The Canon in Protestant Dogmatics, pt. 3
May 6, 2009
In chapter 8, Lecerf dealt with the parallel between the Reformation and the advent of the Christian Church within the Synagogue. The main ancillary point made was that humility and submission, not pride and arrogance, were vital to the Reformation mindset. In chapter 9, partly excerpted below, he starts to deal more with the dogmatics of the “formal” and “external” principle of the Reformation: the authority of the canon alone within the life of the Church. Much of this chapter is taken up with the inspiration of scripture, with Lecerf taking a traditional line, though modified by the “organic” approach of the Dutch school at the time, namely Bavinck. Plenary inspiration is affirmed, though this does not require historical exactitude on accidental matters, since God can be in “full control” and allow such non-dogmatic errors. The other concern in this chapter is the subjectivism of the neo-Protestant (liberal, Ritschlian) and neo-orthodox (dialectical, Barthian) theology. Lecerf’s doctrine of inspiration and his critique of the subjectivist schools are very similar to those found in Concise Reformed Dogmatics (P & R Publishing, 2008).
I only have three excerpts from this chapter below — those parts which are of greater interest to the authority issue, which is not given a positive construction until the next chapter. These excerpts will give you a good idea of where he is going.
It is the Church, by means of her members acting in their respective vocations of parents, teachers and ministers, which places the soul of the child in contact with the verities of the faith and it is from her that he receives the supreme rule of faith and practice which is the canon of Holy Scripture. In the absence of the testimony of the Church, the catechumen would not even know that this canon existed as an established fact concerning which there can be no further dispute.
In acknowledging the Church’s primary role in transmitting the canon of Holy Scripture and introducing the individual to the faith, we are not making a strategic retirement to new positions, the original ones having been rendered untenable owing to enemy pressure. We remain, on the contrary, firmly fixed in the positions which our Reformer occupied from the beginning. [Inst. I, vii. 3.]
Calvin had nothing in common with the “fantastics” of his time whose radical individualism aimed at putting a sort of private inspiration above the authority of Scripture, confounding the promptings of their consciousness with the testimony of the Holy Spirit. [Ibid., 9]
For him, it is indeed from the Church, the guardian of the Scriptures, that the believer receives their text and contents. But the neo-Protestantism of today, like that of his time, objects to the identification of Scripture with the Word of God. It opposes to the religion of the letter “the religion of the spirit,” and it agrees with Rome in claiming that the canon of the New Testament is a creation of the Church. The limits of the canon of the New Testament having been determined, it is claimed, by the authority of the Church, orthodox Protestantism is held to be inconsistent in rejecting her infallible authority, on the one hand, and, on the other, in accepting the exclusive and closed list of the canonical books of the New Testament which rests equally and solely on the same authority.
This is what we would say on the subject: every intellectual worker worthy of the name has something which for convenience we will call “a mysticism.” He may even have two: a religious mysticism, a profound devotion to the person of Christ, for example; and a cultural mysticism, such as adherence to the positivist principle in science, to subjectivist and evolutionary humanism, to the doctrine of universal mechanistic determinism; in brief, to scientific conformism. Sentimentally, intellectually and in every other respect, criticism has gained as a result of the humanist ideology of the 18th and 19th centuries, so that “modern” man — “modern” let it be understood in the already historical and traditional sense of the term — if he wishes to remain or become religious, can no longer give his religion the hyperphysical and transcendent foundation of the affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed: prophecy and miracle, in the sense of a special divine intervention in the causal series of events, appear to him as radical impossibilities. He is compelled to distinguish carefully between the faith of confidence and the faith of belief in “sacred history,” which reflects a manner of thinking that his ideology forces him to consider out-of-date. Thus it is in the believer’s subjectivity that he must seek the foundations of his religious life. Neo-Protestant theology thus betrays its connection with the philosophical psychologism dominant in the mid-19th century in France.
We do not deny that God inspired other writings than those which constitute the canon. Some have been lost, and obviously we need not concern ourselves with them now. If they were rediscovered, we should not know for certain that they had been intended to serve as a rule of faith for us and we could only receive their doctrine by measuring it against the authority of the canonical books. There may be some which survive to this day. It is possible that the Epistle of Clement of Rome may be among the number, or some other writing of the Apostolic Fathers which has figured in the canon of the New Testament and of certain particular Churches. But the fact that these writings have been eliminated from the canon of the Church universal under the pressure of historical circumstances which are under divine control shows us that it was not the intention of providence to give these documents the role of faith and life for all the centuries but only for the time during which they were imposed on the acceptance of certain Churches.