Canon and Spirit

John Hobbins’ blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry is no longer very accurately named, for in recent months John’s interests have ranged much more widely than this, covering various areas of interest to me, although maybe not to many of my readers. John’s posts have almost always been rather long and rather scholarly, as perhaps suitable for their intended audience of academics. His series Thinking about Canon, just completed I think, is no exception: interesting to me, but a long and technical read.

John also identifies himself with me as “a fellow-charismatic”. So I was all the more surprised when in his latest update on the debate about his series he launched into a personal attack on me. What was my fault? Apparently simply that I had put forward, in comments on a previous post, the standard evangelical position on the canon of Scripture, that is, on which books are to be considered authoritative parts of the Bible. In response John wrote things like the following:

Said facts require no reflection, no soul-searching, of any kind. … a deleterious theology of history and a restrictive understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit … Peter’s stance is anti-traditional, anti-historical, and anti-intellectual.

I answered John’s more specific charges in my comment in response. But what is really happening here? What prompted this astonishing attack from someone who is usually such a careful scholar?

I wonder if part of the reason is that John feels that he has been betrayed by his “fellow-charismatic”. If so, he has seriously misunderstood my position as a charismatic. Yes, I do believe that the Holy Spirit continues to speak today, indeed ever since Pentecost, to those Christians who will listen to him. But that does not mean that I believe that the Holy Spirit has been continuing to reveal new doctrine, and that that doctrine is to be found in the works of the Fathers of the early church and in church tradition.

So there is not an open secondary canon of more or less authoritative literature which Christians ought to accept alongside the Bible, as a kind of appendix or a definitive interpretation of it. There are many other books, ancient and modern, which are good and helpful to read, which were written at least in part under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but none of them have any authority for believers except for what they derive from the Bible. No, John, I am not anti-intellectual, for I encourage those who wish to and are equipped to do so to read deeply in this literature, but I am also aware that not all believers are able to do this, that not all are intellectuals.

The problem as I see it is that John is confused about the meaning and status of prophecy, or whatever he might call messages received through the Holy Spirit. As such he is taking a similar position to many cessationists, that is, those who believe that the gifts of prophecy and tongues ceased at the end of the time of the original apostles. A common cessationist argument is that all prophetic messages are the authoritative Word of God, and so that to accept them as valid is to add to the canon of Scripture – something which is of course anathema to evangelicals. John Hobbins seems to agree with this argument, and infers that the continuing prophetic messages which he believes in are indeed the authoritative word of God and so should be added to the canon of Scripture. But in practice, since he refuses to accept my argument that good Christian books written today are in principle of equal value to the works of the Church Fathers, he seems to presuppose that such continuing authoritative revelation was common in the time of the early church but is rare today. John, I hope I have not misrepresented you here.

In complete contrast to this is the position which I take, and which I believe I share with at least the majority of evangelical charismatics. I note for a start that in the church in New Testament times there was both authoritatively inspired prophecy which was written down in the biblical books and other prophecy (for example in the church at Corinth, 1 Corinthians 14) which was not considered authoritative and not included in the Bible. In fact there was almost certainly a lot more of the latter kind of prophecy. I would say that the first kind of prophecy, inspired material for authoritative biblical books, did indeed cease when God judged that the necessary authoritative material had been recorded, in what became the books of the Bible. But the second kind of prophecy continued and still continues, as non-authoritative divine revelation intended for particular situations, always to be tested for its conformity to the authoritative Scriptures.

This leaves open the issue of how I come to believe the Protestant canon of 66 authoritative Bible books. Is it just because it is the standard evangelical position, which I accepted with “no reflection, no soul-searching, of any kind”? No! God is my witness that I have been through much reflection and soul-searching on the authority of Scripture. Is it because this canon became the consensus (although by no means immediately and completely) both of the ancient church as summed up by Jerome and of the Reformers? In part, but it would be inconsistent of me to accept a canon because it is defined by church tradition when in general I reject the authority of church tradition. But the fuller reason is because I believe that God has put in my heart, by his Holy Spirit working within me and guiding me into all truth, an inner conviction that the Bible of 66 books is his authoritative word. Of course it is right that I test this conviction against the witness of other Christians of all ages. But fundamentally, and at the end of a process of soul-searching, I had to conclude that I must accept the authority of the Bible, and the boundaries of that authority, by faith.

0 thoughts on “Canon and Spirit

  1. Excuse me if I’m getting you wrong here, but I’m confused. In your comments on John’s blog you imply that the “guiding into all truth” effectively ended, at least doctrinally, with the end of the apostolic age. Here you claim that actually it includes leading you to accept a canon of 66 books. In support of which canon you quote one view among many in the ancient church as a consensus. Given that the majority of Christians through time and today have (had) different canons, and that fundamentally you dismiss appeals to history and tradition as at best secondary to this inner conviction of yours, this strikes me as being exactly a form of the anti-intellectualism that John accuses you of, to say nothing of an extraordinarly haphazard working of the Spirit.

  2. Doug, thank you for your response.

    Indeed I was not entirely consistent in what I said about how the Holy Spirit guides into all truth. Probably when Jesus spoke of this in John 16:13 he was prophesying of how the Holy Spirit would teach the apostles, his addressees, all of the truth necessary for the canonical Scriptures. So my allusion to this verse when writing of how the Holy Spirit guided me was not entirely appropriate. Thank you for pointing this out. Nevertheless, I believe that the Holy Spirit, not my intellect, has led me to the position I hold on the canon. The Spirit’s working in this is not haphazard but entirely consistent.

    Is this anti-intellectualism? Perhaps. It is certainly not trusting in reason and my own intellect, in the way that some do, as the ultimate arbiter of the truth of God which transcends human reason.

    But what kind of canon would your intellectualism lead you to? Would it be rational to appeal to history and tradition to decide on canon? Hardly if you look rationally, without appeals to divine intervention, at the way in which decisions were made in churches over the centuries, often closely linked to power politics. And isn’t any kind of appeal to divine intervention anti-intellectualism by your standard? It strikes me that if you are going to reject my approach you must also reject any definition of canon, any book as authoritative, any concept of revealed religion. You can of course take that path if you wish, which can only lead to atheism or deism, but I will not join you.

  3. Thanks, Peter, for clarifying your position on the deuterocanonicals, the Fathers, and the canon.

    I continue to disagree strongly with you, but please don’t interpret my disagreement as an attack on the integrity of your walk with God or your calling in Jesus Christ. I sense the anointing of the Spirit on your ministry, of which your blog is the part I know best.

    The elements in your stance that grieve me the most are the following:

    (1) Compared to Lancelot Andrewes, the 17th century Anglican bishop, who said that “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period…determine the boundary of our faith,” your position represents a retreat into an a-historical and anti-traditional position, in which you accept the fruits of the patristic period, such as the canon, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Nicene Creed, but refuse to call such fruits examples of the Holy Spirit leading the Fathers into all truth. Either the Holy Spirit went on vacation during the first five centuries, or he did not. The Reformed, Lutheran, and Anglican communions, as well as many evangelicals, have historically held to a position in most respects identical to that of Andrewes. A rediscovery of what that means in practice is currently in full swing. What impels you to a contrarian point of view?

    (2) Actually, you accept the canon as defined in the five centuries to which Andrewes refers in part only. The Western patristic canon included a set of additional books, referred to by later tradition as deuterocanonicals, similar but not identical to sets of additional books regarded as canonical by other historic Christian churches. I’m not grieved by the fact that you accord full authority to the 66 books alone. I do as well. But 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.

    In fact, there remains a great deal of ambiguity in your position. Are you able to recommend the deuterocanonicals to Christian laypeople for edification and elucidation of the deposit of faith, or not?

    As “for the continuing prophetic messages” I am supposed to believe in as “the authoritative word of God” to be “added to the Canon of Scripture,” my, you have a vivid imagination. Among the gifts of the Spirit there are the gifts of teaching, exhortation, and spiritual discernment, not just prophecy in the sense of time-sensitive predictive discourse of no use beyond a given date. That leads me to a question of my own. Do you believe that the gifts I enumerate were not given to the “series of Fathers” of which Andrewes speaks? If not, why not?

    I want to finish on a positive note. It is helpful that you avoid the term “Apocrypha,” familiar from Protestant usage. The term was often used by the Fathers for works they could not recommend in good conscience to the faithful. The fact that you avoid it suggests that you do not hold to “the standard evangelical position” on these books.

    Or perhaps you still do. As far as I’m concerned, you still have some explaining to do. I look forward to hearing more.

  4. I’m sorry, but I’m in large agreement with John on this question. I don’t see my position arising from an intellectuallism on its way to deism and atheism, which is not the only contrast to your charismatic illuminism. I see it arising from a belief in the same Holy Spirit that inspires scripture working in the church that develops its rule of faith from the apostles, recognises the inspired scriptures, and inteprets them. I see it in the Spirit working in the interplay between the church’s praxis today: its traditional readings of scriputre, and its fresh readings of scripture interacting in seeking to live a Christian life under the guidance of the Spirit in the different circumstances of today’s world.

  5. John, thank you for “please don’t interpret my disagreement as an attack on the integrity of your walk with God or your calling in Jesus Christ.” I would say the same to you. Nevertheless, after a day off blogging yesterday, I am replying to your comments and Doug’s in a separate post, to appear soon.

  6. Pingback: Speaker of Truth » Canon and church

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