The Authority and Canon of Scripture

D. Brent Laytham

A comprehensive account of the authority and canon of Christian Scripture would engage the whole Bible and the entire theological tradition. I attempt far less in this brief essay. While conversing with the book of Hebrews and the Methodist Articles of Religion, I offer five theses as a first step toward a proper account of the canon’s authority.

First, the canon is a gift given to the church by the triune God, not something we give ourselves. Of course, Scripture does not drop fully formed from heaven, but comes through a long and complex process of human making. The mistake would be to think that this human working competes with or displaces the Holy Spirit’s working. Rather, these material human processes are precisely how God gives us the canon of Scripture. A eucharistic analogy is helpful here. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine are from human making, and the eating and drinking are human action, yet the Holy Communion is a gift Christ gives us, not something we give ourselves. Likewise, without displacing the activity of the biblical writers, redactors, and canonizers, Holy Scripture is nonetheless God’s gift to us, not something the church gives itself.

Neither Hebrews nor the 25 Articles explicitly say that Scripture is God’s gift to the church, but it is implied in Heb 6, where tasting “the heavenly gift” is restated as tasting “the goodness of the word of God” (6:5-6). Deeper still, the whole of Hebrews offers us a taste of divine goodness, the gift of God’s word. Likewise, Article 5 says that “all the books of the NT, as they are commonly received, we do receive and account canonical” (emphasis added). Here the church receives rather than makes the canon, and the language of reception means more than just fidelity to the tradition. It means that the church receives Scripture from God. To speak of canon, then, is to acknowledge that these altogether human texts are nonetheless a gift God continually gives the church.

Second, the canon of Scripture is one whole thing, not a mere list or collection of discrete writings. Of course, our canon includes 66 “books,” and they are different enough to refuse easy harmonization. But that does not rule out unity, nor require us to find Scripture’s unity somewhere “in” the text itself. Theologically, the canon’s unity rests “in” God. Christian Scripture is one because “there is but one living and true God” (Art. 1). Just as there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:5), so there is one God, one gospel, one Scripture.

Still, we can and should ask what kind of “one whole thing” the Bible is. There are two excellent answers: story and speaking. I have written elsewhere about narrative approaches to scriptural authority (“The Narrative Shape of Scriptural Authority: Plotting Pentecost,” Ex Auditu 19 [2003] 97-119), so here I will concentrate on the Bible as one divine speaking. Hebrews begins by connecting divine speaking through the biblical text—“long ago God spoke … by the prophets” to divine speaking through Jesus Christ—“but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” (1:1-2a). This christological claim reminds us that Jesus is “the Word of the Father” (Art. 2), one who speaks in and through Scripture. So, in Heb 2:11-12, quotations from Ps 22 and Isa 8 are not what prophets long ago were saying, but what Jesus is saying now to the church. Similarly, the Holy Spirit speaks to us now through the scriptural text, as we see at 3:7, where a quotation from Ps 95 is introduced with the words “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says” (note the present tense verb; see 10:15-17 and 9:8). Clearly Hebrews does not offer us a theory of Scripture as divine discourse, but it certainly does operate with a theology that the triune God not only spoke by the prophets, but speaks now to us through their writings. Scripture is God’s speaking now to us.

Third, the canon of Scripture is holy—both sanctified and sanctifying. We rightly speak of Holy Scripture, naming both its proper relation to God and its proper effect on us. Regarding the former, J. Webster has written convincingly that God’s sanctification of Scripture means that “the biblical texts are creaturely realities set apart by the triune God to serve his self-presence” (Holy Scripture [Cambridge University Press, 2003] 21). I will emphasize here God’s sanctification of us by Scripture. Article 5 affirms that Scripture contains “all things necessary for salvation,” rightly locating the purpose of Scripture in the economy of salvation, an economy that Wesleyans know culminates in our sanctification. God’s intent for Holy Scripture is that it play its role in making us holy. Of course, it is not Scripture but God who does the sanctifying, a working that Heb 10 centers in Jesus Christ. Tellingly, both Christ and the Holy Spirit speak this sanctification as Scripture (10:4-10, 15-17), a reminder that its proper role is to serve God’s sanctifying purpose.

There are two misunderstanding to avoid here. One could falsely construe Scripture as a container of saving articles of faith: “believe the whole list (nothing more and nothing less) and you will be saved.” Or one could falsely conceive Scripture’s saving effect as rooted in the text itself, rather than in the God who uses it to give us salvation. Both misunderstandings fail to recognize that Scripture’s sanctifying effect is rooted in and mediated by Jesus Christ. That mediating work is central to Hebrews’ presentation of Jesus as the great high priest, the “source of eternal salvation,” (5:9) and the one who “is able for all time to save those who approach God through him” (7:25). Though Hebrews does not explicitly connect Christ’s mediation of salvation to the biblical page, its concluding exhortation declares that the ascended Christ is speaking salvation to us now (13:25-29). Where and how does this speaking occur? Article 6 knows that it is in and through Scripture, for in both Testaments “everlasting life is offered mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator.”

Fourth, the canon of Scripture is closed—not by an ecclesial decision but by the Easter declaration “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool” (cf. Heb 1:13, quoting Ps 110:1 as the Father speaking to the Son). Of course it is a declared article of faith for most denominations that the canon is closed. So how can I assert that this closure is rooted in Easter rather than various ecclesial councils of the late 300s (or in J. Wesley’s retention of Article 6 when abridging the Anglican 39 Articles)? Quite simply, my claim is theological. Although it has become fashionable to suggest that our closed canon bears witness to who won and who lost in the power politics of the early church, in fact, it bears witness to who won at Calvary—God. Christ “did truly rise again from the dead” and “ascended into heaven” and now reigns until “the last day” (Art. 3); he “appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin” (cf. 9:26; also 10:20). Because of this the canon was first opened for the writing of the NT and then closed as our two testament Bible.

J. Barton’s recent account of canon is helpful here. Though it was a commonplace in the ancient world that the oldest texts were the most authoritative, the writings of the NT were received as having the status and authority of Scripture while, as it were, the ink was still drying on the parchment. The explanation for this is “the early Christian conviction that a new and unprecedented era had arrived with Jesus and the apostolic church. Newness was no longer a sign of inferiority but a mark of authenticity” (Holy Writings, Sacred Text [Westminster John Knox, 1997] 67). Both the authenticity and the authority of these new scriptures, this “NT,” grew from the eschatological significance of Jesus.

But if the NT was created in the apostolic conviction that God has said and done something new in Jesus Christ, it was closed on the very same basis. After God’s divine speaking in Jesus, there is nothing new to say, nothing more to be done. There will not be another end, a different messiah, a next new Word. Jesus’ work is “once for all” (cf. 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:2, 10). The story goes on, but the new has fully come in the one who is not only pioneer but perfecter of our faith (12:2; cf. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28).

Fifth, it follows, then, that the canon is ordered to and through Jesus Christ. Time would fail me to offer an adequate account of this christological claim (cf. my “Interpretation on the Way to Emmaus: Jesus Performs His Story,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 1 [2007] 101-15), but Article 6 makes a good start. The OT is, for us Christians, the “OT” (not Tanak and not the Hebrew Scriptures) because of Jesus. Here “old” is no diminution of the first two thirds of the biblical canon, only faith’s acknowledgement that Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant” (12:24; 9:15), the living and active one in whom the eschatological new has fully come. In him, Jeremiah’s hope for the covenant’s renewal is fulfilled (cf. 8:8-12, quoting Jer 31:31-34). And this fulfillment truly is a “better” covenant (7:22), not in the supersessionist sense that God’s covenant with Israel has disappeared, but as an in-house argument that Jesus’ priesthood is superior to the Aaronic priesthood, and that his once and for all sacrifice of himself has ended the need for animal sacrifice (cf. ch. 10, and note the Article 6 claim that the “ceremonies and rites” God commanded Moses no longer bind Christians). Yes, this fulfillment truly does make the first covenant old (not “obsolete,” as many translations render 8:13), not by revoking the covenant but by setting it in ordered relation to its fulfillment in Christ.

So deeper than contrast is continuity: “the Old Testament is not contrary to the New” because in them both Christ offers everlasting life (Art. 6). That continuity can be rendered as a temporal sequence of older and newer, something already intimated in Hebrews’ opening distinction between “long ago” and “in these last days” (1:1-2); this way of ordering the two testaments bears witness to the eschatological finality of Jesus Christ by way of the continuity of divine speech. Scriptural continuity can also be rendered as a communal sequence of us and them—“since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (11:40). This way of ordering the two testaments bears witness to the eschatological finality of Jesus Christ by way of the continuity of covenant community, planting the cross of Christ (12:2) firmly in the center of the eschatological community that lived, and lives still, by faith in eternal promises (thus, Article 6’s hermeneutical rule that “they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises”).

These five theses are not a comprehensive theology of canon, and still less an explication of how to practice the authority of Scripture. They do, however, provide a place to begin. As divine gift, the Christian canon authorizes our reception of it. As divine speaking, it authenticates itself. As sanctifying text, Christ uses it to author (and perfect) his life in us. As closed by and ordered to Christ, it continually draws us toward the One who is the living and active, authoritative Word of God.

Posted Nov 01, 2007