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February 1, 2008 / vivator

A High View of Scripture? Part 2

The Criteria of Canonicity

This is the second post on the book “A High View of Scripture” written by Prof. Craig D. Allert of Trinity Western University, Langley, British Columbia, Canada.  His words if quoted directly are in italic.

What are and do we have criteria of canonicity of New Testament books?   Prof. Allert brought to our attention that speaking of the criteria of canonicity is not to speak of an explicit list to which the early church referred, through which each and every document was sifted and subsequently placed in the canon as a result of satisfying each criterion. The criteria are a retrospective scheme by which we attempt to understand why certain Christian documents came to be valued above other Christian documents. Scholars have devised this scheme through an examination of the church fathers’ writings and their use of these numerous documents.  In his book Prof. Allert wrote about three criteria:

  1. Apostolicity: This criterion could indicate four things: (1) authorship by real (or supposed) apostle; (2) authorship by follower(s) of an apostle; (3) derivation from the general time of the apostles and (4) Agreement with apostolic teaching. As for the last one how do we define apostolic teaching? Even for the first two we cannot produce concrete evidence that one of apostles or his follower wrote particular book. Luther denied the apostolicity of James (refer to my earlier post on this issue)

  2. Orthodoxy: This criterion means the congruity of the content of the book with the faith or teaching of the church: the apostolic faith.  How do we define apostolic faith? If the answer is it is from the New Testament then we have circular argument.  Prof. Allert wrote that there is a progression of thought that moves from the teaching of Jesus, who hands it over to his apostles, who subsequently pass it on to the church, which is then charged with guarding the pure teaching. The so called Rule of Faith was used in the early church as a standard against which all teaching was measured. Here Prof. Allert appeals to the church as the guardian of the pure teaching (orthodoxy), handed over from Christ and His apostles, to which a book must comply. Thus the criterion of orthodoxy is not based on any New Testament book.

  3. Catholicity and Widespread Use: This criterion is concerned primarily with the acceptance and use of a document by the church at large. Does this criterion make the church the real source of the canon’s authority? Quoting the words of other author, Campenhausen, in his book: Formation of the Christian Bible, Prof. Allert wrote: “The Church is indeed the place in which the definitive verdict on the worth or worthlessness of individual writings is handed down; for the Church – if one may complete the thought along Irenaean [Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon in second century AD] lines – has within her the living canon, the Spirit of Truth which has been active from the beginning, and to which she remains faithful.” This statement obviously represents Catholic Church position that through the guidance of the Holy Spirit the (Catholic) Church chose books that entered the canon.

Prof. Allert also brought up the classic criteria of canonicity that does not belong to the above three: inspiration.  According to this criterion, only those books that the early church viewed as inspired become our New Testament. The problem with this criterion, as pointed by Prof. Allert, the early church considered not only other documents as inspired, but also many aspects of the church’s life including bishops, monks, interpreters of Scripture, martyrs, councils, and a wide array of prophetic gifts. All documents considered orthodox by the early church were, by implication, believed to be inspired. But this is not the complete picture.  In his summary of Chapter two Prof. Allert wrote: ‘we must not force a twenty-first-century perspective, wherein we have a closed canon, back onto the sources of the ancient church.  In this regard, it is important to understand that Christianity had a fairly fluid body of literature that the church used and held as authoritative. There is no doubt that amid this breadth of literature certain documents rose to preeminence in the life of the church. But their rise, in some cases, was neither immediate nor as mysterious as we have often been led to believe. I do not mean to deny the providence of God in the process, but rather to say that there were very practical reasons why certain documents came to be valued (and eventually canonized) by the church, and it is on this practical road to canonization that God providentially led his people by his Spirit. While it is proper to speak of a core collection of authoritative Christian writings in the second century, it is improper (or at least misleading) to speak of a New Testament in the second century.

To be continued


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