Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Obvious Bibliological Contradiction: Canon -- Theological, Text -- "Scientific"

In modern bibliology in both evangelicalism and fundamentalism, we got our canon through Divine means, but the text of Scripture through scientific or rational means. Is there a doctrinal basis for this distinction? None at all. The distinction is a purely pragmatic one. It's a bigger leap for evangelicals and fundamentalists to believe in the perfect preservation of the text of Scripture than it is for them to believe in the perfect canonization of sixty-six books. Well, at least post-Enlightenment and after the crystallization of a new textual criticism "doctrine" by Benjamin Warfield. Essentially it's this: God couldn't have lost a whole book. Just wouldn't have happened. He could lose, however, in this scheme of things, some of His words. Words are small enough to have escaped God's notice, but books are just too large to have done that. In the invented and convoluted explanation, all the right words would have taken a miracle and that couldn't be how God did words. On the other hand, it could make sense that God used naturalistic means for us to arrive at 66 books.

Now you'll be expecting a Scriptural explanation for this, right? Maybe you need to tamp down your expectations. Just a friendly warning.

I was reminded of this issue as a I read one of the articles in Themelios, An International Journal for Students of Theological and Religious Studies (Volume 36, Issue 2, July 2011), "Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination" by John C. Peckham, assistant professor of religion at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas. I know that's all a mouthful. A professing fundamentalist is the administrator of Themelios and a new professor at Central Baptist Theological Seminary wrote one of the reviews. I do appreciate their distributing this freely for our perusal.

No fundamentalist and almost no evangelicals question a sixty-six book canon, despite the absence of mention of "canonicity" in the Bible, and the agreed-upon aspects of the method of canonicity. You ask, "Agreed-upon aspects of the method of canonicity? Why is that a problem?" I'll be getting to that. But you really will not find fundamentalists questioning the basis for canonicity. That's an easy call for them. After all, many very legitimate scholars also agree, and they've even written books about it! You don't have Bart Ehrman on your sixty-six book side, but you will have lots of other very impressive resumes that can give you warm theological feelings.

It is interesting to read the faith placed in the arguments for canonicity, the acceptance. It really does show that the ability to believe and accept is there among evangelicals and fundamentalists.

Now to the article. As the title of his article suggests, Peckham presents two possibilities for the method of canonicity, one which he calls the "community approach" and the other, the one he says is true, "intrinsic canonicity." He believes that intrinsic canonicity covers all the bases, while also incorporating the important aspects of the community approach. Peckham writes (pp. 213, 214):

[I]f one has decided to believe in a God who reveals himself to human beings through inscripturation, it does not seem at all unreasonable also to believe that this same God provided means for the community to recognize that revelation as “canon.”

God provided a means for the community to recognize revelation as canon. Interesting. Themelios, D. A. Carson and Andy Naselli, published this in their scholarly journal. That clashes big-time with the standard "forego theological presuppositions and allow the evidence to bring you to the truth" position of modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Peckham is arguing for a theistic basis for recognition of the Bible. God will provide a community the means necessary for recognizing the Bible. I'll wait patiently for the human outcry. He continues:

Once one has decided to allow for the possibility of a divinely determined canon (rather than ruling it out a priori) then one can seek to recognize a canon of divinely appointed writings. . . . The intrinsic canon-approach thus presents a plausible, internally coherent approach to the issue of biblical canonicity responsive to the all-too-common supposition that the Bible is merely a human construct. In doing so, the intrinsic-canon approach impinges upon the larger question regarding the foundational authority of Scripture. If the Bible consists merely of books selected based upon human whims and power structures, why should one accept it as trustworthy and authoritative today? Why adopt such texts instead of any others that might be popular or personally palatable? Indeed, why accept any writings as authoritative at all?

He's saying that God chose out the books. It was divine. What does that sound like to you? Is that a second act of inspiration? Many would say, "Of course not!" Really? It is a second act of God after the actual inspiration in which God is doing something through human beings in the way of recognition of the books of Scripture. They are being told in some way what the books are. They are being moved toward the right books. So God inspired them and then He directed His people to them. Let me be honest here. I don't think it is inspiration either, but I also think we need to be consistent when we are directing that "double inspiration" label with great ease. It does apply to some people, but if we are to be consistent with how some people use it, we would need to apply it to this view of canonicity too. And we shouldn't.

Peckham sees the need of keeping Scripture in a theological context. It wasn't men over Scripture, but God over Scripture. And so he continues to end the same paragraph:

When it comes to such a decision of faith, the canon’s significance is rooted in its claim to divine revelation, inspiration, and commission. The divine origin of Scripture makes it the authoritative and trustworthy foundation for theology and practice, to be received not merely as “the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God” (1 Thess 2:13).

The canon is a decision of faith and yet still authoritative, relating to its reception by the church as authoritative and the Word of God. A major approach to canonicity has been a scientific one that relies on human means of determination. Peckham writes (p. 212):

Specifically, humans cannot prove with certainty that divine revelation exists. Secondarily, even if they could, they could not prove with certainty the scope of the canon. With regard to both limitations, a decision of faith is required, which seems appropriate considering canonical exhortations to faith.

Is this a fideistic approach he is calling for? After all, Scripture doesn't promise the finding of 66 books, does it? But he says in essence that we have biblical basis for believing in the canon. We have a belief in divine determination that ensures authoritative recognition of the books. Peckham writes (213):

[T]he community has been integral to preserving and passing down (traditio) the canon to all future generations. From an intrinsic-canon perspective, God uses the willing community throughout the ages to preserve and disseminate his canonical revelation.

What does this sound like to you? The means is the church. God uses the community. That is part of the Divine directive and a guide for recognition.

On p. 214, footnote 50, Peckham writes:

Some might consider this a matter of circularity, appealing to the canon for support of canonicity. However, any proposed authority must be in coherence with its own doctrines as well as its own phenomena.

This has been a criticism of the belief in perfect preservation, circular reasoning. The same criticism can be applied, because it is identical, to the belief in canonicity of 66 books. And Peckham provides the answer.

Peckham's view of canonicity is a conservative view. Perhaps it is the accepted view of the Themelios staff. But let's be consistent here. This is the historic position on the preservation of Scripture being presented here. And what makes this even more interesting is that the Bible doesn't actually provide a doctrine of the preservation of books. Peckham himself, when you read the exegetical work in his footnotes, does not have verses that refer to books, but to words. The principles that he argues and defends relate to words. What would keep someone who believes that God directs in the recognition of books from believing that God works in this way toward the recognition of words? That's what the verses are actually talking about. If you believe them for books, when they don't even mention books, then you have to believe them for words just to be consistent. If not, then this is not really faith. It is a pose of faith, acting as though it is faith, but still really relying on ourselves.

This belief as relating to the preservation of words, the canonicity of words, is exactly what the pre-Enlightenment, confessing churches believed as found in their writings and doctrinal statements. It wasn't until after the Enlightenment that man elevated his own means of determining what was Scripture without theological presuppositions. Peckham is arguing against that as it relates to canonicity. He understands that the Bible becomes a human book then, without authority. That's right. He's right. But we've got to go all the way and receive by faith the perfect canonicity of Words, the recognition of the confessing community as directed by God.

1 comment:

Damien said...

As for your premise: true, and amen!

I affirm along with you the necessity of the church, as it is guided by the holy spirit, to be a pillar and ground of the truth, and therefore to be the blessed recipient of God's covenants and blessings, including the preservation of the scriptures.

And you're right in pointing out an inconsistency among those who would say the 66 books of the canon are determined by the church but the words of those books are determined by rationalism and textual criticism.

Ok, you're waiting for the but, so here it is....

But, while there is continuity in your argument, there is also discontinuity. This disconnect is seen in the fact that the church did not have such diversity in the canon as it has in the words. Sure, liberal scholars have tried to convince us that there are "lost books" and some great conspiracy behind the final choices that we made. But even if we grant such diversity, orthodox Christianity put this to a rest quite early. We find the 27 canonical books of the NT as far back as Athansasius. Not too much longer, the 66 is agreed upon.

We can, of course, bring in the apocrypha at this point, but they have enjoyed a mostly elusive status until much later, when the Reformers outright denied their inclusion into the canon. They are still not considered universally canonical.

So you have the 66 agreed upon by nearly all. Any disparity therein doesn't compare to the textual variation, however. If we simply say, "Just as the church receives and affirms the 66, so the church receives and affirms these words," we have problems. What words? The words that were most common at the time of the WCF? If the believing church has the words, why does Luther not have the Comma Johannuem but others do? What do we do with minority readings like Rev 16:5? Why does it seem the early church did not have certain texts until much later? It is at this point that the science of textual criticism comes into play, because it considers not just rational arguments and scientific discoveries, but the findings of what the church indeed had access to. What I'm saying is TC is helpful in determining the most accurate corpus of what the church had.

No doubt we'll disagree on that point; but I should say, if done, TC should submit itself to the authority of the church in fulfilling this task.