The issue of the Canon...


The Epistemic issue--how to get the process started? Where do we get the initial criteria?!..The OT model of judging revelation: The pre-Mosaic backdrop
[created 8/6/97]
The Early Church is NOT generally faulted for its attempts to sort through the large number of competing truth-claims of its day (indeed, everyone does this--especially "skeptics"!); it IS often accused concerning its alleged criteria (e.g. arbitrary, legalistic), motives (e.g. self-serving, political), or "implementation" (e.g. censorship, excommunication).

The first issue that must be addressed here is the basic epistemic problem--how do you START this process? If we are supposed to 'judge' writings to be either "from God" or "not from God", THEN we need to have some standard, baseline, criteria upon which to base such a judgment. We need a starting point that is somehow free from the charge of being arbitrary, contrived, or self-serving. And, given that what we are trying to decide BETWEEN are documents which purport to be 'messages from the Outside' (i.e. outside our normal channels of verification) and that try to convince us that the RIVAL document is fraudulent, we are going to have to pick one to evaluate first.

It is here that we must broaden the epistemological task to include aspects of the "sociology of knowledge." The historical progress of knowledge and the paradigm-community aspects of justification are sometimes important 'check and balances' on our individual decision making process, and in this case it is not much different.

So, our first step will be to examine why this problem even exists--WHO told us to 'judge' and 'how'? What criteria was established at the beginning of the process, and how was that criteria ITSELF authenticated? Perhaps a study of the origins and development of the question will give us some standards to apply ourselves, to the legitimacy of its practice by the Jewish group that did the OT, and the Christian group that did the NT.

The Old Testament Model of "Judging" Revelation...The pre-Mosaic backdrop

First, let's note various elements of the revelatory process:

  1. The paradigm of this issue shows up in the Garden! In the story of the Serpent, Adam, and Eve, most of the elements of 'canonicity' surface.

    First, the story:

    16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die." (Gen 1.16)

    Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say, `You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?"
    2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, `You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'"
    4 "You will not surely die," the serpent said to the woman. 5 "For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil."
    6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. (Gen 2.1-6)

    To Adam he said, "Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,' "Cursed is the ground because of you; (Gen 3.17)

    Although there are TONS of issues associated with this passage(!), for our purposes I want to simply note the structure:


    Now, there is some very DEEP symbolism in this text, to say the least, and so much unsaid, but there is certainly a clear communication of the inappropriate handling of God's direct warning and command.

    All 'competing' revelations--including either a denial of previously-communicated revelation by God, or a slander of His motives and character--must NOT be evaluated AS IF we are in an equal or better epistemic position than God.

  2. Humanity 'starts off' in history with this primeval knowledge of God, so a 'character profile' standard shows up in the Patriarchs.

    For example, Abraham argues in Gen 18.22f on the basis of a view of God (perhaps derived from God's actions re: the Flood, Gen 6-7).

  3. God initiates a special, new stream of revelation with Abraham. He does an "extraordinary evidence" thing and "appears" to Abram (Acts 7.2: 2 To this he replied: "Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 3 `Leave your country and your people,' God said, `and go to the land I will show you.')

    The actual content of the communication is in Gen 12.1ff:

    The LORD had said to Abram,
    "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.
    2 "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
    I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.
    3 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse;
    and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
    This revelation had both content (i.e. the Abrahamic Covenant) and God's motives (i.e. an intention of blessing the entire world through Abraham, and an intention to protect Abraham's descendents as they fulfill this ministry to the world.)

    Abraham has descendants, which form the Abrahamic 'community' under this covenant. As such, they are mindful of this previous revelation by God and make decisions on the basis of it--both content AND motives.

    For example, Joseph in Gen 50.24 bases his deathbed instructions (Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die. But God will surely come to your aid and take you up out of this land to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." 25 And Joseph made the sons of Israel swear an oath and said, "God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place." ) on God's promise in Gen 15.13 (Then the LORD said to him, "Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. 14 But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. 15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.").

    And Moses argues with God, on a number of occasions, from the information given to the Patriarchs (cf.Ex 32.13; Ex 20.11; Dt 7.8; Dt 29.23). [For more information on the information transmission in those days, see the Making of the OT: Before Moses and The Transmission of OT Information and Revelation.]

    So, prior revelation--either authenticated by extraordinary means (e.g. appearances and speaking by God), or by the very constitution of the community CREATED BY that revelation (e.g. children of the miraculous conception of Isaac)--is used to understand the present dealings/actions/disclosures of God.

    In other words, Abraham NEEDED extra-ordinary means of authentication (and got it), but his descendants through Isaac did NOT--their VERY EXISTENCE was 'proof' that the promise was good. The birth of Isaac, in extra-ordinary circumstances (the barrenness and old ages of his parents), and at a specifically prophesied time (cf. Gen 18.10ff: Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. 11 Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?" 13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, `Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son."), would have been PROOF ENOUGH for ISAAC!! His very existence was extra-ordinary evidence for the Patriarchal communications from God.

  4. But this issue of judging competing claims to authoritative revelation does NOT really surface much until the Exodus. The main problems Abraham and Co. will have will be with (1) interpreting that revelation [e.g. "natural son" (Isaac) vs. "adopted heir" (Eliezar--Gen 15.2-3) vs. "half-promise son" (Ishmael)], and faithfulness to God (cf. The passages on lying to Abimelech in Gen 20).


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