Sunday, January 06, 2008

A High View of Scripture Part 5: Two Canon Lists

Returning to Allert's book A High View of Scripture, in chapter five he looks at two important fourth-century canon lists by Eusebius and Athanasius.
The fact that Eusebius could divided what are now our NT books into homologoumena (accepted) and antilegomena (disputed) categories in addition to his own doubts about the status of Revelation imply that the canon was still open and fluid at this point. Indeed, Eusebius refers to the "encovenanted" books as opposed to a canon of books.
On Athanasius' Festal Letter of 367, we have the first reference to the use of the term "canon" being used to describe a closed collection of writings. Athanasius does not have the three categories of Eusebius (homologoumena, antilegomena, notha) but he still knows of a third category of books (Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, Judith, Tobit, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas) that are useful for instruction in godliness even if they are not part of the canon. If one takes Athanasius' Festal Letter and the Third Synod of Carthage in 397, then we have two instances from the East and West respectively that recognize what is now our canonical list of 27 books for the New Testament. Although these two lists have been influential on the wider church they were not unanimous. For instance, Revelation had a problem gaining canonical status in the East and Gregory of Nazianzus excluded from his list of canonical books. Didymus the Blind, who was appointed by Athanasius to be head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, regarded 2 Peter as a forgery. Amphilochius of Iconinum was a bishop in Asia Minor (d. after 394) and he rejected not only Revelation as "spurios" but also 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Allert cites Westcott who refers to no less than six different canon lists received in the Eastern churches. (I would add that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church includes Jubilees, 1 Enoch, and the Didascalia as part of its canon and in the past the Armenian Orthodox Church has held various views about 3 Corinthians).
Allert concludes: "The assertion that these documents forced their way into the canon by virtue of their unique inspiration has little historical support ... The Christian faith did not grow in response to a book but as a response to God's interaction with the community of faith. The Bible must be viewed as a product of the community becasue tradition of the community provide the context in which Scripture was produced" (p. 145).
This is all interesting stuff. I think it worth pondering how many canons there are out there and which books are in each one, e.g. 66 books in the Protestant canon, 73 in the Catholic Canon, and 81 in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's canon. Whose canon is the real canon and how do we know? I would want to say that it comes down to the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit" but I suspect that everyone will of course say that about their own canonical collection. Probably a better criteria is just to ask which books are accepted by the universal church.

3 comments:

Mike and Rachel Whitenton said...

Mike,

Good post. I have question. You wrote:

"Whose canon is the real canon and how do we know? I would want to say that it comes down to the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit" but I suspect that everyone will of course say that about their own canonical collection. Probably a better criteria is just to ask which books are accepted by the universal church."

I would tend to agree with the first part (and maybe even the last). The difficulty I have with the whole "closing of the Canon" issue is that is such a subjective matter, so I would be particularly interested in you parsing out what you meant when you said "probably a better criteria is just to ask which books are accepted by the universal church."

I'm assuming that that would include members of all "Canon Camps." If so, this makes for an interesting canon indeed!

Have I understood you correctly? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Mike

exegeticlaspiral.com

Mike and Rachel Whitenton said...

One more thing. My biblioblog is exegeticalspiral.com, NOT exegeticlaspiral.com.

Mike

Brant Pitre said...

Mike,

Who has the authority decide who belongs to the "universal Church"? Does it include the Coptic orthodox? Or how about the Falashans of Ethiopia (they accept 1 Enoch as Scripture)? What about Robert Funk and the members of the Jesus seminar, who would believe Gospel of Thomas should be included?

Apart from a visible, unified, spiritual authority that was instituted by Jesus himself, there is no way to decide which canon is the real canon, or even which Christians belong to the "universal church."

That is why whenever the issue is discussed, recourse must be had to *Catholic* church councils, especially, the oldest, the Council of Rome, under Damasus 1, bishop of Rome (382 A.D.). (Other councils, such as Carthage, Hippo, etc. which confirm the canon of Damasus, were also composed of Catholic bishops.) The Bible is not simply "a product of the community," as Allert asserts, it is a product of the *unified spiritual authority* within the community that consists of apostolic bishops in communionn with the bishop of Rome.

This is important to note. Not "everyone" says that their own canon is the product of the "self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit."What happens with two people disagree on what the self-authenticating witness is? Who's right? There must be final authority who can make a definitive decision that is universally binding. Otherwise, you can never have a single canon for the universal church.

As a Catholic, I believe that it is the Holy Spirit teaching through the visible authority of the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter. They have the final word on the matter. As an individual, I simply don't have the authority to decide what books are inspired, or even which books are accepted by the universal church. (As you yourself have noted, individuals have drawn up different lists. Who decides which is right? You? Joel? Me?) Such a decision can't come from "flesh and blood," but from the "Father in heaven" (Matt 16).

Anyway, good question! Those are my two cents. I doubt they surprise you, but would like to know what you think.