Monday, May 28, 2007

The Word of the Lord? Indeed, yes, thanks be to God!

Should one ever end a first lesson reading from the Apocrypha (sic) with "The Word of the Lord?"

For much of my time as a teacher of liturgy I would have answered this question firmly in the negative, appealing to Article VI (39 Articles of Religion). And for pastoral reasons I still do prefer the optional acclamation, "Here ends the first lesson," (or simply, "The first lesson," which goes better with the response "Thanks be to God"), when reading from the Deuterocanon (as I prefer to call it). However, I no longer hold that opinion so firmly. Why? Simply put: the Church should rightly affirm the deuterocanonical books as belonging to the Canon of Scripture.

Before I proceed with my argument, I will caution the reader to keep in mind that "canon" and "inspiration," though obviously related theological concepts, should not be confused or equated. Christians affirm that God inspires the writing of scripture. However, God does not canonize scripture; rather, the Church does. Canonization means the process of recognizing and authorizing those books for public worship where the Church has heard, and continues to hear, God speaking to his people. Hence, the Canon includes those books that the Church confidently affirms (defines) as those where it hears the voice of God. These in turn are authorized for public worship.
Historically, the debate centers around two competing views of canonicity with regard to the Old Testament, and consequently two understandings of scriptural inspiration: what I term the "narrow vs broad" and the "hard vs soft" views respectively. Each understanding employs different, though (I would argue) not necessarily conflicting, criteria.

Those who affirm the narrow canon position reckon as canonical only those OT books that (1) the Jews receive as scripture, and thus (2) no one in the Church disputes. Naturally, then, the Church confidently employs these books for the confirmation of doctrine (a la Jerome), which fact tends to harden (or restrict) inspiration to only those books that meet these criteria.

The broad canon view uses a different criterion to determine an OT book's canonicity: authorization for use in public worship. Thus, in practice, this broad canon view recognizes the Septuagintal Old Testament tradition, both in form and content, as canonical scripture. However, this view does not preclude an important distinction within the Old Testament between the Hebrew (or "Proto") Canon and what Article VI refers to as the "other books" (i.e., deuterocanon). Advocates of this position have ranged from those who recognize no or very little distinction in degree of inspiration between the "protos" and the "deuteros" (e.g., Trent), to those who give first place of honor to the Hebrew Canon and second place to the deuteros. Naturally, those who hold this latter position favor "softer" or less restrictive categories of scriptural inspiration. Throughout history, the broad canon (along with the soft view) has been the predominent position, commended by the continuous and unbroken use of the Septuagintal tradition in the worship and devotion of the Church.

Interestingly enough, Jerome's distinction between those books used to confirm doctrine (protos) and those books read only for edification (deuteros) has co-existed comfortably within the broader canonical view (despite the fact that Jerome argued for a narrow canon!). Cardinal Cajetan (yes, Calvin's nemesis) sums up the matter quite succinctly when he states: "...these books (or any other like books in the canon of the bible) are not canonical, that is, not in the nature of a rule for confirming matters of the faith. Yet, they may be called canonical, that is, in the nature of a rule for the edification of the faithful, as being received and authorized in the canon of the bible for that purpose" (Comments on Esther).

I do realize, however, that the Protestant mind seems hardwired to think only in terms of either/or categories of scriptural inspiration: i.e., either a book is inspired or it is not. Indeed, for many, the whole notion of sola Scriptura stands or falls on this very consideration. However, the ancients quite comfortably and aptly thought in terms of degrees of scriptural inspiration and/or importance. For instance, Jews to this day venerate the Torah (i.e., Pentateuch) in a manner that underscores their belief that only the books of Moses constitute the immediate Word of God; relegating the Prophets and (even to a lesser degree) the Writings to the lesser status of books where God spoke mediately through human beings. In similar manner, many church fathers (e.g., Augustine) readily accepted the deuteros into the ranks of canonical scripture, while admitting their inferior status, or lesser degree of inspiration. Even the "hardliner" Athanasius did not hesitate to afford the deuteros a certain level of scriptural dignity.

In the final analysis, in an Anglican context, I think how one defines the Canon boils down to preference. I can happily accept the assertion that Article VI does not admit to the canonicity of the deuteros, because I know the Article employs the narrower definition that limits the term to only those books within the biblical corpus that are used for the confirmation of doctrine. However, in liturgical praxis, I would argue that the Anglican tradition fits more comfortably in the broader canonical tradition, which would admit into the Canon of Scripture all the books of the biblical corpus that are authorized for publich worship. The crucial distinction between those books used for the confirmation of doctrine and those books read only for purposes of edification remains operative in both understandings. But to my way of thinking, God inspired both the protos and the deuteros, albeit for different purposes and to different ends.
Thanks be to God!

P.S. - The illuminated text above pictures Tobit being blinded by the droppings of a sparrow - an apt metaphor for many contexts.


Marshall said...

I see your point. I have usually winced at hearing "The Word of the Lord" after a reading from Ecclesiasticus or Wisdom; but not more than I have winced hearing, "Here ends the Reading" and hearing the congregation respond, "Thanks be to God."

To this point, I have come to appreciate the statement in trial use in the Enriching Our Worship series: "Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Churches." It would seem to fit into your "broader" and/or "softer" sense of the Canon, and to more explicitly address how we understand any contemporary hermeneutic. After all, our appreciation that Scripture is not simply and terminally culture- and history-bound is our belief that the Spirit continues to use them for our illumination. And, as you note, the Spirit is not limited by our understanding of canonicity. Rather, we maintain some limit to the Canon in our continuing faithfulness.

axegrinder said...

Dr. DD,

I have been thinking about this issue recently. I found this article to be helpfully nuanced.


jon said...

Marshall writes:

...but not more than I have winced hearing, "Here ends the Reading" and hearing the congregation respond, "Thanks be to God."

:-) I couldn't agree more with either of you. Btw, good to see you back, Dr Dunlap.

lexorandi2 said...

Thanks, guys.

Of course, "Here ends the first lesson..etc." beats the second alternative for concluding the Roman Mass:

"The Mass is ended, go in peace."
"Thanks be to God!"