Posted By MSH on March 20, 2009
I’ve decided (maybe against better judgment) that the Bellingham Statement ought to say something about canonicity (at least I think that now). To that end, let’s jump in.
I’ve been wanting to personally revisit John Hobbins’ posts on the canon, and so that seems a good place to start — and to introduce all of you to them (if you haven’t seem them already). I’ll be adapting and interacting with some of John’s thoughts as we proceed, but will give you all the links so you can read his posts in full if you like. They’re quite a bit wider than I think I’ll need to go for the Statement, but feel free to interject anything from them.
In John’s “Thinking About Canon (Part One)” John writes:
A writing is canonical if and only if passages from it can be appealed to for the purpose of establishing a point of doctrine. A more pointed definition of canon is also helpful: a writing is canonical if it must be shown that its contents cohere with teaching developed on independent grounds.
Let’s think about these two sentences since (I think) they are helpful and get us focused. “A writing is canonical if and only if passages from it can be appealed to for the purpose of establishing a point of doctrine.” In other words, no one is going to care about the sacred status of a book if one isn’t interested in quoting from it authoritatively for doctrinal truth. If you wouldn’t “quote it as Scripture” or “quote it as inspired” to make a theological argument, it’s not in your canonical toolbox. Conversely, if you do (or someone did in the past), for them it would be in the canonical toolbox.
The sentence above speaks to the “use” of a book for doctrine. The second sentence is the other side of the coin – the DEFENSE of a book: “A writing is canonical if it must be shown that its contents cohere with teaching developed on independent grounds.” If you don’t think a book is canonical, you aren’t going to care if its contents cohere with doctrine. If you DO think it is, you’ll go to great lengths to prove its content is coherent with everything else you believe is canonical.
The above obviously does not begin with a theological description of canonicity– it is meant to get us thinking about how the canon was recognized. Since basically every view of the canon that seeks to comeout with a canon must appeal to providence — God’s guidance in the recognition of which books were canonical — thoughts like the above, that reflect how people really talk (and talked) about canon are very important.