Question; Critically Evaluate the Argument the Canon is Closed. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of a Closed Canon for Evangelism.
It is the task of this essay to try to evaluate the argument that the Canon is closed. It will in the process try and point out that the evolution of both the Old Testament and finally the canon of Scripture we have today called the New Testament was not a cut and dried task. Many scholars still debate this with articulated arguments that have equal weight. The arguments are so vast that it would be impossible to cover them in depth in an essay of this length and as such only, the major points will be covered here. Some scholars see the Scriptures as a unity provided by God, complete in all ways with respect to his redemptive work through Jesus Christ and thus extricate themselves from the debate over tradition and the authority of the church being the main criteria for inclusion in the canon. This allows for the position of a closed canon while at the same time recognising that those scholars who hold to an open canon also have a valid argument and should not be dismissed out of hand.
Before looking at the issue of whether the canon is open or closed it is essential to define exactly what the Canon of Scripture is. The word canon has a Semitic origin which means "reed," but has come to mean, "measuring rod." Hence a rule or standard or as Carson,Moo and Morris state a closed collection of documents that constitute authoritative Scripture. It is important to note there is no scriptural instruction to be found that would have told the early church to form a Canon (the word does not appear in Scripture).
Therefore the forming of the canon must have came about because of the influence of the Holy Spirit who was wanting the church to preserve the teaching of Christ and his apostles, which was seen by the early church as a fulfilment of the Old Testament and a new revelation in God's redemptive plan for humankind.
The historical evidence of the Canons of both the Old Testament and New Testament must be examined to see how the early church came to accept and recognise them in the form we have today.
The first to hint at a closed Jewish canon is Ben Sira in 190 B.C., who spoke about the foundational books falling into three categories. Whether or not Ben Sira conceived of a canon in its strictest sense is of course open to debate, but it cannot be ignored that the concept of a closed canon had indeed been formulated and the present limits defined.
The earliest evidence to a closed Hebrew canon comes from 2 Esdras 14:38-46 where it talks about 24 works to be made public and other works to read by the wise. Josephus is the first historian to distinguish explicitly that there was such a thing as canonical works and non canonical works. F.F. Bruce in his book "The Scripture of Canon" sees as not unreasonable the idea that the Old Testament canon came into existence in three stages.
It appears then the majority of scholars are happy with the concept of the Old Testament Canon being closed, with the main area that debate continues is the date of its closing. For many the Old Testament came as a closed canon received from the Jewish church having been closed sometime in the 1st Century B.C. While for others it took its final form during the council of Jamnia A.D.90.
It must be noted that Albert Sundberg Jr has bought into sharp focus the argument over this dating, by attempting to dispel the Alexandrian Canon hypothesis. He goes into great depth to impress upon his readers that in fact the church did not receive a closed canon from Judaism. Sundberg also in raising the issue has posed the problem of whether or not Jesus used an open canon.
Jesus himself attests to the canonical standing of the Old Testament in such statements as Luke 24:44-45 and Matthew 23:34-35. He then made his own words and deeds equally authoritative and promised the apostles that the Holy Spirit would remind them of his ministry and its significance. The canon of the New Testament then is the authoritative record and interpretation of God's revelation of himself through Jesus Christ.
Secondly there is the issue of how the New Testament Canon came into existence. A brief look at history points out that the process of forming the New Testament canon was a long drawn out affair. The official recognition of the New Testament in the form we know today did not take place until 397 A.D., and this, in a list preserved by Athanasius. Part of this process had been the acceptance of materials by the church in its different locations which saw the coming together of a distinct thread of letters and gospels that were seen as authoritative. However there was some material such as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, over which there was and is continuing debate. This over it appropriateness of being included in the canon. It could be said that the churches had individually came to a general consensus as to which material was classed as Scripture and worthy of inclusion and which was not. According to Gundry church councils of the fourth and fifth century merely formalised existing belief and practice concerning the New Testament canon.
Many feel the formation of the New Testament canon was spurred on by Marcion and the release of his Gnostic canon, which forced the church to define what up to that time had been generally accepted as Scripture in a more formal way. There was of course some disagreement over which books should or should not be included in the canon just as with the Old Testament canon. Such New Testament writings as the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache as well as the Apocryphal books were the subject of much disagreement and it is here combined with Luther's selective use of canonical books that the possibility of a closed or open canon can find its roots.
There appears to be several basic positions on the New Testament Canon:
1. The New Testament is a human anthology of divinely inspired writings. According to Gaffin however this view denies that God is the author of Scripture. The collective entity being the product of fallible human beings, hence what we have in Scripture is the "whole counsel of man" and not of God. This view casts a shadow over all Scripture and sets the door ajar for an open canon.
2. Another view is that the New Testament is, relatively speaking; a complete entity shaped by God, but is continually being updated by new revelation, the living prophetic voices of the church. This view however in one way or another makes distinctions between completed, canonical revelation for the whole church and ongoing private revelation to individuals. This view goes beyond the bible and specifically addresses individual life situations. This view like the first lays open the way for a open canon.
3. Lastly there is the view that the New Testament is a complete entity which along with the Old Testament, gives God's word and brings his authority to expression, without restriction, in a definite and absolute way. Within this view there are several groups who hold differing emphasis on the criteria for canonicity and who would argue against the other two views from a different prospective.
F.F Bruce looks closely at the criteria for Canonicity and like Gamble sees the early church fathers using these criteria to establish the canon. This would be disputed by Gaffin who sees the criteria issue as an after the fact attempt to define what had already taken place.
There are those who argue that because the Canon came to us through church councils such as the Council of Trent (which went as far as including the Apocrypha) and that to hold the position of a closed canon is to lock one's self into tradition being the key to canonicity. It is the reformation principle of the 'soul of Scripture' and Luther's dividing of the canon into those he deemed as homologoumena and antilegomena, combined with the chequered history of disagreement between the church fathers and others down through history which has caused many to question if the canon is closed. Donald Robinson makes the point that for Luther many books failed to meet those criteria, particularly "Apostolic Authority". This taken with the view that all the churches were equally inspired and as such any one could claim their writing to be inspired has caused many to look at the canon as an open and changing revelation.
Stemming from Luther's use of selective Scripture and other historical uses of Scripture there is a debate over a "canon within a canon", which proposes that all groups use only selective portions of Scripture that speak to them. This they claim has been historical and as such sets the precedent that the canon should be abolished.
Richard Gaffin along with other scholars sees the key marker for canonicity is "redemption history" and its history through revelation. For them the issue is, God has given the Canon and as such has overseen its establishment to give a complete picture in relation to his provision for us in Christ Jesus. This is shown in the history of the Old Testament Canon with the close of prophetic utterance and the close of the canon. With the coming of Christ the Old Testament was fulfilled and a new canon was needed. Also Gaffin contends that with the closing of the New Testament canon comes the end of the apostolic utterances and thus there is no need for further revelation until Christ comes again to fulfil the covenant. Gaffin explains that times of inactivity in the history of redemption are, correlatively, times of silence in the history of revelation.
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Herman Ridderbos sees three distinguishing elements of the redemptive-historical idea of Canon.
1. That of exclusive authority, according to the authorisation of the apostles by Christ himself;
2. That of a qualitatively closed unity, according to the unrepeatable and unique character of the apostolic witness;
3. That of fixation and stabilisation, according to its destination as foundation and depositum custodi of the church.
Thus for these authors any further discoveries which in the unlikely event they could be proved as being canonical would precipitate the formation of a new canon not the extending of the existing one.
What then would be the strengths and weaknesses of a closed canon for Evangelism?
Some of the strengths of a closed canon are:
1. a closed canon avoids the conflict over whether any new writing should have been included in the Canon, and gives a unifying and stable position against those who want to exclude some particular books because it disagrees with their personal theology from doing so. This is no better pointed out than by such articles as "Extending the Canon: Some Implications of a Hindu Argument about Scripture" by Francis X. Clooney in which he outlines the arguments made by Srivaisnava theologians as to why many Hindu writings which are not inconsistent with Christian principles should be included into a hitherto closed, but now reopened canon.
.2. By accepting a closed Canon it means that we accept all Scripture contained in its covers and forces the reader to deal with all of Scripture and hopefully to not suffer selective blindness, thus giving unity to Scripture.
3. It gives the evangelist the confidence that what he is preaching from is the total story in God's redemptive plan for humankind.
Some weaknesses of a closed canon are that:
1. it fails to give liberty of conscience in determining what is canon.(The view of Luther)This was a reformation principle and many who we evangelise know this and as such will try to point out the inconsistency;
2. It can lead to the accusation that it is bound by tradition not the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, giving the impression of equal status to Scripture and tradition. This is no different to any other religious group who uses their own ecclesiastical authority to determine what is or is not Scripture (Mormons, Jehovah Witness).
3. In a world searching for answers holding to a closed canon can shut the church off from continuing revelation which helps keep the church relevant to the society to which it witnesses.
4. lastly it can give the impression of the infallibility of those church councils, again this could be a stumbling block to those who have a Cult background.
In conclusion then the issue remains, is the canon closed or open? There is enough weight of evidence on both sides to make it impossible to be dogmatic over the issue. Robinson and others have been able give valid arguments for a open canon while Ridderbos and others can argue just as strongly that the canon is closed. It would be the conclusion of this author that at this point in his assessing of the information available that the closed canon approach of Gaffin et al is the most logical. However to hold to the position of an open canon as held by Donald Robinson is also not without considerable merit.