The Canon of Scripture and the Question of Inspiration

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by Edward W. H. Vick

Canon bannerThe Word ‘Canon’

point to ponder

We shall discover that the term inspiration is also ambiguous and that we can give no simple answer to questions we have here raised. We do not simplify the problem by introducing a theory of inspiration to establish canonicity.

First, a brief comment about the word canon. This word, kanon in Greek, had a variety of meanings, and was rather loosely used in early times. It meant a carpenter’s measure or rule (like a row of numbers on a measure), or  a list. A canon was an ideal standard, something which served as a norm. So canonical people or books were those whose names were found on a list. A collection of writings is called a ‘canon,’ for example at Alexandria, because it sets a standard and can serve as a model.

The term canon, when used of ‘Scripture,’ has three distinct meanings. All of them point to a collection of writings taken to have authority, to be unique. The word canon can be used of the books first, as they set the standard; secondly, as they conform to a standard; and thirdly, as they are found on a list.
Canonical books are recognized books. Recognition involves decision. Somebody at a particular place and time recognized such books. Somebody eventually drew up a list and, in so doing, expressed a judgment about the books on it and those not on it. To produce such a selection required a principle of selection. It takes time, a considerable amount of time, for such a selection to be completed, several centuries.

Christians inherited a doctrine of inspiration from the Jews. The doctrine of inspiration was later made into a very elaborate scheme and led to no little confusion. One thing is noteworthy. The term itself is not in evidence in the earliest judgments of the church about Scripture. Only much later did it become in some circles the standard, the orthodox, way of speaking of the authority of the Bible. But from the beginning it was not so. And with good reason. You can, as did the early church, affirm the primary importance of Scripture without elaborating a theory of inspiration.

Would it be true to say that the books considered canonical had qualities which the doctrine of inspiration was later to emphasize? Are we able to say: because we recognize the books are inspired, we endorse their decision? But the fact is that it is just as difficult to determine whether a book is inspired as it is to say whether it is canonical We have already seen that the word ‘canonical’ has at least three meanings, namely (1.) functioning in the community in a special way; (2.) apostolic, that is traceable to an apostle or a close associate of one; and (3.) being included on a list.

We shall discover that the term inspiration is also ambiguous and that we can give no simple answer to questions we have here raised. We do not simplify the problem by introducing a theory of inspiration to establish canonicity.

One procedure would be to accept the decision about the canon and starting there proceed to discuss inspiration? Rather one might start rather earlier, look at the practice of the church, consider the books available and ask whether, for whatever reasons, the books they chose were wisely chosen. One might then relate the reasons for accepting the books to the discussion of inspiration.

To conclude this section: (1) We cannot determine whether a book is canonical by finding out whether that book is inspired. (2) We cannot infer from how the book got written whether or not it has authority in the community. These are two different questions and we must not confuse them. (3) We cannot, without further ado, i.e. without further thought and investigation, simply accept the claim that the book or the writer is inspired or has authority, even if the book makes the claim for itself. (4) We must appeal to facts external to the writing to determine whether that writing has authority. (5) It is not sufficient to appeal to the fact that a book is included in a list of accepted books. Canonicity, in that sense, does not establish authority. We must ask whether we can agree with the reasons why the list was set-up in the first instance in the way it was, and whether it has continuing relevance. (6) We must inquire whether the list they made of acceptable books still has contemporary relevance. To do that we shall set the books in the context in which they are used. For that is where the issue of their inspiration and their authority is properly discussed. We may not find these terms to be the most satisfactory.

To establish the status of a book we must consider the community in which the book is read and accepted, both its past — Who made the decision and why? — and the present — Who confirms the decision once made, and how? Does present attitude agree with past decision? Is there reason to reconsider, to re-affirm, or to revise older decisions once made? Then we may come to a reasonable view of the matter.

We conclude that the question of canonicity is the question of the book’s use and influence in the community. That is determined by empirical considerations, e.g. by asking, Does it have an influence which is unique? Books which have current influence have authority. Thus a certain question becomes central. What influence does the book have in the Christian community? Answer that and you have a dynamic rather than a formal answer to the question of Scripture. We must be put practice into theory and then test the theory. We are then ready to address one further question: What sort of authority do such writings have?

(7) A Paradox The contemporary church has inherited both the books and the decisions about which books are to be taken as primary and which as secondary. It inherits the decision and affirms it. But it does not examine all the books. It affirms the books it reads, and those it finds have been accepted. But it may not be aware of what other books there were, and are, to choose from. It does not say to itself something like: ‘Here are the books produced during the first two Christian centuries. Let us examine them, and choose the ones we consider appropriate and profitable to set aside for special use in the church. Something similar, mutatis mutandis, might be said about the Hebrew books.

We should ask: Why does a particular church Community not do that? We can obtain and examine all these writings without difficulty. But most Christians have never read any of them. Why are we content to inherit and endorse a decision we did not make about which are the right books when we have not considered such books as, for example, actually were included in only some of the lists which were drawn up? Why do we continue to retain some books which were seriously questioned and whose place in the canon i.e. on the list was contested? Is it strictly honest to endorse such books as we are somewhat familiar with and exclude other books we have never read? Are we really prepared to leave that decision to someone else, without giving ourselves convincing reasons for endorsing that decision?

Of course Christians are influenced by decisions of the past in the way in which we use the writings. That these writings are handed down to us as those chosen by some historical decision means that we do not, and will not, read other important writings, or consider them in the same way as we consider these.
So Christians continue to use certain books and not others. That is the important fact, however it has been influenced by decisions of the past.

This means that most Christians, most of the time, simply endorse the tradition. They simply accept what has been handed down to them from the past. Even those who most enthusiastically affirm the principle of ‘the Bible and the Bible only’ depend upon the tradition about the canon so that they can identify what the limits of the Bible are. This is usually done without much concern or criticism. As a result we have a strange paradox: to affirm both ‘The Bible and the Bible only,’ and to affirm as well the traditional identification of the Bible, limiting it to those books which the tradition has affirmed. It is particularly ironical that most Protestants assert that the Bible stands alone, while relying upon tradition to identify which are the books which constitute the Bible, tradition which existed long before the divide between Protestant and Catholic took place.

So when the church acknowledges Scripture is this anything other than a formal recognition of sixty-six books?
The fact is that the effective canon is not identical with the sixty-six books which the church formally defines as its official canon. The church does not use all portions of the canon consistently. ‘The church’ refers to the congregation, the churchman, the preacher, the theologian, the individual believer. Each of these is a particular entity. By ‘use’ we refer to doctrinal definition, proclamation, devotional reading, liturgical practice and have in mind the distinctions we made at the very beginning of this book.

It is essential that we now make a clear distinction. It is that between books formally and traditionally defined as canonical and books or portions of books actually, repeatedly and consistently used in the various activities of the church. The effective canon of the church consists of those books and parts of books the church actually uses. These are a limited selection and are drawn from the whole which the church formally calls its canon. The official canon is the list of accepted books. Some will be used frequently, some seldom, some not at all. The ‘canon’ sets the outer limit. Within that limit there is selection. This means that there are inner limits. In the performance of its varied activities the church appeals to certain portions of the writings whose outer limits are defined by the official canon. The books whose limits are formally defined and the books actually used repeatedly and consistently are not identical.

We might use technical language to make this important distinction.16 The community might say, We are not bound to an historical decision, a contingent decision about the canon, for the manner in which we use these books. The church identifies herself by specifying which books she uses. That means that the definition of what is the canon is made with and at the same time as an identification of the church itself. The church identifies itself by specifying as canonical those writings it uses in its varied activities.

A further observation is important. We have in what precedes been speaking of the canonical books as formally defined, in contrast to books or portions of books actually used regularly and seriously. But, of course, books outside of the formally defined canon can, and
often do, exercise as much or even greater influence on Christian under-standing, worship and practice than writings from the canon of Scripture. What writing is effectively authoritative within the church will be assessed in proportion to the influence it exercises and the acknowledgment it receives. The writings of a teacher, a charismatic figure, a churchman, a theologian may, in a given community, have more effective influence than whole sections of the formal canon. That is an important fact of church life which the Protestant must take into account in understanding what the principle of sola scriptura can mean. The activity of the Holy Spirit, so the church claims, manifests itself in many ways in the church. Some of them may not be directly related to the actual words of formally canonical Scripture.

It looks as though the Protestant principle of sola scriptura might be compromised on two levels:(1) because of an acceptance of a definition of the limits of Scripture handed down by tradition, i.e. of an endorsement of the traditional pronouncements about the canon; and (2) because a non-Scriptural office or person or tradition may, in any given community, wield more effective influence and be referred to more consistently than the writings of the canonical Scripture, whole portions of which may be quietly left aside.

So a doctrine of Scripture cannot be isolated from the life and practice of the community which uses Scripture. Otherwise the doctrine becomes formal and the church’s claim concerning Scripture does not then correspond to its actual practice.

(8) Theological Significance of these Considerations

We conclude with a brief suggestion about the theological significance of these considerations.
(1) That the books of Scripture have a history means that human elements play an essential part from the very beginning and throughout the whole process of the book’s production. It is necessary to say this only because (at times) there has been a misleading emphasis in the opposite direction, to play down, even to suppress, any reference to the human. We may then have to insist that the books are human productions because so much emphasis has often been laid on the divine.

(2) It is then a matter of saying how to speak well of God’s revelation in and through the books whose history we can trace. Christians affirm that these are the books through which God reveals himself, as they recount how God revealed himself in the past. This book is the written Word of God because of its intrinsic relationship with God’s revelation to the church.

(3) Authority means influence. These books have influence of a particular kind. Christians accept them for having had and for continuing to have such influence. We must then, in giving a theological account of Scripture in relation to the life of the church, carefully state what this influence is. This will require clear, unprejudiced thinking.

(4) The context for discussion of the Bible is where the Bible is spoken of as Holy Scripture, where it is received as having a special status, where, if it happens, God reveals himself. The authority of the Bible is not a property which inheres in it and which can be demonstrated, for example by showing that it is inspired, but rather connotes a relation in which divine and human elements both play an important role. Hence our insistence that we observe what actually happens with regard to the Bible in the practice of the church.

We cannot do justice to the status of the Bible without dealing with the community, the church, in which the Bible is used, and in which judgments about the Bible are made and passed on, sometimes formally and sometimes informally. Only by speaking in relational terms shall we be able to do justice to the problem of the authority of the Bible.

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