Friedrich Hayek & the Decentralized Canon

It is not unusual for one discipline to borrow a concept from another. For example, after Darwin’s theory revolutionized biology, specialists in economics, psychology, and even biblical studies looked for ways to adapt his hot new theory into their own fields of study–with mixed results. Emergentism in philosophy has gone on to shape concepts in many fields–including language, religion, and psychology. One theorist whose ideas have been overlooked for their potential application to theology is the economist and political philosopher Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek is known for challenging the orthodoxies of the elites of his day, particularly their fascination with central planning and the “scientific” management of society (with themselves as the planners and managers, of course). In his books and essays, he challenged both the morality of centrally planned economies and their practicality.

As to their morality, he opines:

“It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. If all the means of production were vested in a single hand, whether it be nominally that of ‘society’ as a whole or that of a dictator, whoever exercises this control has complete power over us” (The Road to Serfdom).

Such a scenario is dangerous because it entrusts in the hands of a few the near complete control over the lives of all. These few may do good or ill, but the mere fact that they have usurped this power from individuals makes them dangerous and immoral.

However, Hayek is better known for raising a practical issue with such centralization–one that is today called “the knowledge problem.” This problem is that an economy involves all of the people who are affected by it, along with their desires and decisions. How many people might buy a sandwich on Monday, or a car on Tuesday? How far ahead of time should the materials be collected to produce these things–materials that might have to be collected from all corners of the globe? This is a lot of information to take into account! What are our options for synthesizing these nearly infinite details? We can either entrust this task to a few central planners, which is a system wherein “direction of the whole economic system [is] according to one unified plan;” or we can allow it to be managed by “competition [which is] decentralized planning by many separate persons” (The Use of Knowledge in Society).

Hayek concludes in favor of the latter:

“If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them” (The Use of Knowledge in Society).

In short, when choices are distributed among everyone who participates in the economy, said economy can function smoothly and better meet the needs of everyone in it. The result may look like it was brilliantly planned by some super-intelligence, what Adam Smith called “the invisible hand,” but it actually emerged from the distinct choices of each individual.

Hayek’s observation not only helps us to understand economies; it also describes the church when it has functioned at its best. Take, for instance, the question of the canon. It is not uncommon for some Catholic apologists to assert that the Church as an authoritative institution produced the biblical canon (the list of books which count as inspired Scripture), often implying that the resultant list was the centralized decision of one person or small group of elites within the church. However, the truth of the matter is closer to Hayek’s vision.

While the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring the Scriptures cannot be minimized, nor can the role of apostolic authority as an essential standard for inclusion, one essential component of canonization was the decentralized recognition of these books throughout the entirety of the church when no formal, centralized decision was even possible due to imperial oppression. Before any formal list could be made, the precise contours of the canon were being chiseled out on the basis of the corporate reception of all churches.

We see a snapshot of this process in the Muratorian fragment, a second century document that discusses which New Testament books were certainly or perhaps not canonical based upon how widely received they were in the churches. So, Paul’s pastoral epistles were “hallowed in the esteem of the catholic [universal] church… though some amongst us will not have [the Apocalypse of Peter] read in the church.”

Similarly, church fathers Tertullian and Origen argued for the inclusion of 1 Enoch in the canon, but admitted at the time that many in the church did not agree with them, thus acknowledging that this criteria of universal acceptance was an important one. Eventually, the wider church would reject 1 Enoch as canonical. Michael Kruger, professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary, highlights a similar mindset in Origen, who liked and sometimes quoted other Gospels outside of the four presently in our New Testament. Nevertheless:

“At one point [Origen] declares that the four canonical Gospels ‘alone are unquestionable in the Church of God under heaven,’ and in another place he says, ‘We approve nothing else but that which the Church approves, that is, four Gospels only as proper to be received’” (Canon Revisited).

Kruger emphasizes the centrality of corporate reception in discerning the canon, noting that “the canon can also be defined simply as the scriptural books that God gave the corporate church.” This definition has two components–the God who gives the books and the corporate church that recognizes them. This recognition did not happen all at once, but slowly as different churches read the documents that could have been seen as contenders for canonicity. These churches applied criteria like apostolicity (did a book derive from an apostle or someone close to an apostle?) and the reception of these documents in other churches. Over time, it became clear that some books made the cut and other books didn’t.

If this decision had been made by a few canonical central planners based on their own personal tastes or biases–if, for example, Origen had been allowed to pick the canon by himself–it would no doubt look very different than it does today. But by spreading out the process of canonization over time and space, the church was able to reach a solid consensus not altogether unlike the way in which a decentralized economy meets the needs of those who are in it far better than any centrally managed system ever could. Consensus, not coercion, produced the church’s recognition of the canon.

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