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Scripturalism and the Canon of Scripture

There have been many attacks on the authority of Scripture in order to undermine its authority. Neo-Orthodoxy utilize Kantian metaphysics to render the words of Scripture mere forms which are not the real Word of God (Rather, they contain the Word of God). Liberals since the birth of German Higher Criticism have been engaging in "creative" deconstruction of the biblical text, a methodology probably epitomized best in the so-called scholarship of the "Jesus Seminar" — where a bunch of "old white liberals" come together to vote on how "authentic" they think the passages in the Gospel accounts are based upon ridiculous self-serving naturalistic criteria.

One particular area of attack which the Liberals and the Roman Catholics capitalize on is to focus on the formation of the Canon of Scripture, though for different reasons. Liberals focus on the events in order to "demonstrate" how the Bible is not really of God, but rather a compilation of certain "Jesus tradition" texts, out of the many others present like the Gnostic "gospels". This was done by the group (the ancient Catholic Church) which defeated other rival "Christian sects" and thus impose their Canon on others. The Roman Catholics on the other hand focus on the formation of the Canon in order to bring in their view of Sola Ecclesiae — that nobody can know the real Canon of Scripture apart from embracing the Church which form that Canon, which is of course assumed to be the Roman Catholic Church.

For those of us who embrace Scripturalism, that the axiom of thought is that the Bible alone is the Word of God., the formation of the Canon of Scripture presents its own set of questions. One question is how can we take Scripture to be the Word of God if, as it seems, the formation of the Canon of Scripture is a historical process undertaken by humans and thus we cannot be sure of the contents of Scripture? Of course, we Christians believe that God has indeed preserved His Word such that the entire process of canonization is kept free of error by the supervision and inspiration of the Holy Spirit (cf 2 Peter 1:19-21), therefore we know that the Canon of Scripture is indeed what God has made it out to be.

Such of course would be met with a charge of circular reasoning of assuming Scripture to prove Scripture (assuming that they have no problem with the exegesis of the verse). While epistemology would not be focused on too much here, suffice it is to say that epistemological issues ultimately are circular in reasoning, as both foundationalism and coherentism admits. (Non-foundationalism is just irrational!). We can point to the excellent resources produced by empirical research to validate Scripture, but due to my denial of the validity of empiricism by itself to discover truth or even possible truth, such research would be of secondary importance.

So let us go back to the issue under consideration. Let us grant the validity of the Canon and the entire process due to the work of the Holy Spirit in history. This gives rise however to the second question: Does this not by itself militate against the Scripturalist position that the axiom of thought is that the Bible alone is the Word of God? Since the Bible is itself a product of the Spirit working in time through people, isn't this "axiom" materially and formally dependent on the Holy Spirit, being also time-bound? Such an "axiom" therefore cannot function as the basis for all thought.

In his book Scripture Alone[1], Dr. James R. White addresses the issue of the Canon of Scripture in the context of Roman Catholic apologetics. While primarily concerned with defending the sufficiency of Scripture against the charge of Roman Catholic apologists, Dr. White mentioned a concept which is indeed helpful for us in understanding the formation of the Canon with regards to the issue of Scripturalism — that of the Canon as an artefact of revelation, not an object of revelation. As White writes:

The term canon originally referred to a stick by which a measurement was made. By extension it came to mean a rule or standard, and finally it was applied to an authoritative list of something, such as all the books written by a certain author or, in this case, the books of Scripture. However, if we think the biblical canon is nothing more than a fancy way of referring to the table of contents, we have missed the heart of the issue and will never arrive at a satisfactory answer to our questions.

...

We need to start off by realizing we are talking about the canon of Scripture. As we have already seen, Scripture is theopneustos, God-breathed; to say we are talking about something unique is to master the art of understatement. Scripture does not simply drop down out of heaven like rain to be gathered up and organized by man. The nature of Scripture determines the canon of Scripture; that is the canon must be defined in light of what Scripture is. If Scripture is (1) God-breathed and (2) given for the purposes revealed within its own revelation, then vitally important conclusions must be drawn from these two truths, conclusions that deeply impact our understanding of the canon and its implications.

The reason I raise these issues is simple: I believe we must determine the divine view and purpose of the canon before we can have any basis upon which to discuss the human side of recognizing and understanding the canon. This may seems like a simplistic thought, but it seems often to have been left out in consideration of the subject: Without the act of inspiration (revelation), there would be no canon. ... the fact that we dealing with a book God intends to exist in a particular form for a particular purpose cannot be ignored.

The thesis I will seek to establish is this: The canon is an artefact of revelation, not an object of revelation itself. It is known infallibly to God by necessity and to man with a certainty directly related to God's purpose in giving the Word to the church. The canon exists because God has inspired some writings, not all writings. It is known to man in fulfillment of God's purpose in engaging in the actions of inspiration so as to give His people a lamp for their feet and a light for their path. The canon, then, has two aspects as we consider it in light of its relationship to God's overall purpose in giving the Scriptures. The first aspect, to which I will refer as canon1, is the divine knowledge and understanding of the canon. The second aspect, which I will identify as canon2, is the human knowledge and understanding of the canon (which has been the primary focus of debate down through the centuries). ...

...

When an author writes a book, a "canon" of his or her writings is automatically created as a result of the simple consideration that he or she has written at least one book, but has not written all books that have ever been written. Hence, a canon of a single book comes into existence at the completion of that first work. If the author continues writing, the canon changes with the completion of each project. It should be noted that even if the author does not write down a listing or his or her works, a canon exists nonetheless, which he or she knows infallibly. No one else can infallibly know this canon outside of the author's effort to communicate it to others, for only the author knows what he or she has truly written. Even those closest to the author may not know with utter certainty whether the author has used anyone else in the writing process or whether he or she has borrowed from someone else. Therefore, the originator of a book (or books) has an infallible knowledge of the canon of these works, while anyone else has a mediated knowledge, dependent upon both the honesty and integrity of the author and the author's desire to make that canon known to others.

When we apply these considerations to Scripture, we are able to see that canon1 is the necessary result of God's freely chosen act of inspiration. Once God's Spirit moved upon the very first author of Scripture, canon1 came into existence. Before anyone else could possibly know what God had done (canon2), God infallibly knew the current state and content of canon1. With each passing phase of His unfolding revelation in Scripture, canon1 remained current and infallible, fully reflective (by necessity) of the ongoing work of enscripturation. This is why we should call the canon an artefact of revelation. It is not itself an object of revelation, but comes into existence as a by-product of the action itself. God inspires, and the canon expresses the limitation of that action.[2]

In other words, the Canon of Scripture is determined by the extent of Scripture, which is determined by God. God's knowledge of His Word is archetypal, while our knowledge is ectypal, being mediated by God through Christ to us. The Canon is known to us because God has revealed to us the extent of His special revelation, and the Canon is merely the boundary lines marking out what God has revealed to us as His Word for us.

Forever, O Lord, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens (Ps. 119:89)

So how does this concept aids us in our understanding of the canonization of Scripture with respects to Scripturalism? God being immutable, unchanging and omniscient knows the content of His Word for us (canon1) from eternity past to eternity future. Canon1 is then actualized before God in time as the Holy Spirit breathes out His Word through the human writers. Canon2 is then known to us as God reveals to us through our reasoning it out through examination of the texts to see if they conform to the nature of Scripture. The contours of the Canon therefore are as immutable as God, and exist in the mind of God in eternity past. As Ps. 119:89 tells us, God's Word is fixed forever, as it were "in the heavens".

Since that is so, there is no problem with the Scripturalist position. Although the Canon was worked out in time (canon2), yet the knowledge of canon1 is always evident to God from eternity. Therefore, the canonization process does not undercut the Scripturalist position at all.

Scripture as God-breathed therefore is in fact authoritative over all of life. When viewed in its own merits, Scripture can account for its own canonization without the need to invoke other sources of authority besides the God who breathes it out. Those who attempt to deconstruct the Canon therefore have no basis besides that of unbelief to do so, since faith accepts the God which is revealed in Scripture who is sovereign over history.


References:

[1] James R. White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible's Accuracy, Authority, and Authenticity (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 2004)

[2] Ibid., pp. 100-103.