Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Means Of Identifying A New Testament Canon

By what means might a person conclude that the book of Isaiah is scripture? He could be led to that conclusion by the Spirit of God. He could accept the scriptural status of the book on the basis of the authority of Jesus Christ, who referred to Isaiah as scripture. Or on the basis of the authority of an apostle. A contemporary of Isaiah could accept the book as scripture by means of the testimony of Isaiah regarding the scriptural status of the book, accompanied by authenticating miracles. Somebody living several hundred years later could be led to a belief in the scriptural status of the book by means of its prophecies fulfilled in the life of Christ. Or the book could be accepted because it was part of a canon of scripture that was agreed upon by most of the Jewish people and accepted by Jesus and the apostles.

A New Testament book, such as Revelation, could similarly be identified as scripture by a variety of means. It could be accepted on the basis of apostolic authority, since it was written by an apostle. The churches who initially received the book would have had evidence of its inspiration in the fulfillment of the prophecies of Revelation 2-3. The book was part of a Christian canonical consensus comparable to the Jewish Old Testament consensus.

The early Christians didn't appeal to only one standard by which to judge what is and isn't scripture. They saw God drawing people to a recognition of the scriptures by a variety of means, some more demonstrable than others.

Justin Martyr recalled what the man who led him to Christianity told him:

"There existed, long before this time, certain men more ancient than all those who are esteemed philosophers, both righteous and beloved by God, who spoke by the Divine Spirit, and foretold events which would take place, and which are now taking place. They are called prophets. These alone both saw and announced the truth to men, neither reverencing nor fearing any man, not influenced by a desire for glory, but speaking those things alone which they saw and which they heard, being filled with the Holy Spirit. Their writings are still extant, and he who has read them is very much helped in his knowledge of the beginning and end of things, and of those matters which the philosopher ought to know, provided he has believed them. For they did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief; and those events which have happened, and those which are happening, compel you to assent to the utterances made by them, although, indeed, they were entitled to credit on account of the miracles which they performed, since they both glorified the Creator, the God and Father of all things, and proclaimed His Son, the Christ sent by Him" (Dialogue With Trypho, 7)

Tatian wrote:

"I sought how I might be able to discover the truth. And, while I was giving my most earnest attention to the matter, I happened to meet with certain barbaric writings [the Old Testament scriptures], too old to be compared with the opinions of the Greeks, and too divine to be compared with their errors; and I was led to put faith in these by the unpretending ease of the language, the inartificial character of the writers, the foreknowledge displayed of future events, the excellent quality of the precepts, and the declaration of the government of the universe as centred in one Being. And, my soul being taught of God, I discern that the former class of writings lead to condemnation, but that these put an end to the slavery that is in the world, and rescue us from a multiplicity of rulers and ten thousand tyrants, while they give us, not indeed what we had not before received, but what we had received but were prevented by error from retaining." (Address To The Greeks, 29)

Theophilus of Antioch wrote:

"At the same time, I met with the sacred Scriptures of the holy prophets, who also by the Spirit of God foretold the things that have already happened, just as they came to pass, and the things now occurring as they are now happening, and things future in the order in which they shall be accomplished. Admitting, therefore, the proof which events happening as predicted afford, I do not disbelieve, but I believe, obedient to God...The Egyptian or Chaldaean prophets, and the other writers, should have been able accurately to tell, if at least they spoke by a divine and pure spirit, and spoke truth in all that was uttered by them; and they should have announced not only things past or present, but also those that were to come upon the world. And therefore it is proved that all others have been in error; and that we Christians alone have possessed the truth, inasmuch as we are taught by the Holy Spirit, who spoke in the holy prophets, and foretold all things." (To Autolycus, 1:14, 2:33)

Athenagoras makes similar comments (A Plea For The Christians, 9). Melito of Sardis traveled to Israel to gather information about the Old Testament canon, apparently believing that the information there would be more reliable than elsewhere (Eusebius, Church History, 4:26). Regarding the Old Testament prophets, Tertullian writes, "Their words, as well as the miracles which they performed, that men might have faith in their divine authority, we have still in the literary treasures they have left, and which are open to all." (Apology, 18) He goes on to cite current events that fulfill prophecy as evidence of the Divine nature of the Biblical books (Apology, 20). Serapion comments that documents written by the apostles are accepted as having the authority of Christ (Eusebius, Church History, 6:12). Julius Africanus rejects the Apocryphal Susanna on the basis of internal evidence and its rejection by the Jewish people (A Letter To Origen From Africanus About The History Of Susanna). Augustine appeals to the testimony of the churches in judging which books belong in the canon, giving different weight to different types of churches (On Christian Doctrine, 2:8).

People can come to the conclusion that a book is or isn't scripture for a wide variety of reasons, some more valid than others, some more provable than others, and some more applicable in our day than others. We aren't contemporaries of Isaiah, so he can't perform authenticating miracles for our benefit. We don't know as much about the early history of the churches of Revelation 2-3 as the people who lived at that time did, so we don't know as much about the fulfillment of the prophecies given to those churches. Tatian's appeal to the writing style of the Biblical authors isn't as demonstrable an argument as his appeal to fulfilled prophecy.

Modern canonical disputes tend to focus on potentially easy, demonstrable, and widely applicable means of judging what is and isn't scripture. People want something like an infallible papal decree or infallible council ruling to tell them what their canon ought to be. But we don't have such an infallible proclamation, and we have reason to distrust the belief systems that most often claim to possess such a thing. Those who criticize Evangelicals for identifying their canon without something like a ruling from an ecumenical council are also criticizing the many Jewish and Christian believers in antiquity who did the same.

God can bring His people to recognize His word, including scripture, without something like a papal decree or a declaration from a council (John 10:4, 1 Corinthians 14:37, 1 Thessalonians 2:13). When many believers recognize particular books as scripture over a long period of time, as we've seen with the books of the New Testament, their combined experience carries more weight than the experience of an individual. And since Jesus and the apostles seem to have accepted a Jewish Old Testament canonical consensus, we have precedent for trusting a New Testament canonical consensus among Christians. Characteristics of scripture like those mentioned by men like Tatian and Theophilus of Antioch, above, also move us further in the direction of considering these books scripture.

But these approaches only go so far. Claiming that God has led you to recognize a book as scripture isn't the same as demonstrating it. And while the widespread agreement among Christians about the scriptural status of particular books could be a result of Divine guidance, it also could be a result of something else. Sometimes an erroneous belief is popular among Christians. A doctrine widely held in one generation is widely rejected in another generation. Sometimes an erroneous belief is widely held for a long time. Though Jesus and the apostles seem to have accepted a Jewish Old Testament canonical consensus, it's possible that a New Testament consensus would be unreliable, even if we think that's unlikely. And while some of the characteristics of the Biblical books suggest some sort of Divine involvement, not every book of the Bible has those characteristics. There is no equivalent of the prophecies of Isaiah in Esther or Philemon.

Is there a canonical standard that's more widely applicable than something like fulfilled prophecy and more demonstrable than something like the guidance of the Holy Spirit? An infallible council ruling that lists every book of the canon could be such a standard, and it could be easier to follow than many of the alternatives that are proposed. Such an edict from a council could have the three attributes I referred to above, namely easiness, demonstrability, and widespread applicability. Thus, many people have sought to find an infallible proclamation from a council where one doesn't exist.

A better case can be made for another canonical standard that's also more widely applicable and more demonstrable, though not as easy to identify and interpret as an infallible council ruling could be. I'll discuss it in the next post in this series.

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