Today I picked up Canon and Criteria in Christian Theology by William Abraham. The first two chapters (all I've read so far) are fascinating! I wish I had more time to dive into this material. Abraham challenges the notion that the Bible is primarily a source of epistemic justification. In other words, Scripture should not be used as a trump card in religious discussion and life. (That's too simplistic a description, but it'll have to do.) Abraham describes the Christian Scriptures as just one among many canons of the church. Scripture is a means of grace which gives us access to divine revelation. It strikes me that this is quite different from the way that we tend to view Scripture in the church - in a refreshing and life-giving way. Although this seems to run counter to a lot of Protestant Christianity's teaching about the nature and function of Scripture, it actually provides a more balanced, respectful view of Scripture. Here's an excerpt that I found particularly moving:*
We might sum up by thinking of the varied canonical traditions as different elements in the production of a grand symphony. The music which results is the music of salvation, which naturally transposes itself into hymns of praise. Some of the canonical traditions, like the water, oil, bread, and wine of the sacraments, represent various instruments in the orchestra of the Church. Some, like Fathers and bishops, represent various players. Some, like liturgical material, represent the scores, which are best followed according to the programme notes which accompany them. Everyone involved in the orchestra must approach his or her role in a spirit of humility and dependence, joy and praise. Most important of all, everyone must heed and be open to the leading of the great conductor, the Holy Spirit, who, through the use of the canonical traditions of the Church, creates within the participants the melody of Christ the Saviour, a music which leads ineluctably into the unfathomable, unspeakable mystery of the living God.When I first learned about the historical formation of the New Testament canon, it was somewhat disorienting. It took centuries to fully flower, and it was a messy, ad hoc process. I'll never see Scripture in the same way again... and I think that's a profoundly good thing!
We spend a lot of our religious lives trying to avoid disorientation. We sing happy-clappy (theologically bankrupt) praise songs and pretend that the lament psalms don't exist. (No wonder people fall away from church when they're struggling.) We make up ridiculous, snappy slogans to slap on our bumpers. Sometimes we turn a blind eye to things that might pose a challenge to faith. On the other hand, I've had friends drop their faith like a hot potato when times of disorientation come. These moves are two sides of the same coin - they seek re-orientation at the cost of serious inquiry. (Although the second of the two reactions seems more intellectually honest than the first to me.)
I suggest living into disorientation for a while - even (especially) when it comes to central assumptions in our faith. Unrushed re-orientation is worth the uncomfortable wait; at least, that has been my experience in struggling with the formation of the Christian canon. Disorientation gave way to new appreciation for the church, despite all of its short-comings and foibles. Most importantly, I think got a tiny glimpse of the great conductor, the Holy Spirit, leading us along through confusing tangle of human history. I heard the soft strains of the melody of the Saviour... could it be that in the midst of disorientation I stumbled unawares into the mysterious presence of the living God?
* It moves me partially because of the musical imagery - I'm such a sucker for symphonic metaphors!