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The Authority of the Canon

“The classic debate between orthodox Protestantism and Tridentine Catholicism led us astray at this point. The Protestants seemed to be claiming that the authority of the Scriptures depends upon the unique miracle of inspiration (some even said “inscripturation”) whereby they came into being, which gives them timeless status above the church. That argument was circular on two counts; it did not itself explain the criteria of canonization, and the basis for the claim to inspired authority lay within the texts themselves. Catholicism served us no better by answering that the texts only have the authority which the church gave them. This is not true either, because the church which confirmed the authority of the texts, in the course of the early centuries was not the same as the first-century church which wrote them, nor was the Roman hierarchy presenting this claim in the seventeenth century. The alternative, simply stated long ago by Oscar Cullmann, is much more apt.  The development of a selection of writings, recognized as authoritative by the churches, constitutes the final proof, delivered by the church itself, that the church does not claim final authority but rather subjects herself to the witness of the apostolic age. This submission to the apostolic witness is not a statement about the event of inspiration or the uniqueness of the authorship of certain texts. It is a statement about the accountability of the Christian community as a movement within history, whose claim to be faithful to her historical origins in the midst of historical change obliges her to identify the criteria of that accountability. The affirmation of accountability is not dependent upon any theory about how the texts came to be written or selected.”

~ John Howard Yoder, To Hear the Word, 93-4. (New Edition forthcoming from Cascade Books.)

37 Comments

  1. David wrote:

    After reading the above in detail no less than five times in the last twenty minutes, I must say that it reads very much like a Republican party defence of the US Constitution. There are so many contradictions. I think one would be better off reading Ratzinger’s “Called To Communion” instead.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:15 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Having read both this and the book you mention, I think you’d benefit from reading Yoder beyond this quote. Ratzinger’s book really failed to convince me on any level. His argument really just amounts an argument from historical determinism: ‘The Catholic church turned out like this, therefore its right.’ Not convincing to me in the least.

    But regardless, I don’t see a single contradiction in the above quote. And I kinda doubt you could come up with a real example thereof.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:22 am | Permalink
  3. robert wrote:

    Quite reminiscent of my Orthodox catechism lessons on the subject.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  4. David wrote:

    Well, for the Church not to claim final authority undermines the authoritative recognition of the selected writings in the first place.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    How? I don’t see why that is the case on any prima facie level. It makes perfect sense for the church to recognize that certain documents are binding over it without the church making any sort of statement about its own inherent authority or finality.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 11:59 am | Permalink
  6. David wrote:

    Texts aren’t cognizant of anything, let alone a transferal of authority.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Your proposition is that for a group to recognize something as having authority over them they themselves have to have the same sort of final authority immanent within themselves.

    That makes no sense. And you’re not making any argument here, just baseless, and rather logically incoherent solutions. You gotta do better if you actually want to convince anyone.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  8. daniel imburgia wrote:

    first, there is a very good and relevant discussion going on over at ‘Journeying with those in Exile’ (why no link here?).
    second, i have great respect for Yoder but find this quote problematic. I think the Catholic trinitarian position on authority i.e. scripture+church/tradition+Spirit is the only reasonable one (it also largely conforms with Orthodox Judaism as well, albeit with different integers). Take out any one of the three and you’re off the rails. which is not to say that you can’t go off the rails within the Ortho-Catho position, they have/are and often, it’s just that that’s the best we an come up with. Replacing that schema with “The development of a selection of writings, recognized as authoritative by the churches, constitutes the final proof…,” merely seems to replace ‘church’ with ‘churches,’ and is not ‘proof’ of anything. Anyone/group/cult can simply declare any writing as ‘inspired’ rent a storefront, take up a collection, and impart/impose it’s authority onto its ‘scripture’ or set of interpretations. A Religion, one might say, is just a Cult with an army and a navy; that is, ‘authorization’ is a function of power ala Nietzsche/Foucalt, not (necessarily) ‘Truth.’ Of course you don’t need a compelling “theory about how the texts came to be written or selected,” but it sure helps if your gunna convince folks to load up the wagons and head to Utah from Missouri thru hostile indian country and set up the ‘Real church’ based on golden tablets (or just want a burn a few heretics i.e. protestants). I also think you are giving ‘Ratzinge’r (Bendict XVI ) short shrift in your analysis of “Call to Communion,” but we will take that up later. obliged, daniel

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  9. David wrote:

    No, not just anything, but texts most certainly. I am not proposing that we ought not recognise God as the absolute authority just because we do not possess the same authority.

    Just as we come from God, whether we choose to recognise this positively or negatively; such is the presupposition for even asking the question. Texts come from people, the Church is prior to the Scripture, by the very nature of the case that which is before confers authority on that which comes after. It cannot give more than itself.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:10 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    You should read Yoder’s “The Authority of Tradition.”

    As far as the correspondence with Judaism goes, Yoder shows in many places how the free church tradition really stands in continuity with Judaism in a way that all other Christian traditions do not. See The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited.

    Really this all comes down to historiography. Do we believe that the outcome of historical events gives them providential validity or that things can actually go wrong in history? If we believe the former we are likely to find the Catholic position compelling, the latter favors a free church interpretation.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    No the Scripture comes from the prophets and apostles who most certainly precede the church. The church merely recognizes their apostolic authority. It confers nothing on Scripture other than its promise of obedience.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  12. eric wrote:

    Halden – could you clarify? Are prophets and apostles (especial apostles) somehow outside of church? how so?

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Well, Scripture refers to them as the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20), so I take them to be prior in that sense. But also, chronologically, clearly the whole Old Testament (the prophets) precedes the church, and the Apostles existed prior to the church and were the instruments of its creation (through the Spirit at Pentecost) and continued to exert an authoritative function in the church that is distinct from any authority that the church qua church possesses.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  14. David wrote:

    Strictly speaking, the Apostles are the foundation of the renewal of the Covenant. In fact, the Church has been present since the Fall.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 1:56 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    I don’t think so. The church began at Pentecost. And, as I referenced above, Scripture specifically says that the apostles are the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20). Strictly speaking.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink
  16. David wrote:

    The Catholic Church began at Pentecost, “Church” has to do with being called out; and I do believe Abraham, Moses and the rest were called to be part of something unique in world history, a community in covenant with the True God, at first a couple, thence a family, later a nation.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    You’re all assertion, no argument. And clearly you’ve not studied these issues in any depth.

    Again, regarding your assertion above, you have Scripture against you and don’t seem to care. The idea that one ought to distinguish between “the Catholic Church” and “Church” is ludicrous.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  18. David wrote:

    “The idea that one ought to distinguish between “the Catholic Church” and “Church” is ludicrous”

    I agree, so what’s the problem?

    If I haven’t studied these issues in any depth, then why do you keep coming back for more?

    I know enough not to depend on scripture alone.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Its a problem because you distinguished between them in your last comment, dude.

    I never said I depend on Scripture alone. Only that there is no compelling reason to think that the church has the same authority that Scripture does.

    You’ve said nothing whatsoever that substantially challenges this. At all.

    And I keep coming back because I’m too easily tempted by goofy comments, I’m afraid.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 2:46 pm | Permalink
  20. David wrote:

    I can see that there is nothing I can say that will overturn what you believe to be the case.

    Bye.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:07 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    You certainly could If you were willing (or able) to make reasoned comments that make sense. Even if I didn’t agree with them, there could be a mutually helpful conversation.

    Of course, since you have chosen the path of non-sensical assertions over and over again, I don’t see that happening. Peace out, hombre.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:10 pm | Permalink
  22. kim fabricius wrote:

    Conservative Protestants make the mistake of securing the fides quaerens intellectum in a doctrine of scripture, as if revelation needed epistemological foundations. As Stanley Hauerwas might say, “If you need a theory of scripture, worship the fucking theory!”

    Roman Catholicism makes the mistake of securing the fides quaerens intellectum in a doctrine of the church, as if revelation needed ecclesiological foundations. But then scripture becomes the church talking to itself rather than listening for a word from the crucified and risen Lord, who with apocalyptic power may interrupt the church and disrupt its sense of immanent historical identity and continuity.

    As for the canon, its formation and acceptance was as comic as it was grave. And when the church finally said, “Er, this is it, boys,” it was an act of obedient confession, not triumphant authorisation. The canon makes the church; only in a theologically quite trivial sense can it be said that the church made the canon.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 3:45 pm | Permalink
  23. Chris wrote:

    Quick comment on the use of “Church” as those “being called out”:

    This definition is based on terribly poor exegesis. It is often said the Greek for “Church” (ekklesia) is a combination of ek (“out”) and klesis (“calling/invitation”), and therefore carries the combination of the two as its meaning. It does not! It means little more than “assembly.” The exegetical fallacy is being used here to say that anyone “called out” by God is a part of the Church. You’ll have to come up with a better argument than “‘Church’ has to do with being called out” to get Abraham and Moses in.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  24. roger flyer wrote:

    Like men making sausage in the bratwurst factory (“Er, enj

    You might like the product but you don’t want to know what all goes into it.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 5:32 pm | Permalink
  25. roger flyer wrote:

    Whoops! Premature ejection. “Er, enjoy your sandwich, boys!)” was my line.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 5:33 pm | Permalink
  26. daniel imburgia wrote:

    Yikes!! reckon y’all got your hackles up on this one, interesting, even unholstered the ‘F’ word and some Latin!! Well, I figure, as i said, the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic and Universal Church (past and present in a most inclusive way ) and the bible; don’t think there is much fruit in arguing which came first (though there’s something to be said in favor of the Spirit, or so our E. Orthodox family tells us). Now if you disagree i guess i could tell you all to go read Tom’s Summa Theolgiae and get back to me (Halden i’m not pointing fingers, just saying i often see argu…er…discussions that suggest if you just read what i read then you’d come around to the right way of thinking, but chances are when you got done with Aquinas several years from now you just might be selling flowers at the airport or exploring Methodism–i say that because an old seminary friend and serious Aquinas scholar did just that! Methodism that is, i’m the one growing flowers). I have spent some time in discussions like these among Haredi, chabadniks and various Orthodox and reformed Jews; oral v.s. written, Talmud in relation to Torah, Babylonian or Jerusalem versions, there’s a story about Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira and other learned Rabbis working together in the Warsaw ghetto and the fur would fly as they would discuss the Talmud, Rashi, or Gamiliel etc, it was said even the angels would lean down to learn from these great tzadikim, until some other folks (with ‘Gott Mit Uns’ inscribed on there beltbuckles and a different reading list) ended the discussions…for awhile, still, what if they had had blog’s back then!! Anyway, the old Rebbe (who also studied medicine) tells the story how he gave a pharmaceutical prescription (in Latin) to a chasid who came back later complaining that his headaches returned when the writing on the prescription faded away. So the Rebbe wrote out another prescription and the chasid put the prescription inside the lining of his hat! ‘Rebbe’ shouted the chasid, ‘thank G-d the headaches are already subsiding!!’ ‘To G-d be the glory,’ agreed he Rebbe, amen, obliged, daniel.

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 7:10 pm | Permalink
  27. Halden wrote:

    I don’t understand anything you just said, but I have one question. When did anyone bring the F-bomb into this?

    Monday, June 15, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  28. An Anxious Anglican wrote:

    Kim at 8737, but it was appropriate and entertaining.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 6:22 am | Permalink
  29. Devin Rose wrote:

    Quote: “Catholicism served us no better by answering that the texts only have the authority which the church gave them. This is not true either, because the church which confirmed the authority of the texts, in the course of the early centuries was not the same as the first-century church which wrote them, nor was the Roman hierarchy presenting this claim in the seventeenth century.”

    My understanding of Catholic teaching differs from Yoder claims here. The Catholic Church does not claims that she “gave” the inspired texts authority but rather that she, infallibly, recognized there status as inspired texts. The Catholic Church claims to be the servant of the truth, not its master. Christ has revealed truth to us in revelation, which the Catholic Church claims is contained in both the sacred Scriptures and in sacred Tradition. So the Catholic Church serves the truth by protecting it, by God’s divine power and grace, from being corrupted by error, which could come about through a person or group misinterpreting the Scriptures or misinterpreting Tradition.

    The second assertion he makes is that the 1st century Church and “early” Church (3rd, 4th, 5th centuries?) and the one in the 17th century are not all the same “Church”. On what basis does he assert this? Did the Church apostasize as the Mormons claim? I don’t understand how he makes this claim; perhaps someone could explain it to me.

    Quote: “The development of a selection of writings, recognized as authoritative by the churches, constitutes the final proof, delivered by the church itself, that the church does not claim final authority but rather subjects herself to the witness of the apostolic age.”

    First it is “churches” then it is “church”, but he doesn’t use “Church” with a capital ‘C’ which I guess Yoder thinks is bad? The Catholic Church holds to sacred Tradition, which is the Apostolic Tradition and thus she “subjects herself to the witness of the apostolic age” as Yoder says the “church” should. So he must be claiming that the Cathoilc Church does not follow Apostolic Tradition, counter to the fact that she claims to do so. On what basis does he make the charge that the Catholic Church failed to follow the Apostolic Tradition?

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 8:50 am | Permalink
  30. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Oh come on, Chris, every one loves a little etymo-theo-logizing once in a while! :)

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 8:55 am | Permalink
  31. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Your such an ass, Halden. :)

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 8:56 am | Permalink
  32. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    What the hell?

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  33. roger flyer wrote:

    Are we talking ‘F’ides bomb or ‘F’ucking bomb?
    I think Kim managed to tie in both in one post!

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  34. roger flyer wrote:

    People are getting very cranky around here!

    What happened to David? Will he come back with an ‘argument’ and will Halden engage him again?

    I think David should be referred to some of the back posts on Mark Driscoll and get his commentary there.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  35. Chris wrote:

    A little etymo-theo-logizing is fun, but I’d like to see some creativity. This one about ekklesia is tired.

    Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  36. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Chris, would you mind just laying out a better “exegesis” here? And I’m curious what you mean by “exegesis”; are you suggesting that a better exegesis of those places where the term ekklesia appears would render something much closer to assembly, not “called out,” or are you using exegesis to refer more to etymology in this instance. Just to be clear, I’m not at all a proponent of the argument you are railing against here (in this instance I find Halden/Yoder to be right, though I find Halden’s approach of response rather distasteful) — I am just curious what your actual reasons are for your conclusions. For instance, in what way is the term ekklesia not a “combination” of the preposition “ek” with the infinitive “kaleo”? “Assembly” is usually a translation of the term “synagoge” (“gathered together”)…again, recognize that I am not at all in agreement with the position being criticized. Thanks.

    Thursday, June 18, 2009 at 5:42 am | Permalink
  37. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Any word on this at all?

    Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 7:22 am | Permalink

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