Volume 46 - Issue 1

Canonicity: A Theologian’s Observations

By Henri A. G. Blocher


The topic of the biblical canon raises a specific, twofold difficulty for evangelical systematic theologians: the appeal to the Spirit’s testimony and a recognition of divine providence in history. It is crucial to recognize that “canon” entails both a principle—a body of teaching incorporating the word of God that binds the conscience of believers—and a list of books officially recognized as authoritative by the world-wide church. The principle of canon and specific canonical books are organically linked. While the validity of our confession of the canon of Scripture cannot be proven on any “neutral” ground, believers have sufficient clarity and confidence to confess the rule we need in radical dependence on God.

The topic of the biblical canon raises a specific and twofold difficulty in the way of an “evangelical” systematic theologian. The principle Sola Scriptura, “by Scripture alone,” would seem impossible to honor, since, in the words of the Jesuit theologian Bernard Sesboüé, “the Bible does not offer its own table of contents.”1 When appeal is made to the inner witness of the Spirit, it may be exposed, in David Friedrich Strauss’s words, as “the Achilles’ heel of the Protestant system.”2 Heirs of the Reformation face an acute, and maybe poisonous, form of the starting-point embarrassment: how does one justify first principles? The second special challenge relates to the role of historical research for dogmatic reflection on the issue. Few articles of faith so depend for defense and development on the way in which historians tell the story of the Bible’s reception in the ancient church; the construction of historical “fact” and the adjustment of theological views intimately react on each other. Were one to underwrite, as the indisputable result of objective research, William J. Abraham’s account of the “Emergence of the Canonical Heritage of the Church,” one would find it difficult to resist his critique of the classical view.3 When Auguste Lecerf, a systematic theologian indeed, took up the cudgels against liberal views of the canon (those of his times, but there is little new under the sun), his article was almost entirely devoted to historical matters.4 History and theology intertwined: complexity must be the word.

It would be foolhardy on my part, however, to enter the debate of historians. There has been a plethora of learned investigations in recent decades (without making earlier syntheses obsolete, which we inherited from Edouard Reuss, Adolf von Harnack, Brooke F. Westcott, Louis Gaussen, Theodor Zahn). I choose to rely on the work of such experts as Roger T. Beckwith, F. F. Bruce, Stephen Dempster, David G. Dunbar, Charles E. Hill, and others,5 and I find reason to trust their command of primary sources. Just to illustrate which “technical” choices may be involved, I may mention the following: (1) I ascribe much weight to Josephus’s statement of the case (Against Apion 1.8.37–42) and the suggestion of the TaNaK tripartition already in the prologue of Sirach; (2) I discard the myth of a Jamnia (Yavnè[h]) “Council” constituting the Hebrew canon, and the other myth of a different Alexandrian canon; (3) I underline the few but significant references to New Testament writings as Scriptures (“it is written”) in orthodox and Gnostic texts before Marcion; (4) I stress Irenaeus’s use of the Scriptures under the rubric “rule of faith”6; (5) I date the Muratorian Fragment c. 170–200, on the basis of its indication that the Shepherd of Hermas had been composed not long before its own time. Such decisions give privilege to “hard evidence” when available.

It is an open secret that the above-named scholars are of an evangelical persuasion, and theirs is a minority stance among generally recognized specialists. I protest in advance against any attempt to undermine their scientific authority because of their commitment of faith. On the contrary, their being in spiritual sympathy with the texts under scrutiny may sharpen and rightly guide their sensitivity when dealing with relevant data. Scholars of other persuasions are no less influenced by their religious (sometimes anti-religious) commitments: the illusion of a neutral “objectivity” in historiographical endeavors has been exploded for a long time,7 though the news, apparently, has not reached everyone! In the Christian world-view, an ultimate solidarity obtains between all levels of knowledge, however distinct they ought to remain, and it is proper to enrich the pursuit of truth in one dimension with insights drawn from others—even special revelation! An evangelical theologian may, therefore, reasonably capitalize on the conclusions and demonstrations of evangelical historians—without, of course, closing his or her eyes on solid arguments from the other side. At any rate, I will not canonize the present state of opinion in the academic microcosm, and I will consider the credentials of the “minority” narrative as impressive enough to warrant proceeding in its light.

Attention may be drawn to a kind of presuppositions which often escapes critical evaluation. Those are distinct from “metaphysical” axioms and postulates, from reference points and criteria vitally bound to faith; they do not belong to the “fiduciary framework” in Michael Polanyi’s sense. The presuppositions I point to are lower level assumptions—which, yet, determine to a large extent the perspectives many historians bring to their objects. They consist in general representations of what life was like, or in overall schemes of development. They embody preconceptions so common among the academic guild that one loses sight of their precarious character. If no serious objection arises, people tend to forget that these working hypotheses have very little evidence to back them up. I suggest: conclusions they induce should still be received as conjectures. The diversity of traditions among critical scholars from one nation to the next, in this respect, reveals the lack of compelling reasons for this one or that one. And the way one imagines the use of Scripture in second century churches is a case in point. In responsible awareness of what we know and what we guess, it is permissible to draw a picture that fits the elements which can be ascertained.

My systematic theology inquiry will presuppose the defensibility of the account evangelical historians offer, certainties and conjectures combined. Rather “independent” scholars ratify their judgment: W. C. van Unnik, for instance, estimated that “round about a.d. 140–150 a collection of writings was known at Rome and accepted as authoritative which was virtually identical with our New Testament.”8 It will try to reflect on the facts thus identified and interpreted. It will move up one rung, up the ladder of abstraction: hence the choice of the word “canonicity” instead of “canon.” It cannot, of course, deal with too many aspects or ramifications, and will major on issues that have maximum relevance for an evangelical theologian as I am. It may cast an eye on distant, foreign horizons, but one eye only. In the very few lines he devotes to the Kuyperian “territory,” William J. Abraham depicts it as “this somewhat remote but fascinating epistemological planet.”9 Planets remote from one another…. Some debates imply so little common faith between participants that they rather belong to apologetics than to systematic theology, or should come under inter-religious dialogue. I am not arguing here contra Gentiles.

1. Canon and Canon: The Reference of the Noun

The central word of our quest stands in need of clarification: what do we mean when we say “canon”? More is at stake than preferences in vocabulary.

William J. Abraham makes, from the start, a fateful decision. In the preface to the paperback edition of his dazzling synthesis he stipulates, “On my revisionist analysis ‘canon’ is a much more modest notion [than that of criterion, applying to the Bible], meaning essentially a ‘list’; and ‘canon’ applies not just to the biblical canon, but to the canon of saints, the canon of doctrine, the canon of Fathers, and the like.”10 “At one level,” he claims, “canon simply meant a list of books. Modern usage reflects this when it speaks of the canon of Western civilization and means by this a list of books.”11 In what he terms “canonical,” he includes (with Reuss) “canons of cathedrals,” the sacraments, iconography, the episcopate.12 This lexical orientation obviously serves Abraham’s project: to deconstruct the role Scripture has played, in the West, as the criterion of knowledge (“epistemic,” he says).

Whether κανών had been used for a “list of books” before it was applied to the Christian Scriptures13 has been disputed. Roger Beckwith emphatically denies it:

The common idea that this language had earlier been used by the Alexandrian grammarians for the select lists (pinakeis) of classical writers and artists which they drew up is a mistake. Such lists did exist, both among the Greeks and perhaps among the Babylonians, but calling them a “canon” is a practice dating only from the 18th century, and was based upon the biblical canon, not the other way round.14

Dictionaries do mention that use, but it is hard to trace occurrences.15 In any case, the use for lists was rather marginal if it ever happened. Even then, “canon” would not denote a mere list, but a list of models, of masters, of authorities; this still belongs to our canon of classics.16 In all metaphorical uses, κανών, above all a rule and yardstick, but extended to astronomical tables, grammatical paradigms, and the musical instrument monochord (determining the right pitch), retains the semantic trait of a norm and criterion. In the sense of the limit assigned, Paul paraphrases it by the word μέτρον (2 Cor 10:13). Krister Stendahl had these connotations of κανών in mind when he warned against reducing Scripture to the status of a literary classic: “what makes the bible the Bible is the canon.… It is as Holy Scripture that the Bible is a classic in our culture. Therefore there is something artificial in the idea of ‘the Bible as literature.’”17

Undoubtedly, κανών is not found for Scripture alone. This use specifies common talk of the rule of faith, of truth, of apostolic tradition, possibly of the fathers inasmuch as its reception implied a grateful recognition of the faithful service of transmitters. But the word was never used in this way of the sacraments and icons, and swamping creeds and the faith once delivered to the saints with all kinds of church practices in a rag-bag of a same category, under the name “canonical heritage,” is to dissolve what must be discerned. The real issue to be explored is the precise relationship between the rule of faith and the Scriptures in such a writer as Irenaeus. A good case can be set forth showing their near-identification, the rule of faith being considered the summary of the contents of Old Testament, Gospels, and apostolic testimony.

This correction of Abraham’s proposal leads to a further clarification. How precisely are we to articulate rule and list when thinking of the biblical canon? Gerald T. Sheppard distinguishes canon 1 from canon 2: canon 1 involves functioning in a normative fashion, be it tight or loose; canon 2 is a fixed collection of books.18 I suggest the principle of canon, that there is a body of teaching incorporating the word of God that binds the conscience of the faithful, is not the same as the exact delineation of its contours. The latter issue was only settled in a definite and official manner, for the world-wide church, in the second part of the 4th century. It is a ruinous mistake then to assert that the canon itself was not recognized before that time. Actually, one can point to no time in the life of the church when the principle of canon was not represented and efficacious.

The main observation is this: we may distinguish the two issues but never separate them; there is a deep solidarity between the two. Not only does history picture a process, with a growing preoccupation among Christians with the principle of canon—in front of Judaism, heresy, divergent theologies—and growing assurance about its component parts, doubts gradually overcome about disputed writings (ἀντιλεγόμενα), but accepting the principle of canon naturally entails asking about its boundaries. If a given discourse is set apart as the norm of belief and behavior, sooner or later the question arises of its contours. The Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and jointly the words of the Lord himself (conveyed by his chosen witnesses under the Spirit’s guidance) meant Authority from the start in the Christian church. The question, then, of the canonical list could not be absent; it was inevitably present, in latent, germinal form.

Contrary to William Abraham, Abraham Kuyper majors on κανών as rule, model, and criterion (the meaning “list” is only metaphorical, overdrachtelijk).19 With powerful eloquence, he “preaches” that God himself is our κανών, in whose image we were created: while we should have harbored this canon in our own constitution, sin has distorted everything, and God had to reveal his canon in the Law and in the Lord to straighten up what we have bent.20 In order to approach the idea of canon, one should forget about the list of books, and “begin by going back to the mental picture [denkbeeld] of the power, of the authority, of the imposing and compelling ethical might, and here take one’s starting-point in God himself as above all ho Kanôn, since kat’ eikona autou ektisthè.”21

Such an admonition is of the sword of the Spirit. It has methodological relevance: it reminds us of the proper spiritual environment of our theological reflection—always the fear of the Lord first. I observe that the climate of our time causes us desperately to need it. Answers about authority by four famous theologians, not extreme modernists at all, illustrate the pervasive influence in churches of the late modern libertarian cult. Eberhard Jüngel only legitimizes the authority of the word of God if it is essential for freedom, and, hence “as being constituted by the content of this Word. The Word of God, and with it the Bible, cannot be justified as an authority in order that it may say something”; Gerhard Krobel rejects any appeal to the Bible “as law for doctrine and ethos and as judge in controversy”; René Marlé only justifies authority “which summons us ‘to freedom rather than to order”’; John D. Zizioulas will only accept an anamnetic authority: “Apart from this, its [the Bible’s] authority is only an externally imposed claim, which man’s freedom has every right to reject in the name of the freedom of the Spirit.”22 “The fact is and remains,” Kuyper wrote, “that there are two canons facing each other: on the one side, the unjust and distorted kanôn tou kosmou, as the kosmos now en tô ponerô keitai; on the other side, the everlasting, unchanging, uniquely right and sure kanôn, as the one in which God, who created humankind in his image, has given himself to all children of men, and which is made manifest now in Christ through ensarkôsis, and still in Holy Scripture through inscripturatio.”23

Three adjacent remarks may dispel residual mist. One should notice, first, that the principle of canon, even expressed by means of a list of sacred texts, does not require logically that the canon be closed. Likely, the rabbis who had grown aware of the Spirit’s having “deserted Israel” did not rule out a renewal of official prophecy. The closure of the Christian canon constitutes a further claim, added to the notion itself. The recognition of canon is compatible with uncertainty about the edges: provided there is a consistent nucleus of writings universally accepted (ὁμολογούμενα). Hesitating on Hebrews and relying on Romans is not a contradiction. Canonical function, third, belongs to λόγοι, whether unwritten (ἀγράφοι) or written (ἐγγράφοι), to use classical terms24: to “texts” in the sense modern linguists use, in oral or written form (cf. 2 Thess 2:15). The import of Papias’s words, as reported by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.39), has been inflated beyond measure, as he expresses his preference for the living voice of those who had heard the apostles. One can argue that “Papias magnifies the importance of oral tradition for his commentary of the words of the Lord” and disparages books produced by heretics.25 Papias’s talk, also, does not breathe pure objectivity: it obviously enhances his personal status, there is a tinge of boasting in it which one should not miss. The written form was pre-eminently suited for a rule to be followed by generations, and the introductory form “it is written” (γέγραπται) is highly significant in this regard, but the act of writing down the divinely-given discourse did not essentially alter its status (this consideration, of course, helps to support the argument that the church from the start lived with the canon).

2. Canon and Rule: The Function for Faith

If we maintain the time-honored and well-established meaning of κανών, and cannot ignore the late modern aversion to anything of the kind, we must further explore the issue of Scripture’s authority or rule in Christian life.

Against the older understanding, which is being felt as unbearably authoritarian, theologians have criticized the “formal” character of the norm (“formal” having very bad connotations), and tried to base “authority” (not seldom interpreted etymologically from augere, “cause to grow”) on the content of the message, and its life-giving power. This emphasis already marks the great Berkouwer’s treatment.26 By far the most powerful attack was mounted by William J. Abraham, in Canon and Criterion. The fatal move, as he sees it, was, in the West, the construal of the “canonical heritage” as an “epistemic” criterion. Irenaeus, who came from Asia Minor, did speak of the rule of truth, but Abraham claims, “It is not a contribution to epistemology understood as a quest for some way of demarcating, say, knowledge from opinion. It is not a formal norm for measuring truth or falsehood.”27 One arch-villain was Thomas Aquinas, with his effort towards scientia, his emphasis on the literal sense of biblical texts.28 He aggravated the tendency linked with the Western filioque clause, and “there is a striking similarity” between his positions and the Reformers,29 who, of course, made matters even worse.30 Liberals have grown more and more aware of the weakness of the traditional Western view, but they have not been able to remedy the situation. Abraham offers his panacea: “my favoured category is that of means of grace.”31 The authority of Scripture is part of soteriology. Under the label “canonical heritage” it is part of the many things the Holy Spirit introduces and uses to vivify and nurture the Church. In an important article, John Webster, with infinitely more self-restraint, also suggests giving priority to the category “means of grace” and a soteriological location.32

William Abraham’s grand narrative lays itself open to criticism. How can he minimize Irenaeus’s zeal against doctrinal falsehood? Most fathers spent an enormous amount of energy fighting for right opinion (orthodoxy!) against other teachings, and their supreme appeal was to the tradition embodied in the Scriptures. They differentiated levels of authority. The Lutheran patristic scholar Marc Lods has shown, with model rigor, that “tradition” and “traditions” were not rules of the same force (one could compare to Torah and halakah): “tradition is the transmission of Holy Scripture, not only the elaboration and conservation of the scriptural canon, but also the preaching in the church of the apostles’ witness to Christ, and confessed as the very sign of the existence and unity of the church”; “traditions are the uses and customs which the church needs for her life.”33 Augustine’s clear confession of the absolute superiority of the Scriptures in his famous Epistle 82 (to Jerome) is by no means an extravagant idiosyncrasy.34 Though we do admire his sober clarity, Thomas Aquinas was not the only one in the Middle Ages whom we find standing on the shores of William Abraham’s dislike. Richard Muller refers to learned studies of that theological line and says, for instance, of Henry of Ghent that he “adumbrates what Oberman calls ‘Tradition I’ by indicating the priority of Scripture over church, if there were to be a disagreement.”35 Muller considers that the (French) Jesuit George[s] Tavard (in Holy Writ and Holy Church) has been refuted:

Both the church fathers and major thirteenth-century scholastics like Aquinas make the distinction just as clearly [as the Reformation]—thus revealing (contra Tavard) that the assumption of the co-equality of Scripture and tradition held by the late medieval canonists and the Tridentine theologians is an un-catholic aberration over against the catholicity and conservatism of the Reformers.36

Why such a vocal disparagement of “form”? Is not form a feature of the real world? Have not Marxist attacks against “formal liberties” brought to light, a contrario, how precious “formal” realities may be? Since meaning does not depend on etymology, “authority” could be analyzed as formal indeed. It is the right to determine belief and behavior in others. If these base their decisions on their appreciation of the content, they determine themselves, they are not under authority. Authority becomes an empty notion. (The grounds on which authority is being ascribed to someone constitute a separate issue. I may ascribe authority to Muller or Lods on the basis of my appreciation of their scientific achievements, but submitting to their authority means that I receive what they say because they say it, without pretending myself to assess the matter.)

Actually, I suspect that the form/content polarity slightly shifts the true issue. What is at stake is rather origin. When I submit to authority, I follow, or obey, or trust, somebody else, rather than myself. This is valid for the authority of witnesses: because they were there, the testimony they bear, whose content judges cannot determine, plays the role of “epistemic criterion” in court. This is valid for all kinds of authority. Acknowledging authority, the rule of any canon, means renouncing one’s autonomy in the area concerned, renouncing sitting in the judge’s chair. As John Webster finely perceives, “Above all, faithful reading is an aspect of mortificatio sui, a repudiation of the desire to assemble all realities, including texts, including even the revelation of God, around the steady centre of my will.”37

The levels of authority vary, and so the proper degree of submission. The motives of that submission range from cold recognition of competence to loving trust. Justifications are relevant. Mortificatio sui has nothing to do with a foolish suicide. The problem of the canonical authority of Scripture is not its “formal” character, but whether the writers are trustworthy witnesses, whether they are truly (as they claim) the spokesmen of God, through whom we can hear our Lord himself speaking.

The question of trustworthiness and our motives leads us to the soteriological context of the divine speaking. Indeed the gift of Scripture is part and parcel of the economy of our salvation, and cannot be correctly appreciated if we forget its bonds with the total history of redemption. There is no objection to its being included among the “means of grace,” as long as one does not use this inclusion as a pretext for dissolving canonical authority.38 If the specific “moment” of trusting obedience is preserved, its motive cannot be separated from the encounter of the gracious God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ, and this encounter and growing knowledge happen through the contents of Scripture. In this, I gladly concur.

The unfortunate turn occurs when “means of grace” and criterion for knowledge are set against each other. It is a gift of grace indeed if a sure Word from God frees us from the darkness of ignorance, from the deceitful winds of teaching which are blowing from every quarter, from the captivity of devilish lies and wordly στοιχεῖα (the Germans could call them the Zeitgeist)! William Abraham shows himself strangely blind to this emphasis in the New Testament (and even in the Old, with the fight against false prophecy). Our predicament is enmity towards God τῇ διανοίᾳ, “in our thinking” (Col 1:21)! The apostles never tire of opposing the ἐπίγνωσις of the truth to the γνῶσις falsely so-called of heterodox teachers, already antichrists! Knowledge, as summed up in a “model of sound words” and a “pattern of teaching,” is grace indeed. Conversely, the other gifts of grace, beyond knowledge, are to be appropriated in a conscious, informed, intelligent way: through the Word. The Word is not conceived as a blind force (in the manner of pagan religion, 1 Cor 12:2) but as didactic, and apologetic, discourse: it conveys information and invites responsible examination (Acts 17:11). The Life cannot be separated from the Light, the Light of the Logos (John 1:4).

William Abraham brands the notion of the canon he engages under the phrase “epistemic criterion.” Rather early in his book, he can write, “Everything initially turns on how we construe epistemology.”39 This concentration on a rather specialized philosophical field is a bit surprising. Abraham discloses that “the deep reason” for his strategic move is “simple: to construe an ecclesial canon, like Holy Scripture, as an epistemic norm is odd in the extreme. It is straightforwardly wrong.”40 How does he argue so heavy a condemnation? He goes on:

Imagine taking a course in epistemology, where we are exploring what knowledge is and how it is to be related to truth, belief, evidence, justification, warrant, and rationality … or suppose we are puzzled about the reliability of memory or of sense experience or of induction. Appealing to the canon will get us nowhere.41

Abraham’s “victory” is a bit too facile! Of course, Scripture does not deal with the issues discussed in an epistemology course as would be taught in a 21st century university (typically a U.S. one). It would be possible to explore the bearing of the biblical world-view on such issues, but I point here to what appears to be a confusion in Abraham’s argument: canon (the word of God as the rule of truth), sense experience, memory and induction are not factors of the same order, though he treats them as if they were. Whereas the canon of Scripture adjudicates between doctrines, would be normative expressions of Truth, the deliverances of sense perception, inductive reason, etc. are not norms, but simply conditions of knowledge. In our relationship to Scripture, the reliability of perception, of memory, etc., does not function as a yardstick to measure truthfulness, it merely serves our access to the meaning (we could not read without them). (The problem of that reliability having been affected by human sinfulness is a distinct one. The solution can be developed along the following lines: our fallen faculties can play their part, despite damages and corruption, because common grace safeguards their minimally reliable functioning. The underlying consideration is this: Special revelation presupposes general revelation; redemption presupposes creation, which the fall into sin was not able to cancel or abolish.) If “epistemic” is taken in its primary and etymological meaning, “relative to knowledge,” the Scriptures have been given us as the supreme and saving “epistemic criterion,” to lead us into the knowledge of Him Who Is True, while freeing us from the tyranny of the spirit of falsehood (1 John 5:20; 4:6). This pattern is consistent, and reflects the way Scripture has been the criterion for faith and life, and the vivifying instruction leading to the knowledge of God, throughout the history of the church.

3. Canon and Church: A Non-Symmetrical Correlation

The history of the church…. The sphere of Scripture’s “rule” has primarily been the church, and the relationship between the two is a delicate but vital issue. John C. Peckham brings out the opposition of two fundamental models of canonicity: either canonical status is conferred by the community, extrinsically; or canonical status is merely recognized by the community, which may or may not make an official pronouncement.42 One meets the community-based model today in two sharply different forms: first, the Roman Catholic traditional theology of canon renovated as the times require (aggiornata); second, the late modern one (or hyper-modern, or postmodern, this slippery label).

I wish quickly to dispose of the late modern view.43 The correlation of church and canon is conceived of with a relativistic twist: each community shapes its own identity by choosing, as it is free to do so, which writings will become the privileged reference in its life; there is no higher point of view, and the Holy Spirit is supposed to move happily through plurality and the “riches” of divergences. The late modern approach has been ably criticized by several authors, and I simply quote some names as my shield. David Wells has valiantly fought the good fight for decades; D. A. Carson has combined depth of competence with the ability to reach a wide readership; William L. Craig has sent fiery missiles on target; Anthony C. Thiselton has brought his academic prestige to bear on the issue in a thoroughly responsible way. Less well-known, I would add Ben F. Meyer, a New Testament scholar with philosophical acumen, in the wake of Bernard Lonergan.44 I would specially draw attention to Vern S. Poythress’s handling of the topic (also because the book-title does not signal its presence): it is exceptional by the sympathy it shows in its listening of so-called postmodern thinkers and deconstructionists, and, at the same time, by the depth of his critique.45 He can use their insights to unmask idolatries of the self, yet showing that they do not go deep enough; he even finds an unexpected kinship with Van Til.46 Apart from the classic argument: skeptics and relativists are sawing off the branch on which they sit, I would insist on the unavowed presence of a “grand narrative” in postmodernism, even a message of redemption,47 and hidden dogma—when one hits at the dogma or only threatens it, what an explosion of intolerance! Coming back to the correlation of canon and community, its vanity should be manifest. Submitting to a canon one has made resembles the worship mocked by Isaiah (44:9–20): one bows before the idol one has drawn and chiseled.

The Roman Catholic version has more dignity. The foremost Jesuit theologian Bernard Sesboüé has offered, no too long ago, an updated defense, in the spirit of Karl Rahner.48 He acknowledges a “circular” correlation between Scripture and Church and claims that “the Church constructs the New Testament in two successive stages: first, she writes, in apostolic times, the texts which compose the collection, and, then, she confers to these writings the character of Scriptures, that is, she constitutes them into a canonical corpus, that enjoys the same authority as the older Scriptures.”49 But he allows, in one sense, that Scripture precedes the Church, because of the links with the Old Testament and the foundational event. He does not deny that “inspiration precedes and grounds canon.”50 He does not stress, as older Catholics had done, the church’s authority as she selected the books and promulgated the list. He rather insists, after Rahner, on the ecclesial origin of the writings themselves. Inspiration represents the human mediation of the transcendental experience of God: God is auctor of Scripture as the transcendent cause, and the auctor of the church in its constitutive moment.51 Sesboüé reaches this daring proposition: “We may legitimately say that inspiration is a positive and particular form of divine providence towards the early church [Eglise primitive].”52 His stance on grace and free-will enables him to defend the paradox: “in a way, what is human decides on what is divine.”53

Sesboüé’s line is not the only one among Roman Catholic theologians. Yves Congar pointedly criticizes Rahner’s scheme and maintains that Scripture has authority over the church as well as within the church.54 Though Sesboüé does mention the “vis-à-vis” of Bible and church,55 his proposal undermines what John Webster calls the “over-againstness” between the two.56 Ecumenical good manners should not mute our protest. With Webster, we maintain that the church’s part regarding the New Testament canon has been “an act of confession of that which precedes and imposes itself on the church (that is, the viva vox Jesu Christi mediated through the apostolic testimony) and which evokes a Spirit-guided assent.”57 Karl Barth proclaims, “Not the church created the witness of prophets and apostles, but the witness of the prophets and apostles created the church—even before it was written.”58 If we think we can decide about the Bible, we are in great danger: “this is the method which, to a large extent has been practiced by Catholicism, which, for that very reason, must be considered as the classical paradigm of all heresies.”59 Fearless!

At the same time, Barth does not ignore the other Catholic line: Vatican I itself and such a representative Dogmatiker as Bernhard Bartmann have stated that the church’s decision about the canon was to acknowledge what God had previously inspired and decided.60 As Oscar Cullmann argued long ago (highlighting the two senses of “tradition”), the ancient church bowed before the precedence of the Word as she was led not to call “apostles” the apostles’ successors. In effect, however, this non-symmetrical relationship hardly works if interpretation falls under the institution’s power—and this is justified by the Christ-church continuity. Berkouwer courageously maintains, “Any view of continuity that does not retain the possibility of calling the Church to order, because she is the ‘definitive’ reality of salvation, is illegitimate.”61 He recalls the freedom of rebuke and threat of the Old Testament prophets, and convincingly comments, “There is no suggestion that the situation of the Church in the New Testament presents an entirely different structure of admonition. Rather, there is a striking continuity here in the call to faith and obedience.”62 The church is the Body of Christ as his Bride, who humbly faces her Lord (the vis-à-vis pattern); he eliminates, through the Word, her too human wrinkles and blemishes (Eph 5:26–27; cf. 2 Tim 3:16).

What is decisive here is the role of the apostles. There is plenty of evidence that the ancient church used apostolic authorship or authorization as the primary criterion of canonicity: orthodoxy, antiquity, use in worship, attestation by churches that could boast apostolic foundation, were to a large extent means of confirming apostolic origin.63 Marc Lods’s summary is admirably firm:

At the end of the 1st century and at the beginning of the 2nd, the church decides to let herself be controlled by the written norm of the canon: she gives herself the “rule” of apostolicity which leads her to reject all tradition other than the written tradition and commits her, in the future, to follow this norm she assigned herself. We then encounter a real identity: canonicity = apostolicity.64

Kuyper plays the apostolic character down, and even (angrily?) labels the argument that Mark and Luke wrote under the responsibility of Peter and Paul an illusory “way of escape” (uitvlucht),65 but this negative assessment has not found much acceptance among his disciples. Herman Ridderbos’s perspective seems much better to agree with the data:

Christ established a formal authority structure to be the source and the standard for all future preaching of the gospel…. By giving authority to His apostles, Christ himself has given a foundation to His church. This canon has an entirely unique, absolutely authoritative and closed character, and can be preserved only in written form.66

This agrees with the mission of the apostles in the Synoptics and especially Luke-Acts; with the role assigned to them in the Johannine corpus (future believers will believe through their word, John 17:20);67 and with Paul’s emphasis on the foundation of prophets and apostles (Eph 2:20).

Now, the apostles stand by Christ’s side vis-à-vis the church. In their private persons, indeed, they are members in the church (and this is significant), but qua apostles they must be seen, before the church, as sent into the world that the church may be born, and then, in charge of the infant church: once for all to deliver to the saints the faith (fides quae) by which they must live (Jude 3) and to lay among them the παραθήκη they will keep unaltered (2 Tim 1:14). This structure is implied by the simile of foundation, which is there once for all, and distinct from the house. Paul’s illustration in 2 Corinthians 11:2 is very telling: the apostle’s role is that of the Bridegroom’s friend—on the Bridegroom’s side, therefore. This brings the needed corrective to the Catholic emphasis on continuity.

The redemptive-historical viewpoint clarifies the closure of the Scriptural canon. The Word of Special revelation does not teach only timeless truths on God and rules of conduct valid at all times: it is part of the economy of redemption. It proclaims the once for all event of our salvation, it witnesses to the fact (apostles must be eyewitnesses), it discloses the meaning and corollaries. In accordance with the prologue of Hebrews, the New Testament canon represents the culmination “in the Son” of God’s communication, and the message of the cross whereby believers appropriate its benefits. “The closed nature of the canon,” Ridderbos writes, “thus rests ultimately on the once-for-all significance of the New Testament history of redemption itself, as that history is presented by the apostolic witness.”68

The redemptive-historical perspective also helps to disentangle the ways canonical authority is exercised. Not all parts function in the same way, but as fits the development of God’s plan in history. John Goldingay draws attention to Jesus’s hermeneutics in Matthew 19:3–8: the authority of Moses’s permission of divorce is interpreted by the authority of the foundational saying in Genesis 2; in that sense we might speak of a “canon within the canon”—Goldingay wisely adds, “This does not mean the outer canon ceases to be canon; we must not make the canon within the canon into the canon.”69 The principle may also be applied to the normative character of Old testament regulations for Christians.

In the debate with Roman Catholic theology, one may spot an underlying issue. The view of time (with probable roots in the view of eternity) may deeply influence the whole approach. One is struck by the emphasis on the continuity of time, as if all successive moments “stuck” to one another. One telling illustration would be the cult of relics. To many, it goes without saying that the prerogatives of an apostle who ministered in this or that church (guess which!) pass on to the later pastors of that church. The sacrifice of the Mass could also be considered. This contrasts with the atomistic dispersion of instants in existentialism, and, more generally, the “pluralization” of time in late modernity. Paul Ricoeur acknowledges the difficulty, and the absence of a solution (how can we affirm one history?).70 The Bible does highlight events happening once-for-all, and the differences between epochs, but it grounds the unity of their diversity in the one purpose and sovereign rule of God: beyond the world. The distinction between the once for all gift of canon and the process of its reception is a distinction between times.

4. Canon and Reception: The Warrants of Identification

How does reception take place? How are writings which ought to be considered canonical identified?

I leave aside the case of the Old Testament canon. The principle enunciated in Romans 3:2 basically settles the matter. The oracles of God from the time of God’s covenant with Israel were entrusted to Israel. Israel, during that preparatory period, had received institutions that did not frustrate the Lord’s purpose: despite personal unfaithfulness, Israel’s institutional pastors did fulfil their mandate, they did determine which books were holy (“defiling hands”), which books were within and which were without (ḥîṣônîm) the sacred collection. We receive them from their hands. Jerome was right in calling back to the hebraica veritas. Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (who had presided over Luther’s graduation ceremony!) led the Protestant Reformation on the right track in his 1520 De canonicis libris libellus. Since it is not unreasonable to believe that the tripartite Hebrew canon was basically recognized before the 1st century ad, our Lord’s sanction should be enough for us, his disciples.71

The several centuries needed for a broad consensus to emerge on the total list of New Testament books generates some anxiety when the question of this canon is asked. The late modern suspicion of power, even the power of candidates to martyrdom shepherding persecuted flocks, and the common sympathy for dissenters, for rebels of every stripe (conformism of non-conformism) render the question more pressing. For some, it may be dramatic: how were our books identified and selected? The Roman Catholic answer relies on the authority of the church; however, as we just saw, this distorts the relationship. The classical Protestant answer has been twofold: the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit, and divine providence as evidenced in history. Kuyper speaks of an “historical-mystical fact.”72 His emphasis falls on the “mystical” component: his taste for the word is rather unusual in the Reformed tradition,73 but recourse to the role of the Spirit as an answer to the question “How is canonicity recognized?” has been essential in Protestant orthodoxy.

Earlier Reformers introduced the theme (suggested by Rom 8:16), but it was given to John Calvin classically to formulate the doctrine of the testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum (Institutes 1.7, especially §5). Later writers depend on him and differ only by nuances and technicalities. Despite his ambition of clarity, what he has in mind is not so easy to determine. One should proceed from what is surest to the less certain.

  1. Calvin does not think of a creative event, which would make the word of Scripture into something it was not before; through the witness of the Spirit, Scripture is credited with the certainty it deserves (Institutes 1.7.5); if we say that through that event, it becomes the word of God, this must be understood only quoad nos.
  2. Calvin does not imagine (or experience) an added, further, revelation from God, a voice from heaven resonating in his heart: “this book is fully inspired, that one is not”; this would have been illuministic, “enthusiasm” in the older sense (the Reformers charged the Roman Church with that betrayal of the rule of truth: one remembers Luther in the Smalkald Articles, “On Confession”: papatus simpliciter est merus enthusiasmus).
  3. Calvin probably means more than the healing of our spiritual blindness, the creation or restoration in us of a proper sensitivity, so that we are able to perceive the marks of Scripture’s divinity; this illumination is not denied, but it does not amount properly to witness. Bavinck regrets that later Reformed theologians—he names Turretin, Amyraut and Du Moulin—were satisfied with this weakened construal of the testimonium.74
  4. Calvin does not separate the Spirit’s witness from the saving effect of the Word; whereas the tendency among the Lutherans would identify the two—in order better to defend the fides ex auditu—Calvin seems only to conjoin them.75
  5. Calvin’s interest is first of all to exalt the supreme authority of Scripture as the word of God, autopistos, and to avoid any “authorization” by a higher authority: God is the only witness adequate to himself (Institutes 1.13.21 and already 1.11.1, apart from 1.7.4; cf. 1.9.2). Could the inner witness simply represent the “x” factor which must be posited to safeguard this supremacy and the sovereignty of grace, knowing the total inability of the human heart? Calvin calls it “secret” (Institutes 1.7.4), and this adjective might suggest that there is nothing more to say. However, he also uses such an “experiential” language that the abstract interpretation is little likely.
  6. Calvin seems to interpret the effect of the Spirit’s witness as a “feeling” (French: sentiment) compared to our immediate, and “infallible,” perception of the difference of black and white, of sweet and bitter (Institutes 1.7.2). Is it a pure intuition? Does he allude to a more diversified inner experience? Some Calvin scholars of note, such as Emile Doumergue and Ronald Wallace, have spoken of him as a mystic.76 Calvin was no extrovert, and it is difficult indeed to pinpoint the experience he enjoyed. There was a powerful existential core that filled him with indomitable assurance.

Appealing to a kind of mystical experience has not been typical among the Reformed orthodox. Liberals have valued mysticism, and authorized whatever was left of canonical authority on such a basis, but it was done in a theological framework deeply inimical to Calvin’s most cherished convictions. Kuyper, however, may again be considered. Not only does he delight in repeating “mystical”: he also sets the Spirit’s testimony against scientific inquiry as Calvin would not have done.77 He argues, not as the bare fact of history, but as a determination of the more adequate approach: “One should not forget here that Scripture came on the scene in a world which found force more in the imaging than in the thinking powers of our consciousness, and for this reason Scripture is much rather to be evaluated aesthetically as a work of art than critically as a work of thought.”78 It would be worth tracing the possible roots of Kuyperianism in Romanticism! (Accordingly, the concept he brings to the fore on almost every page is the concept of organism!)

The advantage of the concept of organism, beloved of Romantic philosophers (the way had been opened by Kant’s Kritik der Urtheilskraft), is the possibility of bridging the gap that separates the principle of canon and the completion of the list. The testimony of the Spirit will seal certainty about Scripture as a whole; it hardly enables one to choose between Esther and Judith, or between the Epistle of Jude and 1 Clement! Kuyper so stresses the organic unity of Scripture, with his “special canonics” devoted to the function which each book fulfills as a member in the “body,”79 that he can hope to extend to each particular choice the certainty drawn from the mystical insight.

Is this an Achilles’ heel? In his Open Letter to Protestants, (Saint) François de Sales exclaims,

Now let us see what rule they have for discerning the canonical books from all the other ecclesiastical ones. “The witness,” they say, “and inner persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” Oh God, what a hiding place, what a fog, what a night! We are not in this way very enlightened in so important and grave a matter [différend: disagreement]. We ask how we can know the canonical books. We would very much like to have some rule for detecting them, and we are told of what takes place in the interior of the soul that no one sees, no one knows, except the soul itself and its Creator.80

François de Sales then raises the problem of discernment (which “spirit”?), of the precise content of the alleged experience, of its value. What are worth the individual certainties of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin, compared to the work of the Spirit in Church Councils?

The most thorough treatment I have come across is the treatment by Herman Bavinck, who is less indebted to a Romantic inspiration than Kuyper (though he also uses “organic”). His response to Roman Catholic theologians shows that they face the same difficulty. If they are asked the ground of their trust in the church institutions or of what they maintain about Scripture when its primacy is not denied, they must answer as Protestants do. “Rome, with its infallible church and its infallible pope, has no advantage over the churches of the Reformation. Faith’s deepest ground, in Rome as in Protestantism, is located in the subject.”81 The burden of his contribution is a theological analysis which demonstrates that knowledge in all fields depends on a witness of the Logos: even in the natural sciences; it corresponds to the first principles nobody can demonstrate.82 He also, with Reformed predecessors, unfolds the breadth of the Spirit’s testimony, “in the church throughout the centuries.”83

The last argument corresponds to the appeal to providence in history. The fear of subjectivity in individual experience is counterbalanced by the communal dimension. A collective consciousness is less liable to be led astray by accidental circumstances, personality problems, and all the guiles of the devil.84 Just as classics in literature are revealed as they endure, the qualitative difference of the books fully inspired has been tested by the passing of time, through the succession of different generations. We may even say that it has been a case “of the survival of the fittest.”85

The assurance one can draw from such a consideration, however, would be ruined if significantly divergent canons were competing. Almost incredibly, this is not the case. Whereas Christendom has been divided on so many issues, and not a few essential, the same New Testament (the Old Testament was entrusted to Israel, who had to identify the canonical books and did) is being received everywhere with the minor exceptions of Syrian and Copts. Roger Nicole writes of “the stunning near unanimity of Christian churches,” from Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox to Pentecostals and Adventists.86 This looks like providential guidance.

There is no certainty of faith outside of faith. The validity of our confession of the canon of Scripture cannot be demonstrated on any “neutral” ground. Yet, in the Lord’s light, we see light, enough light for us to move on. When we realize that if the illuministic temptation is to be overcome and if the completion of doctrinal revelation is to be recognized (Heb 1:1), the only alternative is this: canonical recognition can only be a process showing human fallibility; when we discern that the inevitable subjectivity of individual faith is balanced by the effect of the Word of Scripture through generations; when we observe in the rare agreement of all branches of Christendom the sign of a providential leading; there are enough considerations to quell in our hearts unhealthy fears. We have not been duped by the tricks of our own spirit, or of other spirits not holy. We cannot control the situation, but we are at peace: no mastery, but a friendly, a fatherly, mystery.

The situation fits our relationship to God: radical dependence, even helplessness if we look to ourselves—and yet, the responsibility of partners of God, sons and daughters, able by his grace to hear his voice in human discourses, to identify his messengers, to confess the rule we need.

The situation fits God’s relationship to his creation. God is free to speak in his world through instruments he perfectly masters, and thereby making them truly free. God is free to create a discourse, or a collection of discourses that are 100% his word. As he was free to become this man, who spoke the words of God because he was 100% God. God’s sovereign control and immanence ensured that this man was really a man, an earthling, and it ensured that his word was written in books, in ordinary forms, without losing its divine quality. His transcendence entailed that this man and this word were different from other men and from other texts: they had to be identified as God and as God-given. And the difference between special intervention and constant control, since this control includes the permission of evil and still the weakness of God’s servants, accounts for the length of the process of identification, and the groping clumsiness of much of it. So with the Scriptural canon, so with Christ our Lord.

[1] Bernard Sesboüé, “La Canonisation des Ecritures et la reconnaissance de leur inspiration,” RSR 92 (2004): 24 (my translation, as will be the case for all quotations from non-English works, unless otherwise indicated). He claims, “The canon of the Scriptures does not belong to the Scriptures [n’est pas scripturaire]?” The statement should be nuanced, inasmuch as one can find traces of final editorial work that imply a canonical intention, and such a verse as Luke 24:44 may be understood as a rudimentary “table of contents.”

[2] David Friedrich Strauss, Die christliche Glaubenslehre in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung und in Kampf mit der modernen Wissenschaft dargestellt (Tübingen: C. F. Osiander, 1840), 1:136, as quoted by Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, trans. Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 1:243.

[3] I am quoting the title of the second chapter of William J. Abraham’s important book Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology, from the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[4] Auguste Lecerf, “Remarques sur le Canon des Saintes Ecritures,” RRef 9 (1958): 1–18. This was posthumously published.

[5] I found help in the following works (in alphabetical order): Roger T. Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (London: SPCK, 1985); “The Canon of the Old Testament,” in The Origin of the Bible, ed. Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 51–64; “The Canon of Scripture,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 27–34; F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988); Stephen Dempster, “An ‘Extraordinary Fact’: Torah and Temple and the Contours of the Hebrew Canon, Part I,” TynB 48 (1997): 23–56; “Canons on the Right and Canons on the Left: Finding a Solution in the Canon Debate,” JETS 52 (2009): 47–77; “The Old Testament Canon, Josephus, and Cognitive Environment,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 321–61; David G. Dunbar, “The Biblical Canon,” in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 299–360; Charles E. Hill, “The New Testament Canon: Deconstructio ad Absurdum?,” JETS 52 (2009): 101–19; “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 43–88.

[6] Against the beautiful, but, I think, finally misguided, treatment by Yves-Marie Blanchard, Aux sources du canon, le témoignage d’Irénée, Cogitatio fidei 175 (Paris: Cerf, 1993), especially 284ff.

[7] Several essays bear on the issue in the stimulating book edited by Bruce Kuklick and D. G. Hart, Religious Advocacy and American History (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).

[8] W. C. van Unnik, “The ‘Gospel of Truth’ and the New Testament,” in The Jung Codex, ed. F. L. Cross (London, 1955), 124, as quoted by F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, 147 (Bruce himself wishes to remain more cautious [n. 7]).

[9] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 320 with n. 24.

[10] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, vii. Abraham’s revisionism implies being sharply critical of almost all others, but it is noteworthy, to his honor, that he does not belittle or caricature his opponents; Schleiermacher and the Princeton theologians receive a treatment fairer than usual.

[11] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 14; cf. 413: “The canon of Scripture was simply a list of books to be read in worship and to be used for spiritual direction and instruction in the Church.”

[12] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 14, 53, and elsewhere.

[13] The earliest occurrence on record seems to a letter by Athanasius c. 350, in his Epistola de decretis Nicaeni Synodi (before his famous Easter festal letter). In Rufinus’s translation of Origen’s De Oratione one finds in canone est; unfortunately Rufinus’s fidelity can be suspected. On both these sources, see Edward C. Butler, Walter A. Phillips, Samuel Davidson, “Canon” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (London: Britannica, 1961), 4:755.

[14] Beckwith, “The Canon of Scripture,” 27.

[15] I found no mention in the great Liddell-Scott-Jones dictionary. The Bailly-Séchan-Chantraine one (Dictionnaire Grec-Français) offers a reference to Quintilian’s The Orator’s Education 10.1.54, 59; Quintilian does speak of grammarians’ lists, but in the Latin text he does not use canon at all; in 10.1.54, the equivalent word is ordo. Harold Butler’s translation (LCL, [London: Heinemann, 1922) uses “canon of style” in 10.1.25, but the Latin word there is simply lex (legem dicendi).

[16] Abraham’s quotation above (from Canon and Criterion, 14) adds that the “canon of Western civilization” is a list which represents, for the speaker “a particular set of cultural values and convictions”—not a mere list, therefore, but one invested with normative power. In the second quotation (from Canon and Criterion, 413), he speaks of “direction” and “instruction,” words with a similar connotation. This is typical of Abraham’s tactics: he often makes important concessions on his way, and yet disregards them as he goes on building his main argument.

[17] Krister Stendahl, “The Bible as a Classic and the Bible as Holy Scripture,” JBL 103 (1984): 6. He complains that the preoccupation with story “tends to obscure exactly the normative dimension” (p. 8) and speaks of “the normative nature of the Bible” (p. 9).

[18] Gerald T. Sheppard, “Canon,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), as cited in John C. Peckham, “The Canon and Biblical Authority: A Critical Comparison of Two Models of Canonicity,” TJ 28 (2007): 232.

[19] Abraham Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid (Amsterdam: J. A. Wormser, 1894), 3:30. Kuyper offers remarkable quotations from Greek writers (pp. 30–31). The linguistic transfer to “list,” he observes, may be analyzed more as metonymy than metaphor.

[20] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:31–32.

[21] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:34.

[22] In The Ecumenical Review 21 (1969): 152, 153, 159, and 165, respectively.

[23] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:32–33.

[24] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 2:197: “verbum agraphon is prior to verbum engraphon, in Turretin’s terms, not as a genus is prior to species but as a subject is prior to its accidents” (cf. 191: Bullinger highlighted in the Scriptures, functionally, the instrument of the viva vox Dei).

[25] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 497, indicating that this line of interpretation originated with J. B. Lightfoot (n. 31).

[26] Gerrit C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, trans. Jack B. Rogers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 67–104 (ch. 3 on the Canon). This American version leaves out more than half of the original De Heilige Schrift (Kampen: Kok, 1966–1967), with 377 pages instead of 697 (I noticed some mistranslations).

[27] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 40.

[28] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 86–110.

[29] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 95 n. 22. Cf. 99: “The articles of faith for Aquinas are to be located first and foremost in the words of Scripture,” an unfortunate restriction in Abraham’s eyes.

[30] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 117 (n. 8 in criticism of B. A. Gerrish). With rare honesty, Abraham does not try to draw Luther to his side. After quoting Luther, he writes: “It is a small step from this to a full-blown, exclusivist theological foundationalism…” (126).

[31] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 112.

[32] John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” in Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2001), 9–46, especially 25–29. The article was first published in Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie.

[33] Marc Lods, “Les deux niveaux de la tradition chez les Pères anciens,” in Protestantisme et tradition de l’Eglise, ed. J.-N. Pérès and J.-D. Dubois, Patrimoines christianisme (Paris: Cerf, 1988), 64. Cf. his “La quadruple tension de l’ecclésiologie des Pères de l’Eglise ancienne. Ecclesia una, sancta, catholica, apostolica,” in Protestantisme et tradition de l’Eglise, 106–8.

[34] Abraham does mention it (Canon and Criterion, 95), but with little effect on his overall representation.

[35] Muller, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:46.

[36] Muller, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:53.

[37] Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” 43–44.

[38] This, I am afraid, is the case in William Abraham’s treatment. As far as I can see, it is not in John Webster’s. He seems to preserve canonical authority, though his account of inspiration is, in my conviction, woefully insufficient. He explains that “the texts of the canon are human realities annexed by divine use” (“The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” 31), “the holiness of the biblical canon is acquired” (p. 32), and thus suggests that a mere human word pre-exists and is taken up by God’s use (as in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse); I find in Scripture a powerful emphasis on God’s initiative and production of the divine-human word.

[39] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 48.

[40] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 12.

[41] Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 13 (cf. 48–51).

[42] Peckham, “The Canon and Biblical Authority,” 230.

[43] See the excellent synthesis by Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” 11–17.

[44] Ben F. Meyer, Reality and Illusion in New Testament Scholarship: A Primer in Critical Realist Hermeneutics (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994).

[45] Vern S. Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word: Language—A God-Centered Approach (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), especially 224–26 and 370–82. Responding to Rorty, Poythress writes, “a form a spiritual cruelty to others has already begun: postmodern rhetoric, through its picture of the limits of languages and cultures, endeavors to lead others into the conviction that their thirst for God cannot be satisfied. It throws people into a prison of the mind, where they must live in spiritual thirst all their lives, consoled only by the conviction that their thirst is vain. They do have one drop of water, namely, the godlike feeling that they have mastered the problem of life by perceiving that there is no problem (Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 6.521). This water must be recycled interminably” (p. 226 n. 8).

[46] Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word, 372 n. 5; the idea, more tacitly, surfaces in other places.

[47] Poythress, In the Beginning Was the Word, 224. In French, “Eglise” (Church) is feminine in grammatical gender (like ἐκκλησία in Greek): I chose to keep that gender when translating the pronoun (hence “she”) because of the part that female representations of the Church, first of all the Mother, plays in Catholic doctrine and piety.

[48] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,” 13–44.

[49] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,”14.

[50] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,” 14 and 41 (“canonization does not institute nor constitute inspiration”).

[51] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,” 33 (cf. 25).

[52] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,” 42.

[53] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,” 41 (“c’est l’humain qui décide du divin”). One “technical” weakness in Sesboüé’s article which may be mentioned is the reference to the (legendary) “Greek canon” (pp. 18, 43).

[54] Yves Congar, “Inspiration des Ecritures canoniques et apostolicité de l’Eglise,” RSPT 45 (1961): 32–42.

[55] Sesboüé, “La canonisation des Ecritures,” 14.

[56] Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” 32.

[57] Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” 38–39.

[58] Karl Barth, Dogmatique, trans. Fernand Ryser (Geneva: Labor & Fides, 1955), I/2:96 (for convenience sake I am using the French translation; the passage is found in Kirchliche Dogmatik I/2:614).

[59] Barth, Dogmatique, I/2:97 (615 in the German original).

[60] Barth, Dogmatique, I/2:17 (525 in the German original).

[61] G. C. Berkouwer, The Church, trans. James E. Davison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 175.

[62] Berkouwer, The Church, 175–76. Note 37 (p. 176) quotes from Luther’s answer to Erasmus, who had invoked continuity: “what is hard and problematical is just this: ascertaining whether those whom you call the church were the church.”

[63] Bruce calls, for instance, antiquity and orthodoxy “aspects of the apostolic criterion,” which thus became “subsidiary criteria” (The Canon of Scripture, 259).

[64] Marc Lods, “Tradition et Canon des Ecritures,” in Protestantisme et tradition de l’Eglise, ed. J.-N. Pérès and J.-D. Dubois, Patrimoines christianisme (Paris: Cerf, 1988), 52. He adds that, apparently, it was easily accepted, without opposition, and fighting heresy was not the main incentive. See also Ralph P. Martin, “Authority in the Light of the Apostolate, Tradition and the Canon,” EvQ 40 (1968): 66–82.

[65] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:35.

[66] Herman N. Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, revised ed., Biblical and Theological Studies (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1988), 13 (italics his) and 30, as quoted by J. C. Peckham, “The Canon and Biblical Authority,” 235, 236 (n. 26).

[67] This was recently brought to my attention by Sylvain Romerowski.

[68] Ridderbos, Redemptive History, 25, as quoted by Peckham, “The Canon and Biblical Authority,” 247.

[69] John Goldingay, “Old Testament Theology and the Canon,” TynB 59 (2008):16.

[70] Paul Ricoeur, Temps et récit, vol. 3: le Temps raconté (Paris: Seuil, 1985), 371–74. He does discern (p. 372 n. 1), that a “theology of history” could provide a solution, but he rejects the thought of a “univocal super-plot” (God’s plan, πρόθεσις, in New Testament language).

[71] I canvassed the debate on the books Catholics (since Sixtus of Siena) label “Deuterocanonical” in my article “Helpful or Harmful? The ‘Apocrypha’ and Evangelical Theology,” EuroJTh 13 (2004): 81–90.

[72] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:26, and several times in subsequent pages.

[73] I noticed the use of the word—several times “of his heart”—on pp. 25, 43, 45, 46, 48, 50, 55. I found it once in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–2008), 590 (§ 152).

[74] Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 2nd ed. (Kampen: J. H. Bos, 1906), 1:628 (§ 151), with the three Latin names, Turretinus, Amyraldus, Molinaeus. The translation in Reformed Dogmatics, 584, renders: Turretin (which is correct, François is here in view), Amyrald (whereas the French name is Amyraut, Moyse), and, through an unfortunate confusion, Molina (whereas Luis Molina, the Jesuit father of Molinism, is not at all concerned, but Pierre Du Moulin is the name which was Latinized as Molinaeus).

[75] On this difference, Otto Ritschl, Dogmengeschichte des Protestantismus (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1908), 1:179–80.

[76] Emile Doumergue, Le Caractère de Calvin (Paris: Foi & Vie, 1921), 58–59; Ronald S. Wallace, “A Christian Theologian: Calvin’s Approach to Theology,” in The Challenge of Evangelical Theology: Essays in Approach and Method, ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1987), 126–29, 136, 142–43.

[77] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:55.

[78] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:56. Cf. p. 32, where he recommends a “poetic standpoint.”

[79] Kuyper, Encyclopaedie der heilige Godgeleerdheid, 3:45.

[80] François de Sales, Open Letter to Protestants 6.6.5. I am using the translation quoted by Abraham, Canon and Criterion, 167, borrowed from a book by Popkin. The quotation led me to the Lettre, I found the references and accessed the text online.

[81] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:582 (§150).

[82] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:586–90 (§152).

[83] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 1:596–98 (§154), phrase taken from p. 597. On the same page a passage from Spanheim is quoted, introduced and translated in this way: “The testimony of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is ‘the primary motive toward faith or the principle by which, or the argument on account of which, Scripture becomes regulative (kanonikon) and non-apodictic (anapodeikton).” That translation should be corrected. The passage in the original (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 1:644) reads: “Het getuigenis des H. Geestes in de Schrift is het motivum kurion ad fidem seu principium, quo gignitur, vel argumentum propter quod, kanonikon kai anapodeikton.” I would therefore translate: “The testimony of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is the primary [or supreme] motive toward faith, or the principle by which faith is begotten, the argument on account of which, kanonikon kai anapodeikton [which means: normative and elevated above all need of proof].”

[84] E.g., Lecerf, “Remarques sur le Canon des Saintes Ecritures,” 18.

[85] A phrase from Bruce Metzger used by Eckhard Schnabel, “History, Theology and the Biblical Canon: An Introduction to Basic Issues,” Themelios 20.2 (1995): 19.

[86] Roger Nicole, “The Canon of the New Testament,” in Standing Forth: Collected Writings of Roger Nicole (Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2002), 98.

Henri A. G. Blocher

Henri Blocher has taught systematic theology and other subjects at the Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangélique, near Paris, since its founding in 1965 and formerly held the Gunther Knoedler chair at the Wheaton College Graduate School in Wheaton, Illinois

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