Catalysts for canon formation
After demonstrating that the biblical canon came to be, we are in a better position to ask further, why did the biblical canon come into existence in the first place? Here, we are asking about the catalysts for canon formation.
Why is there canon rather than chaos? Why is there an ordered collection rather than a literary grab-bag?
1. The nature of the believing community
An important aspect of canon formation is the nature of the believing community that treasures and passes down the canonical collection. The “believing community” includes the remnant of believing Israel in Old Testament times centered around the prophetic witness, the believing churches in New Testament times centered around the apostolic witness, and also the early church that represents a continuation of this same community during the generations after the apostles had passed away. This group of individuals that flows from the prophets and apostles is the community primarily responsible for the preservation and transmission of the biblical canon.
An initial broad observation is that these Jewish and Christian believing communities have always been text-communities (i.e., communities founded upon and centered around a collection of texts). There is a reason for the characterization of Jews and Christians as a “people of the book.” The Law and the Prophets were central to the believing community throughout Israel’s history.
Within the early New Testament churches, there was a reliance on these Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Both the preaching of the apostles and the writings of the apostles drew on the stories, prophecies, and wisdom of the Hebrew Scripture. In other words, the New Testament church was never without a canon. Moreover, as the writings of the apostles were being produced, they also were finding circulation among the early Christian communities.
Here the question is: Was the biblical canon primarily pulled (by external forces) or was it also pushed (by internal forces)?
Some argue that the canon came into existence only because of external forces. However, this overlooks the organic internal forces at work among the believing community.
2. Internal catalysts
Discipleship in the faith: The canon serves as a guide for teaching and use of these writings in the worship of the church. For example, the church’s guide for understanding the ministry and teaching of Jesus was the collection of gospel narratives. These narratives provided an account of Jesus that included both events and a selection of the words of Jesus. The collection of New Testament letters provides further instruction and guidance for the life of the churches. So, a central internal catalyst that drove the formation of the canon was discipleship.
Precedent set by the Hebrew Scripture: The formation of a collection of writings that narrate and interpret the redemptive events of the Son and the Spirit’s missions follows the precedent set by the Hebrew Scripture. The Old Testament already sets the precedent for an authoritative, closed canon of sacred writings. A community that never stopped reading the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings would have been very familiar with the concept of a canon of Scripture.
Natural response to new revelation: The composition and canonization of the New Testament writings is the natural and providentially guided response to redemptive and events and revelatory words. The providential work of God is the nerve center of canon formation. In other words, there is something, or better, Someone driving this process.
In these terms, canon formation was pushed by internal catalysts. More pointedly, we can even say that the biblical canon would have come into existence even in the absence of external factors. The “process”of canon formation (outlined in Part 4) provides a snapshot of what this internal motivation might have looked like.
3. External catalysts
In addition to these primary internal factors, there were also a series of external factors that served as catalysts for canon formation.
Defense against false teaching: At every point in the history of the church, there have been false teachers who either misinform or actively seek to deconstruct the true teaching of the biblical writings. The heresies that arose in the second and third centuries about the nature of God as Trinity, the person and work of Christ, and the work of the Spirit all forced believers and church leaders to consolidate their interpretations of the Scripture. For example, Marcionism challenged the enduring value of the Hebrew Bible; Montanism challenged the nature of written Scriptures and the role of the Holy Spirit; later Gnosticism challenged the nature of redemption and revelation.
The point here is that any form of false teaching challenges the status quo. But, in order for there to be a challenge to the status quo, there has to first be a “quo” to challenge! The false teaching about the legitimacy of the Old Testament or the extent of Paul’s letters challenged widespread and pre-existing consensus regarding the basic shape and content of the Christian canon.
Response to “false” writings: In addition to false teachings, there also arose “false writings” written under a “false name.” These writings circulated early in the life of the church but increased in the second and third centuries. Many of these writings claimed to be written by an apostle or someone closely associated with them. Most of these spurious writings, though, were written later and often contradicted or reinterpreted the content of the New Testament writings. The presence of these writings prompted the churches to consider the fundamental differences between canonical and non-canonical writings.
Persecution of the believing community: The persecution of Christians by Rome and other countries often included penalties and dire consequences for possessing Christian writings. This situation forced believers to decide which writings they were willing to give up and which writings they were willing to suffer and die to protect.
Publication of biblical books: Another external factor involved the work of ancient publishers. In some regions, there also was an early push for publication of biblical writings. A publisher who was attempting to produce and sell a copy of the New Testament would need to know what books to include. The use of the book form (“the codex”) is only financially feasible if you have a stable form of a text. This practice led to the production of multiple copies of the same edition.
In sum, this collection of writings was designed for discipleship in the faith and defense against falsehood. It protected the churches from those who would teach errors and equipped believers to “grow in the grace” that comes from walking in biblical wisdom. While it is helpful to recognize the strategic role that both internal and external catalysts for canon formation, I think it is important to prioritize the internal catalysts when answering the question, “Why did the Bible come to be?”
In other words, even in the absence of pressing and expediting external factors, the canonical collection would have still come together. I think this #CanonAnyway position is warranted both by the historical record and by the biblical storyline itself.
In Colossians 4:15-16, Paul mentions his desire to see his letters circulated among the early Christian communities. In Colossians 2:1-5, he gives the reasoning behind his desire for the circulation of his letters. Paul wants his readers to know “how great a struggle” he has for them that “their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding of the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is in Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” He also writes, as he says directly following, “in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments” and that “no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.”
In other words, Paul’s letter itself is a means of discipleship in the faith (being “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith”) and also a defense against false teachings and false gospels.
Discipleship and defense. These two concepts capture the core catalysts for canon formation.
Read Where Did We Get the Bible? Part 1
Published February 20, 2018