Question: Is Mormonism in error because Christianity requires a "closed canon" instead of the Church's "open canon"?

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Question: Is Mormonism in error because Christianity requires a "closed canon" instead of the Church's "open canon"?

The doctrine of a closed canon and the end of authoritative revelation is not found in the Bible

Other churches sometimes claim that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in error because Christianity requires a "closed canon" (no more authoritative revelation) instead of the Church's "open canon" (potential for more binding revelation).

The doctrine of a closed canon and the end of authoritative revelation is not found in the Bible. To insist upon this doctrine is to place a non-Biblical doctrine in a place of pre-eminence, and insist that God must be bound by it. Such a doctrine would require the very revelation it denies to be authoritative. Even the proper interpretation of Biblical teachings requires authoritative revelation, which are necessarily extra-Biblical.

Critics are free to hold these beliefs if they wish, but they ought not to criticize the LDS for believing extra-Biblical doctrines when they themselves insist upon the non-Biblical closed canon.

God is superior even to His Word

The Bible is an important record of God's message to humanity. However, the Bible—or any other written text—cannot be the focus of the Christian's life or faith. Only one deserves that place: God.

One non-LDS Christian author cautioned believers from placing the Bible 'ahead' of God:

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]

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" or "bibliolatry." Critics are effectively ordering God not to reveal anything further, or refusing to even consider that He might choose to speak again.

Closed canon is not a Biblical doctrine

The idea of a closed canon is not a Biblical doctrine. The Bible bears record that God called prophets in the past. Why could He not—indeed, why would He not—continue to do so?

Ironically, it would seem that the only way to know that there can be no extra-Biblical revelation is via revelation: otherwise, decisions about God's Word are being made by human intellect alone. Yet, since the Bible does not claim that it is the sole source of revealed truth, the only potential source of a revelation to close the canon would be extra-Biblical. Thus, those who insist on a closed canon are in the uncomfortable position of requiring extra-Biblical revelation to rule out extra-Biblical revelation![2]

As one non-LDS scholar observed: "For evidence about what was within the canon, one had to go outside the canon itself." After all, there was “no scriptural evidence to decide what were the exact limits of the canon.”[3]

Throughout Biblical history, the canon was clearly not closed. New prophets were called, and new authoritative writing was made. It would seem strange for this to cease without revelatory notice being given that God's practices were about to change.

Some authors are even now asking if the decision to close the canon was a mistake:

The first question, and the most important one, is whether the church was right in perceiving the need for a closed canon of scriptures....did such a move toward a closed canon of scriptures ultimately (and unconsciously) limit the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the church?...Does God act in the church today and by the same Spirit? On what biblical or historical grounds has the inspiration of God been limited to the written documents that the Church now calls its Bible?...one must surely ask about the appropriateness of tying the church of the twentieth century to a canon that emerged out of the historical circumstances in the second to the fifth centuries CE. How are we supposed to make the experience of that church absolute for all time?...Was the church in the Nicene and post-Nicene eras infallible in its decisions or not? Finally, if the Spirit inspired only the written documents of the first century, does that mean that the same Spirit does not speak today in the church about matters that are of significant concern, for example, the use of contraceptives, abortion, liberation, ecological irresponsibility, equal rights, euthanasia, nuclear proliferation, global genocide, economic and social justice, and so on?...[4]

These are striking questions, and those who insist upon a closed canon may have difficulty resolving the issues which they raise. Joseph Smith's insistence that God did not cease to speak, and that the canon was not closed, resolved these issues many decades before modern Christians began to grapple with them.

Early Christians did not have a closed canon

The early Christian Church did not have a fixed canon, nor did it restrict itself to the canon used by most modern Christian churches:

If the term “Christian” is defined by the examples and beliefs passed on by earliest followers of Jesus, then we must at least ponder the question of whether the notion of a biblical canon is necessarily “Christian.” They did not have such canons as the church possesses today, nor did they indicate that their successors should draw them up....

Even in regard to the OT canon, it has been shown that the early church’s collections of scriptures were considerably broader in scope than those presently found in either the Catholic or Protestant canons and that they demonstrated much more flexibility than our present collections allow....in regard to the OT, should the church be limited to an OT canon to which Jesus and his first disciples were clearly not limited?[5]

Scriptural interpretation requires revelation

Even if one were to grant that the Bible contains all necessary teachings, it is clear from Christian history that the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways by sincere readers. What else but additional, on-going revelation can settle legitimate questions of interpretation and application of God's word? Are we to rely on human reason alone to do so? Does this not in essence turn to an extra-Biblical source for information about divine matters?


Notes

  1. Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible? (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1957), 20–21.
  2. Joseph Smith made this observation in Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 61. off-site
  3. James Barr, Holy Scripture: Canon, Authority, Criticism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 24–25; emphases in original.
  4. Lee Martin McDonald, Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Hendrickson Publishers; Rev Sub edition, 1995), 254–255.
  5. Lee Martin McDonald, Formation of the Christian Biblical Canon (Hendrickson Publishers; Rev Sub edition, 1995), 254–255.