If we define the church as “a free association of believers gathered by the Holy Spirit before the Risen Lord,” how would such independent communities ever come to the recognition of a canon of Scripture?
I was watching a fundamentalist Baptist preacher the other day — yes, I should spend my time more fruitfully — and he was harping on and on about how he didn’t believe in denominations because the church is nothing more than an independent, local assembly of believers. The only authority for his church — and other “properly constituted” churches — is the Bible. This pastor actually left the Southern Baptist Convention because of his convictions about the independence of the local church…yes, the SBC is too denominational for him! In other words, this pastor and this church doesn’t need “the church.” Thus, in principle, no church has ever needed a church other than itself, much less does it need synods, councils, assemblies, and other compromises to the independence of the local church. Therefore, no creeds and no confessions are necessary; moreover, creeds and confessions are illegitimate bindings on the local church. The Bible alone can bind the local church.
Of course, this raises one striking curiosity: the Bible itself, as a particular canon of texts, is a confession. The same justifications that give a denomination the authority to bind churches according to a confession (e.g., Augsburg or Westminster) are the same justifications that gave rise to a canon of Scripture. The local church needs other churches. It needs the witness of other churches to know “where to look” for the promises of God. It needs the discernment and accountability of other churches when it points to these texts, and not other texts, as the Word of God. As such, the testimony of the early church is given priority even as the Reformation re-evaluated the discernment of the early church in this matter, as in other matters. The Reformation churches, through her confessions, recognized the authority of the prophetic and apostolic texts as they have been handed to us, with the assumption that the Word of God was to be found there and, indeed, it was found there! From generation to generation, this assumption and this awakening sustain the church’s confidence in her Holy Scripture.
I have always liked the definition of the church that I gave above, which is roughly taken from Brunner’s very fine volume on ecclesiology (Dogmatics, vol. 3). However, I don’t see how such a definition can account for the authority of the canon. I don’t see how such a definition does not logically entail the clear absurdity of the above fundamentalist Baptist preacher, who speaks for vast swaths of evangelicalism (not just the fundamentalist wing) when it comes to this understanding of the church and the Bible. If there can not be, in principle, any confession other than the Bible, then we would not have a Bible. If the early church had operated with this “freedom” of independent churches, there would not — could not — have been a canon formation. Herein, the Reformed position, with the rest of the magisterial Reformation, has definite advantages and greater coherency.
[By the way, I am a member of the Evangelical Free Church of America, and I was raised a Baptist. So I am writing this as a criticism from within my own tradition.]