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Sufficient for Faith and Practice

Covenant and Canon

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Therefore, the church is always put into question in its faith and life by the Word that created and preserves it, and it must always be ready to be reformed by it.

It is increasingly common even in evangelical circles today to hear traditional Roman Catholic arguments for the Bible as "the church's book" and the church as "the mother of Scripture," as if the community created its own constitution. We are engaging sola Scriptura in a variety of ways in this issue, but this article focuses on the relationship between covenant and canon.

God's Ruling Constitution: The Word as Canon

The ancient church identified the Bible as the church's canon, from the Greek word for "rule" (kanön). An analogy may be drawn from U.S. history. The War of Independence secured the liberty of the colonies from British rule in 1776; however, the Constitution was adopted eleven years later. The colonists were liberated from the British crown, but organized themselves as a republic through a written constitution.

Similarly, in creation and redemption the triune God first acted in deliverance and judgment and then organized reality around his Word. In creation, God spoke the world into being out of nothing and then addressed Adam with his covenant. In this original covenant, God's Word consisted of a preamble identifying the covenant Lord, a historical prologue (the creation narrative justifying his sovereignty), stipulations (commands), and sanctions (blessing for obedience, curse for disobedience). The covenant of grace also exhibits these formal features, as we will see.

Of course, the analogy between Scripture and modern constitutions breaks down. God's kingdom is not a democracy but a monarchy. The people did not liberate themselves from Satan, death, and hell; God did. Therefore, the author of the covenant constitution is not "we the people" (or "we the church"), but God the Savior and Lord. Our Good Shepherd does not liberate his people only to leave them as vagrant sheep, prey for roaming wolves.

The real parallel between the Bible's covenants is with Ancient Near Eastern (especially Hittite) treaties. (1) The greater ruler (suzerain) would unilaterally impose conditions on the lesser ruler (vassal), and the treaty was deposited in the respective shrines of each capital. Typically, these international treaties included the elements already mentioned: a preamble identifying the suzerain (or great king) and a historical prologue, followed by stipulations and sanctions. The suzerain's act of liberation was the basis for his imperial rights, and he therefore annexed them to his kingdom by giving them a written constitution. The great king acted in liberating the captive people and then ruled them by his treaty. With a copy in the archives of both the lesser and greater ruler, the treaty would be read regularly to the people, reminding them of their obligations.

The constitution of the creation-covenant does not open with "In the beginning the people created a republic," but "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The subsequent narrative justifies his rights over creation, rights that are clearly exercised in the commands and the promise (life) and threat (death). Interpreted especially in the light of Romans 2, the canon of this original covenant is engraved on the conscience of every human being to this day--the canon of natural law.

A similar pattern is evident in the covenant at Sinai, with the historical books providing the dramatic prologue justifying Yahweh's suzerainty, stipulations (commands), and sanctions (threats for transgression). A condensed version appears in the Decalogue: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. [Therefore] you shall have no other gods before me"--and the other commands follow (Exod. 20:2). The people accept the terms, and Moses warns repeatedly of the promise of blessing in the land for obedience and exile for disobedience. Finally, the tablets were deposited in the Ark of the Covenant.

With the historical books at the beginning and the announcement of the covenant curses in the prophetic books, this covenant and its canon were a temporary and typological economy leading Israel to its Messiah, the Savior of the world. A new exodus requires a new canon, and Exodus is the source of the New Testament's Gospel genre. In spite of their differences, all of the biblical covenants originate with the triune God. God is the author and the constitution is his reality-organizing charter for the people he has made his own possession.

The New Testament Canon

This close connection between canon and covenant is therefore crucial for understanding the way in which the Bible regulates the faith and practice of the people of God. While the whole Bible is canonical in the broader sense--that is, belonging to God's authoritative Word--the civil and ceremonial laws that constituted and governed the old covenant theocracy are no longer canonical in the narrower sense--that is, they are no longer in force; they are "obsolete" (Heb. 8:13).

Similarly, Paul points out in Galatians 3:15-29 that the later Sinai covenant cannot annul the earlier Abrahamic covenant. On one hand, we see a continuity of the moral law and the gospel promise from Genesis to Revelation. Even the Sinai (or Mosaic) covenant proclaims the gospel through its types and shadows. Over and against a dispensationalist paradigm, therefore, we recognize that there is one covenant of grace--one church--in both testaments, and they are given everlasting rest by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. However, on the other hand, over and against the Judaizers who had collapsed the Abrahamic covenant into the Mosaic covenant, Paul argues that these "are two covenants" and they are entirely distinct--even mutually exclusive--in their basis and goals (Gal. 4:21-31). One cannot simply add Jesus to the old covenant or vice versa. The Mosaic covenant is restricted to the nation of Israel and promises temporal blessings and curses (long life in the land versus death and exile) based on the personal obedience of the people. The Abrahamic covenant promises worldwide and everlasting blessing through faith in Christ who fulfilled the law, bore its curse, and rose victoriously for his beneficiaries.

This is why the writer to the Hebrews issues the solemn warning to visible members of the new covenant community not to turn away from Christ and go back to the shadows of the law (that is, the Sinai covenant). If they do so, they will be cut off not only from the temporal land but from everlasting life in the new creation. The promises are greater, and so are the curses (see especially chapters 2-6).

Although the specific promises, warnings, and commands of the Sinai covenant are no longer in effect (canonical in the narrow sense), the Old Testament remains part of Christian Scripture (canonical in the wider sense). The new covenant is constituted by its own canon: the New Testament. This canon has its own historical prologue--the Gospels--which even begin by evoking parallels with Genesis (John's prologue) and the history of Israel (the prologues of the synoptic Gospels). It has its own stipulations (both doctrines and commands) and sanctions (life and death). From Mount Sinai, Moses mediated God's law, but in person the Suzerain who prescribed the laws governing the typological theocracy now declares in his own Sermon on the Mount, "You have heard that it was said to those of old, '...' But I say, '...'" (Matt. 5:21-48). Jesus does not set aside the law but fulfills it (Matt. 5:17-20). Christ's death inaugurates the new covenant as a royal grant--that is, a last will and testament that dispenses an inheritance based on his perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience rather than our own (Matt. 26:26-30; Gal. 3:10-29; 4:21-28; Heb. 8:1-13; 9:15-28).

The Epistles provide the apostolic interpretation of the new covenant, both its doctrines and its practices. These letters make much of the point that the Sinai covenant was delivered through a merely human mediator, was temporary, and could not bring everlasting life, while the covenant of grace has God incarnate for its mediator, is eternal, and brings justification of the ungodly (Gal. 3:19-20; Heb. 3:1-6). Unlike the covenant that Israel swore at Sinai, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do" (Exod. 19:8), this covenant of grace rests on God's oath and is therefore stable and unchanging (Heb. 6:13-20; 8:1-10:18). And like the old covenant's prophetic writings, the New Testament concludes with the ultimate covenant lawsuit in the book of Revelation.

There can be no covenant without a canon or a canon without a covenant. In fact, the covenant is the canon and vice versa. Furthermore, like the Ancient Near Eastern treaties, the old and new covenant canons include among their sanctions a death sentence for anyone who attempts even the slightest emendation (Exod. 25:16, 21; 40:20; Deut. 4:2; 10:2; 31:9-13; cf. Deut. 27; Josh. 8:30-35; Rev. 22:18). The United States Constitution cannot be amended by the executive or judicial branches but only by the legislative, since this branch represents the people, who are its authors. God, however, is the Suzerain (or Great King) of his church, and he alone has the authority to determine its content. The canon is no more the creation of the church than a nation's constitution is the creation of its courts. The covenant Lord creates a people out of nothing by his speech and shapes, regulates, and defines the covenantal life of that people by his canon.

For these reasons, the churches of the Reformation have always argued that the church is creatura verbi, a creation of the Word. Through the proclamation of the gospel, the triune God speaks life out of death, justification out of condemnation, holiness out of unrighteousness. And this gospel is canonical. Anyone who adds to it, takes away from it, or preaches another gospel, falls under the divine anathema, even if that person is an angel or an apostle (Gal. 1:8-9). With the completion of the apostolic ministry, all of the promises and commands of the new covenant form the written constitution of the covenant of grace.

The God who saves by his Word also rules by his Word. Peter speaks of the Word of God in both of these senses, as sacramental (means of grace) and as regulative (canon). In the first sense, he refers to creation as having come into being "by the word of God" and adds, "But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly" (2 Pet. 3:5, 7). Yet the prophetic Scriptures are also the deposit of revelation and are no less the product of divine speech (2 Pet. 1:20-21). We are "born again...through the living and abiding word of God" which is "the good news that was preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:23, 25), in order to be saved and ruled by Christ. "For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls" (1 Pet. 2:25).

Christ saves us in order to rule us and rules us in order to save us. It is through his Word and Spirit that Christ accomplishes both. His Word is both the rod that parts the waters of death so that we may pass through safely and the scepter or staff by which he keeps us under his care until we reach the other side. Because it is the Word of the Father, in the Son, through the powerful agency of the Spirit, God's utterance through human ambassadors will always create the world of which it speaks, both judgment and salvation (Isa. 55:10-11).

If the covenant is inseparable from its canon (constitution), then what about the community? God created the heavens and the earth. Therefore, he determined the terms of his relationship with humanity. Not only creation but "salvation is of the Lord" (Jon. 2:9). We do not make Jesus our Lord and Savior; we are his people because he is Lord and Savior. It is God's action, not ours, that brings salvation. United to Christ by the proclamation of the gospel, the church exists in every moment only as it hears this Word, stands under it, and refuses to allow anything else to become canonically binding. Through this Word, Christ not only creates a redeemed communion but governs it as Prophet, Priest, and King. The church is the recipient of God's saving revelation, never a source.

Sola Scriptura: The Reformation Debate

Rome has always had a high doctrine of Scripture as inspired and even inerrant. However, the controversy at the Reformation turned on the relationship of tradition and Scripture. Again we see that sola Scriptura can be rejected by addition (raising the church's authority to the level of Scripture) as easily as by subtraction (lowering Scripture to public opinion). As with the other points, the Reformation stubbornly clung to that Latin qualifier: sola (alone). Just as we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, we are bound to Scripture alone as our source for doctrine and life. And just as Rome adds our merits to Christ's gift, it adds its words to Scripture. In fact, it makes Scripture itself subordinate to the church.

The Latin slogan means "by Scripture alone," not "Scripture alone" (solo Scriptura). (2) For example, both Lutheran and Reformed churches regard the ecumenical creeds, along with their own confessions and catechisms, as authoritative and binding summaries of Scripture, to which they are all subordinate. We accept these statements because they summarize biblical teaching, not on the basis of the church's authority. The key difference is that whereas the Roman Catholic view treats the church's authority as magisterial (sovereign), churches of the Reformation view it as ministerial (subordinate to Christ's scriptural Word).

Although there were medieval theologians of stature such as Duns Scotus and Pierre D'Ailly who insisted upon sola Scriptura, the Council of Trent (1545-63) condemned this view and does so to this day. Since the church preceded the canon and the latter evolved within and was finally authorized as such by the church, the conclusion seemed self-evident to Roman Catholic theologians that the church was the mother of Scripture. Furthermore, Scripture has to be interpreted. Would the Spirit inspire the canon without also inspiring its living interpreter, the church?

The Council of Trent established the view that Scripture and tradition are actually two forms of God's Word: "written" and "unwritten." Many unwritten (that is, oral) traditions were passed around by the apostles and their circle and passed down by them to successive generations. Crucial to this development was the assumption that the apostolic office is still in effect, with the pope and magisterium as successors to Peter and the other apostles. (3) However, it was not until the First Vatican Council (1870) that papal infallibility became a binding dogma for Roman Catholics. (4) According to this teaching, the pope, when speaking as Peter's successor (ex cathedra means "from the chair"), is preserved from error and may promulgate doctrines that are necessary to be believed for salvation.

Though more nuanced, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) repeated the dogma that Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are two rivers that flow into the one reservoir we call the Word of God. Jesus gave his apostles his authority and they, in turn, gave their successors this authority. In the magisterium, with the primacy of the pope, the apostolic office is living in the world today. (5) "Hence, both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal feelings of devotion and reverence. Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture make up a single deposit of the Word of God, which is entrusted to the church." (6)

While some Roman Catholic theologians (especially Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Yves Congar, and George Tavard) have tried to revive the view held by some medieval thinkers that Scripture is uniquely normative, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) replies that since there are many extrascriptural dogmas that such theologians must hold, "What sense is there in talking about the sufficiency of scripture?" (7) He adds, "Scripture is not revelation but at most only a part of the latter's greater reality." (8)

Consequently, Rome virtually erases any distinction between inspiration (pertaining exclusively to the biblical texts) and illumination (pertaining to the church's interpretation), the extraordinary foundation-laying ministry of the apostles and the ordinary building-erecting ministry of the post-apostolic church. To return to the analogy above, this is like the Supreme Court revising, amending, and adding to the Constitution instead of merely interpreting it. Just as the New Testament supplements the Old Testament, Pope Benedict argues, the church's ongoing interpretation supplements both. (9) Calvin pointed out that the radical Protestant sects were similar to Rome in this respect: both held that the apostolic office remains in effect. (10)

The Reformers and their heirs agreed that the church has an essential role in maintaining the truth, but is not the author or source. There is a divinely instituted teaching office, but it obtains its fallible authority from the infallible Word. Of course, God's Word was at first delivered by oral tradition and was only later committed to writing. None of these Reformation theologians held that the Bible as we now have it preceded the church! However, the Reformers argued that the Word of God preceded both Scripture and the church. As proclamation, the Word created the church, and now we have a written deposit of this normative as well as saving truth. So there was a time when sacred tradition and written Scripture were two media of one revealed deposit, but this situation no longer obtains in the post-apostolic era. The critical question for us is whether the non-inspired traditions of ordinary ministers of the church can be equated with the revelation given through the extraordinary ministry of prophets and apostles.

Jesus excoriated the religious leaders for raising "the tradition of men" (Mark 7:8) to the level of God's Word. "So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God" (Matt. 15:6). On the other hand, Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to "stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter" (2 Thess. 2:15). A chapter later he warns them to keep away from those who are not walking "with the tradition that you received from us" (2 Thess. 3:6). In spite of their strife and immaturity, Paul commends the Corinthians "because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor. 11:2). Are Jesus and Paul at odds here? Not at all. Jesus is referring to the traditions of non-inspired Jewish leaders, who had raised their ministerial interpretations to the level of magisterial authority. Paul is referring to the inspired teaching of the apostles, whose ministry has expired. All of the inspired traditions that God deemed necessary and sufficient for the church in all times and places are included in the Scriptures.

Judicial decisions and the history of case precedent cannot be equated with the constitution itself. The new covenant had been inaugurated and now, by Christ's appointment, was receiving its constitution. While all apostolic pronouncements concerning faith and practice were to be received as God's Word ("either by our spoken word or by letter"), the Spirit saw fit to commit the most necessary oral and written teaching to the New Testament Scriptures. Analogous to post-prophetic traditions, then, post-apostolic traditions have ministerial but not magisterial authority. The court is not the author of its own constitution.

Since there are no more apostles, there is no ongoing revelation. This is the argument the Reformers made against both Rome and the radical Protestants. The Scriptures are sufficient. Christ is the head who saves and rules his body. Therefore, the church is always put into question in its faith and life by the Word that created and preserves it, and it must always be ready to be reformed by it. Paul said that he had "laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it" (1 Cor. 3:10). That is the order: apostolic foundation followed by the ordinary ministry of the church on that basis. "For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (v. 11, emphasis added). There is the foundation-laying period and then the building phase.

If Paul could warn the Corinthians "not to go beyond what is written" (1 Cor. 4:6), then surely those of us living in post-apostolic times are no less obliged to this principle. Especially as the church was already beginning to be racked with internal division and errors, Paul in effect invokes the principle of sola Scriptura in forbidding the saints from going beyond the written texts. Paul urges this in the context of his defense of his ministry from the charges of the "super-apostles," who led many Corinthians astray by their claim to extraordinary revelation that circumvented the apostolic circle. It is interesting that while Rome increasingly answered the heretics by appealing to its own authority (an ongoing apostolic authority), Paul himself, though indisputably an apostle, draws the Corinthians' attention to that which had been already committed to writing even while the apostles were living. There one could not go wrong. That Peter even refers to Paul's Epistles as "Scripture" underscores just how early the apostles were talking about official pastoral letters as canonical (2 Pet. 3:16).

There is a marked difference after the death of the apostles. The early fathers did not appeal to their own authority (or that of the church corporately), but to the words of the apostles. Rome argues that the Bible itself is unclear even on crucial matters of salvation and worship, and therefore an infallible teaching office is necessary. The Scriptures, however, are clear on these matters, and the history especially of the medieval church is filled with considerable confusion, contradiction, and even mutual excommunications by popes and councils.

Most obviously, the fatal anathema of the gospel's clear teaching by the Roman Catholic Church vitiates its claim to a faithful ministerial office, much less magisterial. This is a sad but necessary observation, given the correlation that Paul has made between the gospel as canon even over angels and apostles (Gal. 1:8-9). Prior to becoming pope, Cardinal Ratzinger nicely summarizes the difference between Rome and the Reformation churches on this point. According to the latter, the Word guarantees the ministry whereas Rome holds that the ministry guarantees the Word. He adds, "Perhaps in this reversal of the relations between word and ministry lies the real opposition between the views of the church held by Catholics and Reformers." (11)

Eroding the sufficiency of the biblical canon happens in Protestant ways as well, on the left and the right. Everything turns on whether we believe that salvation comes from the Lord or from ourselves--either as individuals or as a community.



1 [ Back ] Among many others, the following should be mentioned: G. E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium, 1955); Delbert Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969); M. G. Kline, The Structure of Biblical Authority (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), esp. ch. 3.
2 [ Back ] A fruitful study of the Reformation's interpretation of this phrase is found in Keith Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2001).
3 [ Back ] Although episcopal (governed by bishops), the East was always suspicious of the hierarchicalism of the West and the former emphasized that the whole body of Christ is infused with the charism of the apostles--not that they are apostles themselves, but they are filled with the Spirit and led by the Spirit. According to the West, the idea gradually emerged that this charism was reserved for the priesthood and especially for those who were part of the magisterium (cardinals and popes).
4 [ Back ] For a fuller treatment of this development, see Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility 1150-1350 (Leiden: Brill, 1988).
5 [ Back ] Austin Flannery, O.P., ed., Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents (Northport, NY: Costello, 1975), 754-63.
6 [ Back ] Flannery, 755. Emphasis added.
7 [ Back ] Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, Revelation & Tradition, trans. W. J. O'Hara (Freiburg: Herder, 1966), 29.
8 [ Back ] Rahner and Ratzinger, 36-37.
9 [ Back ] Rahner and Ratzinger, 44.
10 [ Back ] In fact, Calvin wrote, "We are assailed by two sects," referring to Rome and the Anabaptists, even though they "seem to differ most widely from each other." "For when they boast extravagantly of the Spirit, the tendency certainly is to sink and bury the Word of God, that they may make room for their own falsehoods." Calvin's "Reply to Cardinal Sadoleto's Letter," in Calvin's Tracts and Treatises, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 1:36.
11 [ Back ] Rahner and Ratzinger, 29.


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Canon Formation" May/June 2010 Vol. 19 No. 3 Page number(s): 10-15

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