Canonicity and Churchly Reading

Matthew Harmon (HT: Justin Taylor) notes three criteria that the Church used to recognize authoritative documents (and I quote):

  1. Conformity to the Rule of Faith. Remember that in the first generation after Jesus the message of his life, teaching, ministry, death and resurrection was passed on orally. Over time the basic shape of that gospel message came to be referred to as the ‘[R]ule of [F]aith’. It was this understanding of the message of Jesus and its implications that became the standard by which any document was measured. So even if documents like the Gospel of Thomas or Gospel of Judas were written from the first century, the fact that their contents were out of step with the Rule of Faith made it clear they were [not] authoritative for the faith and practice of the [C]hurch.
  2. Apostolicity. For a document to be considered authoritative it had to either [have been] written by an apostle or by someone closely associated with one. Of the 27 New Testament documents, only four were not written by an apostle: Mark, Luke, Acts and Hebrews. Both Mark and Luke were closely associated with Paul and Peter. As for Hebrews, while some originally thought it was written by Paul, it is unclear who wrote it.
  3. Widespread acceptance and usage by churches everywhere. A document could not reach authoritative status if it was only recognized in one region. Only those documents that were widely distributed and recognized in a wide variety of regions within the churches scattered throughout the world were recognized as authoritative.

I want to note what the first and third of these really are. I shall then argue that these criteria actually imply that our Bible must always be understood primarily as the document of the Church, which in turn suggests that our piety with respect to holy Scripture should be primarily churchly, not individual.

What made the Canon of Scripture

The first criterion, ‘conformity to the Rule of Faith’, really means basic orthodoxy embodied in the Apostles’ Creed. This is an exceedingly churchly criterion, to use this as a criterion to circumscribe what’s canon and what isn’t. Note, however, that this grows out of the faithful, organic life of the Church, not decrees of fiat.

The third, ‘widespread acceptance and usage by churches everywhere’, is simply summarized as catholicity. Here, too, the reference is to the Church, and more obviously so than in the first criterion.

Can the Bible exist without the Church? Certainly not, even on the closing of the Canon of Scripture. Scripture has come to mark catholicity and, in a way, to be itself delimited by the catholic faith; it also continues to exist in relation to the life of the Church that confesses the Creed of our holy fathers. In this way, though the canon of texts has already been defined, this same canonical process extends into our interpretation.

Implications for reading

Fundamentalists and believers not really living in the community of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church ignore these things at their peril: by recognizing the same canon of Scripture, you come under the rule that it can never be just you and your Bible. The very canonization of the holy Scriptures continually keeps the Holy Writ in the possession of the Church, not of the individual Christian.

Since the Bible isn’t really mine or yours, but rather the Church’s treasure, we must receive it and understand our reception of it first within the Church before ever we imagine that, simply because technology has made it easily the words available to us, it is primarily ours to look at. Both reading and interpretation (if we can notionally separate those two at all) are activities that find their focus not in the individual running his eyes over words inked onto a page but in the activity of the Church.

Individual Bible study, then, is not the most important encounter with holy Scripture. Neither, indeed, is group Bible study, when it consists merely of dialogue among individuals studying Scripture themselves, even when there is a leader who has prepared more than the others. These candidates eliminated as the focus of scriptural piety, what remains is the word of God as heard in public reading and exposition and sacramental enactment.

[Related: Alastair Roberts on ‘how Gutenberg took the Bible from us’.]


8 responses to “Canonicity and Churchly Reading

  1. Can you tell me who first suggested that Christ’s authority may be appealed to as a guide to the O.T. canon? If any of the church fathers said this, then could you tell me who and where? Can you also tell me which specific books Christ ever quoted rather than generally refer to as “Moses and the Prophets?”

    Similarly, I realize that N.T. authors quoted the O.T. and they may also be appealed to, but did any N.T. author quote Job or Ruth or Ezra or Nehemiah?


    • Christ says in Matthew 23.33–35,

      You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.

      The point with regard to canon? In the Jewish canonical order of the Old Testament, Abel is the first man killed, and Zechariah, in Chronicles, is the last. As the last of a string of prophets, Jesus himself is both part of the same stream and the capstone thereof.

      Actually, I’m not quite sure what you’re really asking, so this is a bit of a blindfolded attempt to answer. Would you care to clarify your question a bit?


  2. Thank you for your excellent and helpful answer. I’ll clarify my question as you requested. Perhaps what motivated me to ask you this will help you understand better. I see the conditions Moses stipulated by which the Israelites were to recognize a prophet like himself and hence his authority to write scriptures. But as far a we can tell the other books of the canon with unknown authors weren’t written by prophets like Moses. Actually, that is an argument from silence. But if we have to pick a book and say this belongs and that doesn’t, then following the standard of Moses, the gospels seem to be about the only other books in the Judeo-Christian canon that even come close to telling us that they meet these requirements. And so if Christ and his apostles say Job, Ruth, Ezra, Neh., etc. are scripture, that’s good enough for me. But did they? And do the church fathers make this argument?

    Thanks again.
    btw… where are you, i.e. which country?


    • »Thank you for your excellent and helpful answer.«

      You’re welcome, and I’m glad I could help.

      »But as far a we can tell the other books of the canon with unknown authors weren’t written by prophets like Moses. Actually, that is an argument from silence.«

      Books like Job, for example, have no author named in them, and even Deuteronomy recording Moses’ death is puzzling. You also mention Ruth, Ezra and Nehemiah.

      If the Jewish canonical order has been stable, Christ’s sanction of every one of those books from Genesis to Chronicles should include all the books that stand between them now in the Hebrew-ordered Tanakh.

      Beyond that, Jerome does say which books he considers fully authoritative and which ones he considers apocryphal. Besides his testimony, I think we have pretty much to go with which books were actually used in the apostolic and patristic eras to establish doctrine. Of course, since some citations are casual and others are authoritative, we probably need some closer analysis to determine which is which.

      I’m American, but for these few months at least I’m in France.


  3. You are very articulate. Thanks again. And I have one more point of clarification.

    We today make the point that Christ sanctioned of the Jewish canonical order, but did the Church fathers ever make that point? Whether they did or not is relevent to a history of apologetics. So the mere fact that Jerome recognized the same order is not quite the samething. Basically, my objective is to establish when the argument was first used. The argument is just as good regardless of who and when made. But who and when the argument was first used is valuable to an understanding of history. And clues?

    So what are you doing in France?


  4. Ah! Just following my last post. I’m making progress doing research with Google Scholar. I’ve found an excellent work on the Canon from a Princeton Divine now in the public domain and available for download as a pdf. Archibald Alexander D.D. says,

    This argument for the integrity of the books of the Old Testament was used by Origen, as we are informed by Jerome, who says: “Si aliquis dixerit Hebraeos libros, a Judaeis esse falsatos, audiat Origenem: Quod nunquam Dominus et Apostoli, qui caetera crimina in Scribis, de hoc crimine quod est maximum, reticuissent.” (In Esai. cvi, tom. iii, p.63)

    My only problem now is with the Latin. Ha! I have to go back to school. Do you know Latin? Any suggestion how I get that translated?


    • My translation: ‘If anyone has said [or may have said] that the Hebrew books were altered by the Jews, let him hear Origen: That never would the Lord and the Apostles, who [mentioned] other crimes among the Scribes, have been silent about this crime, which is a very great one.’


  5. Pingback: Visual Learning Handicap « Cogito, Credo, Petam

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