Why Canonical Discussions Are So Dang Hard

Due mostly to the fact that there have been a lot of questions about it, there has been a spike of interest in Biblical canon at the lay-level. Personally, I blame The Da Vinici Code, but I’m actually grateful: when people say things that are wrong, it starts a conversation that ought to be had.

Whatever the case, canonical studies are tough. It’s a lot of history and a lot of opinions about said history.

Bruce Metzger, in his definitive book on the subject, The Canon of the New Testament, highlights one scholarly exchange that seems to illustrate the messiness of the conversation:

The debate between Zahn and Harnack over the date at which the New Testament canon was formed involved, to a great extent, a difference of definition rather than of facts. Harnack understood the New Testament canon as a collection of books that possessed authority because they were regarded as holy Scripture. Accordingly, he placed the rise of the New Testament canon a t the close of the second century. Zahan, on the other hand, equally understood it as a collection of books possessing authority, but he did not insist that this authority should be based on the thesis that ‘the New Testament is holy Scripture’. He was satisfied if, for instance, the four Gospels are an authority because of the authority of the Lord’s sayings which they contain. He could, therefore, speak of the existence of a New Testament ‘canon’ a hundred years earlier than Harnack could. The actual facts were hardly touched by the controversy, for it is altogether possible that small collections of gospel materials and apostolic epistles were made here and there before the end of the first century, but that only in later generations did such collections obtain exclusive canonical authority on the level of inspired Scripture. In short, ‘canonical’ means authoritative books, but ‘the canon’ means the only authoritative books. Use does not equal canonicity; though a certain kind of use does, namely, use that excludes any other.

So let that be a lesson to all of us: it’s all about definitions.

One thought on “Why Canonical Discussions Are So Dang Hard

  • March 11, 2015 at 9:06 pm
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    Good to see you posting again… I miss you quite a lot, and hope you’re doing well.

    In terms of application here, what do you think? Is it fair to get behind a call for primitivism in the church (do things like they did in the early church), if we look at the NT writings in a different way than they did?

    Also, good point about definitions. Have you seen Scott Aaronson’s comment on the definition of “The Patriarchy”?

    “[A]s many people use it, the notion of ‘Patriarchy’ is sufficiently elastic as to encompass almost anything about the relations between the sexes that is, or has ever been, bad or messed up—regardless of who benefits, who’s hurt, or who instigated it. So if you tell such a person that your problem was not caused by the Patriarchy, it’s as if you’ve told a pious person that a certain evil wasn’t the Devil’s handiwork: the person has trouble even parsing what you said, since within her framework, ‘evil’ and ‘Devil-caused’ are close to synonymous. If you want to be understood, far better just to agree that it was Beelzebub and be done with it. This might sound facetious, but it’s really not: I believe in the principle of always adopting the other side’s terms of reference, whenever doing so will facilitate understanding and not sacrifice what actually matters to you. Smash the Patriarchy!”

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