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Canon Part V: Concluding Remarks

September 5, 2011
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In the very first canon article I stated that one reason to write about canon was because, “Catholics often assert that the early Church is responsible for the canon, while Protestants often see the canon as the thing that created the Church.” In this article I intend to expound upon my own answer to this quandary which, I believe, will make nobody at all happy.

Let’s start with the idea that the canon created the Church. The idea here is that the New Testament documents shaped the church and that the canon was in some sense self-evident. Obviously the New Testament did shape the Church. However, it’s also obvious that the canon was not entirely self-evident. If we return to the list of books I found to be of disputed status by the Church Fathers, we see that they include nine books that were eventually included in the canon and seven that were not. Obviously, the canon is composed neither of entirely undisputed books or of all the books that were ever proposed for it. Instead, the canon is composed of a set of books that was worked out through careful, and extremely lengthy, deliberation. The Church had a clear hand in the formation of the canon. This is perhaps even easier to see in the Old Testament where Protestants exclude a number of books used by both the Catholics and the Orthodox and the Catholics and the Orthodox differ to a smaller degree over these same books.

So did the Church create the canon? Again, this runs across some real issues. When the Church asked the question, “What should be canonical?” they were asking the question, “What is valid?” Unless one wishes to take the stance that the Church wrote the canonical books to suit their purposes without regard to the truth (in which case the question of the canon is much less important since it’s all lies) the Church’s canonical issue has always been one of identification, not creation. So while the Church creates the canon in one sense it is also possible for it to do this wrong – there’s a right way to do the task that could not be overridden by Church decree.

My actual view on this topic is probably obvious already: neither statement is true but both are true. The interplay between the canon and the Church starts in the writing of the canonical books. When Paul sits down and writes a letter to Corinth he writes what the church in Corinth needs to be told, but he is also writing what is true whether or not the Corinthians want it to be. The early traditions say that John wrote his gospel to cover things he felt Matthew, Mark, and Luke had skipped. Again, he wrote what was true regardless of the Church but also in response to the church’s needs.

This interplay refuses to break down into something simple. When Athanasius writes his 39th Festal Epistle and lays out a canon list for his diocese, he is creating a canon but also appealing to that which is true regardless of what he says. The early Church writes the books of the New Testament and the teachings of the New Testament (which exist before they are written down) shape the Church. The collection of New Testament books continues to shape the Church and the Church continues to sort through the books and understand what they are and where they go.

Of course, the impulse to describe this process as either “the Church creates the canon” or “the canon creates the Church” is not always ignorance of the complicated process. It can also be an appeal to authority. Does final authority rest in the canon as interpreted by the individual, who could re-create the Church from the canon, or does final authority rest in the Church without which the canon could not be known or understood? Each story suggests the primacy of one or the other. I’ve commented before on the issue of unbound individual interpretation but the issue of authority remains.

And, I’m afraid, when it comes to final authority I am going to refuse simple answers here, too. Part of the problem here is the interconnectedness of all the elements. We read the Bible because it reveals God to us and we consult Church tradition to improve our reading. A challenge to the Bible is a challenge to the tradition that interprets it, while a challenge to the tradition is a challenge to our understanding of that same Bible. Obviously, I am here viewing the Bible as the more of a direct source of authority, but the system is too complex to simply throw out the intermediary. Simple answers will not come out of complex systems like this.

Of course, all is not lost. Simple answers may be nice but they aren’t necessary unless one wishes to posit that God is primarily interested in the information in our heads. We can deal with a complex system where we must always be trying to discern what is right as long as we recognize that God is more concerned with this attempt than with its success. If you honestly believe that God will light you on fire for eternity because you made an honest mistake in picking a church then I suppose my lack of definite answers is terrifying. I myself, however, prefer to say that each one should be convinced in his own mind. The one who chooses one path should choose it because he believes it is right, to the glory of God. The one who chooses the other should choose it because he believes it is right to the glory of God.

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