Friday, March 28, 2008

New Testament Theology and Canon

Should a New Testament Theology be restricted to the New Testament canon or should it encompass other literature like the Apostolic Fathers? Should we opt for a 'Theology of Early Christianity' instead of a 'Theology of the New Testament'? F.C. Baur knew of this issue but in his own 'New Testament Theology' he restricted himself to the canon. Even William Wrede was quite conservative and only going beyond the canon by including the epistles of Ignatius as an appendix to a theology of the Johannine Literature.

I concur with many scholars (Weiss, Biblical Theology, 2 n. 1; C.F. Schmid, Biblical Theology of the New Testament [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1882]: 8-9; Schlatter, ‘New Testament and Dogmatics’, 145-49; Leon Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament [2 vols.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982]: 2.271-72; Morgan ‘Introduction’, 19, 64-67; Marshall, New Testament Theology, 18-19) that an exclusive focus on the New Testament is reasonable given that it is, generally speaking, our earliest Christian literature and among the most influential too in the history of reception. Wrede contests the priority of these writings and also objects on the grounds that ‘anyone who accepts without question the idea of the canon places himself under the authority of the bishops and theologians of those centuries’ (Wrede, ‘Task and Method’, 71). But there is no problem if the New Testament and second century literature occasionally overlap since disputed areas of overlap, like border disputes in Kashmir, can still retain fixed boundaries (Marshall, New Testament Theology, 19; see also Dunn, ‘New Testament Theologizing’, 243) and Wrede’s own delineation between the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists is not convincing and contains overlaps as well. Also we only receive the New Testament and its history of interpretation from these bishops and theologians and we should do the courtesy of listening to them rather than disregard them as we would a Fed-Ex delivery boy after handing over a package. The bishops did not create or impose the canon, but ratified the emerging consensus and the theological convergences that were happening already. Thus, the ‘subsequent experience’ of the canon might be more illuminating than what Wrede acknowledges. At the same time the bishops and councils did not merely gather up together the ‘inspired’ writings and those that were ratified by the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit as there was a dialogical process underway about what should be the universally recognized register of sacred books. While the documents that formed the canon were thought to be inspired, inspiration was not limited to these writings as several patristic authors could refer to non-canonical writings as inspired or as Scripture as well (see Allert, High View of Scripture, 58-65, 177-88; pace Thielman, Theology, 28-29). Furthermore, as John Poirier (‘The Canonical Approach and the Idea of “Scripture”,’ ExpT 116 [2005]: 367) puts it: ‘Although the apostles were inspired in the performance of their office, it is not as inspired writings per se but as witnesses to the kergymatic narrative that the New Testament writings were considered authoritative for the early Church’. Consider also Jens Schröter: ‘The canonical status of the New Testament scriptures cannot be secured by appealing to their inspiration. This is rather circular, since the special status of these documents is already presupposed, and it is exclusively out of the context of the formation of the canon that it was received. Alternatively, a substantive theology of the New Testament should take it account the development of the historical documents of the early Christian canonical writings of the Christian church’ (‘Die Bedeutung des Kanons für eine Theologie des Neuen Testaments,’ in Aufgabe und Durchführung einer Theologie des Neuen Testaments, eds. Cilliers Breytenback and Jörg Frey [WUNT 205; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2007]: 157 [my own trans.]). In my view, an exclusive focus on the canon derives not from inspiration but from its ontological status as the historical testimony of the believing communities to the apostolic kerygma.

This is drawn from a footnote in a forthcoming lecture that I'm giving in July.

1 comment:

Phil Sumpter said...

In my view, an exclusive focus on the canon derives not from inspiration but from its ontological status as the historical testimony of the believing communities to the apostolic kerygma.

I'm new to this area, but isn't a focus on the canon also a hermeneutical, and not just historical decision? Childs talks of the "canonical process" as one in which the various traditions and texts were shaped in such a way that their meaning is constrained by their present positioning. The shaping of the NT is as much a theological, kerygmatic manoeuvre as the writing of the books themselves, so that the two work in harmony. That means that as the church tries to understand the Gospel, the canon of the NT is the normative boundary within which the gospel takes shape. Extra-canonical writings may well be useful, but they lack the authoritative status of the canonical books.