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The Canon: Thoughts on the First-Generation Christian Literature


3. How the Canonical Literature Serves the Church

Before we look at the way the Christian canon arose, let‘s think about what this literature had to be good for. In other words, let’s form a functional definition of what a legitimate Christian canon would be like.

Here is the outline for this page:


Scripture Equips Us for Good and Beautiful Deeds

Scripture Explains What Happened in Jesus Christ

Scripture Presents God As One Who Promises and Fulfills

Scripture Calls Us to Monotheism

Scripture Calls Us to Repentance

Scripture Makes Us Think Theologically

Scripture Equips Us for Good and Beautiful Deeds

In one his two letters to Timothy, Paul makes a statement about the nature and use of Scripture:

All scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be proficient, equipped for every kind of good work. (2 Tim. 3:16–17)

The scripture that Timothy had, and had had since his childhood, was the Hebrew Bible. As Timothy now faced the difficulties of ministry, he had in scripture a book that was good for teaching, reproof, correction, and training. It is hard to translate some of these words in a way that preserves their original effect, so it is necessary to explain briefly.

Teaching (διδασκαλία) is here the content of what is taught, and among the earliest Christians this content was derived from the Hebrew Bible. Reproof (ἐλεγμός) is calling someone’s attention to it when they have fallen badly into sin. This was to be done with kindness and from good motives, and you can see how useful it was to have a book that teaches good living for God’s covenant people. Correction (ἐπανόρθωσις) is improvement, and scripture is useful to the enterprise. Training (παιδεία) is a comprehensive word in Greek for everything in one’s “cultural nurture” (Aeschylus) that creates the mature and well–behaved man.

Scripture, in short, gives us everything we need to be proficient (ἄρτιος, capable of doing things in a responsible way) and equipped for all kinds of good and beautiful deeds.

Scripture Explains What Happened in Jesus Christ

In According to the Scriptures, C. H. Dodd presented his conception of the Old Testament as the substructure of New Testament theology. Dodd found that the writers of the New Testament had looked to several large portions of the Old Testament to understand the events that had now come to pass “according to the Scriptures.” Dodd called these portions “testimonies,” and in each of them he found an all-encompassing plot declaring “the determinate counsel of God” (Peter’s words from Acts 2:23).

Dodd, According to the Scriptures: The Sub-Structure of New Testament Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952).

History, upon this view . . . is built upon a certain pattern corresponding to God’s design for man . . . It is this pattern, disclosed . . . in the past history of Israel, that the New Testament writers conceive to have been brought into full light in the events of the gospel story, which they interpret accordingly (p. 128).

Thus the theology of the church was a biblical theology. The Christians did not want to simply invent their theology out of personal preferences or out of thin air. Rather they looked to the Hebrew scriptures to provide them with a means of understanding what happened in Jesus. For clearly something had happened, and they wanted to understand it in a way that was coherent and consistent with what had happened in Israel.

Scripture Presents God As One Who Promises and Fulfills

C. F. D. Moule defined covenant-promise as “not any single, limited promise, but all the promise and hope attaching to all that is epitomized in the Bible by God’s covenant with his people.” The covenant-promise is all-inclusive because it is God’s “plan for achieving a truly personal relationship between himself and his people . . . and his design for accomplishing it.”

Moule, “Fulfillment-Words in the New Testament: Use and Abuse,” New Testament Studies 14 (1968): 294.

These promises have three characteristics:

(1) A promise has the character of a personal, self-involving, self-obligating pledge. It differs from mere prediction—such as seven lean years in Egypt—because the one who promises also commits himself to bring about that which he has promised. When it is God who makes the promise, the promise has his trustworthiness and power as guarantees.

See Nils Alstrup Dahl, “Promise and Fulfillment,” in Studies in Paul: Theology for the Early Christian Mission (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977), pp. 121–22.

(2) The promises of God are fulfilled, not exhausted. That is, the fulfillment of a covenant-promise establishes a precedent of how God will continue to act in the future. For instance, according to Walther Zimmerli the prophet’s job was to keep Israel always on the move, never thinking of itself as a fully realized entity, but always pressing from promise toward fulfillment. “All Old Testament history,” Zimmerli said, “insofar as it is history guided and given by Yahweh’s word, receives the character of fulfillment; but in the fulfillment it receives a new character as promise.”

Zimmerli, “Promise and Fulfillment,” trans. James Wharton, in Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics, ed. Claus Westermann (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1963), p. 112.

(3) From the Christian standpoint, all the promises of God find their Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Throughout the Pauline literature—indeed, throughout the entire New Testament—we find that the covenant images of the Old Testament cluster around Jesus Christ. He is “the goal, the convergence-point, of God’s plan for Israel, his covenant-promise.” In him the promise of God to form a truly personal relationship between himself and his people is brought to realization.

Moule, “Fulfillment-Words,” 301.

Therefore the language of promise and fulfillment must be part of the functional definition of a Christian canon: it is literature which in a clear and authoritative way makes intelligible that God has promised, he has acted to fulfill his promises, and his promises are ever new.

Scripture Calls Us to Monotheism

The fundamental fact of biblical religion is monotheism. Israel’s confession, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one,” stood—and still stands—against the only religious alternative to monotheism, paganism.

According to Yehezkel Kaufmann, the unifying concept of pagan thought is that “there exists a realm of being prior to the gods and above them, upon which the gods depend, and whose decrees they must obey.” That is, the gods are subservient to something higher and more fundamental than they, fate, or destiny, or natural law. What is unknown in paganism, but which is the very basis of monotheism, is the concept of “a divine will, sovereign and absolute, which governs all and is the cause of all being.”

Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel from Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, trans. and abridged by Moshe Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1972), pp. 21–22.

The Hebrew experience and conception of God knew him to be pure, unconditioned being. He makes himself what he is. There is no fate which he does not decree. There is no power which does not belong to him. And there is none of the mythology that is so rich in paganism: no stories about Yahweh’s birth, or battles with other gods, or marriages, or travels, or exploits of God among the gods.

Monotheism was built into Mosaic religion from the start: the first commandment was, “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second was, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” (Ex. 20:3-5). And yet the seduction of paganism was felt from the start: for long tracts of their history, the Israelites sought to worship both Yahweh and the gods of Canaan.

When we meet with pagan rituals and cult objects in nations other than Israel, we might think them quaint, interesting, clever, and often beautiful. When we meet with them in the Bible, we are never allowed to forget that because of them “the land is full of bloodshed and the city full of perversity” (Ezek. 9:9), that idols are “abominations,” or—to use Ezekiel’s own term for them—idols are “turds” (gillulim, plural of galal, pointed like shiqqusim, “abominations”).

Paganism is a temptation to the modern mind as well, not perhaps as the impulse to worship wooden figurines, but as the impulse to think God subservient and limited. The Bible is our most insistent reminder that he is not.

Scripture Calls Us to Repentance

Here is a familiar story that Jesus told. There were a rich man and a poor man. The rich man wore expensive clothes, and he lived in a big, fine house, and he ate the best foods all day long. The poor man had nothing. He was hungry, and he was sick. Every day his friends brought him to the street in front of the rich man’s house. The poor man would lie there, hoping that the rich man would give him at least the scraps from his table. But the rich man gave him nothing. Whenever he left his house, he would have to step over the poor man to get to the street. But he never did anything to help him. Both men died. The poor man went to Heaven, the rich man went to Hell. When he was in Hell, the rich man did some deep thinking. He figured out that he was in Hell because he had been a rotten person. He thought of his six brothers at home, and he asked that the poor man be sent back to warn them, so that they wouldn’t come to Hell, too. But he was told no. He was told, “They have Moses and the prophets.” (That means, they have the Bible, written by Moses and the prophets.) He was told, “Your brothers should listen to what is in the Bible. And if they don’t—well, then they will not listen even if someone goes to them from the dead.” (Luke 16:19–31.)

The point of the parable is therefore that scripture provides a full and sufficient call to repentance. The early Christians were evangelistic, and their literature accordingly functioned within this overall desire to share their faith by summoning people to repentance and change.

Scripture Makes Us Think Theologically

To think theologically is to think about justice, meaning, and goodness as they relate to a particular thing—like work, the environment, human rights, war, and so on, as well as religious things—and to think about these things in a way that involves our imaginations with large-scale concepts about the nature of reality and the ultimate reality, God.

How much real theological thinking goes on in the world during any given day? There is hardly any way to know. But it might not be much, because not even thinking done by religious people using religious language is necessarily theological thinking. I once heard Madeleine L’Engel say that the only theology she read any more was the Cappadocian Fathers and small-particle physics. The comment raised a ripple of laughter, but you can see her point. Not every little religious book in the shop necessarily has much, or any, theology in it, at least not theology that engages us in large-scale concepts. But a good deal of small-particle physics does, because it involves our imaginations with the ultimate nature of reality, including God.

To think theologically, we have to think not in terms of immediate, pragmatic outcomes. We have to think on the largest scale our imaginations can reach.

We have to think globally (not only locally) about justice, goodness, and the meaning and value of human life.

We have to think about history and experience. What is the historical explanation for this particular thing in our present experience? Since a good many things have historical explanations, our thinking has to include the past, sometimes the distant past, as well as the present and future.

In the community of faith we have to think about the message of our religious tradition, especially the message embodied in scripture. Neither Jews, Christians, nor Muslims can think theologically from the standpoint of their own faith without considering what the written tradition has to say, without looking at scripture as a fountain of some kind, supplying us with a word from God about God.

And if the God who exists actually possesses anything akin to will, intelligence, and morals, when we think theologically we have to think on a large scale about what this God wills for the universe.

The Bible, as a canonical literature, gives us a constant summons to leave behind all small and petty thinking and to think theologically.


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