Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Questions about the New Testament Canon

I am puzzled about the posture of Protestants (whatever their political views) and most liberal Catholics on the New Testament canon. To the chagrin of Elaine Pagels, for example, the Gospel of John is in the canon; the Gospel of Thomas is not. Who decided to include John and include Thomas? It is problematic for Protestants to say that the institutional church made this decision because Protestants do not recognize the authority of the institutional church. Nothing in the Bible says which books should be included in it and which not. Some argue that God not only inspired the authors of at least some of the books of the New Testament (citing proof texts), but also inspired the institutional church to determine which books to include and which to exclude. But, from a Protestant perspective, what justifies saying that the inspiration stopped at that point? I am genuinely curious about the positions Protestants take on this issue.

In terms of liberal Catholics, I am thinking of those Catholics who believe that the institutional church has been wrong throughout its history about many moral issues. What is the account that explains why the Holy Spirit would let the Church go wrong on so many issues? Some would distinguish questions of morals from those of faith, but Karl Rahner has argued with considerable force that the church has changed its position on many issues of faith as well. Assuming the church has been wrong on issues of faith and morals, what justifies the liberal Catholic’s belief that the canon is God’s canon? Again, I ask this in a spirit of inquiry, and I recognize that this is not a problem for most traditional Catholics (except to the extent they believe that Church history is marred by persistent error).

The New Testament is the record of what different followers of Christ speaking to different audiences in different contexts said about him.  If many modern theologians believe that these followers were not inspired by God, that need not prevent them from maintaining otherwise conventional Christian views (though it might). But those who do not believe that the New Testament is inspired by God are more likely to broaden the canon.

This is cross-posted at religiousleftlaw.com where Patrick O'Donnell has an interesting reflection in the comments section.


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