This post is in part in reply to John Hobbins’ and Doug Chaplin’s comments on my post Canon and Spirit. But I will start in what might look like a very different place: Tim Chesterton’s review of a 1957 book The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision. I will then bring the discussion back to the issues of canon.
Tim quotes from an essay in his book by “a very young John Howard Yoder”. What Yoder says here is very insightful, especially for showing how the Anabaptists recovered (for a while) a vision for evangelism, otherwise considered unnecessary in supposedly Christian countries. But I will quote here only a part what Tim quotes from Yoder, which I find relevant to the issue of canon:
Following the revolutionary changes in the relation of church and world which we associate with the names of Constantine, Theodosius, and Augustine, medieval Christendom had no room for the concept of ‘the world’. The consequences for ethics, for the doctrine of the church, for evangelism, and for eschatology, were revolutionary and yet were hardly noticed. So unconscious and so all-pervading was the acceptance of the identity of church and society that the Reformers, each working closely with the local magistracy and seeking to reform medieval Catholicism with as little commotion as possible, were not even aware of a problem and were able to pass off as political revolutionaries anyone who raised the question…
It seems to me that Yoder could have added to his list the consequences for the canon and the whole concept of biblical authority. This “acceptance of the identity of church and society” implied an acceptance that authority came from where the church said it came from. And, despite challenges from Anabaptists, and following them from some but not all Protestant traditions, in many parts of the church this same identity is still assumed, at least as a theory and an ideal which has often been compromised by the state but never by some churches.
Like my fellow Anglican Tim, I am strongly attracted by the Anabaptist vision of the church, as explained by Yoder and elsewhere in Tim’s post, and throughout his sabbatical blog. So I reject many of those aspects of the church which derive from the “Christendom” period which started with Constantine, and is still nominally alive here in England, where my Church of England is the state church and its bishops are officially chosen by the Prime Minister. John Hobbins seems surprised that I am not taking what he would expect to be a more typical Anglican position, in favour of the values of “Christendom”, but I don’t see why I should. I am first and foremost a Christian following the Bible and the Holy Spirit, and only secondarily an Anglican.
So, how does all this apply to the issue the canon, and more broadly of biblical authority? John agrees with me that the Holy Spirit has been at work in the church since Pentecost. But he and Doug seem to assume what I don’t, that that work should be seen clearly and primarily in the visible church bodies of “Christendom”, those which are official state churches or aspire to be. They assume that the traditions of these churches are clearer expressions of the will of the Holy Spirit than those which come from believers outside them. For John writes:
The Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican communions, as well as many evangelicals, have historically held to a position in most respects identical to that of [the 17th century Anglican bishop Lancelot] Andrewes.
Well, so what? Perhaps they were all wrong. I hope it is clear from the above “What impels [me] to a contrarian point of view”. I hold that a large proportion of the Christian church, especially but not only since the 4th century, has gone astray on many matters of doctrine and practice, although not that the Holy Spirit has left it or taken a vacation. In the last century or so the church has been recovering a number of practices, such as evangelism by ordinary believers and using the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which have been largely absent from official state churches for most of the last 2000 years, although to some extent found in unofficial protest groups like the early Anabaptists.
John’s position that the truth is found primarily through the official churches seems to be a strange one for a Waldensian, in view of this movement’s origins as an unofficial protest group against the mediaeval Catholic church.
John also wrote:
I am grieved that you accept the possibility that the deuterocanonicals prepare for and elucidate teachings important in the New Testament in principle only, without citing a single example of how they do so in fact. Doug Chaplin and I cite a number of examples. Until you cite examples, I will be inclined to think that you think the Holy Spirit was on vacation during the intertestamental period.
Thank you, John and Doug, for your examples. You both know this literature better than I do. I accept what you put forward as apparently good examples of how the knowledge of the deuterocanonicals can help in the exegesis of the New Testament. Any additional examples I might come up with would probably not be as clear and helpful as your ones.
Nevertheless, I do not concede that the deuterocanonicals were inspired by the Holy Spirit in more than a very general sense, nor that they have any special authority for believers. The New Testament authors made use of material which is clearly not so inspired or authoritative, such as Greek poetry. It is of course a long held position of many that prophecy, one of the activities of the Holy Spirit, did indeed cease from the time of Malachi or Nehemiah until that of John the Baptist. I would not go quite so far, but I would suggest that the authoritatively inspired prophecy which is the basis of biblical books, as described in my previous post, ceased during this period. The Holy Spirit did not take a vacation, but he has a right to decide what to do when and is not answerable to us humans for his activity.
John then asks me:
Are you able to recommend the deuterocanonicals to Christian laypeople for edification and elucidation of the deposit of faith, or not?
I am able to recommend them as one part of a very large and open-ended corpus of theological and devotional literature which should be accessible to all, not only to those in leadership in the church. I am certainly not suggesting that they be hidden away. But I recognise that in practice only a few Christians are called to deep theological study of more than a small part of this large corpus of literature, and that most of those will be studying this in preparation for church leadership. So in practice I would expect only a small proportion of “Christian laypeople” to read the deuterocanonicals more than superficially. Note that I resist granting a higher status to the deuterocanonicals than to the best of modern theological and devotional literature.
Then John enquires whether I accept that the gifts of the Holy Spirit in teaching, exhortation, and spiritual discernment were given to the Church Fathers. Yes, I do, to the extent that these authors were true believers who allowed these gifts to operate. And the same gifts have operated in good Christian writers ever since and still in our own days. But, in my view, neither the Fathers nor modern Christian writers are inerrantly led by the Holy Spirit into all truth; the work of all of them is a mixture of truth and error. So, as with the deuterocanonicals, I refuse to grant a higher status to the Church Fathers than to the best of modern theological and devotional literature.
Meanwhile, in response to the comments of Father Doug Chaplin, another fellow Anglican but one who calls himself Metacatholic: Doug, I respect your faith (and I choose that word deliberately) in the tradition of the church as the repository of truth and the locus of the working of the Holy Spirit. But I don’t see why it is not “anti-intellectualism” as you have used the term to hold this position despite the evidence that in practice, to a large extent, the church has decided on “truth” not by seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but through bitterly contested voting often based on naked power politics. Now I do believe that God has preserved the church from serious doctrinal error, although it has gone astray on smaller doctrinal issues and on many practical matters. But my grounds for believing that God has in part preserved his church are not intellectual ones, any more than my grounds for holding to the 66 book canon; I accept them by faith. And I welcome the gradual restoration of the church as it puts aside unhelpful traditions and returns to its biblical roots and the practices which go with them.
John and Doug, I don’t expect you to agree with me on this, but I hope you can at least appreciate that my position is a rational one, although one based not only on reason but also on faith.