The canon conversation continues

My conversation with Damian continues in his post Inspiration, Fallibility and Canon and in the comments of that post. If you are unaware of why we even feel a need to talk about the canon, I certainly encourage you to read his post to see some of the questions with which you may not have adequately dealt. The discussion has certainly helped hone my beliefs on the matter, and I think engaging in it honestly might do the same for others. I posted the following as a comment, although I’ve revised/expanded/cleaned up wording here and there for this post.

Within the post, Damian wrote,

The authority, for Steve, seems to be in the List and in the sufficiency of the list. It is not the texts (which are fallible), but rather the list (which is sufficient).

I buck a bit at the idea that I consider there to be authority in the canon itself. I do think that the list is sufficient, but not for any particular expectation of authority (this needs to be defined) as much as for exhaustiveness of a certain subject, namely the Heilsgeschichte, at least as defined by the Church. After all, it was the Church that wrote Scripture in the first place.  I’m not saying all redemptive history need have been complete by the time the books of Scripture were written (in fact, I don’t believe it was), but that the Church that created the canon recognized that the books in their list were sufficient in illustrating the trajectory and roadmap for the culminating events of salvation, as well as how we’re supposed to live until/after then. Early texts that expound upon the spiritual ideas of canonical books, such as Clement, are invaluable for recovering the faith as it was delivered to the saints, but then again, in many ways, so is Josephus, in documenting a/the fulfilment of Jesus’ eschatological expectations.

Some of my protective reflex for the canon is no doubt due to my lingering traditionalism, but it’s also important for me as a piece of literature; the canon is a work composed in a way not unlike Luke’s work in his Gospel, both being compilations of various authenticated sources. They may have been misled in their authentication on various points — 2 Peter, for instance, certainly bears few signs of apostolic authority — but overall, I think we can agree with the canonizers that pedigree stands for something. I think we as Christians should want a breed of the “best blood” possible (those works related most closely to the eyewitnesses), even if a few mutts or imposters sneaked into the canon here and there, and that we should also make careful but unreserved use of the literary works without as much apostolic pedigree that were not canonized.  So I’d be more open to refining and scrubbing down the canon, cutting things out as it were, than I am to adding things to it.

We encounter the risen Christ on a personal level. When we inevitably want to know more about God’s ways, we seek the guidance of others who have encountered Him; naturally, we will want to listen the most closely to those who encountered Him personally in history, and nearly as much to those who learned directly from them. As we back away from the source of illumination, things get a little dimmer, and shadows are cast that we look for any available light to dispel. I think the NT canon functions well as a more or less direct witness to Jesus’ work on earth (the best we’ve got, at any rate), and those whom he taught while here should be given special attention. For the very same reasons I believe in the truth of any Scripture at all, I believe we have in the canon something useful and unique, though not nearly as divine as some would like for it to be.

As I have said on numerous occasions, I think we overemphasize the usefulness of Scripture for reasons other than guiding our development as emulators of godly, Christ-like character (2 Tim 3.16-17). If we lay aside what I think is the specific usefulness of the Bible as a testimony to redemptive history, focusing on its character-building aspect does dull the divide between the canonical and extracanonical sacred literature quite a bit, but in a way that’s ultimately helpful because it shifts our focus to what really matters the most anyway. So in this, I certainly understand and appreciate where Damian’s coming from.

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