Revisiting the Canon

Once in a while, during perhaps a midweek Bible study or a Sunday service, your pastor will mention some obscure theological term. Canonicity is one of those words that appear even fewer times. Canonicity is basically about what books should make up the Bible and for what reasons. The concept of a canon is a familiar term to comic book aficionados. Undoubtedly such a concept originated from the Church before entering pop culture. Now most Christians however, are not really bothered by such issues. The Bible has always been the Bible, hasn’t it?

The development of the biblical canon was a process that took many years. It was not just the writing of the texts, people had to acknowledge them as sacred. When we speak of the Bible we are not just talking about a canonical list of texts that are relevant to Christianity. How the Bible was formed is essential in knowing what it truly means. Canonicity is something fundamental to the make-up of the scriptures so we need to know what it means.

A canon assumes there is a pool of texts under consideration of which certain ones based on some criteria are accepted as authoritative. The concept of canonicity is important in determining  what constitutes sacred writing.  Designating certain texts as sacred means you a distinguishing them from others text in a collection of literature. The apostles held the distinctly Jewish view of the Bible as sacred scripture. Other people in the ancient world had sacred texts but the nature of the Bible was very different.

Something being sacred meant it was used in the service of God. The centre of Israelite activity was worship. As a people they identified themselves by their God. For a certain group of texts to be considered sacred, together they had to be a quintessential portrayal of the national story. The biblical canon was therefore organized around a metanarrative. When they spoke of the word of God, it also meant the narrative that shaped their identity as a people chosen by God. This concept of the word as a story is what the apostles applied to the Church as the New Israel. This word was not simply for their information but for instruction regarding their divinely given identity, purpose, and mission. They apostles wrote with the awareness they were somehow contributing to sacred scripture. Holy words from a holy God for a holy people.

A canon shaped by a metanarrative did not serve as a sharp distinction delineating what people should or should not read. Even though the Biblical authors were inspired it did not mean they wrote with a precise awareness of what the canon would be. (As with all things that proceed from antiquity we have only a fraction. If the original 1 Corinthians was discovered I would most certainly consider it canonical.) The Bible is littered with references to things which are considered neither canonical nor sacred and the early Church did not seem much of a problem with interacting with them. The Protestant notions of a closed canon as an official “either or list” flies in the face of the nature of texts themselves. The issue of canonicity is far more intricate than the table of contents might suggest. Some of the biggest challenges I have faced in terms of extra-canonical material has been the references to the Book of Enoch in Jude and 2 Peter. Instances like those have forced me to review my perceptions of what the Bible is.

Almost every Christian denomination accepts the minimum 66 book canon. I think the traditional arguments for canonicity are rather good. (The Canon of Scripture by F.F. Bruce is very helpful in exploring the traditional understanding of canonicity.) However, I think it is more sophisticated than it appears. Now if the Bible is organized around a metanarrative, it means the word of God transcends it pages. The scriptures therefore serve as a medium through which we receive his word. One of the things I had to acknowledge in dealing with difficult passages like the ones I mentioned is that truth is not exclusive to the Bible. Since the biblical canon was developed over time, and the scriptures mention there were believers in that period, it meant the truth was not dependent on the canon. In simple terms, it is possible to be a believer in God without being directly aware of the Bible.

There was an apparent problem with this view. If the scriptures were a medium among many for the word of God, what set it apart? Could I possibly ignore it and still end up with God. This was a disturbing thought since it challenged Christian orthodoxy. Not only that, the scriptures were central to how I understood Christianity. I did not want to descend into wanton liberalism. This forced me to take an even more critical look at the scriptures.

When you carefully look at the nature of the Bible it does not just record the narrative but it is an integral part of the narrative. The Gospel they preached was always according to the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:1-4.) The scriptures are a living story played out through history. The author, the writing and the audience are all a part of the story. The biblical model is the giving of the Torah which established Israel as a ‘royal priesthood. The word of God was seen as the word of the King. The gospel itself is essentially a political term meaning royal news that brought joy to the empire. The nature of the written word meant it functioned like a royal edict. Royal decrees were preserved in writing to show their immutability. Through the Gospel, the scriptures serve as God’s royal law, an unwavering standard by which every other thing could be judged.

It is through the Gospel that we have the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The Gospel is the scriptural metanarrative, the story by which we judge every other story. When we read the Bible we are not only dealing with paper and ink. As a composition its sum is greater than the parts. This transcendent quality makes the scriptures spiritual, sacred and alive.

Even though the scriptures are set apart they are not aloof. Not only does it reference things pertaining to its era. It is a message for mankind of what God is doing. This means the word of God engages with human society and culture. Even though truth is not exclusive to it pages it does provide the master script. This understanding of the biblical canon as the measuring stick is I think the reason why the early Christians could boldly and wisely reference extra-canonical material. They were not simply taking the good bits and leaving the rest. Possessing the scriptural metanarrative they were well equipped to bring other narratives into line, conforming them to the knowledge of Christ. A wonderful example of this is Paul’s speech in Acts 17 about the Unknown God. Not only were the people being converted but their worldviews and thinking was also being transformed and renewed by the power of the Gospel.

It wasn’t only the early Church that had to contend with extracanonical material. Today, we face so many things which are not explicitly mentioned in the scriptures. I am not only referring to opposing worldviews or things in the Academy. Our own creeds, dogmas and other theological positions are strictly speaking extracanonical. Every single thought needs to be brought captive to obey the Messiah. If we understand the Bible as the canon, the rule of faith, it then needs to be applied. No ruler is used to measure itself. It is used to measure other things. The Biblical canon must be the measure and standard of our lives.

This canonical understanding of the scriptures presents us with some challenges. I appreciate the current dogma regarding the canon because the unequipped may meddle with certain ideas that are detrimental to their faith. Orthodoxy provides a safe fence for us to operate in. However, every fence has an opening through which one can safely interact with the world. I am advocating that we should be mature enough to personally understand the orthodox position and not just mindlessly affirm it. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. An unexamined Bible is not worth believing.


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