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The Real Issue Is Canonicity

By July 1, 2006June 6th, 2014No Comments

How can you know the books in the Bible are the right ones?

by Kevin T. Bauder

Scripture has always been under attack, but the form of the attack changes. Recent attacks have been in the form of The Da Vinci Code novel and film and in the marketing of The Gospel of Judas. A century ago, most criticism was directed against the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Over the last couple of decades, the attack has shifted its focus to the topic of canonicity. This refocusing began during the 1930s with German historian Walter Bauer. More recently it has been carried out by American scholars such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. An extreme form of this attack shows up in the results of the so-called Jesus Seminar, and it has received popular exposure in the PBS series From Jesus to Christ and in a televised Peter Jennings special on the historical Jesus.

The core of the refocused attack on canonicity is the notion that the early followers of Jesus interpreted His life and significance in a variety of ways. As these different interpretations struggled for superiority, eventually one interpretation rose to dominance. Backed by the power of the Roman state, it declared itself “orthodox” and all other interpretations “heretical.” To legitimatize their position, “orthodox” Christians collected the writings that supported their views and declared them to be a part of Scripture-“New Testament.” They simultaneously excluded and even condemned a host of writings that did not support their views.

The preceding theory raises important questions about the Bible. Should any ancient writings about Jesus be given a privileged position? If so, which ones? What are the tests for distinguishing authoritative writings from nonauthoritative writings? These questions find answers under the theological category of canonicity.

A canon is a measuring stick. Theologically, the canon is the standard by which writings are recognized as Biblical. In a derivative sense, “canon” is used to describe the collection of Biblical writings: the recognized books of the Bible are sometimes called the canon of Scripture.

Defining the Old Testament canon was simple. Christians inherited the Old Testament directly from Judaism. They followed Jesus and the apostles in using all parts of the Hebrew Scriptures as authoritative.
Defining the New Testament canon is more difficult. The New Testament itself never articulates a doctrine of canonicity in so many words. It never offers an authoritative list of the books that should be recognized. What it does is establish certain basic concepts by which the New Testament canon can be determined.

The first concept is that Scripture is from God, not from any human source. Second Peter 1:16-21 makes this point emphatically. This text begins by noting that the events of Jesus’ life and ministry took place before eyewitnesses. The apostles could have detected any fraud, but what they saw convinced them of the truth of Jesus’ claims. Surprisingly, the text then states that the prophetic writings (Scriptures through which God imparted revelation) are even more certain than eyewitness testimony. Even though the prophecies were delivered through human agents, the prophets spoke from God. No prophecy of Scripture ever came through a human decision, but rather the prophets delivered their messages as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

In other words, the ultimate test of canonicity is divine origin. A document is canonical if and only if it is inspired. In the proper sense, therefore, humans can never make a document canonical. They can only examine it to see whether or not it is inspired.

A second concept comes from the teaching of Jesus in John 16:12, 13, and 25. Here Jesus promised that He would give future revelation to His disciples. He stated that He had previously addressed the disciples in “figurative language,” or parables, but that He intended to give them plain revelation in the future. They were not ready to receive this new revelation, but after His ascension, He would mediate it to them through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

John 16 looks forward to new revelation that would come after Jesus’ death and resurrection. What the apostles received from Jesus through the Holy Spirit would be just as much Jesus’ word as His teachings when He was on earth. Therefore, the writings of the apostles would be just as authoritative as the teachings of Jesus, because they would be the teachings of Jesus. One of the important functions of the apostles was to receive and record the additional revelation that Jesus wanted future generations of His followers to enjoy.

Jesus promised future revelation, and the apostles claimed to have received it. This is the third concept that underlies the New Testament canon. The apostles made the authority of their own writings equal to the Old Testament Scriptures and the teachings of Jesus.

In 1 Timothy 5:18 the apostle Paul placed a quotation from Luke 10:7 side by side with a quotation from Deuteronomy 25:4, and he named them both as Scripture. Second Peter 3:15 and 16 include a reference to Paul’s epistles alongside “the rest of the Scriptures” (a reference to the Old Testament). In these examples, the apostles treated New Testament writings as authoritative Scripture.

Another example occurs in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul was discussing divorce. In verse 10 he answered part of a question by referring to something that Jesus had said during His earthly ministry. Then in verse 12, Paul added his own teaching. He treated Jesus’ teaching and his own teaching as equally authoritative.

To summarize, humans never simply decided to write Scripture. All Scriptural writings came from God as the human writers were carried along by the Holy Spirit. During His earthly ministry, Jesus promised that the disciples would receive additional revelation through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In their writings, the apostles began the process of recognizing one another’s writings as authoritative Scripture.

The different documents of the New Testament were written for specific occasions and at different times and places. Before a complete canon could be recognized, those documents had to be circulated, collected, and used by the Lord’s people. This process was complicated by the presence of false teachers, who often produced their own writings and sometimes forged the names of apostles. Paul was certainly aware of this practice. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1 and 2, he cautioned believers about false epistles that were circulating under his name. He warned the Thessalonians to hold fast to the genuine, authentic apostolic teachings, whether received verbally or in writing (2 Thessalonians 2:15). In other words, believers could judge any supposedly apostolic writing by comparing it to the teachings they knew to be authentic. If a document did not measure up, it was to be rejected, no matter whose signature it carried.

After the apostles died, authority became a major problem. Members of Gnostic cults, for example, claimed to possess secret teachings and writings that traced to Christ. These writings presented a view of Jesus and of Christianity that contradicted the writings of Paul and John. These two sets of teachings were so different that both could not possibly be true. Christians of the second century had to answer questions that would indicate who really had the right to define Christianity: Which group faithfully represented the teachings of Jesus? Which group was simply making them up?

These questions were given a permanent answer by Irenaeus of Lyons during the last half of the second century. Irenaeus was a pastor and author who made a special study of the various versions of Gnosticism and of the Gnostic scriptures. He proposed a solution to the problem of authority.

Irenaeus’ solution built upon the advice Paul had given to the Thessalonian church when he told the Thessalonians to hold fast to the genuine teachings of the apostles, whether oral or written. Irenaeus took apostolic authority as his starting point. The problem was to identify the genuine, apostolic deposit of teaching.

Irenaeus began by noting a fact that everyone knew: the apostles had personally founded or ministered in certain churches. Congregations such as those in Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome could trace their beginnings to the direct ministry of the apostles. The apostles had personally supervised the selection of the original pastors in those churches. They had trained the original pastors, who had taught their own successors (sometimes with the assistance of the apostles), and those in turn had instructed the next pastors. Therefore, each apostolic church had within it a chain of teaching that reached all the way back to an apostle.

Irenaeus observed that all of the apostolic churches taught the same core of doctrine. So universal was their agreement that their teaching could be summed up in a short rule of faith, or statement of belief. Given the distances that separated these churches, their agreement could not have been the result of collusion. Such universal agreement would be impossible to contrive. As Irenaeus saw it, the only possible explanation was that the universal (“catholic” in the proper sense) core of teaching went back to the apostles themselves. This core of teaching represented an apostolic deposit that could serve as a touchstone to authenticate any supposedly apostolic tradition or document. If the document did not match the teaching, it could not be apostolic or authoritative.

Irenaeus went even further. In addition to the universal core of teaching, the apostolic churches already agreed about a core of writings that they recognized as written either by apostles or under the supervision of apostles. As Irenaeus enumerated these writings, he listed most of the books that are included in the present New Testament, including all four Gospels. The Gospels were especially important to Irenaeus: he insisted that only these four could be recognized as authoritative representations of Jesus Christ.

A few books of the New Testament took a bit longer to recognize. Nevertheless, the substance of the New Testament canon was already in place by the middle of the second century. Recognition by churches or even councils did not create the New Testament canon. Rather, the books were recognized because they met the tests of canonicity.

What are the tests of canonicity? To be recognized as part of the New Testament, a document had to come from an apostle or at least be backed by apostolic authority. It had to agree with the known teachings of the apostles. It had to be circulated, received, collected, preserved, and used among the apostolic churches. These are the external tests of canonicity.

Besides these external tests, canonicity also employs one internal test. That test is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. A document is canonical if and only if it is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, the Holy Spirit can be expected to use the canonical writings in the hearts and lives of God’s people. This inner witness of the Spirit had always been one of the key tests of canonicity.

Scholars like Bauer, Pagels, and Ehrman are correct that early Christianity displayed considerable diversity. All of the variations were not equal, however. People who really wanted the truth could discover which views were truly apostolic. Because of the presence of eyewitnesses, they could discern which teachings truly came from the historical Jesus.

In principle, the question of canonicity is always open. Theoretically, Christians today could reexplore the problem of authority, seeking to identify the truly inspired, apostolic writings. In practice, however, Christians of the second century were in a far superior position to pursue these issues. We would never be able to get better results than they did by using the external tests. Of course, the internal test (the inner witness of the Spirit) still assures us that all twenty-seven books (and only those books) belong in the New Testament. For these reasons, we place a very high degree of confidence in the canon of sixty-six books that compose the Old and New Testaments.

Kevin Bauder is president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minnesota. He authored a recent Baptist Bulletin online-only feature article titled “The Da Vinci Code, the Gospel of Judas, and the Scriptures.” Visit and search keyword: bauderdavinci to read this article and to read a sidebar on his book Evaluating the Da Vinci Phenomenon.

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