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.