The second way to approach the term “canon” is by the Functional Definition. That is, a collection of books that functions as the religious norm, regardless of whether the list is open or closed. The last part to this definition is the key. With this in mind we can conclude that the term “canon” is legitimate as soon as one book is considered Scripture. As soon as one letter is considered as divinely inspired then we have a functioning canon even it the edges aren’t closed off yet. This would at least get the idea of a Canon into the 2nd Century.
What are the pros and cons to this view?
- This view is more historically accurate than the Exclusive definition. It correctly addresses the reality that the early Christians did possess a collection of books which they viewed as divinely authoritative long before the 4th Century.
- It does not over-emphasize the role of official church declarations about the canon as is the tendency of the Exclusive definition.
- There were other books being used by pockets of Christians which did not make it into the Canon. That is, some churches/individuals considered certain books (e.g. Sharperd of Hermas) as authoritative but others did not. So this definition struggles to address this issue.
- It fails to address the nature of the canon. That is, it cannot answer the question; “What sort of book is this?”
The third way to approach the term “canon” is by the Ontological Definition. That is a fancy way to say “the nature of things”. The pivotal question is this; “The canon, from heaven or men?” This definition focuses on whether the books of the NT were authoritative because they were from God or whether they were authoritative because the later church ascribed authority to them. The focus is on their nature not their function or reception.
So which definition is the correct one? The answer is that we need to see the pros in all three. We must understand the term of “canon” is a dynamic concept and we cannot limit the scope of our understanding by one definition. So here is what we should take from each one.
- Exclusive—Canon didn’t come down from heaven like manna. There was a historical process to it.
- Functional—Prior to the final product there was a core collection of books that functioned with supreme authority
- Ontological—Books do not become authoritative because of actions of the church, they bear authority because they are from God.
With these three definitions combined we get a clearer understanding of how to define “canon”. The canonical books were written with divine authority—>the books are recognized and used as Scripture by the early Christians—>the church reaches a consensus around these books. This makes perfect sense in you think about it. If God gave inspired the NT authors (ontological) then we would expect the early Church to use the letters as Scripture (functional), which would inevitably lead to a final consensus amongst the majority of Christians as to which books should be used (exclusive).
To listen to an audio lecture further expanding upon this topic click here
This post relies heavily upon the book "The Question of Canon" by Kruger