iii) The issue of a “list” raises an interesting question: which comes first: the collection or the list? Do you begin with a list of books, then compile the books on your list? Or do you begin with a collection of books, then compile a list?

For instance, suppose Second Temple Jews didn’t have a list of canonical books. Does that mean they didn’t have a canon? No.

In fact, as long as they already have the books, there’s no urgency in listing the books. If, say, the books of the Hebrew Bible were archived in the Temple, then that was the frame of reference. That was the standard for local synagogues or rabbinical schools.

Likewise, David Trobisch has noted that early Christian codices sequence the books of the NT in a stereotypical order. And they must be doing so because Christian scribes copied the books in that order. After all, that’s what scribes do: they copy. There must have been a standard edition that scribes copied. A template.

The point of these to illustrations is that if you have a collection, you can always copy down what you have. You make a list based on what’s before your eyes.

Now perhaps that’s not Michael’s point. I’m simply distinguishing the issues.

iv) Many books of the Bible contain internal authorial attributions. Self-attributed to prophets or apostles. At the very least, that’s prima facie evidence for the canonicity of those books. Only if we thought the self-attributions were spurious would we challenge their canonicity.

v) Authorial attribution can be implicit as well as explicit.

vi) Of course, some books of the Bible are anonymous, so this argument won’t work in their case. However, Michael seems to be using an all-or-nothing argument concerning the canon. But surely it’s overstated to say we can’t know any book of the Bible unless we know every book of the Bible.

vii) In addition, books of the Bible often form larger literary units. It’s not a random collection of disparate books. Take two examples: Luke-Acts is a literary unit. The Pentateuch is a literary unit. So it’s not as if you need separate attestation for each book in a literary unit.

viii) On a related note, some books of the Bible share common authorship. Take the Pauline epistles. We’d automatically group them together as the collected correspondence of Paul. We don’t need to begin with a list. We don’t always need to take a top-down approach. A bottom-up approach will frequently work just fine.

ix) Books of the Bible can also witness to each other in a distributive, cross-referential network. Intertextuality is a form of internal mutual self-attestation.

x) Likewise, some books of the Bible form a continuous historical narrative. They naturally go together.

xi) Apropos (x), the internal chronology of the books generally tracks the external chronology of their composition inasmuch as you can roughly date each book by the last recorded event. (Although we must make allowance for prophecy.)

On a related note, although some books rehearse the past, historical authors generally write about contemporaneous events. So that gives us a rough outer terminus ad quo and terminus ad quem for the probable date of composition. And books of the Bible fall within the era of public revelation.

Of course, apocrypha may depict the past as if it’s present or future. That’s difficult to successfully pull off. Anachronisms betray the artifice. 


  1. Think of it another way: Without science being an authority we would not even have gravity itself.

  2. Further to Brett's point, Michael seems to have forgotten that canonicity is nothing but a proxy for apostolicity. Therefore, it's not canonicity that makes the New Testament authoritative, it's apostolicity. Canonicity was merely a recognition of that fact.

  3. Think of it another way: Without science being an authority we would not even have gravity itself.

    Yes, but "WHOSE" scientific interpretation of gravity is most authoritative?

  4. "Which comes first: a collection or a list?"

    My wife usually starts with a list.

  5. For more of what CMP says about sola Scriptura and the canon:

    In Defense of Sola Scriptura – Part Seven – What About the Canon?

    Also, note that he said something about "tradition" and the canon--nothing about a general magisterial authority.

  6. I love the "What about Bob?" with Bill Murray-movie - part of Patton's article.

    Roman Catholicism's demand for infallible certainty about the canon is radical and extreme skepticism and God never demands that we have absolute infallible certainty about anything. Only God is infallible and only He has infallible certainty. We have human, reasonable certainty.

    The game they play in RC apologetics seeks to trip up and confuse sensitive souls for the need for an infallible knowledge that they have the canon and the right interpretation. They go insane like the Bill Murray character Bob, until they shoot their brains out and depend on the Pope. Sad.

  7. I was referring to Patton's article linked by Jugulum, not the one in the main article here.

    In Defense of Sola Scriptura - Part Seven - what about the Canon?

  8. Just an aside, that begs the question?

    How long does a list have to be to be considered a list?

    How much of it does it have to be to be considered a collection?

    In any event, if you don't have something listed or collected and accounted you don't have either.