Sunday, August 19, 2007

What Authority Permitted Canon Formation?

This is the final answer to my five questions, as I answered it a while ago in my discernment. I will soon try to give Reformed answers to these questions as best as I am able.

5) What authority permitted a definition of Canon, and why are the books therein contained beyond question? Here is an exhausting topic.

The Catholics and Orthodox simply answer that the Church has the authority to define canon. It is interesting to note that the various Orthodox churches have varied canons.

The Protestant churches have used several explanations. I know of four methods (i.e., canon rationale) for arriving at the Protestant list of 66 books.

1) The Westminster Confession of Faith states that "our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts." This is the reformation's canon rationale; we know Scripture when we see it. I sheepishly admit that when I read Revelation and Ecclesiastes, I tend to doubt this inner-testimony doctrine.
2) Prof. R. Laird Harris of Covenant Theological Seminary, in his book Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible, downplayed the reformation claim as described in The Westminster Confession of Faith, and instead promotes a theory of historical-critical analysis to determine which texts belong in the Bible. Suffice it to say that Canon has been so hotly contested throughout church history that it is not self-evident or even self-identifying. It is not clear what the Jews had for a Canon at the time of Christ’s birth (if such a notion even clearly existed), nor is it clear that Josephus and early Hebrew scholars of the church were not heavily influenced by anti-Christian sentiment within Judaism, particularly against the Christian use of the Septuagint to prove that Christ is the Messiah.
3) Prof. Harris also promotes a view, and I don't know if it is better to refer to this as a complementary or a fall-back argument, that canonicity is determined by Apostolicity. Mark and Luke wrote for Peter and Paul, the argument goes, so are also Apostolic, and thus canonical. James could have been written by the Apostle himself, or by the "brother" of Jesus who is given a special status as an Apostle, the argument goes, such that either way this epistle also should be canonical.
4) Keith A. Mathison, in The Shape of Sola Scriptura, argues that the church was authoritatively reliable in choosing a canon, but only until the fourth century, at which point corruption made it unreliable.

We must concede either that some visible Church authority is responsible for defining a Canon for Christians, or that each individual has to read and reflect upon candidate Holy Books and the history of their acceptance to determine which he might choose as his own rules for normative and moral faith. Authority rests either with the church or the individual. A properly constituted and commissioned Authority is required to define canon, or else we are left with the depressing tailspin noted by R.C. Sproul, that the Bible is a "fallible collection of infallible books." Try explaining that to our relativistic world.

Since the Apostles themselves were not around to define the list of books to be included in Sacred Scriptures, their successors must have. I am loathe to admit this.

However, remember my earlier comment on the Sherlock Holmes inverse analysis. Even if all arguments cut in Catholicism's or Orthodoxy's favor but one, and that one is clearly wrong, those Churches must be wrong. It must mean I've been mistaken about everything else.


Amy said...

Henry Graham was a Protestant minister who converted to Catholicism. He wrote a book, originally published in 1911 titled "Where We Got the Bible." It's an excellent book, although the tone at times is a bit "angry-convert." I'm sure carries it, but Catholic Answers ( does as well.

You really do have my sympathies. I was raised a Catholic, but left and ended up becoming a New Ager and a pagan for a time. When I decided to go to a Christian church (just for the social aspect, mind you!), it was definitely NOT going to be the Catholic Church :)

Thos said...

Amy, thanks for the book recommendations. I've added this one to my Amazon wish list for the next order. I have some wonderful fellowship with dear and devoted Christians in my church, so it's hard to look across the aisle (or the "Tiber", whatever)... But if I can't defeat the OrthoCath intellectual arguments, I might be stuck (okay, I'll admit that your music is really beautiful, and ours sucks, but it seems more and more Catholic parishes are using sucky music lately too!).

Amy said...

it seems more and more Catholic parishes are using sucky music lately too!

LOL! Too true, unfortunately! I think that's why some prefer the "quiet Mass" early in the morning - no music is better than bad music!

Amy said...

As a bibliophile, I have several more books to recommend :) They're written by converts to Catholicism - not that they'll convert you in themselves, but they struggled with the direction God wanted them to go in as well.

Scott Hahn was a Presbyterian minister before he and his wife (the daughter and sister of Presbyterian ministers) converted to Catholicism. They wrote their conversion stories in a book called "Rome Sweet Home." He's written a number of books, but another excellent one is "A Father Who Keeps His Promises" about God's covenants in the old and new testaments. He's also edited several collections of conversion stories.

Steve Ray wrote "Crossing the Tiber" to explain to his father why he was converting to Catholicism. Lots of excellent footnotes.

Thos said...

Amy, thanks. At the risk of taking this post in a different direction (this question on canon formation is, for me, the very heart of the Catholic criticism of Presbyterianism) - I am very shy to admit that I've heard Hahn's tapes and read Rome Sweet Rome. It seems like every convert story starts with, "I read Scott Hahn". I keep thinking, "lackies".

"Followers". Handling Hahn is complex - many emotions run strong in both directions.

Thos said...

Engaged in dialogue with Joe at God Fearin' Fiddler's blog, I was blessed to receive a fifth theory on (O.T.) canonicity:

"The apocrypha is not a part of the Hebrew bible for good reason - they were the custodians of the Word of God. As to the NT, there is clear testimony to the canon."