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