Do not Add to His Words: The Internal Harmony of Scripture4 February 2015
Joel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in Late Antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.
Recognize what is in your sight, and that which is hidden from you will become plain to you.
(Gospel of Thomas 5)
Authoritative. Prophetic. Authentic. Dynamic. If a book didn’t have all four of these it wouldn’t be part of the Bible. Everything outside of holy Scripture lacks at least one of these essentials. Let’s look a bit closer at McDowell’s tests.
1. Is it authoritative? Did it come from the hand of God? (Does this book come with a divine “thus saith the Lord”?)
This test implies that the Church recognized as authoritative any book that was self-evidently so. Those Evangelicals unaware of Church history might possibly imagine some long-forgotten council that studied all the different books that had been nominated for canonicity and looked for the imprimatur of a declaration of God.
If so, what happened with Philemon or Song of Songs, both of which have no “thus saith the Lord?” And how did such a test weed out books that might have been included in the New Testament such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Revelation of Paul, both of which purport to have come from God?
2. Prophetic? Was it written by a man of God?
Again, who has the competence to declare what is prophetic? How do we know that an ancient document, claiming to be a prophecy, was written by a true prophet? How do we know it wasn’t a forgery? How can it be demonstrated? Must we present a chain of eyewitnesses testifying that, indeed, it was written by a man of God? We have many documents dating from the Old Testament period claiming to have been written by men of God. Are the Testament of Abraham or the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, therefore, options for us to consider in our canon? After all, both of these texts seem to have been written by prophets.
Who decides what the criteria are for a man of God? How do we judge whether anonymous works such as the four gospels or Hebrews were written by men of God and not deceivers? What about a writing such as Ecclesiastes, which was possibly written in the unrepentant despair of Solomon’s sin, when he wasn’t quite particularly a “man of God?” By McDowell’s lights, it seems we should exclude it from the canon.
3. Is it authentic? (The fathers had the policy of “if in doubt, throw it out.” This enhanced the “validity of their discernment of canonical books.”)
Who decides what is authentic? What kind of proof has to be given for authenticity? The Gnostics of the second century saw authenticity in the Gospel of Thomas and other writings. We see no authenticity in them. It is true that the Fathers rejected the Gospel of Thomas, but how do we know that they were not misled? If they had bad theology, then possibly they chose the wrong books. We shall look at this, as well as whether the Fathers really threw out the doubtful books later.
4. Is it dynamic? Did it come with the life-transforming power of God?
As with all of them, this test is circular. We define “dynamic” before we ever search for it. “Dynamic” is what we have been taught by our Christian leaders. Many non-Christians do not find the Scriptures to be either authentic or dynamic or pregnant with the power of God. As Christians we do. But if we see this as an applicable test for canonicity, then must we look for a unique dynamism latent in every book in Scripture before we let it into our canon? What if we see this same dynamism in an extra-canonical book? What if that same book meets our other three criteria McDowell has suggested? Should we change the canon?
This is not at all to question the truth of the Bible. I believe the divine Scriptures are authoritative for every believer in Jesus Christ. I have no doubt that all four qualities McDowell mentions uniquely resides in every book of the Bible. But are his tests truly the reasons why have 27 books in the New Testament? Or are they a posteriori observations of what we have already received as God-inspired Tradition from our parents, our churches and contemporary Christian leaders?