God’s Hand in Establishing the Canon of Scripture

Introduction

The Bible is authoritative. Most Christians would agree to some understanding of that statement. As N.T. Wright put it, the common understanding of authoritative is “that we are to give scripture the primary place and that everything else has to be lined up in relation to scripture.”

The statement, however, is not as cut and dry as it might seem. It raises two questions. The first of these is, “What is the Bible?” More specifically, who determines what is and is not a part of the biblical canon? The second question dovetails off the first. If any individual, governing body (be it church or counsel), or method determines what is and is not part of the canon of scripture, does not that individual, group, or method have authority over scripture? A Roman Catholic might answer yes. The Church determines what is and is not a part of scripture and therefore the Church takes primacy over the word.

This answer would not be acceptable to most Protestants, but does any other determining factor work better? If the canon is determined by a book’s apostolic origins, does not that place apostolic authority over scripture? If it is determined by the process of history, then does God’s hand in history take authority? None of these is a satisfactory answer for anyone who claims to hold to sola scriptura. The canon of scripture is not based on any historical or community method as an external authority but comes directly from the authority of God through the inspiration, unity, and cohesiveness of scripture and His guidance of the early church in receiving that scripture.

Historical Methods of Determining Canon

There are various different historical methods for determining the canonicity of scripture. These methods generally boil down to two main themes. The first of these is the Apostolic criteria. According to C Stephan Evans, apostolic authority was the primary criteria the early church considered when considering a book’s canonicity. More than inspiration, catholicity, or orthodoxy, it was the “central criterion.” In this view, the gospels and letters of Matthew, Peter, and John are to be accepted because they are apostles. The writings of Mark, Luke, James, and Jude would be accepted as canon because of their close relationship to the apostles and/or the fact that they carried on their teachings. Paul is in some cases in the former category, sometimes in the latter. According to Evans and others holding this view, it is this apostolic authority or connection that carried the greatest weight with the early church when the formation of the canon was being solidified. Even today, apostolic authority is commonly cited as a criterion for determining canonicity. Andreas Kostenberger classifies it as the first of his four criteria for determining canonicity.

Schubert Ogden would disagree with Evans’ assessment. According to Ogden, “key New Testament documents simply reject ‘the norm of apostolicity’ as it came to be understood in the later church and is now appealed to.” Instead, Ogden holds to the second historical view this author is calling the core canon. Ogden refers to it as a canon before the canon. In his article, “The Problem of the New Testament Canon,” Kurt Aland coined a term now commonly used, “canon within the canon.” Aland and those who have taken up his perspective are looking historically not for how the New Testament canonical books were received but rather how they originated. They are looking for the “Q” behind not just the gospels, but within many if not most of the writings of the New Testament.

Evangelical scholars embracing a similar idea are following in Luther’s footsteps. His idea that “Whatever Preaches Christ” caused him to question the validity of James, Hebrews, and Revelation. For Luther, Scripture is the written word only inasmuch as it points to Jesus, the living Word of God. For these pursuing this line of reasoning, scripture has varying degrees of worth based on how directly it teaches us of Christ. Popular examples of this outside of the scholastic world would be Tony Campolo and Shane Clairborne who classify themselves as Red Letter Christians.

Community Methods of Determining Canon

In addition to the two historical approaches to canon creation, there are three other approaches that tend to be community-based rather than historically based. The first of these is the Roman Catholic view. The second is that orthodox churches and leaders created the canon as part of their opposition to heretics like Marcion. Finally, there is the approach of James Sanders and Brevard Childs that the former calls “canon criticism” and the latter calls the “canonical approach.”

The Roman Catholic method can best be summed up by the words of Killian McDonell, “The church, as the body of Christ in history commissioned by Christ and empowered by the Spirit, recognizes the apostolic teaching in the documents that come out of her own history, and makes an authoritative determination of what belongs to the canon and what does not.” So the Church would look at the Gospel of Mark and recognize itself in the words. Therefore it would make an authoritative decision, “This is scripture.” In turn, it would look at the Gospel of Thomas, see something foreign, and authoritatively declare, “This is not scripture.” Obviously, the actual process was a bit messier than that but this is what ultimately happened according to the RCC perspective.

The second community method is the perspective that the orthodox churches pushed forward the creation of a canon as a means of defending itself against heresy. According to Harnack, the formation of the canon was a creative act born out of a response to the heresy and “canon” of Marcion. Bauer and, more recently, Elain Pagels and Bert Ehrman hold a different form of the same view. They would say that there was no true orthodoxy among the early church. Views and writings were theologically diverse and the group that eventually came to hold sway formed the canon as a means of authoritatively declaring what was orthodox and what was heresy. However, this idea has very little grounding in historical fact. Kostenberger writes, “Creedal third and fourth-century orthodoxy are not in opposition to the orthodoxy purported in the New Testament and propagated by the Fathers. It is an organic continuation of what the New Testament writers began without any transmutation of the DNA of the New Testament gospel message which, in turn, is rooted in the Old Testament.”

The final community method is the canonical criticism model. In a sense, this is the opposite of the canon within a canon method we looked at before. Childs would not argue that there was some prototype early form of many of the New Testament writings. He would argue that it doesn’t matter. It is only the later, final form that was embraced by the church at large that should be our source for theology or exegetical studies. According to Sanders the Church, “shaped its various literary units, compiled and arranged its several parts in the conditions received, and continue to adapt its traditions to their ongoing lives.” Childs would add that this “provides the point of standing from which one’s identity with the church universal is made.”

So in these three community methods, we see the church, or the believing community, as the authority of the canon in recognizing itself in scripture, in defending or determining orthodoxy, or in shaping scripture and then embracing it as the identity of the church community. In all of these methods, it is the church that holds authority over the Word. While they each hold value in recognizing the canon as canon, there must be something better for determining the canon of scripture.

God as Authority

It is this author’s position that ultimately, God who has determined the canon of scripture. Our job is not to determine what is or is not canon, but simply to acknowledge what He has done and created. In this sense, “The New Testament canon was closed the moment the last New Testament book was written.”

There are four ways we recognize God as the Authority on the content of the canon. The first is by recognizing the inspiration of scripture. Peter Scaer says, “The Scriptures, in such a view, breathe a kind of divine air. By saying that the Scriptures are self-authenticating, we are drawing upon the words of Jesus when he said, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me’ (John 10:27).” A person does not need to be a lifetime theological scholar with an abundance of letters after their name for this method. Even someone new or unfamiliar to the faith can read the gospel of Mark in comparison to the gospel of Peter and easily see that the former has a quality about it the latter simply does not match. It is both inspired and inspiring while the latter is but a neat little work of fiction.

The second evidence for God’s hand in the canon of scripture is its unity. My undergrad hermeneutics professor used to drill into our class, “The first rule of exegesis is that scripture interprets scripture.” This is true, and it can only be true if there is a theological unity that runs throughout the whole scripture. Christ on the cross interprets how we understand Psalms 22 and Isaiah 53. At the same time, Psalms 22 and Isaiah 53 interpret how we understand Christ on the cross in the gospels. Although there might be diverse literary styles, concepts, emphasis in different authors and books, there is a theological unity that runs from Genesis to Revelation.

In addition to this unity, there is also a theological cohesiveness that runs throughout the Bible. Hayden quotes Francis Watson as saying, “The canon is not an anthology, because an anthology cannot be held accountable for the unity or coherence of its contents.” The Bible is not a collection of books. At least, it is not just a collection of books. It is one cohesive story. That story begins in Genesis with the creation of the world. It runs through the fall, the patriarchs, the Exodus and giving of the Law, the Judges, Kings, and Prophets of Israel. It jumps into the New Testament with the Advent, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Then a new community burst from obscurity in an upper room to “turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Finally, in the last book of the Bible the end will come, all will be judged, and a new heaven and earth will be our home for eternity. No other collection of books written by more than three dozen authors over fourteen hundred years could ever have such a beautifully cohesive narrative that runs without interruption from cover to cover.

The final piece of evidence this paper offers as evidence of God’s authority in determining the canon of scripture is his guiding hand in the process. Even before the canon was closed, writers in the New Testament made it clear that they were writing authoritative scriptures. Paul said that all scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). He also quotes Luke as scripture (1 Timothy 5:18 see Luke 10:27). Peter equated Paul’s writings with other scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16). John writes in his epistle that “We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us” (1 John 4:6) There are other proofs that could be given, but this makes clear that the New Testament writers understood exactly what they were writing.

Not only the authors but right from the start the early church acknowledged the inspiration of the New Testament. Kostenberger quotes John Barton as saying, “Astonishingly early, the great central core of the present New Testament was already being treated as the main authoritative source for Christians.” Kostenberger then goes on to show how Clement of Alexandria, the Didache, Ignatius, Polycarp, and others among the first generations of Christians all referred to portions of what we now call the New Testament as authoritative scripture.

It isn’t just that these early fathers referred to the New Testament texts, they also used them. There are hints of this already in the New Testament writings of Paul (1 Timothy 4:13) and John (Revelation 1:3). Clement, Papias, and others recommend it in their writings. On this issue, Frances Young writes, “Long before the formation of the canon of the two Testaments, Old and New, or the listing of authorized books that belonged to it, the unity of the Bible and its witness to Christ was the assumption underlying its ‘reception’ by readers and hearers in the ‘public’ assembly of the community.”

Conclusion

As has been shown, the determining factor in what method is used to determine the canon of scripture is authority. If the teachings of the apostolic fathers are our authoritative rule for faith and conduct, then an appeal to apostolic authorship is a legitimate method of determining the canon of scripture. If the church is our authoritative rule of faith and conduct then one or all of the various community approaches are a fine method for determining the canon of scripture. Even if one does not place ultimate authority in the church fathers or the community of believers, these methods all still hold value on a historical and epistemological level. They cannot determine if a particular writing belongs in the canon, but they can help one understand why scripture is canonical.

For those who hold that scripture alone is our authoritative rule of faith and conduct, it must follow that God alone is the authority of what is or is not scripture. We can see what He has authored by recognizing scripture’s inspiration, unity, cohesiveness, and history.

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