Wednesday 14 September 2005

A relatively closed canon

“An absolute guarantee that the history of the Canon is closed, and therefore that what we know as the Canon is also closed, cannot be given either by the Church or by individuals in the Church.... The insight that the concrete form of the Canon is not closed absolutely, but only very relatively, cannot be denied even with a view to the future.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2, p. 476.)

If we fail to acknowledge this, then we have failed to take seriously the authority of Scripture. Any criterion for declaring that the canon is absolutely closed would be a criterion external to the canon itself. Thus to assert that the canon is closed absolutely and de jure (not just relatively and de facto) would be to betray the canon itself.


Lyn said...

The misapplication of this concept (a possible open canon) is seen every day in our churches where leaders like Chuck Swindoll or Max Lucado (both solid pastoral teachers) have more authority - practically / applicationally - than the bible. Thanks for posting this bit of reflection. Lyn at Thought Renewal

Th. said...


Another question is why the rush to close the canon?

Anonymous said...

Ernst Käsemann makes a similar point in his 1962 essay "Thoughts on the Present Controversy about Scriptural Interpretation":

"There is no canon established, or capable of being established, once and for all. To pretend that we have it, is to lull ourselves to sleep in the arms of a treacherous illusion. We never have anything but a provisional form of the canon and even this is qualified by being subject to conflicting interpretations."

The essay is also worth revisiting for its exploration of the difference between Gospel and Bible: e.g., The Lord "will therefore be heard as being himself the measure of the Bible; which is to say that the Bible has, and preserves, its authority from the Gospel and is, for the rest, only one religious document among others."

Anonymous said...

My sense has always been that the canon was deemed to be closed, in part, at least, to define the positions of different elements of a Christianity splintering into various factions. The different Christian denominations all declared their canons closed in a remarkably short timeframe-- all within the 15th and 16th centuries AD.

It is interesting to me that this particular reason for closing the canon is inherently at odds with the role Paul attributed to revelators like apostles and prophets, to bring all to 'the unity of the faith.' Declaring the canon closed and perfect precludes not only inclusion of extant books previously omitted, but also additions by other such revelators.

Admitting the possibility of additional revelators to bring the faith together again, as Paul suggests, implicitly demands an open canon; it also throws open doubt for all Christianity: where would such revelators come from? how would the Christian communities recognize them as authoritative? and how would some or all of these communities adapt if certain of their interpretations of scripture (inevitably) were refuted by authorized revelation?

These are troubling questions, and, I think, not easily answered from a tradition historically wary of new alleged revelation.

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