Note: This is the first installment of a new blog series announced here.
Graham Stanton has correctly observed, “In discussions of the emergence of the canon, whether of the Old or the New Testament writings, definitions are all important, and the devil is in the detail.” Indeed, one’s definition of canon drives one’s historical conclusions about canon–particularly regarding its date. And precisely for this reason, there has always been a vigorous debate amongst scholars over what we mean by the term “canon.” However, in recent years, that debate has taken an interesting turn. One particular definition of canon has begun to emerge as the dominant one. In fact, scholars have suggested that we must all use this definition lest the entire field of canonical studies be thrown into confusion and anachronism. And that definition is the one that says canon only exists when one has a closed, final, fixed list. You can have “Scripture” prior to this time, but not a “canon.” This can be called the exclusive definition.
The impact of this new “consensus” has been profound on canonical studies: If you cannot have a canon until books are in a closed, final list, then there could not be a canon until the fourth or even fifth century at the earliest. Thus, this definition has been used to push the date of canon further and further back into the later centuries of the church. Remarkably, then, the date for canon has become later and later while the historical evidence hasn’t changed at all.
But, is the exclusive definition the best definition for canon? And are we obligated to use it to the exclusion of all others? Although this definition rightly captures the fact that the boundaries of the canon had fluid edges prior to the fourth century, I think it creates more problems than it solves. A number of concerns:
1. It is difficult to believe that the sharp Scripture-canon distinction drawn by modern advocates of the exclusive definition would have been so readily shared by their historical counterparts in the second century. Would early Christians have regarded Scripture as fluid and open-ended and only canon as limited and restricted? If they were able to say that certain books in their library were Scripture, then that implies they would have been able to say that other books in their library were not Scripture. But, if they are able to say which books are (and are not) Scripture, then how is that materially different than saying which books are in (or not in) a canon? Thus, it seems some degree of limitation and exclusion is already implied in the term “Scripture.”
2. While the exclusive definition insists the term canon cannot be used till the New Testament collection has been officially “closed,” significant ambiguity remains on what, exactly, constitutes this closing. If it is absolute uniformity of practice, across all of Christendom, then, on those terms, there was still not a canon even in the fourth century. Indeed, on those terms we still do not have a canon even today! If the closing of the canon refers to a formal, official act of the New Testament church then we hard pressed to find such an act before the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. The fact of the matter is that when we look into the history of the canon we realize that there was never a time where the boundaries of the New Testament were closed in the way the exclusive definition would require.
3. This leads us to arguably the most foundational problem for this definition. Inherent to the exclusive definition is an insistence that the fourth century represents such a profoundly different stage in the development of the New Testament that it warrants a decisive change in terminology. But, was the canon so very different in the fourth century? While a broader degree of consensus was no doubt achieved by this point, the core books of the New Testament—the four gospels and the majority of Paul’s epistles—had already been recognized and received for centuries. Whatever supposedly happened in the fourth century neither altered the status of these books nor increased their authority. The abrupt change in terminology gives the impression that these books bore some lesser status prior to this point; it communicates that Christians only had Scripture and not a canon. Or, as one scholar put it, prior to the fourth century Christian only had a “boundless, living mass of heterogenous” texts. But this is misleading at best.
In light of these concerns, we should not be forced to use just this single definition. If we are to fully appreciate the depth and complexity of canon, we must also let other definitions have a voice. Brevard Childs has highlighted what we might call the functional definition which suggests we have a canon as soon as a book is used as Scripture by early Christians. On this definition, we would have a canon at least by the early second century. And I have argued for a third definition in my forthcoming article for Tyndale Bulletin that would define canon as the books God gave his corporate church (what I call the ontological definition). One might say this views canon from a divine perspective. On this definition, we would have a “canon” as soon as these books were written.
Ironically, then, perhaps the debate over canon is best addressed not by choosing one definition, but by allowing for the legitimacy of multiple definitions that interface with one another. If canon is a multi-dimensional phenomenon, then perhaps it is best defined in a multi-dimensional fashion.