It can be tricky when you start trying to define “Canon”. Before we do lets looking at these three options we see a flaw in each one:
- Books widely used by Christians—Why would we claim a book should be in the canon just because Christians used it? The Church today uses a variety of books. This doesn’t mean we all look at them equally. Recently I used a book on leadership (non-Christian book) to teach a class in Church. This doesn’t mean I regarded it as authoritative as the book of Romans.
- Books that function as Scripture—At first glance this seems to be the option for conservative Christians like myself. But we need to be careful jumping on this bandwagon. History doesn’t pain such a nice and clean picture for us as we might like. What I mean is that some pockets—albeit small ones—used certain books (e.g. Shepherd of Hermas) as Scripture which did not make it into what we call the New Testament today. This doesn’t mean they were heretical, only that they didn’t fit the criteria to make it into the canon.
- Only books included in a final, closed list—This is the view of most liberal scholars today. Now don’t get all bent out of shape at the phrase “most scholars”. Truth is not decided by majority vote. Just because most people believe something does not make it true. Their conclusion, though, is that since the Canon was not closed until the 4th Century we cannot speak of a New Testament before this time. This is a basic tenet of the Exclusive Definition for “Canon” which we will look at below.
There are three main ways to define “Canon”. In this post I will give you the first view which is the one taken by liberals. We will address its pros and cons. Check Friday’s post for the other two definitions:
- They rightly captures the reality of the canon’s “fluid” edges prior to the 4th Century.
- It helps remind us of the important role played by the church in recognition and reception of the canon.
- There is too sharp a distinction between “Scripture” and “Canon” was not shared by our historical counterparts in 2nd Century. That is, the early Christians were able, very early on, to distinguish what was and was not Scripture. Thus, they were able to establish what fit in the Canon and was did not even if the Canon wasn’t final.
- It struggles to clearly define what they mean by “closed”. If they mean uniformity then we don’t find that even today much less 4th Century. That is, the Church has never been 100% unanimous of what should/should not be in the canon. If we mean a formal, official act of an early church, then we are hard pressed to find such an act before the Council of Trent in the 16th Century.
- It gives a false impression that the 4th Century brought about such a profound change in the development of the NT that the church changed their terminology regarding certain letters. There had long been agreement on the Core books—4 Gospels, majority of Paul’s letters—of the NT. Most importantly, these books were not elevated in authoritative status due to some ecclesiastical declaration in the 4th Century. Instead the 4th Century church only acknowledged what the earlier Christians always believed about certain books; that they were divinely inspired.
We need to avoid the Pendulum Swing Fallacy. On one hand it would be wrong to believe that the Early Christians had little or no interest in the NT canon until the 4th Century (see my next post for further information on that). On the other hand we need to get our heads out of the clouds when we think the Canon fell down from heaven like manna wrapped with a nice bow. There was a process to its development.
This post relies heavily upon the book "The Question of Canon" by Kruger