The Canonical Walls


Thanks to a link from John Shuck, I discovered the blog of April DeConick, a Professor of Biblical Studies at Rice University. Her blog tends to have an academic and scholarly focus, which means that it isn't necessarily written at the level of lay people like you and me. I'm not a biblical scholar, I don't play one on TV, and I only have a bare bones knowledge at best of the tools that biblical scholars use. But skimming through the blog, I find it still has some interesting things to say that even people who aren't scholars or professors can appreciate. I suppose the best analogy I can think of is that, just as non-scientists can read Scientific American, we who aren't biblical scholars can peek inside of academia by reading blogs from biblical scholars and thus find a nugget or two of value.

I found this comment in her opening entry to be quite interesting:

Those in the Academy who have not dislodged themselves from their faith operate to defend, justify and explain it in terms they couch "historical" while privileging the New Testament canon and ignoring or dissing the apocrypha. Their personal religious belief in the authority of the New Testament scripture has led them to a common (and erroneous) assumption, that the New Testament texts are the only documents that tell us about the history of early Christianity. This leads to another common (and erroneous) assumption, that these canonical texts are accurate and reliable documents for the study of early Christianity. In this way, the religious walls of the canon have imprisoned the Academy for a couple of hundreds of years, holding us back from an honest historical analysis of early Christianity.

Even though there are some scholars in the Academy who attempt to operate as historians rather than theologians, the theological position is still controlling our discipline. The discipline is still limited by the canon, perpetuating the myth that the religious boundaries of the canon should be the historical boundaries as well. Certainly the New Testament texts are important pieces of the puzzle, but they are not the only pieces. An enormous amount of literature was written by the early Christians in the first two centuries, and all of it needs to be studied critically in order to get a full picture of what was going on. If we only study the New Testament documents, our reconstruction of early Christianity is inherently flawed. Paradoxically we end up promoting as "historical" an "apocryphal" Christianity solely based on the New Testament.
I think what she says makes a lot of sense, and I also think it has some resonance, not just to academicians, but also to people of faith. It seems to me that, just as scholarly inquiry about the origins of Christianity should not be restricted to just what is in the New Testament canon, so can those who care about the events that initiated the Christian movement (which, one would think, means all Christians) might open themselves up to appreciating the diversity of the faith, and therefore the writings, that emerged during that time. The distinction between the canonical and the non-canonical continues to strike me as rather arbitrary. Creating a wall between the biblical and the non-biblical can lead to the bibliolatry of fundamentalism, to an unnecessarily extreme degree of reverence for what is in the canon as having an inerrantly divine origin, as being God's literalwords rather than the words of the human beings who put them down on papyrus.

I am not suggesting that "The Shepherd of Hermas" should be added to the Revised Common Lectionary. But I do think it is worth asking ourselves why it is that the specific collection of writings known as "the Bible" are elevated to the status of a permanent, fixed, immutable set of authoritative and standard writings from which both the Christian liturgy and private personal religious study is drawn. Is it a matter of revering tradition for tradition's sake? Is it because, despite all the troublesome texts (or "sins of scripture", to borrow a term from Spong) in the Bible, it nevertheless contains all the pearls of theological wisdom we ever need to draw from? Or is it because the canon, once established, then becomes part of the ongoing tradition that is relived through ritual and worship, and thus becomes a kind of self-justifying reality of the faith? Christianity is, to be sure, full of relived traditions and rituals that go back a long way in time.

I've been too busy lately on Wednesday nights to attend Taize services, but one thing I liked about the services that I attended was that they not only included biblical readings from the Psalms, but also readings from non-biblical sources--the poetry of Thomas Merton for example, or writings from contemporary religious figures, and once recently they even had a reading from the Koran that celebrated the glory of God. Even the psalms that they use come from interesting, modern translations, such as from the book Opening to You, a Zen-inspired translation, or from the book Psalms For Praying by Nan C. Merrill. And the version of the Lord's prayer that is said at the end of the service comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, and is a remarkably interesting form of this prayer which begins with the words, "Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver, Source of all that is and that shall be, Father and Mother of us all..." That's a bit different from "Our Father Who Art In Heaven". (Lest anyone wonders about the Christian focus of the service, however, at the front there is a large cross on the floor, with lit candles upon it, and one part of the service involves people going there and placing additional candles or praying at the cross).

The balance between tradition and innovation is a subtle one. If innovation is given free reign, a religion can break from its moorings, lose its ethical basis or its emphasis on the Divine or on social justice, or otherwise lose its way. But clinging to tradition at all costs can make religion rigid and closed, and believers can stop listening to the continuing revelation that God is always offering us. It can solidify dogma at the expense of listening to God's call. There is a balance between tradition and progressive revelation. Where this balance lies is a tricky question, but I have to wonder where a closed canon fits into that.


Grace said...

Well, Mystical,

I know that part of the reason the books we have now in the N.T. eventually became part of the canon is because they were thought to be consistent with the apostolic witness in a way that say, the gnostic gospels were not.

I think we can definitely be informed by extra-canonical writings, but I would say that not all are of equal spiritual value, that's for sure. :)

Mystical Seeker said...

Grace, I think there is no question that presumed apostolic authority was used by orthodox Christians as a means of bolstering their position with respect to those they disagreed with, although the other question that I think is of interest is how it was that, even among those works that might have been more or less consistent with the prevailing orthodoxy, certain writings were accepted or rejected.

A lot of the early Christians wavered and hesitated on which works to include in the canon, and it seems that ultimately some of the decisions on which works were selected or rejected were based not always based solely on what those works had to say (although that obviously mattered, too), but also on who allegedly wrote those works. It seems like in some cases, consistence with orthodox theology alone wasn't the sole criterion; there was also a desire to have works that were allegedly written by apostles. The Shepherd of Hermas and 1 Clement very popular and was considered canonical by at least some early Christians, for example, but ultimately it was works claiming to be written by apostles, like 1 and 2 Peter, that made it in. A lot of 2 Peter is just a rehash of Jude, so why did it make the cut? We know that it wasn't actually written by Peter, but its claim to apostolic authorship probably figured hugely in its inclusion in the canon.

The reality is that inspiration is rather mixed, even in those books that made it into the canon. The Gospel of Matthew has some wonderfully inspirational passages about the life of Jesus, but I would hope that most modern Christians do not feel particularly inspired by the anti-semitism of Matthew 27:25. My point is that inspirational value can be found lots of places, and what is in the canon itself isn't always evenly or consitently inspirational. I would argue that there should not be a fixed boundary between the inspirational value of what is and is not in the canon.

Grace said...


I can agree with you in part, I don't feel that all of Scripture is of equal value, or equally applicable today to us as Christian believers. And, I do think we need to use wisdom in coming to the correct interpretation of Scripture.

To quote this old saying, even the Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose. And, I know that so-called Christians can twist and misuse Scripture to support some horrendous things.

But, I feel ultimately that God's spirit guided the church in the determination of the canon, so for me Scripture is authoritative in a way that other writings are not. (I think it's not so much that the church arbitrarily determined the canon, as that it was overtime they were able to recognize the canon.)

Although, all truth is God's truth, so I certainly can be impacted by the writings of say, the church fathers for instance, or other literature.( Many Christians do believe that God inspires and sends revelation to people today. That may be possible, but I don't think He would do this in a way to contradict Scripture.)

God bless, Mystical. :)

Mystical Seeker said...

Another thing to bear in mind when one talks about the creation of the canon is--which canon? The Protestant canon? The Catholic one? The Catholic Church didn't even settle on a final definition of the canon until 1545. If Lutheran had his way, the epistle of James would probably not be in the Bible. And so on.

I don't think the decision to decide what was in the canon was necessarily "arbitrary". There were always reasons why works were included or rejected. But one has to ask what those reasons were in order to evaluate what was going on. I do think that some of the criteria were less than ideal, sometimes politically charged. I doubt that the Holy Spirit was mistaken about the authorship of of Titus or 2 Peter, for example, but the people who put them in the Bible probably were. :) The politics of internecine Christian disputes also played a role in the process. Such is the nature of human endeavors some times. Putting a Holy gloss of infallibility on human decisions may serve certain theological interests, but that is not a justification that I accept.

As I suggested in my posting, if we accept that the creation of the canon is not as tidy as sometimes thought, then it worth asking ourselves broader questions about the role that the canon plays and how it relates to contemporary revelation. The Bible was a human document. The people who decided on what to include in it were humans also. But I am not suggesting rejecting the Bible out of hand as a canon on that basis. I am interested in the value that a traditional body of works, like the Bible, plays as source of the tradition that serves as a ground for modern Christianity. It is this interplay between tradition and continuing revelation that I find interesting. I am not suggesting that we throw out the tradition--simply that we not use it as a way of throttling new inspirations, nor as a justification for one's pet dogmas, and that we open ourselves up to what the Bible is about without succumbing to unnecessary biliolatry. This interplay between tradition and novelty is to me an interesting question.

Grace said...

I understand, Mystical.

Matthew said...

I find it sad that conventional religious institutions invariably literalize, thus marginalize their sacred documents.

Sacred writings have powerful ways of making the 'mysterium tremendum' available (along with it's life transforming power). Reducing these writings to manageable sets of ritual or dogma destroys their value in leading people OUT OF convention; thus reducing the sacred to profane (samasara).

The sacred exists in ALL, 'those with eyes to see' don't usually form committes to decide upon accepted beliefs. It's telling that Jesus and Buddha left no writings, so far as we know. It's always from followers, groping for clarity (in the midst of confusion) which shapes the original writings. Add to that separation selection by committee to determine the canon of Scripture (even if writings, in their nature could be considered 'canonical' BEFORE that truth is recognized by people- as some literalists believe), these writings don't become part of the official and collected 'canon', until CHOSEN by a selected committee.

The Christian NT, as I understand it, was shaped to 'control' beliefs in the nascent church. In this way the small church could find some sense of unity and strength; in hopes of surviving becoming over-splintered, and persecuted by the status quo religions. (Isn't this a bizarre twist- the early church wouldn't trust God to support them, as Jesus deemed it better to 'protect' itself!) As such, many early followers of Christ, who found their way in the Spirit (obviously some were hucksters), became heretics and their writings were either destroyed or lost due to obscurity.

In the end it shouldn't matter (except to maintain a central unified church) where or what writings are investigated, so long as truth is found.


Grace said...

I think, though, Matthew, that most of the NT was already accepted as authoritative in local bodies of believers before officially ratified by any church council. Although, some books were contested by some as Mystical pointed out.