The Differences Between Canonical and Non-Canonical Writings

The way some write about some of the extra-canonical or post-canonical or deutero-canonical writings one would expect the differences between the canonical and non-canonical texts to be negligible. That’s not what I find.I’ve inherited the Ancient Church course (CH601) from Bob Godfrey and it’s given me the opportunity to re-read the Apostolic Fathers and and other examples of early Christian literature (e.g. Justin and Irenaeus) and some of the apocryphal writings. Take 1 Clement or the Didache for example. They are both instructive about the life of the early church but they are quite different from the apostolic or canonical writings. 1 Clement is, frankly, tedious and moralistic. There are a few bright spots but I feel for the congregation that had to sit through the reading of this letter. There just isn’t much gospel there. Compared to Hebrews it’s superficial. The Didache is worse. Again, it is instructive and interesting historically but theologically it’s not very helpful. 

It might be a little more difficult in the case of the Epistle to Diognetus, but he doesn’t regard himself as writing a canonical or an inspired document. It’s pretty good stuff and it’s great rhetoric but it’s not apostolic or canonical.

Then there is a apocryphal literature. If anyone thinks that the formation of the canon was arbitrary then the haven’t read the “Gospel” of Thomas. That one is just silly. It’s amusing but that’s not usually regarded as a mark of canonicity.  

The early post- and non-canonical Christian (and non-Christian) writings are fascinating. They open a window on a world that, in many ways, is not unlike our own. Theirs was a pre-Christian world and ours is largely a post-Christian world. The general plan for relating to the surrounding culture corresponds often to what some transformationalists deride as the “W2K” (Westminster Two Kingdoms) “virus.” Few of the orthodox fathers seem to have any grand plans for transforming the Roman Empire or any aspect of culture. For the most part they seem content to be left alone to worship Christ and to practice their faith. Like most Christians, in most times, they seem willing to appropriate the vocabulary of the day and to re-define terms as necessary to communicate biblical doctrine. 

The differences, however, between the canonical and non-canonical books are quite plain. That should be encouraging in a time when it’s fashionable to throw sand in the air about how allegedly arbitrary the Christian canon is or how it was the result of conspiracies or power politics. Nonsense. Read the sources. Most of them are in accessible English translations–indeed the wealth of patristic sources in critical editions is truly amazing to one who usually works with hard -to-use and hard-to-read 16th-century and 17th-century texts.

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