For most of us, the key question about the NT canon is “Why these books and no others?” But, I think there is another, more foundational question (that is asked much less frequently), and that is, “Why is there a New Testament at all?”
The answer, according to some scholars, is not to be found in the first-century—there was nothing about earliest Christianity (or the books themselves) that would naturally lead to the development of a canon. Instead, we are told, the answer is to be found in the later Christian church. The canon was an ecclesiastical product that was designed to meet ecclesiastical needs. Sure, the books themselves were produced at a much earlier point, but the idea of a canon was something that was retroactively imposed upon these books at a later time. Books are not written as canon—they become canon.
This idea that the New Testament canon was not a natural development within early Christianity, but a later artificial development that is out of sync with Christianity’s original purpose, is, in my opinion, a central framework that dominates much of modern canonical (and biblical) studies.
This same framework was observed by Brevard Childs,
It is assumed by many that the formation of a canon is a late, ecclesiastical activity, external to the biblical literature itself, which was subsequently imposed on the writings.
It is this overall canonical approach (which I call an “extrinsic” model of canon) that I address in my forthcoming book: The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013). Are we really to think that “nothing dictated that there should be a NT” prior to these later ecclesiastical actions? Was there nothing about earliest Christianity that might have given rise to such a collection? Was the idea of new Scriptures entirely foreign to the early followers of Jesus?
The goal of my book is to offer a well-intended corrective to the extrinsic model’s assessment and interpretation of some of the historical evidence. Paradigms always need adjustments and refinement and this volume hopes to take a helpful step forward in that direction. It is not designed to offer the final word on the very complex subject of canon, but to reopen dialogue on a number of key topics where the dialogue, at least in appearance, seems to be closed.
The table of contents is as follows:
1 The Definition of Canon: Must We Make a Sharp Distinction between the Definitions of ‘Canon’ and ‘Scripture’?
2 The Origins of Canon: Was There Really Nothing in Early Christianity That May Have Led to a Canon?
3 The Writing of Canon: Were Early Christians Averse to Written Documents?
4 The Authors of Canon: Were the New Testament Authors Unaware of Their Own Authority?
5 The Date of Canon: Were the New Testament Books First Regarded as Scripture at the End of the Second Century?
The book is due out in November, 2013.