I recently found this blog entry critiquing something I posted a few months back: Sproul: "The Bible is a fallible collection of infallible books". In that entry, I sought to simply explain what's meant by that phrase. In his response, this particular blogger presents a long basketball analogy and then sums up my position on the collection of the canon saying, "The Church wasn't protected from missing, but in history managed to get the right answer." Does that sounds like something a Reformed person would say? Hardly. This blogger though provoked me to at least stop for a moment and ponder again, the never ending canon debate.
My actual position is that it is God’s sovereign power and providence which protects and reveals His Word to His church, for His purposes, in the unfolding of history. Think of it this way: God has providential control over His Word, to the last detail. He is the Divine Author. A.A. Hodge notes,
God providentially produced the very man for the precise occasion, with the faculties, qualities, education, and gracious experience needed for the production of the intended writing, Moses, David, Isaiah, Paul, or John, genius and character, nature and grace, peasant, philosopher, or prince, the man, and with him each subtle personal accident, was providentially prepared at the proper moment as the necessary instrumental precondition of the work to be done. (Outlines of Theology, Libronix Electronic Version).
As creatures we are dependent on God's purposes in giving us His inspired Scriptures. God "providentially preserves the Scriptures and leads His people to a functional sufficient knowledge of the canon so as to fulfill His purposes in inspiring them" (James White, Scripture Alone, p. 103). For God to do this, His Church need not be infallible. It simply doesn't logically follow nor can it even be proven from Scripture itself that a stamp of approval from an infallible magisterium is needed. Rome thinks it is the true church and that her authority comes from God. It thinks church history is specifically her history.
God's people though have recognized God's Word long before any alleged infallible magisterium came along. Herman Bavinck points out:
As the various writings of the OT originated and became known, they were also recognized as authoritative. The laws of YHWH were deposited in the sanctuary (Exod. 25:22; 38:21; 40:20; Deut. 31:9, 26; Josh. 24:25f.; 1 Sam. 10:25). The poetic products were preserved (Deut. 31:19; Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18); at an early stage the Psalms were collected for use in the cult (Ps. 72:20); the men of Hezekiah made a second collection of the Proverbs (Prov. 25:1). The prophecies were widely read: Ezekiel knows Isaiah and Jeremiah; later prophets based themselves on earlier ones. Daniel (9:2) is already familiar with a collection of prophetic writings including Jeremiah. In the postexilic community the authority of the law and the prophets is certain and fixed, as is clear from Ezra, Haggai, and Zechariah. Jesus Sirach has a very high view of the law and the prophets (15:1-8; 24:23; 39:1f.; 44-49). In the preface his grandson mentions the three parts in which Scripture is divided. The LXX contains several apocryphal writings, but these themselves witness to the authority of the canonical books (1 Macc. 2:50; 2 Macc. 6:23; Wisdom 11:1; 18:4; Baruch 2:28; Tob. 1:6; 14:7; Sir. 1:5 [marg.]; 17:12; 24:23; 39:1; 46:15; etc.). Philo cites only the canonical books. The fourth book of Ezra ([= 2 Esdras] 14:18-47) knows of the division into 24 books. Josephus counts 22 books divided into three parts. In the opinion of all concerned, the OT canon of Philo and Josephus was identical with ours. [Reformed Dogmatics I, 393-394].
Greg Bahnsen argues the canon is self-establishing, not built on human authority. That is, "There is no created person or power which is in a position to judge or verify the word of God... men are not qualified or authorized to say what God might be expected to reveal or what can count as His communication... Only God can identify His own word. Thus God's word must attest to itself -- must witness to its own divine character and origin." Does this sound far-fetched? Bahnsen explains:
Those works which God gave to His people for their canon always received immediate recognition as inspired, at least by a portion of the church (e.g., Deut. 31:24-26; Josh. 24:25; I Sam. 10:25; Dan. 9:2; I Cor. 14:37; I Thess. 2:13; 5:27; II Thess. 3:14; II Peter 3:15-16), and God intended for those writings to receive recognition by the church as a whole (e.g., Col. 4:16; Rev. 1:4). The Spiritual discernment of inspired writings from God by the corporate church was, of course, sometimes a drawn-out process and struggle. This is due to the fact that the ancient world had slow means of communication and transportation (thus taking some time for epistles to circulate), coupled with the understandable caution of the church before the threat of false teachers (thus producing dialogue and debate along the way to achieving one mind).
Historical evidence indicates that, even with the difficulties mentioned above, the Old and New Testament canons were substantially recognized and already established in the Christian church by the end of the second century. However, there is adequate Biblical and theological reason to believe that the canon of Scripture was essentially settled even in the earliest days of the church.
Bahnsen argues that Christ ultimately establishes the canon through the apostles (the once and for all spokesmen for Jesus Christ). They were those who were given the authority to speak in God's name, and who spoke with the authority of Christ. It was they who ultimately imposed certain writings as the law of the church. In essence, since they spoke for God, they themselves "the Lord intended for the New Covenant church to be built upon the word of the apostles, coming thereby to recognize the canonical literature of the New Testament." The tradition of the apostles, which is the authority of Christ, was set down in writing so the Church could have their teaching once they died. This isn't simply a position that insists a book merely had to be written by an apostle to be the teaching of Christ. As B. B. Warfield points out,
Let it, however, be clearly understood that it was not exactly apostolic authorship which in the estimation of the earliest churches, constituted a book a portion of the "canon." Apostolic authorship was, indeed, early confounded with canonicity. It was doubt as to the apostolic authorship of Hebrews, in the West, and of James and Jude, apparently, which underlay the slowness of the inclusion of these books in the "canon" of certain churches. But from the beginning it was not so. The principle of canonicity was not apostolic authorship, but imposition by the apostles as "law." Hence Tertullian's name for the "canon" is "instrumentum"; and he speaks of the Old and New Instrument as we would of the Old and New Testament. That the apostles so imposed the Old Testament on the churches which they founded - as their "Instrument," or "Law," or "Canon" - can be denied by none. And in imposing new books on the same churches, by the same apostolical authority, they did not confine themselves to books of their own composition. It is the Gospel according to Luke, a man who was not an apostle, which Paul parallels in 1 Tim. 5:18 with Deuteronomy as equally "Scripture" with it, in the first extant quotation of a New Testament book as Scripture. The Gospels which constituted the first division of the New Books, - of "The Gospel and the Apostles," - Justin tells us were "written by the apostles and their companions." The authority of the apostles, as by divine appointment founders of the church was embodied in whatever books they imposed on the church as law not merely in those they themselves had written.
The early churches, in short, received, as we receive, into the New Testament all the books historically evinced to them as give by the apostles to the churches as their code of law; and we must not mistake the historical evidences of the slow circulation an authentication of these books over the widely-extended church, evidence of slowness of "canonization" of books by the authority or the taste of the church itself. [The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), 441-442].
Christ and the apostles intended the church to recognize the authority of the New Testament writings. Is this not the same process that God used for His Word previous to the New Testament? Why then should it be assumed the infallible magisterium of the Roman Church is needed to settle the canon? Indeed, God gives His Word to His church. As Bahnsen points out, "Scripture teaches us that only God is adequate to witness to Himself. There is no created person or power which is in a position to judge or verify the word of God. Thus: 'when God made promise to Abraham, since He could swear by none greater, He swore by Himself...' (Heb. 6:13)."
Of interest on this subject is this mp3 lecture from Greg Bahnsen on the canon.