Sola Scriptura 4 – Canon and History

Posted: August 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Sola Scriptura | Tags: , , , , , | 8 Comments »

The thread of deconstruction I have in mind today is a tangled one indeed. I’m not sure how well I can express it one post, but I’ll do my best. Put simply, many of the ways “the Bible” is discussed among those today who hold to some variation of sola scriptura simply don’t reflect the reality of its development and often strangely try to set it at odds with the Christian tradition which produced it. Now this is by no means everywhere true. (Actually, I would tend to say that very few statements I could make are everywhere true, but that’s another discussion.) But when any interpretation of Scripture that is divorced from traditional interpretations is promoted as somehow authoritative in some sense because of some quality innate to the text itself you see the influence of this thread of thought. Scripture is very important in the life of Christ in the church. Scripture, especially in the Gospels, preserves for all generations the core of the tradition of our faith within the context of the church.

But that last phrase is critically important. Scripture as we know it in a canonical form is a product of the Church. It can be nothing else. We see that most clearly when we look at what Christians call the Old Testament. Each of the various primary traditions of the Church, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant have a different Old Testament canon. (I would say the first three are most similar to each other since they are all essentially variations of the Septuagint which we know took various forms in the pre-first century Diaspora. The latter tradition adopted the Masoretic Jewish canon which was developed as a canon beginning in the second century. That summary oversimplifies things, but is the best I can do in a few sentences. As a matter of history, we know the NT authors and the early church used the Septuagint in one form or another since that was the Greek text in use in most synagogues and the text the gentile converts could understand.) The OT canon itself was rarely a matter of particular concern through most of the history of the church since everyone simply used the form of the Septuagint they had received (or its Latin translation). In the second century, as the Jewish rabbis were developing what became the Masoretic Hebrew canon, you do see some Christian writers complaining that they were changing some of the texts to reduce or eliminate the Christian interpretation of them by which Christians were still converting Jews.

The New Testament canon was another matter altogether. The writings from the first century were preserved, but it’s mostly in the second century that the awareness within the church that these writings were also Holy Scripture began to develop. The first references I recall are references to the Gospels being “read” in church.  I think it’s easy for modern Protestants to misunderstand those references, though. They don’t mean people gathered around, opened some scrolls, and talked about the texts. They would have been doing that anyway as time allowed or the need presented itself. To understand that phrase, you have to think of the synagogue worship that formed the framework for what we now might call the Liturgy of the Word. That phrase means that the Gospels were chanted or sung in the same place in worship where the OT Scriptures were chanted or sung. Other works also became ones that were read in church and over time we see various lists or canons of such writings.

Once the Church was legalized under Constantine, bishops from across the empire were better able to discuss their lists. They were all pretty similar and the process of developing the canon, in large part, involved eliminating those texts that were only read in specific places. That process reduced the number that required more detailed discussion to a relative handful. But the NT canon itself is a product of the church, not the other way around.

We’ll delve more into that tomorrow.