Questioning Canon

Why these books?

A particular objection to the Bible often raised by critics is in regard to the list of books that “made it” into the Bible.

Why is it that the Protestant canon has 66 books, while the Roman Catholic canon has 72 and various Eastern traditions can have more? Why is it that the “other” gospels aren’t included? Why 4 gospels and not 1? The questions are unlimited and are indeed worth considering; however the answers are often…obtuse…or sometimes completely absent.

It’s not one, but two

Before I go any further, let me just say that this post is not meant to be a detailed, heavily researched piece, but rather a reflection: an informal, personal, composition of thoughts.

First, we have to deal with a simple fact: the Bible is not a singular work. We speak of it singularly, saying things like “the Bible says” or “Scripture says”, but this is merely shorthand to speak of the various materials that are found within the single volume bound together under the title of “Bible”, and it’s something of a shame that this fact has to be continuously repeated. What that means is that when the books were written, the authors themselves had no idea that what they were writing would survive as long as they have or that they would wind up with other books in a single volume. More than that, we have two distinct sets of books that we refer to as the Old Testament, which contains the the Jewish Scriptures, and the New Testament or Christian scriptures.

The fact that there are two sets means that in looking at their history, we are forced to recognize that they came about separately, and must be considered that way. To fail to do so will inherently introduce error.

The first question that should be asked is, what does the word “canon” mean, such as in our present discussion.

Defining our terms

The strict definition is simply, “a sanctioned or accepted group or body of accepted works.” This definition covers both the active and passive recognition of canon. However, the fact that there are active and passive aspects to this compounds the problem that is often raised because we have moments in history where there were active instances of human influence on matters of canon, such as the Council of Trent, which was organized to counter the effects of the Reformation.

The history of canon is one that is long and winding and fraught with numerous blind alleys due to the fact that the church had made no clear, unified declaration. You had instances, such as the Synod of Hippo or the Council of Carthage in 397 that produced lists, but then there’s regional traditions that include texts that others might not have even known about. It becomes something of a quagmire of culture and history that serves to only distinguish a modern, Western Christianity from a more traditional and somewhat mystical Eastern Christianity, and that is often a point that gets missed in such conversations, and can be leveraged by enemies of the faith against those who are ignorant of their history.

The fact that there are varieties of Christian expression within historical orthodoxy is something that can trip up unsuspecting Westerners, even though we have some familiarity with it in denominationalism. Modern American Christianity is still suffering from the effects of 19th century revivalism which focused more upon the emotional aspects of belief than upon doctrinal aspects of belief, whereas other parts of the world are often seem steeped more in the doctrinal aspect than the emotional, but in reality its more in the particular tradition that people are locked because it’s more associated with a particular culture. A focus on doctrine seems to fall along the lines of specific lines of Western Christianity of the Reformed variety. The reality of divergent traditions, as a simple historical fact, means that questions around the matter of canon are necessarily historical questions as much as theological.

Back to the question

When it comes to answering the question of canon—why one book or sets of books—was chosen over another, the answer might not be what a person hopes or even expects. One might hope to see back and forth and lively debate, even at the councils where such matters were debated there was general consensus about what was Scripture, and then heat came over what could be considered Scripture.

If we look at the Protestant canon, particularly with its arrangements of books, we see a linear progression of time from the first moments of Creation through history with stop-overs in poetic and wisdom books before interjections of history and prophesy, before we get into the revelation of Christ, the birth of the church, assorted letters and a prophetic consummation of all things. The Roman Catholic canon adds 6 books that are…well…weird. I mean you’ve got Maccabees, which gives a gloss of the history of the Maccabean rebellion. Then you’ve got a couple of books along the wisdom tradition, and then some vision books. Some Eastern traditions follow the Roman Catholic canon and others add a few to the New Testament. The question is, why?

It comes down to a question of authority. What books can speak with an authoritative voice about the subject?

The history of canon development is one that deserves serious consideration, a good place to start is this essay. For those interested in the New Testament, a good starting place is Dr. Michael Kruger’s work.

Final thoughts

As I stated, from the beginning, this post was not meant to be a deep, scholarly dive, but more a personal reflection on the matter. As such, from what I’ve seen and read such discussions have already been had. It doesn’t bother me that there was debate because, upon reading some of the disputed texts, I could not help but fee that the opponents of those materials as essential for inclusion was entirely justified. To me, the rules by which exclusion of certain books from being considered Scripture were legitimate. However, one cannot simply discount reasoning for inclusion or exclusion, but must keep such matters firmly in mind when interacting with them. It is the only intellectually honest thing to do.

I recognize, and have to keep reminding myself, that much of what I believe is often saturated in modern traditions, which is why I have to stop and go back to Scripture, to take hold of that ancient Erasmian humanist slogan “ad fontus”—“to the source”—and go back and look at the development of theology in time. That includes looking at the theology of the canon, and why these books and not others. I want my beliefs to be the same beliefs as the author’s of Scripture so that I can have their confidence and have a foundation that is firm.

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