Thursday, August 28, 2008

Canonization of Scripture
I. "Literalist"? Er, No - and Introduction

I got into a "tiff" with a guy I like a lot over at Street Prophets over the use of the word "literalist" or "literalism" when it comes to folks like me who believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God - and that it has authority both as a spiritual guide and in all it asserts (even historically). I am in no way confused that Solomon was talking about real baby deer attached to the chest of his wife. I am also not confused that the bulk of the Gospel accounts is reportage:

Then turn to John. Read the dialogues: that with the Samaritan woman at the well, or that which follows the healing of the man born blind. Look at its pictures: Jesus (if I may use the word) doodling with his finger in the dust; the unforgettable nv vuz (13:30). I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn't see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.
So, I get what is "literal" and what is "figurative" - and I understand scripture has both types of writings. However, the "literalist" label - as generally used - isn't about the understanding of literary types. The general conversation (not the one with Russell) goes like this:
Other person: "I am a Christian, but I do not believe [for example] that hell exists [or the resurrection or the Virgin birth or miracles in general] or "I am a Christian, and I think the foundation of Christ's teachings are the Beatitudes [but not the whole Sermon on the Mount] " or "I like the teachings of Jesus - but Paul screwed the whole thing up"

The "literalist": "Great, but didn't Christ mention hell more than anyone else in the Bible" or "Great, but Christ said it was the Great Commandment" or "What about the more difficult teachings in the Sermon on the Mount about judgement and hell, divorce, etc" or "Paul was accepted by the Body of Christ as both an apostle and a great teacher about Christ"

The Other person: "The Bible was written by men, living in a particular culture, and I just do not accept that God would [send someone to hell, do miracles, etc.]. You "literalists" just do not see the overall beauty and poetry of scripture because you are too concerned with facts - and we know the New Testiment is not historically accurate." or [the point of this post] "There are many other parts to Christian tradition than the Bible as canonized by Constantine in the 4th century"
For those that are personally attracted to the spiritual aspects of the Bible (and not whether it is "real" or not) -- I am in no way diminishing their love of scripture, or the road that led them to Christ. NOT IN THE LEAST. I am talking about folks who toss out - in doing that or otherwise - all the criticisms of the historicity, authorship, etc. of scripture coming from the anti-supernaturalist scholars of the 18th century and beyond (as if that stuff is "just proven"); and imply that anyone who believes that scripture was written by who the 1st and 2nd century church thought it was written by (and believe in the reported miracles by a real Christ and/or God) are hopeless rubes unable to grasp simple modern scholarship and science - hence the inaccurate (and pejorative) "literalist" label. Those criticisms, unproven (and indeed many proven false) undermine - intentionally or not - the authority of scripture; and can place folks who listen in a position to misunderstand the direct teachings of Christ.

I care about that for two reasons:
  1. For those seeking to follow Christ: they end up trying to follow not THE Christ but their Christ - the Christ their affections and beliefs are most comfortable following and not the Savior - rich, deep and real - of scripture. It is not the "literalists" who limit God and Christ by demanding that others take the full breadth of revelation into account - "inconsistancies" and all - but those who wish to narrow the scope of God's power and Christ's message.

    Modern "scholarship" - taken to it's worst extreme - is the Jesus Seminar voting on what Jesus really said and what he didn't. We do not really get to pick and chose like that in my view; nor do we get to limit Christ to what our modern sensibilities find "reasonable".

    There is plenty of scriptural reason to believe that just any belief about Christ is not adequate - that right belief about Christ is important.

  2. For those teaching such a Christ and such a view of scripture: they are placing themselves in the direct line of Christ's warning
    Matthew 18:6 “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! It is necessary that stumbling blocks come, but woe to the person through whom they come. 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into fiery hell.
That should do it for now on that ugly word "literalist"

* * * * *
I have talked a fair amount about the historicity of scripture as well as Biblical authorship, particularly of the pivotal work in this whole argument - the Gospel of John. I have not really outlined what I see as the process of canonization of the New Testament. I see two general views:
  • that the canon of scripture was enforced on the Body of Christ from above by the hierarchy in order to drive competing (and possibly legitimate) theological views out of the church; and

  • that the canon of scripture developed organically within the Body of Christ - including through those great early theological battles - and that the leadership of the church finally rubber-stamped that view and sealed the canon.
I believe there are some elements of both - but by far and away the second view is how the Canon developed. The beginning of that development - which would take over 300 years to complete - can be seen within the very books that later became part of that Canon. My ilk see canonized books - from reading the historical record - having had five questions to survive in order to become part of the canon:
  1. Was the book written by a prophet of God? In the case of the New Testament, this meant Apostolic authorship
  2. Was the writer confirmed by acts of God? The primary Biblical purpose of miracles was to confirm the Word of God given through a prophet of God to the people of God.
  3. Did the book tell the truth about God?
  4. Did the book come with the power of God? This refers to the ability to transform the lives touched by it. The presence of God's transforming power was an indication that God was behind it.
  5. Was the book accepted by the people of God? Despite later discussions about canonization, when a book was recieved, collected, read and used by the people of God as the Word of God, it was considered canonical.
In part II, I will examine how this played out in the New Testament canonization process.

1 comment:

How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly