Professor Jenson’s third Burns Lecture was concerned with the emergence of the NT as canon.
Initially he looked at the emergence of the NT canon as documented in the writings of Irenaeus. He noted that Irenaeus‘ arguments are circular, however, this is not a vicious circularity, indeed ‘circularity is the very mark of the Holy Spirit’.
In the search for authoritative apostolic teaching, Paul’s writings were accepted in spite of the appearance of gnosticism. Paul’s letters are scripture but only in the broader context of the story to which they contribute. The acceptance of the gospels arose due to the ‘logical relation’ between the gospel and the earliest expressions of the regula fidei. ‘Jesus is risen’ – ‘the ‘shortest statement of the gospel’ – calls out for narrative specification of Jesus’ identity. The gospel offered precisely that thickness of description and ‘morally and religiously specific news’ that the Church’s continuing identity required. On the other hand the theology of Paul and the other writers gave specificity to the meaning of ‘is risen’. So ‘Jesus’ is a reference to a real person; ‘is risen’ is a statement of ‘utmost salvific import’, especially in Second Temple Judaism.
The overall argument of the lecture was for the mutual interdependence of gospels and letters, alongside the mutual interdependence of creed and canon. Just as the crisis of identity threatening the Church’s fading regula fidei called for both the narrative of the gospels and the theology of the letters, so the emerging creedal formulations arising out of the regula fidei required the canon.
In something of a introductory survey of the Second-Century Church, Jenson reminded us that it was Clement of Alexandria who was the first to refer to the ‘Old Testament’ and to the ‘New Testament’. He also argued that the NT canon probably would have been formed even without Marcion, but that it may have been a different canon. Still, ‘we cannot say’.
Jenson proceeded to argue that creed and canon ‘fit together’ like two halves of a puzzle: the NT is indispensable to the creedal tradition and the canon is indispensable to the NT. Although he didn’t specify which creeds have authority for the Church (e.g. what ought we make of the Reformation creeds?), he did define the criterion by which that may be determined. He reserved the title ‘creed’ for those statements which derived ‘organically out of the regula fidei‘. Thus this notion of the communal self-consciousness of the first witnesses (he praised Bauckham’s recent study here, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) becomes more and more central to his emerging argument. Canon and creed together as the source of the identity of the Church over time take over where ‘regula fidei’ leaves off.
He made a brief comment on inspiration, stressing that the work of the Spirit – undergirding that circular reasoning we talked of earlier – was a work from within (not from outside) both the writers and the interpreters of the canon. The inspiration of the Spirit, on Jenson’s view, is not a gift separable from the presence of the Spirit. Like other gifts, it is a gift in the self-giving of the Spirit and not apart from that.