The Power of Sacred Canon: Examining its Boundaries

By: Alexander Ciurana

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(originally delivered at the Mokarow Bible Conference, The Woodlands, Texas)

Since the dawn of the scribal arts, humankind has expressed an innate desire to record encounters with the divine. Writings manifesting themselves in sacred lore, fanciful tales, mythical-nationalistic histories, wisdom proverbs, apocalyptic imagery, poetry and various other genres have found a special place in the hearts of millions. In time, most religious traditions compiled certain texts, preferring some to others, and ascribed authority to these texts for official and/or devotional use. Today, most major religions have writings considered more or less authoritative. Some religions, however, maintain or have maintained a perpetual stream of holy writ, whereby writings of more recent times are considered worthy of special status. This dynamic is typically known as open canon. In contrast, other world religions have adopted the concept of closed canon, whereby writings of modern times are never viewed as “scripture” because it is believed the divine action of inspired literature has come to completion. Simply put, an open canon provides borders that expand; a closed canon has fixed borders.

Christianity is governed by closed canon dynamics. Although the number of books considered canonical differ from Protestant to Catholic, they both share the conviction that their canon is complete—that sacred literature is no longer being breathed forth (“inspired”) by God. For the Catholic, this is an open-and-shut issue with no foundational inconsistency. The councils, the synods, select writings of the Early Fathers, and papal decrees all form a body of guidance equal to that of scripture. This is known as the dual authority of scripture and tradition. And so, a certain degree of tidiness is ensured within Catholicism: where the Bible does not authoritatively speak (or, perhaps, does not provide the desired response), Church tradition does. Such tidiness is not the privilege of the Protestant, however. Operating by means of its Reformation heritage, Protestantism rejects the dual notion of authority and sides with scripture only—sola scriptura.

Yet nowhere in the Bible does it state that God stopped inspiring sacred writing. This biblical silence, however, does not stop the Church from teaching time and again that the canon is forever closed. But on what basis can such a claim be made? Protestants simply cannot establish a closed canon via sola scriptura and so must, quite embarrassingly, kiss the pope’s ring confessing that they too need tradition to uphold Church dogmatics. This shortcoming should be no surprise. For not only is scripture silent in closing the canon, but it was also powerless to form the canon in the first place.

“The Protestant church, born in the Reformation, maintains that its norm is the Bible alone: sola scriptura…The Protestant then faces the dilemma that the canon could not have served as a guideline as the church debated the problem, since the canon did not yet exist! In other words, the church was not able to abide by the principle sola scriptura in deciding what should or should not be canonical. At the time canonical Scriptures were unknown, and the church’s decision could in no way be ‘according to the Scripture.’” (Marxsen, 1972, p. 16)

Besides the disharmonious clang between sola scriptura and closed canon, a simpler observation may be noted. Namely, Christianity would never have produced or compiled the New Testament writings if the early Christians were proponents of a closed canon—i.e., believing that God stopped inspiring writings at the end of the Old Testament prophetic age. How ironic that the doctrine of closed canon—which seeks to protect the scriptures—would have squelched the New Testament at its inception if the same conviction was held then.

This should cause every Protestant a bit of head scratching. Why is it that the modern Christian is somehow handcuffed, prohibited to reach out for fresh inspiration of either a personal or corporate (ecclesial) sort? If there is little or no scriptural mandate for such restrictions, then the restriction is artificial—a tacitly held sentimentality with no divine authority or precedent. Marxsen (1972) presses further, “Why shouldn’t the modern church have the same right of making its experiences normative as the fourth century church? Or were those fourth century experiences in some way special?” (p. 17)

Rethinking Closed Canon

Now we are met with an intriguing concept, namely, that religious experience and theological preference contributes to what is considered inspired (“God-breathed”) and, in turn, what is eventually canonized. Therefore, is it outlandish that the modern Church also needs the freedom to affirm the creative acts of God, be they found in literature, or art, or collective experience? Would not such freedom cut the tethers of potential “Scripture-alotry” which suffocates God’s continued revelation in these modern times?

“A proper view of the Scriptures does not lead to an either/or position, able to find God in the Bible but nowhere else, or at least not so strongly and palpably in other places. It does not teach us to shy from the world of art and letters, philosophy and mathematics, science and technology, but to thrive in it, and to pursue the knowledge of God in all these areas, confident that the God who could create a world can continue to reveal himself in every facet of that world, through every vessel who loves and appreciates it, and even some who don’t.” (Killinger, 2002, pp. 26-27)

Some may think that the idea of an open canon is too drastic and constitutes a complete change from present operations of church life. This is simply not so. Every Sunday millions of Pentecostals and Charismatics gather for worship, and quite often a message is declared to the congregation that is received as very authoritative. A message may be packaged in the form of an ecstatic utterance (“tongues”), or a “word of knowledge,” or a sensational sermon. Whatever the outer form the message takes, it is normally received as a “word from God” in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles. This is not to suggest that such happenings are necessarily genuine “revelations” from God. These phenomena are noted merely to illustrate that in many Christian circles the canon is already open in practice despite its officially closed status.

Yet another benefit to fresh inspiration is its inherent relevancy. It basically goes without saying that C.S. Lewis is more accessible to the modern mind than the first century Paul. Lewis lived during the twentieth century and wrote as a modern man. One can read and understand his works without, as a necessity, first digging deep into the social, economic, political, and religious climate of his day. It is not so with Saint Paul, or any other ancient author. In fact, the hermeneutical task has become all but overwhelming and increasingly out of reach for the modern layperson. Consider how many specialized books the student of the Bible needs to study the scriptures: language lexicons, books on idioms used in the Bible, manners and customs references, atlas of Bible lands, variant manuscript texts, guide to literary forms, Hebrew and Greek word studies, and background studies in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Greece, and Rome. One textbook designed for college use states the following in its conclusion.

“You might now better appreciate the theological problem that has faced Christianity over the past two millennia. That theological problem has been and continues to be how to make known the Good News of Jesus in terms of the ever-kaleidoscoping cultural scripts that cover the world like a crazy quilt.” (Malina, 1981, p. 153)

If making the basic gospel message within the Bible digestible for present culture has been a daunting task to trained clergy for centuries, how does one expect the layperson, sitting in an easy chair, King James Version in hand, to glean real understanding from the entire corpus?

This conundrum is largely solved once the grammatico-historical method of biblical hermeneutics is no longer viewed as requisite for spiritual understanding or Christian growth. This is not to dismiss the value of scholarly interpretation and criticism of literary texts. It is only to maintain that spirituality is about spirit, not syntax. A layperson with no formal training in literary criticism may open the Bible and glean existential meaning and transformative ideals from its pages. In this arena, an open heart is more important than hermeneutical skill. Of course, when the two are combined an impressive combination of scholarship and spirituality may result. James Fowler (1995) recounts how his seminary training was vivified by an ancient practice involving as much heart as head.

“Instead of my reading, analyzing and extracting the meaning of a Biblical text, in Ignatian contemplative prayer I began to learn how to let the text read me and to let it bring my needs and the Spirit’s movement within me to consciousness.” (p. 186)

Inspiration of the Person

Up to this point, the basis for inspiration has only been hinted at. It is one of those matters that are nearly undeniable once realized, but quite invisible and silent until then. All manifestations of inspiration, all masterpieces, all offerings of sublime quality, every bit of selfless love, each captivating brush stroke or ink blot must first live and blossom within someone. Inspiration does not reside in a book or a painting or any other inert object. These are the results of inspiration. To say that the Bible is inspired is to leap over the most crucial basis for its divine value—the inspired authors. The first lesson the Bible teaches is that the Divine partners with the human. Heaven touches earth and this intimacy births all that is beauteous and good. So, how odd and sad to think that God suddenly ceased this loving way and now blithely mandates all humanity to venerate love-acts of the ancient past! No, the human spirit is the same as it was long ago. The Bible is the evidence that personal inspiration is not only possible but continually fluttering about our ears, eyes, and fingers. It is upon our lips and quietly percolating in our hearts. Within mainstream Christianity, it is difficult to find formal expression of this. And perhaps the only ones to do so with charming simplicity are the Quakers.

“The ‘Word of God’ is Christ, not the Bible…the Scriptures are profitable in proportion as they are read in the same spirit which gave them forth…Nothing, I believe, can really teach us the nature and meaning of inspiration but personal experience of it. That we may all have such experience if we will but attend to the divine influences in our own hearts, is the cardinal doctrine of Quakerism.” (Griffin & Steere, 2005, p. 121).

Conclusion

When I heard of the title given to this seminar, “Why did God decide to write the Bible,” I thought to myself, What a strange and anthropomorphic way of discussing biblical inspiration? For we all know that God did not write the Bible, people did. But we believe, of course, that something divinely supervisory was going on in that process.

However, the more I began to contemplate the seminar’s title, the more I liked it. I in turn borrow from its rather crass phrasing and ask you today, How do we know God ever stopped writing the Bible? It could be going on right now, through you, me, and others all over the world who desire to see His Kingdom in ever glorious radiance and influence. I desire to see, hear, taste, and touch God in things ancient and modern. And I see no obvious benefit in categorizing the ancient as more holy than the modern. The God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever moves through this very time and people, too.


Fowler, J. (1995). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. New York: HarperOne.

Griffin, E. & Steere, D.V. (Eds.) (2005). Quaker spirituality: Selected writings. San Franscisco, CA: Harper Collins.

Killinger, J. (2002). Ten things I learned wrong from a conservative church. New York & Berkeley, CA: Crossroad.

Malina, B.J. (1981). The New Testament world. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press.

Marxsen, W. (1972). The New Testament as the church’s book. (J.E. Mignard, Trans.) Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.

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