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Patrick S. O'Donnell

Of course one question that arises is at what point does broadening (adding to) the canon (perhaps one would speak of subtraction here as well, at least if we agree with Pagels' attitude toward the Gospel of John) imply an alteration in any of the fundamental and traditional beliefs of Christianity as formulated, for instance, in the Nicene Creed. Pagels herself is no doubt aware of this, hence the title her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (2003). For example, the inclusion of any of the "gnostic" texts would necessitate redefining what is meant by Christianity.

Perhaps a more prudent and discreet option would be rather to re-orient the tradition itself (with stress placed on certain texts or passages within the existing canon, as well as a full-fledged commitment to exemplary atonement doctrine rather than susbtitutionary or satisfaction atonement theory, i.e., a preference for Abelard over Anselm) in the direction of spiritual practice and away from emphasis on orthodox belief as constitutive of individual and collective Christian identity, while leaving the canon as is (which need not entail ignoring the extra-canonical sources by way of understanding early Christianity). This might be tantamount to "broadening the canon" without, literally, broadening the canon.

In other words, academic and theological debates about broadening the canon will probably prompt a kind of defensiveness and hardening of character armour among many avowed Christians, thereby precluding the likelihood that they will be attracted to the value of a path of mature and arduous spiritual discovery of the sort portrayed by Pagels.

In any case, I'm all for any movement toward transcending what Hustom Smith aptly christened "bibliolatry."

Steve Shiffrin

I put up this post without an agenda about what would follow if the canon were broadened (or, as you say, restricted), but what the thinking of Protestants and liberal Catholics might be. As to the issues you raise, I too would favor Abelard over Anselm. I would favor
the view that Christ's whole life including his crucifixion was a model as to how a human life should be lived (a model of love and integrity) as opposed to a blood sacrifice demanded by God for our sins (though the two are not mutually exclusive). The picture of God demanding crucifixion, as Abelard argued, is not appealing (though, given the mystery of cosmic affairs, it might be true). In general, I think a life lived in order to get to heaven is instrumentally focused and gets in the way of genuine love for others.
I agree with your point about bibliotry, and I would extend it, as I am sure you would, to the emphasis of the Church on orthodox belief (as demanded because of its interpretation of the Bible, reason, tradition,
or its own claims to authority). I find much attractive in Harvey Cox's book, The Future of Faith, where he argues that faith is best understood as commitment, not as belief and that the emphasis on faith as belief has been destructive.

Joel Nichols

There's much written about this -- most beyond my competence. But the shortest answer for Protestants is that the canon was not formed by the institutional church (as you suggest), but rather is a reflection of what the community (the ecclesia) was actually using as authoritative. Its a bit of a tautology, I admit, but by the time you get the first "listing" of the NT canon in the early 400s the early church has already been using those "canonical" books as authoritative in its communal worship settings for some time -- and by definition excluding other books that are not seen as authentic or authoritative. Indeed, by the end of the 2nd century writers such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen were already using a canon substantially similar to the one we use today -- so it's not overstatement to say that the NT canon is, in Luke Johnson's words, "the church's book" from very early times.

Two very interesting notes: (1) Is the canon truly closed? If an authoritative letter of Paul were to be discovered, which surely would have been part of the original NT had it been known, would it become a part of the canon? Or would be it excluded b/c it had not been used by the church over the centuries? (2) One of the best final exam questions I had in grad school was, effectively, "If you were remaking the NT canon, which books would you leave out of the current set of 26 and what order would you put them in, and why?"

Steve Shiffrin

Joel, thanks so much for the very helpful comment. From a Protestant perspective (not my own - that of a liberal or radical Catholic), I would still think there would be considerable ground to wonder the extent to which books were included or excluded on the basis of power
struggles within the church (certainly there was division within the church on these matters). It is certainly possible to believe that God guided the outcome of the struggles, but the contrary is also possible. In addition, it seems to me that the argument runs against the individualist spirit of most Protestant denominations. On the other hand, as you suggest, there is an attraction to the view that people in the relatively early church might have known what they were doing.

Joel Nichols

Thanks, Steve. I personally think its inevitable one must grant some modicum of guidance to God in the process itself if one claims, as most Protestants do, quite firmly that God guided the writing of the books (at least to some degree). I'm willing to grant that there was certainly some dispute/debate about inclusion, but it seems those debates seem more on the edges rather than the center of what's included. And, frankly, your question is not one that many Protestants think about (and I wonder how many Catholics) because there is such a lack of awareness and education about how we got the canon itself, and it does pose problems for the more individualist strains of many Protestants.

Michael Liccione


I recommend the following article at "Called to Communion," a group blog run by ex-Reformed Catholics, mostly philosophers:



Steve Shiffrin

Michael, thanks so much for the citation. It is an extremely intersting discussion of the subject. One of the summary paragraphs says: In this article, I have considered a variety of proposals for reformulating the classical Reformed position to be more objective. But whether measuring Scripture by the ‘original’ Hebrew canon, by the books which are of Apostolic origin, or by those books which received widespread acceptance in the early Church, the criterion would necessarily rely upon extra-Scriptural evidence. I have also here examined Luther’s view that Scripture can be identified as that which preaches Christ; this criterion too necessarily relies upon extra-Scriptural evidence, namely, the individual determination of what preaches Christ. The Protestant critique of the Catholic Church’s view of its relationship to Scripture is that the Catholic Church effectively places itself ‘over’ Scripture by having the power to define the canon. But this critique would apply with equal force to any criterion that measures Scripture by extra-Biblical means. The means would be placed ‘over’ Scripture, and thus violate the doctrine of /sola scriptura/ , which allows no other infallible authority besides Scripture itself. Finally, the very process of answering the Canon Question violates /sola scriptura/. That doctrine permits no infallible authority in the Christian’s life save Scripture. But a person answering the Canon Question must employ fallible human judgment to craft the rule by which Scripture’s contents are to be selected.


From my rationalist scientific viewpoint, I see the three mechanisms of religious authority for the Christian to be one or all of:

1. The scriptures
2. The Holy Spirit
3. Church tradition

This is analogous to the problem of Constitutional interpretation in the American legal system. There are those (originalists = bibliolaters) who look only to the words of the Constitution. There are others who invoke the spirit of The Enlightenment (or of Jefferson or Madison or Locke) for proper interpretation (as in the letter to the Danbury Baptists regarding "Wall of Separation of Church & State") There are yet others who rely more on the legal tradition involving stare decisis (Sotomayor).

It seems that the term "bibliolatry" is too harsh in describing the position of the first group, in that they do not "worship" the text. Indeed, Protestants do not esteem cathedrals, churches or any book or relic as do Catholics or, especially, Muslims. Abuse of a Gideon Bible, for example, would be considered a mere triviality by the Protestant. To think otherwise would be idolatry.

Reliance on the Holy Spirit for authority is problematic to the extent that there is no objective Holy Spirit available for consultation and that a multitude of sins have been justified by claiming guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Church tradition is problematic, of course, since it flies in the face of historical record and modern scientific discovery. And there are various hoary traditions, from gnosticism to anabaptism. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, part of RC tradition, is of historically recent vintage and way beyond the ken of any Roman Catholics I've quizzed on it.

Steve Shiffrin

Jimbino, I carve up the world somewhat
differently. I see constitutional interpretation as being rooted in language, intent, history, structure, precedent, policy, and power. I see Christian interpretation of the
human condition as being rooted in biblical writings, other writings, tradition, reason, and human experience including our daily interactions with
others. I do not know how much scientific rationalism has to contribute to constitutional interpretation or interpretation of the human condition. Both
conditions are inescapably normative, and normative judgments are not scientific (though they can and should be influenced by knowledge to which science can contribute). To be sure, reason plays a role in both
traditions, but more often reason immersed in concrete experience, than abstract reason.


Something must be self-verifying, self-attesting or the quest for a foundation goes on forever.

Protestants and Roman Catholics simply differ over whether the Bible or the Church is better at self-attesting.

Answering the question of canon is no different than determining which church is authoritative. RCs ask how do you know which canon? The same way RCs know which church.

Steve Shiffrin

Pensans, thank you for your comment. I agree with the point that the search for foundations has to stop somewhere. I do not think the problem, however, for Protestants and Catholics is equivalent. First, I do not think most Protestants believe the Bible is self-attesting as in some sort of natural law appeal. Most rely on something outside the canon to justify the canon. But Protestants who rely on the Bible as a source of authority have to be uncomfortable in going outside the Bible.

By contrast, traditional Catholics primarily rely on a few contested proof texts to justify the authority of the church. Then the church justifies the scope of the canon. One can contest the interpretation of the proof texts, but that is a different problem than that faced by Protestants. You might be arguing that reliance on the proof texts itself presupposes that the proof texts are in books that are in part of the canon. That is correct. But both Protestants and Catholics agree that the gospel of Matthew is part of the canon. It is not one of the contested books.

We have yet to hear from those liberal Catholics who doubt the authority of the church in so many areas, but accept it here.
Still interested in what they might say.


Dear Steve,

Sorry, I think I was unclear. It's not the authority of A church that is problematic for Roman Catholics, but the authority of their particular church among rival contenders. There are and have been various contenders who claim/ed authoritative ecclesial status and they must be chosen between. (Here is the equivalence with Protestants having to establish which books constitute Scripture among various contenders to being Scripture.) No proof text identifies which church is the currently rightful heir to the apostolic authority of Peter, no matter how much we might believe in that authority as a general matter. Consider for example the Great Schism. If I say, I reject the Roman Catholic church because it wrongly picked the antipope and rejected the true successor of Peter, then no proof text or general acceptance of Peter's authority will help resolve the debate. Or, if a Greek Orthodox Christian claims that the authority of Rome was transferred to the bishop of New Rome with the transfer of empire and that the heresies (one might argue for) of the Roman Catholic church viz the Orthodox church establish that any putative authority of the Old Roman Peter is gone, this claim cannot be adjudicated without reference to something outside the Roman Catholic church itself.

Hence, where we consider rival ecclesial authorities the Roman Catholic situation is seen as parallel to the canon problem you describe for Protestants faced with rival Scriptures.

Steve Shiffrin

Pensans, your are right I did not understand. Its a nice point.


It's at this point that I think the best Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians have tried to capture what is self-attesting about the church or the scriptures respectively.

Inevitably, these accounts must connect them to the self-attesting power of Jesus Christ himself. That is, we tie the scriptures or the church in as a necessary component of a full proclamation of the gospel of Jesus. We point to the inevitable presence of this Scripture or this church along with the effective presence of the Holy Spirit in the reception of the Gospel.

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