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The Problem of the Canon and Further Revelation
Robert M. Price
The whole point of a "canon," an official list of scriptures, would seem to be to exclude any further candidates for revelation. A new prophet may come along and announce "I have a new word from God," but if those to whom he speaks have an official canon of revelations, the prophet may expect to receive pretty much the same reply as a writer getting a rejection slip from a publisher: "I'm so sorry, but we already have as many of those as we need!" A canon of scripture, for example, the twenty-seven writings of the New Testament, is rather like the doctrine of the Trinity. Trinitarianism does not so much mean that there are no less than three persons in the Godhead as it means that there can be no more than three. To choose a list of twenty-seven revealed writings is to rule out any proposed number twenty-eight. When Saint Athanasius sent out his Easter Letter in 367 A.D., listing the twenty-seven New Testament documents we still use today, he was not issuing a descriptive statement ("No one uses any others, do they?") but rather a prescriptive statement ("You'd better stop using all the others if you know what's good for you!"). The same thing had happened centuries earlier when the Jewish scribes had announced that the age of revelations had drawn to a close. It's not that no new prophets were coming forward to prophesy, you understand, but that none of them would ever again be given a hearing: "Sorry, pal, but you missed the deadline. Now hit the road!"). From now on there should be no more prophets, only scribes to interpret the old inspired writings. When the Prophet Muhammad died, that was the end of revelation. Thenceforth it would be a matter of jurists extrapolating from the Qur'an to answer new questions as they should arise.
The problem of the canon versus new revelations is a perennial one throughout the history of religion. There is a cycle that repeats itself over and over again: a new prophet proclaims a new revelation. The old guard of the traditional religion refuse to accept it. The new prophet founds his own new religion, but as soon as the new prophet dies, his followers enshrine his revelations as a new canon of scripture. And when an even newer prophet arises with a new and updated revelation to share, he will be in for a rude surprise. He had expected that a new religious community, so recently started, would be open to new revelations. After all, isn't that why they started this religion in the first place? In fact, the new religion immediately becomes as rigid as the old one was, believers hugging to their breasts the new canon of scriptures, the revelation of their founder. The very revelations that had superseded the old have now become the old. The guardians of the new canon are as deaf to the new revelations as the guardians of the old canon had been. And so it starts all over again.
An early, perhaps prototypical,
example of this dilemma may be found in the story of Abraham being summoned by
God to sacrifice his son Isaac. The New Testament writer of the Epistle to the
Hebrews sums up the situation well: "By faith Abraham, when God tested
him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promise was about to
sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, 'Through Isaac
shall your promised offspring come'" (Hebrews -18). Abraham had once
puzzled over the question of how God could possibly fulfill his promise to give
Our problem is clearly posed in an old Muslim saying: "All other books than the Qur'an are superfluous. If a book agrees with the Qur'an, it is merely redundant; if it doesn't agree with the Qur'an, it is in error." In short, if an established canon of scripture tells you all you need to know, you do not need anything new revealed. And if a supposed new revelation must first be verified by checking it against the canon, then no new revelation can ever be accepted. It could be accepted only if everything in it was already there in the old canon--but then what new has been revealed?
This is why the Gospel of John has
the scribes unable to accept Jesus as the Christ--the scriptures don't happen
to anticipate any prophet coming from
There are, I think, certain phenomenological dynamics which help make sense of our dilemma. They will help us understand why some people, faced with the challenge of a new revelation will stick loyally to the traditional canon, whole others will stick their necks out to join with the new faith.
It is absolutely fundamental to get one thing straight: despite the fact that both the canonical scriptures and the new prophetic message are supposed to be revelations, the two have nothing in common. The resemblance is purely superficial and deceptive. This is because the same adjective, "revealed," covers a more important difference between the two that is determined not by definition but by function. The canon is a body of documents that has come to serve as a foundational charter for a particular religious community. One looks back on this revelation to legitimize the present. The revealed canon calls for faithfulness. But a new revelation is a rallying cry to start something new. It is a summons into the future, beyond the past, beyond the present, too. The new revelation calls for faith, a leap of faith into the unknown future. It is safer to stick with the canon, with the divine pedigree of the past; it is more exciting to leap into the future.
So what will happen when a new
revelation is offered to the religious community? It all depends on what kind of a revelation it is, how much
discontinuity there is between it and the traditional revelation. What we might
call an orthodox revelation is not a
revelation of anything really new. If accepted, it will serve merely to
reinforce the canon and its teachings, since it is entirely within the bounds
of the canonical teachings. For example, I once attended a Catholic Charismatic
prayer meeting in
An eccentric revelation (as I like to call them), if taken seriously, will affect only marginal details of orthodox belief. And such marginal modifications one may prudently resolve to keep to oneself. An example would be a Catholic or Fundamentalist who reads Raymond F. Moody's Life After Life. This is a book about visionary "near death experiences" which seem to provide proof of life after death, but in terms not very close to traditional biblical depictions of life after death. Tempted by the lure of being able to buttress one's faith with solid data, an individual may silently adjust his belief to something like Moody's, even though it requires him to take some traditional beliefs a bit less than literally. But not that much has changed in any case.
A predictive revelation, should the community take it seriously, will at worst cause embarrassment, since by definition it treats only of historical events, not of doctrinal truths. Radio host Harold Camping calculated the date of the return of Christ as scheduled for September of 1994. Many believed him--but were sorry they did once October 1994 rolled around. But the shock was not too severe, the damage easy to control, since Camping had not, after all, "revealed" anything like there being a fourth person in the Trinity. The failure of his "revelation" did not endanger the belief in the second advent of Christ; it only made Camping and his fans look pretty silly for jumping the gun. After several embarrassing attempts to predict the return of Christ, the Jehovah's Witnesses sect finally gave up and slightly revised their doctrine. They no longer claim that Christ will return soon. Now they claim only that Christ might return at any moment, so it is best always to be ready, even if it should be another thousand years.
A really new revelation (that is, a revelation of something genuinely
and significantly new), if taken seriously, can only eventuate in the birth of
a new religion from the old. Those who embrace the new revelation will have put
themselves beyond the bounds of the traditional religious community, defined as
it was by its canonical revelation, its charter. The acceptance of the really
new revelation creates a substantially new body of soon-to-be-orthodox belief.
Once enough people accepted the Book of Mormon, there had to be a Mormon Church
to accommodate them and their new beliefs. Once some ministers received the
revelation of the Oneness of the Godhead during an Assemblies of God spiritual
retreat, a doctrine most Assemblies ministers did not much fancy, there simply
had to be a new church for the new Pentecostal anti-trinitarians:
The United Pentecostal Church. When Sun Myung Moon received the revelation of
the Divine Principle there was no longer any question of remaining among the
ranks of Korean Presbyterians and Pentecostals, and the
Why is it that in all such cases it is only the sectarian few who will embrace the new revelation offered them, while most will remain comfortably ensconced in familiar spiritual territory? After all, wouldn't one expect even the latter to appreciate the prospect of a new revelation since they are so zealous for the old? Aren't they themselves a group of people who know the value of a revelation, since they so highly prize the old one? Actually not. What the conservatives value in their canonical scripture/creed is not the authority of revelation but the authority of tradition. A traditional revelation provides an epistemological excuse for remaining loyal to one's own religious community rather than considering another. "Oh, sure, their religion sounds reasonably nice, but ours is revealed by God!"
But isn't it a matter of importance to them that their founder did in his day challenge the established orthodoxy? Yes, but it does not lead them to venerate present or future heretics of the same kind. No, the heretical character of the founder (in other words, his transcending the bounds of the orthodoxy of religion in his day) is in retrospect considered an excuse for the founder's own opportunistic manipulation of the parent tradition and its scriptures. It was a "progressive revelation," whereby believers in the canonical revelation might extend their community's pedigree even farther into the past, co-opting the ancient challengers of their faith as well as safeguarding themselves against new challengers.
For Paul to cite the Old Testament in favor of new views no Jew had ever heard of was to co-opt the Jewish canon for his own polemical use, to undercut the traditionalists of his own day by using their own pedigree against them. Justin Martyr similarly quoted Jewish scripture in his debate with Trypho the Jew. He says he will quote "your own scriptures" to prove Christian doctrine, but then has second thoughts and corrects himself: "or rather, our scriptures, since they are not yours anymore." Thus Paul and Justin would make it appear that the old guard are themselves the innovators since they have gone off the track in rejecting the new revelation which the old scriptures had anticipated! "You search the scriptures, for in them you imagine you have eternal life. And yet it is they which testify of me, and you refuse to come to me to have eternal life" (John -40). In short, the pride taken in the radical character of their founder serves to protect the religion against the challenge of the prior, parent religion as well as the challenges of today's new rivals who seek to supersede their religion in precisely the same way theirs had superseded and co-opted the old. Of course, that is exactly what the guardians of the previous order were doing in their allegiance to the old canon of their day.
But it didn't work. It never works. New religions emerge from the old by the process of sectarian mitosis: growth by splitting. Christians still claim to have the true understanding of the Jewish scriptures, and thus to have superseded them, because their founder Jesus was a prophet like unto those who had written the old Jewish scriptures. But Christians just as keenly resist the polemical-evangelistic assaults of those newer religions which seek to supersede and co-opt Christianity in the same way Christianity superseded and co-opted Judaism (or tried to). Muslims, Moonies, Mormons, all claim possession of a new book of divine oracles which "fulfills" and thus supersedes the New Testament just as the New Testament was once said to fulfill and supersede the Old Testament.
We can, then, understand why the old, established revelation exerts a strong hold on most of its members, enabling them to spurn the invitation extended by a new prophet. We still need to explain why some few are willing to jump ship and go over to the new kid in town, the new revelation, the new religion. Now we can see why it is even more remarkable for anyone to be willing to do this, in view of the great security provided by allegiance to a religion with a venerable pedigree. A really new revelation, unlike a traditional authority, must stand on its own two feet, be accepted newly and freshly, without the solid believability of tradition, the status quo. It involves much more of a risk than it does to remain loyal to the taken-for-granted authority of tradition. What kind of person is willing to breathe the rarefied air he will find out there far beyond the safety of the tried-and-true?
There will always be within the old
religious community an element that is already, like the prophet of the new
revelation (who may even have emerged from their own ranks), dissatisfied with
the old tradition anyway. Thus they are already in the market for something new
to come along. The new prophet finds a welcome among the like-minded who had
kept mum about their dissatisfactions until he appears to give them voice.
Muhammad had apparently belonged to a group of seekers after a simple Abrahamic faith, who then became his first converts. The
Buddha's first disciples were the ascetics he had once lived with in a common
quest to transcend the ritualistic charades of the old Vedic system. Joseph
Smith, confused, like many of his contemporaries, at the plethora of competing revivalistic churches in the Burned Over District, prays to
be shown which sect to join, and the angel
Other members of the established religion are not dissatisfied with it, but they will have been led by their tradition to expect a genuinely new development. Most members will no longer take such anticipations or predictions seriously, satisfied as they are with the familiar and the comfortable, but in the case of the relative few who do expect something new, the tradition has managed to work itself out of a job. It paved the way for its own suppression, at least as far as the forward-looking minority is concerned.
Jesus, for instance, gains his first adherents from the circle of John the Baptist, a Jew already preaching in anticipation of some new revelation about to dawn. The Bab, Mirza Hussein Ali, was first embraced by members of the Sheykhi sect who were already primed for the appearance of the Hidden Imam. All Shiites would have claimed to be eagerly expecting the advent of the Hidden Imam, but their violent reaction to the proclamation of the Bab showed how far they were from welcoming anything new. Sun Myung Moon, adherent of an apocalyptic Pentecostal group expecting a new Korean messiah, receives the revelation that he is to teach the Divine Principle, so as to pave the way for the new messiah, or else to become that new messiah himself.
And, again, once the new prophet establishes his own religious community, once his revelations become a new canon, it is highly unlikely that any subsequent new revelation will be accepted. After the initial formative period, the vested interests some have in preserving the new order, the new orthodoxy, will prevail and cause the whole cycle to begin again. This is why the New Prophecy of Montanus, Maximilla, and Priscilla was repudiated by the increasingly defensive hierarchy of the consolidating Catholic Church. This is why Joseph Smith, daring new prophet, felt entitled to silence the voices of even newer prophets in the fledgling Mormon community, issuing the decree that, henceforth, new revelations would come only from himself.
I saw this dynamic reenacted in the Atlantic City Catholic Charismatic conclave mentioned above. The vast convention hall was filled with delegates from countless local prayer groups, each with a prophet or two on hand for the festivities. Charismatic prophets can be expected to stand up and speak in the average Charismatic prayer session. But this one was so big, and the potential prophetic speakers such an unknown quantity, that the planners of the event had issued the regulation that anyone wishing to approach the microphone with a divine utterance had first to submit their oracle to a select magisterium seated in a bank of folding chairs called (with perfect leaden bureaucratic prose) the "Word Gifts Unit"! Paul was already beginning to rein in the spontaneity of the Spirit that bloweth where he listeth when he stipulated that each Corinthian prophet must speak in turn and then wait for the other prophets to give their reviews on his words. Prophecy is being domesticated by the establishment rule-makers in favor of their canon of established, traditional authority. It always happens.
Some subsequent prophets will try to smuggle their own
revelations into the community by
putting the name of some old and venerable prophet on their own new
prophecy, passing off their own revelation as a neglected and rediscovered
revelation from the founder. If such a prophet succeeds in this, he may
actually wind up causing real change within the established religion, as did a
medieval Neo-Platonic mystic posing as Dionysius the Areopagite,
a biblical character and convert of the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:34). Thanks to
his pious fraud, something very much like nondualist
Vedanta Hinduism was able to take root in Catholic Christianity, providing a
safety zone for Christian mystics who would otherwise have been recognized as
departing from the orthodox norm in a heretical direction. Heresy had been
smuggled into the fortress of orthodoxy in the Trojan Horse
of the Pseudo-Dionysius. In precisely the same fashion, Gnostic elements had
infiltrated Judaism by means of pseudepigrapha attributed to ancient patriarchs
But other prophets will dare to speak in their own names, believing that a real prophecy will ring true by its own authority, at least for those who have ears to hear. And since there will probably be precious few of such hearers, they will be forced out of the larger body with little choice but to set up shop on their own. And thus another new religion begins. And no sooner does the community lay the first wreath on the tomb of their own founding prophet than they start work on the construction of new tombs for any future prophets who may come along to stir up trouble.
Robert M Price
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