Thursday, September 13, 2018

WM 103: Calvin and Canon

I have recorded and posted WM 103: Calvin and Canon (listen here). This episode is a version of the paper I presented back on August 27, 2018 at the 2018 International Congress on Calvin Research, held at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia.

I hope to edit and expand the paper for some future use, but this abbreviated reading gives a feel for the content.

Here’s how the paper begins:

In his biography of John Calvin, William J. Bousma observed, “Against the claim of the Roman church to have settled the matter, [Calvin] denied with no distress, the existence of a fixed New Testament canon.” This paper will examine Calvin’s understanding of the canon of the Christian Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments), as reflected in his various writings.

In order to grasp Calvin’s understanding of canon, we must address at least four key issues:

First: Calvin’s view of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament.

Second: Calvin’s view of the so-called antilegomena of the New Testament (the works spoken against, especially 2-3 John and Revelation, but also Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, and Jude).

Third: Calvin’s understanding of the criterion of canonicity.

Fourth: Calvin’s definition not only of the proper books which should be included in the canon of the Christian Scriptures but also the texts of those books.

And here’s how it ends:

Calvin was profoundly influential in shaping and defining a distinctive Protestant and Reformed conceptions of canon.

Over against Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, he rejected the notion that canon was defined by the ecclesiastical pronouncement but affirmed that these books claimed their canonical status by virtue of their being (ontology).

In harmony with Judaism, he affirmed the 39 books of the Hebrew Bible as constituting the canon of the Old Testament.

Though he rejected the canonicity of the Apocrypha he could affirm that these works, uninspired as they are, could serve an edifying role in Christian piety. Such a perspective has been largely lost among most modern Protestants and might well be reclaimed in the contemporary church.

Over against some of his fellow Reformers, Luther included, Calvin did not, in the end, affirm a “canon within the canon” understanding of the New Testament books. He did not divide the New Testament books into ranks and, thus, gave an equal authority and status to all.

Calvin affirmed that canon was not just a matter of which books are in the Bible but also of which texts makes up those books. By affirming the Hebrew text of the Old Testament as normative, this meant he departed from Eastern Orthodoxy’s preference for the Greek LXX of the Old Testament and Roman Catholicism’s preference for the Latin Vulgate for both testaments. What is more, he affirmed a stress on the importance of the immediate inspiration of the Bible in its original languages and, I believe, affirmed that the proper text was the traditional one (the Masoretic text of the OT and the TR of the NT).

I close by returning to Bousma’s statement that Calvin “denied with no distress, the existence of a fixed New Testament canon” and conclude that this statement is inaccurate. Calvin did not deny but affirmed a clear and well-formed view on the canon of the Christian Scripture, both the Old and the New Testaments.


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