The issue of the Canon...


General considerations on how this process would 'look' given Christian understandings of scripture, providence, history, sovereignty. In other words, how close would the actual historical process 'look like' what the evangelical would PREDICT the process should look like? [A basic theory-prediction model]
[draft created 8/6/97]
The canonization process "looks like" simply the continuation of the 'beware false prophets' injunctions that ring throughout God's communication with us.

Revelation is of course God's initiative and His work, and so the forces within history that converge on the final delineation of the recognized books (as being uniquely inspired by God) are carefully architected by God to insure adequate delivery of enough of His message as to achieve His purposes.


God's Program Directions and Self-Limitations

God operates under certain programmatic directions and under certain self-limitations in History.

Let's look at some that bear closely on this question.

  1. In His desire for "free creatures" to fall in love with His Son, He deliberately refrains from epistemic or volitional "violence". [How He gets us to be 'free creatures' is an altogether different subject. ;>) ]

    Psalm 32.8-9 expresses an aspect of this rather vividly:

    I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. .
    This means that God will ORDINARILY use historical processes, means, people, and events to accomplish His plans. He will use 'normal levels' of evidence, data, arguments, etc. He, of course, WILL "step in" with special miracles when the occasion warrants (esp. at 'kick-off' events, such as the Exodus or the Apostolic mission). He wants people to respond to His character (as manifested in His messages), as opposed to His overpowering nature or power.

    He pleads and argues with His people to obey--He does NOT 'force them' very often (Psalm 81.10ff):

    I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt.
    Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.

    "But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me.
    So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.

    Or Isaiah 65.2ff:
    All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people,
    who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations --
    a people who continually provoke me to my very face...
    He has decided to speak in 'gentle whispers' instead of in whirlwinds and earthquakes (I Kings 19.11ff:
    The LORD said, "Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.).
    He speaks to those who accept Him freely, then charges them to proclaim Him to others (cf. Mt 10.27: What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.). His written Word is apparently JUST AS epistemically "appropriate" to the human situation as are miraculous signs (Luke 16.31).

    His countless references to 'think critically' , 'judge carefully', 'do not be deceived', and 'do not be self-deluded' are ample witness to the fact that He wants His creatures to embrace truth and discard falsehood.

    There are critical junctures in His communication process where He WILL use 'extra-ordinary' evidence, but these will be very special in character and tend to be exceptions to the general direction above.

    This, of course, requires that He somehow get some 'baseline of truth' to us, by which to carry on the process of evaluating, deciding, judging, accepting, rejecting the various truth claims that come our way all the time. [And this start-up process may involve the use of the dramatic and/or spectacular, of course.]


  2. A second self-constraint is that He does NOT suppress the production of 'false' literature by His enemies, either angelic (cf. I Tim 4.1):
    The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.
    or human (cf. 2 Tim 4.3):
    For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. .
    [Notice, however, that even the angelically-initiated counter-revelation is STILL mediated through humans (so verse 2 from the I Tim 4 passage above:
    Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. 3 They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. 4 For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.] .
    Just as He doesn't weed out the false believers from the true believers in the visible church (cf. Parable of the Tares and Wheat--Matt 13.24ff; Luke 7.22), so too the teaching body of the church is subject to this 'mixed character'--cf. Acts 20.29. The body ITSELF, often through its leadership, IS SUPPOSED TO do this weeding out process (e.g. I Cor 5.12)

    We are to recognize that false prophets were present in the past, false teachers are around in the present and will be in the future, and that spurious literature WILL be produced (2 Peter 2.1: But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you.... and 2 Thess 2.1ff: Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don't let anyone deceive you in any way).

    Although He doesn't suppress these documents (at either authoring or circulation times), He does give us some detection methods and evaluation standards to use in sorting through the various documents claiming to be authentic.


  3. He goes 'out of His way' to foster community among people.

    What this generally means is that he doesn't give any ONE person a monopoly on the truth! He gives us all a little piece, and encourages us to get together, open our minds, adopt a humble-learning attitude, listen to others, think critically about it, and then share what WE think we know.

    The human race is an organic unity--and so is our body of knowledge. We have always known this to be the case in science--Newton wrote his famous work "standing on the shoulders of giants". Generations before us pass on to us knowledge (mixed with error) and we are to likewise "examine carefully all things; hold on to that which is good" (I Thess 5.21).

    This social-interdependence goal of God for us manifests itself in the 'puzzles' He sets before our world. It is well known that "puzzles" create paradigm communities in science, religion, literature--groups adopting similar approaches to solve the puzzle.

    This is highlighted even more in the community of faith--which is SUPPOSED TO BE characterized by love, acceptance, non-slander, passion for truth, and humility before others.

    It must also be remembered that this community, which He desires for us to experience and appreciate, has two dimensions--longitudinal (i.e. the historical community of the past) and latitudinal (i.e. the distributed community of the present). So, He will tend to encourage us to 'research what the Elders have spoken' and to 'call a meeting to discuss the issue with our peers' (all the while, we are responsible before Him to 'examine everything carefully'--critical thinking). The results of our honest and community decisions we are to 'write down' to pass on to the NEXT generation for THEIR use in THEIR iteration of this process, hopefully moving the whole result further along. (He has similar plans for them, of course--He is in the sculpting business, remember...)


  4. He is also committed to giving us enough data by which to make adequate judgments.

    Given that He wants us to evaluate truth-claims, He must also somehow get some baseline 'into' us, by which to start the process of discerning truth. We seem to need some facilities/tools and some initial content.

    Some facilities/tools He no doubt builds into individual consciousness (e.g. faculties of insight, 'feelings' of cognitive dissonance, 'goodness of fit' perceptions, binary oppositions) and some are probably built into the nature of "communal consciousness"--resident in historical languages (e.g. detection of metaphor, law of excluded middle, detection of semantic nonsense, inappropriate precision usage).

    For the Christian, there is another major faculty assist--the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer's mind. There are many effects of this reality, but one of the major ones is in this epistemic realm (I Cor 2.12: We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. and I John 2.26f: 26 I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. 27 As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit -- just as it has taught you, remain in him.).

    [We will get into this later, but it suffices here to note that it is a part of the faculties of the believer for making decisions regarding truth.]

    Initial content would be furnished from early childhood pragmatics (NOT necessarily discursive, but much more 'wisdom' oriented--how the world sorta works--"Things I learned in Kindergarden" type 'truths'), from our place in the historical-community (e.g. scientific paradigm groups, religious confessional communities, instructional experiences), and from individual learning experiences of foundational importance (e.g. conversion, major worldview perspectives, ideology, crisis experiences).

    For a person in a historical community of faith (e.g. the Judeo-Christian tradition), this initial content would be authenticated revelation from a PRIOR period . For the NT believer, it would be the OT. For the Post-exilic Jew, it would be the Earlier Prophets (cf. Zech 1.4: Do not be like your forefathers, to whom the earlier prophets proclaimed:, and Zech 7.7,12). For Hosea, it would include the book of Judges (Hos 9.9), for Moses, it would include the Covenant with Abraham (Deut 7.8; Ex 32.13) and events of Genesis (Deut 32.32; Deut 10.22). Previously-authenticated revelation can function as core-content in this model.


  5. He normally only gives answers and resources for CURRENT problems--NOT future ones.

    This is somewhat obvious from His 'daily bread' instructions to us, but also shows up in many of His disclosures, and many of His programs in history.

    For example, in one discourse of Jesus, He says: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? 28 "And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matt 6.25ff)

    [This is NOT to suggest that Jesus was against planning. His positive examples of planning in Luke 14.28ff, even though used for a different point, show that forethought is NOT a bad thing!]

    This progressive nature of development also has a progressive nature of 'difficulties' implication. In other words, as His people overcome one specific challenge (e.g. doctrinal, behavioral, organizational), NEW ONES appear to further develop and refine the people of God. Each age deals with a new set of questions--esp. intellectual--with the implication that the resources and insights needed to deal with a later question were probably not given to an earlier generation that was not facing that question. In some cases this means that the stimulus to development (e.g. a new heresy, a new persecution) will show up EARLIER THAN a 'well-articulated' correct position. And that accordingly, this new stimulus will be used of God to incite His people to develop and formulate a community position into explicitness . Given the other principles under discussion, the raw materials with/from which to develop this position will typically come from individuals within the group and from historical precedents in previously-authenticated revelation/data.



What These Directions and Self-Limitations Suggest

So, assuming that God architects the creation/development of a definite group of documents in history (that He desires to share with a historically wider audience that the ORIGINAL audience), and, given the above restraints, what would we expect to find in history?


What this practically nets out to, is that ANY canonization process will LOOK like the one which actually occurred--historical people, discussing and disagreeing, at historical events, with arguments and attitudes both good AND bad. We would expect a list of 'true' books and by definition, an 'excluded list'.


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