The Emerging NT Canon, Inspiration, and the “Inner Cannon” Bias – Part I

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            In the conclusion of his work on the history of canonization, F.F. Bruce cites the hypothesis of Professor Kurt Aland that the New Testament canon has undergone the same narrowing of scope that the Old Testament received at the inception of the early Christian church.  This narrowing has altered Christian thought so that there is an “inner canon” within those works recognized as Scripture.[1]  This process is already acknowledged in the New Testament utilization of the Old Testament canon.  While the authors of the New Testament professed that every word of Scripture is “θεόπνευστος” and therefore inspired, preference was clearly given to certain documents in their writing.  This process continued through the early church, especially in relation to the apocryphal literature, until the Christian version of the Old Testament canon was established. 

            Bruce, then, interacts with Aland’s conclusion that this same process has begun for modern believers, but will not directly agree that the practice is a concerted effort to narrow the content of the modern canon.  Rather, preferential usage is the de facto response of emotional and relational beings interacting with a living document.  Bruce’s concern, of course, is to establish the integrity of the “rule” of faith for Christians.  His conclusions are wise and fair, especially in that they defend the obligatory integration of centuries’ worth of historical thought and teaching on the matter.  Additionally, Bruce contends that the discussion of an inner canon attempts to identify canonicity or inspiration in degrees, and digresses into a process of seeking material that is more inspired within that which has all been declared inspired.[2] 

            This arouses a question regarding the Apostolic and Ante-Nicene Fathers, though.  According to Bruce, discussions regarding the doctrine of inspiration within the context of the early church must be understood in terms of canonicity and, especially, apostolicity.[3]  If this is the case, is it not evident that the early church spent a great deal of effort disseminating the authority of documents based upon their proximity to Christ?  Indeed, they only gave precedence over apostolicity to the very words of Christ expressed through eyewitnesses.  Did this practice reveal that Aland’s narrowing of Scripture was not only endemic to a Christological view of the Old Testament canon but also in the earliest efforts to organize a canon, thereby biasing the formation of New Testament collection with the preference for an inner cannon among inspirational documents?

            If a discussion about inspiration in the early church must be held within the context of apostolicity as Bruce has argued, then said discussion must include a review of the early fathers’ writings on apostolic authority regarding the canon.  Specifically, did the early fathers exhibit biases for or against documents based on the idea of apostolicity, which, if proven, was a bias for documents that were more inspired?  Though the notion is provocative, the reduction of the entire process of canonization that appropriates the early church’s acknowledgment and preference for apostolic authority to the whole product is not fair.  Many of the early fathers undoubtedly expressed preference for some New Testament documents over others; however, the final product of canonization was a declaration that ultimately discouraged the emergence of an inner canon by virtue of its lengthy and ubiquitous process.

Apostolicity and Inspiration

             If a patristic bias for certain apostolic documents did alter the formation or understanding of the New Testament canon, then it must be proven that apostolicity and the notion of inspiration[4] are indeed synonymous.  Bruce contends that inspiration in the first century CE was most directly related to the work of the Holy Spirit in directing the prophets to write; and while the early fathers thought of New Testament documents in this regard, most of these authors do not base their authority on any such claim.[5]  When most New Testament writers do find occasion to assert authority, they do so on the basis of apostolic authority or eyewitness testimony and not directly on the influence of the Spirit on their writing.[6]  At the very least, this is evidence that the biblical writers carried no notion of a mechanical dictation; instead, their calling and separation by God to an apostolic ministry is what gave them authority.  Looking back into the first century context, the modern reader cannot superimpose notions of textual authority.

“When most New Testament writers do find occasion to assert authority, they do so on the basis of apostolic authority or eyewitness testimony and not directly on the influence of the Spirit on their writing”

            The derivation of authority does not originate from the occasion of their writing or the exact syntax of words and vocabulary.  Rather, their authority is derived from concepts and the individuals who delivered them; the most important of these individuals was Jesus Christ and the Spirit through which his words were communicated.[7]  This is also the perspective through which the early fathers would have seen the authority of documents in the first two centuries of the church.  Without having established a doctrine of inspiration, their notion of authority was derived from an office, much like the authority afforded a prophet. 

            The important distinction is still that the Spirit led the endeavor, however.  Interestingly, though, inspiration was not the trump card that the modern church would think.  Clement, a contemporary of the apostolic writers claimed that Paul wrote with “true inspiration” and then makes a similar claim for his own letters, though he does not go as far as equating himself with Paul, though they had received the same Spirit of inspiration.  Clement sees that there is a stark contrast between his authority and that of Paul, apostolicity.[8]  Ignatius claims to write according to the mind of God, but will not command other churches that are under the authority of other bishops because he lacks the apostolic authority of someone like Peter and Paul.[9]  The major concern was that the document displayed at least proximity to apostolic authority, because it was believed that a post-Pentecost community would display a wide range of gifts, including prophecy[10], but not everyone was called to be an apostle.

“It seems, looking back into the first century context, the modern reader cannot superimpose notions of textual authority without violating the early patristic testimony on apostolic authority.  For them, it was one thing to write with the inspiration of the Spirit, and quite another to write with the authority of an Apostle.”

            While this was not the only criterion for canonization, a document definitely would not have been recognized had there been no justification for apostolicity.  Apostolic authority, where not directly necessary, was certainly implied in other criteria for canonicity in the early church.  Bruce identifies that the antiquity and the orthodoxy that was so often demanded of documents functioned merely as concerns directly subsidiary to apostolicity.[11]  In fact, even the occasion of understanding traditional use or catholicity in a document would be difficult without citing apostolicity at this point in history.  For instance, according to Walls, Papias’ claim for the authority of the Gospels rests in the apostolicity of the authors, “To guarantee the truth of traditions was to demonstrate that they derived from an apostolic or quasi-apostolic source.”[12]

            Walls also argues that authenticity was certainly the intended meaning behind apostolicity, but the early fathers like Papias would have still been concerned with literary preservation.[13]  The culture of the early church, at the very least, was drastically different from the conditions in which the Jews maintained oral tradition for centuries.  Consequently, the impetus behind the concern for literary preservation after Christ was not much different from problems the Jews faced in Babylonian exile. 

            Gonzalez believes that the main impetus behind such literary preservation would have been the rebuttal of Marcion and the Gnostics, but still maintains that canonization was a process and the Gospels and Pauline corpus received approval long before some other documents.[14]  This may be an indication that there was some flexibility in oral tradition that could not be afforded in a written tradition.  For this reason, the early church may have been careful about endorsing documents too eagerly.  Nonetheless, it is clear that the early church was biased toward certain documents and the basis of that preference was apostolicity.

            The early church’s understanding of inspiration, as a doctrine, appears even more circular.  According to Bruce, “Books were included in the canon, it is believed, because they were inspired; a book is known to be inspired because it is in the canon.”[15]  The church, when forming the canon, would have had little use for the modern sense of the doctrine.  By the time Athanasius made his list in the fourth century, there was already a strong preference for documents that held inspiration and authority, but based on apostolicity.  It is evident that this preference was not only tied to apostolicity, but that the apostolic authority of certain documents was presumed long before councils were arguing about the Catholic Epistles.  This bias was so prevalent that some cities had been questioning the last documents to be approved for decades.  A survey of patristic material will prove this bias to an extent, but the scope of its effect is yet to be seen.


[1] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1988), 270-271.

[2] Ibid., 273.

[3] Ibid., 263-264.

[4] This must also be different from our doctrine of inspiration at this point in history.

[5] Ibid., 264-265.

[6] Ibid., 265-266.

[7] See Ernst Von Dobschütz, “The Abandonment of the Canonical Idea.” The American Journal of Theology, 19 (July 1915): 416-429.  This is the conclusion at which Dobschütz arrives during the turn of the 20th century, but for different reasons.  He seems to prefer a more allegorical approach to Scripture, but traces the origin and abandonment of these principles in the catholic tradition nonetheless. 

[8] 1 Clem. 47.3, 63.2 cf 59.1, 47.1

[9] To the Romans 8.3, 4.3

[10] A notion widely accepted as the biblical equivalent to θεόπνευστος, which was originally a pronouncement of the Old Testament and the Spirit of prophecy.

[11] Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 259.

[12] A.F. Walls, “Papias and Oral Tradition.” Vigiliae Christianae, 21 (September 1967): 138.

[13] Ibid., 139.

[14] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper, 1984), 63-66.

[15] F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press, 1988), 263.

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8 Comments

  1. Shawn, I confess, your writing style is hard for me to follow.
    Are your points:
    (1) The early Church’s understanding of inspiration was circular.
    (2) Apostolicity was presumed how scriptures became assumed to be inspired.

    Do your theological circles consider the Mathew, Mark and John written by the actual apostles by those names?

    Luke get’s in because of close association, right?
    And Luke tells us he is trying to write something more orderly than the gospels available at the time of his writing, right?

    Paul get’s in because of his self-declared vision, right?

    Reply

  2. A couple things Shawn

    A) Another great piece. I’m assuming these are papers you did for school?

    B) If, then, apostalicity was the necessary factor in determining authority for canonization, when shall we make on non-apostolic works such as Hebrews? If it can get in on “inspiration” alone (having been slid is on St. Paul’s back) what of the Letters of St. Ignatius or Clement or the Shepherd of Hermas which were all used authoritatively in early Christianity?

    I recognize you weren’t speculating as to these types of extensions, but they seem to flow organically out from your points.

    C) How do you get the footnotes to work?

    Sabio,

    As far as I am aware early tradition has Mark (not an apostle) composing his Gospel based off of the testimony of Peter, whom he was a disciple of. And with Luke, he was quickly identified as the “physician” with Paul. So yeah, I think it is by association.

    Matthew supposedly composed an Aramaic gospel, and I think that John’s Gospel could very well have been spearheaded by the Apostle himself, even if his church helped him put it all together.

    Reply

  3. Shawn wrote:
    When most New Testament writers do find occasion to assert authority, they do so on the basis of apostolic authority or eyewitness testimony and not directly on the influence of the Spirit on their writing.

    RESPONSE:
    Paul thanked the Thessalonians for receiving the apostles’ message as the Word of God (1 Thes. 2:13). I know this is in reference to the words that were spoken to the Thessalonians, but it still seems that we have internal evidence God’s influence was recognized on the Apostolic message.

    So, it seems that we have very limited internal evidence that the NT writers knew their writings were Scripture, nevertheless a case can be made from external evidence that they were aware of when they wrote Scripture.

    When we study the norm established in the OT, we discover that God’s people were definitely aware of when Scripture was being written and received. For example, Moses’ scrolls were placed immediately into the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:24–26) and Joshua’s writings were added in the same fashion (Josh. 24:26), as were Samuel’s (1 Sam. 10:25). Jeremiah is sometimes called The Plagiarizing Prophet because he quoted many of the other prophets of his day, which shows that their writings had already been accepted as Scripture. Daniel accepted the Book of Jeremiah as Scripture within fifty years after it was written (Dan. 9:2). Once again, I will mention Peter’s acceptance of Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16) and Paul’s acceptance of Luke’s gospel as Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18). We also know that Paul’s letters were circulated among the churches (Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27).

    So, I would not rush to any conclusions on this issue. There is some evidence that the Apostles may have actually known the gravity of their actions at the time the NT Scriptures were written.

    Reply

  4. @Sabio

    That’s funny, one atheist who thinks it’s worth promoting on his blog and another that thinks it’s unintelligible – I guess there isn’t much solidarity among atheists either, huh? :0)

    @Tony

    A) Thanks, and yes. I felt it would be a nice follow up to the post you presented.

    B) If memory serves, there was enough evidence in Hebrews concerning the other qualifying factors (catholicity, internal integrity, etc.) that they ascribed it to Paul for precisely the reasons that the paper discusses. Additionally, Ignatius and Clement were not considered because folks knew what their writings were, and they weren’t apostles (perhaps we can cook up some grand conspiracy as to how the real author of Hebrews was buried so that it could receive apostolic ratification?)

    C) I am merely doing a cut and paste from Office 2007

    @Roger

    “So, I would not rush to any conclusions on this issue. There is some evidence that the Apostles may have actually known the gravity of their actions at the time the NT Scriptures were written”

    If you’ll look again, you’ll notice that quote you are taking issue with is a footnote from Bruce. Also, I made no categorical claims, the statment said “most” not “all.” So, I am not rushing to any conclusions – it’s Bruce you’ll have to take to task on this one, not me.

    “When we study the norm established in the OT, we discover that God’s people were definitely aware of when Scripture was being written and received. For example, Moses’ scrolls were placed immediately into the ark of the covenant (Deut. 31:24–26) and Joshua’s writings were added in the same fashion (Josh. 24:26), as were Samuel’s (1 Sam. 10:25). Jeremiah is sometimes called The Plagiarizing Prophet because he quoted many of the other prophets of his day, which shows that their writings had already been accepted as Scripture. Daniel accepted the Book of Jeremiah as Scripture within fifty years after it was written (Dan. 9:2). Once again, I will mention Peter’s acceptance of Paul’s writings as Scripture (2 Peter 3:16) and Paul’s acceptance of Luke’s gospel as Scripture (1 Tim. 5:18). We also know that Paul’s letters were circulated among the churches (Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27).”

    All this proves is that the people received the documents/words as authoritative, which is exactly the point my paper is arguing. I don’t know why you are taking issue with this?

    Blessings,

    Shawn

    Reply

  5. Shawn,
    No offense intended, and I’m not baiting you. Please note that I said, “I (personally) would not rush to any conclusions on this issue.” I did not accuse you of any conclusion because I know this is just part 1.

    Reply

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