Friday, November 01, 2013

The formation of the canon and foundationalism

“If the early church was a theological quagmire, if apocryphal books are as valid as so-called canonical books, and if scholars are convinced the New Testament is filled with forgeries, then on what possible basis can Christians have confidence that they have the right twenty-seven books? How can Christians ever know such a thing? It is here that we come to the precise question this book is designed to answer. This volume is concerned with the narrow question of whether Christians have a rational basis (i.e., intellectually sufficient grounds) for affirming that only these twenty-seven books rightfully belong in the New Testament canon. Or, put differently, is the Christian belief in the canon justified (or warranted)? Of course, critics of biblical Christianity have roundly argued that Christians have no rational basis for holding such a belief about the canon ... the problem with the Christian belief in canon is something other than its truth or falsehood, but has to do with whether Christians have adequate grounds for holding such a belief” (Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited)
Adequate grounds? A rational basis which justifies belief in the canon? Critics of “biblical Christianity”? Watson, seems to see things differently.
“One may indeed wish to affirm that the catholic church was right in its selection, and that these four gospels are individually and collectively adequate to the reality of divine self-disclosure in Jesus in ways that noncanonical gospels are not. Yet there is no standpoint from which such an affirmation could be made other than the one already shaped by the canonical decision” (Francis Watson, Gospel Writing)
I side more with Watson, even if it seems circular. Trust in the canon is first and foremost trust in the Triune God, particularly in his successful self-communication by Jesus and in the Spirit to the community of faith as it “recognised” canonical texts.


At 11/01/2013 6:47 PM, Anonymous scott caulley said...

from a historical perspective, I suspect yours is the wrong question. Our NT canon is the collection of books handed down by the apostolic (proto-orthodox) church. They are the western church's choice of the books with apostolic connections/warrant, which witness to the apostolic understanding of who Jesus is, and which had found use and favor as scripture in early times, such that they were passed on. They are the church's collection on analogy to the (OT) "God-breathed" scriptures which are "able to make you wise unto salvation." That is probably all we need to say; later formulations are anachronistic at best.

At 11/01/2013 7:15 PM, Anonymous Mike K. said...

I side with Watson too. How can a historian ever be in a position to judge the canon as of more intrinsic value than any other ancient text (e.g., to say one text was older or more widely used than another is not the same thing); it seems such a position could only be made on theological grounds based on one's membership in a particular faith community. In response to Scott's comment, I think the issue would be what to do about those of us who are convinced on historical-critical grounds against the traditional authorship of the NT Gospels or that some NT epistles are pseudonymous, just as I think you might reject claims for apostolic authorship made on behalf of non-canonical Gospels (Thomas, Peter, Mary, Philip, Judas) and epistles (3 Corinthians, the correspondence of Paul and Seneca).

At 11/02/2013 1:08 AM, Blogger Owen Weddle said...

I am somewhat in the middle ground between the foundational and coherentism approaches here. At one level, a sense of pure rationality for the selection of canon is not a sufficient basis, but simply judgments of the community that these are inspired is not sufficient either. The message of the New Testament routinely validates itself by being witnesses, whether it is Paul's personal revelation or 1 John's comment that they are proclaiming what came to their own senses in 1 John 1:1-2. I would think our grounds for acceptance should be related to the New Testament's own claims for its authority.

I would describe my approach to the canon as a 'connectional witness' or a stream of witnessing. In other words, the Church's canonization contained a logic for reliability of the collection (inspiration). But the grounds for reliability are based upon the New Testament texts's own claims for its authority; the Church is witness of the documents status as reliable witnesses based upon the criteria already presented.

It is akin to a character reference for a person applying for a job. The case for the applicant does not solely rest or fall on the reference, but the reference is critical to evaluating a candidate. Likewise, the Church's witness or the witnesses is a reference that does not solely determine the inspiration and reliability of the New Testament texts, but it is an important voice (although even more important since the NT texts can not represent themselves in any other way, but an applicant can).

However, in the end, the evaluation ultimately hinges on the how the applicants/texts are themselves, and whether they are suitably what they portray their validity for a job/inspiration is.

For me, canonization is a combination of a stream of witnesses, testifying in accordance to a certain logic of reliability of the documents themselves (but a logic of self-defined criteria and not foreign to the Christian community themselves).

At 11/02/2013 1:10 AM, Blogger Owen Weddle said...

PS "Unknown" is me, Owen. Apparently Google did not know my name on blogger.

At 11/02/2013 2:08 AM, Anonymous Kevin Davis said...

It would be interesting to see you engage with Kruger's actual arguments, not just his general prefatory statement. A "rational basis" could connote a wider range of meaning than merely syllogisms or whatever "foundationalist" fears we may have.

He may or may not have an adequate dogmatic framing within the triune economy, but that criticism should follow a study of his arguments. Given that Kruger's training is in text-criticism, I suspect that his focus is indeed probably elsewhere. But, once again, it would be good to see his approach.

At 11/11/2013 5:24 AM, Blogger Weekend Fisher said...

For an answer, I'd break the NT canon into "gospels" and "other writings". On the "other writings", there were a lot of questions -- and even to this day some churches recognize distinctions of quality and status in the "other writings" (non-gospel books) of the New Testament. (Seriously. Lutherans don't form dogmas based on Revelation, or Hebrews, or James, or a couple of the others that didn't have early acceptance.)

On the other hand, with the gospels, you have multiple lines of argument that converge with the same results. But you could argue it most simply from the "which documents are the best historical sources on Jesus of Nazareth?" and you'd get Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (Have you read some of those alternative gospels? Granted there are some variations in quality there, i.e. some more useful than others. But some of them don't even mention "Jesus" by name. How they got to be considered alternative gospels is ... a PR coup for the anti-canonical side, but not good scholarship.)

Take care & God bless

At 11/15/2013 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

John C. Poirier:

I'm bothered by how Kruger makes it look like only "critics of biblical Christianity" are among those who register doubts about a hard and fast canon-- although, in fact, he doesn't really say that. On the whole, however, I have to say that Kruger's approach is better than Watson's. I say that even though I'm not a fan of Kruger's ideas about the canon generally. (Kruger's approach is wrong, but Watson's is *really* wrong.) To say that "Trust in the canon is first and foremost *trust in ... God*" is hardly fair, and is, in fact, merely a muffled version of the inerrantist's argument that trust in the details of Scripture is naturally consequential to a robust theology. There is nothing about the NT gospel that implies the acceptance of a sort of apostolic energy (if you will) moving the writings *toward* canonization (contra Kruger), *nor* is there anything about the gospel that implies some sort of indefectibility with respect to the church's delimitation of a canon (contra Watson). The canon is just *there*. In logical relation to the gospel, it is an accident of history. (It is only the church's acceptance of an inspirationist bibliology of the New Testament [courtesy of Origen's fertile imagination] that leads one to the idea that some writings have a sort of *ontological* difference about them, thereby subjecting the NT writings to the same mechanism of canonization that the OT writings had gone through subsequent to *their* being viewed as an "inspired" collection of writings.)


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