Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The New Testament Canon: Deconstructio Ad Absurdum?

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

The New Testament Canon: Deconstructio Ad Absurdum?

Article excerpt

Today's resurgence of interest in the topic of the NT canon has had noticeable effects. It seems it was not long ago that most laypeople were in the dark about the rise and formation of the NT canon, and had to seek out their pastor or local seminary professor for answers. Today that seems to have changed. If you have found yourself conversing about religion with a stranger in an airport recently, as I have, you are as likely as not to hear at some point in the conversation an echo of the words of Arthur Teabing, in Dan Brown's novel, "The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great."

If the stranger does not mention Constantine, he or she may still be quite assured that the selection of books for the Bible occurred several centuries after the time of Christ, and was a process attended by significant political pressures.

One of my son's professors at the University of Florida recently asked his class, "Who decided which books would be included in the Bible?" One student confidently responded, "The people with the biggest army." The professor could think of nothing to add to this brilliant riposte, and simply returned to his lecture.

Similarly, on the question of whether the canon is closed or open, people today seem to know the answer! Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IIl.), for instance, stated publicly last July that, "What Barack Obama has accomplished ... is so extraordinary that another chapter could be added to the Bible to chronicle its significance."1

Christians might comfort themselves with the thought that these are not the pronouncement of bona fide scholars, but vulgar distortions of history abroad in the popular culture. But the problem is, the lay people actually sound a lot like the scholars.

How was the NT canon formed? David Dungan in his book Constantine's Bible says, "the Christian canonization process involved a governmental intrusion,"2 and, "When the Roman government, in the person of the emperor, powerfully intruded into the church's activities, it irrevocably skewed the whole debate by transplanting it into the state's legal framework where coercive enforcement of the outcome was routine."3

On the question of whether the NT canon is or should be closed, it may not surprise anyone here that Robert Funk, a member of the Jesus Seminar, says he would like "to issue a revised canon, a new New Testament, by both shrinking and expanding the texts to be included."4 Perhaps more noteworthy are the words of (former) Baptist pastor and Acadia Divinity College President Lee McDonald. At the end of a 400 plus-page study of the rise of the canon McDonald asks whether the church is right "in perceiving the need for a closed canon of Scriptures?"5 Since the earliest Christians "did not have such canons as the church presently possesses today, nor did they indicate that their successors should draw them up," McDonald concludes, "one is forced to ask the question of whether biblical canons are in fact Christian."6

McDonald is by no means out of step with a larger number of scholars who write on the canon. In his 1985 book The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning, Harry Gamble had said, "During the first and most of the second century, it would have been impossible to foresee that such a collection [of NT Scripture] would emerge. Therefore, it ought not to be assumed that the existence of the NT is a necessary or self-explanatory fact. Nothing dictated that there should be a NT at all."7

Many would concur with Gamble when he observes that "the historical study of the NT has steadily undermined the traditional legitimations of the canon."8 James D. G. Dunn, for instance, writes that he cannot defend the books of the NT in terms of apostolicity.9 He cannot defend them as being more inspired than others, pointing to some compositions of Luther and Wesley as being "at least as inspired as the author of 2 Peter. …

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