Formation of the New Testament Canon - Lesson 7

Corporate Reception

In this lesson, you are introduced to the concept of the Canonical Core and Corporate Reception, understanding the three attributes of canonicity: divine qualities, apostolic origin, and corporate reception by the church. The New Testament canon was widely accepted earlier than critics suggest, with 22 out of 27 books established by the middle of the second century. This core canon, including the four Gospels, thirteen letters of Paul, Acts, 1st Peter, 1st John, and Revelation, shaped early Christianity. 

Michael J Kruger
Formation of the New Testament Canon
Lesson 7
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Corporate Reception


A. Corporate reception of the canon happened sooner and was more widespread and earlier than typically indicated

B. Core canon

1. 22 New Testament books accepted by middle of second century

2. Seven remaining shorter books struggled

C. Conclusion

1. Wide-spread unanimity

2. The theological trajectory of Christianity was established early


A. Includes The Apocalypse of Peter and The Wisdom of Solomon

B. Core was set but edges were fuzzy

C. Suggests The Apocalypse of Peterwas questionable

D. Lists these two books at the end


A. Doctrine in early Christianity was not that diverse

B. The use of an apocryphal book doesn't mean there was not a canon

C. Clement of Alexandria


A. All canonical books are orthodox, but not all orthodox books are canonical.

B. Shepherd of Hermas

C. Compare our current libraries

  • Through this lesson, you'll gain an understanding of the challenges and debates surrounding the canonicity of the Bible, learning about its misconceptions, and exploring the various definitions and theories that underline its recognition and authority.
  • You'll gain insight into the community, historical-critical, and Roman Catholic models of determining a book's canonicity, and grapple with debates surrounding 'self-authenticating authority' and the role of the Council of Trent in formalizing the Canon.
  • You gain an understanding of the historically-determined model and how it differs from the community-determined model, learning that the historical context of a book is pivotal in determining its canonicity. You explore two sub-categories of this model, reflecting on the problem of preconceived worldviews influencing canon selection and questioning the origins of canon authenticity criteria. The lesson prompts you to consider the lack of neutrality in historical investigations due to interpretive bias.
  • By engaging with this lesson, you gain a understanding of the Self-Authenticating Model, where the canon is authenticated by its own contents, ultimately providing its authority and maintaining the principles of Sola Scriptura.
  • From this lesson, you will gain an understanding of the concept of 'defeaters' and their role in questioning our knowledge of the Bible. You will learn about the attributes that indicate a book is from God and how these are susceptible to 'defeaters'. You will also understand the harmony between the Old and New Testaments, including the shared narrative structure and symbolism.
  • This lesson covers the significance of the covenant concept in the New Testament, help you understand the Apostles' roles as agents of the New Covenant, recognize their authoritative teachings in both oral and written forms, and help you appreciate the reasons behind the shift from oral teachings to written documents.
  • This lesson reviews the concept of Canonical Core and Corporate Reception, noting the early establishment and widespread agreement on most New Testament books, learn about disputed canonical status of some texts, and differentiate between orthodox and canonical books.
  • In this lesson, you explore the formation of the early Christian canon, examining patristic citations, the role of Christian manuscripts, and the adoption of the codex, which shaped the Christian textual culture and pointed towards an early formation of the canon.
  • This lesson provides an in-depth understanding of the four-fold division of the canon in early Christianity and the content and reasons for the disputed books, underlining the fact that the core of the canon was firmly established from Christianity's inception.
  • You will learn about Eusebius's four-fold division of the canon, the content and context of disputed books, and the stability of the foundational canon in early Christianity.

This course explores the complexities and debates related to the recognition, authority, and understanding of the biblical canon, including modern controversies fueled by discoveries of apocryphal materials and the influence of fictional works like the Da Vinci Code. It emphasizes the critical differentiation between a book becoming canonical and its recognition as such, introduces various canonical models, offers insights into the concept of a "proper epistemic environment," probes the development of the early Christian canon, and provides a comprehensive analysis of Eusebius' four-fold division - all with the aim of deepening the understanding of the biblical canon's formation, its diverse interpretations, and ongoing debates.

Recommended Books

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

Preaching Survey of the Year's Best Books for PreachersPreaching's Preacher's Guide to the Best Bible ReferenceDid the New Testament canon arise naturally...

The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate

Dr. Michael J Kruger
Formation of the New Testament Canon
Corporate Reception
Lesson Transcript


I. What is the Canonical Core and Corporate Reception?

By way of review, there are three attributes of canonicity: divine qualities, marks that are from God and they are from apostles and thirdly, they are received by the church in what I call cooperate reception. What I argue for in the last few chapters of my book is actually that reception by the church happened a lot sooner and was more widespread than typical critics of the New Testament will allow for. One of the ways that I make that case, I argue to what I call a core New Testament. So when people ask, was there a canon or wasn’t there in the early church? Well, what do they mean? Was every single dispute resolved in the early stages of the church? No. But what I do argue for, there was a core canon in place almost as early as we can see. What I mean by core, there were the twenty-two of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament that seemed to be firmly in place by the middle of the second century. From that time, looking back, things get really fuzzy in terms of historical sources. There were the apostolic fathers who only refer to some canonical books. So to have that core by the middle of the 2nd century and it was remarkable to have that much unanimity around that many books. And there are a lot of sources that we can appeal to that tell us that there was this core. One of those is the earliest list, the Muratorium list, which is also known as the moratorium canon, a list of the twenty-two books aforementioned. These include the letters of Paul, the thirteen epistles of Paul, Acts, the four Gospels and most likely 1st Peter, 1st John, Revelation; something along those lines is what we mean by the core. The remaining books or what you might call the disputed books were the smaller books: 2nd Peter, 2nd & 3rd John, Jude and James. These are the books that we are typically talking about, books that had a little bit more of a struggle in the canon. Now, once you realize that there was a core from the very start; this is a very important piece of the puzzle. This tells you that there was widespread unanimity from a very early time about that core. There wasn’t a lot of debate or question about this in the canon; much of it was settled. The other thing that it tells us is that the theological trajectory of Christianity was established at a very early point. Just think about it, if you have thirteen letters from Paul and four Gospels, the doctrine was fairly set regardless of what one might decide about 2nd Peter, regardless of 2nd and 3rd John; this wouldn’t change things much. So the content of the core canon is really important.

II. Why does the Muratorium canon list include, the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon as canonical books?

There are lots of things interesting about the Muratorium fragment. The list does mention additional two books: the Apocalypse of Peter and the Wisdom of Solomon. People have speculated on what that means and why. This tells us again that the edges were fuzzy; that yes, you have a core but there were some ongoing disputes about a few books. The Apocalypse of Peter was popular in many circles and apparently there were some that thought it should have been in the canon. It was accessible to some but not all. The Wisdom of Solomon was more of an intertestamental book. Some scholars point out the fact that those two books are mentioned at the end of the list, which in itself is suggestive that they are in the disputed category. It listed all the agreed on books first and then listed two that are questionable. I think this is the case with these two books. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging this but the core was still there.

III. The Presence of Heresy Questions Whether There was a Core Canon

What scholars do with this third attribute of canonicity, the fact that the church reached a consensus on these books doesn’t mean anything because they were always fighting about stuff in the early centuries. Okay, fine, the church finally settled on these twenty-seven books, but evangelicals overlook the wide-spread disagreement in the 2nd and 3rd centuries where people were even using some apocryphal books and there wasn’t a lot of agreement on anything. It wasn’t actually as diverse as people say. Another point, the mere use of apocryphal literature by the early church isn’t evidence that there wasn’t a canon. There is almost an assumption in modern scholarship that if any early church father used an apocryphal book, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a canon. You can believe in a core canon and still find apocryphal literature beneficial and useful, but they are not Scripture. The key example of this was Clement of Alexander. A late 2nd-century church father was very clear when it came to which books that was in the canon. He was clear that there were only the four Gospels but yet he would also cite apocryphal gospels from time to time. He never cited them in Scripture but he would cite them as useful and beneficial and even helpful sometimes. What we would say is that activity does not mean that there wasn’t a canon.

IV. What about a book being Orthodox, but not being Canonical?

People don’t realize that the early church found many books useful and many orthodox books that were beyond the books they found to be in the canon. Another way to say this, all canonical books are orthodox but not all orthodox books are canonical. In early Christian reading practices for beneficial
orthodox but not canonical books. A good example of this is the Shepherd of Hermas. This was a very popular book in the 2nd century and was widely spread and copied. Most Christians with a few minor exceptions did not regard it as Scripture but yet it was deemed to be orthodox and helpful. That category is there and so you can be orthodox without being canonical. The same thing is true in our libraries, we have a lot of books that we read and even cite from a lot of books that are fully orthodox but aren’t Scripture. We find them to be helpful and useful and beneficial, but no one would think that we consider them part of our Bible and that is an important distinction for us to understand also.