Monday, 8 December 2008

Marty Foord on Theology of Canon

My good friend, scholar, and all around good guy Martin Foord of Trinity Theological College, Perth Australia ( shared some thoughts and interacted with us Tyndale House Text and Canon members on the theology of Canon today.

The issue is how do we know which books should be in the Bible. Marty set the discussion in the context of polemics with Roman Catholics and those of the Orthodox faith who claim a different set of books than Protestants, and for different reasons. This is an important and difficult question. One of our members is from a Greek Orthodox tradition and is constantly having to defend herself against traditionalist in her country who perhaps even accuse her of being a heretic for denying Apocryphal books such as 1 and 2 Maccabees or Judith, etc. Thus, one must ask, How does a person properly argue for the 66 books?

Marty’s basic method in answering the question is to ask, “What does the Bible say about itself?” Sure, 2 Tim 3:16 says that the Bible is inspired, etc., but nowhere does the Bible say that these 39 Old Testament books are in, and these 27 New Testament books are in, but the others are out. However, Marty argues that the Bible does say some things about what books are authoritative and which are out.

Marty’s primary text is John 17 which speaks of Jesus sending the 12 into the world, and having been taught his word. This is bolstered by such passages as Eph 2:20 which refers to God’s household being built on a foundation laid by the apostles, and the passages in the Pauline letters which refer to Paul’s associates as his fellow apostles who co-author the letters.

This is strongly connected to the notion of apostolicity as the basis for what books should be in the canon. If an apostle wrote the book, Marty argued, it should be included in the canon since Jesus says that he has sent the apostles and given them his Word.

Marty seems to reject a closed-canon concept. He says that every generation should reconsider which books are in the canon. He suggested that should a lost letter of an apostle be found, we should, by all means, add it to the Bible, bringing us 67 books.

One of the tests of apostolicity of a book pending consideration is how well it fits with the other apostolic books. If it doesn’t fit what the apostles otherwise say, then it must not have been written by an apostle.

In regard to the Old Testament, Marty argued that since we don’t know the history of the development of the Old Testament Canon, then we should be content to accept the 39 books. When pressed if we should accept the 39 Old Testament books (and not the expanded list of the Catholics and Orthodox), Marty suggested that we must not follow the leading of the Judaism of late antiquity; Jesus condemned those religious leaders for their every evil word. Instead, we must accept the Old Testament which the apostles used.

There were many loose ends, and a number of questions seem obvious. First, I’m not entirely certain that John 17 has much to say about apostolicity. Second, we can only say that the author of Hebrews might have been closely associated with Timothy—but perhaps there is reason to think that Timothy may have lacked certain aspects of apostolic authority; and so we can only conclude that the author of Hebrews was a friend of someone who might have been an apostle. Third, I’m not sure that everything that every apostle ever said or wrote was inspired; maybe the lost Corinthian letter was not divinely preserved simply because God did not inspire it. Fourth, the criteria that an apostle’s writing must not conflict with other apostolic books ends up being circular; plus, what about all the “contradictions” in the Synoptic accounts—perhaps Luke should be out of the canon on the basis that the torn veil is a pre-mortem event while in Matt and Mark it is a post-mortem event? Fifth, the apostolic writings don’t confirm all 39 of the Old Testament books; for example, Esther and Ecclesiastes would be out.

Much more could be said. I’m not sure how all this works out. I am pretty happy with Marty’s assertion that canon is closely connected with apostolicity. I do, however, like the concept that over the first several centuries the church was led by the Spirit into a consensus of which books should be included. Unfortunately, this does make the Old Testament a bit trickier since the Apostles seemed to like the Septuagint text better than the Hebrew text, and by implication, would include the books of the Apocrypha.

Ultimately, we’re still struggling to work all this out. I don’t think we have any pat answers here. But Marty’s connection of canon to apostolicity is important, and he provided us with considerable stimulation. I look forward to future discussions.


Peter Dunn said...

Hi Jim:
I am interested in this post because just a few days ago I posted the following:
Would Martin consider the addition of the Acts of Paul or 3 Cor? Why, why not?

Marty Foord said...

Hey Peter (and Jim),

3 Corinthians? You have a copy somewhere? Wow! Now that's going to catapult you into the text critical limelight. Forget the Acts of Paul, N. T. Wright, Wrong, or Indifferent! This is the discovery of the millienium.

In short, if a text is authored by an apostole or the co-worker of an apostle, it seems to me that it should be in the NT canon (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:13, where the "we" in the pericope is not the Corinthians but Paul and his fellow apostles, and co-workers, cf. 1 Cor. 4:1, 6).



ps: The argument for apostolicity is based not only John 13-17 but a whole host of texts throughout the NT. I'm hoping to put together small book on this early next year DV.

Peter Dunn said...

The first obstacle will be the critical question of whether 3 Cor was by Paul. When it was first discovered in Armenian, W. Whiston and a German pastor named W. F. Rinck 1826(published the ability to read German in Gothic typeset)argued that it was authentic.

Generally, however, it will be an uphill climb to argue that Paul wrote 3 Cor in the current climate, since it has far less of chance of being Pauline then the Pastoral Epistles. See "Testing Pauline Pseudonymity: 3 Corinthians and the Pastoral Epistles Compared"

Peter Dunn said...

Sorry: that should be Rinck, 1823.

Anders said...
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