Tag Archives: catholic canon

The Limits of Canon

For those of us who grew up within Protestantism, especially in the Bible belt, it’s likely that we were seldom ever confronted with questions concerning the limits of the biblical canon.

If ever we happened to come across a NRSV (including Apocryphal or Deuterocanonical books), we may have possibly responded with, “What is this? The book of Mormon or something?” OK, maybe I’m not giving my fellow southerners enough credit. It’s more likely we thought, “This must be a Catholic Bible.” Ecumenical might as well mean heretical for some.

It’s a legitimate concern for Christians of whatever tradition to have a reasonable and defensive position on what books are considered “inspired” by God—which books ought to be in our Bibles and read as the inspired Word of God—those books which are the standard biblical text.

I personally believe the process of canonization should follow a few basic criteria: (1) Does the text claim divine inspiration? (2) Was the text written by a true prophet or an apostle of Christ? (3) Is the text consistent with the orthodox message of other inspired texts? (4) Is the text broadly accepted by adherents and followers of Judaism and Christianity? (5) Does the text have transformative power for readers? Was it widely used for teaching and liturgical purposes within the Early Church?

It is clear that the canonizing of Scripture is a communal effort that took place over the first two centuries of the church. Contrary to Dan Brown’s fictional “The Davinci Code,” I reject the idea that Constantine was responsible for the limits placed on the canon at the First Council of Nicea in AD 325. There is no evidence to support the idea that the biblical canon was discussed at Nicea. Arianism (the Father created the Son) and the nature of Christ (the articulation of his deity) was the primary concern of the council.

No, the evidence suggests that the collection of NT writings had been formulating years prior due to the rising threat of Gnosticism. This heresy brought about the canonization process, the earliest creeds, and the articulation of Christian theology. All of this happened in the ecclesiastical community one-two generation(s) removed from the apostles.

That being the case, it ought to be through the efforts of the community that a person comes to any particular conclusion regarding the limits of the Biblical canon—lest they follow in the infamous steps of the second-century heretic, Marcion, or other Christian gnostic pretenders.

There are several historic Christian traditions that have set boundaries upon the canon—the primary canons being the Protestant and Catholic of the Western tradition, and the Greek Orthodox tradition of the East.

There is a great deal of agreement among these traditions as to what books should be included in the canon of Scripture, but there is still a noticeable difference with some books being placed in an “appendix,” some being dubbed as “apocrypha” or “deuterocanonical,” and others being entirely excluded from the collection altogether.

Like most Christian traditions, I accept the time-honored 27 books of the New Testament. However, I do not accept those “apocryphal” or intertestamental (e.g. Jubilees, Enoch, 1 & 2 Maccabees, etc.) books as being on the same level of inspiration as the rest of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments (i.e. Protestant Canon).

I use the criteria mentioned above, along with the interpretive methods of my own communal tradition, in order to reach that conclusion.

I do believe those texts that lay beyond the limits of canon can be a tremendous help in reconstructing the historical and theological developments during the biblical period. However, they do not find overwhelming support for canonicity based off the reasonable and communal guidelines for canonization set forth in this post.

How have you worked these things out in your own tradition?


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