The conversation around canon has heated up with a quiet intensity. I note in particular the comments by bloggers Tim Bulkeley, Kevin Edgecomb (here), Angela Erisman (here), Shawn Flynn (here), Chris Heard, Jim Getz (here), Bob MacDonald and Duane Smith.
Duane and Tim highlight what might be called the exclusionary function of a canon. It sets outer limits. As Tim puts it, a canon keeps folks from “going off the rails.” In my view, the inclusionary function of a canon is no less important. A rich diversity of competing approaches to faith and practice came to be included in the Tanakh and the various Old Testaments. We might not see any necessity for having books like Enoch and Jubilees in a canon, but the Ethiopian Orthodox see it otherwise. They appeal to said literature in the fixing of their sacred calendar, not a minor detail in religious life the very rhythm of which is tapped out by a wealth of periodic observances.
The variety of New Testament witnesses to the Christian faith is no less striking. A canon within the canon, despite my previous remark, is not easy to discern. The four Gospels might be so understood, but in practice, so far as I know, they rarely have. The synoptic tradition, Paul, and John and 1 John, might be understood instead to constitute together a threefold core witness to the one faith. But this seems reductive as well.
Perhaps it is more important to emphasize the following. Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Revelation might have been excluded from the Christian canon, or a Diatessaron of the four gospels might have won the day. In the long run it was not to be. Christians are richer for it.
Superb interpreters of the Bible might huff and puff about a 2 Peter (Didymus the Blind), a James, or a Revelation (Luther). Despite their reservations, Didymus and Luther selectively deployed the contents of the works they criticized in teaching and polemic.
The best and most able interpreters of the Bible are confident enough to challenge and critique individual parts thereof precisely because they are absolutely committed to the truth it expresses globally insofar as they understand it. But the force of a canon should not be underestimated. Not even an interpreter of the stature and brilliance of Luther could overcome it. The following dictum applies to all:
The Bible, taken with all its diverse meanings, demands of its reader the range of vision which can be defined as the Christian vision. [emphasis mine]
Sean McEvenue, “The Old Testament, Scripture or Theology?” Interpretation 25 (1981) 229-242; 242.
An additional comment on Didymus may be helpful. His assertion that 2 Peter is a pseudepigraphon, however probable it may seem to the disinterested observer, is troubling to many. But it need not be so. The stronger one’s sense of the continuity of tradition is, the less likely the attribution of subsequent tradition to tradition’s fount will be viewed as problematic.
It has often been noted that a powerful sense of the continuity of tradition lies behind the attribution of the entire tradition of torah to Moses, psalms to David, and wisdom to Solomon. Multiple attribution was also possible. A teaching might be attributed to Hillel or Akiva, but also attributed to Moses.
The authorship of a work like 2 Peter might be construed in similar fashion. The letter is to be attributed to an unknown author of the first or second century ce, but its contents are a valid and useful extension of and addition to the apostolic witness summed up in the rest of the New Testament. Its claim to be apostolic holds up to critical scrutiny.
Angela notes that scripture appeals to and comments upon scripture, in scripture itself. This is an exceedingly important observation. With good reason, Brevard Childs and James Sanders among Christian interpreters and Michael Fishbane and Marc Zvi Brettler among Jewish interpreters find the concept of canon to be helpful in understanding the how and why of writings and collections of writings now part of the Tanakh/Old Testament. Philip R. Davies does a marvelous job of identifying the issues in Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998). I am less happy with the way he resolves them.
On another topic, I would say that there is nothing quite comparable to the Jewish privileging of Torah” in Christian tradition.
The Gospels, like the Torah, stand at the head of a larger body of authoritative writings. They occupy, by and large, a place of privilege in traditions which read the Bible in accordance with a lectionary cycle. It is probable that the gospel of John and the gospel of Matthew were just as central to the self-understanding of the Christians for whom they were written as are the five books of Moses in much if not all of Jewish tradition.
But the four gospels do not function as a unit in the history of interpretation. The Pentateuch, regarded as a harmonious whole in Jewish tradition, does. The Pentateuch is written instruction attributed to Moses and to God who vouchsafed it to him, but that is paralleled by oral instruction attributed to Moses and to God who vouchsafed it to him, which takes for of rabbinic teaching as codified in the Mishnah and the Talmuds. There is no equivalent to the Mishnah and the Talmuds in Christian tradition. The Gospels do not form a substrate for later tradition in Christianity in the same way as the Torah does for later tradition in Judaism.
To be sure, the Gospels serve to ground theological and ethical construction in Christian tradition. But in said construction, the letters of Paul in particular play far more than a supporting role. The latter do not function as the Haftarah of the former.
Later tradition, such as the Didache, Didascalia Apostolorum, the Apostolic Constitutions, and canon law, codified aspects of Christian practice. The Councils and the Church Fathers came to be understood to be the faithful interpreters of the deposit of faith (1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12-14). The latter are appealed to in theological construction by Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and evangelical theologians alike. On the other hand, except among the Orthodox, the tradition of the first five or six centuries can and often is bypassed in the formulation of theological, ethical, and pastoral practice. The less historic a church tradition is, the less deep and wide is its rootedness in the first five or six centuries of Christianity.
In his comment, Kevin rejoices in the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox. I understand completely. For the sake of discussion, let me rejoin as follows: its unwavering continuity with the first six centuries of the work of the Holy Spirit in the church has come at a cost. The reappropriation of that tradition in terms intelligible to later generations has not kept up. Openness to the work of the Holy Spirit beyond the limits of patristic tradition has been evident (to impulses from the Reformation, to currents of modern philosophy, to the charismatic movement, to cite examples known to me), but not sustained.
In his comment, Chris notes that according to his tradition (the Churches of Christ), canon is understood to “provide a touchstone of religious authority that transcends any ‘organization’ or ‘institution’ within that particular religion’s broadest frame of reference. Moreover, the degree of unity provided by the canon in this way—whether large or small—works both in any given ‘present’ but also across time, linking past and future.”
In my view, canon has always worked that way. Ever since the following words were attributed to Moses:
“Hear O Israel, Yhwh is our God, Yhwh alone. You shall love Yhwh your God with all your heart and with all your being and with all your might. May the instructions I enjoin on you this day be taken to heart. Impress them upon your children. Speak of them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you stand up. Bind them as a sign on your hand; fix them as an emblem on your forehead; and write them on the doorposts of your house and in your city gates.” (Deut 6:4-9).
I translate according to the probable historical sense of the text. The public display of portions of Torah, in the structure of the city gate (including a roofed hall, high walls, and benches), on inscriptions on the doorposts of private dwellings (like the stone plaques inscribed with the Decalogue outside of ancient Samaritan dwellings), and on the body, is enjoined here. Ancient Near Eastern analogies to all these practices are well-known. The amount of text displayed would have been limited to a few phrases. But they were meant to evoke and refer to a larger body of written-down, authoritative text, irrespective of the fact that most people probably couldn’t read what was written. That larger body of written-down authoritative text may legitimately be referred to as a canon, or, in Chris’s phrase, “a touchstone of religious authority” whose validity is understood to transcend the particularities of time and place and bind diverse times and places in a unity.
For the historical sense of Deut 6:4-9, see especially Jeffrey Tigay, Deuteronomy (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1996) ad loc, and Excurses 10 and 11; Bernard Levinson, “Deuteronomy,” in The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin and Mark Zvi Brettler; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) ad loc.