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.