Saturday, May 16, 2009

The canon of scripture.

What should go in, and what should go out? Critical question. On one hand we have the bible as the inspired word of god, complete and sufficient. On the other we have the idea of modern revelation as the continually unfolding word of God, because God leads us along, step by step, line upon line, precept upon precept. We’re not led in a straight line, necessarily. We began with The Law, which was added onto and fulfilled by the words of Christ and his original apostles. People got about two thousand years to marinade in the law of Moses, and it was time for the next step. Likewise people got about two thousand years to marinade in the accounts of Christ’s ministry and in the writings of Paul and others, and then it was time for the next step, the Book of Mormon and the “restoration” of Christ’s true church. Or was it? Is the Bible really full and complete in our age, or should we expect something more?

In the interests of brevity I’m going to focus more on the New Testament and the Book of Mormon here rather than debating the apocrypha or whether Moses or Adam were real people or not, because either way the Old Testament is affirmed by Christ and was fulfilled and largely superseded. It’s not the rock of my faith.

Having read through Chapter 3 of Grudem’s book, here are my thoughts, as they emerge. They are not his thoughts.

There are several bases for the New Testament canon.

One is that the authors were either apostles themselves or trusted associates. They had at most one degree of separation from the eyewitnesses of the actual events of Christ’s ministry. i.e. they were either witnesses and apostles, like Matthew and John, they were apostles or other leaders whose authority was attested to by the other apostles, like Paul and James, or they were trusted associates like Mark and Luke. I think Jude and the author of Hebrews fit into this latter category, although more loosely than the others.

Another is that their theology and message are generally consistent with each other.

From a practical standpoint, probably the most influential characteristic is that the New Testament books are the set of books generally attested to by the emerging church through the 4th century. Over the years books were in and books were out, but this set was generally accepted by the church as authoritative. Whether through revelation or just personal opinion I’ll leave to others to decide.

The important thing is that these books represent the best testimony we have from the most reliable eyewitnesses we have that was generally agreed on as being accurate and authoritative. From that point on in history the works are by their very nature going to be derivative and based on something other than eyewitness testimony.

Now, how does the Book of Mormon fit into this?

For purposes of this discussion I’ll leave questions of content aside and pick those up later. I love the Book of Mormon, because I think that generally it’s a truer witness of the doctrines we have extracted from the Bible than the Bible is itself. I think the orthodox trinity is clearly taught in the Book of Mormon, as is the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith and many other things.

But, does that mean it’s deserving of a place in the canon alongside the Bible?

Whatever your opinions about the origins and truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, it’s a revealed document. We don’t have original manuscripts from the original authors, nor do we have the historical witness of those people. They and their original writings have vanished. The primary witness we have of the Book of Mormon is Joseph Smith. If any actual plates really did exist, the only person who knew what was on them was Joseph Smith. There is no historical evidence of anything contained in the book, nor any other independent witnesses. There are no other testaments of the same events for us to weigh and compare. We don’t have the original plates, and the testimony of those who claimed to have seen and handled them is extremely suspect. Basically what you are left with is to read the Book of Mormon and pray about it, and either you receive a spiritual witness that it is “true” in some sense or you don’t. That’s your only possible confirmation. The spirit either testifies to you of its truth, or he doesn’t.

What if Joseph Smith, with all his human frailties, got it wrong? What if parts of the Book of Mormon are either incorrect, made up, or some critical pieces are somehow missing? Again, we have no independent witnesses to the content or anything else about it, other than gold plates may have existed. We have no independent witnesses of the actual events or to the correctness of the “translation”, other than whatever we get from the Holy Spirit.

Subjectively I don’t think the Book of Mormon meets the same standard the New Testament does.

I think of the Bible as a whole being like the constitution, like the keel of a ship. There’s a huge interconnected depth of support for the New Testament, from its historical background to the consensus-building process involved in the actual development of the canon. Because of that there’s a lot of human frailty we just don’t have to worry about. Is there human frailty in the Bible? No doubt, but the circumstances surrounding its origin give us the best possible basis for it being an accurate reflection of the actual events that happened and the doctrine taught by the church from the beginning.

We just don’t have that with the Book of Mormon. Your only choice is to pray about it and either accept it or reject it based on your spiritual witness of it. It doesn’t have the history behind it, nor does it have the consensus of the community behind it. It’s like a stool with one leg, albeit a very strong and important one.

The sad fact is that the witness of the Holy Spirit is often subject to a lot of interpretation. It’s most useful for more general life questions and not for ferreting out specifics. In general what I think we get from the Holy Spirit is more confirmation than specific word-for-word direction, and given that it’s most useful to have a variety of witnesses that agree. I believe the New Testament meets that standard much better than the Book of Mormon does.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Another thoughtful installment in your series of comments on various fora.

I would, though, suggest that the history of the gospels is more complex, and more cynical, than you indicate. There were in the first centuries of the Christian era dozens of "gospels," apostolic letters, and apocalypses in circulation. Various churches favored various books, and there was no real orthodoxy or central control.

This was of course an unstable situation. Leaders of local churches vied for influence in the broader Christian world, denounced their rivals as heretics and were denounced in turn. Over time this process produced a somewhat smaller range of scriptoral traditions but there was still considerable diversity and competition.

The final selections were made at the Council of Nicaea, at which relgious-cum-political authorities were ordered by Rome to assemble together and compile a definitive New Testament. The men who participated in this effort were no saints: they had cruelly persecuted dissidents in their communities and in many cases had blood on their hands. Not the most Christian of men, but they could deliver their communities--which is what the empire wanted.

Their choices reflected compromises based on their own personal interests and their shared desire to empower a single, hierarchical organization. They succeeded in this political task, though I personally think the cost of this accomplishment was very high. Not only did the Church Fathers interpose a human organization between man and God, they also suppressed numerous religious traditions that had every bit as much claim to validity as what now emerged as orthodoxy.

One of the great ironies of Mormonism is that Joseph Smith adopted the Nicean canon without question. LDS reject elements of the Nicene Creed and the Nicene interpretation of scripture as the work of misguided humans, but they have not fundamentally questioned the canon that was chosen to support those doctrines. Joseph fiddled around the edges with his Inspired Version, but he and his successors basically act as if the standard gospels were delivered like Moses's tablets from on high.