Could the Fallible Universal Church Have Failed to Receive the Canon?

Could the Fallible Universal Church Have Failed to Receive the Canon?

Jesus promised to build his church and told his apostles that those who received them were receiving Him. (Matt. 10:40; Matt. 16:18) The implication is that the building project of the Lord was to be founded upon the message of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus being the chief cornerstone. (Eph. 2:20) Consequently, the words of the apostles and Christ (whether penned by them or not) had to be preserved and received without error because Jesus promised to build his church upon them, which is now a matter of history given the passing of the apostles and the historical establishment of the New Testament church. 

Discussions over the canon have often pertained to surveying patristic evidence for the process and completion of canonization. These traditional pursuits have been aimed at answering important historical questions more than thorny epistemological ones. Yet in Reformed circles there seems to be a renewed interest in the theology of the canon and a deeper appreciation for the premise that answering when and how the canon process was completed is insufficient to establish whether the church most likely got it right. Accordingly, a fresh cumulative approach to canon studies is advancing in an effort to justify our belief that we have the canon. With this approach comes the acknowledgement that any criteria for identifying canonical books that is not grounded in Scripture betrays Scripture’s authority and proper place of canonical influence.

The more recent epistemologically self-conscious approach identifies specific complementary attributes that books of the Bible must contain as prescribed by Scripture itself. (It also wards off erroneous charges of circular reasoning by establishing certain unique features of epistemic commitment.)

The Basics

If the church has received the canon, then obviously she was exposed to the books that would comprise the canon. (The former presupposes the latter.) Furthermore, if the church has received the canon flawlessly, we would expect that she universally and over time responded favorably to marks of divinity that would have come by way of Scripture’s inspired and authoritative authors. Does this mean, however, that our confidence in the sixty-six books of the Bible (and none other) rests upon (a) the historic church’s fallible discernment of the divine qualities of scripture and (b) its historical evaluation of apostolicity that would have resulted in corporate reception?

Although I believe Scripture affords us even greater assurance – assurance that affords us access to the ultimate justification for our belief that we have the canon – the current trend robustly affirms and happily complies with the Reformed tenet that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts”. (WCF 1.5) In other words, the Confession is not addressing how we can know that the church received the canon but instead is teaching us how we know we are reading God’s word when we read the Bible.

A Distinction Is in Order

Apprehending the divine qualities of Scripture is to hear the voice of God therein. The Holy Spirit’s witness entails our being struck by the profundity of doctrine and experiencing the wisdom and blessedness of its teaching and practical application. Although we are sometimes unjustified in our discernments, knowledge can obtain when we are not. (Internalist-infallibilism leads to epistemological skepticism.) Notwithstanding, assurance through the consensus of the church and confidence in the historical assessment of authoritative origins of canonical books is not on par with hearing God’s voice in Scripture. That is to say, complementary attributes of canonicity aren’t necessarily equivalent attributes. For instance, all believers, to one degree or another, receive testimony of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the teaching of Scripture; yet perhaps most who hear the voice of God in Scripture do so without (ever) considering the corroborating evidence of corporate reception and prophetic origins. Moreover, it is difficult to understand how (a) fallible corporate consensus and (b) historical evidence for authoritative origins can persuade in the same way or on the same order of the direct testimony of the Holy Spirit that accompanies the infallible word of God (or even non-discursive properly basic beliefs that are immediately obtained through sensory experience).

At the very least, fallible corporate consensus about apostolicity culminating in the catholic reception of canonical books would be a byproduct of the church having already discerned the divine qualities of Scripture by the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. (Another case of the former presupposing the latter.) In the former case the Holy Spirit’s internal witness would work in conjunction with his inspired Word that is spiritually discerned and applied by the church. Whereas in the latter case persuasion would be corroborative in nature, according to legitimate beliefs in reasons for believing the church has corporately heard the voice of her Shepherd. And although reasoned belief in authoritative origins would certainly pave the way to attentive consideration of a message from a perceived authoritative source, certain Jews were more “fair-minded” than those in Thessalonica because they did not rely upon apostolic credentials but on the analogy of faith (comparing Scripture with Scripture). Even the Thessalonians received the Word not because of its human source, but as the word of God through the full persuasive power of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 1:5)

Divine inspiration is both sufficient and necessary for ancient writings to be authoritative. Consequently, the church’s reception of the canonical books is not a condition for their intrinsic authority otherwise canonical books would not have been sacred Scripture until they were recognized and received as such. However, in a technical and qualified sense, after the universal church’s reception of the canon, the received canon does become sufficient for inspiration and ecclesiastical authority.

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