Saturday, July 24, 2010

The New Testament Canon

I’m starting part two of The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Köstenberger and Kruger. The first part of the book responds to charges by Walter Bauer and more recently Bart Ehrman that early Christianity was characterized by multiple forms of Christianities none of which could claim to be true or orthodox. What we know of today as orthodox Christianity simply won the day by overpowering the other viewpoints via strategic power plays and the suppression of their writings and teachings. It is entirely possible that if one of the other viewpoints won then Christianity would look very different today. Instead of reading the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John we would be reading the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Philip and Nicodemus. This diversity of thought is even traced back to the New Testament writings themselves by Ehrman and others. The way in which the debate is framed can sometimes skew it from the beginning. For example,
“As in many places, Ehrman places the conventional view in a virtual no-win situation. If the New Testament is held to be essentially unified, this, according to Ehrman, proves that it was ‘written by winners’ who chose to suppress and exclude all countervailing viewpoints. If the New Testament were to exhibit a considerable degree of diversity, and an unsettled state of affairs as to which theological position represents the standard of orthodoxy, this would be taken as evidence that the Bauer-Ehrman thesis is correct and diversity prevailed in earliest Christianity. Either way, Ehrman is right, and the conventional understanding of orthodoxy wrong. As a debating tactic, this is clever indeed.” (71)
The second part of the book is on the issue of the New Testament canon. How were the first books of the New Testament chosen and why? Who did the choosing and what were their criteria? My friend, Paul Adams, recently did a series of posts on the issue which is well worth reading. He blends the issues of canonicity and reliability together and offers some suggested reading at the end of the third post. I would add to his list Craig D. Allert’s book A High View of Scripture?: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. I don’t agree with everything Allert advocates but I think he ably shows the issue is much more complicated than is commonly perceived. One important factor I appreciated was his nuance of the role that Marcion played in canon formation. He says, “While scholars continue to debate the influence of Marcion on the formation of the New Testament canon, the views of Harnack, Campenhausen, and Hoffman have, to varying degrees, been revised. The revision is to see Marcion as having a more modest influence on the developing New Testament canon and not as having a decisive influence.” (91 Emphasis his.) Allert also attempts to show that for the early church a “completed canon” was not nearly as important as the “Rule of Faith” in combating heresy. Consider this,
“Irenaeus confirms that the church of the second century really had no need of a written canon because it already had a canon of truth. It was this Rule of Faith against which everything was measured in the second century—even the writings of the developing New Testament. We must be careful here, however, of pushing this too far. In view of the importance of the Rule of Faith, we must not take this to mean the Christian writings were relatively unimportant in the early church. Scripture and the Rule of Faith were seen to share a common origin with the original preaching and teaching of the apostles and therefore have material agreement with it.” (125)
I look forward to reading the second half of The Heresy of Orthodoxy and will keep you updated as I get through it.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first half and expect the second half to be just as good. 

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