The Authority of the Canon

From Anabaptistwiki


John H. Yoder§

→265# The “authority of the canon” is a phrase that could quite properly have a number of different meanings. Very often we use the term “canon” broadly to refer to Scripture itself or to the function of Scripture as norm in the church, i.e., to the authority of Scripture. A discussion of the authority of Scripture as norm within the church would involve numerous classical debates. The narrowest meaning of “canon” designates a set of books which in the course of church history it was agreed should be considered sacred writings. This process of selection was a very long and contested search, with different geographic regions and different periods of church history coming to different conclusions. Differences continue today as to the relative authority of some of the texts in the list, or as to the status of the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha. We would need to question by what authority those lists were compiled and what authority they have for us.

Once we have located the broadest and the narrowest possible meanings of the authority of the canon, this leaves more challenging and accessible, although also more complicated, questions: what does it mean for the functioning of Scripture as authority in the church (canon in the first sense) that the kind of sacred Scripture around which Christians gather is not a single document but a collection of diverse documents (canon in the narrow sense)? What does it mean that the Christian community, in the course of several centuries, settled upon a finite body of writings which they distinguished from other writings as being peculiarly “Scripture?”


Discussion of these questions cannot be picked up from scratch in the present; they are products of a long history beginning in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. I therefore must reach back to describe the background which alone explains the vigor (and the inconclusiveness) of the recent debate. The tenseness of the discussion and the terminology and →266 assumptions with which it is carried forward regularly presuppose the definitions provided for us by what I shall call the High Protestant Scholastic (hereafter HPS) view in Western intellectual history. We must either try to work our way back to “scratch” or discuss head-on with that tradition in the awareness that those who reject it are just as much its products as those who want to affirm it.

What do I mean by the HPS view? First of all this label recognizes a certain intellectual history, most specifically the seventeenth century development of Protestant scholasticism. The Protestant scholastics were working in the state universities of countries which had been made Protestant by the sixteenth century. They were no longer fighting a life-and-death battle for the Reformation as a change in theology and institutions; they were developing, with a view to consistency and thoroughness, the implications and assumptions of the sixteenth century Reformation, elaborating what had been acquired and needed to be defended against new threats. The new threats were not simply new forms of the old debate with Roman Catholicism; they were also the beginnings of the encounter with Enlightenment, namely, with the glorification of natural human reason and the capacity of critical doubt to test everything, relativizing all arguments from authority except the appeal to reason itself. In the face of the double challenge of Rome and reason, HPS orthodoxy worked through to a total system the claim that Scripture is the foundation of the church. It was done in a way which deepened and radicalized some reformation emphases but abandoned the variety, the liveliness, and the sense of flux which had been characteristic of the middle third of the sixteenth century.

The content of the HPS view centered in the claim that biblical literature is unique in every important way. It was written through a kind of process which is different from all other writing, so that it has the quality of being inspired as no other documents do. Its content is therefore vouchsafed to be of revelatory authority, not because of what it is about, who wrote it, or when it was written, but because of the unique event of its being produced as inspired literature.

This inspired quality is reflected in the fact that its language is unique, not to be measured even by the grammar and spelling rules of other language. This was reinforced for the seventeenth and eighteenth →267 centuries by the fact that the Greek of the New Testament did not follow the rules of the classical Attic Greek being taught in universities. It was reinforced by the fact that biblical Hebrew was (as far as Christians were concerned) a dead language, existing only for those who learned it as the language of Scripture.

The HPS view in all its consistency and solidity does not make sense standing alone. It could not have grown directly out of the Bible; it was developed in response to the High Tridentine Catholic (hereafter HTC) vision, itself a response to the critique of the Protestant reformers. Only with the Reformation Council of Trent (1545-63) was Catholicism in the anti-Protestant sense defined. Pushed into a corner by early Protestant appeals to the Bible as the Word of God, the HTC doctrine affirmed that there are two relatively independent channels of divine revelation. One was written in Holy Scripture in the early centuries and recognized as such by the church which had produced it. The other is the parallel channel carrying information not yet written (or written in texts not recognized as Holy Scripture) from which at any later time the teaching church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, may draw to define further doctrines. It does so with the same revelatory authority with which it initially had produced and accredited the writings within the New Testament canon. The Tridentine defense did not claim ongoing fresh revelation but only progress in the definition of what had been revealed once for all. It is obvious that this was a defensive response to the polemics of the early Protestant Reformation, but it is important that the response took this form.

In order for the HPS position to make sense fully we must add three more elements. First, the fixation of the canon must itself be seen as having happened under the special governance and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Obviously the status of Scripture cannot apply to all literature, or to all religious literature, or even to all early Christian literature. That status must be recognized by some sort of process of discrimination which had to happen at some time in the history of the early church. Second, in order for the revelational authority of those texts to have the status of Scripture in the high sense, the process whereby those particular texts were identified as having the status of Scripture must itself also have the status of a revelatory event. This →268 affirmation that the selection process is revelatory was not tied to any very detailed discussion of the actual chronological history of how the canonical lists came to be established, since the necessity to affirm it was derived from the prior doctrine of Scripture rather than arising out of a history itself. There also had to be, as a third element, the doctrine of the providential preservation of the Scriptural texts. It would not have been enough for the texts to have been written under unique inspiration, and it would not have been enough for them to have been selected as authoritative, if they had not also been preserved through the vicissitudes of history from being lost or corrupted. We can discuss theoretically whether the high doctrine of Scripture could work without one or the other of these characteristics, but in its wholeness and roundedness it is most fitting that all of these elements should be present. Not on the same level as the other three points but necessarily interlaced with them was the assumption that the propositional content of all the canonical writings is in such a way timelessly true and coherent that it is fitting to lift all the significant statements out of their specific setting, whether in narrative, poetry, or epistle, and to reorganize them according to modern principles of coherence.

In response to the HTC interpretation, it had to be said at the same time that the message of Scripture is perspicuous, i.e., clear and self-interpreting, and that its content is the equivalent of those documents in which Protestants had reformulated brief confessional documents relating to the controversies of the time and much more complete compendia of dogmatic theology. While debatable in detail, these dogmatic compendia are substantially equivalent to Scripture itself and share indirectly in its authority.

The difference between the dogmatic summary and the canon is important for our present purposes. The compendium is more usable, more orderly, because the essential doctrinal information about God, man, and salvation was abstracted out of the narratives, epistles, and other occasional writings in which it had been embedded.

“Hermeneutics” was the name given to the process of lifting the timeless truths from the occasional and unimportant context, dehistoricizing and systematizing them. This was the background assumed when liberals →269 and conservatives agreed about what the Bible says but differed about whether to believe it.

In sum: the HPS view held not only that the texts within the canonical New Testament have authority, but that the process of canonization was revelatory, and that the coherence of all of the texts recognized as canonical is the coherence of one logical set of propositions in no way contradictory to another. These two logical prerequisites were demanded by the culture of the Protestant Scholastic movement. Neither is justified by the text of the Bible itself. Neither is demanded by a Protestant commitment to use the Scriptures as we have them as the criteria for the renewal of the church and the source of its language of proclamation. They make the entire edifice more vulnerable.

The Alternative

Within the past century and a half we have observed the development of the thorough critical questioning of the HPS view. This questioning, however, did not take the form of starting over from some new point of departure. It was rather directly dependent on what it criticized, negating what the HPS view affirmed. For present purposes I will call it the High Modern (hereafter HM) view. The term “modern” should be taken loosely, because this view is not as original as it is held to be by some who come to it only recently, or by others who reject it. It also tends to be assumed in this connection that the latter is better, that modernity is itself a criterion of truth, and that the process of the accumulation of knowledge in the ongoing institutional and intellectual life of the West, as carried by the guild of scholars, is basically unilinear and is moving forward, not backward. I have taken the liberty of maintaining the adjective “high” as a pointer to the confidence with which these claims are made, as well as to the conviction of those who make them that they are important.

For the advocates of this view, its methods of literary and historical criticism have taken over the field, even though some rough edges and internal debates remain. Its criticism ranges far more broadly, but its negative impact on the concept of canon is evident. It did not take historical scholarship long to demonstrate that the lists of accepted Scriptures were compiled late, that for many centuries they were contested, and that they were →270 initially established on the basis of debatable factual judgments, such as the (perennial sample) assumption that the epistle to the Hebrews belongs in the New Testament because the apostle Paul wrote it. Beyond this the notion of a peculiarly miraculous process of writing was progressively undermined by the observation that the three so-called synoptic Gospels have a large amount of common content and that it is possible to look at Matthew or Luke as probably derivative from Mark for a common base of content. Without being able in any sense to prove how Matthew wrote his text, it can be made to seem humanly probable that the materials common to more than one Gospel could be accounted for in terms of one author’s text (or, in more refined hypotheses, the tradition from which the other author’s text was also derived). Obviously, historical science demolished the notions of a special Holy Spirit language and reserved no space for the miraculous preservation of the documents.

I have said that some uses of the perspectives of HM critical scholarship have remained logically and emotionally subservient to the HPS view while attempting to critique it. The critic holding to the HM form assumes that it is indispensable to attack the conservatism which went before, rather than seeing that view as itself only one of many. Second, the critic assumes that critical observations by their very nature have the last word (i.e., the reference to “modern” as a truth category). Neither of these assumptions would need to hold, but it makes a great difference whether we question the HM confidence by seeking after all to be pre-critical or move beyond it by taking a post-critical stance.

Another Way?

Thus far we have been laying out the terrain of the debate with each stage demolishing the one that went before:

a) Simple early Reformation biblicism;
b) HTC with two sources;
c) HPS with one miraculous source;
d) HM skepticism.

Must the debate continue in such a polarized mode and mood? There might be alternatives. First let us return to the intellectual history, which did not stop where we left it with the birth of the HM view.

We may identify one set of views which can best be called post-modern. They move beyond the view →271 which above was designated as modern, not so much by arguing with it as by beginning the debate again at a different point. One set of these views sprang up in European Protestantism in the 1920’s, under the headings, “theology of crisis” and “theology of the Word.” They moved in different directions under the leadership of the various major minds of the period (Barth, Bultmann, Brunner,. . .) but all had in common a claim that it is somehow possible to read and to preach from the Bible, in some sort of spiritual continuity with the Protestant Reformation, yet without getting caught on either side of the debate between the HPS and the HM Protestant forms. This they did by finding new ways to talk about revelation without tying it to the status of the book. The canon itself was not a very important problem.

The other major post-modern view, picking up in some details from the theologies of the Word but moving well beyond, came in the movement called “Biblical Realism” just before World War II. This is a current of thought whose history has not been written. It uses the tools of critical scholarship in order to defend the thought of the Bible and its authentic expression within its own world view against the modernization of all the HPS and the HTC views, but also against the HM; it sees all of them as preoccupied with issues which are not those to which the original writers of Scripture were addressing themselves. It is held that it should be possible to rediscover the initial agenda of the writers of Scripture and to state in their own terms what they meant to say, without being the captives of later debates and of the distortion which those later debates have forced upon the texts. Sometimes (Tremontant, Cherbonnier) it was claimed by the Biblical Realists that there is one normative biblical world view. Sometimes (Boman) it was held that the Hebrew language, as distinguished from Greek and Latin, was especially compatible with a different perception of reality. Sometimes (Minear) a distinctive “way of seeing” was affirmed without making other more ambitious (and more debatable) claims. Others (O. Piper) contented themselves with the argument that elements of the Bible’s view of reality (e.g., the reality of evil) must not be sifted out by modernity.

Independent of all the above, older than some of it but less impressive in its intellectual formulation, is the entire sweep of non-academic →272 biblical interpretation nurtured in pietism and evangelicalism over the centuries. When the adjective “biblical” was put in the name of Bethany Biblical Institute of Chicago or Garrett Biblical Institute of Evanston, it did not imply the use of a scholarly formulation but rather expressed the confidence that if students spent more of their time studying the text of the Bible itself than other theological subjects, they could hardly go wrong. Other levels of the theological enterprise were not rejected, but a conviction that for both personal piety and pastoral priority it was the book itself that counted first and could probably defend itself against misinterpretation. When the same adjective was claimed by the Biblical Seminary in New York, a similar point was being made in a more sophisticated way. Here the point was that proper attention (usually in English) to the present form of the biblical writings would avoid stumbling over the debates of dogmatic and critical nature which had made academic study of the Scriptures seem sterile. This attention sought to be inductive, to avoid importing into the interpretation of the text either traditional or subjective biases and let the text itself tell us how to read it. In more than one way, the adjective “biblical” came to mean the negation of some of the standard older ways of reading the text. The interest of this approach was to heighten the immediate ability of the text to speak to the church, without stumbling over the difficulties which had been provoked by earlier methodological assumptions.

Still a different kind of overtone arises in those contexts where the appeal of the Bible is judgmental. When Jim Wallis entitled a book Agenda for Biblical People, he did not mean people who think in first century categories, or people who read the Bible text instead of some other book, or who read it inductively instead of with some other method. He meant people who make the Bible the rule of their faith and practice rather than denying it a hold upon their loyalty. This element of normative commitment brings into the picture another whole set of historical causes and controversies. It sees the Bible as not only indicative but also as imperative.


Another affirmative position, also post-modern or neo-classical, is (I suggest) dictated by the nature →273 of the data. It begins with the observation that if it was unavoidable that there should be within the Bible a history of redaction moving on beyond the oldest “unimpeachably historic accounts,” then we must find some way to affirm that that redaction process is not treasonous, and that what it did to the tradition must be recognized as somehow also true. The earliest Christians had a much wider pool than we do of authentic memories of the words of Jesus. We should not let our imagination be dominated too soon by our knowledge that later generations developed a still wider pool of traditions, filled partly with inauthentic or invented memories. Rather, there were real memories, not all of which were passed on until they could be written down. This process of selection, by its very nature, would have favored those memories which mattered most, thus initiating a process of redactional selection which we have no reason to second-guess.

By definition, historians retell a story for their own age. A very imaginative historian may be conscious of the distance between the first generation and his or her own. Such an awareness of distance may be consciously reflected in the story-telling. Most first-generation narrators or reporters do not have this degree of technical sophistication. They will properly have retold the story in the context of their own generation, in order that its impact upon their own listeners in the year 60 or in the year 80 or in the year 95 could be as nearly as possible the dynamic equivalent of the impact of the original stories on the first beholders. That trans-generational translation makes the message less literally “historical” in the technical critical sense but makes it more validly a part of the growing history of the Christian community, as long as the person doing the story-telling is a valid witness and is recounting the story subject to the observation and possible correction of his or her peers. Thus is it not necessarily distortion when in Matthew’s Gospel precision is added to Jesus’ words about divorce; it may be organic extrapolation, speaking with maximum fidelity to a more precisely defined case.

If we read the canonical texts as guidance for the life of the church and as reminders of the full meaning of Jesus, we may then affirm that this redactional process is theologically indispensable, not merely legitimate or excusable. High orthodox theology used the word “inspiration” for this →274 legitimacy, but we need not take that systematic detour. Without it we can affirm that the authentic memory of the community, as preserved by that community’s accredited elders, partakes of the normal authority of any human group’s care for its path through time. As the widely-respected New Testament scholar John Knox recently exposited in greater detail, the memory is the reality it remembers. In no other way can past reality exist than as remembered.

As memory recounted orally is recorded on papyrus, as memory translated into terms relevant to the year 65 gives place to translations for the year 95, as more memories transmitted along more paths ramify into a host of differing traditions, the communities which create and use them will begin to become aware of the limits of tolerable variations. Some texts will be recognized as nearer to the origins than others. This matters because faith in Jesus Christ includes by its very nature a verifiable (and therefore also falsifiable) historical reference and a truth-claim, such that the several confessors of that faith call one another to faithfulness by appealing to that common origin.

The classic debate between orthodox Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism led us astray at this point. The Protestants seemed to be claiming that the authority of these Scriptures depends upon the unique miracle of inspiration whereby they came into being and which gives them timeless status above the church. That argument was circular on two counts; it did not itself explain the criteria of canonization and the basis for the claim to inspired authority lay within the texts themselves. Catholicism served us no better by answering that the texts only have the authority which the Church gave them. This is not quite true either because the Church which confirmed the authority of the texts in the course of the early centuries was not the same as the first-century church which wrote them, nor as the Roman Catholic hierarchy presenting this argument in the seventeenth century. The alternative, simply stated long ago by Oscar Cullmann, is much more apt. The development of a selection of writings recognized by churches as authoritative constitutes itself the final proof, delivered by the church itself, that the church does not claim final authority but rather recognizes that it stands under a rule derived from the apostolic age. This “standing under a rule” is not a statement about →275 the event of inspiration or the uniqueness of the authorship of certain texts. It is a statement about the accountability of the Christian community as a movement within history, whose claim to be faithful to historical origins in the midst of historical change obliges it to identify the criteria of that accountability. The affirmation of accountability is not dependent upon one particular definition of how the Scriptures came to be written or selected.

We have come upon a second level of meaning of canonical authority. If the Christian faith were based like Christian Science on one body of revelatory literature, or on a miraculous Koran, or on a timeless poem as in the Hindu sacred texts, or on writings claiming intrinsic authority of some other kind, it might not matter who the authors were, or whether the religious experiences they recount have any linkage with particular times and places. It is the peculiarity of biblical faith that it is rooted in events, especially the events from the Exodus to Pentecost. But in a derivative way it is rooted also in the ongoing story of the apostolic church and (in a still more derivative way, but really) in the ongoing story since then. The category of story and the claim of that story to be rooted in real people and places distinguishes Christian faith from most other religions before and since. That faith is therefore documented not primarily in visions or in speculative theories about divine reality, but in narratives and pastoral letters which claim to be testimonies to the norming process within an ongoing community. That is how they claim to have been written and that is how we should best take them. Already within the New Testament appeal was made to the founding events. If we are to be continuing the same movement, it will happen not by debating the metaphysical status of the documents but by extending in a compatible way the process of conforming to the foundational events. It made more difference than one first perceives that what is recognized by the churches as norming document is not a systematic text, not a catechism, and of course not a Summa, but a scattered series of documents emerging from the ongoing struggles of a community.

From the more traditional point of view it is very embarrassing for conservatives and a source of glee for the more critical that differences can be found between the accent of one text and that of another. Paul and James do not have the same accents →276 concerning the relation of faith to works: the Peter of Acts and the Paul of Colossians do not have exactly the same Christology with reference to what later became the doctrine of the preexistence of the Son. Various Gospel writers have different emphases with regard not only to chronology but also to larger questions of epistemology or the meaning of Jewishness. It is not clear to me why some contemporary scholars with a more critical orientation show what I have just called glee in the way they write about the differences. It is only if one assumes that the base line would have to be one systematically coherent doctrinal framework, unchanging in all places in the early church and for all times, that the observation that Luke and Paul have different accents would have any critical impact. If one perceives and conceives of Scriptures as documenting the life and the norming process of a particular community, then it would be preposterous to assume that the documentation arising from that process would be one of total propositional coherence. All of the texts show the process of taking the Jesus of history as norm, the Jesus of real history (that is, what really happened), as mediated by real history (that is, by the real traditioning process of the ongoing church), rather than the “Jesus of history” of modern skeptical historiography. We can learn much from modern skeptical historiography, but the one thing it is not equipped to resurrect for us is the real history. Its procedures of systematically doubting the sources can sometimes usefully decrease the degree of immediacy which we can attribute to certain texts, but they can never replace the texts with something more certain. Skeptical historiography will therefore always be an ancillary discipline.

Our need for a text to give guidance to the church interlocks consistently with the way in which we should read the same texts. If we accepted the classical HPS vision, this unity would not obtain. The reason for needing the text would be the miracle of the event of inspired writing, which itself does not say anything specific about how the text is to be taken.

In the context proposed here, on the other hand, the way we see the writers of the New Testament operating, the way we see the church of the early centuries operating in fixing upon a list of texts, the way we see reformers operating through the centuries in appealing to the texts, and the way we in →277 our time go about determining what the text says for us are all a part of the very same dynamic. When we ask how Christ is the Lord of the canon, this does not mean, as it might for one kind of Lutheranism, simply that the “material principle” of justification by faith is the key to the consistency of Scripture. The claim is far more substantial than that, historically more relative but also therefore more genuine. It is that the writers of the New Testament text are best understood when we perceive them to be aiding their readers to be more faithful to the meaning of Jesus for their time. If there are debates about how to take New Testament texts, that interpretation in which authentic recourse to the memory of the Lord is most evident will make the most sense. Interpretations which would prescribe a timelessly binding moral social order without reference to the in-breaking of the messianic age, or to the inter-cultural missionary dynamics of the church (such as the apostolic instructions about the place of women) will be less credible. Interpretations purporting to find some timelessly normative scheme of salvation experience, or of divine metaphysics, in detachment from the norming work of Jesus in the missionary church will also be less credible, whereas in the earlier HPS tradition their very timelessness would have been considered an argument in their favor.

In much of the touchiness of the recent debates about scriptural authority one sees at work a need which seems to be as much psychological as logical, namely the desire to have one’s statement of the nature and power of Scripture be itself as sure and as safe as God. When observing the vigor with which this concern for authority is argued, one can hardly avoid the impression that the certainty which the theologian desires is intended to apply to the theologian’s own system of answers and explanations as well as to God’s own claims. It is this high vision of the security of one’s own system then which produces the backlash of scholarly doubt and secular questioning.

Keeping the Edges Open

This view further means that we should not simply accept but also consciously and responsibly maintain the vulnerability of all our interpretations to ongoing historical hermeneutics. Just as the reading of Jesus by scholars in 1950 has since undergone clarification of historical connections and meanings due to the contributions of archaeology, linguistics, and several →278 generations of literary criticism, so we might well trust that the clearest consensus of today will again stand to be changed in the future, as long as the change comes not from faddism or forgetting but from increasing historical responsibility. There are no “necessary truths of reason” which we should attempt to shelter; any truth which is not vulnerable to historical falsification is not really incarnational but only analytical.

Historians of early Christianity are already giving more attention to the Didache than to 2 Peter and Jude. This is perhaps because of a subjective judgment about the interest or the religious quality of materials, but is it not at the same time implicitly a statement about apostolicity? If someone were to find in some Near Eastern sands a well-preserved document demonstrably written by an identifiable member of the Twelve, or for that matter by Luke or the author of Hebrews, we would have to receive it with great seriousness. We would have difficulty constructing a doctrine of the inspiration, transmission, and protection of Scripture texts which would apply less to this new text than to some of the original twenty-seven.

But what if this new text should say something we don’t want to believe? Would we still have to take it seriously? I suggest that we would have to take it still more seriously. The new text would do us the least good if it were a simple repetition of what we already have in other forms. If it added significantly to our knowledge of the life and witness of the early church, in such a way as to challenge our present understandings and obedience, that would be more of the same function which the first twenty-seven books have already been discharging.

The problem would be somewhat more delicate if it could be demonstrated that the new understandings in this new apostolic writing were in some direct sense contradictory to the rest of the canon. Since, however, the present canon already has considerable room for a variety of formulations which can be taken as contradiction but which careful hermeneutics seeks to interpret as parts of a larger whole, there would be nothing fundamentally problematic about adding a few more apparent contradictions. We would simply know more about the life of the New Testament community in its variety; that could not possibly have a negative impact upon our concern to be the faithful →279 successor of that community as a whole, as followers with them of Jesus.

Affirming the Particular

We might as well face the fact that the canonical principle makes quasi-permanent the effects of what might be seen as a kind of hazard. There were certainly other Christian witnesses stating their message in ways slightly or significantly different from the message outlines which we have in the book of Acts, from which C. H. Dodd lifted the obvious skeleton outline which he called the apostolic kerygma. We might even guess how those other skeleton outlines might have differed from the one preserved in Acts. But they were not preserved. The sermons of Acts were preserved (or the message was remembered of which the sermons in Acts are the restatement) because they became the conceptual nucleus of communities which survived and left us records. Many other communities with other messages may well have survived for a time but without keeping records, or their records may have been kept but later destroyed. If they had been preserved, they presumably would have informational value or even some kind of authority for us. What we have is all we have.

We are accustomed to being told that, over against a timeless platonic message of truths unrelated to time and place, we should rejoice that God chose to be revealed through the particular. The incarnation does not mean that humankind in general, or human nature in general, or human history in general was stamped with God’s approval or transformed by God’s indwelling, but rather that a particular story, the words and work of a particular man, is the key to the very nature of God. That particularity is even more scandalous if we reckon deeply with the fact that the historicity of the incarnation committed God to the particularity of an ongoing history. God entrusted the incarnational disclosure not only to a first generation of witnesses of the man Jesus, but also to the chain of specific bodies of tradition-bearing, fallible people who through the centuries would unfold and distort the message. It is not a regrettable mistake of church strategy contrary to the divine plan when we find ourselves needing to deal with the unfinished quality of the definition of the Christian story. →280

Is There Still Authority?

One way to finish the story, or at least to deal with its unfinished quality, is to affirm a carte blanche given to the ongoing community and its particular structures. The assumption is that since God set a motion going, the conclusions to which it comes must be affirmed or approved. This can be done institutionally with Roman Catholicism or culturally and philosophically with Hegel; the notion is the same. History is its own god or is the coming-to-consciousness of the indwelling Spirit. This idea is not useful, not only because one does not have to be Catholic, but because it does not explain why it is the particularity of Roman Catholicism rather than the particularity of Russian Orthodox Greek Catholicism which should claim the right to fill in the blanks on the check. The notion of the ongoing authority and the claimed univocality of revelatory history defeats itself by the divergences it creates.

It is probably more important for us to recognize that the alternative which classic Protestantism placed over against Catholic particularity is not intrinsically more trustworthy or faithful. The HPS assumed for contrast a timeless theological system. Identical in meaning with the words of Scripture (although organized according to other principles) and claiming the authority of revealedness even though needing continuing interpretation, it claimed to avoid the danger of particularity by its timeless identity with the Bible and by the confidence that the same Holy Spirit would make it say the same thing to every true believer. This view as well is inadequate, not only because we can see through it philosophically, or because the biblical text itself is not put together that way, but because like the Catholic alternative, it refutes itself by the very fact of the plurality of interpretations which lay claim to the same perspicuous certainty.

That HTC/HPS polarity defines the space within which the more historical Anabaptist or restitutionist view will proceed. There must be an ongoing history--there must be a plurality of ongoing histories--yet the bearers of these separate stories know themselves accountable to the common starting point. Thereby in each new circumstance they are responsible to return together to the bar of Scripture, not because they could have avoided moving on from Scripture nor because Scripture is itself a final unity or intrinsically perspicuous, but because →281 Scripture records the unique beginning of their diversity-in-unity and thereby will continue to yield the models for the processing of their diversity and to define the limits of variation which that unity can tolerate.

We should loop back to where the debate began. The challenge with which we need to deal is not whether or not the Scripture is to be operative in the churches. There are no churches in which Scripture does not function in some way. The question is whether the operation of Scripture within the church is most adequately described in HPS terms or in some other terms.

The present outline proposes that by having exposed the weaknesses of the HPS system, we have achieved something constructive. We proceed from another perspective. In the awareness of the past power and present weakness of the HPS view, this outline begins again in a more contemporary way, which might be called an historical modulation of the sociology of knowledge. Instead of asking whether the HPS view is right or wrong, we ask: what would we come up with if we were to ask what it means for any human movement, deriving its identity from a limited set of foundational events, to seek to be faithful to the meaning of those events within the flux of historical (which means changing) existence?

The Battle for the Bible (1976) by Harold Lindsell, has resurrected an old debate. Do we believe the Bible because we believe the Bible, i.e., because it says itself that it is true, or do we believe the Bible because a reasonable case can be made for believing it? The latter may be argued either by proving that it is not inaccurate in matters of archaeology or human nature or history, or by arguing more philosophically that we need a revelatory base to make sense out of life and that the Bible is such a text. An article in the Reformed Journal (May, 1980, 19-23) restates the other position against Harold Lindsell, thus showing the two sides of a debate which in an earlier period separated Cornelius Van Til from Gordon Clark (or, in a much broader sense, Emil Brunner from Karl Barth).

A more liberal theology, linked with a more skeptical literary criticism, does not escape the same kinds of questions. Why should one bother to go to great lengths to ask historical critical questions of a text, unless it has some authority for us and over us? If it has some kind of authority, then does that →282 authority lie in the historical Jesus behind it, whom we might find some day more clearly than he is yet visible? Or does it lie in some existential message to be distilled out of the text because critical studies help us to shuck off the hull? Or is the contribution of critical studies rather to make us hopeless about ever finding truth that way, so that we are then more ready to trust an analysis based on something other than the texts (the argument once used by Paul Tillich)?

My suggestion is that if we had taken more seriously the fact that, in the wisdom of God, the churches of the early centuries chose to recognize as their norming authority (canon) a list of historical documents (canon in the other sense), we would have been saved from this entire set of dilemmas, whether conservative or liberal. We would have been left in the continuing uncertainty of life within history, the arbitrariness and the particularity of all historical existence, and the arbitrariness and particularity of hermeneutics within history, which is precisely where we ought to be, since that is where God chose to be revealed in all the arbitrariness and particularity of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Jeremiah, Jesus and Pentecost, Luke and Paul, Peter and John.


As distinguished from the skeptical axioms of the quest for the historical Jesus, the new approaches of traditional criticism or redaction criticism may hold a different kind of positive value. Rather than attempting to work backwards from the existing text to a smaller and smaller nucleus of what we can believe may be indubitable, these approaches seek to follow the same path in the other direction. They look for an organic pattern of development or a trajectory whereby an idea followed its own logic and grew in a way that was implied by its earlier stages of growth, until it reached the point where it settled into the text we have. Some of the scholars who use this pattern of analysis link it with skepticism with regard to the nucleus of authentic words, or with relativism regarding the authority of the witnesses, like those which marked the earlier generations of destructive criticism. But these axioms are not indispensable to the “trajectory” approach. To the extent to which we can see how and why the editorial →283 orientation of Luke or Matthew contributed to a specific adaptation of the inherited witness to a new audience, it enriches rather than weakens the canonical principle to say that Matthean or Lukan adaptation is a part of the Spirit-led revelatory experience and constitutes canonical authority for us. So what we are guided by is not simply the text as it stands but the Spirit-led experience which produced the text, including the Spirit-mandated adaptations of the original message to the later readership for whom the later author was writing.

One way to move on from this recognition of growth within the canon would be to see it as the beginning of the growth of the concept of a teaching authority beyond the Scripture itself, i.e., as a launching pad for the Catholic vision of a permanent authority of the church to go on extending trajectories beyond the canon. This thrust toward prolongation is a necessary challenge. We need to face it rather than to avoid it by retreating to an understanding of canonical materials as timeless in their origin and the mode of their authority.

We need to combine an affirmation of the character of the canonical texts as documents of growth with our understanding of the meaning of the closing of the canon. The simplest modern explanation has been already cited from Oscar Cullmann. He states that it is the apostolic generation who had the right to interpret Jesus, including the ongoing interpretation of the first thirty to fifty years after Pentecost. Only the first generation of eye-witnesses of the resurrection had that right. This criterion sounds clear enough to begin with, yet Luke and the author of Hebrews were not such first-hand witnesses. We need a more refined way of stating what we mean by the first generation of the apostolic witnesses. It should be remembered that the later writings did not keep spinning off in some new direction, nor begin or prolong increasing deviation from the starting point. Rather they provided models for reaching back to the beginnings in order to critique potential dangers discernable in developments which had already taken place.

Our understanding of the evolution of the biblical writings is ill-served by the sequence in which we now find the texts. The New Testament begins with the Gospels, and the Epistles come later. Within the writings of Paul we begin with the most systematic like Romans and end with the most occasional like →284 Thessalonians. We begin with Paul and end with the general epistles. If we were to understand the actual sequence of redaction it would be in all these ways the other way around. First we would have the work of Paul, including the new formulations of christology which his launching out into the Hellenistic world called forth. Then the Gospels were written, to loop back to the Jesus of the story. The sequence was just the opposite of Harnack’s vision of a Jewish Christianity gradually getting more and more Hellenistic until finally it was early Catholicism. Rather, the most historic, most Jewish documents, i.e., the Gospels, were written later, in order to assure that the missionary vitality of the Pauline thrust and the imaginative vitality of the apocalypses would not come unhitched from the historical reality of the Jesus about whom they were talking in free and creative adaptation. Thus every new expression, including the trajectory of Christian reformulation in later redaction, is at the same time a new effort of the author to reach back to Jesus. That is why it is authoritative, not because it has evolved one step farther away from Jesus, but because it has reformulated the appeal to Jesus once more from a new, later perspective and thereby sharpened the claim that Jesus is authority even a decade or a generation later.

One of the liabilities within the HTC/HPS/HM heritage has been the crippling effect of debate about whether the canon has a center of its own. For Luther it was obvious: Christ meant the message of justification by faith. For Tolstoy it was the new ethic of nonresistance. For Harnack it was the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. Yet not all efforts to find a canon within the canon are equally dubious. The remedy for reading one’s own definitions and priorities into a text is self-critical distance and the formal search for other alternatives. The alternative to an arbitrary canon within the canon is not to relinquish hope of finding major lines and accents. There are objective instruments of literary analysis which justify solid though modest conclusions about the unity of content which lies behind the collection and reception of a body of texts as Scripture by a community.

Since any body of texts has to have been collected by a given community, it is natural that we should listen to that community for guidance as to what they themselves thought to be the unifying →285 principle which guided them in making the collection. Yet we should not let that search into the mind of the people who produced for us the canonical lists, or the wider group of people who developed the usage pattern of which the lists are witnesses, make us think that their own thinking about the texts used in their community should necessarily be identical with the content of the texts themselves. What the readers thought the texts said may not be the same as what the texts say they say. This potential discrepancy appears on a very superficial level in the discussion of whether the book of Hebrews belongs in the canon because it was written by Paul. On a deeper level, some differences of emphasis exist between the content of the New Testament Scriptures and the representative theological emphases of the churches of the third century who decided to continue the use of these texts and to discourage the use of others.

There is a solid deeper reason for insisting on the discrepancy between the mind of the church which settled on the canon (meaning the church of the third or fourth centuries and still later) and the question of unity and focus in the text itself. That deeper reason is the very fact with which we began, namely that the historical function of a body of Scripture is not simply to inform or to legitimate. It is also to stand in judgment upon later history as a source of alternative definitions or norms, so that the Scriptures can provide a point of reference which is at the same time outside and inside, distant yet recognized as legitimate, for the ongoing conversation of the historical community with its historical origins. For that purpose then it is by definition desirable to recognize that the canon within the canon should not be assumed to be any of the central definitions of Christian identity which were operative at the time the canonization was solidified.

There is nothing arbitrary or pietistic in saying that the story of Jesus is the canon within the Christian canon. An inner canon can be arbitrary, as in Luther’s “was Christum treibet” or with the pietist’s Christ. But it can also be a formally responsible statement. We make first of all a general observation about literary form, that in the New Testament we have no general treatise on theological topics, no direct apologetics addressed to outsiders, but rather a series of narratives and a series of letters addressed to insiders. A few of the letters (Hebrews, Revelation) reach beyond the literary form →286 of the letter, but that makes it all the more significant that they are presented within that outer shell. The rest of the letters are very clearly occasional, written from someone particular (even if some may debate who that was) to someone particular (even though in some cases it is not fully clear where the twelve tribes of the dispersion were, or exactly what territory is Galatia).

It is thus intrinsic to the kind of literature we have in the New Testament to take it as informing us about a narrative. The narrative begins with the Jesus story, which is so important that it is told four times. That story is extended in direct continuity into a very selective account of some strands of the life of the early communities, and then letters are gathered which are, so to speak, candid snapshots out of the life of the community. In their various ways the letters all record that the way the leaders of this community sought to foster its faithfulness was by continually reminding one another of the their past story, of which Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures were the primary orientation.

Whatever there might be in New Testament literature which in some formal literary sense could be qualified as myth, there is no doubting that the bulk of this material is more clearly historical narrative, and documents with historical memory underlying than it is the kind of myth and poetry which are the proper forms of some bodies of religious tradition. It is equally evident that this literature is very different from speculative philosophy and from systematic theology in its style and priorities. There is clearly little interest in the question, “What does it mean for me?”, which is so self-evident for some of our contemporaries. And low priority is assigned to the apologetic agenda which must ask, “How true is this for someone who does not believe it?”

Thus we are not at all arbitrary when we observe that the New Testament itself is already witness to a process of letting a history be judged by its pre-history, deriving the identity of a movement from the memory of the man and the meetings and the meanings the group remembers. If the community in the very first decades produced and preserved literature which contributed to this kind of process, it is quite fitting--and not a change of key--for that community in later years to select from its library those witnesses of the story which were perceived most adequately to serve that purpose. We should not be →287 surprised that this selecting was done with the tools of the time, such as the contemporary understandings of the authorship of Hebrews. How could it have been otherwise? But the moral and formal adequacy of the process of canon fixation is not dependent on all the details of the reasoning process which those people used as they debated the borders of the canon.

Now we see the point of the HPS testimonies to the idea that the process of canon fixation was itself a unique and final intervention of God, the one act of inspiration which occurred after the writing of the texts. If this view of scriptural authority is to be supported, the assumption is in one sense inevitable, but today it is hardly usable even by the more conservative heirs of that tradition. It is hard to know exactly where and when which canon was settled on with any authority, since debates about some of the fringe books went on until early modern times. More important, there is some kind of flaw in a doctrine of inspiration which can affirm that one specific act of Holy Spirit intervention in the life of the later church is identifiable when there is no inspired text to say that, and when the use one wishes to make of the rigid doctrine of Scripture is to deny the teaching authority of the later church. That was an effort to remove canonization from the relativity of the historical process. Yet as we have seen, the only context for making meaningful the necessity of canon is that very relativity.

If however we face this understanding of the source and the authority of the fixing of the canon, we do need to remain open in principle to further light. The open-ended nature of the story of our recurrent reaching back to Jesus is like Noah’s ark; it cannot be closed off from inside.

One of the indices of the HM dependence upon what it is arguing against is the question whether we need to hold that the New Testament documents as we have them are exclusive and authoritative. Both of these adjectives are High Protestant. To say that the present New Testament canon is exclusive would mean an a priori statement about other texts of equal apostolic authority which might turn up in some Egyptian sandpiles, whose witness value we would set aside without even seeing them because they had not circulated in the second century. If what we are thinking about is sober historical accountability within the particularity and the relativity of →288 history, such an exclusion cannot be stated, since it side-steps historical accountability.

The Old Testament Scriptures already quote from written texts which are not found in the present canon. The New Testament does the same. So did the early church fathers. Later Christian thinkers, even the Reformers and the Anabaptists, felt free to cite as having some kind of historically rooted authority texts which are not in the canon. Thus the notion of canonical status should never have been associated with a claim that only these texts are to be read with profit, or that only they throw light on Jesus. The fact that a canon is present and contributes to the definition of the faithful identity of Christian community is separate both in logic and in actual historical fact from the details of determining which texts belong in that canon. The major Christian bodies have had slightly different canons in the past, and to some extent still do, but they agree in the commitment to be canonically governed.

If any HM interpreter should propose to give less weight to James or Revelation, he or she will be in good company. Should greater value for the Acts of Paul and Thecla or the Gospel According to Thomas be claimed, the case needs to be made, as in the past, within the circular particularity of the claim to better articulate the appeal to the common Christ. The hypothetical freshly discovered authentic writing of Paul to the church in Alexandria would have to make its way just as the Didache has. Since the case for canonical status is a case made within the contingent debatability of historical knowledge, Paul would be willing to take that risk.

In a similar sense the HM challenge uses the High Protestant understanding of “authoritative”: i.e., as constituting a mine of unchallenged propositions, from which any deduction drawn according to the rules of logic will also produce a proposition of revelatory authority. The challenge falls flat if we have once backed away from the HPS equation of contemporary dogmatic constructions with the authorities of the texts themselves. Even if the true historical Jesus search came up with indubitable words of Jesus, that would not save us from the continuing temporal flux of transmission and adaptation.

The most creative recent review of the issue of canonical authority as theologically important has been sparked by the writings of James Sanders and Brevard Childs. The present text has intentionally →289 avoided conversing directly with them, or letting their way of putting the issues predetermine the shape of the discussion. If there were to be more conversation with them, we would find far-reaching agreement on the central substance. Still, my present impression is that we would differ in that, in order to make his point, Childs especially has had to argue that historical, literary critical, and sociological interpretation are quite different from reading the Scriptures as Scriptures, whereas I would expect a greater complementarity among the several disciplinary approaches. Likewise, when Childs says that the last form of the text is to be taken as its canonic form, he seems to be positing this as an axiom, where I would affirm the need to argue it as a thesis.

Perhaps the most fitting images for contrasting the classical options would be a post on one hand and a vine on the other. A post firmly planted in the ground at one place will never move or change. Its orientation is unambivalent and one cannot go beyond it. This would represent the HPS orthodox vision of the authority of canonical Scriptures, roughly equivalent to a closed system of propositional truths, unchanging except for translation into different languages. A vine grows in numerous directions. More than one branch are with equal genuineness the real vine, even though various branches grow in different directions. This could be taken as an image of the Catholic vision of organic progression in many directions without firm restraints. If unhindered, a vine will grow in so many different directions that it will become a thicket, choking itself to the point that it will obstruct the passage and bear less and less fruit.

A vine needs to be pruned. Pruning presupposes that a vine ought to be a vine and not a post or a tree, yet it sets limitations on the ramifications which are legitimate. It distinguishes between branches which ought to survive and branches which need to be cut off. It does so by having some picture of how those branches relate to both the trunk and the root, and to fruit-bearing as well. Thus the pruning process is a way of letting the root stand in judgment on the branches. This, I would suggest, is like the historically realistic Protestant understanding of canon. The fact that there are several branches and not simply a post or a single tree trunk is affirmed. We do not work with the vision of one undifferentiated body of coherent propositional affirmations but with →290 the affirmation of one coherent organism, all of whose branches are genuinely and authentically derived from and dependent upon the root; all are subject to being judged by the closeness of relationship to the root. The fact that the four Gospels are not identical, or that Luke does not sound just like Paul, is in no sense a refutation of the claim that Scripture is a coherent unit, any more than the fact that a grapevine has one branch running northwest and one southwest keeps it from being a single vine, as long as both branches relate to the root and to the trellis. The real function of the notion of canon then is that it permits realistically the operation of a norming process within pluralism rather than assuming (with modernism) that pluralism is the end of all norms, or (with orthodoxy) that norms are the end of all pluralism.


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 265-290. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

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