So far in this series we’ve taken a look at the concept of canon in both the Old and New Testaments. We also looked at why Protestants reject the books of the Apocrypha and some of the claims of the Roman Catholic Church concerning Tradition. In this article, we will take a look at how we recognize which books belong in the Bible. What were the criteria for a book becoming accepted into the canon of Scripture?
The Scriptures and the Church
The Roman Catholic view of the canon believes that it is the papal magisterium which pronounces certain books as canonical and gives them scriptural status. However, this puts the church over the Bible instead of God’s Word over the church. This type of model makes it impossible to reform the church by His Word, because if the church determines what His word is, then it cannot be reformed by that which it gets to define. This has led to many of the doctrinal problems within the Roman Catholic Church to this day. Semper Reformanda - The church must always be reformed by God’s Word.
The church did not form the canon of Scripture. Rather, it was exactly the opposite. God’s Word - Scripture itself - formed the church. Gregg Allison, in his book - Historical Theology - writes,
“Quoting Paul, Calvin affirmed that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Eph. 2:20); thus, Scripture preceded the church, and it cannot owe its existence to church authority. The church recognized and affirmed the divinely inspired writings that God intended for placement in the canon, but it did not create or determine the canon of Scripture.” (Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology, 53.)
As the Church was formed, it recognized the books of Scripture. Thus, there is an interconnected relationship between Scripture and the Church.
By What Authority?
If the Scriptures are what they say they are - the very Word of God - then they bear ultimate authority and thus would be self-attesting to their truthfulness and authority. Something with ultimate authority cannot appeal to something else outside of itself to give it authority, because then that other thing would be more ultimate than it! The canonicity and authority of the books of Scripture would be something intrinsic to them even from the time the ink was written on the parchment of the original autographs. So, the canon would exist from the very time the Spirit inspired the originals to be written - not as some later human invention.
Therefore the question of canon isn’t one of “how did the church MAKE these books canonical” but rather, “how did the church RECOGNIZE the books which are canonical?” Contrary to popular myths propagated by fiction writers like Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code and others who say that the books of the Bible were determined at the Council of Nicea, the true story is actually much more interesting. This myth makes for great fiction and OK movie spin-offs but terrible history.
Recognizing the Canon
There are three features which helped the church recognize canonical books:
A. DIVINE QUALITIES
The Westminster Larger Catechism asks the question:
Q. 4. How does it appear that the Scriptures are of the Word of God?
A. The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty (Hos. 8:12; 1 Cor. 2:6-7, 13; Psa. 110:18, 129) and purity (Psa. 12:6 & 119:140); by the consent of all the parts (Acts 10:43 & 26:22), and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God (Rom. 3:19, 27); by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation (Acts 18:28 & 20:32; Heb. 4:12; Jam. 1:18; Psa. 19:7-9; Rom. 15:4): but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God (John 16:13-14; 1 John 2:20, 27).
Just as all of creation declares God’s glory as His handiwork and creation evidences its Maker, so too God’s Word has an intrinsic quality of declaring the glory of the Lord in their majesty and message. They bear the marks of His handiwork. John Piper calls this quality of Scripture, the ‘peculiar glory’ of the Word of God. This quality of Scripture is seen by those who humbly apply themselves to study it.
“If the heavens declare the glory of God and therefore bear witness to their divine creator, the Scripture as God’s handiwork must also bear the imprints of his authorship.” (John Murray)
“the holy, biblical Scripture, because it is the Word of God, has standing and credibility enough in and of itself.” (Heinrich Bullinger)
One of the ways Scripture shows its Divine Qualities is through fulfilled prophecy. Only the Sovereign Lord of history can ‘declare the end from the beginning’ (cf. Isa. 46:10) and the Scriptures, as His Word, bear record of this truth. There are hundreds upon hundreds of prophecies and fulfillments in God’s Word. According to some datasets, in terms of Messianic Prophecies (concerning Jesus Christ) alone, there are around 300 specific prophecies in Scripture! Peter Stoner, a professor who was the Chairman of the Departments of Mathematics and Astronomy at Pasadena City College, calculated the odds of one person fulfilling even only 8 of the prophecies about the Messiah are astronomical - somewhere in the magnitude of 1 times 10 to the power of 17, or 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000. The odds go up exponentially when just 48 of the 300+ prophecies are considered to be 10 to the 157th power! Just to put that into perspective, some scientists estimate that the number of atoms in the known universe is 10 to the 80th power. There are many apologetics ministries and theology books which lay out how Christ fulfills OT prophecy. This alone should be compelling but there’s more!
Another way that the Scriptures show their Divine qualities are in their majesty. When one considers the amazing truths they proclaim, they are not the sorts of inventions that people would come up with. Who would invent such a God as ours? One who is totally uncontrollable and terrible in might? One who sovereignly predestines and elects on the basis of sheer grace, not of any actual or foreseen merit? Yet this same God is intensely personal and intimately concerned with us.
The Scriptures also show their majesty in their purity. God’s laws and standards are morally perfect and pure - beyond even our highest human moral aspirations, going even to the heart and intentions of people. They show it in the consistency of all the parts and the scope of the whole of redemptive history - as all weaving together a tapestry of a grand narrative far bigger and more marvellous than any human dare to dream. These majestic qualities of Scripture attest to their divine authority.
The Word of God is powerful. The Scriptures show their divine qualities in their power to convert sinners and create a people of God who are ‘zealous for good works’ (Titus 2:14). They show it in their abilities to comfort, build-up, rebuke and sanctify the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The teachings of Scripture prove to bring wisdom (Psalm 119:98; 2 Timothy 3:16), give joy to the heart (Nehemiah 8:8–12; Psalm 119:111), provide “light” to the dark paths of life (Psalm 119:105), give understanding to the mind (Psalm 119:144), give peace and comfort (Psalm 119:50), expose sin and guilt (2 Kings 22:11–13; Acts 2:34–37; Hebrews 4:12–13), and lead to prosperity and blessing (Psalm 1:1–3).
Jonathan Edwards put it this way:
“The gospel of the blessed God does not go abroad a-begging for its evidence, so much as some think: it has its highest and most proper evidence in itself… The mind ascends to the truth of the gospel but by one step, and that is its divine glory.” (Jonathan Edwards)
Jesus said it this way:
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)
Since all the Scriptures testify to Christ (John 5:39), his sheep will hear his voice in the Scriptures through the majesty, purity, consistency, scope and power of their message. Notice how all of these qualities are only available to be seen by the one who honestly and earnestly applies themselves to read and understand Scripture? This is why we cannot put down our sword! This is why we must lead our unbelieving family and friends to God’s Word. Scripture is a means of grace to transform people’s lives. It is powerful, sharp and Spirit-empowered. It is in exposure to God’s word that its self-attesting power can bear itself upon a person’s conscience and bring conviction of its truthfulness.
B. APOSTOLIC ORIGINS
New Testament scholar, Michael J. Kruger writes,
"Not only did the apostles themselves write many of these New Testament documents, but, in a broader sense, they presided over the transmission of the apostolic deposit and labored to make sure that the message of Christ was firmly and accurately preserved for future generations, through the help of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:1–4; Rom. 6:17; 1 Cor. 11:23; 15:3; Gal. 1:9; Phil. 4:9; Col. 2:6–8; 1 Thess. 2:13–15; 1 Tim. 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:14; 2 Pet. 2:21; Jude 1:3). Thus, the New Testament canon is not so much a collection of writings by apostles, but a collection of apostolic writings—writings that bear the authoritative message of the apostles and derive from the foundational apostolic era (even if not directly from their hands).”" (Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited)
Many early Christian writings testify to this fact. For example, the letter of 1 Clement, written very early (somewhere around c.96AD) says:
“The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ, therefore, is from God and the Apostles from the Christ.” (1 Clement 42:1-2)
Part of what determined the apostolic origins of a book was the fact that it could reliably be traced back to the apostolic time of the first century.
There are simply not many other writings outside of the NT that can be dated to that time, and thus there aren’t many legitimate candidates for canonicity other than the books of the NT which we have today. The earliest Christians used these criteria (of divine qualities and apostolic origins as well as others) to screen the books they considered as Scripture. Irenaeus testified to this saying:
“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1 - c.130-202 AD)
C. CORPORATE RECEPTION
Corporate reception is connected with the previous two attributes. The Church over time recognizes the voice of the Shepherd in the books of Scripture through their divine qualities and apostolic origins. Thus, the role of the church in recognizing the canon is more like a thermometer than a thermostat. A thermometer recognizes the temperature of a room, whereas a thermostat determines the temperature of a room. The Church simply recognized and responded to the self-attesting qualities of the canonical books through the Holy Spirit’s testimony. This was one of the reasons the Spirit was given to believers.
Augustine expressed it this way:
“Let us treat scripture like scripture, like God speaking; don’t … look there for man going wrong. It is not for nothing, you see, that the canon has been established for the Church. This is the function of the Holy Spirit. So if anybody reads my book, let him pass judgment on me. If I have said something reasonable, let him follow, not me, but reason itself; if I’ve proved it by the clearest divine testimony, let him follow, not me, but the divine scripture.”
In a treatise written between 396-427 AD, after the supposedly authoritative decision of Pope Damasus and a council in Hippo about the canon, Augustine wrote:
“In the matter of canonical Scriptures he should follow the authority of the greater number of catholic Churches, among which are those which have deserved to have apostolic seats and receive epistles. He will observe this rule concerning canonical Scriptures, that he will prefer those accepted by all catholic Churches to those which some do not accept; among those which are not accepted by all, he should prefer those which are accepted by the largest number of important Churches to those held by a few minor Churches of less authority. If he discovers that some are maintained by the larger number of Churches, others by the Churches of weightiest authority, although this condition is not likely, he should hold them to be of equal value.” (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine)
(NOTE: The use of the word ‘catholic’ here should be understood in its original meaning of ‘universal’ - speaking to the unity of churches - not in the ‘Roman Catholic’ sense that developed later on)
This shows that Augustine did not see councils or popes as the authoritative final word on the canon, but rather urged all students of Scripture to examine the consensus among the people of God. He pointed to the corporate reception of Scripture as a marker of its validity.
What about the disagreements in the Early Church about the Canon?
Historically, there were some differences of opinions by Christians about which books were canonical and which were not. Corporate reception does not mean absolute unity regarding the canon of Scripture for primarily two reasons:
the availability of Scriptures (you cannot receive what is not available to you and some books took a bit of time to be circulated after they were written)
the distorting effects of sin and our fallen nature.
However, what it does mean is that throughout the ages, though there may be some pockets of differing opinions, the Church as a whole experienced widespread unity around the canon.
This corporate reception of the canonical books is evidenced by the historical record we have of the writings of the Early Church. Many of the Early Church fathers - bishops, pastors, etc - wrote letters and commentaries on the Scriptures and cited the books that were authoritative as Scripture. Some even produced lists that reflected the books that they knew to be divinely inspired, such as the Muratorian Fragment (c.180AD - pictured below) which contains a list of 22 out of the 27 books of the NT.
Other more complete lists such as the one found in Athanasius’ Festal Letter, which lists all 27 books of the NT, were published as the books of the NT continued to be circulated, copied and distributed.
Through these three attributes - divine qualities, apostolic origins and corporate reception - the Spirit was at work helping the believers rightly recognize their presence and validity.
This concludes this article in this series on the Books of the Bible. I hope that you’ve found it interesting and edifying. In our last article, we will consider an interesting hypothetical question: what if we found a ‘lost letter’ of Paul or one of the apostles today? Would we add it to our Bibles?
Stay tuned for the answer.
Articles in this series:
How do we Recognize the Books that are Scripture? | (Part 5)
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