Canon and church

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.

0 thoughts on “Canon and church

  1. Peter, thanks for this response, which helps clarify things, although I still think we remain in fundamental disagreement on this issue, while I hope in mutual respect. (But please don’t feel obliged to refer to me as Father on this blog!!! :-)) At the very least we demonstrate between us that the C of E is indeed a broad church! Part of the disagreement about history and the Spirit is I think actually a disagreement about the relative importance of the visible and invisible church. (We obviously each of us accept the reality of both).
    I’d also note that one reason I feel impelled to diagree with your view of an intertestamental cessation of the Spirit is my accepting a Maccabean date for Daniel – but that’s another story.
    One other lesson I will draw from history is that each generation is rather prone to think that its own cultural expressions of faith are the work of the Spirit, and later generations take a rather more discerning view. Generally I applaud and seek to encourage every-member ministry, but I also note just how much some theories of it have in common with late modern democracy, and the suspicions of institutional authority. Some of it, I am sure, is the work of the Spirit, and some of the flesh. I would say that about every aspect of church life, past and present, not just this one. But I remain rather less confident than you that everything that appears exciting to us in church life today is actually what God is wanting to do, even if I believe God is still able to use it.

  2. Thank you, Doug. I can accept most of your analysis of the differences between us. And I note your caution about not everything that appears exciting being actually what God wants. Maybe in the hindsight of a future generations it will be clear that some of it was not. But I don’t have this hindsight yet, so the best I can do is go along with the best judgment I have, as led by the Holy Spirit, of what is good and right. So, although I know my church is not perfect, I don’t know God’s mind better than its appointed leaders, so I remain and serve within it.

  3. Doug, just a little point – the every-member ministry to which I was referring in the article Peter referenced was in the context of the 16th century radical Reformation groups, which pre-date ‘late modern democracy’ by a few centuries.

    I think we in the catholic tradition also need to face the thorny issue of how much the catholic hierarchical system owes to a desire to emulate the governing structure of the Roman empire, at the heady time when Constantine was showering favours on the (recently persecuted) church. Cultural accommodation might be present in other forms of church too, not just every-member ministry.

  4. Just a few of my personal thoughts on the “wider canon”.

    Shortly after becoming a Christian I came across these “other biblical books”, and my curiosity was aroused. Slowly, over a couple of years, I purchased and read much of the deuterocanonicals and also the pseudepigrapha (such as 1 Enoch etc). I found these texts quite illuminating in terms shedding additional light on the protestant bible.

    I did, however, eventually come to the conclusion that these texts were not inspired in the same way as the protestant canon. I can’t explain how I came to that conclusion, but I know for sure the Holy Spirit was involved. Sometimes it was because of the textual history of a particular book (lots of errors/poor manuscripts/only translations available), other times because of certain statements which seemed contrary to the rest of the canon as I knew it.

    So for devotional use, I ignore the extra texts; for study etc., I refer to them as need be.

    Like Peter, I have become convinced that the “extra” biblical texts be placed in the category of Christian non-fiction (and occasionally Christian fiction). Given their historical proximity to the biblical era, they have a unique value. But at the end of the day, I don’t feel comfortable using these texts for devotional reading.

  5. Thanks, Peter, for carrying on the conversation in an insightful way.

    I don’t accept the crude periodization of church history of the “very young John Howard Yoder.” His statement that “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,’” is very one-sided, not to mention simply wrong. More generally, I reject the practice, pervasive among Christians of all persuasions, to be wonderful prophets except in one’s own backyard.

    In other words, it is important to confess, if one is an Anabaptist, that Anabaptist distinctives are no less an expression of faithfulness and unfaithfulness to the Gospel than are the distinctives of the magisterial Reformation or those of the Roman Catholic Church.

    This is a principle of catholic life and thought in the best sense of the word. It is also the reason why it happens that someone like John Howard Yoder ends up teaching at a Catholic institution, Notre Dame University. Catholics have a hard time putting it into words, but many recognize that Michael Sattler and Menno Simons were not totally off-base. So they seek to make amends by learning from someone like Yoder.

    The reverse, that of a top flight Roman Catholic scholar teaching at an evangelical institution, is just beginning to become a reality this side of the pond. This is a healthy sign.

    Put another way, it absolutely splendid that there are Anabaptists within the Church of England. A win-win situation for both.

    I interact with this post at more length in “Thinking about Canon (Final Update)” posted on my blog.

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