59. New Testament Canon: Criteria, Arrangement, Authority

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: New Testament Canon: Criteria, Arrangement, Authority


What are some of the factors that were involved in the process that guided the church in recognizing which books are canonical or not?

• One of those factors tended to be the attribution of apostolic authorship. Does this book claim to have been written by an apostle? Matthew, John, Paul’s letters [including Hebrews at that time], 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation, and others [2 and 3 John, 2 Peter] all claim apostolic authorship. Mark, Luke and Acts do not claim apostolic authorship, but Mark is very closely associated with Peter. In fact, tradition says that what he writes were the memoirs of Peter – it comes from the Petrine tradition. Luke is similarly associated very closely with the apostle Paul. So, in that regard, you have close relationships in all the New Testament books with the original apostles.

• Another aspect that was important was whether these works had found continual usage in the life of the church. Were these books that the church always acknowledged from the beginning, or were some of these Johnny-come-lately’s that just came upon the scene? And in a similar way, the point was not only continual usage, but continual usage geographically. Some books might have been very popular in one area of the Mediterranean, so that maybe something was especially important and valued in the church in Egypt, but not in Greece. And those factors played a role. The books that are in our Bible were recognized throughout the church and throughout the whole period of the second, third, and fourth centuries.

• Another factor involved unity and agreement with the rest of the Bible. If we for instance have a core understanding of the New Testament, and the books that are commonly accepted as Scripture (the gospels, Acts, Paul’s letters, 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation), any other book would have to be in agreement with them. We couldn’t accept a book with a contrary theological doctrine. This fact I think indicates that whatever our problems are between Paul’s letters and the Book of James, the early church didn’t have that problem. Somehow, they were able to put them side by side in the same book. They somehow saw harmony in this. And maybe it was not that they didn’t have such good insight or couldn’t see things clearly, but maybe they had a clearer insight than we have, and we may see issues that they didn’t between them. So it had to have a unity here.

• And the fourth one is something that I add here, and that’s the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the whole process. Again, if you’ve had hermeneutics, I apologize for repeating it. If, as I do, you believe that Jesus Christ is in reality God’s son, and God sent his son into the world to die for the sins of the world, to conquer death, rise triumphantly from the grave, to appear to the disciples, and to ascend to heaven, and that he’s one day coming again – if you believe that, I think there are consequences that flow out of that. They’re not proofs, but I can’t escape logically thinking that, at that point, God didn’t say, “I sure hope somebody writes about these things.” But in his providence and rule of creation, he would have seen to it that these things were recorded. And then, if you go there, I think there are other consequences. I don’t think that God in his providence would simply say, “I hope they’re not lost,” but that they would have been preserved and copied carefully, and that the church would also recognize them. And that, through all the discussions, through all the councils, through all the debates, through all the reasoning (sometimes the reasoning may not be perfect), God through his Spirit was guiding the church, so that what they did was in reality to recognize God’s will in this issue. I don’t want to go so far as to say that I believe therefore every individual book of the New Testament was perfectly guided by the Holy Spirit in this regard. Maybe there’s a book that shouldn’t be there – I don’t know. But 26 out of 27 isn’t bad. In the main, I think you can argue this way, without being specific about every book. I think in general the canon of the New Testament has to be of the Lord. And then you put these others together, and I have confidence in our present New Testament.

Those I think are the areas which guided the church, and led it to recognize the canon. Why they were interested in it – well, you had the Marcion heresy and his “Bible”, you had the invention of the codex, and you had persecutions over Scriptures, and that would cause you to be concerned about the issue. But the way it was defined and argued were the factors I just gave.

Now if you look at our Bible, and you look at the dates I gave of the books, you’ll see that our Bible was not recorded in the order in which the books were written, according to the dates, because the gospels are some of the latest of the books. The New Testament that we have is arranged logically. The gospels are first – where else are you going to start? And if Matthew Mark and Luke look alike, then you’d put them together, because John doesn’t look like the others. So, the three that look alike are together. It wouldn’t make sense to have Matthew, and then John, and then Mark and Luke – it wouldn’t make sense that way.

And then, if you’re going to talk about what happened after this, at the end of the gospel, Jesus ascends into heaven, and that logically brings on the Book of Acts, which in turn provides the basis now for the letters of Paul that we have. So, you’d put Paul’s letters together, which are also not arranged chronologically. But if you arrange them according to size, you have Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians (the largest), followed by the smaller books. Hebrews is placed next because it’s associated with Paul (whether written by Paul or not, somebody from the Pauline school had to be responsible for it). But I think it was probably placed here because they thought Paul wrote it. So then you have after that the next letters, which are catholic in the sense that they are universal letters (not written to specific churches, but to a broad area of churches): James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, and Jude; and then you end of course with Book of Revelation, which is the end of all things.

Among the reformers in the Roman Catholic church, there was a great debate over the issue of whether the Bible has authority over the church, or the church has authority over the Bible. The Roman Catholic position was that it was the latter. It doesn’t seem to make sense to us now, but think about it. Which came first, the Bible or the church? The church. Where does the Bible come from? The church. Who gave authority to the books of the Bible? The church. So there’s a strong argument this way. The reformers, however, argued this way: the church did not make the Bible authoritative; it recognized the Bible as authoritative. So, our canon of Scripture is not an authoritative collection of books; it is a collection of authoritative books. And the difference there is the difference between the Protestant and Catholic understanding. The books of the New Testament are authoritative [in Catholic theology] because they are an authoritative collection by the church of books. That means that their authority is given to them by the church. The reformers said no, not at all -- the church never gave its authority to the books, but simply recognized which books were already authoritative. So it’s a collection of authoritative books, whose authority comes not from the church, but from God. And most of the creeds that you look up, when they talk about inspiration, in the Protestant tradition will talk about the 66 books of the Bible, or our final authority, and mention what the 39 in the Old Testament consist of, and what the 27 of the New Testament consist of. Which books are not authoritative because of man may be worded very differently, but they are authoritative because of God. No human being can give authority to what God has already given authority to. And I can’t help but think that the Protestant tradition has to have it right here. When was Romans inspired, when the church decided to give it authority, or when Paul wrote? When Paul wrote, he was inspired by the Holy Spirit. In other words, God, through his Spirit, guided Paul in writing the Word of God, and therefore, at its very inception, that Word is authoritative, because it’s inspired, and that inspiration comes from God. All we can do is recognize it – we’re not going to add to it. Are you going to say that you’ll give the “Steinerian imprimatur of the New Testament” to it? So, what the church did was to recognize the authoritative books. It did not make them authoritative books. So, an authoritative collection of books – no. A collection of authoritative books – yes. There’s a major difference there.

Now another issue comes up. I can well imagine in a secular campus somebody raising the question as to whet her Christians really believe that Paul, when he was alive, thought that in 2003 his letters would be understood as being divinely inspired Scripture and equal in authority to the Old Testament. Well, the way that’s worded, you can’t answer yes or no. There are questions like that – trick questions. Imagine someone asking you if you’re still cheating on your exams – answer yes or no! You can’t answer that. So, what you have to ask yourself, is (whether Paul thought there would be a 2003 is irrelevant) what Paul thought of his letters; and, is our recognizing them as Scripture in harmony with that view? And if you look at some of the things he writes in his letters, I think so. We saw already in 1 Thessalonians 5:27 and Colossians 4:16, that the letters were to be exchanged among the churches and read among them. When I say this is Scripture, I mean that these letters should be read in all the churches, just like Paul said they would. So I’m in very close affirmation with what Paul himself thought about his letters. In 1 Corinthians 14:37, he says this about his letters, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” So in recognizing 1 Corinthians and the New Testament books as Scripture, I think they are commands from the Lord, and therefore they are to be obeyed. So I have a similar view of Paul in that regard. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14, he believes that his letters are to be obeyed in the church. These are not suggestions that are to be brought forward at the next church annual meeting, “If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.” I believe that the letters of Paul are to be obeyed. And therefore, when you say, “Did Paul think that his letters would be understood as Scripture in 2003?” that’s not the issue. The issue is: are Paul’s view of his letters and my understanding of them as Scripture in harmony with one another? And I think they are – they are to be obeyed; they are to be read in all the churches; and they are to be recognized as a command of the Lord. And in that sense, I believe that our understanding is in harmony with the writers of Scripture in that regard.

A couple of other questions: Is the canon of Scripture that we have open or closed? If we were to discover the letter that Paul wrote to Laodicea, or ½ Corinthians and 1½ Corinthians, what would we do? Would we recognize them as Scripture? They’re apostolic, they’re written by an apostle. Are they in harmony with the other things he wrote? There’s a possibility that they’re not, but it’s more likely that they would tend to be. But who knows? Maybe he had a bad hair day and one day went bonkers when he wrote. But the continual usage of the church, the guidance of the Holy Spirit that for 2000 years has just never come up, that troubles me. There was a time that I thought that if it was apostolic it would have to be Scripture. But I no longer accept that. I think the lack of continual usage in the church is a strong argument against including them. Let me just point out, though, that you shouldn’t lose any sleep at night – you’re never going to find the Laodicean letter, or ½ or 1½ Corinthians. They’re gone. Some things you’ll find, but we’re not going to find that. There are some writers today that want to put in almost any early church literature, like 1 Clement and others, as part of our Scripture. But that’s because they have no sense of the divine authority of the Bible to start with. They’re just essentially naturalists or early historians, and anything you want to know about the early church – sure, let’s take some of the early second century literature, that’d help us to understand the church more. But they have no sense that the present books are authoritative, and if they’re not authoritative, then it’s no big deal to get other non-authoritative books added to it. But for us, our canon is, for all intents and purposes, closed. Theoretically, there may be more, but I doubt it.

As to when the canon was completed, the first tendency is to say that in about AD 400 it was recognized by everybody. But when it was completed, was when the last book was written. When it was recognized as a whole was later. If you say in about AD 400 everybody recognized it, that’s fine, but it was completed with the last book, in the first century, probably in the AD 90’s sometime.