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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.

8 Comments on “Sola Scriptura 4 – Canon and History”

  1. 1 Chris S said at 8:08 am on August 20th, 2009:

    Personally, I’m not a fan of the polemical dichotomy concerning the canon that emerges in the discussion between Catholics/Orthodox and the Reformation/post-Reformation communities. The game of one-upmanship – Church authority vs. Bible authority – demonstrates, I believe, a certain lack of theological discipline. What’s typically missing, from both sides, is a pneumatological and even Trinitarian account of community formation through traditioned inscripturation. Both Church and Book are constituted by the will of the Father through the personal Word that is Christ. Being the Logos of God, Christ grants the authority of ordering speech to both the word that reveals Him as Word and the Body that enacts the Word – namely, Christ’s Lordship, preaching, and mission – in the world. Finally, the Spirit of Christ vivifies the written word and empowers the Body to know and proclaim the will of the written Word. Thus Church and Book are intertwined in a reciprocal relationship based on participation in the very life of God. As such, it is incorrect to claim either revelation of God as the fountainhead of the other, for both are derivative and consequently integrated in a non-linear manner.

    This bears out in history when we discuss the difference between the acceptance of the Old Testament and the New. The Hebrew Scriptures were there for the Church at her inception and played a decisive role in constituting the Church’s self-understanding, memory, and interpretation of Christ’s mission and her own. The believers searched the Scripture to be formed by the story of Israel and the incipient story of Christ (Luke 24). Then, as the kerygmatic testimony to Christ was written down, the Church in the power of the Spirit discerned what texts faithfully promulgated the story that had begun in the Old Testament and which was carried forward in the early preaching of the Church.

    Both the searching of the already-established Scripture of the Old Testament, in which the “veil was lifted” (2 Corinthians 4) for the gathered believers, and the “testing of the spirits” for the New Testament canon were processes that could only be guaranteed by the promise of the Spirit who guides the Body into truth (John 16). And even that Spirit of God, Jesus said, would not “speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak.” How much more that is so for Church!

    So, in my mind, to say that Church is product of Book, or Book is product of Church, is to effectively deny inscripturation and incommunication as mutual Trinitarian actions. It would be as if I grew corn in my garden, and beans along with the corn, and when they grew up in partnership I credited one or the other instead of the fertile soil that nourishes both.

  2. 2 Scott said at 7:10 am on August 21st, 2009:

    This isn’t a polemical argument. I’ve read or heard a number of them, some better than others. These are threads of deconstruction of the assertion of sola scriptura. While I obviously couldn’t navigate the full scope of the thread in a single, short post, this is a big thread along which that particular claim deconstructs. That’s really all I’m pointing out in each post of this series.

    However, a few things leaped out at me from your thoughts. First, this is one of the areas in which more often than not the Orthodox (Eastern and Oriental) say something pretty different from what Roman Catholics say. As with all things Orthodox, it’s not neatly packaged somewhere like the Catechism, there are variations and different ways of speaking about it. Hmmm. It occurs to me that in some ways Roman Catholics and Protestants share at least a similar mental categorization and sharp delineation in this area, and simply emphasize things differently. I wonder if that’s an outgrowth of the shaping of western-style scholasticism?

    I find the way you speak of “Book” jarring on several levels. First, I’m more accustomed to seeing that sort of language in the context of Islam, who afford the Qur’an almost the sort of reverence and position that we afford the Logos. It is the followers of Islam who traditionally call themselves (and to a lesser extent sometimes Jews and Christians) as the People of the Book. I’m not saying that you mean the same thing when you use “Book”, just that I find that particular usage jarring.

    Of course, the idea of the Holy Scriptures as a singular “Book” of any sort is a pretty recent idea. Rather, the Scriptures have traditionally been considered those “books” that were read in church. It’s not “Book”, but rather a collection of “Books”.

    Except for 2 Peter, as a straightforward matter of history, when the New Testament refers to the Scriptures, it’s pretty much talking about the Septuagint. The Septuagint had some variation in form, which never seems to bother the ancient Christians. They just acknowledge it and move on those times it does come up. And the Septuagint itself isn’t really a singular book, either. However, when Protestants decided to switch from the Septuagint to the Masoretic text for our Old Testament, we essentially came up with a new “Book” that we preferred to use. That’s a significant discontinuity.

    While I certainly acknowledge that Jesus said to search the scriptures and would tend to put the same importance on it that John Chrysostom and many other did, I’m curious how you read Luke 24 in such a way as to think the believers searched the scriptures to understand Christ? Luke 24 pretty plainly tells us that Jesus explained to them, taught them, how all the scriptures pointed to him. He did so by explaining them verbally and by opening their minds. In other words, in Luke 24, it seems to be almost pure revelation from Jesus to the disciples. That revelation itself does not seem to be entirely recorded anywhere in textual form. We see a lot of it, of course, from Peter’s speech on the morning of the first Pentecost on. But it’s not nicely recorded for us in written form anywhere. It was delivered to the church and traditioned within the church. The New Testament books have the foremost place in that tradition, but they have no life or existence or singular meaning independent of the church.

    I like the quote from John 16. I’ve reflected on it a great deal. If you survey the Protestant landscape, the only conclusion it seems to me is possible is that under some version of the idea of “sola scriptura” at least most have spoken on their own authority. The things they say about God, about Jesus, and about the Spirit as actual Persons, about the meaning of the Cross, about pretty much everything, are all over the map and often contradictory.

    Whatever it might do, sola scriptura demonstrably does not produce even a vaguely singular “Church”.

  3. 3 Chris S said at 8:39 am on August 21st, 2009:


    I’m not saying you, personally, intend to be polemical with your posts. Rather, I made the observation that the discussion, as it typically takes place, creates a polemical dichotomy between the authority of the Church and the authority of Scripture that I find theologically suspect. Fundamentally, the issue of authority is theologically centered on the being and work of the Trinity, as I suggested. Your response ignores that central point, you nitpick some of my phrasing, and still call the Bible a “product” of the Church in your next post. Deconstruct sola Scriptura all you want, that doesn’t automatically make such a statement correct.

    About those nitpicks, though:

    Your second paragraph gives no context so I have no idea what you’re talking about. What is this “area” in which the Orthodox are speaking differently from Catholics and Protestants? FWIW, my argument draws upon the doctrine of perichoresis, which comes from the East. As far as “scholasticism,” well, I’ve found that Orthodox apologists seriously misrepresent and generalize. For example, I once came across an assertive Orthodox convert online who insisted that Thomas Aquinas defends penal substitutionary atonement and insists that Christ needed to die. Anyone who has read Thomas knows that both claims are bogus.

    As far as “Book” goes, I’m drawing upon language from some liturgical theology that I’ve read. Scripture is both the single Story of God as well as a pluriform chorus of witnesses across time and space. If we never speak of it as singular alongside its plurality, then we surrender to the secularists and unbelievers that there is no metanarrative, only a cacophany of contradictory claims.

    As far as the Septuagint and Masoretic Text, this is a more complex and involved conversation. But I do want to raise the question: Which recension of the Septuagint did the NT writers quote? Was it one? Was it many? How different from each other are the recensions of the Septuagint and how do those differences compare to the general differences between the MT and the LXX?

    Luke 24 is often understood by theologians and biblical scholars as paradigmatic. Or, to use the language of the ancient church, it’s recognized that this passage has more than one “sense” and, well, it would be oddly “Protestant” to stick only to the literal-historical and not draw out a figural reading meant to describe how the church encounters Jesus after his resurrection and ascension. Yes, Jesus literally revealed a Christological interpretation of Scripture for two disciples walking along the road. And yes, they literally recognized Jesus present among them in the breaking of the bread at the Table. Does this sequence not speak to the Church’s fellowship and worship together and to the customary liturgical rhythm of Word and Table? After all, Jesus is present with all his disciples as they walk their pilgrim pathway (Matthew 18). In the Spirit he opens the meaning of Scripture as it is read and preached. His presence is made known in the Eucharistic celebration of bread and wine.

    You misunderstand me, though, if you think I’m arguing that the ongoing discernment of the meaning and will of Christ is something done privately, individually, with Scripture by itself apart from the worship and justice practices of the Body. The revelation of how the OT points to Jesus is recorded throughout the NT, of course, yet that figural scriptural reasoning is something we continue to do together as we gather together to be renewed in the image of God.

    As far as a visibly singular Church, apostolic succession and tradition have not guaranteed such a reality either.

  4. 4 Scott said at 9:48 am on August 21st, 2009:

    Yes, I agree authority is centered in the Trinity and works itself out through many avenues. It also doesn’t see to me to be much like what many people seem to mean when they speak of authority. But not really the track down which my mind was wandering in this series. I also don’t have any problem agreeing that “product” is almost certainly not the best word for the flow of thoughts I’m trying to translate to words. A lot of the words I end up using don’t really feel exactly satisfactory.

    If I could reduce the “difference” I was expressing to words, I would. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it in a way I can precisely outline. I went to a Catholic school for three years growing up and found it interesting, so I actually paid attention in the various classes and forums, though I wasn’t Catholic. I also have family members who are Catholic. I’ve read at least significant pieces of the catechism. And I’ve read a number of Roman Catholic writings and books spanning the centuries (including the Summa Theologica). I’ve been a Christian in one Baptist church for roughly fifteen years or so, heard many sermons, been in a lot of studies, and read quite a bit. I was slow realizing that Orthodoxy was really a distinct tradition rather than simply an Eastern sort of Catholic, but I’ve also read and listened to a great deal they have to say and realized that a lot of the particular ancient writings that always spoke the most to me align more closely with some of what the Orthodox still say than with what the other traditions say.

    I was really just saying that it’s not Orthodox/Catholic vs. Protestant perspectives. At a minimum, it’s Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. What they say and how they speak of Scripture is all different. In style and presentation, if not in content, the Western Catholic and Protestant traditions feel more similar to each other to me than either to the Orthodox. There’s a fair bit in Anglicanism, though, which sometimes feels more like Orthodoxy than not. I don’t know that I could put my finger on what, exactly, the distinctions are. I was really just pointing out that it’s not two poles or two views on Scripture. It’s at least three distinct traditional ways of approaching it. Maybe more.

    Ah. I misunderstood the way you were approaching Luke 24 in your comment. That’s what confused me. No, I have no issue with the paradigmatic approach.

    Oh, on the Septuagint, I thought I’ve always been clear that the church used and still uses various versions of it. Even in my comment, I thought I said that clearly. And that it didn’t bother anyone in the ancient world as far as I can tell. Whether it was actually an intent of the rabbis or not, we do find charges from the ancient church that the rabbis were deliberately weakening prophetic texts about Christ as they began to develop what became the Masoretic text. So it appears possible that at least some of the differences in the Masoretic came about in response and opposition to Christianity. That’s a difference in intent from the variations in the Septuagint.

    However, I’m not even suggesting that there is no value in referring to the Masoretic text and the different richness of the Hebrew language. I am, however, questioning the wisdom of the Protestant tradition in essentially tossing out the OT canonical source text(s) of the Christian church for the first 1500 years of its existence and substituting a different source text in its place, particularly one about which there is at least some doubt about the intentions of those who put it together. It certainly deconstructs the idea of canonicity.

  5. 5 Scott said at 12:52 pm on August 21st, 2009:

    I’ve been mulling this searching for better words. I think part of the communication problem and possible perspective difference between us might at least be connected to the idea behind this statement you made:

    Thus Church and Book are intertwined in a reciprocal relationship based on participation in the very life of God.

    I’m not sure I agree that the Holy Scriptures actually participate in the life of God and certainly not in a way at all similar to the church. The church is the body of Christ. It is active. Certainly, the people who compose it are flawed and fallen and stumble all over the place. Nevertheless, the church does not even simply participate in the life of God. According to the Scriptures, it is embedded in the heart of the life of God, filled with the life of God, and is organically tied to the life and being of Christ.

    The Holy Scriptures, on the other hand, are integral to the life and practice of the church. They are useful in a host of ways. They are one avenue through which the Trinitarian God exercises whatever we might call authority. But they are at their core a text. They are words on a page or words memorized. They have no capability for acting on their own. They represent God to us. They represent Jesus to us. But they are not Jesus or God or actual participants in the life of God. They require an active agent to engage them.

    I’ve been finding Father Stephen’s posts on icons lately intriguing. He mentions an Orthodox saying: Icons do with pictures what Scripture does with words. Like icons, Scripture can represent truth to us if we engage it properly. Like icons, Scripture can also be badly abused. And neither can really do much of anything to stop or correct abuse. God might engage the person in a way that corrects the misuse. Often it seems God does that in and through people.

    And perhaps that’s the core of it. The church transcends its individual members (thank God!) and also definitely transcends other groups of human beings (for it rests in the life of God). But it is composed of persons. The Holy Scriptures transcend other writings. Absolutely. But they are still words written on a page. Church and Scripture are not even in the same category.

  6. 6 Scott said at 8:54 pm on August 21st, 2009:

    I also want to offer my apologies ChrisS. I have the sense that I am expressing what I actually desire to say very poorly. Please forgive my inadequacy.

  7. 7 Chris S said at 5:10 pm on August 22nd, 2009:


    No need to apologize. On the other hand, I applaud the theological reasoning in your previous post.

    I would make an attempt at a substantive reply, but it is difficult to concentrate in a busy airport. Let me just say, for the sake of clearing the air a bit, that I have some personal understanding of your current thinking. I was a near-transvert (“convert” is not ecumenically appropriate, IMHO) to Eastern Orthodoxy four years ago. I had the same disillusionment with evangelical Protestantism and believed I was taking the inevitable path out. I stopped myself, pulled back, and eventually concluded I was being too hasty. I hadn’t given my Baptist background a fair chance to present the best it has to offer. Since that time, I feel that I have, and now I am quite satisfied as a catholic Baptist. I wouldn’t want to become Orthodox now. That’s not because I think the Orthodox are heretical, or have corrupted the pure Gospel, or whatever. But I do believe they have their own problems and issues that I could not satisfactorily gloss over in order to accept their ecclesiological claims. I believe the Orthodox have something to learn from Free Church Christians in the ecumenical dialogue, just as I also no doubt believe Baptists and their fellow travelers have something to learn from the Orthodox.

    My suggestion is that you at least make sure you’ve given Baptists the best chance you can before jumping ship. If you want to see reflective, ecumenical, serious Baptist engagements with such topics as liturgy, the creedal Tradition, and the sacraments, please consider taking a look at the following material:

    D.H. Williams – Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants. Williams is a Baptist patristics scholar who used to teach at a Catholic university, but he’s now at Baylor. This is a good popular-level argument for the importance of the great Tradition for evangelicalism.

    Steven Harmon – Towards Baptist Catholicity: Essays on Tradition and the Baptist Vision. Harmon is one of the best younger theological minds among Baptists and is a trained patristics scholar. He is also a member of the committee representing the Baptist World Alliance in its current five-year dialogue with the Pontifical Commission for Christian Unity.

    Stephen Holmes – Listening to the Past: The Place of Tradition in Theology. Available for 90 cents on Amazon.

    Anthony R. Cross and Philip E. Thompson, eds. – Baptist Sacramentalism and Baptist Sacramentalism 2

    John Colwell – Promise and Presence: An Exploration of Sacramental Theology. Colwell’s book is a consciously Baptist explication of sacramental theology that moves through all seven of the classical Catholic sacraments.

    Christopher Ellis – Gathering: A Spirituality and Theology of Worship in the Free Church Tradition. One of Ellis’ main “dialogue partners” in the book is the eminent Orthodox liturgical scholar Alexander Schmemann.

    Ian Randall, ed. – Baptists and the Orthodox Church: On the Way to Understanding. This book comes out of work done at the International Baptist Seminary in Prague (my destination for this trip) and you would have to order the book here:

    By the way, this discussion has encouraged me to pull out some material to review Catholic and Orthodox reflections on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. Hopefully I’ll find some time in the future to at least skim Henri de Lubac’s Scripture in the Tradition and John Breck’s Scripture in Tradition: The Bible and its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church{/i>.


  8. 8 Scott said at 7:11 pm on August 22nd, 2009:

    Thanks for the kind words, Chris. I’ll add at least some of the writings you mention to my lengthy reading list. I don’t actually have any plans to convert to Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. I think the things I write and say can be misleading. I’m aware of at least some of the problems in each, but since they are not the tradition through which I entered Christianity, I don’t focus on their in-house issues. There is a great deal positive in each and when I speak or write, that’s pretty much all I reflect on. I do recognize that could be misleading to an outside observer.

    I also don’t seem to experience precisely the same sort of tension that others often seem to feel. I’ve tried on many of the beliefs of Texas Southern Baptists over the years, but I’ve never really believed much of what the typical Baptist seems to believe. If my family and I hadn’t been continually bombarded with young earth creationism, dispensational premillenial rapture theology, a disturbing attitude and practice toward women, and frequent statements about God I personally find disturbing (like God not being able to be around sin (ascribing a problem to God for which there is no evidence) or the Father and the Spirit turning away from Christ on the cross or similar such things), would probably have spent my life in the one church in spite of my personal disagreement with much of their official doctrine.

    However, I realized that despite our best efforts, our kids were absorbing the YEC message. I realized that the attitude toward women was negatively affecting my sons as well my youngest daughter. The dispensational rapture theology was making my family at least somewhat fearful. And on top of that I just grew weary of being bombarded by descriptions of God that simply didn’t match the reality I had encountered and which was everywhere described in the ancient writings of the church.

    I don’t have a clue where we’ll end up. I’ve had enough dramatic changes in my life that I don’t rule out much completely. I’ve looked at a few places, but the idea of going through the process of becoming an actual part of a community again fatigues me. My sense is that we’re in something of a wait and see holding pattern at the moment. And I’m ok with that for a season if that’s what we need.

    Thanks again for the recommended reading.