How do we know we’ve got the right New Testament canon? – Part 5

Posted: January 21, 2012 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

CRITIQUE (continued)

My main disappointment about this book is how narrowly Ridderbos actually executes his main idea of using salvation-history to describe canonicity. A more carefully developed methodology would have been welcome. While he appears to be mining salvation-history to explore its connection to the canon, in fact the discussion is skewed towards the issue of authority. Here we run into one of the conceptual problems which limit Ridderbos’s study: he assumes that canonicity is primarily to be understood as a subset or type of authority. He often uses the two words, canon and authority, interchangeably. The concept of authority is not explicit in Ridderbos’s core question, quoted in Post 1: the question about the nature of canonicity and the canon. Yet ‘canonical authority’ is clearly what Ridderbos wants to examine, and this unexplored assumption compromises the results. The conclusions he reaches about the canon relate to the matter of ‘authority’, and the impression is given that this category is central to canonicity. Yet its centrality has not been demonstrated so much as assumed; the study has been selective in the aspects of canonicity it chose to explore. Thus the results are skewed. The possibility that canonicity might be a category that includes other elements besides ‘authority’, does not seem to occur.

In reviewing salvation-history, then, Ridderbos’s interest is largely limited to this issue. Trouble is, Jesus gets treated as primarily a priniciple of authority. That’s a bit narrow isn’t it. Would have thought there’s a bit more to say about the history of Jesus than that. Also the apostles –  Ridderbos gives a summary of how the apostles were called, trained, authorised and sent. But his use of the Gospel-story amounts to this: that ‘Christ established a formal authority structure to be the source and standard of all future preaching of the gospel’ (p.13, my italics), i.e. the apostolate. The focus is on the status of the apostles as representatives of Jesus. This status becomes the basis for their role as the foundation of the church and its gospel tradition, and is ultimately encapsulated in the NT Scriptures. Fair enough. But is this really all that the Gospel stories have to offer in shedding light on the canon? Is this all there is to be said about the apostleship in relation to Scripture? The almost exclusive focus on authority unhelpfully limits his use of the NT histories. In particular, it tends to produce a fairly static and institutionalising account of God’s action in salvation history. For authority is essentially a static (or status) category, and very useful in creating power structures! There is not much use of the flow, of the stories of salvation history. Not much narrative in Ridderbos’s redemptive history!

I am concerned that the logical conclusion of this approach to the NT would be its use as a tool to coerce conformity to the demands of a church institution. If ‘authority’ is the main thing to say about the canon, (and even about Jesus?), then I guess asserting authority is the main thing to do with the canon?

But really the whole project needs serious broadening by a big injection of NT story. As an example, I would suggest that the theme of ‘trustworthy witness’ would be fruitful in exploring the connection between salvation history and NT Scripture. For the thing which history requires above all is faithful reporting. And it is precisely this issue that the apostles make so much of. Jesus himself is the ‘faithful witness’ (Revelation 1:5) who brings the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus testifies of the kingdom that he has been sent by his Father to bring in: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…’ Thus Jesus comes as a messenger or witness, so that his gospel can be called ‘the testimony of Jesus Christ’ (Revelation 1: 2).

His disciples have this same role; having seen the risen Jesus they are likewise sent: ‘As the Father sent me so I send you’ (John 20:21). Their role is to be witnesses and to bear witness: ‘Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things’ (Luke 24:46-48). ‘You will be my witnesses’, says Jesus, and sends them out (apostello Acts 1:8). Ridderbos considers the basic role of the apostles to be that of representing Jesus; and the their witness is primarily to be thought of as legally binding on the hearers – authority categories. But this is not born out by the Gospels and Acts. Fundamental to their sending (apostleship) is that they ‘tell what they have seen and heard’ (I John 1:1-3). At its most basic, apostleship is not about representing Jesus but about reporting what they have seen God do in Christ: ‘This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses’. (Acts 2:32) John introduces himself as ‘his servant John, who testified to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw’ (Revelation 1:1-2).   Of course there is a representative role implied in apostleship, but this is not nearly so prominent in the narrative as is this role of witness.

Ridderbos brings in ‘witness’ later as an aspect or subset of authority, but authority is not the main issue in testimony. The main thing about this witness is that it is true. The apostles repeatedly emphasise their reliability. They do not readily play the authority card: they play the ‘faithful witness’ card again and again. This is part of the point of emphasising that are many witnesses: ‘of that all of us are witnesses’ (Acts 2:32 cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). The first thing to be grasped about the message of Christ is that it is true: ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16). ‘What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands… we declare to you’ (I John 1:1-3).

In the story, authority comes in as a subset of witness. For the notable thing about this witness is its power. As the apostles testify to the ‘word of God’ (Luke’s term for the gospel), that word spreads and conquers. It is ‘the power of God for salvation’. It is ‘the sword of the Spirit’, the locus of God’s redemptive work amongst mankind. It is in this dynamic sense that the apostles so often insist their testimony is authoritative. ‘But the word of God was growing and multipying’ (Acts 12:24).

The Gospels, and to some extent the epistles, can then be seen as the encoding of that reliable apostolic witness in written form.

This approach would emphasise the authoritative nature of the gospel events, of Christ himself, as God’s revelation to the world. The authority of the apostolic witness would be seen to be derived and secondary, arising from faithfully declaring what they have seen.  I.e. not identical to God’s authority.

The NT idea of inspiration, so notably lacking in Ridderbos, would be a helpful compliment to this concept of witness, explaining how the apostles are able to explain and apply the meaning of the events they witnessed in a reliable and, yes, authoritative way.

These are really just a couple of suggestions or examples of how Ridderbos’s project could be carried out much more thoroughly and richly.

Last part of the Critique tomorrow.


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