The conversation about canon continues. Doug Chaplin, Iyov, and Peter Kirk, all of whom are excellent bloggers, add multiple remarks. I am especially thankful for Peter’s comments. They tie in with an earlier comment by Chris Heard. In this update, I will limit myself to discussing one of Doug’s posts and Peter’s comments.
Doug takes up the question of what authority to accord the deuterocanonicals. Doug is a bit tentative on the matter. So am I. It is probable that neither of us has come up with a satisfactory way to speak of that authority. As Doug suggests, there may be no cut-and-dried solutions. A consensus on the point did not exist in the patristic period, and does not exist now. But the example Doug gives is instructive:
So, like John, to give one example, I would expect to use Sirach to elucidate the Fourth Gospel. Put these texts side by side:
Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits. For the memory of me is sweeter than honey, and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb. Those who eat of me will hunger for more, and those who drink of me will thirst for more. (Sirach 24:19-21, NRSV my emphasis)
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. (John 6:35 NRSV)
I don’t know how to expound the second text doctrinally or spiritually without referring to the first. I’m not sure that this is to ascribe “derivative” (John’s term) authority to the deutero-canonicals. It seems to me that it is more than that, because in this case the canonically disputed text of Sirach has been caught up in the canonically undisputed text of John.
I'm not sure what authority redounds to Ben Sira on this basis, but I concur that the Ben Sira passage Doug cites elucidates the John passage. The Ben Sira passage is in fact an intermediate link in a chain that stretches from Proverbs 9:1-6 to a cluster of texts in the gospel of John: 6:35, to be sure, but also 4:13-14 and 6:48-51. The latter catch up other texts, this time from Moses.
Peter Kirk is dismissive of the deuterocanonicals. He would just as soon they be kept out of reach of ordinary believers, though he grants that scholars might read them. They might even cite them, insofar as they elucidate the canon to which he, for reasons he has yet to explain, attributes authority.
Peter is also dismissive of the entire Patristic tradition, including the councils and creeds, except insofar as they help to elucidate Scripture as he finds it in his Protestant translation of choice and the Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic texts on which it is based.
This is how I hear Peter. He can correct me if I’m wrong. If other Christians, past and present, have relied on canons of scripture broader than the Protestant one, and on text forms of the books therein which differ from those Protestants are familiar with (an eclectic text of New Testament; a translation of the MT in most cases, except where it is inconvenient (Isa 7:14; Zech 9:9; etc.)), that’s just their rotten luck. Said facts require no reflection, no soul-searching, of any kind.
In my view, a deleterious theology of history and a restrictive understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit are implied by Peter’s dismissals of intertestamental and patristic literature.
Peter points out that his is “the standard evangelical position.” I agree that it is. He appears to consider the point an argument of considerable weight. To which I reply, as a fellow-evangelical: it carries no weight at all.
It wasn’t long ago that a cessationist position on the gifts of the Spirit was standard issue among evangelicals. It still is, of course, among many. I applaud Peter’s efforts to turn the tide on the matter. He is right that a cessationist stance undermines the authority of the Bible. He fails to notice how close he comes, by a dismissive attitude toward intertestamental and patristic literature, to a cessationist stance of his own. The work of the Holy Spirit, to judge by Peter’s summary judgment, was quite limited between Ezra and Nehemiah and John the Baptist, and again, following the New Testament period.
Peter’s stance is anti-traditional, anti-historical, and anti-intellectual. Anti-traditional, because it dismisses older tradition in favor of “modern writings” even if the former sheds light on what is found in the canon to which he, apart from tradition, somehow attributes authority. Anti-historical, because it underestimates the indebtedness of contemporary Christian theory and practice to that of preceding generations. Anti-intellectual, because it assumes that while one might ask ordinary believers to recite the Nicene Creed, it would be wrong to supply them with the means to understand the words that fill their mouths.
The capstone of Jesus’ teaching on the Holy Spirit is relevant here:
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will lead you into all truth; for he will not speak of himself, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:12-13)
The standard historical-critical take on this passage goes like this. First, under cover of these words, the author of the gospel of John imputes all manner of things to Jesus that he, a Palestinian Jew, could not possibly have said, and christologizes about him in a way at complete variance with Jesus’ own self-understanding. Later, the theologians of Alexandria and Cappadocia come along, and misunderstand Jesus further.
The classical take on this passage, which I share, goes like this. Maybe, just maybe, “the many things” Jesus did not tell his disciples then, because they could not bear them, he told them later through the Spirit. Maybe, just maybe, the Spirit led the author of the gospel of John, and the Alexandrian and Cappadocian fathers, into all truth.
[Ed.: you misunderstand Peter’s position. He holds to a view like that of Bob MacDonald’s closed-tabled brethren, for whom the work of the Holy Spirit effectively ceased with the completion of the New Testament. If that were true, one would have to assume that Jesus’ promise lost its effectiveness after a generation or so. I have reason to believe Peter would resist that conclusion.]
In deference to age-old fears and anxieties, I think Peter shrinks before the thought that tradition might be a means of grace and a vehicle of the work of the Holy Spirit. But if tradition is these things, Peter has no right to be dismissive of it.
These are the facts. I don’t see how anyone can deny them. Tradition in any context – and every context includes tradition, and every context is codetermined by tradition – does more than elucidate a foundation. It is constructive, not merely repetitive. It contains “new insights in harmony with the old.” It displays “continuity of principles,” but also develops content. It contains “preservative additions,” not only systematic exposition of precedent tradition. If these are the facts, then tradition, mixed with mud as it is, should not be dismissed. Any more than the charismatic movement should be dismissed because of excesses and false teachings that continue to characterize it, if only in part.
Let me try once again, in response to Peter, to describe the authority I believe should be accorded the broader canons, past and present, of the historic Christian churches. As a fellow-charismatic, let me put it this way. I will be respectful of the broader canons, so as not to risk grieving or sinning against the Holy Spirit. An attentive reading of tradition reveals that the writings Peter dismisses have been used by God in the development of a high Christology to which we are all now debtors; employed by the Holy Spirit in the cultivation of traditional acts of piety – almsgiving, fasting, morning and evening prayer, the anointing of the sick – which find little favor among evangelicals, and moderns in general, but are not necessarily wrong for that reason; and turned to the advantage of Christ and his Kingdom in the development of both a theory and a practice of vicarious suffering in line with Colossians 1:24, a passage which does not fit very well into the evangelical Protestant scheme, and therefore is studiously ignored, but which is just as much a part of scripture as verses evangelicals like to harp on.
[Ed.: honesty is such a lonely word. You can say that again.]
Unlike Peter, I am thankful for tradition, and wish to explore it, treasure it, and disseminate it among ordinary believers. I see it as a means of grace and a vehicle of the work of the Holy Spirit. In this I differ not at all from John Wesley, who valued both the Eastern and Western traditions of devotion, saw nothing amiss about quoting Ben Sira in sermons, and promoted a catholic rather than a sectarian spirit among Christians.
A spirit of sectarianism, as every objective observer agrees, has long characterized evangelicalism, to the great detriment of the Gospel. But that spirit, thanks be to God, may be flagging. The appropriation of Thomas and Augustine and the reaffirmation of the first five centuries of Christian tradition by Norman Geisler, the rapprochement between Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestants effected on the evangelical side by figures as diverse as James I. Packer, Timothy George, and Mark Noll, the rediscovery of orthodoxy by Tom Oden, and the appropriation of the riches of patristic exegesis by Christopher Hall, are all signs of a counter-tendency. Of these things Peter appears to know nothing.
It is possible to be far more self-critical and nuanced in one’s take on the proper roles of scripture and tradition than Peter is. Chris Heard shows the way, in his comment.
A note to Jewish readers: the “standard evangelical position,” with its rejection of tradition on the one hand and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit on the other, amalgamates Karaite and anti-Hassidic tendencies into one superficially orthodox bundle.