Thursday, October 21, 2010

The New Testament and its Diversity of Voices

Although I'm not an inerrantist or an infallibist, I am one who believes that the New Testament as it stands is a distinctive and authoritative voice to which the church should give its attention.  I realize that there were other documents floating around that didn't make it into the canon, but is that necessarily a bad thing.  Perhaps what emerged as the New Testament carries with it the providence of God, and that it is this voice upon which God has breathed so that it might be "useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  

Now, I recognize that for this to happen, we who are the recipients of this voice must attend to it carefully.  We must be discerning readers, watching for nuances and context.  We read it not simply on the surface, but plumb its depths for meaning that can be carried forward.

As we consider this voice, it is helpful to remember that there is already, within this collection of texts, diversity.  There are four gospels, each carrying a distinctive voice.  And, it's important to realize that this recognition isn't new.  As biblical scholar Larry Hurtado notes in a blog posting, 2nd Century Christians were wrestling with this diversity.  Some of them, like Marcion decided to adopt just one voice (and a truncated version at that).  Others, like Tatian tried to weave the voices together (The Diatessaron) -- an effort that has often been imitated down through history. 

Then there are those other voices, the ones that have become so popular in recent years -- like the Gospel of Thomas.  Everyone seems to love the Gospel of Thomas and wonder why it didn't make the cut, but as Hurtado notes, the adherents of that Gospel likely wouldn't have been throwing it into the ring.  It has, as he notes an elitist tone, for only those in the know would get this gospel, so why put it into the ring with lesser messages?  Thus, he writes:

People today sometimes refer to writings “left out” of the NT or refused entry, as if there were many texts vying to be included with the writings that came to be the NT. There were a few that seem to have been considered for a while (e.g., Shepherd of Hermas, a certain “Gospel of Peter”, maybe 1 Clement). But it is unlikely that the authors of Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of Philip, or the several apocryphal acts ever wanted their texts to be part of a NT collection. The Gospel of Thomas, for example, reflects an intense disdain for ordinary Christians, and claims to deliver a unique and secret body of teaching of which only certain believers are worthy. It’s elitist to the core, so it’s unlikely that those responsible for it ever wanted to have it treated as one text/voice among others. (As as to the mainstream Christian rejection of the stance reflected in Gospel of Thomas, I’m reminded of the quip from the American comic, Jerry Seinfeld: “Sometimes the road less taken is less taken for a reason!”)

But the church in its wisdom, as it gathered texts into an authoritative whole, chose to embrace the diversity, leaving it to our discerning eye to find the truth of the gospel for each era.  And that, my friends, is our task, discerning together the message of God for today, a message I believe should be anchored in the text of Scripture. 



Brian said...

Some thoughts:

Tatian's The Diaterssaron serves as a good reminder to honor the diversity within the New Testament.

I'm not aware of any Christians who do not consider the scriptures to be authoritative. The divisions seem to be over just what "authoritative" means.

Larry Hartado's thoughts are interesting and possible, but highly speculative. We have no way to really know what the authors of Thomas and other non-canonical works thought at the time. I'm not saying it is wrong to speculate, but I feel the reader should procede with caution.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


You are correct -- our understandings of the canonization process are a bit murky, but we do see patterns. There seems to be choices that are made over time. Whether the gnostic writers wanted to have their texts included can never be known. Marcion, though, who has gnostic tendencies, did create his own canon to fit his theology.

Brian said...

Yeah, we certainly know where Marcion stood!

He wasn't exactly a shrinking violet.

Brian said...

I see that I wasn't communicating clearly. My somewhat critical thoughts were not about analyzing the canonization process.

l intended to communicate about the section of Hartado's in the original post. In his words I had the impression that he was guessing what was in the minds of authors of non-canonical texts. We don't know who wrote them, let alone their thoughts and feelings.

Speculating about ancient history is a wonderful thing to do, as long we remember that we are engaging in an exercise of speculation.

Hoping I'm not monopolizing the threads. I suspect people felt that I was on the intersection (although I have no way of knowing). I just enjoy conversing with your enormous brain!

(Speaking of enormous brains, if you don't know David Bundy at Fuller, you should. He's a brilliant church historian. You'd like him and he'd like you.)

John said...

So that's what's in his enormous head!