Thursday, July 2, 2009

Ramblings on the NT Canon

I posted this somewhere recently:

I guess the best way for me to express my view on scripture and inspiration - or at least my understanding of how we historically came to an understanding of scripture and inspiration - will be painted through me examining what I believe were the core questions of your earlier posts.

(1) Why wasn't it until the 2nd and 3rd generation of Christians that they became to be revered as scripture and on par with the OT?

(2) "Why not just leave them as authoritative – trusted histories written by Godly men for the instruction of the church?"

(3) Did Paul think he was writing scripture?

Some assumptions we have to recognise behind these questions is that we are looking back on scripture, inspiration and canon from our own context. Namely, post-reformation, heavily influenced by the presuppositions of a closed canon and concepts of sola scriptura.

From this assumption we view the issue of inspiration with little regard to the historical view. To me it seems like one edging towards the Golden Tablets of the Book of Mormon. We simply see the books of the Bible as being inspired - why? The Bible is inspired. This is a circular view and not what I see the historical approach as at all.

Regarding question (3), I think we have to consider what scripture is in the context and what Paul believed about his own message.

Within the context - scripture, although not a free-for-all, was not arbitrarily closed. God's old covenant (mind the Christian anachronism) with His people as embodied within the Old Testament was a real-time event. As a prophet prophesied and such texts were produced under the inspiration of prophesy, they were inspired. They did not have to wait for someone to see them as inspired at a later arbitrary date. Furthermore, we know that Jewish communities would consider intertestamental apocryphal texts as inspired even though its composition was near contemporaneous. What this understanding does is takes away the assumption that the development of scripture need be a long process - that is, our lense as seeing the recognition as something that could only have happened a long time ago.

From the New Testament we can derive two features. Firstly, Paul believed he was an inspired apostle (e.g. Gal 1:1) and that his salvation message of the gospel which he taught was inspired, "I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." (Gal 1:12). Secondly, Paul believed his inspired words and revelation should be shared - he did this through his preaching and his epistles (which he subsequently asked to be shared e.g. Col 4:16, "And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea").

With Paul's self understanding as expressed in his own letters it could very well be argued that the texts met the requirements of scripture. The teachings were inspired and authoritative. Furthermore, one need not ask the question as to whether Paul saw himself adding to the Old Testament as such a thing did not exist until rabbinic Judaism eventually closed the canon. A closing of the canon that seems to fit in well with new covenant of Christ, might I add.

Doing the third point first probably set some ground rules for the next questions.

Anyway, to jump into the first question (1) it has something to do with the context and what was happening within the early Christian communities in the 60s-80s. The necessity of scripture is related to the fact that the inspired, reliable and authoritative members of the communities such as the eyewitness were dying out. (Note, Papias made a point of preferring oral eyewitness testimony to the written texts whilst it was available.) In reaction, these eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (Luke 1:1-4) were used by the evangelists in their eyewitness communities to construct the gospels. Therefore, we had more texts produced that were most likely seen as inspired, including eyewitness testimony and tradition that were composed in the time of living memory. These texts were authoritative - firstly within their own community, and then in the wider community as one of the earliest things we know on Christian canon is that the authority of the four-fold gospel tradition was early.

I guess now we return to the status of these texts as Scripture in comparison to the OT. As stated earlier, the OT canon was not officially closed or as rigid as we see it today in Western contemporary circles. (Just a quick note that some Orthodox churches have Bibles with an appendix of non-canonical yet acceptable reading - something similar to the 2nd/3rd century Syrian churches view of the Gospel of Peter or other communities views of the Shepherd of Hermas such as attached to Codex Sinaiticus.) By virtue of the texts being by inspired persons, within eyewitness and living memory as well as being regionally authoritative in orthodox circles, they were considered scripture.

I think we rely too much on the first century silence on canon and authoritative scripture in the first and early second. However, the frequency and distribution of the majority of the NT texts throughout the churches - Western, Eastern and Alexandrian - by the mid second century (probably par some of the Pastorals and 2 Peter in the Western churches) probably dwarf this silence with evidence that they were widely accepted and authoritative before such recognition by the church fathers.

Following on, I guess the second point (2) would answer itself. Inspiration was a key feature of the text even before it was put to papyri. They were trusted histories written by inspired Godly men, often including the inspired words of God incarnate himself.

I hope this wading through the issue paints a picture of my incomplete view of inspiration and authority. It probably represents a historical camp - but which one I am not sure of.
I could be entirely wrong.

No comments:

Post a Comment