Use of the term “canon” has long been subject to debate within the study of early Christianity, as scholars often discuss precisely when the Christian New Testament canon came into existence. Among modern scholars three primary perspectives have emerged as to the meaning of canon. This post outlines these schools of thought.
First is the perspective that many of the foundational writings of the New Testament were regarded very early on as sacred writings and authoritative, and thus can be understood as a canon of scripture. Such is the position of Theodor Zahn, who undertook this perspective based on his readings of the Church Fathers and their methods of citation from the writings of the New Testament. Scholars who adhere to this perspective argue that an early canon of the New Testament can be argued for based on the authoritative inferences from the writings of Paul and words of Jesus in manuscripts such as First Clement, indicating the use of a practical canon as early as the end of first century of the Common Era.
A second perspective is that of scholars such as Adolph Harnack which takes a more fluid view of the creation of the canon. Arguing that while the texts included in scripture where written early on in the Christian tradition, they were not regarded as authoritative scripture until several decades or even centuries later. A variation of this second perspective is offered by James A. Sanders, who argues that while the writings now included in the New Testament were long recognized as scriptural, they took on a different level of authority once they were formally canonized.
A third school of thought relies heavily upon the rigid definition of the term ‘canon.’ A.C. Sundburg maintained that the term ‘scripture’ refers to books commonly accepted as holy and authoritative, whereas the term ‘canon’ refers to an authoritative list of such books. David L. Dungan writes that, “A canon results when someone seeks to impose a strict boundary around a smaller subset of writings or teachings within the larger, slowly evolving ‘cloud of sacred texts.'” Thus for this view, while the writings of what is now called the Christian New Testament could be referred to fairly early on as ‘scripture,’ the term ‘canon’ cannot be used until the fourth century, when church officials sanctioned by the Roman Empire created rigid boundaries around lists of approved texts, distinguished them from the larger conglomeration of sacred texts.
Clearly such a battle over the definition of ‘canon’ is by-and-large a question of semantics, which while historically important, ultimately clouds the considerations of canonical criticism and the need for a working definition in this paper. Bruce Metzger notes the importance of precise semantics in distinguishing the differences between a list of authoritative books and an authoritative list of books. Due in large part to the work of Metzger, much of canonical scholarship recognized the importance of a distinction between the ‘formal canon,’ in Metzger’s words an “authoritative list of books,” and a ‘practical canon,’ a grouping of authoritative books or writings. It thus seems most appropriate to draw distinctions between different types of canon, especially the “practical canon” and “formal canon”, as this sort of definitional clarity can alleviate at least some of the disagreements which exist surrounding the development of the New Testament canon.
Which school of thought do you adhere to? How do you define “canon”? What resources would you suggest for examining this query further?
 Theodore Zahn. Geschichte des neutestementlichen Kanons. Leipzig, 1888-1892. Cited in John Barton. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1997. 2-4.  Adolf Von Harnack. The Origin of the New Testament and the Most Important Consequences of the New Creation. London, 1925. Cited: Barton, 4-8.  James A. Sanders. From Sacred Story to Sacred Text: Canon as Paradigm. Fortress Press: Philadelphia, 1987. 3-4.  John Barton. Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 1997. 9.  David L. Dungan. Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2007. 3.  Barton, 9.  Dungan, 3.  Bruce M. Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1992. 282.