Monday, March 11, 2024

On Canon

The Jewish Study Bible offers, in its commentary notes, a perspective I find useful in understanding scriptural canon:

In various ways, canonical status for a book or group of books has to do with the community's views of their centrality, authority, sacredness, and inspiration. Over time these characteristics have become connected, inseparably so in some traditions; yet they are not identical, and though they overlap, they must still be viewed distinctly. (Berlin et al., 2004)

If I were a theistically-minded Christian and compelled to choose, I'd borrow the perspective held by Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"However, Community of Christ has insisted since the time of Joseph Smith III that what the authors of scripture wrote is not revelation itself. They wrote works of literature that are pointers to revelation. Former member of the Community of Christ First Presidency F. Henry Edwards wrote, “Revelation cannot be fully expressed in words. Words are but tools, and must be quickened by the illumination of the Spirit which shines in the hearts and minds of the readers….Revelation, then, is one thing, and the record of revelation is another.” Former apostle Arthur A. Oakman made the following observation in an important 1966 article: 

The prophets saw the movement of God in history. It was there before they saw it. Had they never apprehended it, it would still have been there. But it became revelation to them when they appreciated this divine movement. What we have in the Old and New Testaments is not, therefore, revelation. It is a record made by the preceptor. …There are, then, strictly speaking, no revealed truths. There are “truths of revelation”—statements of principles, that is, which stem from the actual revelatory experiences.

In its theology, ethics, and pastoral practice, Community of Christ believes it is essential to make this kind of distinction between revelation and human beings’ varied literary accounts of revelation. Without this distinction, communities are always tempted to worship not the Living God, but their texts, traditions, and interpretations, which can bring and has brought great harm into people’s lives." 
(Chvala-Smith, 2020) 

The following is from a fellow student in a seminary class discussion online.  

"The idea of Scripture as a source for theology is interesting because Scripture in itself is a witness of the church interpreting its own experiences about God. Scripture did not drop down from heaven, but it is a collection of people engaging with God in their everyday life experiences. This ties back to my post from last week that theology is not just an exercise for the academics, but for the people who cannot even read and write. In Christian theology, therefore, Scripture tells us of how people experience God, who they think he is, and what he does. Because Scripture is located in a specific time in history, and because God continues to engage with people throughout history, this makes Scripture a guide in thinking and talking about God, not a closed concept that says all people everywhere have to experience God in this way. As the topic for the week says, Scripture is a source of theology: We draw from other people's examples of talking and thinking about God, and see how that relates with our own present experiences." (Vuyo Adams, 2021)

Even in the late 19th century in an otherwise conservative religious tradition, a literal view of biblical inspiration wasn't standard. The following comes from a book written by someone with the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). 

"The different writers of the books of the Bible were inspired of God. It is not the words of the Bible that were inspired, it is not the thoughts of the Bible that were inspired; it is the men who wrote the Bible that were inspired. Inspiration acts not on the man's words, not on the man's thoughts, but on the man himself; so that he, by his own spontaneity, under the impulse of the Holy Ghost, conceives certain thoughts and gives utterance to them in certain words, both the words and the thoughts receiving the peculiar impress of the mind which conceived and uttered them."  (Henry C. Wickersham, 1894) 

In conclusion, the exploration of scriptural canon and the nature of revelation highlights the complexity and depth of our engagement with sacred texts. The perspectives offered by the Jewish Study Bible, Community of Christ, and other theological viewpoints remind us that scripture is not merely a static collection of words, but a dynamic and living witness to the perception of divine movement in human history. As we grapple with the meanings and implications of these texts, we are invited to approach them with humility, openness, and a recognition of their profound significance in shaping our understanding of that which is highest and best. Whether we view them as literal revelations or as records of inspired human experiences, the scriptures continue to offer guidance, wisdom, and inspiration to those who seek to discern their truths.


Adams, V. (2021, May 12). Re: The Role of Tradition [Discussion post]. ACU Graduate School of Theology Canvas System.

Berlin, A., Brettler, M. Z., & Fishbane, M. (2004). The Jewish study Bible: Jewish Publication Society    Tanakh translation. Oxford University Press.

Chvala-Smith, A. J. (2020). Exploring Community of Christ Basic Beliefs: A Commentary. Herald Publishing House.

Wickersham, H. C. (1894). Holiness Bible Subjects. Gospel Trumpet Publishing Company.