Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Spirit Shows Us the Canon

Question Posed

“Orthodox”’s question in detail seems to be rather different than the question in the title of the post. The title asks to see the list (the canon), but the detail asks to justify the list, and the conclusion asks whether we “do what the Orthodox Church advocates.” Despite spending over a page alleging various facts (many untrue, and not believed by "Orthodox" himself) introducing the books, “Orthodox” suggests that if an “essay” is needed to justify the canonicity (or not) of the three books, then that is evidence of an allegedly unworkable approach.

Relevance of Question as a Basis of Comparison

Interestingly, “Orthodox” makes no claim that his “tradition” justified the canonicity (or not) of the three books in a tiny amount of written space, despite the fact that “Orthodox” selected what he apparently considers “difficult examples.” Picking “difficult examples” is more likely to result in a long essay than a short paragraph of explanation. Furthermore, according to the most recent comments provided by “Orthodox” discerning “tradition” requires “sifting,” which apparently can take very long amounts of time – even lifetimes. We’ll come back to this issue shortly, perhaps in the next question.

Also, “Orthodox” recently claimed that we “piggy-back[]” on Orthodox tradition with respect to the canon. If so – if, in effect we have “piggy-backed” – then the canon is poor discriminator between the two approaches. In other words, picking a point of identity between our positions would be a terrible way to make a decision as to what is more workable.

Very Short Answer

The short answer is that we accept Esther and the Epistles of John because they are θεοπνευστος (“given by inspiration”), and we reject 1st Clement because it is not. The Bible is the collection of θεοπνευστος writings that have been providentially preserved. That’s the very short, non-essay answer.

Slightly Longer Answer

The discerning reader might recognize that while the very short answer is accurate and precise, it raises a new question: how do we know that something is θεοπνευστος? The answer to that question is that Inspiration is self-attesting and self-consistent. Esther and John’s epistles testify to their divine character, whereas 1 Clement does not. This is still a short, non-essay answer.

Yet More Explanation

The persistently critical reader might recognize that there is no “this is Scripture,” verse in any of the four books identified in these examples, and might imagine that the absence of such a verse negates the claim. Such a reader, however, would be advised that the testimony can be quite explicit (as it is in the prophets) or rather implicit (with Esther being usually considered the most implicit). One of the examples of implicit testimony is the self-consistency mentioned above. Hopefully, though this is a third paragraph, the reader will not yet view this as an essay-length explanation.

And Some Additional Explanation

Nevertheless, an outsider might argue that the testimony is unclear or inconclusive. Harkening back to “Orthodox”’s concluding question, the outsider might ask what facts prove this to be true? The answer is that we are not empiricists. While there are many facts that attest to the θεοπνευστος status of Esther and the Johanine epistles, and while there are many facts that attest to the lack of θεοπνευστος of 1 Clement, nevertheless the ultimate subjective epistemological basis is the persuasion of the Holy Spirit. The facts, such as widespread acceptance among Christians and survival to the present time, are certainly some of the means that the Holy Spirit uses to persuade, but it is faith that is the evidence of θεοπνευστος.

It is important to note that the Bible did not fall out of the sky bound in leather. Originally, each book of Scripture would typically have been its own scroll. Thus, there is nothing inherently wrong in publications of just the New Testament, just the Pentateuch, or just the Psalter. The collection of the Scriptures into a Bible is a matter of convenience. Thus, even if some skeptic or infidel could cast doubt on the θεοπνευστος of one of the books, the others would be unscathed.

The question called for facts. The facts are first the content of the book itself, and second the content of the other Scriptures. Nevertheless, there are other facts that are helpful. With respect to Esther, the fact that it was treated as Scripture by the Jews is a fact in its favor, and likewise the fact that the epistles of John were treated as Scripture by Christians is a fact in its favor. With respect to the first epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, there appear to have been few Christians who ever considered it Scripture, and those (such as Clement of Alexandria – not the same Clement) seem to have been quite overinclusive in their identification. Furthermore, a compelling fact against 1 Clement is that in God’s providence it was not widely copied and distributed among Christians, or preserved from the fires of persecution.

But the question is not really fair: we are ready to give an answer for the authenticity of Scripture, but the length of the answer may very well correspond to the complexity of the question. To answer the various scurrilous charges (and charges not believed by the person raising them) mentioned might indeed take a lengthy essay.

What it is important to recognize, however, is that there is a real substantive difference between these factual investigations, which may be the means by which the Holy Spirit inwardly persuades of His work, and a procedure in which we accept a document as Scripture on the binding authority of men. In other words, there is a difference between being persuaded by the testimony of Christian men who have gone before us, and being bound by the decisions of Christian men in previous generations.

And frankly, most people are persuaded by the Spirit of the authenticity of Esther and John’s epistles without any recourse to such detailed factual and historical investigations. So, we can see that the distraction of alleged negative facts from a source untrusted by “Orthodox” himself, is really an attempt to stir up trouble where there is none. There are answers to those stirred-up troubles, and we are ready to give an answer (indeed, for example, the folks over at Triablogue have answered some of those factual questions, as have many other Christians over the last 500 years). But the way we subjectively know the objective truth of the canon is by the persuasion of the Spirit.

Why then do we believe that Esther, for example, is Scripture? Not because of the authority of the church, but because of the persuasion of the Spirit. That’s not the same nor a “piggy-backed” answer to the one that “Orthodox” would have to give, and its not what the "Orthodox Church" advocates. Conversely, “Orthodox” may try to piggy-back on our claim. Perhaps the course of the debate will demonstrate whether he makes such an attempt.

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