I am grateful to Michael Heiser and Ros Clarke for highlighting my posts on canon on their respective blogs (here and here, respectively). BTW, I can’t resist mentioning that Ros has an exceptionally interesting post up entitled Preaching the Song. Thinking about canon remains a priority of mine. In his last review, Mike wonders why I suggest that there was no agreed-upon canon in existence in antiquity among Christians (I quote)
on the heels of acknowledging that “deutero-canonical” books were not quoted for points of dogma, only “thought and action.” It is one thing to read wise writers to know how to think and live; it is another to articulate doctrine. The greater caution with respect to dogma (it seems to me) does point to canonical thinking.
The patristic authors I cite in context, Athanasius (Festal Letter, 39), Rufinus (Comm. in Symb. Ap. 37-38), and Jerome (Prologue to the Books of Solomon [Vulg.]) do think canonically, and move in a direction that bears a family resemblance to some strands of post-Reformation Christianity. For example, John Wesley might preach on Ben Sira [= Ecclesiasticus], but I can’t imagine him establishing a point of doctrine in a polemical theological tract based on a text from it. This is not that different from the respective positions of Athanasius, Rufinus, and Jerome. According to them, Ben Sira might be deployed in catechesis, and they are content that it was read in the churches, but they deny that it should be used to establish a point of dogma.
The fact is, others dissented, Augustine foremost among them (De Doct. Chr. 2, 8; De Civ. Dei, 18, 20, 1). Augustine also thinks and teaches in accordance with a canon. But for Augustine, and Cyprian before him, Ben Sira and Wisdom were just as useful as Proverbs for establishing a direction of thought or action. My wording, “establishing a direction of thought or action,” was not meant to set up a contrast between those things and “establishing a point of doctrine.” My bad for being unclear.
Testimonia ad Quirinum, attributed to Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) in the manuscript tradition, may illustrate. It provides scriptural proofs for a series of traditional teachings. Book One intends to demonstrate the nullity of the Jewish faith; Book Two treats christology; Book Three, the correct comportment of the believer. The pattern of citations is remarkable.
Book One cites the Old Testament profusely, 74x total: the Pentateuch, 13x; Josh-2 Kgs, 5x; Isa, 25x; Jer, 13x, Ezek, 1x; Dan, 1x; Pss, 9x; Prov, 1x; Ezra-Neh, 1x. New Testament confirmation is added on a few occasions from Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and Paul’s Epistles. No other writings are cited.
Book Two cites both OT and NT profusely, and across a wider spectrum of texts. A christology is built up out of passages from the same books as before, except Ezra-Neh, with a preponderance of proofs from Isa and Pss. But, besides Prov 8 and 9, Ben Sira 24, Baruch 3 (under the title “Jeremiah”), and Wisdom 2 appear. The same NT books are cited as in Book One, with the addition of 1 Peter, 1 John, and a host of references to the Apocalypse of John.
Like Book Two, Book Three cites both OT and NT profusely, but across an even wider spectrum of texts. Job, Prov, and Eccl are cited often; Ben Sira, more often still. Wisdom, Tobit, 1-2 Maccabees, Susannah, and the Song of the Three are also cited; Wisdom and Tobit, several times. From the NT, Mark, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, and 2 Peter make their appearance. On the other hand, Esther, Judith, Hebrews, James, and Jude do not, in the Testimonia or elsewhere, in Cyprian’s writings. Evidently, none of these works, if they were known, were deemed suitable to appeal to in the African church tradition Testimonia reflects.
Note that Ben Sira, Wisdom, and Baruch are used by Cyprian to establish christological dogma. The passages, furthermore, are well-chosen.
I teach and preach on the basis of the more limited Protestant canon. That is my heritage, and I am content with it. But I am not about to criticize a Christian who teaches and preaches from a canon that includes Ben Sira, Wisdom, and Baruch. These are things about which Christians understandably disagree.
On the other hand, it is the case that by and large in today’s world, Christians of all persuasions, unless they are preaching to their own choirs only, establish dogma and invest in directions of thought and action first of all based on an appeal to specific content in the 66 books of the Protestant canon.
For example, in doing Christian theology in a pluralistic setting, all kinds of sources can be and are brought to bear on a discussion of christological dogma. Still, everyone knows that the first test well-formed teaching about Christ has to pass before it will be deemed of interest by a wide spectrum of Christians is its compatibility with passages of christological relevance in the 66 books on the one hand, and in the patristic tradition as crystallized in the Nicene Creed for example, on the other.
Furthermore, there are functional canons within the canon that play a role in modern theology just as they did in Cyprian. The core canons are similar. Isaiah remains the Fifth gospel. Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and Paul’s Epistles continue to constitute the core of the New Testament; the rest is interpreted in accordance with it.
The consensus on these points in practice is very wide. True, there are biblicists on one extreme and traditionalists on the other who refuse to agree that, by a sheer act of divine grace, patristic tradition was the vehicle through which the church was given both a norma normans (a norm which norms all other norms – i.e., the biblical canon) and norma normata (norms such as the Nicene Creed, normed by the norma normans). I’m convinced, however, that the radical center of Christianity relates Scripture and tradition with primacy given to the former and a highly positive appreciation of both.