Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Frame on the Canon of Scripture


Which books belong in the bible has been a heated discussion for the last 500 years in particular. It's an important matter for sure. I will post a series of articles from various scholars who shed light on this issue. The first post comes from John Frame. It's long, but worth the read.

The next logical question is, where may we find these written words of God? In what written texts? This is the question of canon. Canon refers to the body of writing that God has given to rule the church.

Studies of the historical process by which the church came to identify the canon certainly do reveal interesting facts, and believers can see the hand of God throughout this process. But inductive study alone is unlikely to show us with certainty which books God has given to rule the church. My purpose here, rather, is to present the teachings of Scripture itself relevant to the doctrine of the word of God, and now relevant to the specific question of canonicity.

As we have seen, it is God’s intention to speak personal words to us, words that have more authority than any other. These words govern our use of all other words, of all other sources of knowledge. For God’s words to have this kind of authority, they must be distinguishable from all other words, from words that are merely human. There must, therefore, be a canon, a body of divine words that God’s people can identify as his.

We have also seen that these words are not to be received as momentary experiences by individuals and then allowed to disappear into past history. Rather, they are to be kept permanently so that God can continually witness against the sins of his people (Deut. 31:24-29), both present and future generations. So, God places the Ten Commandments by the holy Ark of the Covenant and places other words beside them. Doubtless other copies were made as well, which circulated among the people of Israel. The people knew that these were God’s words, the words of supreme authority, clearly distinct from all merely human words.

So at every stage of Israel’s history, there was a canon, a definite body of divine writings, which spoke to the nation and its individuals with supreme authority. The first canon was the two tablets of the covenant. A later canon added to these the Deuteronomic law of Moses (Deut. 31:24). Still a third added words of Joshua (Josh. 24:25-28).

Scripture does not continue an explicit narration of each stage in the growth of the canon. But as we have seen it describes occasions in which prophecy was written down for future generations. There are also many places in the Old Testament where one writer indicates a knowledge of the work of another, either through quotation (as Jeremiah 26:18, which cites Micah 3:12), or through awareness of symbols, historical narrative, and themes found in previous books. 2 The New Testament indicates, as we noted, that during Jesus’ earthly ministry he was able to appeal to the law, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, as common ground with his Jewish opponents. We note that although Jesus and his opponents disagreed about a great many things, they never disagreed about what texts could be cited authoritatively.

Evidently, then, we should identify the Old Testament canon as consisting of those books acknowledged by the Jews, in the time and place of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We can determine that list of books by investigating the history of the time, verifying our conclusions by looking at what texts Jesus cites and doesn’t cite. In my judgment, the data indicate clearly that this canon is identical with the canon endorsed by Protestants since the Reformation.

Given God’s intention to rule the church by a written document consisting of his personal words, it would be anomalous in the extreme if he put them in a place where we couldn’t find them. Through Old Testament history, God has taken pains to put these words in an obvious place, the tabernacle, and later the temple. Josephus says that the books kept in the Temple, before its destruction in A. D. 70, were the books recognized as canonical by the Jews. Although the Jews read other books for edification, the Temple books were those with fully divine authority. So, there is no mystery about the extent of the Old Testament canon. God put the books in a place where they could function as he intended, where they would be recognized as his.

The extent of the New Testament canon is on the surface a more difficult problem, because in the nature of the case no inspired writer could refer to the New Testament writings as a completed collection. But we have seen that the New Testament writers speak of a "tradition" that was to be passed down from generation to generation and guarded against distortion. And we have seen that there is written revelation attesting the New Covenant as there was attesting the Old (Chapter 21). As with the Old Testament, we should note how anomalous it would be if this revelation were hard to find. Our salvation depends on our access to the words of Jesus (John 6:68) and to the gospel preached by the apostles (Rom. 1:16, Gal. 1:6-9, Eph. 1:13).

The problem with much current literature on the canon is that it does not take account of God’s expressed intentions. It seeks, rather, through autonomous reasoning to determine if any first century books deserve canonical status, and using that method it arrives at conclusions that are uncertain at best. But once we understand God’s use of a canon from the time of Moses, we must approach our present problem with a presupposition: that God will not let his people walk in darkness, that he will provide for us the words we need to have, within our reach.

So we reach out, and we find before us, 27 books—from Matthew to Revelation. God did not put them in the Jerusalem temple, for that temple is gone. He placed them in his temple the church (1 Cor. 3:16-17, Eph. 2:21, Rev. 3:12), that is, among the people of God, where, as in Deut. 30:11-14, the word is very near us.

The early church was divided by many controversies, concerning basic doctrines including the Trinity and the person of Christ. There were differences among them, too, as to what books were canonical. But it is remarkable how little they fought about this. Some of the differences had to do with geography: some books reached parts of the church before other parts. Some of them had to do with views of content and authorship. But remarkably, when in 367 A. D. Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria published a list of books accepted in his church, there was no clamor. From that time on, Christians of all traditions—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—agreed on the New Testament canon. Indeed, through the centuries since, agreement on the New Testament canon has been more unanimous than on the Old Testament canon, though on the surface it might seem that ascertaining the former would have been more difficult.

What happened? Jesus’ sheep heard his voice (John 10:27). Or, to put it differently, the Holy Spirit illumined the texts so that God’s people perceived their divine quality. Recall that in Chapter 14 I discussed a similar problem in connection with the divine voice: how can we be sure that the voice is God? The answer I proposed was that our assurance is supernatural. When God speaks, he at the same time assures us that he is speaking. 3 In Chapter 15, I proposed the same answer to the problem of identifying true prophets and apostles. In this case Scripture does give objective criteria (Deut. 18), but those criteria are difficult to apply in view of the relation between prophecy and historical contingency. Again, our ultimate assurance is supernatural. So it is, I believe, with the question of identifying canonical books.

In this case, as with the identification of prophets, the Christians used some objective criteria. Apostolic authorship was an obvious criterion. Jesus had appointed the apostles to remember his words and to lead the church into all truth. So if the Christians believed that a book was written by an apostle, they received it, without further argument, as canon.

But of course they also received books that were not written by apostles, such as Mark, Luke-Acts, Hebrews, James and Jude. The criterion of apostolicity was relevant to these as well, of course. These books were thought to have come from the apostolic circle, to have somehow been certified by the apostles. Mark was thought to have been a close associate of Peter, and Paul himself testifies in his writings that Luke was his associate (Col. 4:14, 2 Tim. 4:11, Philem. 1:24). See also the "we" sections of Acts, which indicate that Luke traveled with Paul on his missionary journeys, (Acts 16:10-24, 20:5-21:18, 27:1-28:16). Hebrews was sometimes thought to be the work of Paul, though most scholars deny that today. James and Jude were most likely blood-brothers of Jesus and part of the apostolic church leadership though not technically apostles.

The connection of these books with the apostles, even when indirect, is certainly in their favor. Since the apostles are the main recipients of New Testament revelation, we naturally look favorably on any text that they may have approved in some way. And we should grant that the first and second century Christians were closer to the writing of these books than we are, and they probably had more knowledge than we of who wrote the books and the grounds on which the church accepted them. But this is only a probable argument, if we look at the historical evidence alone. We cannot prove decisively that the apostles officially warranted all the books of the New Testament and withheld their certification from books that were excluded.

Other criteria used by early Christians were antiquity, public lection (those read in worship), orthodoxy of content. 4 But these criteria are also insufficient to prove that any book belongs in the canon, or to disprove claims to canonicity on behalf of other books.

Nor should we rest our conclusion on the testimony of the church alone, and certainly not on the testimony of a particular denomination, as in the Roman Catholic view of the matter. The Roman church has claimed that the authority of the canon rests on their pronouncement. But (1) the church’s conviction on this matter, unanimous since A. D. 367, precedes any statement by a Roman Catholic pope or council. (2) As we have seen, God intends to rule his church by a book, not a church authority. So the authority of the church rests on the authority of the canon, not the other way around.

We should, however, join with the church of all ages (the early church and all Christian denominations since then) in the presupposition that God intended the New Covenant in Christ to be attested in writing, and that the apostles were charged with bringing the written word, as well as the oral word, before the world. Nor can we doubt that God’s intention to provide such written revelation was successful. Thus does Scripture attest itself, together with the witness of the Holy Spirit. Our assurance that these books are canon, like our assurance of the divine voice and of prophecy, is supernatural. So we can be sure that the canon of 27 New Testament books, now universally accepted in the church, therefore, is God’s personal word to us today.

Is the canon "closed," or should we expect God to add more books to the canon in our time and in the future? In one sense, the canon is always closed. God forbids people to add to or subtract from it (Deut. 4:2, 12:32; compare Prov. 30:6, Rev. 22:18-19). Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for putting their traditions on a par with Scripture and therefore making "void the word of God" (Matt. 15:6). We are to be satisfied with what God has given us, and not long for more. In every age, God has given his people all the written words we need to live faithfully before him.

Nevertheless, God himself has added to the canon, as we have seen. Moses added the Deuteronomic revelation to the original Decalogue. God accepted that revelation as worthy to be placed aside the Decalogue in the holiest place. Joshua added his words to those of Moses. God added the prophets and writings to the law, and the New Testament to the Old. Of course: God has the freedom to do this, though he forbids it to any mere man.

God adds revelation as needs for it arise in history. The revelation made to Adam would not have been sufficient for Noah, as he had to prepare for the flood. The revelation made to Noah would not have been sufficient for Abraham, to define God’s covenant with him. And the Old Testament, though sufficient to meet the challenges of the New Testament church after Paul’s demise (2 Tim. 3:17) was not sufficient to tell the whole story of Jesus.

The New Testament teaches, however, that with the coming of Christ, with his atonement, resurrection, and ascension, and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, redemptive history has reached a watershed. The work of Christ is final, in a way that the work of Abraham and Moses are not. In Christ, God has spoken (past tense, Heb. 1:2) a final word to us, attested (also past tense, Heb. 2:2) by Jesus’ original hearers. As the redemptive work of Christ is once-for-all, so the word of Christ and the apostles is once-for-all. For God to add more books to the canon would be like his adding something to the work of Christ, something Scripture teaches cannot be done.

So, the canon is closed today, not only in the sense that human beings dare not add to it, but also in the sense that God himself will not add to it. The closing of the canon does not, however, put an end to revelation in general. God still communicates with us in general revelation, in the Spirit’s work of writing the word on our heart, and of course in Scripture itself. The writing of Scripture is once-for-all; but God continues to speak to us through Scripture day-by-day.

1 comment:

Woody Woodward said...

Wow, who is John Frame? (Cool last name for such an important subject!” I never heard of this dude, but how exciting to read every important word from his pen. And as I read, I couldn’t help but reflect on the thousands of seminary students, who have felt called to ministry, seeking a degree in theology, entering seminary with passion to preach the word, only to hear liberal Scripture bashing day after day. The horrible results; so many on-fire students leave these “cemeteries of higher turning” convinced that man is right and he knows better than God’s inerrant Word!
Here is what I gleaned most important that I want to remember: “As we have seen, God intends to rule his church by a book, not a church authority. So the authority of the church rests on the authority of the canon, not the other way around.” “We are to be satisfied with what God has given us, and not long for more. In every age, God has given his people all the written words we need to live faithfully before him” “God adds revelation as needs for it arise in history. The revelation made to Adam would not have been sufficient for Noah, as he had to prepare for the flood. The revelation made to Noah would not have been sufficient for Abraham, to define God’s covenant with him. And the Old Testament, though sufficient to meet the challenges of the New Testament church after Paul’s demise (2 Tim. 3:17) was not sufficient to tell the whole story of Jesus.” “As the redemptive work of Christ is once-for-all, so the word of Christ and the apostles is once-for-all. For God to add more books to the canon would be like his adding something to the work of Christ, something Scripture teaches cannot be done.
So, the canon is closed today, not only in the sense that human beings dare not add to it, but also in the sense that God himself will not add to it. The closing of the canon does not, however, put an end to revelation in general. God still communicates with us in general revelation, in the Spirit’s work of writing the word on our heart, and of course in Scripture itself. The writing of Scripture is once-for-all; but God continues to speak to us through Scripture day-by-day.”