Thursday, March 03, 2005

The canon process

If you asked the question, "Who created the Bible?"... you would probably get a variety of answers. Some would say God created the Bible. Some would attribute the Bible to the writers of the scriptures. There is an element of truth to both responses.

However, the most accurate answer is... "Those individuals who decided what text goes in and what text stays out. Those who determined what would make up the official list or 'canon" (from the Greek "kanon" meaning a measuring rod) of the book." Remember, the Bible did not fall out of the sky as a final, stand-alone composition. The text within the book was written by individuals who never imagined their work would eventually make up a segment of a book entitled "The Bible".

The text that made it into the Bible made it in because a certain group of individuals won the case for its inclusion over another group of individuals who happened to disagree. The fact that there was other text that was considered for inclusion but did not make it in further highlights that there was never unanimoty regarding the canon. There were winners and losers.

The assumption has always been that the winners got it right... that their decisions were inspired by God, while the losers (those who failed to have their text included in the canon) were not sufficiently inspired by God and were thus wrong.

This is a convenient logic for those who want to believe the Bible is perfect, inerrant. But as we've seen throughout history and as we see in daily life, the winners are not always right and the losers are not always wrong.

To those who prefer to believe that humans decisions had little or nothing to do with the creation of the Bible... that the final product came about through "God's providence", I suppose the big question would be... "Which is the final product that came about through God's providence?". If it is solely through God's providence or will, then there must be one authoritative version of the Bible that at least Christians can agree on.

The fact is that that Bible does not exist.

Roman Catholic Bibles contain 73 books (46 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament). Protestant Bibles contain 66 books (39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament). Protestants do not acknowledge the following seven books as scripture: Tobit, Judith, Baruch, Wisdom, Sirach, First Maccabees, Second Maccabees, and parts of Esther and Daniel. These books are referred to as the "Deuterocanonicals" by Roman Catholics. They are referred to as the "Apocrypha" (meaning "hidden," "secret," or "profound") by Protestants.

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther removed these books from the Bible and placed them in an appendix. He didn't consider them to be on par with the other 39, but still useful to read. The books remained in the Protestant Bibles until around 1826. They were subsequently removed altogether.

How does God's providence gel with this little mess?

It one thing to claim biblical inerrancy on the belief that the writers of scripture were divinely inspired. It is another thing altogether to completely eliminate the human element in the development of the Bible and attribute it all to something called "God's providence". It is a neat trick if you can pull it off.

It's even a neater trick to say... "We know it is God's providence through faith and faith alone". Argument over. How can you reasonably respond to someone who says something is so because they believe it is so? You can't, because the element of reason has been eliminated from the terms of the dialogue.

Whether or not you believe in God's providence as the central element in the development of the Bible, it is a fact of history that human beings were involved in the process. They may or may not have been God's pawns, but they were there and they played a role. Some of these people were winners and some were losers.

To begin to appreciate the probability that the "canon winners" got it right, it is not enough to simply say... "They got were right because they won, and because they won it proves that it was God's will or that they were inspired by God". The flaw in this reasoning should be obvious.

One key is to understand the individuals who participated in the various councils of the Church that put their stamp of approval on Bible canon. What were the processes by which the councils made decisions? What factors influenced the councils?

The assumption of religious "purists" would be that scripture was included as part of the canon based solely on its authenticity and the degree to which it was judged to be inspired by God. That assumption, however, assumes that the councils were pure, had no human agendas, and were impervious to power and influence of others.

We'll see.


1 comment:

SB said...

Thank you for this helpful overview. What do you see as the key questions pertaining to the NT canon as we embark upon the 21st Century?