Wednesday, July 29, 2009

New insights on the canon and its criteria

I thoroughly enjoyed Church History class this morning as we touched on the issue about the canonization of the New Testament books.

Our lecturer showed the 2 sets of criteria which are commonly used to determine whether a book should be considered into the canon list. The first set is from Norman Geisler:

  • Authority - was the book written by a prophet of God?

  • Prophecy - was the writer confirmed by the acts of God?

  • Authenticity - does the message tell the truth about God?

  • Power - did it come with the power of God?

  • Reception - was it accepted by the people of God?

Then the second set:

  • Apostolicity - written by the apostles or their associates.

  • Antiquity - closer to the event when the book was written.

  • Historicity - reliability of the historical events.

  • Catholicity - reception of the book among early Christian communities.

  • Orthodoxy - the teaching in the book must be similar with the already existing beliefs.
I’ll add another criteria: Homileticity. That’s criteria where a book was already used in Christian’s homiletic activities such as in their preaching, liturgy, and citation as scripture in their apologetic and other writings. (For more info, see L. M. McDonald, The Biblical Canon, chapter 14. 'Homileticity' is different from McDonald's 'Use' category.)

I dismissed Geisler's set as some of his criteria are not historical (For eg. the 'prophecy' and 'power' criteria). My interest is on the second set, which are more verifiable. Yet we should not imagine the earliest Christians systematically catalog the NT books with thorough investigation according to each of the criteria. A point which rightly highlighted by our lecturer, Andrew Peh.

Given that, then the hanging question is how then do we know these were the exact criteria used by the earliest Christians?

Easy answer is that some of their writtings show this. For eg. Eusebius' criteria is a "three-layer sieve": (1) Orthodoxy, (2) Apostolicity, and (3) Catholicity (see David Dungan, Constantine's Bible, p.78-83).

Though the general criteria was mentioned, yet we have to understand that it is also the least perfected one. Back to the example of Eusebius. Though with such criteria, his list of canon still lacks the affirmative on books like James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, and Revelation. And this irony leaves us hollow in our understanding of the canonization process.

Yet such hollow hints on the mechanism at play behind all the historical contingencies surrounding the canon process. And the new insight that came to me during the lecture has to do with this mechanism.

Previously we know only that there are some criteria used, but that alone doesn't solve the canon question. And the seldom mentioned mechanism that hugely contributed to the canonical process were the social and religious predicaments facing the earliest Christians.

You see, each of the criteria was not given similar emphasis throughout the three hundred years by individual Christians. For eg. In the 2nd century, when Justin Martyr was writing voluminous apologetic works, he quoted from the NT books, assuming their authority (an instance of Homileticity. See Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament, p.143-148). In the time of Eusebius, he emphasized on the Orthodoxy, Apostolicity, and Catholicity. And by the time of Augustine, his emphasis was on Catholicity (his wrote, "...he must follow the judgment of the greater number of catholic churches," in On Christian Doctrine, 2:8).

And by emphasis, that implies the overlapping among the criteria at each period and context. Yet each period and context possessed one criterion that was exceptionally weightier than others. And the canon process went through these shiftings of emphasis among criteria through different time and places.

The many different canon lists were drawn up according to the shiftings. The elimination and addition of certain books happened as the result of these different shiftings. And at certain points in history such as 393 at Hippo, 397 at Carthage, and 419 at Carthage again, the canonical lists converged into a final form. And that's the form to which we inherit.


Bernard said...

Hi, you have a interesting insight. I have afew questions about the New Testement
1) How was Paul's letter combined into a Canon and arranged? chronological order? or what order.

2)Chapters ,Verses were added.
how have these change the understanding if it not added.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Bernard, thank you for the kind words. I hope the following provide some lead for you to pursue in your journey to find out more about the questions facing you:

1) There was a general recognition that St. Paul's letters are considered as scripture among the early Christian communities (2 Peter 3:15-16, 1 Clement 47.3). I'm not sure how were his letters arranged but it is definitely not chronological. They could have been arranged according to the list in Athanasius' 39th Festal letter.

2) Chapters and verses is also a process through a few hundred years. Started with the OT by the Ben Asher family in the 10th century. And our modern day's chapter division is done by Stephen Langston in the 12th century. And this practice carried on to the Reformation. And yes, such changes affect our reading of the Bible. It does helps us by making it more convenient to refer to it. But on whether does such arrangement change for the better or worst is up to the task of interpreting, and not so much to do with chapter-verse division.

Hope that helps!

Bernard said...

Thanks for the reply.

Btw, have you come across the book
"PAGAN CHRISTIANITY" by Frank Viola and George Barna. Is quite an intresting finding on church history and practice.

Peace be with you.

Sze Zeng said...

Yes, I browsed through Viola and Barna's book before, about a few months ago. But didn't have an impression about it. But thank you for reminding. Blessings.