Does Belief in a Closed Canon Elevate the Bible above God?
Does Belief in a Closed Canon Elevate the Bible above God?
Mormons often accuse evangelical Christians of “bibliolatry,” meaning that they supposedly worship the Bible, or elevate its authority over God himself. Mormons claim that one way we do this is by maintaining that the Bible is the complete canon of Scripture and that no additional books should be added to it. While this charge of bibliolatry is certainly not true, several noted Mormon apologists attempt to make this case by citing the Protestant theologian Floyd V. Filson (yes, he’s obscure, so if you’ve never heard of him don’t feel badly). Robert M. Bowman Jr. examines the quote cited by LDS apologists and carefully and concisely puts it into its proper context. He also demonstrates how these Mormon apologists not only misuse the quote, but also misrepresent the thrust of Filson’s arguments.
Does adhering to a completed canon of Scripture (the Bible) elevate the Bible above God, or put the Bible in the place that belongs to God alone? Mormon apologists make this claim, which is (of course) absurd. In claiming that the canon is completed (or “closed”), orthodox Christians are stating what they understand to be God’s decision in the matter. They note, quite simply, that the apostles of the New Testament church made no provisions for new apostles to succeed them and instituted no process for the church to continue being led by prophets or other inspired spokesmen. Orthodox Christians further note that no books dating from after the apostolic era qualify for inclusion in Scripture: the books that some have claimed should be “added” are notoriously the work of heretics seeking to displace or distort the teaching of the New Testament.
To buttress their charge that orthodox Christians put the Bible in the place of God, some LDS apologists cite Protestant theologian Floyd V. Filson as follows:
It is possible, however, to stress the Bible so much and give it so central a place that the sensitive Christian conscience must rebel. We may illustrate such overstress on the Bible by the often-used (and perhaps misused) quotation from Chillingworth: “The Bible alone is the religion of Protestantism.” Or we may recall how often it has been said that the Bible is the final authority for the Christian.
If it will not seem too facetious, I would like to put in a good word for God. It is God and not the Bible who is the central fact for the Christian. When we speak of “the Word of God” we use a phrase which, properly used, may apply to the Bible, but it has a deeper primary meaning. It is God who speaks to man. But he does not do so only through the Bible. He speaks through prophets and apostles. He speaks through specific events. And while his unique message to the Church finds its central record and written expression in the Bible, this very reference to the Bible reminds us that Christ is the Word of God in a living, personal way which surpasses what we have even in this unique book. Even the Bible proves to be the Word of God only when the Holy Spirit working within us attests the truth and divine authority of what the Scripture says. Faith must not give to the aids that God provides the reverence and attention that belong only to God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Our hope is in God; our life is in Christ; our power is in the Spirit. The Bible speaks to us of the divine center of all life and help and power, but it is not the center. The Christian teaching about the canon must not deify the Scripture.1
The LDS apologetics organization FAIR offers the above quote, just as it is shown here, as a rebuke to orthodox Christians who believe the canon of Scripture is closed: “To argue that the canon is closed effectively seeks to place God’s written word (the Bible) above God Himself. Some have even called this practice ‘bibolatry [sic] or ‘bibliolatry.’ Critics are effectively ordering God not to reveal anything further, or refusing to even consider that He might choose to speak again.”2 Daniel C. Peterson, one of the LDS Church’s most sophisticated scholars and apologists, presents the same quote to support the charge of “bibliolatry” (undue reverence or worship of the Bible) on the part of “Protestant fundamentalism.” He comments: “It is a warning that, I think, some of the critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would do well to heed.”3 Scott R. Petersen in his book Where Have All the Prophets Gone? cites the same quotation as a rebuke to belief in the inerrancy of the Bible and as evidence of the need for additional revelation.4 This quotation from Filson has also appeared in various other places on the web in defense of the LDS rejection of the completeness of the biblical canon of Scripture.5
What all these LDS apologists overlook in their eagerness to find support for their view from a Protestant theologian is that Filson is not here addressing the issue of the completeness of the canon of Scripture in the Bible. Indeed, his comments here reflect Filson’s view, which he held in common with Protestantism in general, that “the Bible” is “the Scripture” and “the Scripture” is “the Bible.” Filson is not calling on Christians to accept a wider canon of Scripture than the Bible, but to place the Bible in a wider context of Christian faith. He is urging Christians to remember that the Bible derives its authority from the living God.
Yes, Filson says that God speaks in other ways than in the pages of the Bible. But his specific descriptions of these other ways have to do with other modes of communication, not other books. God speaks through inspired people, through religiously significant events, and preeminently in the Living Word, Jesus Christ. The issue here is simply not the extent or openness of the canon. Filson even refers to the Bible as “this unique book,” again, reflecting his acceptance of the traditional Protestant canon of Scripture.
Filson’s concerns about what he calls “overzealous biblicism” giving too much “reverence” to the Bible at the expense of God is overblown; like many non-evangelicals, he caricatures the conservative Protestant view as in danger of “deifying” the Bible. In my thirty-five years as an evangelical, conservative Protestant, I have yet to meet anyone, even the most reactionary fundamentalist, who actually worships or deifies the Bible. The fact remains, though, that this criticism of the conservative evangelical view of Scripture is not a criticism of the belief in a fixed or complete canon of Scripture (a belief held by all traditional Catholics and Protestants, not just evangelicals).
Filson actually has some wise things to say that our LDS friends would do well to consider. For example, he rightly states that people claiming to have experiences of the Holy Spirit need to put these experiences to the test of the Bible:
The claim that an idea or an experience or a work is due to the Holy Spirit always has to submit to this test: Is it consistent with what God did in Christ? The canon enables the Church to make that test; the witness of the Spirit, on the other hand, keeps the Bible from being a dead letter and makes it a living power in us each day.6
If Mormons took this principle seriously, they would not appeal to their spiritual experience, their “testimony,” to justify accepting Joseph Smith’s alleged revelations even when they contradict the explicit teachings of the Bible.
According to Filson, the stability of the canon anchors the Christian faith in the unchanging message of Jesus Christ, making the Bible uniquely authoritative:
Here is the basis for the canon. The Bible does not tell the story of the spiritual evolution of mankind. It tells of God’s action to realize his purpose and redeem his people through Christ. It presents the message that must be basic for true faith and loyalty through all the generations of history. It gives the message that speaks with authority, demand, and promise to each succeeding generation. Because this is so, the canon is entirely justified. It embodies the fact that the action of God, the revelation of God, recorded and given in this particular Book, is unique and permanently authoritative. It bars the way to a fluid, evolutionary concept of true religion.7
Another excellent point that Filson makes is that the church is subject to the authoritative teaching of Scripture in the canon; the canon is not subject to the authority of the church:
The Church, when it is in spiritual health, knows that it is subject to the gospel and not superior to it. It accepted the canon to express that very fact. It put itself under the judgment and rule of a message which it found in these writings and which it confessed had the right to test the Church. The canon therefore contains in its writings the history, the message, the revelation which is prior to and superior to the Church.8
Ironically, Filson goes on very quickly to challenge the belief that the canon is “permanently closed.” One might have expected the LDS apologists to quote this part of Filson’s book, but they do not.9 Here is what Filson writes:
If this is so, what authority has the Church to declare the canon permanently closed? Most Protestant Christians undoubtedly consider the canon irrevocably and finally closed. Some would regard as blasphemy any suggestion of a change. But they are not real Protestants when they do so.10
As we go on to read Filson’s explanation, it becomes clear he is not advocating an actual open canon as one finds in LDS doctrine. He simply means that Protestants, because they view God and his revelation as authoritative over church doctrine, cannot view their own doctrine of the canon as unquestioned dogma:
But if we give to the Church, even to our own denomination, the power to define doctrine, including the doctrine of the canon, with a permanently binding and inescapable legal validity, we have adopted in principle the Roman Catholic position, that the Church in the last analysis is supreme even over the Scripture. This we cannot and should not do.
Filson then expresses his agreement with the historic Protestant judgment concerning the extent of the canon of Scripture, while carefully denying that this historic judgment is not itself “the final authority”:
We walk by faith and not by the decisions of the Reformers and the Westminster fathers. Even if they were right in their view of the canon—and I am ready to accept their decision as the one in which I gladly join as a confessing Christian—we agree with them not because they are the final authority which controls our thought, but by our own confession of the same faith that they confessed in their decisions.
After he defends the place of the Old Testament in the Christian canon and explains why Protestants do not accept the Old Testament Apocrypha, Filson defends the view that the “apostolic witness” preserved uniquely in the New Testament is “basic” to Christian faith. According to Filson, even if we maintain in theory an openness to the possibility of books being added to the New Testament canon, in practice there is virtually no chance of justifying any such new additions:
It has been asked whether, if some genuine apostolic writing were discovered, it would not deserve admittance into the canon. The possibility of such a discovery is slight. Any newly found and allegedly genuine apostolic work would have to be tested and judged by the canon we have. Moreover, if the Ancient Church did not find a book a basic document, it would be hard for us to find a convincing reason to do so. The canon could only be enlarged by adding writings that the Church has known and used.
Although conservative evangelical Christians will disagree with some of Filson’s ideas, on these points we are in full agreement: any alleged scripture missing from the canon would have to be tested by the canon we have, and the only legitimate additions, hypothetically speaking, would have to be books the church has already known and used. This means that although Filson thinks Protestants should remain open to rethinking the boundaries of the canon, he is not advocating an open canon to which new, hitherto unknown books may be added. His warnings against undue reverence for the Bible (though largely unjustified) may be accepted in principle without in any way denying the completeness and stability of the canon of Scripture as we have it in the Bible.
Perhaps, instead of mining the works of Protestant writers like Filson for choice-sounding statements that seem polemically useful when removed from their contexts, LDS scholars and apologists might study these writers to see what they can learn from them.
1. Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), 20–21.
3. Daniel C. Peterson, “What Certain Baptists Think They Know about the Restored Gospel,” FARMS Review 10, 1 (1998). This article is a review of The Mormon Puzzle, a 1997 video produced by the North American Mission Board.
4. Scott R. Petersen, Where Have All the Prophets Gone? (Cedar Fort, 2005), 179.
5. For example, John Tvedtnes and Matt Roper, review of Luke P. Wilson, “Lost Books & Latter-Day Revelation: A Response to Mormon Views of the New Testament Canon,” Christian Research Journal, Fall 1996, 27-33; Jeff Lindsay, “Do you accept the Bible as the final authority?”; Kerry A. Shirts, “Anton Hein’s Anti-Mormon Website Article on the Bible and the Book of Mormon,” Mormonism Researched; and even on Yahoo! Answers. It appears that Tvedtnes was the first to appropriate this quotation in this context.
6. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible, 24.
7. Ibid., 27.
8. Ibid., 40.
9. None of the LDS writers cited above refer to these comments by Filson, and a Google search failed to produce even one quote (from anyone!) of this paragraph from his book.
10. Ibid., 40-41.