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The boundaries of the canon:
Why do we think it's closed?

Encouraging Communication among the Churches of God

The boundaries of the canon:
Why do we think it's closed?

by Alex Ciurana
The writer is pastor of a Church of God (Seventh Day) congregation in Conroe. This essay represents the opinions of Mr. Ciurana and does not reflect the official view of the General Conference, Church of God (Seventh Day). Mr. Ciurana presented a version of this essay on March 25, 2011, at the conference sponsored by Art Mokarow in The Woodlands, Texas.

CONROE, Texas--Since the dawn of the scribal arts, man has expressed an innate desire to record encounters with the divine. Writings manifesting themselves in sacred lore, fanciful tales, mythical-nationalistic histories, wisdom proverbs, apocalyptic imagery, poetry and various other genres have found a special place in the hearts of millions.

In time, most religious traditions compiled certain texts, preferring some to others, and ascribed authority to those texts for official and/or devotional use.

Today most major religions have writings considered more or less authoritative. Some religions, however, maintain or have maintained a perpetual stream of holy writ whereby writings of more-recent times are considered worthy of special status. This dynamic is typically known as open canon.

In contrast, other world religions have adopted the concept of closed canon whereby writings of modern times are never viewed as "Scripture" because it is believed the divine action of inspired literature has come to completion.

Simply put, an open canon provides borders that expand; a closed canon has fixed borders.

The dynamics of a closed canon

Christianity is governed by closed-canon dynamics. Although the number of books considered canonical differs from Protestant to Catholic, each shares the conviction that its canon is complete: that sacred literature is no longer being breathed forth ("inspired") by God.

For the Catholic this is an open-and-shut issue with no foundational inconsistency. The councils, the synods, select writings of the Early Fathers and papal decrees all form a body of guidance equal to that of Scripture. This is known as the dual authority of Scripture and tradition.

So a certain degree of tidiness is ensured within Catholicism. Where the Bible does not authoritatively speak (or, perhaps, does not provide the desired response), church tradition does.

Such tidiness is not the privilege of the Protestant, however. Operating from its Reformation heritage, Protestantism rejects the dual notion of authority and sides with Scripture only: sola scriptura.

Biblical silence

Yet nowhere does the Bible state that God stopped inspiring sacred writing. (1)

This biblical silence, however, does not stop the church from teaching time and again that the canon is forever closed.

But on what basis can such a claim be made? Protestants (and the Churches of God) simply cannot establish a closed canon via sola scriptura and so must, quite embarrassingly, kiss the pope's ring, confessing that they too need tradition to uphold church dogmatics.

This shortcoming should be no surprise, for not only is Scripture silent in closing the canon, but it was powerless to form the canon in the first place:

"The Protestant church, born in the Reformation, maintains that its norm is the Bible alone: sola scriptura ... The Protestant then faces the dilemma that the canon could not have served as a guideline as the church debated the problem, since the canon did not yet exist!

"In other words, the church could not abide by the principle of sola scriptura in deciding what should or should not be canonical. At that time canonical Scriptures were unknown, and the church's decision could in no way be 'according to the Scripture'" (Willi Marxsen, The New Testament as the Church's Book, 1972, Fortress Press).

What if early Christians had believed in a closed canon?

Besides the disharmonious clang between sola scriptura and closed canon, a simpler observation may be noted. Namely, Christianity would never have produced or compiled the New Testament writings if the early Christians were proponents of a closed canon; i.e., believing that God stopped inspiring writings at the end of the Old Testament prophetic age.

How ironic that the doctrine of closed canon--which seeks to protect the Scriptures--would have squelched the New Testament at its inception if the same conviction was held then.

This should cause every Protestant a bit of head scratching. Why is it that the modern Christian is somehow handcuffed, prohibited from reaching out for fresh inspiration of either a personal or corporate (i.e., ecclesial) sort?

If little or no scriptural mandate for such restrictions exists, then the restriction is artificial, a tacitly held sentimentality with no divine authority or precedent.

Marxsen (1972) presses further: "Why shouldn't the modern church have the same right of making its experiences normative as the fourth century church? Or were those fourth century experiences in some way special?" (p. 17).

Is it outlandish to rethink?

Now we are met with an intriguing concept, namely that religious experience and theological preference contribute to what is considered inspired ("God-breathed") and, in turn, what is eventually canonized.

Therefore, is it outlandish that the modern church also needs the freedom to affirm the creative acts of God, be they found in literature or art or collective experience?

Would not such freedom cut the tethers of potential "Scripture-alotry" (2) that suffocates God's continued revelation in these modern times?

"A proper view of the Scriptures does not lead to an either/or position, able to find God in the Bible but nowhere else, or at least not so strongly and palpably in other places.

"It does not teach us to shy from the world of art and letters, philosophy and mathematics, science and technology, but to thrive in it, and to pursue the knowledge of God in all these areas, confident that the God who could create a world can continue to reveal himself in every facet of that world, through every vessel who loves and appreciates it, and even some who don't" (John Killinger, Ten Things I Learned Wrong From a Conservative Church, 1972, Crossroad).

Some may think that the idea of an open canon is too drastic and constitutes a complete change from present operations of church life.

This is simply not so. Every Sunday millions of Pentecostals and charismatics gather for worship, and quite often a message is declared to the congregation that is received as authoritative.

A message may be packaged in the form of an ecstatic utterance ("tongues") or a "word of knowledge" or a sensational sermon. Whatever the outer form the message takes, it is normally received as a "word from God" in Pentecostal and charismatic circles.

This is not to suggest that such happenings are necessarily genuine revelations from God. I note these phenomena merely to illustrate that in many Christian circles the canon is already open in practice in spite of its officially closed status.

[The phenomenon of "tongues" is even quietly present in the Churches of God of the Herbert W. Armstrong tradition. See "Pastor Has an Unusual Take on Tongues," The Journal, issue No. 138, dated June 17, 2010.]

An open canon simplifies

Yet another benefit to fresh inspiration is its inherent relevance. It pretty much goes without saying that C.S. Lewis is more accessible to the modern mind than is 1st-century Paul.

Lewis lived during the 20th century and wrote as a modern man. One can read and understand his works without first digging deep into the social, economic, political and religious climate of his day.

It is not so with the apostle Paul or any other ancient author. In fact, the hermeneutical task has become all but overwhelming and increasingly out of reach for the modern lay member.

Consider how many specialized books the student of the Bible needs to study the Scriptures: language lexicons, books on Bible idioms, references on manners and customs, atlases of Bible lands, variant-manuscript texts, guides to literary forms, Hebrew and Greek word studies, background studies in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Greece and Rome.

One college textbook states in its conclusion:

"You might now better appreciate the theological problem that has faced Christianity over the past two millennia. That theological problem has been and continues to be how to make known the Good News of Jesus in terms of the ever-kaleidoscoping cultural scripts that cover the world like a crazy quilt" (B.J. Malina, The New Testament World, 1981, John Knox Press).

Spirituality not about syntax

If making the basic gospel message within the Bible digestible for present culture has been a daunting task to trained clergy for centuries, how can we expect the layman, sitting in an easy chair, King James Version in hand, to glean real understanding from the entire body of writings?

This conundrum is largely solved once the grammatico-historical method of biblical hermeneutics is no longer viewed as required for spiritual understanding or Christian growth.

This is not to dismiss the value of scholarly interpretation and criticism of literary texts. It is only to maintain that spirituality is about spirit, not syntax.

A layman with no formal training in literary criticism may open the Bible and glean existential meaning and transformative ideals from its pages. In this arena an open heart is more important than hermeneutical skill.

Of course, when the two are combined an impressive combination of scholarship and spirituality may result. James Fowler (writing in 1981 and 1995) recounts how his seminary training was animated by an ancient practice involving as much heart as head:

"Instead of my reading, analyzing and extracting the meaning of a Biblical text, in ... prayer I began to learn how to let the text read me and to let it bring my needs and the Spirit's movement within me to consciousness" (Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, 1995, HarperOne).

A person inspired

Up to this point I have only hinted at the basis for inspiration. It is one of those matters that are nearly undeniable once realized, but quite invisible and silent until then.

All manifestations of inspiration, all masterpieces, all offerings of inspiring and inspired quality, every bit of selfless love, each captivating brush stroke or ink blot--all must first live and blossom within someone.

Inspiration does not reside in a book or painting or anything inert. These objects are the results of inspiration. To say that the Bible--a physical object--is inspired is to leap over the most crucial basis for its divine value: the inspired authors.

Heaven touches earth

The first lesson the Bible teaches is that the divine joins with the human. Heaven touches earth, and this intimacy gives birth to all that is beautiful and good.

So how odd and sad to think that God suddenly ceased this loving way and now blithely mandates all humanity to venerate the love acts of the ancient past!

The human spirit is the same as it was long ago. The Bible is the evidence that personal inspiration is not only possible but always fluttering about our ears, eyes and fingers. It is upon our lips and quietly percolating in our hearts.

Within mainstream Christianity it is difficult to find formal expression of this, and perhaps the only ones to do so with charming simplicity are the Quakers.

"The 'Word of God' is Christ, not the Bible ... The Scriptures are profitable in proportion as they are read in the same spirit which gave them forth ... Nothing, I believe, can really teach us the nature and meaning of inspiration but personal experience of it. That we may all have such experience, if we will but attend to the divine influences in our own hearts, is the cardinal doctrine of Quakerism" (Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings, edited by Emilie Griffin, Douglas Van Steere and Rick Moody, 2005, Harper Collins).

Summing up

When I heard the title Art Mokarow gave his seminar March 18-20, 2011, seminar in Houston, Texas--"Why Did God Decide to Write the Bible?" (3) -- I thought to myself:

What a strange and anthropomorphic way of discussing biblical inspiration, for we all know that God did not write the Bible. People wrote it, even though we believe, of course, that something divinely supervisory was going on in that process.

However, the more I thought about the seminar's title the more I liked it.

So now I borrow from its rather plebeian phrasing and ask you: How do we know God ever stopped writing the Bible? How do you know that? It could be going on right now through you, me and others all over the world who want to see His Kingdom in its radiance and influence.

I want to see, hear, taste and touch God in things ancient and modern, and I see no obvious benefit in categorizing the ancient as more holy than the modern.

The God who is the same yesterday, today and forever moves through this very time and people too.


[1] Revelation 22:18-20 is often used as support that the canon is closed. However, the context of the passage is clearly a warning not to "add" to or "take away" from the content of the book of Revelation itself, displayed by the qualifying phrase "this book." Further, such warnings were common in works of antiquity to protect against textual tampering. See commentary on Revelation 22:18 in The New Jerusalem Bible.

[2] That is, being guilty of idolatrous affections for the Bible.

[3] The title of Mr. Mokarow's conference as I quoted it here was actually a misunderstanding on my part. The actual title was "Why Did God Have the Bible Written as His Word?"


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