The Anti-Canonical Spirit Of American Religion

old_wooden_rulerA canon is a rule, a measure, an objective standard by which things are measured. A canon is also a limit. Americans have never been particularly fond of limits. We are a busy, restless people always pushing the boundaries. Every school child knows (or used to know) about the westward expansion past the wilderness of Ohio and western Pennsylvania in the 19th century. Part of the explanation for that expansion is the doctrine of “manifest destiny,” but part of the explanation is our native restlessness. The “old world” was bound by a class system that had less to do with merit and industry than it did with who one’s great, great grandparents were and which piece of land they owned. Americans ran roughshod over that limit and established a class system based on accumulation of goods and money. The American discontent with boundaries is not merely social and geographical. It has religious aspects too.

The Christian faith has a canon and it is determined neither by religious experience nor ecclesiastical authority, but by God himself in Jesus Christ who is the canon because he is the Word. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). God the Son, the Word, became incarnate (John 1:14) and by his Holy Spirit breathed out his Word through his apostles. Just as Jesus is canon so too his Word to us is canon. This is received Christian dogma since the apostolic period.

Since the early 18th century, however, American colonists and later, in the 19th century, America’s Westward migrants, have often resisted an external, divinely established, objective measure of the Christian faith. In a variety of ways Americans have undermined and the circumvent the canon (e.g., via quietism, Quakerism, Pentecostalism) or expand it  (e.g., Mormonism) or marginalize it other ways  by making one’s own, private, personal canon or by making oneself the canon. This is almost certainly the dominant move by most Americans. We don’t want to receive a canon that pre-existed us. We want our own, individual canon, an iCanon or MyCanon.

Many Americans have also marginalized the canon by suggesting that its existence is part of a conspiracy. That there are such things seems plausible to us because this is a big place. Having driven much of the country I understand what it means to drive for two or three days and still not reach one’s destination. The great size of the country provides opportunity for relocation, development, change and improvement but it also provides opportunity to think that “someone out there,” some anonymous person (or group of persons) is working against me. That’s an attractive if almost always false explanation why things are as they are. This is a big country and chances are that most of the other persons out there don’t know you exist but conspiracy theories have a certain credibility because it’s possible that someone out there is working against one.

The inherent plausibility of conspiracy theories helps explain the readiness of Americans to believe the myth that some group formed the canon and excluded books (e.g., the Gnostic Gospels) that they knew to be true. The utter lack of evidence for such a view is no obstacle to their pervasive success since, in the world of conspiracy theories, anyone who contradicts the myth is part of the conspiracy. Obviously, there’s no way out this vicious loop.

All this is by way of a hearty encouragement for you to listen to the White Horse Inn broadcasts of May 23 and May 30 on the origin of Scripture and the formation of the canon. These are vital topics. Mike, Kim, Rod, and Ken did a terrific job laying out a brief history of the question and providing a clear, accurate account of the truth.

Scripture is God’s Word. It measures us, we don’t measure it. It forms us, we don’t form it. The history is that the church received the Scripture as canon from God. The church did not create the canon. The gnostic books were excluded because they were not canonical. If you don’t believe me do this. Read the gospel of Luke and then read any of the gnostic gospels. My personal favorite is the “infancy gospel of Thomas.”  You’ll see the difference. It’s like this. Why can’t a tree be a stoplight, because a tree is a tree! There is a difference between a tree and a stop light. Yes, they are both tall and yes, they both have green in them and they both change colors but that doesn’t make a tree into a stoplight. So it is with the gnostic gospels and the canonical gospels. Both talk about Jesus but one has the inherent marks of canonicity and the others do not.

I hope you’ll give these programs (and all the White Horse Inn programs) a listen.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Good post, and great commentary on the American religious mentality. Funny you should mention gnosticism because the whole thing is a radically individualistic gnosticism. It is the thinking that I and only I have the key to the true knowledge that will set myself free. Someone needs to put these guys were put in the Total Perspective Vortex.

  2. Dr. Clark, the idea of «MyCanon» is so passé… Everybody just writes on the wall of the Canon’s wall adding to it whatever it wants.

  3. In addition, the May/June issue of MR also has some excellent articles on Canon formation. They are not quick reads and I’ve been slowly picking my way through them.

  4. Good post. I’ve been doing a bit of grappling with the Roman Catholic attacks on Scripture recently. In fact, I just posted a critique of one RCC’s article here. I hope it’s useful and edifying.

    Also, thanks for the plug for White Horse. I’m looking forward to it!

Comments are closed.