Thursday, February 16, 2023

Having a Canon

20 or 30 years ago, the word 'canon' wasn't really part of the everyday vernacular. Often I found it being confused with 'cannon,' the heavy artillery used in wars. Over the years the public has become accustomed to talking about what is 'canon' and what is not in relation to popular entertainment franchises, like Harry Potter or Star Trek. This term, 'canon,' is one that has historically been used most in the West when speaking of what counts as Scripture, and what does not.

To me, one of the most eye-opening courses you'll take in seminary is an introduction to the New Testament, particularly as you learn about how the text came together. The same can be said about the Hebrew scriptures as well. Of course, this is assuming that your seminary isn't fundamentalist, and honestly teaches current scholarly research around the origins of the text. You'll learn that many if not most of the books were written by someone other than the person attributed, and that many were written years after the fact by people pretending to be the more famous writer. They were responding not to situations in the church of the first generation, but to circumstances later, in the actual time of writing. To the surprise of many in such a class, they learn that the New Testament canon was not formulated by a specific church council, but rather was put together over time and by consensus among the Christian communities that became identified with 'orthodoxy.' Different Christian communions accept different books, with the Ethiopic Bible consisting of as many as 84 books, far more than the Protestant canon of 66. 

The canon isn't necessarily closed for everyone who identifies as Christian, either. Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, maintains an open canon of Scripture. Periodically their prophet-president presents a revelation, which the church in conference reviews and either approves or rejects. This is a fairly fluid process, as Community of Christ does not affirm inerrant verbal inspiration of Scripture. 

Outside of historic Christianity we find the Unitarian Universalist Association, which came out of a Protestant background, rejecting not only creeds but also a formal canon. UU churches have neither creed nor canon, and ministers speak on topics drawn from an array of sources.

The Universal Life Church does not dictate any particular canon for ministers to use. The headquarters congregation in Modesto, California reportedly tends to hear from the King James Bible, but that's simply because Rev. Andre Hensley is accustomed to using that version. Similar to our Unitarian Universalist counterparts, we are welcome to find truth wherever we prefer. That doesn't mean that people don't have their own canons. 

From what I've gathered over the years, a good number of Universal Life ministers hold to a view of the Bible that includes inerrancy and infallibility. They may be Pentecostal, fundamentalist, or evangelical. Hell, many are a challenge to classify, which is why the ULC is the right place for them. Of course, many ULC ministers have no personal preferences, being fairly secular and having only gotten ordained to officiate a wedding for friends. Still others are Wiccans or adherents of another path. For those without a formal declared canon, there can still be tendencies.

A ULC minister who knows a great deal about Star Wars might draw considerably from that 'universe.' The same could be true of an expert in Shakespeare or of someone who is deeply into music. People speaking from the heart draw on what they know and love, at least it's certainly easier that way. While there might not be something they think of as 'scripture,' there can still be a realm of symbols and meaning that is important to them.

So I suppose the challenge I'll leave you with is to attempt to discern your own canon. If it's the Bible, why is that the case? If something else, why or how is that meaningful to you? By exploring these questions we can better understand ourselves and, hopefully, better minister to those around us.

See Also:

Yale Bible Study, Formation of the Biblical Canon: New Testament (Video)

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