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

Posted: January 22, 2012 by J in Bible, Book review, Theology

CRITIQUE (continued)

There are other serious method problems. In the middle of a discussion about apostolic authority, Ridderbos slips this in: ‘They were [God’s] instruments and organs in the continuation of revelation.’ We’ve been talking ‘authority’, now suddenly we’re talking revelation, a somewhat different category – but with no explanation of the term or of how it relates to authority. It’s just a one-liner, but it comes back later: God’s authority…is not limited to His great deeds in Jesus Christ, but extends to [the] writings of those he chose to be …instruments of divine revelation’ (p.24). Once again authority becomes revelation. Again, because the apostolic teaching can is authoritative like the OT Scriptures (Hebrews 2:2f) ‘their word is a revelatory word.’ Apparently authority = revelation. And this idea of the NT as revelatory features strongly from here on. But there is just no explanation of this concept of revelation, or of where it fits into a discussion of authority. The lack of clarity and development of this theme muddies the rest of the study. Part of the trouble is that Ridderbos, in examining the idea of Scriptural canon, has already decided in advance that canonicity means ‘Word of God’ (p.10 – This category is not explained either!). We are left feeling that what is supposed to be a redemptive-historical study is being compromised by seemingly random intrusions of doctrine which apparently contribute to the web of the argument. The conclusions end up seeming predetermined.

Another doctrinal idea that the bos brings in to further his salvation-historical study is really quite unusual, and perhaps the dodgiest aspect of the book. He borrows the idea from Abraham Kuyper that ‘God is himself the canon’. Amazingly, there is very little explanation of this assertion. (I’ve never read Kuyper, but I never yet heard an idea of his that I liked!). And this idea is then developed to create the following structure:

God as canon → Christ reveals canon → apostolic tradition transmits canon → Scripture encodes canon (p.24).

The canonicity of Scripture is apparently that of God himself. This aspect of God’s being has somehow been distilled onto paper! The Scriptures don’t just tell of God’s authority – they are that authority.

It is very unclear what might be intended by ‘God is the canon.’ I can’t quite get my brain around it. But the idea of the canon-transmission structure, I find quite disturbing… This might be unfair, but it somehow seems like we started off having to deal with God, then we had Jesus, then we dealt with the apostles, and nowadays we just have a book to deal with.  Bit of an anticlimax really…

Worse than that, when the story of redemptive history is told this way, it seems like what God was revealing in Christ was above all his authority. Is this how the gospel story goes? Really? Feels like authority (and indeed the idea of canon) has somehow got out of hand in this study and threatens taken over the world.

There are other problems with the theology of this study – in fact too many too document. He lumps in the kerygma or gospel announcement with everything else (eg all the pastoral stuff) the apostles wrote and treats it all as the tradition or deposit of faith, authoritative in an undifferentiated way. I judge this to be a mistake. 1 Corinthians 11 is surely not foundational for the church in the same way as 1 Corinthians 15. By making a maximal claim for every word of the NT, Ridderbos leaves himself unable to nuance or differentiate his view of the NT documents. Though he considers genre in the second half of the book, it is not really allowed to make a contribution to his understanding of how the documents function as Scripture. The category of divine authority proves to be too absolute, it overwhelms all merely human distinctions.

I come away from this book grateful for it, helped by it, and thankful that Gaffin did so much with the program suggested here. But also feeling that it needed a decent injection of methodology, and also of theological savvy to stop Ridderbos equating different concepts and categories without offering justification. Exactly the things Gaffin brought to the table, thank God. Biblical theology is demanding – you have to be good at bib studs and also at theology/doctrine. Not many people are…

  1. bruce psss says:

    In citing kuyper, ridderbos appeals to an augustinian logos ontology. For kuyper it is doubly useful in countering idealist philosophy in that the logos is the vehicle of consciousness. Revelation is the fundamental category for Herman bavinck,s theology which undoubtedly pulses beneath the surface in ridderbos.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for commenting, Bruce, nice to hear from you. Say, could you possible translate that into dumbspeak for guys like me? Didn’t really get it. What does Augustine and logos have to do with canon etc? How does idealist philosophy come into it? And what about Bavinck and revelation? Are you saying that’s why Ridderbos slips into revelation-talk apparently without noticing – because of Bavinck?

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