Should we define the Canon as:
- 1. Books widely used by early Christians
- 2. Books that function as Scripture
- 3. Only to books included in a final, closed list
There are three definitions that we need to look at; Exclusive, Functional, Ontological
The Exclusive Definition argues that only books included in a final, closed list is the proper way to define Canon. This way does a good job of helping us to realize that the canon didn't fall out of the sky like Manna from heaven. It captures the "fluid" edges of the process of forming the canon. But it makes too big of a deal out of this fact. Just because we didn't have a completed Canon until a few centuries after the Apostles doesn't mean we didn't have any sort of canon. This view is weak historically. For the early church viewed many core letters as divinely authoritative.
The Functional Definition contends that you have a canon when a collection of books functions as the religious norm, regardless of whether the list is open or closed. Therefore, you have a canon as soon as you have one functional letter. This would date a New Testament canon easily into the late 2nd Century. Unlike the dating of a canon in the 4th century as the exclusive definition would argue. This view is more historically accurate than the former. But it is hard pressed to answer the tough questions like, "What about disagreement over certain books that are now in the Canon?", or "What about the books that were considered by some as authoritative but didn't make it into the final Canon?".
The Ontological Definition focuses on what the canon is in and of itself, namely the authoritative books God gave his corporate church. This view says that letters do not become canonical but are inherently canonical regardless of how people view them. If we looked at the canon this way then we have a canon as soon as a letter is written.
The Key is to combine all three definitions. If a book is given by God (ontological) then we would expect the church to use it as authoritative (functional). If the church used these books then we would expect there would naturally be discussions and a final consensus on which books should be used (exclusive). In fact, this is exactly what we see in history. We must always remember that the issue of the Canon is more a theological issue than a historical one.