Judging the Canonization Process

I've always appreciated this statement by Kurt Aland, historian and biblical scholar, concerning the apparent arbitrariness and messiness of the canonization process:

The confusio hominum ("confusion of men") connected with the determination of the canon cannot be disputed by anyone who takes the trouble to look some into its history. But on the other hand, I would think, just as unmistakable is the providentia Dei ("providence of God"). Despite all the lack of principles, despite all the arbitrariness, despite all the errors--what the church has received in the New Testament stands on an incomparably higher level than all other early Christian literature. None of the Apostolic Fathers can even remotely compare with those of the New Testament. None of the so-called New Testament apocrypha can remotely be compared with what was accepted in the New Testament. It is characteristic that in the last generation, which brought to our attention either complete texts or thorough reports about many previously unknown writings from that early period, no one claimed that any of these newly discovered early Christian writings could claim canonical validity. That is how wide the gap is between what we know from the early age and what the New Testament offers. Even in their weakest sections, these writings possess the witness of the Spirit and power in a completely different fashion than all other early Christian literature. (Kurt Aland, History of Christianity, Fortress Press, 1985, 1:113-114. )

Is there a flatness of grace and purpose within the New Testament? No, there is variation -- some texts rising far above others. Some texts need to be examined with great care and applied with even greater care, but given all that, what we have as a New Testament is far above any "competitor" for space within the canon.


John said…
I am awfully fond of the Didache, given its relatively certain age and its consistency with existing Scripture. It is different in structure and purpose than the other books of the New Testament but that should not be a hindrance.

I also think that a case can be made for the Apocrypha. A case can also be made for employment of the Septuagent (Greek) version of the Hebrew Scriptures as that is the version of the Hebrew Scriptures that the New Testament writers were likely familiar with and working from.


The Didache is early and has value, but I don't think that it was ever really considered as Scripture, as was the case of the Shepherd of Hermas.

As for the Septuagint -- that's an interesting issue, because it is the OT text for the New Testament writers. The Vulgate is largely dependent upon it as well, which is why the Catholic Church has an expanded canon. That being said, I think the Protestants were probably correct in following the Jewish community in adopting the traditional Hebrew canon. That is not to say that there isn't value, just that its not of the same level.
John said…
But in adopting the Hebrew text in the 16th century, it appears that the Protestants are second guessing the legitimacy of the authors of the New Testament, as well as those who adopted the canon in the early centuries of the church, all of whom very well knew of the controversy regarding the relative merit of the Septuagint and the Hebrew canon as adopted at Jamnia.

If Martin Luther, etc., can second guess the early church and the inspired evangelists on a question of such enormous consequence, do they not invite following generations to call into question everything else in scripture?

I'm not sure that they second guessed the authors of the NT, the Reformers simply chose to go with the best text available -- which is why they abandoned the Vulgate and adopted the Greek text of Erasmus.

I think as we read the New Testament we need to understand that they used the Septuagint, and take that into consideration as we interpret it. I don't see that as calling everything into question. Though Luther was willing to call into question the value of James, and Calvin commented on every book of the New Testament except Revelation.
John said…
And the Reformers threw out the Deutero-Canonical books as well.

It was more than merely 'going with the best text available.' When Jesus and the Apostles and Philip (and the Ethiopian) and the early church fathers were citing Scripture and teaching from Scripture they were doing so from the Septuagent. What the Reformers did was to determine in effect that these first Christians were teaching from the wrong Scripture. It cannot be denied that the Reformers saw the error as significant - so significant in fact that they through out the Septuagent wholesale. Why the wholesale change if the issue is not significant to merit the change. If the difference in the texts weren't important enough to undermine the teaching of the early church then why make the change at all?

Interestingly enough, study of the Dead Sea Scrolls has raised the possibility that in some areas the Septuagent may derive from an even more ancient textual variants than the Maserotic text adopted by the Jewish leaders at Jamnia.

Anonymous said…
First, I confess to not being an expert in this area, but my understanding is that the current list of NT books was determined in 397 at the Council of Carthage. Can you help me understand about the translation being added/excluded?

As for the Didache, doesn't it bring in a whole host of rules and regulations not found in other areas of scripture? -fasting before baptism, baptism must be done in running water, fasting required in Wed & Fri, but not on Mon and Thurs, you must pray the Lord's prayer three times a day. Are these regulations you follow? I am just curious how this book would be adopted today.

Do you guys have any worry here that we start chasing the wind on theories and possibilities, but miss the truth in front of us?

John said…

We are talking here about the Old Testament. In constructing the Christian Bible the Church Fathers adopted the Greek version of the old Testament (called the Septuagent) rather than the Hebrew version which the Jews formalized in about 95 AD.

The Reformers rejected the Septuagent and embraced the Hebrew version in the 1500's - The Cahlics retained it.

Anonymous said…
THANKS!! (again.. I confess my ignorance) Sorry for disrupting the conversation. How much difference is there in the two versions?

John said…
As for the Didache, it offers a unique perspective on the morality (for example explicitly anti-abortion), structure, ritual and protocol which existed in at least one segment of the early Church.

Should we ignore it as irrelevant to the issues of today's church?

The Didache seems to me especially relevant to denominations which claim to be restoration churches (i.e., the D.O.C.). Existing Scriptures provide very little guidance to what it means to reclaim the original church. The Didache fills in some of the blanks.

Of course, one could reject the 'restoration' label. One could assert that the Church at its best and most effective is organic, and not fixed, evolving to meet the ever changing needs and expectations of human society.

Or one could simply be certain that church as one knows it is exactly what church is supposed to be. (No instruments, only a priest at the table, 7 sacraments preach the Commandments, no statues). In response, the Didache opens a window into what church once was, a window which upsets the notion that church has ever been fixed, once and for always.

It is helpful to know from what we have evolved, as a check on where we are headed, permitting us to remain in some fashion connected with all the saints that have come before us, and forcing us to articulate how and why we are changing.

John said…
I don't know the extent of the differences, but I think that they must have been substantial enough for the Reformers to have made the change. If they minor, I can't imagine they would have bothered. I just don't know enough about the change or the Septuagent to make any informed comment.

But it has always intrigued me - if Jesus taught from the Septuagent, doesn't it make sense that this should be the Scripture of His Church?

And who gave anyone the authority not only to question the validity of the text He relied on but to substitute a different text for use in His Church?

I have also wondered if the Jews at Jamnia formally adopted the Hebrew text in order to set themselves apart from the increasingly Greek and Gentile Christians whom they were in the process of permanently throwing out of the synagogues.

Also, did it make sense after 1400 years, for the Reformers, who were after all attempting to reform the Church and reclaim its First Century roots, to embrace those laterly adopted Jewish texts for the church and throw out the texts which the actual First Century Church and all of its evangelists and Jesus Himself relied upon?


First on the issue of the Septuagint and the Reformers, the biggest reason why the Reformers rejected the deutero-canonicals was because the Catholic Church was using them to support doctrines like purgatory, which the Reformers believed were contrary to the Christian faith.

On the Didache, it was a 2nd century document and was lost to history until 1873. So, it was never in the conversation.

I'm of the opinion that the deutero-canonicals offer interesting and sometimes informative ideas, but as for my OT, I'll stick with the traditional canon.
John said…
I am not arguing for changing the canon at this late date. I just think that the Didache is too important to be dismissed as merely non-canonical.

As for the issues on the Septuagent, you have not addressed my points, and the one point you do make is even more problematic - supporting the rejection of otherwise accepted books because you don't like how they are being used?

Isn't that the indictment against the first canon proposed by Marcion, because he rejected any books which conflicted with his theological premises? Dangerous ground to be standing on.

The next thing we will see will be amendments to the canonical writings to assist them in better supporting theologies we like and in excluding theologies we don't like!?!

Chris said…
Quite frankly, Aland is reading the Bible with rose-colored lenses. There's no way that the book of Revelation, a fairly run-of-the-mill apocalyptic pseudepigraphon, is more valuable than the Didache. Nor, frankly, can I see the value in having forged chauvinistic epistles like 1 and 2 Timothy or 2 Peter rather than a document whose authorship is known and respected like 1 Clement.
Mystical Seeker said…
I think that Chris raises good points. There are several late, forged epistles that are in the canon, while other works of at least similar if not better merit got excluded.

I think that drawing a boundary between canonical and non-canonical is problematic to begin with. Throughout the canonical texts we find moments of sublime inspiration interspersed with nonsensical or offensive passages. The same can be said of non-canonical texts as well. Maybe instead of "canonical" we can instead look at these ancient works as "honored", or "respected".

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