Q & R: Closed Canon?

Here’s the Q:

I was wondering if you had any thoughts about the benefits/detriments of a closed, state-sponsored Scriptural canon. By that I mean that certainly some good things have come about as a result of the Roman empire telling scholars to sit down and determine which writings were inspired by God (or perhaps inspired enough by God) such that those writings could “make the cut” into the Book that everyone should or must read (I think that’s how the history goes). But it seems like, consequently, there would be some things lost, too. I’m having a hard time putting into words what some of those lost things would be (which is part of the reason that I’m asking you), but I picture an early “Christian” community passing around copies of Romans (which seems to talk a lot about grace) and then, perhaps years later, receiving copies of James (which seems to talk a lot about works) and, as a result, really grappling with those two books instead of simply being told, “You have to believe both of these; deal with it.” Any of your insights would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

Here’s the R:
You’re raising a really important question. As I make clear in several of my books (especially Everything Must Change and Cross the Road), I think the degree to which the way of Jesus has become synonymous for many with Roman Catholicism and Roman Protestantism is highly problematic. As I explain in Cross the Road, there is little question that doctrines can become loyalty tests that are very useful to dictators – for curbing free speech and monitoring allegiance and compliance, for example. But doctrines can also be “healing teachings” that defiantly subvert the authority of those dictators … So much depends on how we hold them.
The story of canonization does indeed involve the Roman emperor, but it’s considerably more complex and interesting than the emperor mandating a list. In the first through third centuries, there are many documents being circulated … including Romans, James, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, and some of the so-called gnostic gospels, etc. There was a long and gradual process of some gaining credibility and others not … But as you suggest, I think we need to see the early Christian movement as having a wide range of viewpoints and nothing close to a bolted-down, rigidly-enforced, clarity-and-certainty-on-every-point, coherent theological system buttressed by proof-texting from an authoritative canon.
How we understand and use the biblical canon is a pivotal question for us today, one I address in New Kind of Christianity and Cross the Road, in particular.
I’ve written quite a bit on this subject in response to questions over the years. You might find these posts helpful …