Christ, Calvin, and Canons…

Something stirred in my mind today after reading a post from a blogging friend. It was about John Calvin and his reasoning behind narrowing the Catholic canon of 73 books to 66, which is the number most Protestant evangelicals accept today (like upper 90 percentile). What was Calvin’s reason? As Brantly points out, it was because of “the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit.”

Brantly goes on to make a very valid point; that modern day Protestants would not accept this as a valid reason for either adding in new books to the current 66 canon or taking a few out, much like those who disagreed with John Calvin. Going along this same logic – that is, “the testimony and inward illumination of the Holy Spirit” – what do we do today?

Do we simply tag along with the majority of Protestant evangelicals who never question the canon of their Bible simply because, if we don’t, we’ll be deemed “heretics”? Or do we follow this same logic of John Calvin and determine for our own communities and our own individual selves a canon that best teaches Jesus’ Gospel and God’s ways? Or, though many might disagree with us, do we do away with canons entirely?

Essentially, Brantly’s post got me thinking about what a canon – that is, a standard collection of texts that teaches God’s ways and Jesus’ Gospel – actually means. How has my faith been shaped by the 66-book canon I’ve been raised under and have always assumed? What would it look like if certain books were removed or added? Would Jesus still look the same? Would I appreciate the Gospel message more or less?

Tons of questions flood my mind when I reconsider the canon of Scripture for most evangelicals today. I’ve learned quite a bit from the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, and other non-canonical texts, so what separates any of those texts from being considered part of a modern-day canon? One of my friends told me awhile back that the other Christian writings that didn’t make it into the New Testament weren’t inspired by God. But how do we know? Must they be written by an Apostle? Many New Testament letters probably weren’t written by any of the Apostles (Hebrews doesn’t even have a named author!), so are we to reject those as well?

When considering the removal of any relatively-prominent doctrine in Christian theology, it’s tough to figure out what things would look like without it. And I think that’s our problem. We want things to be figured out and set straight in order to move forward. But faith often does not have straight and clear roads. There are bends, twists, and turns. Heavy fog frequently clouds our path before us – so much so that we’re driving terribly slow, always watching where the white lines bend. And yet all the while we forget who’s driving our car: God.

There is an episode of How I Met Your Mother where Marshall struggles to accept his father’s passing. He reflects back to times when he was a kid riding along with his dad in his car and how he marveled at his dad’s ability to keep driving even though Marshall couldn’t see a single thing in front of them. He remembers always feeling safe with his dad at the wheel. In a very similar way, God is in the driver’s seat of our faith. If we truly trust in Him, then He won’t ever steer us wrong – even if our canon of Scripture looks different.

For the past week I’ve been going on a Gospel binge; reading through the Gospels in sequential order in a short amount of time. Right now I’m nearing the end of Mark, but in chapter 7, Jesus says something quite interesting. Quoting Isaiah 29:13, He says, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men,” (7:6-8).

Contextually speaking, Jesus was ridiculing the religious leaders for adhering to their own traditions above the commandments of God, which forsook the commandment of honoring one’s father and mother. But what are the traditions of our religious leaders today? Inerrancy, canonicity, infallibility, sola scriptura – there’s a whole list of them. Are we forsaking our “faith” in God for a faith in “the commandments of men”?

In general, the current canon is helpful. I certainly would not have known the Gospel of Jesus without it. But I think there’s a difference between “helpful” and “authority.” Scripture (the current 66-book Bible) is helpful for describing who God is and what He is like and for teaching His ways. But I would have to say, following Calvin’s logic, that God (through the “inward illumination” of His Holy Spirit) is the ultimate authority to whom I must give an account. Scripture teaches me God’s ways so that my account, assuming I follow them, may be pure and blameless. But I don’t think God cares too much about what our canons look like, as long as we’re living out the love of Jesus and trusting Him in our driver seats.


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Cherokee / Whovian / Sherlockian / Aspiring Auror / Lover of Jesus, Scripture, and creativity / MATS Student at George Fox Seminary.

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