The Canon: A Protestant Account
September 19, 2008
Every so often, the canon debate is renewed in the blogosphere. The latest manifestation is found at Parchment and Pen with Michael Patton’s latest consideration of Sproul’s dictum, “We have a fallible canon of infallible books.” Michael Liccione gives a Catholic response at Philosophia Perennis.
I think the canon debate (=authority debate) might be better served if we actually start with what is actually going on in scripture instead of epistemological categories (e.g., certainty). To this end, here’s an excerpt from P. T. Forsyth’s brilliant lectures, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (1909):
In Christ God redeemed once for all. To make this effective in history it must be declared. What is the work for us without its word? It must be interpreted, unfolded, in thought and speech, else men would not know they were saved. The work alone would be dumb as the word alone would be empty.
There are some who recognize in Christ’s death no action beyond what it had, and has increasingly, upon mankind. It did not act on God but only from Him. Those who so think may be particularly asked what provision Christ made that a work with that sole object should be secured to act on history, and should not go to waste. He wrote nothing himself. If he had it could not well have included the effect of his death — unless he had done with a posthumous pen what my plea is he did by his Apostles. He did not even give instructions for a written account which should be a constant source for the effect on us intended by his life. Nor did he take any precautions against perversions in its tradition. Yet it is hard to think that a mind capable of so great a design on posterity should neglect to secure that his deed and its significance should reach them in some authentic way. He surely could not put himself into so great an enterprise, and then leave it adrift on history, liable to the accidents of time or the idiosyncracy of his followers. He could not be indifferent whether an effective record and interpretation of his work should survive or not. He would then have shown himself unable to rear the deed he brought forth. It would have been stillborn unless the close of it in some way secured its action on the posterity which we are told was its sole destination, on those whom alone it was to affect or benefit. But the completion of his work he did secure if he inspired its transmission and interpretation in the Bible. If he died to make a Church that Church should continue to be made by some permanent thing from himself, either by a continuous Apostolate supernaturally secured in the charisma veritatis, as Rome claims, or by a book which should be the real successor of the Apostles, with a real authority on the vital matters of truth and faith. But, we discard the supernatural pope for the supernatural book. And so we come back, enriched by all we have learned from repudiating a verbal inspiration and accepting an inspiration of men and souls, to a better way of understanding the authority that there is in the inspiration of a book, a canon. We move from an institutional authority to a biblical: and then from Biblicism to Evangelism. But it is an Evangelism bound up with a book because bound up with history. …And this because, for all the pronounced personality of each Apostle, he was yet the representative of a whole Church, an Eternal Saviour, and a universal salvation. The interpretation of the manifold work of Christ should be a corporate matter. …[Christ] rounded off his great work by inspiring an authoritative account of it, in records which are not mere documents, but are themselves acts within his integral and historic act of salvation. …[They] form an integral part of the deed itself….They are part of the whole transaction, integral to the great deed. And we do not get the whole Christ or his work without them.