Clarification from John Hobbins on Canonicity

Posted By on April 22, 2009

John is apparently following my re-posting (and that of Ros Clarke) of his canonicity discussions, and posted a clarification/answer to my question this morning on his own blog. He says:

My wording, “establishing a direction of thought or action,” was not meant to set up a contrast between those things and “establishing a point of doctrine.” My bad for being unclear.

This is helpful — John is *not* making a distinction between thought or action and establishing doctrine.  But he sticks to his contention that there was no canon in antiquity. The basis of his statement is coherent: Christian thinkers and leaders disagreed on the exact books until a couple centuries after the church began.  Through that time (this is me now) we can get closer to what was NOT considered canonical (i.e., the material/books never cited as authoritative by anyone — like the Gnostic Gospels, including Thomas) than what WAS viewed as the canon.  That’s coherent, but I think it has weaknesses.  For instance, how do we know which church fathers spoke for “the church” at any given time (whatever the “church” was at any given time)?  The church was scattered, and it isn’t like church fathers had such celebrity status among the faithful that what they said would be obeyed, or even known (their own writings couldn’t be xeroxed or faxed or emailed to everyone). The logistics of the church and written material argues against there being any monolithic opinion on anything – like what was the canon — INCLUDING the idea that there was any divergence of opinion on the matter. We know that to be true since we have so much data gathered, sifted, arranged, and commented upon.  They didn’t.

So what’s the point?  It’s curious, given the logistical obstacles to unanimity, that there is such a high degree of similiarity in the material that was considered authoritative. It’s as though there was some sort of divine influence directing believers all over the Mediterranean to certain books as having authority (I’m winking now).  The outlier books should stand out as somewhat anomalous or perhaps idiosyncratic in their use.  Seems like an “unconscious canonical mindset” was in play.

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4 Responses to “Clarification from John Hobbins on Canonicity”

  1. Cognus says:

    MICHAEL
    these discussions re: canonicity/authenticity are core to our interests, but frustrating to me because so many mandatory underpinnings are implied/assumed without discussion. As a fledgling grad student in theology I asked a professor [occasion was one of may papers to be written]: ‘ when we speak of a document being “written”, what are we saying? do we mean that the original orator/originator began to discuss the topics with a scribe? Do we mean that some observer suddenly sat on a nearby rock and began to convert the Hebrew-speak of the speaker into Greek as a tract to be circulated immediately? Do we mean that the original author jotted a few notes [in which language?] for later rememberance, and that someone later picked it up and expanded? Does “written” mean initiated, put in writing, edited, transcribed, annotated, corrected/redacted, and/or “published”? Which? When we say, for intance, “The Gospel of Mark was surely written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. ~70″… do we mean that as the circulation/publication date, or the date of draft, or the date of the original voice, or what? Closely related to these issues is the language question: did Jesus speak Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, or other? And his followers:… what languages were native to them?

  2. MSH says:

    @Cognus: Yep; all good questions. Now you see why I think it best to refer to inspiration as a process, and the “autograph” as that thing which was ultimately produced by a very long, involved editorial process (as opposed to pegging it somewhere along the chain). The problems with the latter are illustrated by your questions. That final thing was produced by providence, and eventually recognized by the community as such — also by providence.

  3. DJR says:

    Isn’t it true that the printing press happened to coincide historically with the beginnings of the protestant canon (Martin Luther)? I guess I could see the providence in this timeline as the world began to change, knowledge began to increase and populations began to expand and ‘God’s Word” was ‘ready’ to be placed into the hands of the everyday believer.

  4. MSH says:

    @DJR: It wasn’t an exact co-incidence, but it was close. Gutenberg began work on his printing press in 1436.

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